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HOME > Science Fiction > The Colors of Space > CHAPTER TWELVE
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 After the first moment of panic, Bart realized Montano could not tell him from a Lhari. He remained motionless. "It's me, Montano—Bart Steele."  
The man lowered the weapon and put it away. "You nearly got yourself cut down," he said. "Did you make it all right?" He crossed behind Bart, inspecting the fastenings of the bunker.
"It's just luck I didn't shoot you first and ask questions afterward." Montano drew a deep breath and sat down on the concrete floor. "Anyway, we're safe in here. We've got about half an hour before the radiation will reach lethal intensity. It has a very short half-life, though; only about twelve minutes. If we spend an hour in here, we'll be safe enough. Did you have any trouble putting the radiation counter out of commission?"
So in half an hour they would all be dead. Ringg, Rugel, Captain Vorongil. Two dozen Lhari, all dead so that Montano could have a Lhari ship to play with.
And what then? More killing, more murder? Would Montano start killing everyone who tried to get the secret of the drive from him? The Lhari had the star-drive; maybe it belonged to them, maybe not. Maybe humans had a right to have it, too. But this wasn't the right way. Maybe they didn't deserve it.
He turned to look at Montano. The man was leaning back, whistling softly through his teeth. He felt like telling Montano that he couldn't go through with it. He started to speak, then stopped, his blood icing over.
If I try to argue with him, I'll never get out of here alive. It means too much to him.
Do I just salve my conscience with that then? Sit here and let them die?
With a shock of remembrance, it came to Bart that he had a weapon. He was armed, this time, with the energon-beam that was part of his uniform. Montano had evidently forgotten it. Could he kill Montano? Even to save two dozen Lhari?
He reached hesitantly toward the beam-gun, quickly thumbed the catch down to the lowest point, which was simple shock. He froze as Montano looked in his direction, hand out of sight under his cloak.
"How many Lhari on board?"
"Twenty-three, and three Mentorians."
"Anyone apt to be behind shielding—say, in the drive chamber?"
"No, I think they're all outside."
Montano nodded, idly. "Then we won't have to worry."
Bart slipped his hand toward his weapon. Montano saw the movement, cocked his head in question; then, as understanding flashed over his face, his hand darted to his own gun. But Bart had pressed the charge of his, and Montano slumped over without a cry. He looked so limp that Bart gasped. Was he dead? Hastily he fumbled the lax hand for a pulse. After a long, endless moment he saw Montano's chest twitch and knew the man was breathing.
Well, Montano would be safe here in the bunker. Hastily, Bart looked at his timepiece. Half an hour before the radiation was lethal—for the Lhari. Was it already, for him? Shakily, he unfastened the door. He ran out into the glare, seeing as he ran that his badge was tinged with an ever-darkening, gold, orange....
Montano had said there was a safety margin, but maybe he was wrong, maybe all Bart would accomplish would be his own death! He ran back along the line of bunkers, his heart pounding with his racing feet. Two crewmen came along the line, young white-crested Lhari from the other watch. He gasped, "Where is the captain?"
"Down that way—what's wrong, Bartol?" But Bart was gone, his muscles aching with the unaccustomed effort inside gravity. Putting on speed, he saw the tall, austere shape of Vorongil, his banded cloak dark against the glaring light. Vorongil turned, startled, at the sound of his running feet.
Suddenly, Bart realized that he was still holding his energon-ray. In shock and revulsion, he dropped it at Vorongil's feet.
"Captain, go warn the men! They'll all be dead in half an hour! There are lethal radiations—"
"What? Are you sunstruck?"
Bart stopped cold. Never once had it crossed his mind what he would say to Vorongil or how he would make the captain believe his story, without revealing Montano. He started to hold up his badge, realized the Lhari captain could not see color, and dropped it again, while Vorongil bent over to pick up the fallen gun. "Are you sunstruck or mad, Bartol? What's this babble?"
"Captain, everybody on the Swiftwing—"
"And speak Lhari!" Vorongil demanded, and Bart realized that in his excitement he had been shouting in Universal. He drew a long, deep breath.
"Captain, there are lethal radiations being released here," he said. "You have just barely half an hour to gather all the men and get them behind shielding."
"The radiation counter is out of order," Vorongil remarked, unruffled. "How can you possibly know—"
Bart stood in despair. Could he say, A ship has landed here? Could he say, Check that bunker? Even if Montano was a would-be murderer, he was human, and Bart could not betray him to the Lhari. There had been too much betrayal. His voice rose in sudden hysteria.
"Captain, there's no time! I tell you, you'll all be dead if you don't believe me! Get the men into the ship! Get them behind shielding and then check my story! I'm not—" he had gone this far, he might as well go the whole way—"I'm not a Lhari!"
One of the crewmen came dashing up, his crest sweat-streaked. "Captain! Rugel has collapsed! We don't know what's wrong with him."
"Radiation sickness," said Bart, and Vorongil reached out, catching his shoulder in a cruel taloned grip. Bart said desperately "I'm not a Lhari! I signed on in disguise—I knew they meant to take the ship, but I can't let you all die.
