« The colors of space », Chapter 8   

Chapter 8

He saw the girl again next day, when they checked in for blastoff. She was seated at a small desk, triangular like so much of the Lhari furniture, checking a register as they came out of the Decontam room, making sure they downed their greenish solution of microorganisms.

"Papers, please?" She marked, and Bart noticed that she was using a red pencil.

"Bartol," she said aloud. "Is that how you pronounce it?" She made small scribbles in a sort of shorthand with the red pencil, then made other marks with the black one in Lhari; he supposed the red marks were her own private memoranda, unreadable by the Lhari.

"Next, please." She handed a cup of the greenish stuff to Ringg, behind him. Bart went down toward the drive room, and to his own surprise, found himself wishing the girl were a mathematician rather than a medic. It would have been pleasant to watch her down there.

Old Rugel, on duty in the drive room, watched Bart strap himself in before the computer. "Make sure you check all dials at null," he reminded him, and Bart felt a last surge of panic.

This was his first cruise, except for practice runs at the Academy! Yet his rating called him an experienced man on the Polaris run. He'd had the Lhari training tape, which was supposed to condition his responses, but would it? He tried to clench his fists, drove a claw into his palm, winced, and commanded himself to stay calm and keep his mind on what he was doing.

It calmed him to make the routine check of his dials.

"Strapdown check," said a Lhari with a yellowed crest and a rasping voice. "New man, eh?" He gave Bart's straps perfunctory tugs at shoulders and waist, tightened a buckle. "Karol son of Garin."

Bells rang in the ship, and Bart felt the odd, tonic touch of fear. This was it.

Vorongil strode through the door, his banded cloak sweeping behind him, and took the control couch.

"Ready from fueling room, sir."

"Position," Vorongil snapped.

Bart heard himself reading off a string of figures in Lhari. His voice sounded perfectly calm.

"Communication."

"Clear channels from Pylon Dispatch, sir." It was old Rugel's voice.

"Well," Vorongil said, slowly and almost reflectively, "let's take her up then."

He touched some controls. The humming grew. Then, swift, hard and crushing, weight mashed Bart against his couch.

"Position!" Vorongil's voice sounded harsh, and Bart fought the crushing weight of it. Even his eyeballs ached as he struggled to turn the tiny eye muscles from dial to dial, and his voice was a dim croak: "Fourteen seven sidereal twelve point one one four nine… ."

"Hold it to point one one four six," Vorongil said calmly.

"Point one one four six," Bart said, and his claws stabbed at dials. Suddenly, in spite of the cold weight on his chest, the pain, the struggle, he felt as if he were floating. He managed a long, luxurious breath. He could handle it. He knew what he was doing.

He was an Astrogator… .

Later, when Acceleration One had reached its apex and the artificial gravity made the ship a place of comfort again, he went down to the dining hall with Ringg and met the crew of the Swiftwing. There were twelve officers and twelve crewmen of various ratings like himself and Ringg, but there seemed to be little social division between them, as there would have been on a human ship; officers and crew joked and argued without formality of any kind.

None of them gave him a second look. Later, in the Recreation Lounge, Ringg challenged him to a game with one of the pinball machines. It seemed fairly simple to Bart; he tried it, and to his own surprise, won.

Old Rugel touched a lever at the side of the room. With a tiny whishing sound, shutters opened, the light of Procyon Alpha flooded them and he looked out through a great viewport into bottomless space.

Procyon Alpha, Beta and Gamma hung at full, rings gently tilted. Beyond them the stars burned, flaming through the shimmers of cosmic dust. The colors, the never-ending colors of space!

And he stood here, in a room full of monsters—he was one of the monsters—

"Which one of the planets was it we stopped on?" Rugel asked. "I can't tell 'em apart from this distance."

Bartol swallowed; he had almost said the blue one. He pointed. "The—the big one there, with the rings almost edge-on. I think they call it Alpha."

"It's their planet," said Rugel. "I guess they can call it what they want to. How about another game?"

Resolutely, Bart turned his back on the bewitching colors, and bent over the pinball machine.

The first week in space was a nightmare of strain. He welcomed the hours on watch in the drive room; there alone he was sure of what he was doing. Everywhere else in the ship he was perpetually scared, perpetually on tiptoe, perpetually afraid of making some small and stupid mistake. Once he actually called Aldebaran a red star, but Rugel either did not hear the slip or thought he was repeating what one of the Mentorians—there were two aboard besides the girl—had said.

The absence of color from speech and life was the hardest thing to get used to. Every star in the manual was listed by light-frequency waves, to be checked against a photometer for a specific reading, and it almost drove Bart mad to go through the ritual when the Mentorians were off duty and could not call off the color and the equivalent frequency type for him. Yet he did not dare skip a single step, or someone might have guessed that he could see the difference between a yellow and a green star before checking them.

