« The colors of space », Chapter 7   

Chapter 7

"All right, Bart, today we'll let you look at yourself," Raynor Three said.

Bart smiled under the muffling layers of bandage around his face. His hands were bandaged, too, and he had not been permitted to look in a mirror. But the transition had been surprisingly painless—or perhaps his sense of well-being had been due to Raynor Three slipping him some drug.

He'd been given injections of a chemical that would change the color of his skin; there had been minor operations on his face, his hands, his feet.

"Let's see you get up and walk around."

Bart obeyed awkwardly, and Raynor frowned. "Hurt?"

"Not exactly, but I feel as if I were limping."

"That's to be expected. I changed the angle of the heel tendon and the muscle of the arch. You're using a different set of muscles when you walk; until they harden up, you'll have some assorted Charley horses. Have any trouble hearing me?"

"No, though I'd hear better without all these bandages," Bart said impatiently.

"All in good time. Any trouble breathing?"

"No, except for the bandages."

"Fine. I changed the shape of your ears and nostrils, and it might have affected your hearing or your breathing. Now, listen, Bart: I'm going to take the bandages off your hands first. Sit down."

Bart sat across the table from him, obediently sticking out his hands. Raynor Three said, "Shut your eyes."

Bart did as he was told and felt Raynor Three's long fingers working at the bandages.

"Move each finger as I touch it." Bart obeyed, and Raynor said neutrally, "Good. Now, take a deep breath and then open your eyes."

Impatiently Bart flicked his lids open. In spite of the warning, his breath went out in a harsh, jolting gasp. His hands lay on the table before him—but they were not his hands.

The narrow, long fingers were pearl-gray, tipped with whitish-pink claws that curved out over the tips. Nervously Bart moved one finger, and the long claw flicked out like a cat's, retracted. He swallowed.

"Golly!" He felt strangely wobbly.

"A beautiful job, if I do say so. Be careful not to scratch yourself, and practice picking up small things."

Bart saw that the long grayish claws were trembling. "How did you make—the claws?"

"Quite simple, really," Raynor beamed. "I injected protein compounds into the nail matrix, which speeded up nail growth terrifically, and then, as they grew, shaped them. Joining on those tiny muscles for the retracting mechanism was the tricky part though."

Bart was moving his hands experimentally. Once over the shock, they felt quite normal. The claws didn't get in his way half so much as he'd expected when he picked up a pen that lay beside him and, with the blunt tip, made a few of the strange-looking dots and wedges that were the Lhari alphabet.

"Practice writing this," said Raynor Three, and laid a plastic-encased folder down beside him. It was a set of ship's papers printed in Lhari. Bart read it through, seeing that it was made out to the equivalent of Astrogator, First Class, Bartol.

"That's your name now, the name your father would have used. Memorize it, get used to the sound of it, practice writing it. Don't worry too much about the rating; it's an elementary one, what we'd call Apprentice rating, and I have a training tape for you anyhow. My brother got hold of it, don't ask me how—and don't ask him!"

"When am I going to see my face?"

"When I think you're ready for the shock," Raynor said bluntly. "It almost threw you when I showed you your hands."

He made Bart walk around some more briefly, slowly, he unwound the bandages; then turned and picked up a mirror at the bottom of his medic's case, turning it right side up. "Here. But take it easy."

But when Bart looked in the mirror he felt no unexpected shock, only an unnerving revulsion.

His hair was bleached-white and fluffy, almost feathery to the touch. His skin was grayish-rose, and his eyelids had been altered just enough to make his eyes look long, narrow and slanted. His nostrils were mere slits, and he moved his tongue over lips that felt oddly thin.

"I did as little to your teeth as I thought I could get away with-capped the front ones," Raynor Three told him. "So if you get a toothache you're out of luck—you won't dare go to a Lhari dentist. I could have done more, but it would have made you look too freakish when we changed you back to human again—if you live that long," he added grimly.

I hadn't thought about that. And if Raynor is going to forget me, who will do it? The cold knot of fear, never wholly absent, moved in him again.

Watching his face, Raynor Three said gently, "It's a big network, Bart. I'm not telling you much, for your own safety. But when you get to Antares, they'll tell you all you need to know."