"How can I make you believe me? Here—" In desperation, Bart reached up. Pain stabbed his eyeballs, fierce, blinding, as he pulled out one of the contact lenses. He could not see the captain's face through the light, but suddenly two Lhari were holding his arms. The fear of death was on Bart, but it no longer mattered. He saw through watering eyes the ever-deepening orange of the badge disappearing.
"Here," he said, tearing at it, "radiation. You must be able to see how dark it is. Even if it's just darkness...."
Suddenly Vorongil was shouting, but Bart could not hear. Two men were dragging him along. They hustled him up the ramp of the ship. He could see again, but his eyes were blurred, and he felt sick, colors spinning before his eyes, a nauseated ringing in his head.
At first he thought it was his ears ringing; then he made out the rising, shrieking wail and fall of the emergency siren, steps running, shouting voices, the slow clang of the doors. Someone was pushing at him, babbling words in Lhari, but he heard them through an ever-increasing distance: Vorongil's face bent over his, only a blurred crimson blob that flashed away like a vanishing star in the viewport. It flamed out into green darkness, vanished, and Bart fell through what seemed to be a bottomless chasm of starless night.
When he woke, acceleration had its crushing hand on his chest. He tried to move, discovered that he was strapped hard into a bunk, and fainted again.
Suddenly the pressure was gone and he was lying at ease on the smooth sheets of a hospital bunk. His eyes were covered with a light bandage, and there was a sharp pain in his left arm. He tried to move it and found it was tied down.
"I think he's coming round," said Vorongil's voice.
"Yes, and a lot too soon for me," said a bitter voice which Bart recognized as that of the ship's medic. "Freak!"
"Listen, Baldy," said Vorongil, "whoever he is, he could have been blinded or killed. You wouldn't be alive now if it wasn't for that freak, as you call him. Bartol, can you hear me? How much light can your eyes stand?"
"As much as any Mentorian." Bart found he could move his right arm, and twitched the bandage away. Vorongil and the medic stood over him; in the other infirmary bunk a form was lying, covered with a white sheet. Sickly, Bart wondered if they had found Montano. Vorongil followed the direction of his eyes.
"Yes," he said, and his voice held deep bitterness, "poor old Rugel is dead. He didn't get much of the radiation, but his heart wouldn't stand it, and gave out." He bowed his head. "He was bald in the service of the ships when my crest was new-sprouted," he said in deep grief.
Bart felt the shock of that, even through his own fear. He looked down at his left arm. It was strapped to a splint, and fluid was dripping slowly into the vein there.
Vorongil nodded. "I expect you feel pretty sick. You got a good dose of radiation yourself, but we've given you a couple of transfusions—one of the Mentorians matched your blood type, fortunately. It was a close call."
The medic was looking down in ill-disguised curiosity. "Fantastic," he said. "I don't suppose you'd tell me who changed your looks. I admit I wouldn't believe it until I had a look at your foot bones under the fluoroscope."
Vorongil said quietly, "Bartol—I don't suppose that's your real name—why did you do it?"
"I couldn't see you all die, sir," Bart said, not expecting them to believe him. "No more than that."
The medic said roughly in Lhari, "It's a trick, sir, no more. A trick to make us trust him!"
"Why would he risk his own life then?" Vorongil asked. "No, it's more than that." He hesitated. "We checked the bunkers—in radiation suits—before we took off. We found a man in one of them."
"Was he dead?" Bart whispered.
"No," Vorongil said quietly.
"Thank God!" It was a heartfelt explosion. Then, apprehensively, "Or did you kill him?"
"What do you think we are?" Vorongil said incredulously. "Indeed no. His own men have probably found him by now. I don't imagine he got half as much radiation as you did."
Bart surveyed the needle in his arm. "Why are you taking all this trouble if I'm going to be put out of the way?"
"You must have some funny ideas about us," Vorongil said shaking his head. "That would be a fine way to reward you for saving all of our lives. No, you're not going to be killed."
"If I had my way—" the old medic began, and suddenly Vorongil flew into a rage. "Get out!"
The medic went stiffly through the door, and Vorongil stood gazing down at Bart, shaking his yellowed crest. "I don't know what to say to you. It was a brave thing you did, but perhaps no braver than you've done all along. Are you a Mentorian?"
"Only half."
"Strange," Vorongil said, looking into space, "that I could talk to you as I did by the monument, and you knew what I meant. But, yes, you would understand." Abruptly, he recalled himself, and his voice was thin and cold.
"I haven't quite decided what to do. I haven't spoken of this to the crew yet; the fewer who know about this, the better. I told them you got a heavy dose of radiation, and you're too sick to see visitors." He sounded kinder when he said, "It's true, you know. It won't hurt you to get your strength back."
He went out, and Bart wondered, Get my strength back for what? He lay back, feeling weaker than he realized. It was a relief to know he wasn't going to be killed out of hand. And somehow he didn't believe he was going to be killed at all.
It wasn't like being a prisoner. The medic brought him plenty of food, urging him to eat—"You need plenty of protein after radiation burns"—and if he stayed in the bunk, it was only because he felt too weak to get up. Actually he was suffering from delaye............
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