« The colors of space », Chapter 5   

Chapter 5

For a moment the words swirled before Bart's still-watering eyes. He wiped them, trying to steady himself. Had he so soon reached the end of his dangerous quest? Somehow he had expected it to lie in deep, dark concealment.

Raynor One. The existence of Raynor One presupposed a Raynor Two and probably a Raynor Three—for all he knew, Raynors Four, Five, Six, and Sixty-six! The building looked solid and real. It had evidently been there a long time.

With his hand on the door, he hesitated. Was it, after all, the right Eight Colors? But it was a family saying; hardly the sort of thing you'd be apt to hear outside. He pushed the door and went in.

The room was filled with brighter light than the Procyon sun outdoors, the edges of the furniture rimmed with neon in the Mentorian fashion. A prim-looking girl sat behind a desk—or what should have been a desk, except that it looked more like a mirror, with little sparkles of lights, different colors, in regular rows along one edge. The mirror-top itself was blue-violet and gave her skin and her violet eyes a bluish tinge. She was smooth and lacquered and glittering and she raised her eyebrows at Bart as if he were some strange form of life she hadn't seen very often.

"I'd—er—like to see Raynor One," he said.

Her dainty pointed fingernail, varnished blue, stabbed at points of light. "On what business?" she asked, not caring.

"It's a personal matter."

"Then I suggest you see him at his home."

"It can't wait that long."

The girl studied the glassy surface and punched at some more of the little lights. "Name, please?"

"David Briscoe."

He had thought her perfect-painted face could not show any emotion except disdain, but it did. She looked at him in open, blank consternation. She said into the vision-screen, "He calls himself David Briscoe. Yes, I know. Yes, sir, yes." She raised her face, and it was controlled again, but not bored. "Raynor One will see you. Through that door, and down to the end of the hall."

At the end of the hallway was another door. He stepped through into a small cubicle, and the door slid shut like a closing trap. He whirled in panic, then subsided in foolish relief as the cubicle began to rise—it was just an automatic elevator.

It rose higher and higher, stopping with an abrupt jerk, and slid open into a lighted room and office. A man sat behind a desk, watching Bart step from the elevator. The man was very tall and very thin, and the gray eyes, and the intensity of the lights, told Bart that he was a Mentorian. Raynor One?

Under the steady, stern gray stare, Bart felt the slow, clutching suck of fear again. Was this man a slave of the Lhari, who would turn him over to them? Or someone he could trust? His own mother had been a Mentorian.

"Who are you?" Raynor One's voice was harsh, and gave the impression of being loud, though it was not.

"David Briscoe."

It was the wrong thing. The Mentorian's mouth was taut, forbidding. "Try again. I happen to know that David Briscoe is dead."

"I have a message for Raynor Three."

The cold gray stare never altered. "On what business?"

On a sudden inspiration, Bart said, "I'll tell you that if you can tell me what the Eighth Color is."

There was a glint in the grim eyes now, though the even, stern voice did not soften. "I never knew myself. I didn't name it Eight Colors. Maybe it's the original owner you want."

On a sudden hope, Bart asked, "Was he, by any chance, named Rupert Steele?"

Raynor One made a suspicious movement. "I can't imagine why you think so," he said guardedly. "Especially if you've just come in from Earth. It was never very widely known. He only changed the name to Eight Colors a few weeks ago. And it's for sure that your ship didn't get any messages while the Lhari were in warp-drive. You mention entirely too many names, but I notice you aren't giving out any further information."

"I'm looking for a man called Rupert Steele."

"I thought you were looking for Raynor Three," said Raynor One, staring at the Mentorian cloak. "I can think of a lot of people who might want to know how I react to certain names, and find out if I know the wrong people, if they are the wrong people. What makes you think I'd admit it if I did?"

Now, Bart thought, they had reached a deadlock. Somebody had to trust somebody. This could go on all night—parry and riposte, question and evasive answer, each of them throwing back the other's questions in a verbal fencing-match. Raynor One wasn't giving away any information. And, considering what was probably at stake, Bart didn't blame him much.

He flung the Mentorian cloak down on the table.

"This got me out of trouble—the hard way," he said. "I never wore one before and I never intend to again. I want to find Rupert Steele because he's my father!"

"Your father. And just how are you going to prove that exceptionally interesting statement?"

Without warning, Bart lost his temper.

"I don't care whether I prove it or not! You try proving something for a change, why don't you? If you know Rupert Steele, I don't have to prove who I am—just take a good look at me! Or so Briscoe told me—a man who called himself Briscoe, anyway. He gave me papers to travel under that name! I didn't ask for them, he shoved them into my hand. That Briscoe is dead." Bart struck his fist hard on the desk, bending over Raynor One angrily.

"He sent me to find a man named Raynor Three. But the only one I really care about finding is my father. Now you know as much as I do, how about giving me some information for a change?"

He ran out of breath and stood glaring down at Raynor One, fists clenched. Raynor One got up and said, quick, savage and quiet, "Did anyone see you come here?"

"Only the girl downstairs."

"How did you get through the Lhari? In that?" He moved his head at the Mentorian cloak.

Bart explained briefly, and Raynor One shook his head.

"You were lucky," he said, "you could have been blinded. You must have inherited flash-accommodation from the Mentorian side—Rupert Steele didn't have it. I'll tell you this much," he added, sitting down again. "In a manner of speaking, you're my boss. Eight Colors—it used to be Alpha Transshipping—is what they call a middleman outfit. The interplanet cargo lines transport from planet to planet within a system—that's free competition—and the Lhari ships transport from star to star—that's a monopoly all over the galaxy. The middleman outfits arrange for orderly and businesslike liaison between the two. Rupert Steele bought into this company, a long time ago, but he left it for me to manage, until recently."

