It was on Portfen-day that the conehead struck the Terran.
The incident occurred at Intergalactic Spaceport Bahalia on Interval Planet Gothon and was witnessed by the one thousand and fifty people there assembled, either as incoming or outgoing war-pays passengers and those who had come to greet or say farewell. The vast Gothon sun was high in the sky, the sweet winds off the Marimnol Wastes filled with the scents of tagga and thrule, and the air was somewhat muggy, unusual for Gothon at this fifth season of its year, and somewhat debilitating, or there might have been real trouble.
As it was:
"Ought to lynch the colly!"
"Think they're as good as everyone else!"
The crowd surged forward and the conehead whirled, breathing hard. She was a pretty girl, about twenty Gothon years old, with long blonde hair and a golden skin tinted that rich color by her native sun. She wore the traditional ragged shirt and the kilt-like skirt which the younger coneheads wore almost like a badge. Her lips were parted, her nostrils flared, and her little fists were clenched in desperation.
Some of the crowd did move forward, one man flung a rock—where it was found on an Intergalactic Spaceport field, usually so neat there is not even a pebble to be seen, is still a mystery—and the chunk of stone whizzed very close to the crouching girl.
The rock hit Commander Alden Slater on the chest. It did not hurt him, its force was spent, but it jarred him into a sudden alertness. He was a big man, rangy and lean, with a hard, craggy face and long sandy hair which he matched with a handlebar mustache below his space-blue Service cap with its golden braid.
He stepped forward, stood beside the girl. "Enough," he growled. "That's quite enough."
The sight of his campaign ribbons and service epaulets gave the crowd time to think, to reconsider. Their first flush of outrage and anger oozed out of them, though a few shouted defiance.
"She's a coney!"
"A no good colonial."
"She's got to be punished!"
Commander Slater knew nothing about coneheads and colonials on Gothon, though he could make a shrewd guess, knowing the pattern that had spread across the Hegemony Worlds in the past five centuries. He understood, however, that a pretty girl was frightened half out of her wits by the threat of mob violence, and that he was her only champion. If he abandoned her, one of the hotheads would make it his business to follow her and the loofs would find her dead body in an alleyway somewhere this side of the native quarter.
"The law will take over," he shouted, both arms raised. "Now go about your business. Now! Disperse, go on."
His was a voice used to authority, the onlookers could hear it in his throat, read it in the hard blue eyes that stared them down. One by one they glanced at one another, shrugged, melted away.
Except for the man who had been slapped.
He was glowering his hate at the girl, one hand raised to his newly shaven, perfumed and powdered jaw. He was a short, stocky businessman whose clothes marked him as having come off one of the Cold Planets, and quite recently. A trickle of sweat was visible from his natty osron-fur hat to his jaw, and a scowl of pure rage furrowed his forehead and twisted his lips downward.
"I'm going to prefer charges, commander!"
Alden Slater looked at him, reading wealth in his clothes and arrogance, prejudice and hate in his quirked lips and baleful eyes. "But of course. We'll all go down to the local loof station and you can make your complaint."
The man looked uncomfortable. "No need for you to bother yourself, commander. The loofs are on their way." His elegantly manicured hand waved toward three men in law enforcement official uniforms trotting their way.
The commander smiled. "No bother at all. I'm on leave. And I happen to be a counselor permitted to practice on every planet in the Hegemony. No trouble at all, I assure you."
He glanced down at the girl who was staring up at him out of golden eyes under long blonde lashes. There was perplexity in her stare, but no fear. Instead, defiance shouted at him from every curving line of her slim body. He grinned at her and saw her eyes flicker.
"You will trust me enough to let me serve you as your counselor, won't you?” he asked softly.
She let the air out of her lungs slowly. Doubt and uncertainty toucher her oval face. She moistened red lips with her tongue and asked, “But why should you do that? What do you stand to gain? I haven't much money and—and they'll hate you for it."
Her hand waved in the air casually, reminding him of the mob that had been threatening her, moments ago. He turned as the loofs came up, one of them snapping open a taper, equipped with a miniaturized recording unit.
"Now then. What's it all about?”
The man in the fur cap growled, “This coney slapped me."
“State your name, please."
"Sylvian Porter." "Why did the colonial slap you?"