The Academy ships had had the traditional human signal system of flashing red lights. Bart was stretched taut all the time, listening for the small codelike buzzers and ticks that warned him of filled tanks, leads in need of servicing, answers ready. Ringg's metal-fatigues testing kit was a bewildering muddle of boxes, meters, rods and earphones, each buzzing and clicking its characteristic warning.

At first he felt stretched to capacity every waking moment, his memory aching with a million details, and lay awake nights thinking his mind would crack under the strain. Then Alpha faded to a dim bluish shimmer, Beta was eclipsed, Gamma was gone, Procyon dimmed to a failing spark; and suddenly Bart's memory accustomed itself to the load, the new habits were firmly in place, and he found himself eating, sleeping and working in a settled routine.

He belonged to the Swiftwing now.

Procyon was almost lost in the viewports when a sort of upswept tempo began to run through the ship, an undercurrent of increased activity. Cargo was checked, inventoried and strapped in. Ringg was given four extra men to help him, made an extra tour of the ship, and came back buzzing like a frantic cricket. Bart's computers told him they were forging toward the sidereal location assigned for the first of the warp-drive shifts, which would take them some fifteen light-years toward Aldebaran.

On the final watch before the warp-drive shift, the medical officer came around and relieved the Mentorians from duty. Bart watched them go, with a curious, cold, crawling apprehension. Even the Mentorians, trusted by the Lhari—even these were put into cold-sleep! Fear grabbed his insides.

No human had ever survived the shift into warp-drive, the Lhari said. Briscoe, his father, Raynor Three—they thought they had proved that the Lhari lied. If they were right, if it was a Lhari trick to reinforce their stranglehold on the human worlds and keep the warp-drive for themselves, then Bart had nothing to fear. But he was afraid.

Why did the Mentorians endure this, never quite trusted, isolated among aliens?

Raynor Three had said, Because I belong in space, because I'm never happy anywhere else. Bart looked out the viewport at the swirl and burn of the colors there. Now that he could never speak of the colors, it seemed he had never been so wholly and wistfully aware of them. They symbolized the thing he could never put into words.

So that everyone can have this. Not just the Lhari.

Rugel watched the Mentorians go, scowling. "I wish medic would find a way to keep them alive through warp," he said. "My Mentorian assistant could watch that frequency-shift as we got near the bottom of the arc, and I'll bet she could see it. They can see the changes in intensity faster than I can plot them on the photometer!"

Bart felt goosebumps break out on his skin. Rugel spoke as if the certain death of humans, Mentorians, was a fact. Didn't the Lhari themselves know it was a farce? Or was it?

Vorongil himself took the controls for the surge of Acceleration Two, which would take them past the Light Barrier. Bart, watching his instruments to exact position and time, saw the colors of each star shift strangely, moment by moment. The red stars seemed hard to see. The orange-yellow ones burned suddenly like flame; the green ones seemed golden, the blue ones almost green. Dimly, he remembered the old story of a "red shift" in the lights of approaching stars, but here he saw it pure, a sight no human eyes had ever seen. A sight that no eyes had seen, human or otherwise, for the Lhari could not see it… .

"Time," he said briefly to Vorongil, "Fifteen seconds… ."

Rugel looked across from his couch. Bart felt that the old, scarred Lhari could read his fear. Rugel said through a wheeze, "No matter how old you get, Bartol, you're still scared when you make a warp-shift. But relax, computers don't make mistakes."

"Catalyst," Vorongil snapped, "Ready—shift!"

At first there was no change; then Bart realized that the stars, through the viewport, had altered abruptly in size and shade and color. They were not sparks but strange streaks, like comets, crossing and recrossing long tails that grew, longer and longer, moment by moment. The dark night of space was filled with a crisscrossing blaze. They were moving faster than light, they saw the light left by the moving Universe as each star hurled in its own invisible orbit, while they tore incredibly through it, faster than light itself… .

Bart felt a curious, tingling discomfort, deep in his flesh; almost an itching, a stinging in his very bones.

Lhari flesh is no different from ours… .

Space, through the viewport, was no longer space as he had come to know it, but a strange eerie limbo, the star-tracks lengthening, shifting color until they filled the whole viewport with shimmering, gray, recrossing light. The unbelievable reaction of warp-drive thrust them through space faster than the lights of the surrounding stars, faster than imagination could follow.

The lights in the drive chamber began to dim—or was he blacking out? The stinging in his flesh was a clawed pain.

Briscoe lived through it… .

They say.

