Toward dusk, a young Lhari slipped unobserved out of Raynor's house and hiked unnoticed to the edges of a small city nearby, where he mingled with the crowd and hired a skycab from an unobservant human driver to take him to the spaceport city. The skycab driver was startled, but not, Bart judged, unusually so, to pick up a Lhari passenger.
"Been doing a little sight-seeing on our planet, hey?"
"That's right," Bart said in Universal, not trying to fake his idea of the Lhari accent. Raynor had told him that only a few of the Lhari had that characteristic sibilant "r" and "s" and warned him against trying to imitate it. Just speak naturally; there are dialects of Lhari, just as there are dialects of the different human languages, and they all sound different in Universal anyhow. "Just looking around some."
The skycab driver frowned and looked down at his controls, and Bart felt curiously snubbed. Then he remembered. He himself had little to say to the Lhari when they spoke to him.
He was an alien, a monster. He couldn't expect to be treated like a human being any more.
When the skycab let him off before the spaceport, it felt strange to see how the crowds edged away from him as he made a way through them. He caught a glimpse of himself in one of the mirror-ramps, a tall thin strange form in a metallic cloak, head crested with feathery white, and felt overwhelmingly homesick for his own familiar face.
He was beginning to feel hungry, and realized that he could not go into an ordinary restaurant without attracting attention. There were refreshment stands all over the spaceport, and he briefly considered getting a snack at one of these.
No, that was just putting it off. The time had to come when he must face his fear and test his disguise among the Lhari themselves. Reviewing his knowledge of the construction of spaceports, he remembered that one side was the terminal, where humans and visitors and passengers were freely admitted; the other side, for Lhari and their Mentorian employees only, contained—along with business offices of many sorts—a sort of arcade with amusement centers, shops and restaurants catering to the personnel of the Lhari ships. With nine or ten ships docking every day, Raynor had assured him that a strange Lhari face would be lost in the crowds very easily.
He went to one of the doors marked DANGER, LHARI LIGHTS BEYOND, and passed through the glaring corridor of offices and storage-warehouses, finally coming out into a sort of wide mall. The lights were fierce, but he could endure them without trouble now, though his head ached faintly. Raynor, testing his light tolerance, had assured him that he could endure anything the Lhari could, without permanent damage to his optic nerves, though he would have headaches until he got used to them.
There were small shops and what looked like bars, and a glass-fronted place with a sign lettered largely, in black letters, a Lhari phrase meaning roughly HOME AWAY FROM HOME: MEALS SERVED, SPACEMEN WELCOME, REASONABLE.
Behind him a voice said in Lhari, "Tell me, does that sign mean what it says? Or is this one of those traps for separating the unwary spaceman from his hard-earned credits? How's the food?"
Bart carefully took hold of himself.
"I was just wondering that myself." He turned as he spoke, finding himself face to face with a young Lhari in the unadorned cloak of a spaceman without official rank. He knew the Lhari was young because his crest was still white.
The young Lhari extended his claws in the closed-fist, hidden-claw gesture of Lhari greeting. "Shall we take a chance? Ringg son of Rahan greets you."
"Bartol son of Berihun."
"I don't remember seeing you in the port, Bartol."
"I've mostly worked on the Polaris run."
"Way off there?" Ringg son of Rahan sounded startled and impressed. "You really get around, don't you? Shall we sit here?"
They sat on triangular chairs at a three-cornered table. Bart waited for Ringg to order, and ordered what he did. When it came, it was a sort of egg-and-fish casserole which Bart found extremely tasty, and he dug into it with pleasure. Allowing for the claws, Lhari table manners were not so much different from human—and remember, their customs differ as much as ours do. If you do something differently, they'll just think you're from another planet with a different culture.
"Have you been here long?"
"A day or so. I'm off the Swiftwing."
Bart decided to hazard his luck. "I was told there's a vacancy on the Swiftwing."
Ringg looked at him curiously. "There is," he said, "but I'd like to know how you found it out. Captain Vorongil said that anyone who talked about it would be sent to Kleeto for three cycles. But what happened to you? Miss your ship?"
"No, I've just been laying off—traveling, sight-seeing, bumming around," Bart said. "But I'm tired of it, and now I'd like to sign out again."
"Well, we could use another man. This is the long run we're making, out to Antares and then home, and if everybody has to work extra shifts, it's no fun. But if old Vorongil knows that there's been talk in the port about Klanerol jumping ship, or whatever happened to him, we'll all have to walk wide of his temper."
Bart was beginning to relax a little; Ringg apparently accepted him without scrutiny. At this close range Ringg did not seem a monster, but just a young fellow like himself, hearty, good-natured—in fact, not unlike Tommy.
Bart chased the thought away as soon as it sneaked into his brain—one of those things, like Tommy? Then, rather grimly, he reminded himself, I'm one of those things. He said irritably, "So how do I account for asking your captain for the place?"
Ringg cocked his fluffy crest to one side. "I know," he said, "I told you. I'll say you're an old friend of mine. You don't know what Vorongil's like when he gets mad. But what he doesn't know, he won't shout about." He shoved back the triangular chair. "Who did tell you, anyway?"
This was the first real hurdle, and Bart's brain raced desperately, but Ringg was not listening for an answer. "I suppose somebody gossiped, or one of those fool Mentorians picked it up. Got your papers? What rating?"
"Astrogator first class."
"Klanerol was second, but you can't have everything, I suppose." Ringg led the way through the arcades, out across a guarded sector, passing half a dozen of the huge ships lying in their pits. Finally Ringg stopped and pointed. "This is the old hulk."
Bart had traveled only in Lhari passenger ships, which were new and fresh and sleek. This ship was enormous, ovoid like the egg of some space-monster, the sides dented and discolored, thin films of chemical discoloration lying over the glassy metallic hull.
Bart followed Ringg. This was real, it was happening. He was signing out for his first interstellar cruise on one of the Lhari ships. Not a Mentorian assistant, half-trusted, half-tolerated, but one of the crew themselves. If I'm lucky, he reminded himself grimly.
There was Lhari, in the black-banded officer's cloak, at the doorway. He glanced at Ringg's papers.
"Friend of mine," Ringg said, and Bart proffered his folder. The Lhari gave it a casual glance, handed it back.
"Old Baldy on board?" Ringg asked.
"Where else?" The officer laughed. "You don't think he'd relax with cargo not loaded, do you?"
They seemed casual and normal, and Bart's confidence was growing. They had accepted him as one of themselves. But the great ordeal still lay before him—an interview with the Lhari captain. And the idea had Bart sweating scared.
The corridors and decks seemed larger, wider, more spacious, but shabbier than on the clean, bright, commercial passenger decks Bart had seen. Dark-lensed men were rolling bales of cargo along on wheeled dollies. The corridors seemed endless. More to hear the sound of his own voice, and reassure himself of his ability to speak and be understood, than because he cared, he asked Ringg, "What's your rating?"
"Well, according to the logbooks, I'm an Expert Class Two, Metals-Fatigue," said Ringg. "That sounds very technical and interesting. But what it means is just that I go all over the ship inch by inch, and when I finish, start all over again at the other end. Most of what I do is just boss around the maintenance crews and snarl at them about spots of rust on the paint."
They got into a small round elevator and Ringg punched buttons; it began to rise, slowly and creakily, toward the top. "This, for instance," Ringg said. "I've been yelling for a new cable for six months." He turned. "Take it easy, Bartol; don't let Vorongil scare you. He likes to hear the sound of his own voice, but we'd all walk out the lock without spacesuits for him."
The elevator slid to a stop. The sign in Lhari letters said Level of Administration—Officers' Deck. Ringg pushed at a door and said, "Captain Vorongil?"
"I thought you were on leave," said a Lhari voice, deeper and slower than most. "What are you doing, back here more than ten milliseconds before strap-in checks?"
Ringg stepped back for Bart to go inside. The small cabin, with an elliptical bunk slung from the ceiling and a triangular table, was dwarfed by a tall, thin Lhari, in a cloak with four of the black bands that seemed to denote rank among them. He had a deeply lined face with a lacework of tiny wrinkles around the slanted eyes. His crest was not the high, fluffy white of a young Lhari, but broken short near the scalp, grayish pink showing through, the little feathery ends yellowed with age. He growled, "Come in then, don't stand there. I suppose Ringg's told you what a tyrant I am? What do you want, feathertop?"
Bart remembered being told that this was the Lhari equivalent of "Kid" or "Youngster." He fumbled in the capacious folds of his cloak for his papers. His voice sounded shrill, even to himself.
"Bartol son of Berihun in respectful greeting, rieko mori." ("Honorable old-bald-one," the Lhari equivalent of "sir.") "Ringg told me there is a vacancy among the Astrogators, and I want to sign out."
Unmistakably, Vorongil's snort was laughter.
"So you've been talking, Ringg?"
Ringg retorted, "Better that I tell one man than that you have to hunt the planet over—or run the long haul with the drive-room watches short by one man."
