Color Blind by Charles A. Stearns

COLOR BLIND
By CHARLES A. STEARNS
For that elusive green-white glamour, go to Venus,
the ads urged vain women. But that was only half
the story—just ask olive-skinned Sukey Jones.

[Transcriber’s Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories Summer 1954.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

Her name was Sukey Kireina Jones, and the blood of South Asia was in her veins. Mix that with the Celtic, brother, and you’ve got something special. Her eyes were dark, and mostly a little sad; her hair was black as the Rim, and she stood barely five feet in heels, unless you count the curves, which, if Nature had been fool enough to straighten them out, would have added quite a lot—and taken away a lot too.

We called her Sukey, and kidded her some, and what made her so beautiful was, she didn’t know it.

I had found her hanging around the Surface Transit offices, broke and alone, and got her the job as counter girl in the Company hash house on the edge of the space-port. That was where she met my friend, Harry Thurbley.

Harry, was a licensed senior space pilot, but he would never let any of us call him Captain Thurbley. He said the title sounded pompous, and who the hell was he, anyway. The squarest guy I ever met, but you would have thought that he was ashamed of that blue uniform. Me, Chuck Morris, I am only an engineer—a space going mechanic—and I would have given my share in the cosmic hereafter to wear it. I would have strutted some.

But uniform or no uniform, I wouldn’t have stood a chance with Sukey Jones. From the moment those two set eyes on one another, she had been Harry’s girl. I used to wonder how it would have been with her and me if I had never introduced them. Just wondering.

In those days there had got to be a heavy Venus passenger traffic. It had become fashionable for Earth women to bleach their skin to match their hair, and the coveted greenish-white paleness they wanted could only be accomplished, it seemed, by spending several months under the sunless Venusian overcast, with its odd radiations.

Caterers to this fad left in scores for Venus. Tourist lodgings and recreational facilities sprang up on the frontier planet. Beauty got to be big business overnight.

This was only available to women with considerable money, of course. A round trip ticket cost just under twelve thousand dollars, and high living, on Venus, came high indeed.

Their poor sisters had recourse only to special lamps and lotions to simulate the pallor of the movie stars and the debutantes. It was not the same. Not in their own minds. It was the dream of every woman to make the pilgrimage, and not a few spent their life savings, embezzled, stowed away, or even sold themselves to Venusian white slavers for the chance of that elusive glamour.

Sukey’s skin was of a wonderful, delicate olive shade, and she hated it. Whenever one of the female travelers would come in to eat, looking ghostly pale and opulent in their Martian lizard-skin coats, Sukey Jones would sigh. I could tell that in her small body there was a man-sized inferiority complex building up, but I didn’t mention it to Harry. He would only have worried about her.

He was thoughtful of Sukey, and many a time when we got in, and he had business with Customs or the Port Authority, he would say to me, “Chuck, go and see Sukey for me, and tell her I’ll be along.”

And as for Sukey Jones, she may not have been overly bright, but that kind of treatment had been a rare thing in her twenty-three years of hard knocks. She worshipped Harry Thurbley.

That night in March we had set the Altair down on the field just after dusk. Harry had business at the Office, and I was to drop in and see Sukey first and let her know that he’d be in later. I didn’t mind. I was always glad to do it.

I went into the restaurant, and the place was crowded with passengers for the 2200 Marsflight. I couldn’t find Sukey. There was a strange girl behind the cash register. I asked her about it, and she said she didn’t know anything; she had just been hired.

So I finally got Linda, one of the waitresses, aside, and got the story from her.

Seemed there had been a couple of women—society dames in from Venus on the Saturday run—and Sukey had heard one of them make a remark about her complexion. It was nothing much, just a whispered knife of criticism, but Sukey had flared up. Then the woman got really insulting, and Sukey had reached over the cash register and pulled out a big handful of her platinum locks.

That grab had cost her her job.