"For absolutely no reason at all. She jostled me, muttered under her breath and swung. She landed right on my cheek. Here, see her fingermarks, eh? You can see them, can't you? I want the record of their imprint to go down on the charger unit before they fade out."
"I see them," the loof nodded shortly. "They are a faint red, and show the mark of four fingers and a palm. She must have swung from her heels."
The girl stood proudly, but a pulse beat in her throat. Commander Slater watched her, seeing the haughty pride in her stiff back and back-flung shoulders.
The loof glanced at her. "Your name?"
"Correct that to, 'Aldatha Te—colonial. "
Commander Slater looked at the off-worlder. “What's the charge you intend making?"
The stout man turned on him, face purplish. "What concern is it of yours, commander? This is between the conehead, the loofs and myself.”
"I'm her attorney. Isn't that so, my dear?”
The girl glanced sideways at him out of those golden eyes. Alden Slater was vaguely surprised to feel a thrill run down his spine at the touch of her stare. She was a lovely woman, but he had known many lovely woman in the Hegemony Worlds. She nodded suddenly.
"Yes. Let the charger show that Commander—?"
"—that Commander Alden Slater is my attorney."
The three loof men looked uncomfortable. They read the campaign ribbons, the epaulettes with the four galaxies on them in solid gold. They knew the rank of this man, and if he were a lawyer as he claimed, how he must have practiced his profession before some of the highest courts in the Hegemony Worlds. They had only a little local courthouse to offer him, and a judge that was never quite certain about the opinions he handed down.
"What is your defense, commander?"
"I'm under no obligation to tell you my defense. I shall present it before the court at the proper time. Just for the record, my client will plead 'not guilty. I reserve the right to add to this plea before a proper tribunal."
"All this over a slap in the face," muttered the stout man.
"My dear man, you made the charge."
Under the brimless edge of the osron-fur cap the plump pink face darkened. “I've no time to waste on this ridiculous little case, I'm a busy man. Perhaps I should withdraw charges."
"Once the charges have been noted on the recorder unit,” Alden Slater said, "the law must take over. By taping them in the defendant's hearing, you did what used to be done by serving a summons. In other words, you have instituted criminal proceedings against this young, helpless girl."
The stout man looked uncomfortable. “I can withdraw those charges before a judge," he muttered weakly.
"Not against a colonial, unfortunately.”
The loofs looked from one man to the other, their faces grave. Perhaps they and the girl, Alden Slater thought, understood best what a hornet's nest Sylvian Porter had stirred up here on Gothon with his idiotic pride. He and the businessman were off-worlders, strangers to this planet and its latent boiling points.
He added, "It's one more example of the prejudices that the Hegemony Worlds have created with their legal blunders. When will the trial take place?"
One of the loofs shrugged. "The trial? Not for phases. But there will be a preliminary hearing—" he broke off, spoke into a portable voxer, turning away slightly, "—tomorrow morning at ten stars. You will be there?"
Commander Slater nodded. Porter shrugged impatiently and grumbled an agreement. The three loofs turned and walked away, the one with the charger unit replacing it in its leather case.
"Thank you," said the girl tonelessly.
"Not yet. Not until I clear you of this bit of stupidity."
The slanted eyes turned on him. "You will never do that. I am a conehead, as has been so loudly proclaimed. There is no justice for coneheads on Gothon. I shall be found guilty and sentenced to three phases digging for thotol in the Lethal Lands. It is all over—before it has begun."
"Oh, there may be some hope,” he said, and caught her by the elbow to guide her toward the glassine exit gates.
She pulled free, golden eyes blazing. "Keep your hands to yourself, commander! I'm no body-selling trollop for your handling."
He made a slight bow. "I apologize, miss—?"
She flushed a very delicate pink beneath her golden skin. "Aldatha Te. And—and I'm sorry, truly I am. I didn't mean to snap at you. You're the only one who's shown me any consideration outside my own quarters that—that. ..."
"Come along, we'll hire a taker and—"
She drew back, laughing bitterly. "You are a stranger! A conehead—in a taker? Don't you know that such a thing is absolutely forbidden? Takers are reserved for off-worlders or authorized service personnel. All others stay out."
He stared off across the vast spaceport, “I didn't know the situation was that bad. Shades of Martin Luther King!”
"Who is Martin Luther King?"
"A black American dead several thousand years. He died to remedy what you're facing here today. His skin was black, yours is gold."