"Well, well, you're right," Vorongil growled. He glared at Bart. "On the last planet, one of our men disappeared. Jumped ship!" The creases around his eyes deepened, troubled. "Probably just gone on the drift, sight-seeing, but I wish he'd told me. As it is, I wonder if he's been hurt, killed, kidnaped."
Ringg said, "Who'd dare? It would be reported."
Bart knew, with a cold chill, that the missing Klanerol had not simply gone "on the drift." No Lhari port would ever see Klanerol, Second Class Astrogator, again.
"Bartol," mused the captain, riffling the forged papers. "Served on the Polaris run. Hm—you are a good long way off your orbit, aren't you? Never been out that way myself. All right, I'll take you on. You can do system programming? Good. Rating in Second Galaxy mathematics?"
He nodded, hauled out a sheet of thin, wax-coated fabric and his claws made rapid imprints in the surface. He passed it to Bart, pointed. Bart hesitated, and Vorongil said impatiently, "Standard agreement, no hidden clauses. Put your mark on it, feathertop."
Bart realized it was something like a fingerprint they wanted. You'll pass anything but X-rays. He pressed the top of one claw into the wax. Vorongil nodded, shoved it on a shelf without looking at it.
"So much for that," said Ringg, laughing, as they came out. "The Bald One was in a good temper. I'm going to the port and celebrate, not that this dim place is very festive. You?"
"I—I think I'll stay aboard."
"Well, if you change your mind, I'll be down there somewhere," Ringg said. "See you later, shipmate." He raised his closed fist in farewell, and went.
Bart stood in the corridor, feeling astounded and strange. He belonged here! He had a right to be on board the ship! He wasn't quite sure what to do next.
A Lhari, as short and fat as a Lhari could possibly be and still be a Lhari, came or rather waddled out of the captain's office. He saw Bartol and called, "Are you the new First Class? I'm Rugel, coordinator."
Rugel had a huge cleft darkish scar across his lip, and there were two bands on his cloak. He was completely bald, and he puffed when he walked. "Vorongil asked me to show you around. You'll share quarters with Ringg—no sense shifting another man. Come down and see the chart rooms—or do you want to leave your kit in your cabin first?"
"I don't have much," Bart said.
Rugel's seamed lip widened. "That's the way—travel light when you're on the drift," he confirmed.
Rugel took him down to the drive rooms, and here for a moment, in wonder and awe, Bart almost forgot his disguise. The old Lhari led him to the huge computer which filled one wall of the room, and Bart was smitten with the universality of mathematics. Here was something he knew he could handle.
He could do this programming, easily enough. But as he stood before the banks of complex, yet beautifully familiar levers, the sheer exquisite complexity of it overcame him. To compute the movements of thousands of stars, all moving at different speeds in different directions in the vast swirling directionless chaos of the Universe—and yet to be sure that every separate movement would come out to within a quarter of a mile! It was something that no finite brain—man or Lhari—could ever accomplish, yet their limited brains had built these computers that could do it.
Rugel watched him, laughing softly. "Well, you'll have enough time down here. I like to have youngsters who are still in the middle of a love affair with their work. Come along, and I'll show you your cabin."
Rugel left him in a cabin amidships; small and cramped, but tidy, two of the oval bunks slung at opposite ends, a small table between them, and drawers filled with pamphlets and manuals and maps. Furtively, ashamed of himself, yet driven by necessity, Bart searched Ringg's belongings, wanting to get some idea of what possessions he ought to own. He looked around the shower and toilet facilities with extra care—this was something he couldn't slip up on and be considered even halfway normal. He was afraid Ringg would come in, and see him staring curiously at something as ordinary, to a Lhari, as a cake of soap.
He decided to go down to the port again and look around the shops. He was not afraid of being unable to handle his work. What he feared was something subtler—that the small items of everyday living, something as simple as a nail file, would betray him.
On his way he looked into the Recreation Lounge, filled with comfortable seats, vision-screens, and what looked like simple pinball machines and mechanical games of skill. There were also stacks of tapereels and headsets for listening, not unlike those humans used. Bart felt fascinated, and wanted to explore, but decided he could do that later.
Somehow he took the wrong turn coming out of the Recreation Lounge, and went through a door where the sudden dimming of lights told him he was in Mentorian quarters. The sudden darkness made him stumble, thrust out his hands to keep from falling, and an unmistakably human voice said, "Ouch!"
"I'm sorry," Bart said in Universal, without thinking.
"I admit the lights are dim," said the voice tartly, and Bart found himself looking down, as his eyes adjusted to the new light level, at a girl.
She was small and slight, in a metallic blue cloak that swept out, like wings, around her thin shoulders; the hood framed a small, kittenlike face. She was a Mentorian, and she was human, and Bart's eyes rested with comfort on her face; she, on the other hand, was looking up with anxiety and uneasy distrust. That's right—I'm a Lhari, a nonhuman freak!
"I seem to have missed my way."
"What are you looking for, sir? The medical quarters are through here."
"I'm looking for the elevator down to the crew exits."
"Through here," she said, reopening the door through which he had come, and shading her large, lovely, long-lashed eyes with a slender hand. "You took the wrong turn. Are you new on board? I thought all ships were laid out exactly alike."
"I've only worked on passenger ships."
"I believe they are somewhat different," said the girl in good Lhari. "Well, that is your way, sir."
He felt as if he had been snubbed and dismissed.
"What is your name?"
She stiffened as if about to salute. "Meta of the house of Marnay Three, sir."
Bart realized he was doing something wholly out of character for a Lhari—chatting casually with a Mentorian. With a wistful glance at the pretty girl, he said a stiff "Thank you" and went down the ramp she had indicated. He felt horribly lonely. Being a freak wasn't going to be much fun.
He saw the girl again next day, when they checked in for blastoff. She was seated at a small desk, triangular like so much of the Lhari furniture, checking a register as they came out of the Decontam room, making sure they downed their greenish solution of microorganisms.
"Papers, please?" She marked, and Bart noticed that she was using a red pencil.
"Bartol," she said aloud. "Is that how you pronounce it?" She made small scribbles in a sort of shorthand with the red pencil, then made other marks with the black one in Lhari; he supposed the red marks were her own private memoranda, unreadable by the Lhari.
"Next, please." She handed a cup of the greenish stuff to Ringg, behind him. Bart went down toward the drive room, and to his own surprise, found himself wishing the girl were a mathematician rather than a medic. It would have been pleasant to watch her down there.
Old Rugel, on duty in the drive room, watched Bart strap himself in before the computer. "Make sure you check all dials at null," he reminded him, and Bart felt a last surge of panic.
This was his first cruise, except for practice runs at the Academy! Yet his rating called him an experienced man on the Polaris run. He'd had the Lhari training tape, which was supposed to condition his responses, but would it? He tried to clench his fists, drove a claw into his palm, winced, and commanded himself to stay calm and keep his mind on what he was doing.
It calmed him to make the routine check of his dials.
"Strapdown check," said a Lhari with a yellowed crest and a rasping voice. "New man, eh?" He gave Bart's straps perfunctory tugs at shoulders and waist, tightened a buckle. "Karol son of Garin."
Bells rang in the ship, and Bart felt the odd, tonic touch of fear. This was it.
Vorongil strode through the door, his banded cloak sweeping behind him, and took the control couch.
"Ready from fueling room, sir."
"Position," Vorongil snapped.
Bart heard himself reading off a string of figures in Lhari. His voice sounded perfectly calm.
"Clear channels from Pylon Dispatch, sir." It was old Rugel's voice.
"Well," Vorongil said, slowly and almost reflectively, "let's take her up then."
He touched some controls. The humming grew. Then, swift, hard and crushing, weight mashed Bart against his couch.
"Position!" Vorongil's voice sounded harsh, and Bart fought the crushing weight of it. Even his eyeballs ached as he struggled to turn the tiny eye muscles from dial to dial, and his voice was a dim croak: "Fourteen seven sidereal twelve point one one four nine...."
"Hold it to point one one four six," Vorongil said calmly.
"Point one one four six," Bart said, and his claws stabbed at dials. Suddenly, in spite of the cold weight on his chest, the pain, the struggle, he felt as if he were floating. He managed a long, luxurious breath. He could handle it. He knew what he was doing.
He was an Astrogator....
Later, when Acceleration One had reached its apex and the artificial gravity made the ship a place of comfort again, he went down to the dining hall with Ringg and met the crew of the Swiftwing. There were twelve officers and twelve crewmen of various ratings like himself and Ringg, but there seemed to be little social division between them, as there would have been on a human ship; officers and crew joked and argued without formality of any kind.
None of them gave him a second look. Later, in the Recreation Lounge, Ringg challenged him to a game with one of the pinball machines. It seemed fairly simple to Bart; he tried it, and to his own surprise, won.
Old Rugel touched a lever at the side of the room. With a tiny whishing sound, shutters opened, the light of Procyon Alpha flooded them and he looked out through a great viewport into bottomless space.