He lifted Bart's oddly clawed hands. "I warned you, remember—the change isn't completely reversible. Your hands will always look—strange. The fingers had to be lengthened, for instance. I wanted to make you as safe as possible among the Lhari. I think you'll pass anything but an X-ray. Just be careful not to break any bones."

He gave Bart a package. "This is the Lhari training tape. Listen to it as often as you can, then destroy it—completely—before you leave here. The Swiftwing is due in port three days from now, and they stay here a week. I don't know how we'll manage it, but I'll guarantee there'll be a vacancy of one Astrogator, First Class, on that ship." He rose. "And now I'm going back to town and erase the memory." He stopped, looking intently at Bart.

"So if you see me, stay away from me and don't speak, because I won't know you from any other Lhari. Understand? From here on, you're on your own, Bart."

He held out his hand. "This is the rough part, Son." His face moved strangely. "I'm part of this network between the stars, but I don't know what I've done before, and I'll never know how it comes out. It's funny to stand here and look at you and realize that I won't even remember you." The gold-glinted eyes blinked rapidly. "Goodbye, Bart. And—good luck, Son."

Bart took his hand, deeply moved, with the strange sense that this was another death—a worse one than Briscoe's. He tried to speak and couldn't.

"Well—" Raynor's mouth twisted into a wry grin. "Ouch! Careful with those claws. The Lhari don't shake hands."

He turned abruptly and went out of the door and out of Bart's life, while Bart stood at the dome-window, feeling alone as he had never felt alone before.

He had to wait six days, and they felt like six eternities. He played the training tape over and over. With his Academy background, it wasn't nearly so difficult as he'd feared. He read and reread the set of papers identifying him as Astrogator, First Class, Bartol. Forged, he supposed. Or was there, somewhere, a real Bartol?

The last morning he slept uneasily late. He finished his last meal as a human, spent part of the day removing all traces of his presence from Raynor's home, burned the training tape, and finally got into the silky, silvery tights and cloak that Raynor had provided. He could use his hands now as if they belonged to him; he even found the claws handy and useful. He could write his signature, and copy out instructions from the training tape, without a moment's hesitation.

Toward dusk, a young Lhari slipped unobserved out of Raynor's house and hiked unnoticed to the edges of a small city nearby, where he mingled with the crowd and hired a skycab from an unobservant human driver to take him to the spaceport city. The skycab driver was startled, but not, Bart judged, unusually so, to pick up a Lhari passenger.

"Been doing a little sight-seeing on our planet, hey?"

"That's right," Bart said in Universal, not trying to fake his idea of the Lhari accent. Raynor had told him that only a few of the Lhari had that characteristic sibilant "r" and "s" and warned him against trying to imitate it. Just speak naturally; there are dialects of Lhari, just as there are dialects of the different human languages, and they all sound different in Universal anyhow. "Just looking around some."

The skycab driver frowned and looked down at his controls, and Bart felt curiously snubbed. Then he remembered. He himself had little to say to the Lhari when they spoke to him.

He was an alien, a monster. He couldn't expect to be treated like a human being any more.

When the skycab let him off before the spaceport, it felt strange to see how the crowds edged away from him as he made a way through them. He caught a glimpse of himself in one of the mirror-ramps, a tall thin strange form in a metallic cloak, head crested with feathery white, and felt overwhelmingly homesick for his own familiar face.

He was beginning to feel hungry, and realized that he could not go into an ordinary restaurant without attracting attention. There were refreshment stands all over the spaceport, and he briefly considered getting a snack at one of these.

No, that was just putting it off. The time had to come when he must face his fear and test his disguise among the Lhari themselves. Reviewing his knowledge of the construction of spaceports, he remembered that one side was the terminal, where humans and visitors and passengers were freely admitted; the other side, for Lhari and their Mentorian employees only, contained—along with business offices of many sorts—a sort of arcade with amusement centers, shops and restaurants catering to the personnel of the Lhari ships. With nine or ten ships docking every day, Raynor had assured him that a strange Lhari face would be lost in the crowds very easily.

He went to one of the doors marked danger, Lhari lights beyond, and passed through the glaring corridor of offices and storage-warehouses, finally coming out into a sort of wide mall. The lights were fierce, but he could endure them without trouble now, though his head ached faintly. Raynor, testing his light tolerance, had assured him that he could endure anything the Lhari could, without permanent damage to his optic nerves, though he would have headaches until he got used to them.