Raynor punched a button, said to the image of the glossy girl at the desk, "Violet, get Three for me. You may have to send a message to the Multiphase."

He swung round to Bart again. "You want a lot of explanations? Well, you'll have to get 'em from somebody else. I don't know what this is all about. I don't want to know: I have to do business with the Lhari. The less I know, the less I'm apt to say to the wrong people. But I promised Three that if you turned up, or if anyone came and asked for the Eighth Color, I'd send you to him. That's all."

He motioned Bart ungraciously to a seat, and shut his mouth firmly, as if he had already said too much. Bart sat. After a while he heard the elevator again; the panel slid open and Raynor Three came into the room.

It had to be Raynor Three; there was no one else he could have been. He was as like Raynor One as Tweedledum to Tweedledee: tall, stern, ascetic and grim. He wore the full uniform of a Mentorian on Lhari ships: the white smock of a medic, the metallic blue cloak, the low silvery sandals.

He said, "What's doing, One? Violet—" and then he caught sight of Bart. His eyes narrowed and he drew a quick breath, his face twisting up into apprehension and shock.

"It must be Steele's boy," he said, and immediately Bart saw the difference between the—were they brothers? For Raynor One's face, controlled and stern, had not altered all during their interview, but Raynor Three's smile was wry and kindly at once, and his voice was low and gentle. "He's the image of Rupert. Did he come in on his own name? How'd he manage it?"

"No. He had David Briscoe's papers."

"So the old man got through," said Raynor Three, with a low whistle. "But that's not safe. Quick, give them to me, Bart."

"The Lhari have them."

Raynor One walked to the window and said in his deadpan voice, "It's useless. But get the kid out of here before they come looking for me. Look."

He pointed. Below them, the streets were alive with uniformed Lhari and Mentorians. Bart felt sick.

"If they had the same efficiency with red tape that we humans have, he'd never have made it this far."

Raynor Three actually smiled. "But you can count on them for that much inefficiency," he said, and his eyes twinkled for a moment at Bart. "That's how it was so easy to work the old double-shuffle trick on them. They had Steele's description but not his name, so Briscoe took Steele's papers and managed to slip through. Once they landed on Earth, they had the Steele names, but by the time that cleared, you were outbound with another set of papers. It may have confused them, because they knew David Briscoe was dead—and there was just a chance you were an innocent bystander who could raise a real row if they pulled you in. Did old Briscoe get away?"

"No," Bart said, harshly, "he's dead."

Raynor Three's mobile face held shocked sadness. "Two brave men," he said softly, "Edmund Briscoe the father, David Briscoe the son. Remember the name, Bart, because I won't remember it."

"Why not?"

Raynor Three gave him a gold-glinting, enigmatic glance. "I'm a Mentorian, remember? I'm good at not remembering things. Just be glad I remember Rupert Steele. If you'd been a few days later, I wouldn't have remembered him, though I promised to wait for you."

Raynor One demanded, "Get him out of here, Three!"

Raynor Three swung to Bart. "Put that on again." He indicated the Mentorian cloak. "Pull the hood right up over your head. Now, if we meet anyone, say a polite good afternoon in Lhari—you can speak Lhari?—and leave the rest of the talking to me."

Bart felt like cringing as they came out into the street full of Lhari; but Raynor Three whispered, "Attack is the best defense," and went up to one of the Lhari. "What's going on, rieko mori?"

"A passenger on the ship got away without going through Decontam. He may spread disease, so of course we have alerted all authorities," the Lhari said.

As the Lhari strode past, Raynor Three grimaced. "Clever, that. Now the whole planet will be hunting for any stranger, worrying themselves into fits about some unauthorized germ. We'd better get you to a safe place. My country house is a good way off, but I have a copter."

Bart demanded, as they climbed in, "Are you taking me to my father?"

"Wait till we get to my place," Raynor Three said, taking the controls and putting the machine in the air. "Just lean back and enjoy the trip, huh?"

Bart relaxed against the cushions, but he still felt apprehensive. Where was his father? If he was a fugitive from the Lhari, he might by now be at the other end of the galaxy. But if his father couldn't travel on Lhari ships, and if he had been here, the chances were that he was still somewhere in the Procyon system.

They flew for a long time; across low hills, patchwork agricultural districts, towns, and then for a long time over water. The copter had automatic controls, but Raynor Three kept it on manual, and Bart wondered if the Mentorian just didn't want to talk.

It began to descend, at last, toward a small green hill, bright in the last gold rays on sunset. A small domelike pink bubble rose out of the hill. Raynor Three set the copter neatly down on a platform that slid shut after them, unfastened their seat belts and gave Bart a hand to climb out.

He ushered him into a living room of glass and chrome, softly lighted, but deserted and faintly dusty. Raynor pushed a switch; soft music came on, and the carpets caressed his feet. He motioned Bart to a chair.

"You're safe here, for a while," Raynor Three said, "though how long, nobody knows. But so far, I've been above suspicion."'

Bart leaned back; the chair was very comfortable, but the comfort could not help him to relax.

"Where is my father?" he demanded.

Raynor Three stood looking down at him, his mobile face drawn and strange. "I guess I can't put it off any longer," he said softly. Then he covered his face with his hands. From behind them hoarse words came, choked with emotion.

"Your father is dead, Bart. I—I killed him."