Procyon Alpha, Beta and Gamma hung at full, rings gently tilted. Beyond them the stars burned, flaming through the shimmers of cosmic dust. The colors, the never-ending colors of space!
And he stood here, in a room full of monsters—he was one of the monsters—
"Which one of the planets was it we stopped on?" Rugel asked. "I can't tell 'em apart from this distance."
Bartol swallowed; he had almost said the blue one. He pointed. "The—the big one there, with the rings almost edge-on. I think they call it Alpha."
"It's their planet," said Rugel. "I guess they can call it what they want to. How about another game?"
Resolutely, Bart turned his back on the bewitching colors, and bent over the pinball machine.
* * * * *
The first week in space was a nightmare of strain. He welcomed the hours on watch in the drive room; there alone he was sure of what he was doing. Everywhere else in the ship he was perpetually scared, perpetually on tiptoe, perpetually afraid of making some small and stupid mistake. Once he actually called Aldebaran a red star, but Rugel either did not hear the slip or thought he was repeating what one of the Mentorians—there were two aboard besides the girl—had said.
The absence of color from speech and life was the hardest thing to get used to. Every star in the manual was listed by light-frequency waves, to be checked against a photometer for a specific reading, and it almost drove Bart mad to go through the ritual when the Mentorians were off duty and could not call off the color and the equivalent frequency type for him. Yet he did not dare skip a single step, or someone might have guessed that he could see the difference between a yellow and a green star before checking them.
The Academy ships had had the traditional human signal system of flashing red lights. Bart was stretched taut all the time, listening for the small codelike buzzers and ticks that warned him of filled tanks, leads in need of servicing, answers ready. Ringg's metal-fatigues testing kit was a bewildering muddle of boxes, meters, rods and earphones, each buzzing and clicking its characteristic warning.
At first he felt stretched to capacity every waking moment, his memory aching with a million details, and lay awake nights thinking his mind would crack under the strain. Then Alpha faded to a dim bluish shimmer, Beta was eclipsed, Gamma was gone, Procyon dimmed to a failing spark; and suddenly Bart's memory accustomed itself to the load, the new habits were firmly in place, and he found himself eating, sleeping and working in a settled routine.
He belonged to the Swiftwing now.
Procyon was almost lost in the viewports when a sort of upswept tempo began to run through the ship, an undercurrent of increased activity. Cargo was checked, inventoried and strapped in. Ringg was given four extra men to help him, made an extra tour of the ship, and came back buzzing like a frantic cricket. Bart's computers told him they were forging toward the sidereal location assigned for the first of the warp-drive shifts, which would take them some fifteen light-years toward Aldebaran.
On the final watch before the warp-drive shift, the medical officer came around and relieved the Mentorians from duty. Bart watched them go, with a curious, cold, crawling apprehension. Even the Mentorians, trusted by the Lhari—even these were put into cold-sleep! Fear grabbed his insides.
No human had ever survived the shift into warp-drive, the Lhari said. Briscoe, his father, Raynor Three—they thought they had proved that the Lhari lied. If they were right, if it was a Lhari trick to reinforce their stranglehold on the human worlds and keep the warp-drive for themselves, then Bart had nothing to fear. But he was afraid.
Why did the Mentorians endure this, never quite trusted, isolated among aliens?
Raynor Three had said, Because I belong in space, because I'm never happy anywhere else. Bart looked out the viewport at the swirl and burn of the colors there. Now that he could never speak of the colors, it seemed he had never been so wholly and wistfully aware of them. They symbolized the thing he could never put into words.
So that everyone can have this. Not just the Lhari.
Rugel watched the Mentorians go, scowling. "I wish medic would find a way to keep them alive through warp," he said. "My Mentorian assistant could watch that frequency-shift as we got near the bottom of the arc, and I'll bet she could see it. They can see the changes in intensity faster than I can plot them on the photometer!"
Bart felt goosebumps break out on his skin. Rugel spoke as if the certain death of humans, Mentorians, was a fact. Didn't the Lhari themselves know it was a farce? Or was it?
Vorongil himself took the controls for the surge of Acceleration Two, which would take them past the Light Barrier. Bart, watching his instruments to exact position and time, saw the colors of each star shift strangely, moment by moment. The red stars seemed hard to see. The orange-yellow ones burned suddenly like flame; the green ones seemed golden, the blue ones almost green. Dimly, he remembered the old story of a "red shift" in the lights of approaching stars, but here he saw it pure, a sight no human eyes had ever seen. A sight that no eyes had seen, human or otherwise, for the Lhari could not see it....
"Time," he said briefly to Vorongil, "Fifteen seconds...."
Rugel looked across from his couch. Bart felt that the old, scarred Lhari could read his fear. Rugel said through a wheeze, "No matter how old you get, Bartol, you're still scared when you make a warp-shift. But relax, computers don't make mistakes."
"Catalyst," Vorongil snapped, "Ready—shift!"
At first there was no change; then Bart realized that the stars, through the viewport, had altered abruptly in size and shade and color. They were not sparks but strange streaks, like comets, crossing and recrossing long tails that grew, longer and longer, moment by moment. The dark night of space was filled with a crisscrossing blaze. They were moving faster than light, they saw the light left by the moving Universe as each star hurled in its own invisible orbit, while they tore incredibly through it, faster than light itself....
Bart felt a curious, tingling discomfort, deep in his flesh; almost an itching, a stinging in his very bones.
Lhari flesh is no different from ours....
Space, through the viewport, was no longer space as he had come to know it, but a strange eerie limbo, the star-tracks lengthening, shifting color until they filled the whole viewport with shimmering, gray, recrossing light. The unbelievable reaction of warp-drive thrust them through space faster than the lights of the surrounding stars, faster than imagination could follow.
The lights in the drive chamber began to dim—or was he blacking out? The stinging in his flesh was a clawed pain.
Briscoe lived through it....
The whirling star-tracks fogged, coiled, turned colorless worms of light, went into a single vast blur. Dimly Bart saw old Rugel slump forward, moaning softly; saw the old Lhari pillow his bald head on his veined arms. Then darkness took him; and thinking it was death, Bart felt only numb, regretful failure. I've failed, we'll always fail. The Lhari were right all long.
But we tried! By God, we tried!
"Bartol?" A gentle hand, cat claws retracted, came down on his shoulder. Ringg bent over him. Good-natured rebuke was in his voice. "Why didn't you tell us you got a bad reaction, and ask to sign out for this shift?" he demanded. "Look, poor old Rugel's passed out again. He just won't admit he can't take it—but one idiot on a watch is enough! Some people just feel as if the bottom's dropped out of the ship, and that's all there is to it."
Bart hauled his head upright, fighting a surge of stinging nausea. His bones itched inside and he was damnably uncomfortable, but he was alive.
"You look it," Ringg said in derision. "Think you can help me get Rugel to his cabin?"
Bart struggled to his feet, and found that when he was upright he felt better. "Wow!" he muttered, then clamped his mouth shut. He was supposed to be an experienced man, a Lhari hardened to space. He said woozily, "How long was I out?"
"The usual time," Ringg said briskly, "about three seconds—just while we hit peak warp-drive. Feels longer, so they tell me, sometimes—time's funny, beyond light-speeds. The medic says it's purely psychological. I'm not so sure. I itch, blast it!"
He moved his shoulders in a squirming way, then bent over Rugel, who was moaning, half insensible. "Catch hold of his feet, Bartol. Here—ease him out of his chair. No sense bothering the medics this time. Think you can manage to help me carry him down to the deck?"
"Sure," Bart said, finding his feet and his voice. He felt better as they moved along the hallway, the limp, muttering form of the old Lhari insensible in their arms. They reached the officer's deck, got Rugel into his cabin and into his bunk, hauled off his cloak and boots. Ringg stood shaking his head.
"And they say Captain Vorongil's so tough!"
Bart made a questioning noise.
"Why, just look," said Ringg. "He knows it would make poor old Rugel feel as if he wasn't good for much—to order him into his bunk and make him take dope like a Mentorian for every warp-shift. So we have this to go through at every jump!" He sounded cross and disgusted, but there was a rough, boyish gentleness as he hauled the blanket over the bald old Lhari. He looked up, almost shyly.
"Thanks for helping me with Old Baldy. We usually try to get him out before Vorongil officially takes notice. Of course, he sort of keeps his back turned," Ringg said, and they laughed together as they turned back to the drive room. Bart found himself thinking, Ringg's a good kid, before he pulled himself up, in sudden shock.
He had lived through warp-drive! Then, indeed, the Lhari had been lying all along, the vicious lie that maintained their stranglehold monopoly of star-travel. He was their enemy again, the spy within their gates, like Briscoe, to be hunted down and killed, but to bring the message, loud and clear, to everyone: The Lhari lied! The stars can belong to us all!