The whirling star-tracks fogged, coiled, turned colorless worms of light, went into a single vast blur. Dimly Bart saw old Rugel slump forward, moaning softly; saw the old Lhari pillow his bald head on his veined arms. Then darkness took him; and thinking it was death, Bart felt only numb, regretful failure. I've failed, we'll always fail. The Lhari were right all long.

But we tried! By God, we tried!

"Bartol?" A gentle hand, cat claws retracted, came down on his shoulder. Ringg bent over him. Good-natured rebuke was in his voice. "Why didn't you tell us you got a bad reaction, and ask to sign out for this shift?" he demanded. "Look, poor old Rugel's passed out again. He just won't admit he can't take it—but one idiot on a watch is enough! Some people just feel as if the bottom's dropped out of the ship, and that's all there is to it."

Bart hauled his head upright, fighting a surge of stinging nausea. His bones itched inside and he was damnably uncomfortable, but he was alive.

"I'm—fine."

"You look it," Ringg said in derision. "Think you can help me get Rugel to his cabin?"

Bart struggled to his feet, and found that when he was upright he felt better. "Wow!" he muttered, then clamped his mouth shut. He was supposed to be an experienced man, a Lhari hardened to space. He said woozily, "How long was I out?"

"The usual time," Ringg said briskly, "about three seconds—just while we hit peak warp-drive. Feels longer, so they tell me, sometimes—time's funny, beyond light-speeds. The medic says it's purely psychological. I'm not so sure. I itch, blast it!"

He moved his shoulders in a squirming way, then bent over Rugel, who was moaning, half insensible. "Catch hold of his feet, Bartol. Here—ease him out of his chair. No sense bothering the medics this time. Think you can manage to help me carry him down to the deck?"

"Sure," Bart said, finding his feet and his voice. He felt better as they moved along the hallway, the limp, muttering form of the old Lhari insensible in their arms. They reached the officer's deck, got Rugel into his cabin and into his bunk, hauled off his cloak and boots. Ringg stood shaking his head.

"And they say Captain Vorongil's so tough!"

Bart made a questioning noise.

"Why, just look," said Ringg. "He knows it would make poor old Rugel feel as if he wasn't good for much—to order him into his bunk and make him take dope like a Mentorian for every warp-shift. So we have this to go through at every jump!" He sounded cross and disgusted, but there was a rough, boyish gentleness as he hauled the blanket over the bald old Lhari. He looked up, almost shyly.

"Thanks for helping me with Old Baldy. We usually try to get him out before Vorongil officially takes notice. Of course, he sort of keeps his back turned," Ringg said, and they laughed together as they turned back to the drive room. Bart found himself thinking, Ringg's a good kid, before he pulled himself up, in sudden shock.

He had lived through warp-drive! Then, indeed, the Lhari had been lying all along, the vicious lie that maintained their stranglehold monopoly of star-travel. He was their enemy again, the spy within their gates, like Briscoe, to be hunted down and killed, but to bring the message, loud and clear, to everyone: The Lhari lied! The stars can belong to us all!

When he got back to the drive room, he saw through the viewport that the blur had vanished, the star-trails were clear, distinct again, their comet-tails shortening by the moment, their colors more distinct.

The Lhari were waiting, a few poised over their instruments, a few more standing at the quartz window watching the star-trails, some squirming and scratching and grousing about "space fleas"—the characteristic itching reaction that seemed to be deep down inside the bones.

Bart checked his panels, noted the time when they were due to snap back into normal space, and went to stand by the viewport. The stars were reappearing, seeming to steady and blaze out in cloudy splendor through the bright dust. They burned in great streamers of flame, and for the moment he forgot his mission again, lost in the beauty of the fiery lights. He drew a deep, shaking gasp. It was worth it all, to see this! He turned and saw Ringg, silent, at his shoulder.

"Me, too," Ringg said, almost in a whisper. "I think every man on board feels that way, a little, only he won't admit it." His slanted gray eyes looked quickly at Bart and away.

"I guess we're almost down to L-point. Better check the panel and report nulls, so medic can wake up the Mentorians."

 

The Swiftwing moved on between the stars. Aldebaran loomed, then faded in the viewports; another shift jumped them to a star whose human name Bart did not know. Shift followed shift, spaceport followed spaceport, sun followed sun; men lived on most of these worlds, and on each of them a Lhari spaceport rose, alien and arrogant. And on each world men looked at Lhari with resentful eyes, cursing the race who kept the stars for their own.

Cargo amassed in the holds of the Swiftwing, from worlds beyond all dreams of strangeness. Bart grew, not bored, but hardened to the incredible. For days at a time, no word of human speech crossed his mind.

