A Juvenile Science Fiction Novel
THE COLORS OF SPACE
Marion Zimmer Bradley
MONARCH BOOKS, INC. Derby, Connecticut
Published in August, 1963 Copyright 1963 by Marion Zimmer Bradley
[Transcriber's note: This is a rule 6 clearance. PG has not been able to find a copyright renewal.]
Cover Painting by Ralph Brillhart
Monarch Books are published by MONARCH BOOKS, INC., Capital Building, Derby, Connecticut, and represent the works of outstanding novelists and writers of non-fiction especially chosen for their literary merit and reading entertainment.
Printed in the United States of America All Rights Reserved
To DAVID STEPHEN
It was a week before the Lhari ship went into warp-drive, and all that time young Bart Steele had stayed in his cabin. He was so bored with his own company that the Mentorian medic was a welcome sight when he came to prepare him for cold-sleep.
The Mentorian paused, needle in hand. "Do you wish to be wakened for the time we shall spend in each of the three star systems, sir? You can, of course, be given enough drug to keep you in cold-sleep until we reach your destination."
Bart felt tempted—he wanted very much to see the other star systems. But he couldn't risk meeting other passengers.
The needle went into his arm. In sudden panic, he realized he was helpless. The ship would touch down on three worlds, and on any of them the Lhari might have his description, or his alias! He could be taken off, unconscious, and might never wake up! He tried to move, to protest, but he couldn't. There was a freezing moment of intense cold and then nothing....
The Lhari spaceport didn't belong on Earth.
Bart Steele had thought that, a long time ago, when he first saw it. He had been just a kid then; twelve years old, and all excited about seeing Earth for the first time—Earth, the legendary home of mankind before the Age of Space, the planet of Bart's far-back ancestors. And the first thing he'd seen on Earth, when he got off the starship, was the Lhari spaceport.
And he'd thought, right then, It doesn't belong on Earth.
He'd said so to his father, and his father's face had gone strange, bitter and remote.
"A lot of people would agree with you, Son," Captain Rupert Steele had said softly. "The trouble is, if the Lhari spaceport wasn't on Earth, we wouldn't be on Earth either. Remember that."
Bart remembered it, five years later, as he got off the strip of moving sidewalk. He turned to wait for Tommy Kendron, who was getting his baggage off the center strip of the moving roadway. Bart Steele and Tommy Kendron had graduated together, the day before, from the Space Academy of Earth. Now Tommy, who had been born on the ninth planet of the star Capella, was taking the Lhari starship to his faraway home, and Bart's father was coming back to Earth, on the same starship, to meet his son.
Five years, Bart thought. That's a long time. I wonder if Dad will know me?
"Let me give you a hand with that stuff, Tommy."
"I can manage," Tommy chuckled, hefting the plastic cases. "They don't allow you much baggage weight on the Lhari ships. Certainly not more than I can handle."
The two lads stood in front of the spaceport gate for a minute. Over the gate, which was high and pointed and made of some clear colorless material like glass, was a jagged symbol resembling a flash of lightning; the sign, in Lhari language, for the home world of the Lhari.
They walked through the pointed glass gate, and stood for a moment, by mutual consent, looking down over the vast expanse of the Lhari spaceport.
This had once been a great desert. Now it was all floored in with some strange substance that was neither glass, metal nor concrete; it looked like gleaming crystal—though it felt soft underfoot—and in the glare of the noonday sun, it gave back the glare in a million rainbow flashes. Tommy put his hands up to his eyes to shield them. "The Lhari must have funny eyes, if they can stand all this glare!"
Inside the glass gate, a man in a guard's uniform gave them each a pair of dark glasses. "Put them on now, boys. And don't look directly at the ship when it lands."
Tommy hooked the earpieces of the dark glasses over his ears, and sighed with relief. Bart frowned, but finally put them on. Bart's mother had been a Mentorian—from the planet Mentor, of the star Deneb, a hundred times brighter than the sun. Bart had her eyes. But Mentorians weren't popular on Earth, and Bart had learned to be quiet about his mother.
Through the dark lenses, the glare was only a pale gleam. Far out in the very center of the spaceport, a high, clear-glass skyscraper rose, catching the sunlight in a million colors. Around the building, small copters and robotcabs veered, discharging passengers; and the moving sidewalks were crowded with people coming and going. Here and there in the crowd, standing out because of their height and the silvery metallic cloaks they wore, were the strange tall figures of the Lhari.
"Well, how about going down?" Tommy glanced impatiently at his timepiece. "Less than half an hour before the starship touches down."
"All right. We can get a sidewalk over here." Reluctantly, Bart tore his eyes from the fascinating spectacle, and followed Tommy, stepping onto one of the sidewalks. It bore them down a long, sloping ramp toward the floor of the spaceport, then sped toward the glass skyscraper; came to rest at the wide pointed doors, depositing them in the midst of the crowd. The jagged lightning flash was there over the doors of the building, and the words:
HERE, BY THE GRACE OF THE LHARI, IS THE DOORWAY TO ALL THE STARS.
Bart remembered, as if it were yesterday, how he and his father had first passed through this doorway. And his father, looking up, had said under his breath "Not for always, Son. Someday men will have a doorway to the stars, and the Lhari won't be standing in the door."
Inside the building, it was searingly bright. The high open rotunda was filled with immense mirrors, and glass ramps running up and down, moving staircases, confusing signs and flashing lights on tall oddly shaped pillars. The place was crowded with men from all over the planet, but the dark glasses they all wore gave them a strange sort of family resemblance.
Tommy said, "I'd better check my reservations."