When he got back to the drive room, he saw through the viewport that the blur had vanished, the star-trails were clear, distinct again, their comet-tails shortening by the moment, their colors more distinct.
The Lhari were waiting, a few poised over their instruments, a few more standing at the quartz window watching the star-trails, some squirming and scratching and grousing about "space fleas"—the characteristic itching reaction that seemed to be deep down inside the bones.
Bart checked his panels, noted the time when they were due to snap back into normal space, and went to stand by the viewport. The stars were reappearing, seeming to steady and blaze out in cloudy splendor through the bright dust. They burned in great streamers of flame, and for the moment he forgot his mission again, lost in the beauty of the fiery lights. He drew a deep, shaking gasp. It was worth it all, to see this! He turned and saw Ringg, silent, at his shoulder.
"Me, too," Ringg said, almost in a whisper. "I think every man on board feels that way, a little, only he won't admit it." His slanted gray eyes looked quickly at Bart and away.
"I guess we're almost down to L-point. Better check the panel and report nulls, so medic can wake up the Mentorians."
* * * * *
The Swiftwing moved on between the stars. Aldebaran loomed, then faded in the viewports; another shift jumped them to a star whose human name Bart did not know. Shift followed shift, spaceport followed spaceport, sun followed sun; men lived on most of these worlds, and on each of them a Lhari spaceport rose, alien and arrogant. And on each world men looked at Lhari with resentful eyes, cursing the race who kept the stars for their own.
Cargo amassed in the holds of the Swiftwing, from worlds beyond all dreams of strangeness. Bart grew, not bored, but hardened to the incredible. For days at a time, no word of human speech crossed his mind.
The blackout at peak of each warp-shift persisted. Vorongil had given him permission to report off duty, but since the blackouts did not impair his efficiency, Bart had refused. Rugel told him that this was the moment of equilibrium, the peak of the faster-than-light motion.
"Perhaps a true limiting speed beyond which nothing will ever go," Vorongil said, touching the charts with a varnished claw. Rugel's scarred old mouth spread in a thin smile.
"Maybe there's no such thing as a limiting speed. Someday we'll reach true simultaneity—enter warp, and come out just where we want to be, at the same time. Just a split-second interval. That will be real transmission."
Ringg scoffed, "And suppose you get even better—and come out of warp before you go into it? What then, Honorable Bald One?"
Rugel chuckled, and did not answer. Bart turned away. It was not easy to keep on hating the Lhari.
There came a day when he came on watch to see drawn, worried faces; and when Ringg came into the drive room they threw their levers on automatic and crowded around him, their crests bobbing in question and dismay. Vorongil seemed to emit sparks as he barked at Ringg, "You found it?"
"I found it. Inside the hull lining."
Vorongil swore, and Ringg held up a hand in protest. "I only locate metals fatigue, sir—I don't make it!"
"No help for it then," Vorongil said. "We'll have to put down for repairs. How much time do we have, Ringg?"
"I give it thirty hours," Ringg said briefly, and Vorongil gave a long shrill whistle. "Bartol, what's the closest listed spaceport?"
Bart dived for handbooks, manuals, comparative tables of position, and started programming information. The crew drifted toward him, and by the time he finished feeding in the coded information, a row three-deep of Lhari surrounded him, including all the officers. Vorongil was right at his shoulder when Bart slipped on his earphones and started decoding the punched strips that fed out the answers from the computer.
"Nearest port is Cottman Four. It's almost exactly thirty hours away."
"I don't like to run it that close." Vorongil's face was bitten deep with lines. He turned to Ramillis, head of Maintenance. "Do we need spare parts? Or just general repairs?"
"Just repairs, sir. We have plenty of shielding metal. It's a long job to get through the hulls, but there's nothing we can't fix."
Vorongil flexed his clawed hands nervously, stretching and retracting them. "Ringg, you're the fatigue expert. I'll take your word for it. Can we make thirty hours?"
Ringg looked pale and there was none of his usual boyish nonsense when he said, "Captain, I swear I wouldn't risk Cottman. You know what crystallization's like, sir. We can't get through that hull lining to repair it in space, if it does go before we land. We wouldn't have the chance of a hydrogen atom in a tank of halogens."
Vorongil's slanted eyebrows made a single unbroken line. "That's the word then. Bartol, find us the closest star with a planet—spaceport or not."
Bart's hands were shaking with sudden fear. He checked each digit of their present position, fed it into the computer, waited, finally wet his lips and plunged, taking the strip from a computer.
"This small star, called Meristem. It's a—" he bit his lip, hard; he had almost said green—"type Q, two planets with atmosphere within tolerable limits, not classified as inhabited."
"Who owns it?"
"I don't have that information on the banks, sir."
Vorongil beckoned the Mentorian assistant. So apart were Lhari and Mentorian on these ships that Bart did not even know his name. He said, "Look up a star called Meristem for us." The Mentorian hurried away, came back after a moment with the information that it belonged to the Second Galaxy Federation, but was listed as unexplored.
Vorongil scowled. "Well, we can claim necessity," he said. "It's only eight hours away, and Cottman's thirty. Bartol, plot us a warp-drive shift that will land us in that system, and on the inner of the two planets, within nine hours. If it's a type Q star, that means dim illumination, and no spaceport mercury-vapor installations. We'll need as much sunlight as we can get."
It was the first time that Bart, unaided, had had the responsibility of plotting a warp-drive shift. He checked the coordinates of the small green star three times before passing them along to Vorongil. Even so, when they went into Acceleration Two, he felt stinging fear. If I plotted wrong, we could shift into that crazy space and come out billions of miles away....
But when the stars steadied and took on their own colors, the blaze of a small green sun was steady in the viewport.
"Meristem," Vorongil said, taking the controls himself. "Let's hope the place is really uninhabited and that catalogue's up to date, lads. It wouldn't be any fun to burn up some harmless village, or get shot at by barbarians—and we're setting down with no control-tower signals and no spaceport repair crews. So let's hope our luck holds out for a while yet."
Bart, feeling the minute, unsteady trembling somewhere in the ship—Imagination, he told himself, you can't feel metal-fatigue somewhere in the hull lining—echoed the wish. He did not know that he had already had the best luck of his unique voyage, or realize the fantastic luck that had brought him to the small green star Meristem.
The crews of repairmen were working down in the hull, and the Swiftwing was a hell of clanging noise and shuddering heat. Maintenance was working overtime, but the rest of the crew, with nothing to do, stood around in the recreation rooms, tried to play games, cursed the heat and the dreary dimness through the viewports, and twitched at the boiler-factory racket from the holds.
Toward the end of the third day, the biologist reported air, water and gravity well within tolerable limits, and Captain Vorongil issued permission for anyone who liked, to go outside and have a look around.
Bart had a sort of ship-induced claustrophobia. It was good to feel solid ground under his feet and the rays of a sun, even a green sun, on his back. Even more, it was good to get away from the constant presence of his shipmates. During this enforced idleness, their presence oppressed him unendurably—so many tall forms, gray skins, feathery crests. He was always alone; for a change, he felt that he'd like to be alone without Lhari all around him.
But as he moved away from the ship, Ringg dropped out of the hatchway and hailed him. "Where are you going?"
"Just for a walk."
Ringg drew a deep breath of weariness. "That sounds good. Mind if I come along?"
Bart did, but all he could say was, "If you like."
"How about let's get some food from the rations clerk, and do some exploring?"
The sun overhead was a clear greenish-gold, the sky strewn with soft pale clouds that cast racing shadows on the soft grass underfoot, fragrant pinkish-yellow stuff strewn with bright vermilion puff-balls. Bart wished he were alone to enjoy it.
"How are the repairs coming?"
"Pretty well. But Karol got his hand half scorched off, poor fellow. Just luck the same thing didn't happen to me." Ringg added. "You know that Mentorian—the young one, the medic's assistant?"
"I've seen her. Her name's Meta, I think." Suddenly, Bart wished the Mentorian girl were with him here. It would be nice to hear a human voice.
"Oh, is it a female? Mentorians all look alike to me," Ringg said, while Bart controlled his face with an effort. "Be that as it may, she saved me from having the same thing happen. I was just going to lean against a strip of sheet metal when she screamed at me. Do you think they can really see heat vibrations? She called it red-hot."
They had reached a line of tall cliffs, where a steep rock-fall divided off the plain from the edge of the mountains. A few slender, drooping, gold-leaved trees bent graceful branches over a pool. Bart stood fascinated by the play of green sunlight on the emerald ripples, but Ringg flung himself down full length on the soft grass and sighed comfortably. "Feels good."
"Too comfortable to eat?"
They munched in companionable silence. "Look," said Ringg at last, pointing toward the cliffs, "Holes in the rocks. Caves. I'd like to explore them, wouldn't you?"
"They look pretty gloomy to me. Probably full of monsters."
Ringg patted the hilt of his energon-ray. "This will handle anything short of an armor-plated saurian."
Bart shuddered. As part of uniform, he, too, had been issued one of the energon-rays; but he had never used it and didn't intend to. "Just the same, I'd rather stay out here in the sun."