There were small shops and what looked like bars, and a glass-fronted place with a sign lettered largely, in black letters, a Lhari phrase meaning roughly home away from home: meals served, spacemen welcome, reasonable.

Behind him a voice said in Lhari, "Tell me, does that sign mean what it says? Or is this one of those traps for separating the unwary spaceman from his hard-earned credits? How's the food?"

Bart carefully took hold of himself.

"I was just wondering that myself." He turned as he spoke, finding himself face to face with a young Lhari in the unadorned cloak of a spaceman without official rank. He knew the Lhari was young because his crest was still white.

The young Lhari extended his claws in the closed-fist, hidden-claw gesture of Lhari greeting. "Shall we take a chance? Ringg son of Rahan greets you."

"Bartol son of Berihun."

"I don't remember seeing you in the port, Bartol."

"I've mostly worked on the Polaris run."

"Way off there?" Ringg son of Rahan sounded startled and impressed. "You really get around, don't you? Shall we sit here?"

They sat on triangular chairs at a three-cornered table. Bart waited for Ringg to order, and ordered what he did. When it came, it was a sort of egg-and-fish casserole which Bart found extremely tasty, and he dug into it with pleasure. Allowing for the claws, Lhari table manners were not so much different from human—and remember, their customs differ as much as ours do. If you do something differently, they'll just think you're from another planet with a different culture.

"Have you been here long?"

"A day or so. I'm off the Swiftwing."

Bart decided to hazard his luck. "I was told there's a vacancy on the Swiftwing."

Ringg looked at him curiously. "There is," he said, "but I'd like to know how you found it out. Captain Vorongil said that anyone who talked about it would be sent to Kleeto for three cycles. But what happened to you? Miss your ship?"

"No, I've just been laying off—traveling, sight-seeing, bumming around," Bart said. "But I'm tired of it, and now I'd like to sign out again."

"Well, we could use another man. This is the long run we're making, out to Antares and then home, and if everybody has to work extra shifts, it's no fun. But if old Vorongil knows that there's been talk in the port about Klanerol jumping ship, or whatever happened to him, we'll all have to walk wide of his temper."

Bart was beginning to relax a little; Ringg apparently accepted him without scrutiny. At this close range Ringg did not seem a monster, but just a young fellow like himself, hearty, good-natured—in fact, not unlike Tommy.

Bart chased the thought away as soon as it sneaked into his brain—one of those things, like Tommy? Then, rather grimly, he reminded himself, I'm one of those things. He said irritably, "So how do I account for asking your captain for the place?"

Ringg cocked his fluffy crest to one side. "I know," he said, "I told you. I'll say you're an old friend of mine. You don't know what Vorongil's like when he gets mad. But what he doesn't know, he won't shout about." He shoved back the triangular chair. "Who did tell you, anyway?"

This was the first real hurdle, and Bart's brain raced desperately, but Ringg was not listening for an answer. "I suppose somebody gossiped, or one of those fool Mentorians picked it up. Got your papers? What rating?"

"Astrogator first class."

"Klanerol was second, but you can't have everything, I suppose." Ringg led the way through the arcades, out across a guarded sector, passing half a dozen of the huge ships lying in their pits. Finally Ringg stopped and pointed. "This is the old hulk."

Bart had traveled only in Lhari passenger ships, which were new and fresh and sleek. This ship was enormous, ovoid like the egg of some space-monster, the sides dented and discolored, thin films of chemical discoloration lying over the glassy metallic hull.

Bart followed Ringg. This was real, it was happening. He was signing out for his first interstellar cruise on one of the Lhari ships. Not a Mentorian assistant, half-trusted, half-tolerated, but one of the crew themselves. If I'm lucky, he reminded himself grimly.

There was Lhari, in the black-banded officer's cloak, at the doorway. He glanced at Ringg's papers.

"Friend of mine," Ringg said, and Bart proffered his folder. The Lhari gave it a casual glance, handed it back.

"Old Baldy on board?" Ringg asked.

"Where else?" The officer laughed. "You don't think he'd relax with cargo not loaded, do you?"