Bart nodded. "Meet you on the upper level later," he said, and got on a moving staircase that soared slowly upward, past level after level, toward the information desk located on the topmost mezzanine.
The staircase moved slowly, and Bart had plenty of time to see everything. On the step immediately in front of him, two Lhari were standing; with their backs turned, they might almost have been men. Unusually tall, unusually thin, but men. Then Bart amended that mentally. The Lhari had two arms, two legs and a head apiece—they were that much like men. Their faces had two eyes, two ears, and a nose and mouth, all in the right places. But the similarity ended there.
They had skin of a curious pale silvery gray, and pale, pure-white hair rising in what looked like a feathery crest. The eyes were long and slanting, the forehead high and narrow, the nose delicately thin and chiseled with long vertically slit nostrils, the ears long, pointed and lobeless. The mouth looked almost human, though the chin was abnormally pointed. The hands would almost have passed inspection as human hands—except for the long, triangular nails curved over the fingertips like the claws of a cat. They wore skin-tight clothes of some metallic silky stuff, and long flowing gleaming silvery capes. They looked unearthly, elfin and strange, and in their own way they were beautiful.
The two Lhari in front of Bart had been talking softly, in their fast twittering speech; but as the hum of the crowds on the upper levels grew louder, they raised their voices, and Bart could hear what they were saying. He was a little surprised to find that he could still understand the Lhari language. He hadn't heard a word of it in years—not since his Mentorian mother died. The Lhari would never guess that he could understand their speech. Not one human in a million could speak or understand a dozen words of Lhari, except the Mentorians.
"Do you really think that human—" the first Lhari spoke the word as if it were a filthy insult—"will have the temerity to come in by this ship?"
"No reasonable being can tell what humans will do," said the second Lhari. "But then, no reasonable being can tell what our own Port Authorities will do either! If the message had only reached us sooner, it would have been easier. Now I suppose it will have to clear through a dozen officials and a dozen different kinds of formalities."
The younger Lhari sounded angry. "And we have only a description—no name, nothing! How do they expect us to do anything under those conditions? What I can't understand is how it ever happened, or how the man managed to get away. What worries me is the possibility that he may have communicated with others we don't know about. Those bungling fools who let the first man get away can't even be sure—"
"Do not speak of it here," said the old Lhari sharply. "There are Mentorians in the crowd who might understand us." He turned and looked straight at Bart, and Bart felt as if the slanted strange eyes were looking right through to his bones. The Lhari said, in Universal, "Who are you, boy? What iss your businesssses here?"
Bart replied in the same language, politely, "My father's coming in on this ship. I'm looking for the information desk."
"Up there," said the old Lhari, pointing with a clawed hand, and lost interest in Bart. He said to his companion, in their own language, "Always, I regret these episodes. I have no malice against humans. I suppose even this Vegan that we are seeking has young, and a mate, who will regret his loss."
"Then he should not have pried into Lhari matters," said the younger Lhari fiercely. "If they'd killed him right away—"
The soaring staircase swooped up to the top level; the two Lhari stepped off and mingled swiftly with the crowd, being lost to sight. Bart whistled in dismay as he got off and turned toward the information desk. A Vegan! Some poor guy from his own planet was in trouble with the Lhari. He felt a cold, crawling chill down his insides. The Lhari had spoken regretfully, but the way they'd speak of a fly they couldn't manage to swat fast enough. Sooner or later you had to get down to it, they just weren't human!
Here on Earth, nothing much could happen, of course. They wouldn't let the Lhari hurt anyone—then Bart remembered his course in Universal Law. The Lhari spaceport in every system, by treaty, was Lhari territory. Once you walked beneath the lightning-flash sign, the authority of the planet ceased to function; you might as well be on that unbelievably remote world in another galaxy that was the Lhari home planet—that world no human had ever seen. On a Lhari spaceport, or on a Lhari ship, you were under the jurisdiction of Lhari law.
Tommy stepped off a moving stair and joined him. "The ship's on time—it reported past Luna City a few minutes ago. I'm thirsty—how about a drink?"
There was a refreshment stand on this level; they debated briefly between orange juice and a drink with a Lhari name that meant simply cold sweet, and finally decided to try it. The name proved descriptive; it was very cold, very sweet and indescribably delicious.
"Does this come from the Lhari world, I wonder?"
"I imagine it's synthetic," Bart said.
"I suppose it won't hurt us?"
Bart laughed. "They wouldn't serve it to us if it would. No, men and Lhari are alike in a lot of ways. They breathe the same air. Eat about the same food." Their bodies were adjusted to about the same gravity. They had the same body chemistry—in fact, you couldn't tell Lhari blood from human, even under a microscope. And in the terrible Orion Spaceport wreck sixty years ago, doctors had found that blood plasma from humans could be used for wounded Lhari, and vice versa, though it wasn't safe to transfuse whole blood. But then, even among humans there were five blood types.
And yet, for all their likeness, they were different.
Bart sipped the cold Lhari drink, seeing himself in the mirror behind the refreshment stand; a tall teen-ager, looking older than his seventeen years. He was lithe and well muscled from five years of sports and acrobatics at the Space Academy, he had curling red hair and gray eyes, and he was almost as tall as a Lhari.
Will Dad know me? I was just a little kid when he left me here, and now I'm grown-up.
Tommy grinned at him in the mirror. "What are you going to do, now we've finished our so-called education?"
"What do you think? Go back to Vega with Dad, by Lhari ship, and help him run Vega Interplanet. Why else would I bother with all that astrogation and math?"
"You're the lucky one, with your father owning a dozen ships! He must be almost as rich as the Lhari."
Bart shook his head. "It's not that easy. Space travel inside a system these days is small stuff; all the real travel and shipping goes to the Lhari ships."
