« The colors of space », Chapter 6   

Chapter 6

For a moment Bart stared, frozen, unable to move, his very ears refusing the words he heard. Had this all been another cruel trick, then, a trap, a betrayal? He rose and looked wildly around the room, as if the glass walls were a cage closing in on him.

"Murderer!" he flung at Raynor, and took a step toward him, his clenched fists coming up. He'd been shoved around too long, but here he had one of them right in front of him, and for once he'd hit back! He'd start by taking Raynor Three apart—in small pieces! "You—you rotten murderer!"

Raynor Three made no move to defend himself. "Bart," he said compassionately, "sit down and listen to me. No, I'm no murderer. I—I shouldn't have put it that way."

Bart's hands dropped to his sides, but he heard his voice crack with pain and grief: "I suppose you'll tell me he was a spy or a traitor and you had to kill him!"

"Not even that. I tried to save your father, I did everything I could. I'm no murderer, Bart. I killed him, yes—God forgive me, because I'll never forgive myself!"

Bart's fists unclenched and he stared down at Raynor Three, shaking his head in bewilderment and pain. "I knew he was dead! I knew it all along! I was trying not to believe it, but I knew!"

"I liked your father. I admired him. He took a long chance, and it killed him. I could have stopped him, I should have stopped him, but how could I? Where did I have the right to stop him, after what I did to—" he stopped, almost in mid-word, as if a switch had been turned.

But Bart was not listening. He swung away, striding to the wall as if he would kick it in, striking it with his two clenched fists, his whole being in revolt. Dad, oh, Dad! I kept going, I thought at the end of it you'd be here and it would all be over. But here I am at the end of it all, and you're not here, you won't ever be here again.

Dimly, he knew when Raynor Three rose and left him alone. He leaned his head on his clenched fists, and cried.

After a long time he raised his head and blew his nose, his face setting itself in new, hard, unaccustomed lines, slowly coming to terms with the hard, painful reality. His father was dead. His dangerous, dead-in-earnest game of escape had no happy ending of reunion with his father. They couldn't sit together and laugh about how scared he had been. His father was dead, and he, Bart, was alone and in danger. His face looked very grim indeed, and years older than he was.

After a long time Raynor Three opened the door quietly. "Come and have something to eat, Bart."

"I'm not hungry."

"Well, I am," Raynor Three said, "and you ought to be. You'll need it." He pulled knobs and the appropriate tables and chairs extruded themselves from the walls. Raynor unsealed hot cartons and spread them on the table, saying lightly, "Looks good—not that I can claim any credit, I subscribe to a food service that delivers them hot by pneumatic tube."

Bart felt sickened by the thought of eating, but when he put a polite fork in the food, he discovered that he was famished and ate up everything in sight. When they had finished, Raynor dumped the cartons into a disposal chute, went to a small portable bar and put a glass into his hand.

"Drink this."

Bart touched his lips to the glass, made a face and put it away. "Thanks, but I don't drink."

"Call it medicine, you'll need something," Raynor Three said crossly. "I've got a lot to tell you, and I don't want you going off half-primed in the middle of a sentence. If you'd rather have a shot of tranquilizer, all right; otherwise, I prescribe that you drink what I gave you." He gave Bart a quick, wry grin. "I really am a medic, you know."

Feeling like a scolded child, Bart drank. It burned his mouth, but after it was down, he felt a sort of warm burning in his insides that gradually spread a sense of well-being all through him. It wasn't alcohol, but whatever it was, it had quite a kick.

"Thanks," he muttered. "Why are you taking this trouble, Raynor? There must be danger—"

"Don't you know—" Raynor broke off. "Obviously, you don't. Your mother never said much about your Mentorian family tree, I suppose? She was a Raynor." He smiled at Bart, a little ruefully. "I won't claim a kinsman's privileges until you decide how much to trust me."

Raynor Three settled back.

"It's a long story and I only know part of it," he began. "Our family, the Raynors, have traded with the Lhari for more generations than I can count. When I was a young man, I qualified as a medic on the Lhari ships, and I've been star-hopping ever since. People call us the slaves of the Lhari—maybe we are," he added wryly. "But I began it just because space is where I belong, and there's nowhere else that I've ever wanted to be. And I'll take it at any price.

"I never questioned what I was doing until a few years ago. It was your father who made me wonder if we Mentorians were blind and selfish—this privilege ought to belong to everyone, not just the Lhari. More and more, the Lhari monopoly seemed wrong to me. But I was just a medic. And if I involved myself in any conspiracy against the Lhari, they'd find it out in the routine psych-checking.

"And then we worked out how it could be done. Before every trip, with self-hypnosis and self-suggestion, I erase my own memories—a sort of artificial amnesia—so that the Lhari can't find out any more than I want them to find out. Of course, it also means that I have no memory, while I'm on the Lhari ships, of what I've agreed to while I'm—" His face suddenly worked, and his mouth moved without words, as if he had run into some powerful barrier against speech.

It was a full minute, while Bart stared in dismay, before he found his voice again, saying, "So far, it was just a sort of loose network, trying to put together stray bits of information that the Lhari didn't think important enough to censor.

"And then came the big breakthrough. There was a young Apprentice astrogator named David Briscoe. He'd taken some runs in special test ships, and read some extremely obscure research data from the early days of the contact between men and Lhari, and he had a wild idea. He did the bravest thing anyone has ever done. He stripped himself of all identifying data—so that if he died, no one would be in trouble with the Lhari—and stowed away on a Lhari ship."

"But—" Bart's lips were dry—"didn't he die in the warp-drive?"

Slowly, Raynor Three shook his head.

"No, he didn't. No drugs, no cold-sleep—but he didn't die. Don't you see, Bart?" He leaned forward, urgently.