"It's better than vitamin lamps," Ringg admitted, "even if it's not very bright."
Bart wondered, suddenly and worriedly, about the effects of green sunburn on his chemically altered skin tone.
"Well, let's enjoy it while we can," Ringg said, "because it seems to be clouding over. I wouldn't be surprised if it rained." He yawned. "I'm getting bored with this voyage. And yet I don't want it to end, because then I'll have to fight it out all over again with my family. My father owns a hotel, and he wants me in the family business, not five hundred light-years away. None of our family have ever been spacemen before," he explained, "and they don't understand that living on one planet would drive me out of my mind." He sighed. "How did you explain it to your people—that you couldn't be happy in the mud? Or are you a career man?"
"I guess so. I never thought about doing anything else," Bart said slowly, Ringg's story had touched him; he had never realized quite so fully how much alike the two races were, how human the Lhari problems and dreams could seem. Why, of course, the Lhari aren't all spacemen. They have hotel keepers and garbage men and dentists just as we do. Funny, you never think of them except in space.
"My mother died when I was very young," Bart said, choosing his words very carefully. "My father owned a fleet of interplanetary ships."
"But you wanted the real thing, deep space, the stars," Ringg said. "How did he feel about that?"
"He would have understood," Bart said, unable to keep emotion out of his voice, "but he's dead now. He died, not long ago."
Ringg's eyes were bright with sympathy. "While you were off on the drift? Bad luck," he said gently. He was silent, and when he spoke again it was in a very different tone.
"But some of the older generation—I had a professor in training school, funny old chap, bald as the hull of the Swiftwing. Taught us cosmic-ray analysis, and what he didn't know about spiral nebulae could be engraved on my fifth toe-claw, and he'd never been off the face of the planet. Not even to one of the moons! He was the supervisor of my student lodge, and oh, was he a—" The phrase Ringg used meant, literally, a soft piece of cake.
"His feet may have been buried in mud, but his head was off in the Great Nebula. We had some wild times," Ringg reminisced. "We'd slip away to the city—strictly against rules, it was an old-style school—and draw lots for one of us to stay home and sign in for all twelve. You see, he'd sit there reading, and when one of us came in, just shove the wax at us, with his nose in a text on cosmic dust, never looking up. So the one who stayed home would scrawl a name on it, walk out the back door, come around and sign in again. When there were twelve signed in, of course, the old chap would go up to bed, and late that night the one who stayed in would sneak down and let us in."
Ringg sat up suddenly, touching his cheek. "Was that a drop of rain? And the sun's gone. I suppose we ought to start back, though I hate to leave those caves unexplored."
Bart bent to gather up the debris of their meal. He flinched as something hard struck his arm. "Ouch! What was that?"
Ringg cried out in pain. "It's hail!"
Sharp pieces of ice were suddenly pelting, raining down all around them, splattering the ground with a harsh, bouncing clatter. Ringg yelled, "Come on—it's big enough to flatten you!"
It looked to Bart as if it were at least golf-ball size, and seemed to be getting bigger by the moment. Lightning flashed around them in sudden glare. They ducked their heads and ran.
"Get in under the lee of the cliffs. We couldn't possibly make it back to the Swift—" Ringg's voice broke off in a cry of pain; he slumped forward, pitched to his knees, then slid down and lay still.
"What's the matter?" Bart, arm curved to protect his skull, bent over the fallen Lhari, but Ringg, his forehead bleeding, lay insensible. Bart felt sharp pain in his arm, felt the hail hard as thrown stones raining on his head. Ringg was out cold. If they stayed in this, Bart thought despairingly, they'd both be dead!
Crouching, trying to duck his head between his shoulders, Bart got his arms under Ringg's armpits and half-carried, half-dragged him under the lee of the cliffs. He slipped and slid on the thickening layer of ice underfoot, lost his footing, and came down, hard, one arm twisted between himself and the cliff. He cried out in pain, uncontrollably, and let Ringg slip from his grasp. The Lhari boy lay like the dead.
Bart bent over him, breathing hard, trying to get his breath back. The hail was still pelting down, showing no signs of lessening. About five feet away, one of the dark gaps in the cliff showed wide and menacing, but at least, Bart thought, the hail couldn't come in there. He stooped and got hold of Ringg again. A pain like fire went through the wrist he had smashed against the rock. He set his teeth, wondering if it had broken. The effort made him see stars, but he managed somehow to hoist Ringg up again and haul him through the pelting hail toward the yawning gap. It darkened around them, and, blessedly, the battering, bruising hail could not reach them. Only an occasional light splinter of ice blew with the bitter wind into the mouth of the cave.
Bart laid Ringg down on the floor, under the shelter of the rock ceiling. He knelt beside him, and spoke his name, but Ringg just moaned. His forehead was covered with blood.
Bart took one of the paper napkins from the lunch sack and carefully wiped some of it away. His stomach turned at the deep, ugly cut, which immediately started oozing fresh blood. He pressed the edges of the cut together with the napkin, wondering helplessly how much blood Ringg could lose without danger, and if he had concussion. If he tried to go back to the ship and fetch the medic for Ringg, he'd be struck by hail himself. From where he stood, it seemed that the hailstones were getting bigger by the minute.
Ringg moaned, but when Bart knelt beside him again he did not answer. Bart could hear only the rushing of wind, the noise of the splattering hail and a sound of water somewhere—or was that a rustle of scales, a dragging of strange feet? He looked through the darkness into the depths of the cave, his hand on his shock-beam. He was afraid to turn his back on it.
This is nonsense, he told himself firmly, I'll just walk back there and see what there is.
At his belt he had the small flashlamp, excessively bright, that was, like the energon-beam shocker, a part of regulation equipment. He took it out, shining it on the back wall of the cave; then drew a long breath of startlement and for a moment forgot Ringg and his own pain.
For the back wall of the cave was an exquisite fall of crystal! Minerals glowed there, giant crystals, like jewels, crusted with strange lichen-like growths and colors. There were pale blues and greens and, shimmering among them, a strangely colored crystalline mineral that he had never seen before. It was blue—No, Bart thought, that's just the light, it's more like red—no, it can't be like both of them at once, and it isn't really like either. In this light—
Ringg moaned, and Bart, glancing round, saw that he was struggling to sit up. He ran back to him, dropping to his knees at Ringg's side. "It's all right, Ringg, lie still. We're under cover now."
"Wha' happened?" Ringg said blurrily. "Head hurts—all sparks—all the pretty lights—can't see you!" He fumbled with loose, uncoordinated fingers at his head and Bart grabbed at him before he poked a claw in his eye. "Don't do that," Ringg complained, "can't see—"
He must have a bad concussion then. That's a nasty cut. Gently, he restrained the Lhari boy's hands.
"Bartol, what happened?"
Bart explained. Ringg tried to move, but fell limply back.
"Weren't you hurt? I thought I heard you cry out."
"A cut or two, but nothing serious," Bart said. "I think the hail's stopped. Lie still, I'd better go back to the ship and get help."
"Give me a hand and I can walk," Ringg said, but when he tried to sit up, he flinched, and Bart said, "You'd better lie still." He knew that head injuries should be kept very quiet; he was almost afraid to leave Ringg for fear the Lhari boy would have another delirious fit and hurt himself, but there was no help for it.
The hail had stopped, and the piled heaps were already melting, but it was bitterly cold. Bart wrapped himself in the silvery cloak, glad of its warmth, and struggled back across the slushy, ice-strewn meadow that had been so pink and flowery in the sunshine. The Swiftwing, a monstrous dark egg looming in the twilight, seemed like home. Bart felt the heavenly warmth close around him with a sigh of pure relief, but the Second Officer, coming up the hatchway, stopped in consternation:
"You're covered with blood! The hailstorm—"
"I'm all right," Bart said, "but Ringg's been hurt. You'll need a stretcher." Quickly, he explained. "I'll come with you and show you—"
"You'll do no such thing," the officer said. "You look as if you'd been caught out in a meteor shower, feathertop! We can find the place. You go and have those cuts attended to, and—what's wrong with your wrist? Broken?"
Bart heard, like an echo, the frightening words: Don't break any bones. You won't pass an X-ray.
"It's all right, sir. When I get washed up—"
"That's an order," snapped the officer, "do you think, on this pestilential unlucky planet, we can afford any more bad luck? Metals fatigue, Karol burned so badly the medic thinks he may never use his hand again, and now you and Ringg getting yourselves laid up and out of action? The medic will help me with Ringg; that Mentorian girl can look after you. Get moving!"
He hurried away, and Bart, his head beginning to hurt, walked slowly up the ramp. His whole arm felt numb, and he supported it with his good hand.
In the small infirmary, Karol lay groaning in a bunk, his arm bound in bandages, his head moving from side to side. The Mentorian girl Meta turned, charging a hypo. She looked pale and drawn. She went to Karol, uncovering his other arm, and made the injection; almost immediately the moaning stopped and Karol lay still. Meta sighed and drew a hand over her brow, brushing away feathery wisps that escaped from the cap tied over her hair.