It was a sore point with everyone. Thousands of years ago, men had spread out from Earth—first to the planets, then to the nearer stars, crawling in ships that could travel no faster than the speed of light. They had even believed that was an absolute limit—that nothing in the universe could exceed the speed of light. It took years to go from Earth to the nearest star.
But they'd done it. From the nearer stars, they had sent out colonizing ships all through the galaxy. Some vanished and were never heard from again, but some made it, and in a few centuries man had spread all over hundreds of star-systems.
And then man met the people of the Lhari.
It was a big universe, with measureless millions of stars, and plenty of room for more than two intelligent civilizations. It wasn't surprising that the Lhari, who had only been traveling space for a couple of thousand years themselves, had never come across humans before. But they had been delighted to meet another intelligent race—and it was extremely profitable.
Because men were still held, mostly, to the planets of their own star-systems. Ships traveling between the stars by light-drive were rare and ruinously expensive. But the Lhari had the warp-drive, and almost overnight the whole picture changed. By warp-drive, hundreds of times faster than light at peak, the years-long trip between Vega and Earth, for instance, was reduced to about three months, at a price anyone could pay. Mankind could trade and travel all over their galaxy, but they did it on Lhari ships. The Lhari had an absolute, unbreakable monopoly on star travel.
"That's what hurts," Tommy said. "It wouldn't do us any good to have the star-drive. Humans can't stand faster-than-light travel, except in cold-sleep."
Bart nodded. The Lhari ships traveled at normal speeds, like the regular planetary ships, inside each star-system. Then, at the borders of the vast gulf of emptiness between stars, they went into warp-drive; but first, every human on board was given the cold-sleep treatment that placed them in suspended animation, allowing their bodies to endure the warp-drive.
He finished his drink. The increasing bustle in the crowds below them told him that time must be getting short. A tall, impressive-looking Lhari strode through the crowd, followed at a respectful distance by two Mentorians, tall, redheaded humans wearing metallic cloaks like those of the Lhari. Tommy nudged Bart, his face bitter.
"Look at those lousy Mentorians! How can they do it? Fawning upon the Lhari that way, yet they're as human as we are! Slaves of the Lhari!"
Bart felt the involuntary surge of anger, instantly controlled. "It's not that way at all. My mother was a Mentorian, remember. She made five cruises on a Lhari ship before she married my father."
Tommy sighed. "I guess I'm just jealous—to think the Mentorians can sign on the Lhari ship as crew, while you and I will never pilot a ship between the stars. What did she do?"
"She was a mathematician. Before the Lhari met up with men, they used a system of mathematics as clumsy as the old Roman numerals. You have to admire them, when you realize that they learned stellar navigation with their old system, though most ships use human math now. And of course, you know their eyes aren't like ours. Among other things, they're color-blind. They see everything in shades of black or white or gray.
"So they found out that humans aboard their ships were useful. You remember how humans, in the early days in space, used certain birds, who were more sensitive to impure air than they were. When the birds keeled over, they could tell it was time for humans to start looking over the air systems! The Lhari use Mentorians to identify colors for them. And, since Mentor was the first planet of humans that the Lhari had contact with, they've always been closer to them."
Tommy looked after the two Mentorians enviously. "The fact is, I'd ship out with the Lhari myself if I could. Wouldn't you?"
Bart's mouth twisted in a wry smile. "No," he said. "I could—I'm half Mentorian, I can even speak Lhari."
"Why don't you? I would."
"Oh, no, you wouldn't," Bart said softly. "Not even very many Mentorians will. You see, the Lhari don't trust humans too much. In the early days, men were always planting spies on Lhari ships, to try and steal the secret of warp-drive. They never managed it, but nowadays the Lhari give all the Mentorians what amounts to a brainwashing—deep hypnosis, before and after every voyage, so that they can neither look for anything that might threaten the Lhari monopoly of space, nor reveal it—even under a truth drug—if they find it out.
"You have to be pretty fanatical about space travel to go through that. Oh, my mother could tell us a lot of things about her cruises with the Lhari. The Lhari can't tell a diamond from a ruby, except by spectrographic analysis, for instance. And she—"
A high gong note sounded somewhere, touching off an explosion of warning bells and buzzers all over the enormous building. Bart looked up.
"The ship must be coming in to land."
"I'd better check into the passenger side," Tommy said. He stuck out his hand. "Well, Bart, I guess this is where we say good-bye."
They shook hands, their eyes meeting for a moment in honest grief. In some indefinable way, this parting marked the end of their boyhood.
"Good luck, Tom. I'm going to miss you."
They wrung each other's hands again, hard. Then Tommy picked up his luggage and started down a sloping ramp toward an enclosure marked TO PASSENGER ENTRANCE.
Warning bells rang again. The glare intensified until the glow in the sky was unendurable, but Bart looked anyhow, making out the strange shape of the Lhari ship from the stars.
It was huge and strange, glowing with colors Bart had never seen before. It settled down slowly, softly: enormous, silent, vibrating, glowing; then swiftly faded to white-hot, gleaming blue, dulling down through the visible spectrum to red. At last it was just gleaming glassy Lhari-metal color again. High up in the ship's side a yawning gap slid open, extruding stairsteps, and men and Lhari began to descend.
Bart ran down a ramp and surged out on the field with the crowd. His eyes, alert for his father's tall figure, noted with surprise that the ship's stairs were guarded by four cloaked Lhari, each with a Mentorian interpreter. They were stopping each person who got off the starship, asking for identity papers. Bart realized he was seeing another segment of the same drama he had overheard discussed, and wished he knew what it was all about.