They seemed casual and normal, and Bart's confidence was growing. They had accepted him as one of themselves. But the great ordeal still lay before him—an interview with the Lhari captain. And the idea had Bart sweating scared.

The corridors and decks seemed larger, wider, more spacious, but shabbier than on the clean, bright, commercial passenger decks Bart had seen. Dark-lensed men were rolling bales of cargo along on wheeled dollies. The corridors seemed endless. More to hear the sound of his own voice, and reassure himself of his ability to speak and be understood, than because he cared, he asked Ringg, "What's your rating?"

"Well, according to the logbooks, I'm an Expert Class Two, Metals-Fatigue," said Ringg. "That sounds very technical and interesting. But what it means is just that I go all over the ship inch by inch, and when I finish, start all over again at the other end. Most of what I do is just boss around the maintenance crews and snarl at them about spots of rust on the paint."

They got into a small round elevator and Ringg punched buttons; it began to rise, slowly and creakily, toward the top. "This, for instance," Ringg said. "I've been yelling for a new cable for six months." He turned. "Take it easy, Bartol; don't let Vorongil scare you. He likes to hear the sound of his own voice, but we'd all walk out the lock without spacesuits for him."

The elevator slid to a stop. The sign in Lhari letters said Level of Administration—Officers' Deck. Ringg pushed at a door and said, "Captain Vorongil?"

"I thought you were on leave," said a Lhari voice, deeper and slower than most. "What are you doing, back here more than ten milliseconds before strap-in checks?"

Ringg stepped back for Bart to go inside. The small cabin, with an elliptical bunk slung from the ceiling and a triangular table, was dwarfed by a tall, thin Lhari, in a cloak with four of the black bands that seemed to denote rank among them. He had a deeply lined face with a lacework of tiny wrinkles around the slanted eyes. His crest was not the high, fluffy white of a young Lhari, but broken short near the scalp, grayish pink showing through, the little feathery ends yellowed with age. He growled, "Come in then, don't stand there. I suppose Ringg's told you what a tyrant I am? What do you want, feathertop?"

Bart remembered being told that this was the Lhari equivalent of "Kid" or "Youngster." He fumbled in the capacious folds of his cloak for his papers. His voice sounded shrill, even to himself.

"Bartol son of Berihun in respectful greeting, rieko mori." ("Honorable old-bald-one," the Lhari equivalent of "sir.") "Ringg told me there is a vacancy among the Astrogators, and I want to sign out."

Unmistakably, Vorongil's snort was laughter.

"So you've been talking, Ringg?"

Ringg retorted, "Better that I tell one man than that you have to hunt the planet over—or run the long haul with the drive-room watches short by one man."

"Well, well, you're right," Vorongil growled. He glared at Bart. "On the last planet, one of our men disappeared. Jumped ship!" The creases around his eyes deepened, troubled. "Probably just gone on the drift, sight-seeing, but I wish he'd told me. As it is, I wonder if he's been hurt, killed, kidnaped."

Ringg said, "Who'd dare? It would be reported."

Bart knew, with a cold chill, that the missing Klanerol had not simply gone "on the drift." No Lhari port would ever see Klanerol, Second Class Astrogator, again.

"Bartol," mused the captain, riffling the forged papers. "Served on the Polaris run. Hm—you are a good long way off your orbit, aren't you? Never been out that way myself. All right, I'll take you on. You can do system programming? Good. Rating in Second Galaxy mathematics?"

He nodded, hauled out a sheet of thin, wax-coated fabric and his claws made rapid imprints in the surface. He passed it to Bart, pointed. Bart hesitated, and Vorongil said impatiently, "Standard agreement, no hidden clauses. Put your mark on it, feathertop."

Bart realized it was something like a fingerprint they wanted. You'll pass anything but X-rays. He pressed the top of one claw into the wax. Vorongil nodded, shoved it on a shelf without looking at it.

"So much for that," said Ringg, laughing, as they came out. "The Bald One was in a good temper. I'm going to the port and celebrate, not that this dim place is very festive. You?"

"I—I think I'll stay aboard."

"Well, if you change your mind, I'll be down there somewhere," Ringg said. "See you later, shipmate." He raised his closed fist in farewell, and went.