"Bartol? You're hurt? Not more burns, I hope?"
She looks just like a fluffy little kitten, Bart thought incongruously. Fatigue was beginning to blur his reactions.
"Only a few cuts," he said, in Universal, though Meta had spoken Lhari. In his weariness and pain he was homesick for the sound of a familiar word. "Ringg and I were both caught in the hailstorm. He's badly hurt."
"Sit down here."
Bart sat. Meta's hands were skillful and cool as she sponged the blood away from his forehead and sprayed it with some pleasantly cold, mint-smelling antiseptic. Bart leaned back, tireder than he knew, half-closing his eyes.
"That hail must have been enormous; we heard it through the hull. Whatever possessed you to go out into it?"
"It wasn't hailing when we left," Bart said wearily. "The sun was as nice and green as it could be." He bit the words off, realizing he had made a slip, but the girl seemed not to hear, fastening a strip of plastic over a cut. She picked up his wrist. Bart flinched in spite of himself, and Meta nodded. "I was afraid of that; it may be broken. Better let me X-ray it."
"No!" Bart said harshly. "It's all right, I just twisted it. Nothing's broken. Just strap it up."
"It's pretty badly swollen," the girl said, moving it gently. "Does that hurt? I thought so."
Bart set his teeth against a cry. "It's all right, I tell you. Just because it's black and blue—"
He heard her breath jolt out, her fingers clenched painfully on his wounded wrist. She did not hear his cry this time. "And the sun was nice and green," she whispered. "What are you?"
Bart felt himself slip sidewise; he thought for a moment that he would faint where he sat. Terrified, he looked up at Meta. Their eyes met, and she said, hardly moving her pale lips, "Your eyes—they're like mine. Your eyelashes—dark, not white. You're not a Lhari!"
The pain in his wrist suddenly blurred everything else, but Meta suddenly realized she was gripping it; she gave a little, gentle cry, and cradled the abused wrist in her palm.
"No wonder you didn't want it X-rayed," she whispered. Biting her lip, she glanced, terrified, at Karol, unconscious in the bunk. "No, he can't hear us; I gave him a heavy shot of hypnin, poor fellow."
"Go ahead," Bart said bitterly, "yell for your keepers."
Her gray eyes blazed at him for a moment; then, gently, she laid his wrist on the table, went to the infirmary door and locked it on the inside. She turned around, her face white; even her lips had lost their color. "Who are you?" she whispered.
"Does it matter now?"
Shocked comprehension swept over her face. "You don't think I'd tell them," she whispered. "I heard talk, in the Procyon port, of a spy that had managed to get through on a Lhari ship." Her face twisted. "You—you must know about the man on the Multiphase, you know they'll—make sure I can't—hide anything dangerous to the Lhari at the end of the voyage."
"Meta—" concern for her swept over him—"what will they do to you when they find out that you know and—didn't tell?"
Her gray eyes were wide as a kitten's. "Why, nothing. The Lhari would never hurt anyone, would they?"
Brainwashed? He set his mouth grimly. "I hope you never find out different."
"Why would they need to?" she asked, reasonably. "They could just erase the memory. I never heard of a Lhari actually hurting anyone. But something like this—" She wavered, looking at him. "You look so much like a Lhari! How was it done? How could they do it? Poor fellow, you must be the—the loneliest man in the Universe!"
Her voice was compassionate. Bart felt his throat tighten, and had the awful feeling that he was going to cry. He reached with his good hand for hers, seeking the comfort of a human touch, but she flinched instinctively away.
He was a monster to this pretty girl....
"It looks so real," she said helplessly. "Yes, now I can see, you have tiny moons at the base of the nail, and the Lhari don't." Her face worked. "It's—it's horrifying! How could you—"
There was a noise in the corridor. Meta gasped and ran to unlock the door, stood back as the medic and the Second Officer came in, staggering under Ringg's weight. Carefully, they put him into a bunk. The medic straightened, shaking his crest.
"Did you get that wrist taken care of, Bartol?"
Meta stepped between Bart and the officer, reaching for a roll of bandage. "I'm working on it now, rieko mori," she said. "It only wants strapping up." But her fingers trembled as she wound the gauze, pulling each fold tight.
"Needs quiet," grunted the medic, "and a few sutures. Lucky you got him under cover when you did."
Ringg said weakly from his bunk, "Bartol saved my life. I can think of plenty who'd have run for cover, instead of staying out in that stuff long enough to drag me inside. Thanks, shipmate."
Meta's hand, with a swift hard pressure, lingered on Bart's shoulder as she cut the bandage and fastened the end. "I don't think that will bother you much now," she whispered, fleetingly. "I didn't dare say it was broken or they'd insist on X-rays. If it hurts I'll get you something later for the pain. If you keep it strapped up tight—"
"It will do," Bart said aloud. The tight bandage made it feel a little better, but he felt sick and dizzy, and when the medic turned and saw him, the officer said brusquely "Watch off for you, Bartol. I'll fix the sign-out sheet, but you go to your cabin and get yourself at least four hours of sleep. That's an order."
Bart stumbled out of the cabin with relief. Safe in his own quarters, he flung himself down on his bunk, shaking all over. He'd come safely through one more nightmare, one more terror—for the moment! Had he put Meta in danger, too? Was there no end to this ceaseless fear? Not only for himself, but for others, the innocent bystanders who stumbled into plots they did not understand?
You're doing this for the stars. It's bigger than your fear. It's bigger than you are, or any of the others....
He was beginning to think it was a lot too big for him.
The green-sun Meristem lay far behind them. Karol's burns had healed; only a faint pattern on Ringg's forehead showed where six stitches had closed the ugly wound in his skull. Bart's wrist, after a few days of nightmarish pain when he tried to pick up anything heavy, had healed. Two more warp-drive shifts through space had taken the Swiftwing far, far out to the rim of the known galaxy, and now the great crimson coal of Antares burned in their viewports.
Antares had twelve planets, the outermost of which—far away now, at the furthest point in its orbit from the point of the Swiftwing's entry into the system—was a small captive sun. No larger than the planet Earth, it revolved every ninety years around its huge primary.
Small as it was, it was blazingly blue-white brilliant, and had a tiny planet of its own. After their stop on Antares Seven—the largest of the inhabited planets in this system, where the Lhari spaceport was located—they would make a careful orbit around the great red primary, and land on the tiny worldlet of the blue-white secondary before leaving the Antares system.
As Bart watched Antares growing in the viewports, he felt a variety of emotions. On the one hand, he was relieved that as his voyage in secrecy neared its official destination, he had as yet not incurred unmasking.
But he felt uncertain about his father's co-conspirators. Would they return him to human form and send him back to Vega, his part ended? Or would they, unthinkably, demand that he go on into the Lhari Galaxy? What would he do, if they did?
At one moment he entertained fantasies of going on into the Lhari worlds, returning victorious with the secret of their fueling location, or of the star-drive itself. At another, he could not wait to be free of it all. He longed for the society of his own people, yet ached to think that this voyage between the stars must end so soon.
They made planetfall at the largest Lhari spaceport Bart had seen; as always, the Second Officer was the first to go through Decontam and ashore, returning with exchanged mail and messages for the Swiftwing's crew. He laughed when he gave Bartol a sealed packet. "So you're not quite the orphan we've always thought!"
Bart took it, his heart suddenly pounding, and walked away through the groups of officers and crew eagerly debating how they would spend their port leave. He knew what it would be.
It was on the letterhead of Eight Colors, and it contained no message. Only an address—and a time.
He slipped away unobserved to the Mentorian part of the ship to borrow a cloak from Meta. She did not ask why he wanted it, and stopped him when he would have told her. "I'd—rather not know."
She looked very small and very scared, and Bart wished he could comfort her, but he knew she would shrink from him, repelled and horrified by his Lhari skin, hair, claws.
Yet she reached for his hand, gripping it hard in her own dainty one. "Bartol, be careful," she whispered, then stopped. "Bartol—that's a Lhari name. What's your real one?"
"Bart. Bart Steele."
"Good luck, Bart." There were tears in her gray eyes.
With the blue cloak folded around his face, hands tucked in the slits at the side, he felt almost like himself. And as the strange crimson twilight folded down across the streets, laden with spicy smells and little, fragrant gusts of wind, he almost savored the sense of being a conspirator, of playing for high stakes in a network of intrigue between the stars. He was off on an adventure, and meant to enjoy it.
The address he had been given was a lavish estate, not far from the spaceport, across a little gleaming lake that shimmered red, indigo, violet in the crimson sunset, surrounded by a low wall of what looked like purple glass. Bart, moving slowly through the gate, felt that eyes were watching him, and forced himself to walk with slow dignity.