I went to her apartment, in a ramshackle tenement a couple of blocks away, and knocked on the door. A girl who claimed to be her roommate answered, and said that Sukey had moved out. She wasn’t supposed to tell me where Sukey had gone if my name was Harry.

I said, who was Harry. I was an insurance claim adjuster, and had some money for her.

Sukey had gone to live with a Mrs. Althea Campbell. The address was 1711 Oak Drive. That was all the roommate knew.

Harry was waiting down at the office when I got back there. I told him what I had learned, and we caught a coptercab out to 1711 Oak Drive. I remember it was on a Thursday. That turned out to be kind of important.

It was almost ten o’clock when we arrived, but the lights were still on, and 1711 turned out to be quite a palace. “I didn’t know Sukey had any friends like that!” I said.

Harry didn’t answer. His mouth was a firm, tight line. He was still thinking of Sukey running out on him.

I pressed the button, and an egg-headed man in a monkey suit answered. He was the butler; you could tell that.

“A Miss Sukey Jones live here?” I said.

His eyebrows elevated half an inch. “There is a young woman employed here,” he said. “I regret to say that this is her night off, and she is not here.”

“Employed,” I said to Harry. “She must have hired as a private secretary or something.”

I doubt if the stiff in livery had smiled in years. He shouldn’t have tried it. It almost cost him his teeth. “Hardly anything so grand as that,” he said. “The girl is Mrs. Campbell’s personal maid.”

Harry was silent for a moment. I waited for him to speak. We looked at each other.

“Maybe we ought to talk to this Althea Campbell,” I suggested.

The woman was nearer to forty than thirty, and she could have been handsome once. Even now her shape wouldn’t have been bad if she’d taken off forty pounds. The poundage was unnatural and flabby, and her skin was blotched and unpleasant. She was a faded, natural blonde, I would say, but her hair was red now.

Harry was always polite. He went forward and introduced us. She was wearing a silk wrapper a couple of sizes too small, and she didn’t get up to greet us.

Still, she didn’t seem to be displeased by an unexpected visit by two males at 10:00 p.m. The look she gave Harry was as if she might eat him. Harry never seemed to notice how it was with women when he came into a room, but I could see it, raw and naked, on her face.

She was a widow, and Sukey had been working for her a week. Harry said he knew of a job in the Company office that he could get for Sukey, and he asked Mrs. Campbell to let her go, without telling her we’d been there.

Mrs. Campbell’s face took on a little color, making it appear more mottled than ever. And her voice was too shrill to be comfortable. She said that maids were very difficult to find this day and time, and that if Sukey didn’t mind it, we shouldn’t mind either. She wouldn’t give her up.

“Let’s wait and see what Sukey has to say about it,” I suggested.

Harry shook his head. “We can’t do that. She mustn’t know we’ve been here, Chuck.”

“Why? Servants may be out of date, but there’s nothing disgraceful about honest labor.”

“Of course not,” Harry said. “But to Sukey it must be embarrassing. That’s why she didn’t let me know what she was doing, don’t you see? It must have been that.”

Well, it was logical enough. And that was Harry for you. Always thinking first of Sukey’s feelings, whereas I would probably have turned her across my knee. But we had to do something.

We were going to be in port for three weeks, and Harry made an appointment to come back the following Thursday, when Sukey was away from the house, and try to reason once more with Althea Campbell.

Harry went back the next week, and the week after that, and he wasn’t having any luck, but he said that at least he could make sure that Sukey was still all right.

Meanwhile I did some snooping, and I found out several things about Mrs. Campbell. She was worth eighteen and a half million bucks, and she had spent half that much trying to regain a face, and figure, and complexion of twenty years ago, that she probably remembered better than they were.

I talked to one of her former servants and learned that Sukey could expect a hard time working for her. The woman was a kind of sadist with servants, but Sukey would put up with anything to get what she wanted, and I knew what it was she was after now. I knew why she had taken the job.

After I had learned this, I put in a visicall to the Oak Drive mansion. The butler’s face appeared on the screen. I was too late.

