The Colors of Space
Copyright© 2016 by Marion Zimmer Bradley
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.