« The colors of space », Chapter 4   

Chapter 4

Bart felt cold. He stirred, moved his head in drowsy protest; then memory came flooding back, and in sudden panic he sat up, flinging out his arms as if to ward away anyone who would lay hands on him.

"Easy!" said a soothing voice. A Mentorian—not the same Mentorian—bent over him. "We have just entered the gravitational field of Procyon planet Alpha, Mr. Briscoe. Touchdown in four hours."

Bart mumbled an apology.

"Think nothing of it. Quite a number of people who aren't used to the cold-sleep drug suffer from minor lapses of memory. How do you feel now?"

Bart's legs were numb and his hands tingled when he sat up; but his body processes had been slowed so much by the cold-sleep that he didn't even feel hungry; the synthetic jelly he'd eaten just before going to sleep wasn't even digested yet.

When the Mentorian left for another cabin, Bart looked around, and suddenly felt he would stifle if he stayed here another minute. He wasn't likely to run into Tommy twice in a row, and if he did, well, Tommy would probably remember the snub he'd had and stay away from Dave Briscoe. And he wanted another sight of the stars—before he went into worry and danger.

He went down to the Observation Lounge.

The cosmic dust was brighter out here, and the constellations looked a little flattened. Textbook tables came back to him. He had traveled 47 light-years—he couldn't remember how many billions of miles that was. Even so, it was only the tiniest hop-skip-and-jump in the measureless vastness of space.

The ship was streaking toward Procyon, a sol-type star, bright yellow; the three planets, Alpha, Beta and Gamma, ringed like Saturn and veiled in shimmering layers of cloud, swung against the night. Past them other stars, brighter stars, faraway stars he would never see, glimmered through the pale dust… .

"Hello, Dave. Been space-sick all this time? Remember me? I met you about six weeks ago in the lounge down here—just out from Earth."

Oh, no! Bart turned, with a mental groan, to face Tommy. "I've been in cold-sleep," he said. He couldn't be rude again.

"What a dull way to face a long trip!" Tommy said cheerily. "I've enjoyed every minute of it myself."

It was hard for Bart to realize that, for Tommy, their meeting had been six weeks ago. It all seemed dreamlike. The closer he came to it, the less he could realize that in a few hours he'd be getting off on a strange world, with only the strange name Raynor Three as a guide. He felt terribly alone, and having Tommy close at hand helped, even though Tommy didn't know he was helping.

"Maybe I should have stayed awake."

"You should," Tommy said. "I only slept for a couple of hours at each warp-drive shift. We had a day-long stopover at Sirius Eighteen, and I took a tour of the planet. And I've spent a lot of time down here, just star-gazing—not that it did me much good. Which one is Antares? How do you tell it from Aldebaran? I'm always getting them mixed up."

Bart pointed. "Aldebaran—that's the big red one there," he said. "Think of the constellation Taurus as a necklace, with Aldebaran hanging from it like a locket. Antares is much further down in the sky, in relation to the arbitrary sidereal axis, and it's a deeper red. Like a burning coal, while Aldebaran is like a ruby—"

He broke off in mid-word, realizing that Tommy was gazing at him in a mixture of triumph and consternation. Too late, Bart realized he had been tricked. Studying for an exam, the year before, he had explained the difference between the two red stars in almost the same words.

"Bart," Tommy said in a whisper, "I knew it had to be you. Why didn't you tell me, fella?"

Bart felt himself start to smile, but it only stretched his mouth. He said, very low, "Don't say my name out loud Tom. I'm in terrible trouble."

"Why didn't you tell me? What's a friend for?"

"We can't talk here. And all the cabins are wired for sound in case somebody stops breathing, or has a heart attack in space," Bart said, glancing around.

They went and stood at the very foot of the quartz window, seeming to tread the brink of a dizzying gulf of cosmic space, and talked in low tones while Alpha and Beta and Gamma swelled like blown-up balloons in the port.

Tommy listened, almost incredulous. "And you're hoping to find your father, with no more information than that? It's a big universe," he said, waving at the gulf of stars. "The Lhari ships, according to the little tourist pamphlet they gave me, touch down at nine hundred and twenty-two different stars in this galaxy!"

Bart visibly winced, and Tommy urged, "Come to Capella with me. You can stay with my family as long as you want to, and appeal to the Interplanet authority to find your father. They'd protect him against the Lhari, surely. You can't chase all over the galaxy playing interplanetary spy all by yourself, Bart!"

But Briscoe had deliberately gone to his death, to give Bart the chance to get away. He wouldn't have died to send Bart into a trap he could easily have sprung on Earth.

"Thanks, Tommy. But I've got to play it my way."

Tommy said firmly, "Count me in then. My ticket has stopover privileges. I'll get off at Procyon with you."

It was a temptation—to have a friend at his back. He put his hand on Tommy's shoulder, grateful beyond words. But fresh horror seized him as he remembered the horrible puddle of melted robotcab with Briscoe somewhere in the residue. Protoplasm residue enough for two bodies. He couldn't let Tommy face that.

"Tommy, I appreciate that, believe me. But if I did find my father and his friends, I don't want anyone tracing me. You'd only make the danger worse. The best thing you can do is stay out of it."

Tommy faced him squarely. "One thing's for sure. I'm not going to let you go off and never know whether you're alive or dead."

"I'll try to get a message to you," Bart said, "if I can. But whatever happens, Tommy, stay with the ship and go on to Capella. It's the one thing you can do to help me."