The slanted eyes slid at him. “It isn't just the skin, you know. It's—something else."
"What would that be?" Her dimpled chin lifted. “I c—can't tell you. Not yet.” “Not until you trust me more?"
"Something like that." The eyelids rose as her look went over his craggy face. “Will you let me tell you—in my own time? Please?" "Whenever you're ready."
The spaceport was built in the form of a massive circle fully five miles in diameter. Its tarmac was of welded concrete and thotol, which made it hard and impervious to the tremendous weight of the warp-ships that dropped their crushing loads on its surface. Around its perimeter ran the low glass and steel and thotol buildings that were given over to the handling of passengers and their luggage.
Beyond the port lay the city, the hotels and the luxury shoppes, the services and the entertainment clubs, for Gothon City was a rich and thriving metropolis as interval planet cities went. Here was a stopover between the Inner and the Outer Planets, it was a long journey to one and to the other, and a period of relaxation in between was very welcome to all travelers.
Travelers spent money, when they were tempted enough, and the Gothon City merchants saw to it that they were tempted. Every service, every bit of luxurious fur—with Interval planet prices, which meant they were able to pass through customs on any Home Planet without fee-fine leathers and art masterpieces that might have cost ten times as much on Jovaline or Negatol Parmenter, all were offered for sale.
You could get pretty girls to body-sell here, without risk of any Censor Service raid to bother you. Gothon City officials knew and understood the warp-weariness of the star journeyings and were prepared to refresh man and woman in any style he or she might desire.
Behind them as they walked was the great silvery bulk of the ship that had brought Commander Alden Slater to Gothon City, on his warp-way to Hrudol planet. There were two other warpers on the liftways, big freighters, one just in from Fallfala with a shipment of luxury goods, the other about to take off for one of the Outer Planets, its holds thick with recently dug thotol.
The wind at their backs was suddenly cool. Ahead were the glassine doors of the Accommodation Building. His hand indicated the nearer of the doors. The girl went where he walked, obediently and like a child, a little behind and to one side of him. Where a conehead had been taught to walk with an off-worlder, he told himself, a little sick at heart. It was their place, there at heel.
He tried to recall what he knew about colonials and their rights, discovering that he was woefully weak on the subject; but then, all his past experience at legal practice had dealt chiefly with Space Law and its corollaries, that had grown out of what had been known, many centuries ago and was still so termed on ocean-bearing planets, maritime law.
As he walked, he grew aware that he and Aldatha Te were drawing casual glances. There was no hate in them, nothing but curiosity. Perhaps these people wondered what a Hegemony Worlds Fleet Commander might be doing with a pretty conehead in tow. Slater was certain that other off-worlders had walked with coneheads behind them, at one time or another. Colonials served as menials on the Hegemony Worlds.
Maybe they thought she was a body-seller
His jaw muscles tightened at the thought. Was the girl thinking of this, as well? Almost irritably, he swung about on her.
"There's no reason why you can't walk beside me, is there?"
"On Gothon, we coneheads know our place. It is slightly behind you, commander. I—don't want you to get into any trouble."
They walked on, beyond the vast lobby and the ramps, the high ebonite pillars and the speckled neofite walls, to the outer ramps. Here Slater paused so suddenly the girl bumped into him. Instantly she murmured an apology.
“Will you stop acting like my slave?”
She smiled faintly. "It is best I do. For both of us."
She drew a deep breath. "It would make too long a story to tell here."
"Good. Then we'll go to my hotel.”
Horror etched lines on her face. “Oh, my! No! I would not be permitted. There are caste lines on Gothon, commander. Neither of us must cross them.” She hesitated, then asked, "Your luggage? Could I get your luggage?"
"No, you may not. My luggage was sent on ahead to the Starlight Luxurine. It's there now. But I want to talk with you, I need to know more about you, more about the colonials, before I can prepare a defense."
"I have no defense. What I did was criminal."
"You must have had a reason."
"Oh, I had a reason for hitting him."
Slater hesitated, “Did he proposition you?"
Her laughter rang out. “Do you think we conehead girls hit Terrans every time they ask us to body-sell with them? This was—something else."
He waited, but she showed no inclination to speak. Finally he spread his hands, asked helplessly, "All right. You tell me, then. Where can we go to talk? And eat, if possible. I find it's been hours since I breakfasted."