The blackout at peak of each warp-shift persisted. Vorongil had given him permission to report off duty, but since the blackouts did not impair his efficiency, Bart had refused. Rugel told him that this was the moment of equilibrium, the peak of the faster-than-light motion.

"Perhaps a true limiting speed beyond which nothing will ever go," Vorongil said, touching the charts with a varnished claw. Rugel's scarred old mouth spread in a thin smile.

"Maybe there's no such thing as a limiting speed. Someday we'll reach true simultaneity—enter warp, and come out just where we want to be, at the same time. Just a split-second interval. That will be real transmission."

Ringg scoffed, "And suppose you get even better—and come out of warp before you go into it? What then, Honorable Bald One?"

Rugel chuckled, and did not answer. Bart turned away. It was not easy to keep on hating the Lhari.

There came a day when he came on watch to see drawn, worried faces; and when Ringg came into the drive room they threw their levers on automatic and crowded around him, their crests bobbing in question and dismay. Vorongil seemed to emit sparks as he barked at Ringg, "You found it?"

"I found it. Inside the hull lining."

Vorongil swore, and Ringg held up a hand in protest. "I only locate metals fatigue, sir—I don't make it!"

"No help for it then," Vorongil said. "We'll have to put down for repairs. How much time do we have, Ringg?"

"I give it thirty hours," Ringg said briefly, and Vorongil gave a long shrill whistle. "Bartol, what's the closest listed spaceport?"

Bart dived for handbooks, manuals, comparative tables of position, and started programming information. The crew drifted toward him, and by the time he finished feeding in the coded information, a row three-deep of Lhari surrounded him, including all the officers. Vorongil was right at his shoulder when Bart slipped on his earphones and started decoding the punched strips that fed out the answers from the computer.

"Nearest port is Cottman Four. It's almost exactly thirty hours away."

"I don't like to run it that close." Vorongil's face was bitten deep with lines. He turned to Ramillis, head of Maintenance. "Do we need spare parts? Or just general repairs?"

"Just repairs, sir. We have plenty of shielding metal. It's a long job to get through the hulls, but there's nothing we can't fix."

Vorongil flexed his clawed hands nervously, stretching and retracting them. "Ringg, you're the fatigue expert. I'll take your word for it. Can we make thirty hours?"

Ringg looked pale and there was none of his usual boyish nonsense when he said, "Captain, I swear I wouldn't risk Cottman. You know what crystallization's like, sir. We can't get through that hull lining to repair it in space, if it does go before we land. We wouldn't have the chance of a hydrogen atom in a tank of halogens."

Vorongil's slanted eyebrows made a single unbroken line. "That's the word then. Bartol, find us the closest star with a planet—spaceport or not."

Bart's hands were shaking with sudden fear. He checked each digit of their present position, fed it into the computer, waited, finally wet his lips and plunged, taking the strip from a computer.

"This small star, called Meristem. It's a—" he bit his lip, hard; he had almost said green—"type Q, two planets with atmosphere within tolerable limits, not classified as inhabited."

"Who owns it?"

"I don't have that information on the banks, sir."

Vorongil beckoned the Mentorian assistant. So apart were Lhari and Mentorian on these ships that Bart did not even know his name. He said, "Look up a star called Meristem for us." The Mentorian hurried away, came back after a moment with the information that it belonged to the Second Galaxy Federation, but was listed as unexplored.

Vorongil scowled. "Well, we can claim necessity," he said. "It's only eight hours away, and Cottman's thirty. Bartol, plot us a warp-drive shift that will land us in that system, and on the inner of the two planets, within nine hours. If it's a type Q star, that means dim illumination, and no spaceport mercury-vapor installations. We'll need as much sunlight as we can get."

It was the first time that Bart, unaided, had had the responsibility of plotting a warp-drive shift. He checked the coordinates of the small green star three times before passing them along to Vorongil. Even so, when they went into Acceleration Two, he felt stinging fear. If I plotted wrong, we could shift into that crazy space and come out billions of miles away… .

But when the stars steadied and took on their own colors, the blaze of a small green sun was steady in the viewport.

"Meristem," Vorongil said, taking the controls himself. "Let's hope the place is really uninhabited and that catalogue's up to date, lads. It wouldn't be any fun to burn up some harmless village, or get shot at by barbarians—and we're setting down with no control-tower signals and no spaceport repair crews. So let's hope our luck holds out for a while yet."

Bart, feeling the minute, unsteady trembling somewhere in the ship—Imagination, he told himself, you can't feel metal-fatigue somewhere in the hull lining—echoed the wish. He did not know that he had already had the best luck of his unique voyage, or realize the fantastic luck that had brought him to the small green star Meristem.