A warning bell rang in the ship. He broke sharply away from Tommy, saying over his shoulder, "It's all you can do to help, Tom. Do it—please? Just stay clear?"

Tommy reached out and caught his arm. "Okay," he said reluctantly, "I will. But you be careful," he added fiercely. "You hear me? And if I don't hear from you in some reasonable time, I'll raise a stink from here to Vega!"

Bart broke away and ran. He was afraid, if he didn't, he'd break up again. He closed the cabin door behind him, trying to calm down so that the Mentorian steward, coming to strap him in for deceleration, wouldn't see how upset he was. He was going to need all his nerve.

 

He went through another decontamination chamber, and finally moved, with a line of passengers, out of the yawning airlock, under the strange sun, into the strange world.

At first sight it was a disappointment. It was a Lhari spaceport that lay before him, to all appearances identical with the one on Earth: sloping glass ramps, tall colorless pylons, a skyscraper terminus crowded with men of all planets. But the sun overhead was brilliant and clear gold, the shadows sharp and violet on the spaceport floor. Behind the confines of the spaceport he could see the ridges of tall hills and unfamiliarly colored trees. He longed to explore them, but he got a grip on his imagination, surrendering his ticket stub and false papers to the Lhari and Mentorian interpreter who guarded the ramp.

The Lhari said to the Mentorian, in the Lhari language, "Keep him for questioning but don't tell him why." Bart felt a cold chill icing his spine. This was it.

The Mentorian said briefly, "We wish to check on the proper antibody component for Aldebaran natives. There will be a delay of about thirty minutes. Will you kindly wait in this room here?"

The room was comfortable, furnished with chairs and a vision-screen with some colorful story moving on it, small bright figures in capes, curious beasts racing across an unusual veldt; but Bart paced the floor restlessly. There were two doors in the room. Through one of them, he had been admitted; he could see, through the glass door, the silhouette of the Mentorian outside. The other door was opaque, and marked in large letters:

DANGER HUMANS MUST NOT PASS WITHOUT SPECIAL LENSES TYPE X. ORDINARY SPACE LENSES WILL NOT SUFFICE DANGER! LHARI OPENING! ADJUST X LENSES BEFORE OPENING!

Bart read the sign again. Well, that was no way out, for sure! He had heard that the Lhari sun was almost 500 times as bright as Earth's. The Mentorians alone, among humans, could endure Lhari lights—he supposed the warning was for ordinary spaceport workers.

A sudden, rather desperate plan occurred to Bart. He didn't know how much light he could tolerate—he'd never been on Mentor—but he had inherited some of his mother's tolerance for light. And blindness would be better than being burned down with an energon-gun! He went hesitantly toward the door, and pushed it open.

His eyes exploded into pain; automatically his hands went up to shield them. Light, light—he had never known such cruelly glowing light. Even through the lids there was pain and red afterimages; but after a moment, opening them a slit, he found that he could see, and made out other doors, glass ramps, pale Lhari figures coming and going. But for the moment he was alone in the long corridor beyond which he could see the glass ramps.

Nearby, a door opened into a small office with glass walls; on a peg, one of the silky metallic cloaks worn by Mentorians doing spaceport work was hanging. On an impulse, Bart caught it up and flung it around his shoulders.

It felt cool and soft, and the hood shielded his eyes a little. The ramp leading down to what he hoped was street level was terribly steep and there were no steps. Bart eased himself over the top of the ramp and let go. He whooshed down the slick surface on the flat of his back, feeling the metal of the cloak heat with the friction, and came to a breathless jarring stop at the bottom. Whew, what a slide! Three stories, at least! But there was a door, and outside the door, maybe, safety.

A voice hailed him, in Lhari. "You, there!"

Bart could see well now. He made out the form of a Lhari, only a colorless blob in the intense light.

"You people know better than to come back here without glasses. Do you want to be blinded, my friend?" He actually sounded kind and concerned. Bart tensed, his heart pounding. Now that he was caught, could he bluff his way out? He hadn't actually spoken the Lhari language in years, though his mother had taught it to him when he was young enough to learn it without a trace of accent.

Well, he must try. "Margil sent me to check," he improvised quickly. "They were holding someone for questioning, and he seems to have gotten away somehow, so I wanted to make sure he didn't come through here."

"What is the matter that one man can give us all the slip this way?" the Lhari said curiously. "Well, one thing is sure, he's Vegan or Solarian or Capellan, one of the dim-star people. If he comes through here, we'll catch him easily enough while he's stumbling around half blind. You know that you shouldn't stay long." He gestured. "Out this way—and don't come back without special lenses."

Bart nodded, jerking the cloak around his shoulders, forcing himself not to break into a run as he stepped through the door the Lhari indicated. It closed behind him. Bart blinked, feeling as if he had stepped into pitch darkness. Only slowly did his eyes adapt and he became aware that he was standing in a city street, in the full glow of Procyon sunlight, and apparently outside the Lhari spaceport entirely.

He'd better get to cover! He took off the Mentorian cloak, thrust it under his arm. He raised his eyes, which were adjusting to ordinary light again, and stopped dead.

Just across the street was a long, low, rainbow colored building. And the letters—Bart blinked, thinking his eyes deceived him—spelled out:

EIGHT COLORS TRANSSHIPPING CORPORATION

CARGO, PASSENGERS, MESSAGES, EXPRESS

A. RAYNOR ONE, MANAGER