She considered him, eyes narrowed. A faint challenge glittered at him out of the golden eyes. It was as if a strange wisdom watched him from those golden orbs, reached deep inside him, assayed him on psychic scales. Commander Slater grew uncomfortably aware that this girl was no shallow stream but a broad, deep river, much of which was hidden from all eyes.
"If you wish and so desire, there is a place we can go. An eating place in the mixed quarter, where men bring their—joy-girls.” A smile moved her lips, glowed in those strange eyes. "I shall be your joy-girl—in pretend, of course."
He made her a slight bow." Thank you for your trust. I shall honor it."
She gave him a quizzical look. "Walk ahead of me, then. I shall call directions, where to turn."
"Why not take hire a taker?"
"Do so if you wish."
His upraised hand signaled a three wheeler to the curb. But as he held the door open for the girl, the driver cleared his throat.
“Apologies, Terran. But I can't carry her.”
Something inside Commander Slater snarled, alive and furious. "And why not? My money is Hegemony thurlons. Good hard cash, backed by gold and thermellon. Issued by the Hegemony banks, countersigned by the Worlds Council.”
"Ain't that. She's a colly. I won't go for to call her a conehead, I don't hold with them terms. But she is a colly and I can't carry her.”
Aldatha Te smiled at Slater, but he could see the hurt in her eyes, even though the rebuff was expected. She said quietly, "It is better that we walk."
Slater slammed the taker door, gestured the man away. "How far is it? I—I'm sorry but my wounds have only healed recently, it's why I'm on sick leave, actually. Too far a walk, just as yet. ..."
He stared over her head as he spoke, hoping that she would not see the anguished pride of him. He had been a fighting commander until that battle in the Telarvian boondocks with the Krugs. Their stolen ray-guns had seared his flesh, even to the bone. It had been a near thing at Transplant Banks whether they could save his life.
On the outside, he was much the same, thanks to master surgery. But inside him and where his muscles grew, he was still weak, still only the shell of himself.
"It isn't far," she whispered, sympathy in her voice, as though she understood. "Please, just walk ahead for a little while. Soon, I will be beside you."
He walked slowly, thanking Gothon for its slightly lesser gravity. His muscles were not so strained here as they had been upon Vega 3, where it was Earth grav. To his surprise, he was not at all tired, even after he had passed beyond the rim of the spaceport area and went by way of a narrow alleyway between old houses that leaned together, where unseen eyes might peer out at him from behind small-paned little windows.
"This is the Edge, commander."
He turned, waited for her to walk up to him. "And what is the Edge?"
"A boundary line between the mixing quarter and the central district, which is polyglot, devoted to business and to travel between the Hegemony Worlds. Here, we colonials are accepted as a necessary evil. The terminal floors need brooms and mops, the spaceline offices must be dusted and cleaned. Bags must be carried, windows must be washed. You understand. You've seen colonials in other spaceports, I am sure.”
He frowned, knowing guilt. "And never noticed them."
She smiled and shook her head. “Why should a Fleet Commander notice coneheads, as we're known on Gothon? We are unobtrusive, we go our way in peace, we are—grateful—for such amounts as some of us are paid for working so hard our flesh cracks from cold or from abrasives used to tidy up the floors."
"It isn't right."
The thin eyebrows rose. “Of course it isn't right. We're human beings, same as the rest of the race. We're a little ... different. Since we've been so long on Gothon, its gravity and climate has altered our bodies, given us this golden look, our smaller size."
He smiled down at her. She spoke beautiful Galactic, with a trace of accent which he found charming. And she was very beautiful. He found his heart beating a little faster, staring down into those hazel eyes. Her own eyelashes flickered, her eyes widened, and her lips parted as if she would speak.
He forestalled her, making a little bow. "Would it be permitted me to walk beside you in the Edge?"
The laughter came into her eyes, and she inclined her head. "It would, commander. And thank you."
Now they moved between the leaning houses shoulder to shoulder. Alden Slater was so busy studying the little street doorways each with its slab of granite before it as a stepping stone, and the intriguing little windows deeply recessed in the wooden walls, that he did not notice the sidelong glances the girl was giving him. Bafflement was in her stare, and a mild disbelief.
“Who lives behind these walls, Aldatha Te?"