"It's all a fake! The Lhari have just been saying that to justify their refusal to give us the secret of the catalyst that generates the warp-drive frequencies! Such a simple lie, and it's worked for all these years!"

"A Mentorian found him and didn't have the heart to turn him over to the Lhari. So he was smuggled clear again. But when that Mentorian underwent the routine brain-checks at the end of the voyage, the Lhari found out what had happened. They didn't know Briscoe's name, but they wrung that Mentorian out like a wet dishcloth and got a description that was as good as fingerprints. They tracked down young Briscoe and killed him. They killed the first man he'd talked to. They killed the second. The third was your father."

"The murdering devils!"

Raynor sighed. "Your father and Briscoe's father were old friends. Briscoe's father was dying with incurable heart disease; his son was dead, and old Briscoe had only one thought in his mind—to make sure he didn't die for nothing. So he took your father's papers, knowing they were as good as a death warrant, slipped away and boarded a Lhari ship that led roundabout to stars where the message hadn't reached yet. He led them a good chase. Did he die or did they track him down and kill him?" Bart bowed his head and told the story.

"Meanwhile," Raynor Three continued, "your father came to me, knowing I was sympathetic, knowing I was a Lhari-trained surgeon. He had just one thought in his mind: to do, again, what David Briscoe had done, and make sure the news got out this time. He cooked up a plan that was even braver and more desperate. He decided to sign on a Lhari ship as a member of the crew."

"As a Mentorian?" Bart asked, but something cold, like ice water trickling down his back, told him this was not what Raynor meant. "The brainwashing—"

"No," said Raynor, "not as a Mentorian; he couldn't have escaped the psych-checking. As a Lhari."

Bart gasped. "How—"

"Men and Lhari are very much alike," Raynor Three said. "A few small things—skin color, the shape of the ears, the hands and claws—keep humans from seeing that the Lhari are men."

"Don't say that," Bart almost yelled. "Those filthy, murdering devils! You call those monsters men?"

"I've lived among the Lhari all my life. They're not devils, Bart, they have their reasons. Physiologically, the Lhari are—well, humanoid, if you like that better. They're a lot more like a man than a man is like, for instance, a gorilla. Your father convinced me that with minor plastic and facial surgery, he could pass as a Lhari. And finally I gave in, and did the surgery—"

"And it killed him!"

"Not really. It was a completely unforeseeable thing—a blood clot broke loose in a vein, and lodged in his brain. He was dead in seconds. It could have happened at any time," he said, "yet I feel responsible, even though I keep telling myself I'm not. And I'll help you as much as I can—for his sake, and for your mother's. The Lhari don't watch me too closely—they figure that anything I do they'll catch in the brainwashing. But I'm still one step ahead of them, as long as I can erase my own memories."

Bart was sifting it all, slowly, in his mind.

"Why was Dad doing this? What could he gain?"

"You know we can build ships as good as the Lhari ships, but we don't know anything about the rare catalyst they use for warp-drive fuel. Captain Steele had hopes of being able to discover where they got it."

"But couldn't they find out where the Lhari ships go for fueling?"

"No. There's no way to trail a Lhari ship," he reminded Bart. "We can follow them inside a star-system, but then they pop into warp-drive, and we don't know where they go when they aren't running between our stars.

"We've gathered together what information we do have, and we know that after a certain number of runs in our part of the galaxy, ships take off in the direction of Antares. There's a ship, due to come in here in about ten days, called the Swiftwing, which is just about due to make the Antares run. Captain Steele had managed to arrange—I don't know how, and I don't want to know how—for a vacancy on that ship, and somehow he got credentials. You see, it's a very good spy system, a network between the stars, but the weak link is this: everything, every message, every man, has to travel back and forth by the Lhari ships themselves."

He rose, shaking it all off impatiently. "Well, it's finished now. Your father is dead. What are you going to do? If you want to go back to Vega, you can probably convince the Lhari you're just an innocent bystander. They don't hurt bystanders or children, Bart. They aren't bad people. They're just protecting their business monopoly.

"The safest way to handle it would be this: let me erase your memories of what I've told you tonight. Then just let the Lhari capture you. They won't kill you. They'll just give you a light psych-check. When they find out you don't know anything, they'll send you back to Vega, and you can spend the rest of your life in peace, running Vega Interplanet and Eight Colors."

Bart turned on him furiously. "You mean, go home like a good little boy, and pretend none of this ever happened? What do you think I am, anyhow?" Bart's chin set in the new, hard line. "What I want is a chance to go on where Dad left off!"

"It won't be easy, and it could be dangerous," Raynor Three said, "but there's nothing else to be done. We had the arrangements all made; and now somebody's got to take the dangerous risk of calling them off. Are you game for a little plastic surgery—just enough to change your looks again, with new forged papers? You can't go by the Swiftwing—it doesn't carry passengers—but there's another route you can take."

Bart sprang up. "No," he said, "I know a better way. Let me go on the Swiftwing—in Dad's place—as a Lhari!"

"Bart, no," Raynor Three said. "You'd never get away with it. It's too dangerous." But his gold eyes glinted.

"Why not? I speak Lhari better than Dad ever did. And my eyes can stand Lhari lights. You said yourself, it's going to be a dangerous job just calling off all the arrangements. So let's not call them off. Just let me take Dad's place!"

"Bart, you're only a boy—"

"What was Dave Briscoe? No, Raynor. Dad left me a lot more than Vega Interplanet, and you know it. I'll finish what he started, and then maybe I'll begin to deserve what he left me."

Raynor Three gripped Bart's hand. He said, in a voice that shook, "All right, Bart. You're your father's son. I can't say more than that. I haven't any right to stop you."