Bart stood in the corridor, feeling astounded and strange. He belonged here! He had a right to be on board the ship! He wasn't quite sure what to do next.

A Lhari, as short and fat as a Lhari could possibly be and still be a Lhari, came or rather waddled out of the captain's office. He saw Bartol and called, "Are you the new First Class? I'm Rugel, coordinator."

Rugel had a huge cleft darkish scar across his lip, and there were two bands on his cloak. He was completely bald, and he puffed when he walked. "Vorongil asked me to show you around. You'll share quarters with Ringg—no sense shifting another man. Come down and see the chart rooms—or do you want to leave your kit in your cabin first?"

"I don't have much," Bart said.

Rugel's seamed lip widened. "That's the way—travel light when you're on the drift," he confirmed.

Rugel took him down to the drive rooms, and here for a moment, in wonder and awe, Bart almost forgot his disguise. The old Lhari led him to the huge computer which filled one wall of the room, and Bart was smitten with the universality of mathematics. Here was something he knew he could handle.

He could do this programming, easily enough. But as he stood before the banks of complex, yet beautifully familiar levers, the sheer exquisite complexity of it overcame him. To compute the movements of thousands of stars, all moving at different speeds in different directions in the vast swirling directionless chaos of the Universe—and yet to be sure that every separate movement would come out to within a quarter of a mile! It was something that no finite brain—man or Lhari—could ever accomplish, yet their limited brains had built these computers that could do it.

Rugel watched him, laughing softly. "Well, you'll have enough time down here. I like to have youngsters who are still in the middle of a love affair with their work. Come along, and I'll show you your cabin."

Rugel left him in a cabin amidships; small and cramped, but tidy, two of the oval bunks slung at opposite ends, a small table between them, and drawers filled with pamphlets and manuals and maps. Furtively, ashamed of himself, yet driven by necessity, Bart searched Ringg's belongings, wanting to get some idea of what possessions he ought to own. He looked around the shower and toilet facilities with extra care—this was something he couldn't slip up on and be considered even halfway normal. He was afraid Ringg would come in, and see him staring curiously at something as ordinary, to a Lhari, as a cake of soap.

He decided to go down to the port again and look around the shops. He was not afraid of being unable to handle his work. What he feared was something subtler—that the small items of everyday living, something as simple as a nail file, would betray him.

On his way he looked into the Recreation Lounge, filled with comfortable seats, vision-screens, and what looked like simple pinball machines and mechanical games of skill. There were also stacks of tapereels and headsets for listening, not unlike those humans used. Bart felt fascinated, and wanted to explore, but decided he could do that later.

Somehow he took the wrong turn coming out of the Recreation Lounge, and went through a door where the sudden dimming of lights told him he was in Mentorian quarters. The sudden darkness made him stumble, thrust out his hands to keep from falling, and an unmistakably human voice said, "Ouch!"

"I'm sorry," Bart said in Universal, without thinking.

"I admit the lights are dim," said the voice tartly, and Bart found himself looking down, as his eyes adjusted to the new light level, at a girl.

She was small and slight, in a metallic blue cloak that swept out, like wings, around her thin shoulders; the hood framed a small, kittenlike face. She was a Mentorian, and she was human, and Bart's eyes rested with comfort on her face; she, on the other hand, was looking up with anxiety and uneasy distrust. That's right—I'm a Lhari, a nonhuman freak!

"I seem to have missed my way."

"What are you looking for, sir? The medical quarters are through here."

"I'm looking for the elevator down to the crew exits."

"Through here," she said, reopening the door through which he had come, and shading her large, lovely, long-lashed eyes with a slender hand. "You took the wrong turn. Are you new on board? I thought all ships were laid out exactly alike."

"I've only worked on passenger ships."

"I believe they are somewhat different," said the girl in good Lhari. "Well, that is your way, sir."

He felt as if he had been snubbed and dismissed.

"What is your name?"

She stiffened as if about to salute. "Meta of the house of Marnay Three, sir."

Bart realized he was doing something wholly out of character for a Lhari—chatting casually with a Mentorian. With a wistful glance at the pretty girl, he said a stiff "Thank you" and went down the ramp she had indicated. He felt horribly lonely. Being a freak wasn't going to be much fun.