"The mixed ones, those of the Terran people and my own who have fallen in love and decided that they were happier together than apart, despite the Hegemony laws. Nobody bothers them here. The Terrans look down their noses at them, of course they feel they've abandoned the human race by marrying a colly—but they leave them alone so long as they behave themselves.
“And the mixers don't have any desire to call attention to themselves. Some of them work as taker-drivers. They have to be selective or they will lose their licenses, understand. They refuse to carry collys even though they may be married to one.
"Others work at mechanics to fit the spaceships out for their voyagings, or as clerks behind the terminal counters. Some of them are in business for themselves, maintaining eating places or acting as waiters, that sort of thing. Never anything too important, you see."
Bitterness was in her voice as she added, "They don't think collys or those who mate with collys can be too intelligent.”
"And that's a lie."
"How can you be sure?"
"Just by talking to you, my dear."
They walked on, through and then out of the mixer quarter. Slater saw no difference between the houses as they moved into the native section, except that the houses here were grimier, smaller. There was peeling paint to be seen, and golden children in rags, who drew back at sight of the commander in his Fleet uniform, fear and distrust in their eyes. Some of the diamond-shaped windowpanes were missing, too, he noted.
"The touch of poverty, sir," Aldatha Te commented grimly.
"A little paint, some glass, would work wonders.”
"So too, would a little food."
"Is it so bad?"
She shrugged listlessly, losing some of the brave air with which she had faced the Terran world. Here she was where she belonged, or so she felt, Slater decided. In the spaceport crowd, her hostility gave her courage and defiance, but here where she was as one with the broken windows and the peeling paint, she had nothing to sustain her courage.
"Aldatha Te—be yourself."
He grinned at her, deliberately took her hand. She reacted automatically, drawing back, trying to pull away from him. But the fire leaped into her eyes and her back stiffened. The bravery and the defiance were once more inside her, because she had something to hate: himself and his touching of her hand.
"Good,” he nodded, laughing. "That's the girl I know and—admire."
She caught her breath, eyes going big. For a moment she stared at him, the hate and despair giving way to understanding, the anger fading before realization.
He let go her hand, stood waiting.
"I can't be—this way—all the time," she whispered. “It eats inside me, being here, knowing what I've come from, where I'm going."
"And where are you going?"
"Just—here. Where I came from. I am going to walk in a circle all my life, I know it, and wind up at the starting point, which is this native quarter that I loathe!"
"Nonsense! Nobody knows the future."
She considered him, head tilted slightly. Her eyes were calm, probing, judging. "Commander Slater, tell me one thing. Are you trying to get me to body-sell to you?"
"I'm attracted to you, yes. I won't deny that. But I respect you too much to insult you. I might add that I've never bought a body in my life."
“No, you wouldn't have to," she nodded.
They went on staring at each other until Slater felt his legs tremble. "I've been walking too much," he said suddenly. "And I haven’t eaten in a long time."
She clasped her hands, muttering. "Oh! I've been so selfish. You come with me, commander. I know a place where you can eat to your heart's content, all good food, prepared by a master chef.” She hesitated, then added, “It's native food, commander. I ... I said before there was little food in the quarter, and that's true. But there is some, if folks have the wherewithal to pay for it. Still it's native food and I'm not sure how you'll react to it."
"Will you dine with me?" When she nodded, smiling, he said, "Then I'm going to love it."
He crooked his arm, offering it, not touching her, wanting the touching to come from her. Aldatha Te hesitated, then slipped her sweatered arm through his uniformed arm. Like that they moved along the cracked, broken walkway, and from time to time Alden Slater chuckled.
They came to a slightly crooked door once painted in bright scarlet but now, because of the wearing of the centuries and the infrequent but heavy rains on Gothon, together with the high winds that blew eternally off the desert, was a pale maroon. The bowed window was filled with tiny glass panes set in leaden grips. Overhead a sign swung lazily on rusting chains. On the sign, at one time, had been painted an animal unfamiliar to the commander; he assumed it was a native of the planet.
He opened the door, stepped back. The girl walked ahead of him into the nutritorium. They moved into warmth and the smells of baking breads and roasting meats, and the faint scent of strong wines. At their entrance, a girl rose from a chair in the back of the large dimly lighted room, and moved toward them.
Her eyes were glassy. And her black hair was formed into a cone on top of her head.