The crowd was thinning now. Robotcabs were swerving in, hovering above the ground to pick up passengers, then veering away. The gap in the starship's side was closing, and still Bart had not seen the tall, slim, flame-haired figure of his father. The port on the other side of the ship, he knew, was for loading passengers. Bart moved carefully through the thinning crowd, almost to the foot of the stairs. One of the Lhari checking papers stopped and fixed him with an inscrutable gray stare, but finally turned away again.
Bart began really to worry. Captain Steele would never miss his ship! But he saw only one disembarking passenger who had not yet been surrounded by a group of welcoming relatives, or summoned a robotcab and gone. The man was wearing Vegan clothes, but he wasn't Bart's father. He was a fat little man, with ruddy cheeks and a fringe of curling gray hair all around his bald dome. Maybe he'd know if there was another Vegan on the ship.
Then Bart realized that the little fat man was staring straight at him. He returned the man's smile, rather hesitantly; then blinked, for the fat man was coming straight toward him.
"Hello, Son," the fat man said loudly. Then, as two of the Lhari started toward him, the strange man did an incredible thing. He reached out his two hands and grabbed Bart.
"Well, boy, you've sure grown," he said, in a loud, cheerful voice, "but you're not too grown-up to give your old Dad a good hug, are you?" He pulled Bart roughly into his arms. Bart started to pull away and stammer that the fat man had made a mistake, but the pudgy hand gripped his wrist with unexpected strength.
"Bart, listen to me," the stranger whispered, in a harsh fast voice. "Go along with this or we're both dead. See those two Lhari watching us? Call me Dad, good and loud, if you want to live. Because, believe me, your life's in danger—right now!"
For a moment, pulled off balance in the fat stranger's hug, Bart remained perfectly still, while the man repeated in that loud, jovial voice, "How you've grown!" He let him go, stepping away a pace or two, and whispered urgently, "Say something. And take that stupid look off your face."
As he stepped back, Bart saw his eyes. In the chubby, good-natured red face, the stranger's eyes were half-mad with fear.
In a split second, Bart remembered the two Lhari and their talk of a fugitive. In that moment, Bart Steele grew up.
He stepped toward the man and took him quickly by the shoulders.
"Dad, you sure surprised me," he said, trying to keep his voice from shaking. "Been such a long time, I'd—half forgotten what you looked like. Have a good trip?"
"About like always." The fat man was breathing hard, but his voice sounded firm and cheerful. "Can't compare with a trip on the old Asterion though." The Asterion was the flagship of Vega Interplanet, Rupert Steele's own ship. "How's everything?"
Beads of sweat were standing out on the man's ruddy forehead, and his grip on Bart's wrist was so hard it hurt. Bart, grasping at random for something to say, gabbled, "Too bad you couldn't get to my graduation. I made th-third in a class of four hundred—"
The Lhari had surrounded them and were closing in.
The fat man took a deep breath or two, said, "Just a minute, Son," and turned around. "You want something?"
The tallest of the Lhari—the old one, whom Bart had seen on the escalator—looked long and hard at him. When they spoke Universal, their voices were sibilant, but not nearly so inhuman.
"Could we trrrouble you to sssshow us your paperrrssss?"
"Certainly." Nonchalantly, the fat man dug them out and handed them over. Bart saw his father's name printed across the top.
The Lhari gestured to a Mentorian interpreter: "What colorrr isss thisss man's hairrr?"
The Mentorian said in the Lhari language, "His hair is gray." He used the Universal word; there were, of course, no words for colors in the Lhari speech.
"The man we sssseek has hair of red," said the Lhari. "And he isss tall, not fat."
"The boy is tall and with red hair," the Mentorian volunteered, and the old Lhari made a gesture of disdain.
"This boy is twenty years younger than the man whose description came to us. Why did they not give us a picture or at least a name?" He turned to the other Lhari and said in their own shrill speech, "I suspected this man because he was alone. And I had seen this boy on the upper mezzanine and spoken with him. We watched him, knowing sooner or later the father would seek him. Ask him." He gestured and the Mentorian said, "Who is this man, you?"
Bart gulped. For the first time he noted the energon-ray shockers at the belts of the four Lhari. He'd heard about those. They could stun—or they could kill, and quite horribly. He said, "This is my father. You want my cards, too?" He hauled out his identity papers. "My name's Bart Steele."
The Lhari, with a gesture of disgust, handed them back. "Go, then, father and son," he said, not unkindly.
"Let's get going, Son," said the little bald man. His hand shook on Bart's, and Bart thought, If we're lucky, we can get out of the port before he faints dead away. He said "I'll get a copter," and then, feeling sorry for the stranger, gave him his arm to lean on. He didn't know whether he was worried or scared. Where was his father? Why did this man have his dad's papers? Was his father hiding inside the Lhari ship? He wanted to run, to burst away from the imposter, but the guy was shaking so hard Bart couldn't just leave him standing there. If the Lhari got him, he was a dead duck.
A copter swooped down, the pilot signaling. The little man said hoarsely, "No. Robotcab."
Bart waved the copter away, getting a dirty look from the pilot, and punched a button at the stand for one of the unmanned robotcabs. It swung down, hovered motionless. Bart boosted the fat man in. Inside, the man collapsed on the seat, leaning back, puffing, his hand pressed hard to his chest.
"Punch a combo for Denver," he said hoarsely.
Bart obeyed, automatically. Then he turned on the man.
"It's your game, mister! Now tell me what's going on? Where's my father?"
The man's eyes were half-shut. He said, gasping, "Don't ask me any questions for a minute." He thumbed a tablet into his mouth, and presently his breathing quieted.
"We're safe—for the minute. Those Lhari would have cut us down."