Up the path. Up a low flight of black-marble stairs. A door swung open and shut again, closing out the red sunset, letting him into a room that seemed dim after the months of Lhari lights. There were three men in the room, but his eyes were drawn instantly to one, standing against an old-fashioned fireplace.
He was very tall and quite thin, and his hair was snow-white, though he did not look old. Bart's first incongruous thought was, He'd make a better Lhari than I would. His firm, commanding voice told Bart at once that this was the man in charge. "You are Bartol?" He extended his hand.
Bart took it—and found himself gripped in a judo hold. The other two men, leaping to place behind him, felt all over his body, not gently.
"No weapons, Montano."
"Save it," Montano said. "If you're the right person, you'll understand. If not, you won't have much time to resent it. A very simple test. What color is that divan?"
"And those curtains?"
"Darker green, with gold and red figures."
The men released him, and the white-haired man smiled.
"So you actually did it, Steele! I thought for sure the code message was a fake." He stepped back and looked Bart over from head to foot, whistling. "Raynor Three is a genius! Claws and everything! What a deuce of a risk to take though!"
"You know my name," Bart said, "but who are you?"
Suspicion came back into the dark eyes. "Does that Mentorian cloak mean—you've lost your memories, too?"
"No," said Bart, "it's simpler than that. I'm not Rupert Steele. I'm—" his voice caught—"I'm his son."
The man looked startled and shocked. "I suppose that means Rupert is dead. Dead! It came a little before he expected it, then. So you're Bart." He sighed. "My name's Montano. This is Hedrick, and I suppose you recognize Raynor Two."
Bart blinked. It was the same face, but it was not grim like Raynor One's, nor expressive and kindly like that of Raynor Three. This one just looked dangerous.
"But sit down," Montano said with a wave of his hand, "make yourself comfortable."
Hedrick relieved Bart of his cloak; Raynor Two put a cup of some steaming drink in his hand, passed him a tray of small hot fried things that tasted crisp and delicious. Bart relaxed, answering questions. How old? Only seventeen? And you came all alone on a Lhari ship, working your way as Astrogator? I must say you've got guts, kid! It was dangerously like the fantasy he had invented. But Montano interrupted at last.
"All right, this isn't a party and we haven't all night. I don't suppose Bart has either. Enough time wasted. Since you walked into this, young Steele, I take it you know what our plans are, after this?"
Bart shook his head. "No. Raynor Three sent me to call off your plans, because of my father—"
"That sounds like Three," interrupted Raynor Two. "Entirely too squeamish!"
Montano said irritably, "We couldn't have done anything without a man on the Swiftwing, and you know it. We still can't. Bart, I suppose you know about Lharillis."
"Not by that name."
"Your next stop. The planetoid of the captive sun. That little hunk of bare rock out there is the first spot the Lhari visited in this galaxy—even before Mentor. It's an inferno of light from that little blue-white sun, so of course they love it—it's just like home to them. When they found that the inner planets of Antares were inhabited, they built their spaceport here, so they'd have a better chance at trade." Montano scowled fiercely.
"But they wanted that little worldlet. So we went all over it to be sure there were no rare minerals there, and finally leased it to them, a century at a time. They mine the place for some kind of powdered lubricant that's better than graphite—it's all done by robot machinery, no one's stationed there. Every time a Lhari ship comes through this system they stop there, even though there's nothing on Lharillis except a landing field and some concrete bunkers filled with robot mining machinery. They'll stop there on the way out of this system—and that's where you come in. We need you on board, to put the radiation counter out of commission."
He took a chart from a drawer, spread it out on a table top. "The simplest way would be to cut these two wires. When the Lhari land, we'll be there, waiting for them. On board the Lhari ship, there must be full records—coordinates of their home world, of where they go for their catalyst fuel—all that."
Bart whistled. "But won't the crew defend the ship? You can't fight energon-ray guns!"
Montano's face was perfectly calm. "No. We won't even try." He handed Bart a small strip of pale-yellow plastic.
"Keep this out of sight of the Mentorians," he said. "The Lhari won't be able to see the color, of course. But when it turns orange, take cover."
"What is it?"
"Radiation-exposure film. It's exactly as sensitive to radiation as you are. When it starts to turn orange, it's picking up radiation. If you're aboard the ship, get into the drive chambers—they're lead-lined—and you'll be safe. If you're out on the surface, you'll be all right inside one of the concrete bunkers. But get under cover before it turns red, because by that time every Lhari of them will be stone-cold dead."
Bart let the strip of plastic drop, staring in disbelief at Montano's cold, cruel face. "Kill them? Kill a whole shipload of them? That's murder!"
"Not murder. War."
"We're not at war with the Lhari! We have a treaty with them!"
"The Federation has, because they don't dare do anything else," Montano said, his face taking on the fanatic's light, "but some of us dare do something, some of us aren't going to sit forever and let them strangle all humanity, hold us down, let us die! It's war, Bart, war for economic survival. Do you suppose the Lhari would hesitate to kill anyone if we did anything to hurt their monopoly of the stars? Or didn't they tell you about David Briscoe, how they hunted him down like an animal—"
"But how do we know that was Lhari policy, and not just—some fanatic?" Bart asked suddenly. He thought of the death of the elder Briscoe, and as always he shivered with the horror of it, but for the first time it came to him: Briscoe had provoked his own death. He had physically attacked the Lhari—threatened them, goaded them to shoot him down in self-defense! "I've been on shipboard with them for months. They're not wanton murderers."
Raynor Two made a derisive sound. "Sounds like it might be Three talking!"
Hedrick growled, "Why waste time talking? Listen, young Steele, you'll do as you're told, or else! Who gave you the right to argue?"
"Quiet, both of you." Montano came and laid his arm around Bart's shoulders, persuasively. "Bart, I know how you feel. But can't you trust me? You're Rupert Steele's son, and you're here to carry on what your father left undone, aren't you? If you fail now, there may not be another chance for years—maybe not in our lifetimes."
Bart dropped his head in his hands. Kill a whole shipload of Lhari—innocent traders? Bald, funny old Rugel, stern Vorongil, Ringg—
"I don't know what to do!" It was a cry of despair. Bart looked helplessly around at the men.
Montano said, almost tenderly, "You couldn't side with the Lhari against men, could you? Could a son of Rupert Steele do that?"
Bart shut his eyes, and something seemed to snap within him. His father had died for this. He might not understand Montano's reasons, but he had to believe that Montano had them.
"All right," he said, thickly, "you can count on me."
When he left Montano's house, he had the details of the plan, had memorized the location of the device he was to sabotage, and accepted, from Montano, a pair of dark contact lenses. "The light's hellish out there," Montano warned. "I know you're half Mentorian, but they don't even take their Mentorians out there. They're proud of saying no human foot has ever touched Lharillis."
When he got back to the Lhari spaceport, Ringg hailed him. "Where have you been? I hunted the whole port for you! I wouldn't join the party till you came. What's a pal for?"
Bart brushed by him without speaking, disregarding Ringg's surprised stare, and went up the ramp. He reached his own cabin and threw himself down in his bunk, torn in two.
Ringg was his friend! Ringg liked him! And if he did what Montano wanted, Ringg would die.
Ringg had followed him, and was standing in the cabin door, watching him in surprise. "Bartol, is something the matter? Is there anything I can do? Have you had more bad news?"
Bart's torn nerves snapped. He raised his head and yelled at Ringg, "Yes, there is something! You can quit following me around and just let me alone for a change!"
Ringg took a step backward. Then he said, very softly, "Suit yourself, Bartol. Sorry." And noiselessly, his white crest held high, he glided away.
Bart's resolve hardened. Loneliness had done odd things to him—thinking of Ringg, a Lhari, one of the freaks who had killed his father, as a friend! If they knew who he was, they would turn on him, hunt him down as they'd hunted Briscoe, as they'd hunted his father, as they'd hounded him from Earth to Procyon. He put his scruples aside. He'd made up his mind.
They could all die. What did he care? He was human and he was going to be loyal to his own kind.
But although he thought he had settled all the conflict, he found that it returned when he was lying in his bunk, or when he stood in the dome and watched the stars, while they moved through the Antares system toward the captive sun and the tiny planet Lharillis.
It's in my power to give this to all men....
Should a few Lhari stand in his way?
He lay in his bunk brooding, thinking of death, staring at the yellow radiation badge. If you fail, it won't be in our lifetime. He'd have to go back to little things, to the little ships that hauled piddling cargo between little planets, while all the grandeur of the stars belonged to the Lhari. And if he succeeded, Vega Interplanet could spread from star to star, a mighty memorial to Rupert Steele.
One day Vorongil sent for him. "Bartol," he said, and his voice was not unkind, "you and Ringg have always been good friends, so don't be angry about this. He's worried about you—says you spend all your spare time in your bunk growling at him. Is there anything the matter, feathertop?"
He sounded so concerned, so—the word struck Bart with hysterical humor—so fatherly, that Bart wanted insanely to laugh and to cry. Instead he muttered, "Ringg should mind his own business."