"You, maybe. I haven't done anything. Look, you," Bart said in sudden rage, "you owe me some explanations. For all I know, you're a criminal and the Lhari have every right to chase you! Why have you got my father's papers? Did you steal them to get away from the Lhari? Where's my father?"
"It's your father they were looking for, you young fool," said the man, gasping hard. "Lucky they had only a description and not a name—but they've probably got that by now, uncoded. We've only confused them for a little while. But if you hadn't played along, they'd have had you watched, and when they get hold of the name Steele—they will, sooner or later, the people in the Procyon system—"
"Where is my father?"
"I hope I don't know," the fat man said. "If he's still where I left him, he's dead. My name is Briscoe. Edmund Briscoe. Your father saved my life years ago, never mind how. The less you know, the safer you'll be for a while. His major worry just now is about you. He was afraid, if he didn't turn up here, you'd take the first ship back to Vega. So he gave me his papers and sent me to warn you—"
Bart shook his head. "It all sounds phony as can be. How do I know whether to believe you or not?" His hand hovered over the robotcab controls. "We're going straight to the police. If you're okay, they won't turn you over to the Lhari. If you're not—"
"You young fool," said the fat man, with feeble violence, "there's no time for all that! Ask me questions—I can prove I know your father!"
"What was my mother's name?"
"Oh, God," Briscoe said, "I never saw her. I knew your father long before you were born. Until he told me, I never knew he'd married or had a son. I'd never have known you, except that you're the living image—" He shook his head helplessly, and his breathing sounded hoarse.
"Bart, I'm a sick man, I'm going to die. I want to do what I came here to do, because your father saved my life once when I was young and healthy, and gave me twenty good years before I got old and fat and sick. Win or lose, I won't live to see you hunted down like a dog, like my own son—"
"Don't talk like that," Bart said, a creepy feeling coming over him. "If you're sick, let me take you to a doctor."
Briscoe did not even hear. "Wait, there is something else. Your father said, 'Tell Bart I've gone looking for the Eighth Color. Bart will know what I mean.'"
"That's crazy. I don't know—"
He broke off, for the memory had come, full-blown:
He was very young: five, six, seven. His mother, tall and slender and very fair, was bending over a blueprint, pointing with a delicate finger at something, straightening, saying in her light musical voice:
"The fuel catalyst—it's a strange color, a color you never saw anywhere. Can you think of a color that isn't red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, indigo or some combination of them? It isn't any of the colors of the spectrum at all. The fuel is a real eighth color."
And his father had used the phrase, almost adopted it. "When we know what the eighth color is, we'll have the secret of the star-drive, too!"
Briscoe saw his face change, nodded weakly. "I see it means something to you. Now will you do as I tell you? Within a couple of hours, they'll be combing the planet for you, but by that time the ship I came in on will have taken off again. They only stop a short time here, for mail, passengers—no cargo. They may get under way again before all messages are cleared and decoded." He stopped and breathed hard. "The Earth authorities might protect you, but you would never be able to board a Lhari ship again—and that would mean staying on Earth for the rest of your life. You've got to get away before they start comparing notes. Here." His hand went into his pockets. "For your hair. It's a dye—a spray."
He pressed a button on the bulb in his hand; Bart gasped, feeling cold wetness on his head. His own hand came away stained black.
"Keep still." Briscoe said irritably. "You'll need it at the Procyon end of the run. Here." He stuck some papers into Bart's hand, then punched some buttons on the robotcab's control. It wheeled and swerved so rapidly that Bart fell against the fat man's shoulder.
"Are you crazy? What are you going to do?"
Briscoe looked straight into Bart's eyes. In his hoarse, sick voice, he said, "Bart, don't worry about me. It's all over for me, whatever happens. Just remember this. What your father is doing is worth doing, and if you start stalling, arguing, demanding explanations, you can foul up a hundred people—and kill about half of them."
He closed Bart's fingers roughly over the papers. The robotcab hovered over the spaceport. "Now listen to me, very carefully. When I stop the cab, down below, jump out. Don't stop to say good-bye, or ask questions, or anything else. Just get out, walk straight through the passenger door and straight up the ramp of the ship. Show them that ticket, and get on. Whatever happens, don't let anything stop you. Bart!" Briscoe shook his shoulder. "Promise! Whatever happens, you'll get on that ship!"
Bart swallowed, feeling as if he'd been shoved into a silly cops-and-robbers game. But Briscoe's urgency had convinced him. "Where am I going?"
"All I have is a name—Raynor Three," Briscoe said, "and the message about the Eighth Color. That's all I know." His mouth twisted again in that painful gasp.
The cab swooped down. Bart found his voice. "But what then? Is Dad there? Will I know—"
"I don't know any more than I've told you," Briscoe said. Abruptly the robotcab came to a halt, swaying a little. Briscoe jerked the door open, gave Bart a push, and Bart found himself stumbling out on the ramp beside the spaceport building. He caught his balance, looked around, and realized that the robotcab was already climbing the sky again.
Immediately before him, neon letters spelled TO PASSENGER ENTRANCE ONLY. Bart stumbled forward. The Lhari by the gate thrust out a disinterested claw. Bart held up what Briscoe had shoved into his hand, only now seeing that it was a thin wallet, a set of identity papers and a strip of pink tickets.
"Procyon Alpha. Corridor B, straight through." The Lhari gestured, and Bart went through the narrow passageway, came out at the other end, and found himself at the very base of a curving stair that led up and up toward a door in the side of the huge Lhari ship. Bart hesitated. In another minute he'd be on his way to a strange sun and a strange world, on what might well be the wild-goose chase of all time.
Passengers were crowding the steps behind him. Someone shouted suddenly, "Look at that!" and someone else yelled, "Is that guy crazy?"
Bart looked up. A robotcab was swooping over the spaceport in wild, crazy circles, dipping down, suddenly making a dart like an enraged wasp at a little nest of Lhari. They ducked and scattered; the robotcab swerved away, hovered, swooped back. This time it struck one of the Lhari grazingly with landing gear and knocked him sprawling. Bart stood with his mouth open, as if paralyzed.
Briscoe! What was he doing?
The fallen Lhari lay without moving. The robotcab moved in again, as if for the kill, buzzing viciously overhead.
Then a beam of light arced from one of the drawn energon-ray tubes. The robotcab glowed briefly red, then seemed to sag, sink together; then puddled, a slag heap of molten metal, on the glassy floor of the port. A little moan of horror came from the crowd, and Bart felt a sudden, wrenching sickness. It had been like a game, a silly game of cops and robbers, and suddenly it was as serious as melted death lying there on the spaceport. Briscoe!
Someone shoved him and said, "Come on, quit gawking, kid. They won't hold the ship all day just because some nut finds a new way to commit suicide."
Bart, his legs numb, walked up the ramp. Briscoe had died to give him this chance. Now it was up to him to make it worth having.
At the top of the ramp, a Lhari glanced briefly at his papers, motioned him through. Bart passed through the airlock, and into a brightly lit corridor half full of passengers. The line was moving slowly, and for the first time Bart had a chance to think.
He had never seen violent death before. In this civilized world, you didn't. He knew if he thought about Briscoe, he'd start bawling like a baby, so he swallowed hard a couple of times, set his chin, and concentrated on the trip to Procyon Alpha. That meant this ship was outbound on the Aldebaran run—Proxima Centauri, Sirius, Pollux, Procyon, Capella and Aldebaran.
The line of passengers was disappearing through a doorway. A woman ahead of Bart turned and said nervously, "We won't be put into cold-sleep right away, will we?"
He reassured her, remembering his inbound trip five years ago. "No, no. The ship won't go into warp-drive until we're well past Pluto. It will be several days, at least."
Beyond the doorway the lights dwindled, and a Mentorian interpreter took his dark glasses, saying, "Kindly remove your belt, shoes and other accessories of leather or metal before stepping into the decontamination chamber. They will be separately decontaminated and returned to you. Papers, please."
With a small twinge of fright, Bart surrendered them. Would the Mentorian ask why he was carrying two wallets? Inside the other one, he still had his Academy ID card which identified him as Bart Steele, and if the Mentorian looked through them to check, and found out he was carrying two sets of identity papers....
But the Mentorian merely dumped all his pocket paraphernalia, without looking at it, into a sack. "Just step through here."
Holding up his trousers with both hands, Bart stepped inside the indicated cubicle. It was filled with faint bluish light. Bart felt a strong tingling and a faint electrical smell, and along his forearms there was a slight prickling where the small hairs were all standing on end. He knew that the invisible R-rays were killing all the microorganisms in his body, so that no disease germ or stray fungus would be carried from planet to planet.
The bluish light died. Outside, the Mentorian gave him back his shoes and belt, handed him the paper sack of his belongings, and a paper cup full of greenish fluid.
"What is it?"
The medic said patiently, "Remember, the R-rays killed all the microorganisms in your body, including the good ones—the antibodies that protect you against disease, and the small yeasts and bacteria that live in your intestines and help in the digestion of your food. So we have to replace those you need to stay healthy. See?"
The green stuff tasted a little brackish, but Bart got it down all right. He didn't much like the idea of drinking a solution of "germs," but he knew that was silly. There was a big difference between disease germs and helpful bacteria.
Another Mentorian official, this one a young woman, gave him a key with a numbered tag, and a small booklet with WELCOME ABOARD printed on the cover.
The tag was numbered 246-B, which made Bart raise his eyebrows. B class was normally too expensive for Bart's father's modest purse. It wasn't quite the luxury class A, reserved for planetary governors and ambassadors, but it was plenty luxurious. Briscoe had certainly sent him traveling in style!
B Deck was a long corridor with oval doors; Bart found one numbered 246, and, not surprisingly, the key opened it. It was a pleasant little cabin, measuring at least six feet by eight, and he would evidently have it to himself. There was a comfortably big bunk, a light that could be turned on and off instead of the permanent glow-walls of the cheaper class, a private shower and toilet, and a placard on the walls informing him that passengers in B class had the freedom of the Observation Dome and the Recreation Lounge. There was even a row of buttons dispensing synthetic foods, in case a passenger preferred privacy or didn't want to wait for meals in the dining hall.
A buzzer sounded and a Mentorian voice announced, "Five minutes to Room Check. Passengers will please remove all metal in their clothing, and deposit in the lead drawers. Passengers will please recline in their bunks and fasten the retaining straps before the steward arrives. Repeat, passengers will please...."
Bart took off his belt, stuck it and his cuff links in the drawer and lay down. Then, in a sudden panic, he got up again. His papers as Bart Steele were still in the sack. He got them out, and with a feeling as if he were crossing a bridge and burning it after him, tore up every scrap of paper that identified him as Bart Steele of Vega Four, graduate of the Space Academy of Earth. Now, for better or worse, he was—who was he? He hadn't even looked at the new papers Briscoe had given him!
He glanced through them quickly. They were made out to David Warren Briscoe, of Aldebaran Four. According to them, David Briscoe was twenty years old, hair black, eyes hazel, height six foot one inch. Bart wondered, painfully, if Briscoe had a son and if David Briscoe knew where his father was. There was also a license, validated with four runs on the Aldebaran Intrasatellite Cargo Company—planetary ships—with the rank of Apprentice Astrogator; and a considerable sum of money.