"But it's not like that," Vorongil said. "Look, the Swiftwing's a world, young fellow, and a small one. If one being in that world is unhappy, it affects everyone."
Bart had an absurd, painful impulse—to blurt out the incredible truth to Vorongil, and try to get the old Lhari to understand what he was doing.
But fear held him silent. He was alone, one small human in a ship of Lhari. Vorongil was frowning at him, and Bart mumbled, "It's nothing, rieko mori."
"I suppose you're pining for home," Vorongil said kindly. "Well, it won't be long now."
The glare of the captive sun grew and grew in the ports, and Bart's dread mounted. He had, as yet, had no opportunity to put the radiation counter out of order. It was behind a panel in the drive room, and try as he might, he could think of no way to get to it unobserved. Sometimes, in sleepless nights, it seemed that would be the best way. Just let it go. But then the Lhari would detect Montano's ship, and kill Montano and his men.
Did he believe that? He had to believe it. It was the only way he could possibly justify what he was doing.
And then his chance came, as so many chances do when one no longer wants them. The Second Officer met him at the beginning of one watch, saying worriedly, "Bartol, old Rugel's sick—not fit to be on his feet. Do you think you can hold down this shift alone, if I drop in and give you a hand from time to time?"
"I think so," Bart said, carefully not overemphasizing it. The Second Officer, by routine, spent half of his time in the drive room, and half his time down below in Maintenance. When he left, Bart knew he would have at least half an hour, uninterrupted, in the drive room. He ripped open the panel, located the wires and hesitated; he didn't quite dare to cut them outright.
He jerked one wire loose, frayed the other with a sharp claw until it was almost in shreds and would break with the first surge of current, pulled two more connections loose so that they were not making full contact. He closed the panel and brushed dust over it, and when the Second Officer came back, Bart was at his own station.
As Antares fell toward them in the viewport, he found himself worrying about Mentorians. They would be in cold sleep, presumably in a safe part of the ship, behind shielding, or Montano would have made provisions for them. Still, he wished there were a way to warn Meta.
He was not on watch when they came into the planetary field of Lharillis, but when he came on shift, he knew at once that the trouble had been located. The panel was pulled open, the exposed wires hanging, and Ringg was facing old Rugel, shouting, "Listen, Baldy, I won't have you accusing me of going light on my work! I checked those panels eight days ago! Tell me who's going to be opening the panels in here anyhow?"
"No, no," Rugel said patiently, "I'm not accusing you of anything, only being careless, young Ringg. You poke with those buzzing instruments and things, maybe once you tear loose some wires."
Bart remembered he wasn't supposed to know what was going on. "What's this all about?"
It was Rugel who answered. "The radiation counter—the planetary one, not the one we use in space—is out of order. We don't even need it this landing—there's no radiation on Lharillis. If it were the landing gear, now, that would be serious. I'm just trying to tell Ringg—"
"He's trying to say I didn't check it." Ringg was not to be calmed. "It's my professional competence—"
"Forget it," Bart said. "If Rugel isn't sore about it, and if we don't need it for landing, why worry?" He felt like Judas.
"Just take a look at my daybook," Ringg insisted, "I checked and marked it service fit! I tell you, somebody was blundering around, opening panels where they had no business, tore it out by accident, then was too much of a filthy sneak to report it and get it fixed!"
"Bartol was on watch alone one night," said the Second Officer, "but you wouldn't meddle with panels, would you, Bartol?"
Bart set his teeth, steadying his breathing, as Ringg turned hopefully to him. "Bartol, did you—by mistake, maybe? Because if you did, it won't count against your rating, but it means a black mark against mine!"
Bart hid his self-contempt in sudden, tense fury. "No, I didn't! You're going to accuse everybody on the Swiftwing, all the way from me to Vorongil, before you can admit a mistake, aren't you? If you want somebody to blame, look in a mirror!"
"Listen, you!" Ringg's pent-up rage exploded. He seized Bart by the shoulder and Bart moved to throw him off, so that Ringg's outthrust claws raked only his forearm. In pure reflex he felt his own claws flick out; they clinched, closed, scuffled, and he felt his claws rake flesh; half incredulous, saw the thin red line of blood welling from Ringg's cheek.
Then Rugel's arms were flung restrainingly around him, and the Second Officer was wrestling with a furious, struggling Ringg. Bart looked at his red-tipped claws in ill-concealed horror, but it was lost in a general gasp of consternation, for Vorongil had flung the drive room door open, taking in the scene in one blistering glance.
"What's going on down here?"
For the first time, Bart understood Vorongil's reputation as a tyrant. One glance at Ringg's bleeding face and Bart's ripped forearm, and he did not pause for breath for a good fifteen minutes. By the time he finished, Bart felt he would rather Ringg's claws had laid him bleeding to the bone than stand there in the naked contempt of the old Lhari's freezing eyes.
"Half-fledged nestlings trying to do a man's work! So someone forgot the panel, or damaged the panel by mistake—no, not another word," he commanded, as Ringg's crest came proudly up. "I don't care who did what! Any more of this, and the one who does it can try his claws on the captain of the Swiftwing!" He looked ugly and dangerous. "I thought better of you both. Get below, you squalling kittens! Let me not see your faces again before we land!"
As they went along the corridor, Ringg turned to Bart, apology and chagrin in his eyes. "Look—I never meant to get the Bald One down on us," he said, but Bart kept his face resolutely averted. It was easier this way, without pretense of friendship.
* * * * *
The light from the small captive sun grew more intense. Bart had never known anything like it, and was glad to slip away and put the dark contact lenses into his eyes. They made his eyes appear all enormous, dilated pupil; fearfully, he hoped no one would notice. His arm smarted, and he did not speak to Ringg all through the long, slow deceleration.
When the intercom ordered all crew members to the hatchway, Bart lingered a minute, pinning the yellow radiation badge in a fold of his cloak. A spasm of fear threatened to overwhelm him again, and nightmarish loneliness. He felt agonizingly homesick for his own familiar face. It seemed almost more than he could manage, to step out into the corridor full of Lhari.
It won't be long now.
The hatch opened. Even accustomed, as he was, to Lhari lights, Bart squeezed his eyes shut at the blue-white brilliance that assaulted him now. Then, opening slitted lids cautiously, he found that he could see.
A weirdly desolate scene stretched away before them. Bare, burning sand, strewn with curiously colored rocks, lay piled in strange chaos; then he realized there was an odd, but perceptible geometry to their arrangement. They showed alternate crystal and opaque faces. Old Rugel noted his look of surprise.
"Never been here before? That's right, you've always worked on the Polaris run. Well, those aren't true rocks, but living creatures of a sort. The crystals are alive; the opaque faces are lichens that have something like chlorophyll and can make their food from air and sunlight. The rocks and lichens live in symbiosis. They have intelligence of a sort, but fortunately they don't mind us, or our automatic mining machinery. Every time, though, we find some new lichen that's trying to set up a symbiote cycle with the concrete of our bunkers."
"And every time," Ringg said cheerfully, "somebody—usually me—has to see about having them scraped down and repainted. Maybe someday I'll find a paint the lichens don't like the taste of."
"Going to explore with Ringg?" Rugel asked, and Ringg, always ready to let bygones be bygones, grinned and said, "Sure!" Bart could not face him.
Vorongil stopped and said, "This your first time here, young Bartol? How would you like to visit the monument with me? You can see the machinery on the way back."
Relieved at not having to go with Ringg, he followed the captain, falling into step beside him. They moved in silence, along the smooth stone path.
"The crystal creatures made this road," Vorongil said at last. "I think they read minds a little. There used to be a very messy, rocky desert here, and we used to have to scrabble and scratch our way to the monument. Then one day a ship—not mine—touched down and discovered that there was a beautiful smooth road leading up to the monument. And the lichens never touch that stone—but you probably had all this in school. Excited, Bartol?"
"No—no, sir. Why?"
"Eyes look a bit odd. But who could blame you for being excited? I never come here without remembering Rhazon and his crew on that long jump. The longest any Lhari captain ever made. A blind leap in the dark, remember, Bartol. Through the dark, through the void, with his own crew cursing him for taking the chance! No one had ever crossed between galaxies—and remember, they were using the Ancient Math!"
He paused, and Bart said through a catch of breath. "Quite an achievement." His badge still looked reassuringly yellow.
"You young people have no sense of wonder," Vorongil said. "Not that I blame you. You can't realize what it was like in those days. Oh, we'd had star-travel for centuries, we were beginning to stagnate. And now look at us! Oh, they derided Rhazon—said that even if he did find anyone, any other race, they'd be monsters with whom we could never communicate. But here we have a whole new galaxy for peaceful trade, a new mathematics that takes all the hazard out of space travel, our Mentorian friends and allies." He smiled. "Don't tell the High Council on me, but I think they deserve a lot more credit than most Lhari care to give them. Between ourselves, I think the next Panarch may see it that way."