Bart put the papers in his pants pocket and the torn-up scraps of his old ones into the trashbin before he realized that they looked exactly like what they were—torn-up legal identity papers and a broken plastic card. Nobody destroyed identity papers for any good reason. What could he do?
Then he remembered something from the Academy. Starships were closed-system cycles, no waste was discarded, but everything was collected in big chemical tanks, broken down to separate elements, purified and built up again into new materials. He threw the paper into the toilet, worked the plastic card back and forth, back and forth until he had wrenched it into inch-wide bits, and threw it after them.
The cabin door opened and a Mentorian said irritably, "Please lie down and fasten your straps. I haven't all day."
Hastily Bart flushed the toilet and went to the bunk. Now everything that could identify him as Bart Steele was on its way to the breakdown tanks. Before long, the complex hydrocarbons and cellulose would all be innocent little molecules of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen; they might turn up in new combinations as sugar on the table!
The Mentorian grumbled, "You young people think the rules mean everybody but you," and strapped him far too tightly into the bunk. Bart felt resentful; just because Mentorians could work on Lhari ships, did they have to act as if they owned everybody?
When the man had gone, Bart drew a deep breath. Was he really doing the right thing?
If he'd refused to get out of the robotcab—
If he'd driven Briscoe straight to the police—
Then maybe Briscoe would still be alive. And now it was too late.
A warning siren went off in the ship, rising to hysterical intensity. Bart thought, incredulously, this is really happening. It felt like a nightmare. His father a fugitive from the Lhari. Briscoe dead. He himself traveling, with forged papers, to a star he'd never seen.
He braced himself, knowing the siren was the last warning before takeoff. First there would be the hum of great turbines deep in the ship, then the crushing surge of acceleration. He had made a dozen trips inside the solar system, but no matter how often he did it, there was the strange excitement, the little pinpoint of fear, like an exotic taste, that was almost pleasant.
The door opened and Bart grabbed a fistful of bed-ticking as two Lhari came into the room.
One of them said, in their strange shrill speech, "This boy is the right age."
"You're seeing spies in every corner, Ransell," said the other, then in Universal, "Could we trrouble you for your paperesses, sirr?"
Bart, strapped down and helpless, moved his head toward the drawer, hoping his face did not betray his fear. He watched the two Lhari riffle through his papers with their odd pointed claws.
"What isss your planet?"
Bart bit his lip, hard—he had almost said, "Vega Four."
The Lhari said in his own language, "We should have Margil in here. He actually saw them."
The other replied, "But I saw the machine that disintegrated. I still say there was enough protoplasm residue for two bodies."
Bart fought to keep his face perfectly straight.
"Did anyone come into your cabin?" The Lhari asked in Universal.
"Only the steward. Why? Is something wrong?"
"There iss some thought that a stowaway might be on boarrd. Of courrrse we could not allow that, anyone not prrroperly prrotected would die in the first shift into warp-drive."
"Just the steward," Bart said again. "A Mentorian."
The Lhari said, eying him keenly, "You are ill? Or discommoded?"
Bart grasped at random for an excuse. "That—that stuff the medic made me drink made me feel—sort of sick."
"You may send for a medical officer after acceleration," said the Lhari expressionlessly. "The summoning bell is at your left."
They turned and went out and Bart gulped. Lhari, in person, checking the passenger decks! Normally you never saw one on board; just Mentorians. The Lhari treated humans as if they were too dumb to bother about. Well, at least for once someone was acting as if humans were worthy antagonists. We'll show them—someday!
But he felt very alone, and scared....
A low hum rose, somewhere in the ship, and Bart grabbed ticking as he felt the slow surge. Then a violent sense of pressure popped his ear drums, weight crowded down on him like an elephant sitting on his chest, and there was a horrible squashed sensation dragging his limbs out of shape. It grew and grew. Bart lay still and sweated, trying to ease his uncomfortable position, unable to move so much as a finger. The Lhari ships hit 12 gravities in the first surge of acceleration. Bart felt as if he were spreading out, under the weight, into a puddle of flesh—melted flesh like Briscoe's—
Bart writhed and bit his lip till he could taste blood, wishing he were young enough to bawl out loud.
Abruptly, it eased, and the blood started to flow again in his numbed limbs. Bart loosened his straps, took a few deep breaths, wiped his face—wringing wet, whether with sweat or tears he wasn't sure—and sat up in his bunk. The loudspeaker announced, "Acceleration One is completed. Passengers on A and B Decks are invited to witness the passing of the Satellites from the Observation Lounge in half an hour."
Bart got up and washed his face, remembering that he had no luggage with him, not so much as a toothbrush.
At the back of his mind, packed up in a corner, was the continuing worry about his father, the horror at Briscoe's ghastly death, the fear of the Lhari; but he slammed the lid firmly on them all. For the moment he was safe. They might be looking for Bart Steele by now, but they weren't looking for David Briscoe of Aldebaran. He might just as well relax and enjoy the trip. He went down to the Observation Lounge.
It had been darkened, and one whole wall of the room was made of clear quartzite. Bart drew a deep breath as the vast panorama of space opened out before him.
They were receding from the sun at some thousands of miles a minute. Swirling past the ship, gleaming in the reflected sunlight like iron filings moving to the motion of a magnet, were the waves upon waves of cosmic dust—tiny free electrons, ions, particles of gas; free of the heavier atmosphere, themselves invisible, they formed in their billions into bright clouds around the ship; pale, swirling veils of mist. And through their dim shine, the brilliant flares of the fixed stars burned clear and steady, so far away that even the hurling motion of the ship could not change their positions.
One by one he picked out the constellations. Aldebaran swung on the pendant chain of Taurus like a giant ruby. Orion strode across the sky, a swirling nebula at his belt. Vega burned, cobalt blue, in the heart of the Lyre.
Colors, colors! Inside the atmosphere of Earth's night, the stars had been pale white sparks against black. Here, against the misty-pale swirls of cosmic dust, they burned with color heaped on color; the bloody burning crimson of Antares, the metallic gold of Capella, the sullen pulsing of Betelgeuse. They burned, each with its own inward flame and light, like handfuls of burning jewels flung by some giant hand upon the swirling darkness. It was a sight Bart felt he could watch forever and still be hungry to see; the never-changing, ever-changing colors of space.
* * * * *
Behind him in the darkness, after a long time, someone said softly, "Imagine being a Lhari and not being able to see anything out there but bright or brighter light."
A bell rang melodiously in the ship and the passengers in the lounge began to stir and move toward the door, to stretch limbs cramped like Bart's by tranced watching, to talk quickly of ordinary things.
"I suppose that bell means dinner," said a vaguely familiar voice at Bart's elbow. "Synthetics, I suppose, but at least we can all get acquainted."
The light from the undarkened hall fell on their faces as they moved toward the door. "Bart! Why, it can't be!"
In utter dismay, Bart looked down into the face of Tommy Kendron.
In the rush of danger, he had absolutely forgotten that Tommy Kendron was on this ship—to make his alias useless; Tommy was looking at him in surprise and delight.
"Why didn't you tell me, or did you and your father decide at the last minute? Hey, it's great that we can go part way together, at least!"
Bart knew he must cut this short very quickly. He stepped out into the full corridor light so that Tommy could see his black hair.
"I'm sorry, you're confusing me with someone else."
"Bart, come off it—" Tommy's voice died out. "Sorry, I'd have sworn you were a friend of mine."
Bart wondered suddenly, had he done the wrong thing? He had a feeling he might need a friend. Badly.
Well, it was too late now. He stared Tommy in the eye and said, "I've never seen you before in my life."
Tommy looked deflated. He stepped back slightly, shaking his head. "Never saw such a resemblance. Are you a Vegan?"
"No," Bart lied flatly. "Aldebaran. David Briscoe."
"Glad to know you, Dave." With undiscourageable friendliness, Tommy stuck out a hand. "Say, that bell means dinner, why don't we go down together? I don't know a soul on the ship, and it looks like luck—running into a fellow who could be my best friend's twin brother."
Bart felt warmed and drawn, but sensibly he knew he could not keep up the pretense. Sooner or later, he'd give himself away, use some habitual phrase or gesture Tommy would recognize.
Should he take a chance—reveal himself to Tommy and ask him to keep quiet? No. This wasn't a game. One man was already dead. He didn't want Tommy to be next.
There was only one way out. He said coldly, "thank you, but I have other things to attend to. I intend to be very busy all through the voyage." He spun on his heel and walked away before he could see Tommy's eager, friendly smile turn hurt and defensive.
Back in his cabin, he gloomily dialed some synthetic jellies, thinking with annoyance of the anticipated good food of the dining room. He knew he couldn't risk meeting Tommy again, and drearily resigned himself to staying in his cabin. It looked like an awfully boring trip ahead.
It was. It was a week before the Lhari ship went into warp-drive, and all that time Bart stayed in his cabin, not daring to go to the observation Lounge or dining hall. He got tired of eating synthetics (oh, they were nourishing enough, but they were altogether uninteresting) and tired of listening to the tapes the room steward got him from the ship's library. By the time they had been in space a week, he was so bored with his own company that even the Mentorian medic was a welcome sight when he came in to prepare him for cold-sleep.
Bart had had the best education on Earth, but he didn't know precisely how the Lhari warp-drive worked. He'd been told that only a few of the Lhari understood it, just as the man who flew a copter didn't need to understand Newton's Three Laws of Motion in order to get himself back and forth to work.
But he knew this much; when the ship generated the frequencies which accelerated it beyond the speed of light, in effect the ship went into a sort of fourth dimension, and came out of it a good many light-years away. As far as Bart knew, no human being had ever survived warp-drive except in the suspended animation which they called cold-sleep. While the medic was professionally reassuring him and strapping him in his bunk, Bart wondered what humans would do with the Lhari star-drive if they had it. Well, he supposed they could use automation in their ships.
The Mentorian paused, needle in hand. "Do you wish to be wakened for the week we shall spend in each of the Proxima, Sirius and Pollux systems, sir? You can, of course, be given enough drug to keep you in cold-sleep until we reach the Procyon system."
Bart wondered if the room steward had mentioned the passenger so bored with the trip that he didn't even visit the Observation Lounge. He felt tempted—he was getting awfully tired of staring at the walls. On the other hand, he wanted very much to see the other star-systems. When he passed through them on the trip to Earth, he'd been too young to pay much attention.
Firmly he put the temptation aside. Better not to risk meeting other passengers, Tommy especially, if he decided he couldn't take the boredom.
The needle went into his arm. He felt himself sinking into sleep, and, in sudden panic, realized that he was helpless. The ship would touch down on three worlds, and on any of them the Lhari might have his description, or his alias! He could be taken off, drugged and unconscious, and might never wake up! He tried to move, to protest, to tell them he was changing his mind, but already he was unable to speak. There was a freezing moment of intense, painful cold. Then he was floating in what felt like waves of cosmic dust, swirling many-colored before his eyes. And then there was nothing, no color, nothing at all except the nowhere night of sleep.
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
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?"
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.
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."
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."
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.
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."
"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.