I got hold of Harry as quick as I could, but I could see right away that he had already found out.

Mrs. Campbell had taken Sukey Jones and left last night for Venus.

I had known Harry Thurbley for ten years, and he was a phlegmatic sort. He had the kind of unshakable calm and nerve you only find in a man that’s made peace with death a couple of times or so out beyond the planets. Once I had seen him walk into a mining power plant on Callisto and disarm a runaway pile that was due to explode in three minutes and blast away half the moon.

When he came out he hadn’t even been sweating.

But he was upset now. I tried to calm him, but I guess he had a hunch. I had spent several years on Venus and knew the place as well as any Terran. I tried to persuade him that Sukey Jones wouldn’t be in any danger so long as they stuck to the civilized northern part, but he didn’t seem to half hear what I was saying.

A month passed, and we made another trip beyond the Belt. When we got back there was still no Sukey, and not even a letter. Harry and I went into the Super’s office and talked him into a transfer to the Venus run for one trip.

It was less than five days later that we set the Altair down on the surface of the White Planet at Medea, the biggest port city on Venus. The low, spidery towers of the native architects of old were crowded and overshadowed by Earthstyle skyscrapers which had grown up, mostly, since the last time I had seen Venus, fifteen years ago.

It was Harry’s first trip to the sister planet of Earth, and he seemed surprised at the mushrooming civilization. But he still couldn’t rest until we’d given the ship into the hands of the ground crew and gone to hunt Sukey and her mistress.

Mrs. Campbell, we discovered, had checked in at the Majestic Hotel for one week, and left, giving no forwarding address. After that she had been heard from in two or three of the border cities. She had made the rounds of all the beauty parlors and quack establishments in town. This was her fourth trip to Venus, and all of the merchants knew her by sight.

But she was not, currently, visiting any of these places. It seemed that Althea Campbell, a couple of days ago, had disappeared, which was nothing to me, except that she had taken a tiny girl named Sukey Jones with her.

Mrs. Campbell may have had acquaintances about Venus, but not many friends. Especially among the natives, whom she loathed and treated like scum. The natives of the temperate belts were humanoid, and though primitive in culture, fairly intelligent.

They were thin, and not too bad-looking if you could get used to the fish-belly whiteness of their scaly skins, and a partial lack of symmetry in their bodies, such as having one eye a couple of sizes bigger than the other one.

It was from one of the Venusians that we found our first clue. He was Argol Beg, the head of the native Security Police, an individual with silvery, heavy-lidded eyes, and long, nervous, quadruple-jointed fingers.

He mentioned a name that I had heard a long time ago, and forgotten. Marjud. Marjud had been one of the rebel chieftains who had fought against the Alliance in the late Venerian sectional war, and now was outlawed from the Northern settlements.

I call him a man, but I had seen pictures of Marjud once, and there were features about that gross body of his that no one except a Venusian would believe. He was a native of the steaming jungles of the torrid zone, a forbidden area where the native form mysteriously shifted and changed from generation to generation for reasons at which the anthropologists could only guess. His race was still barbaric, for the most part, which was why it was off limits.

It seemed that Marjud was now in the beauty racket. That could have handed me a laugh, except that we were too worried about Sukey.

We got a newspaper, the Medean Times, and sure enough, there was his ad, in scrambled English that hadn’t even been changed by the proofreader.

See Marjud, High Priest of Love and Beauty
It Is for a Smooth, White Appearance and I
Will Give You the Limbs Long and Pale,
and Also Supple and Graceful.

The address of the contact man was given. I asked Argol Beg why he had not arrested Marjud. But Marjud’s man had set up in the Colonial Quarter, where Argol Beg had no authority, and he was not wanted by the Earth colonial police.

“Come on,” I said to Harry. “Let’s see if we can locate the old gargoyle.” Harry was pretty worried by this time, and he didn’t half understand what was going on, not knowing Venus.

“I’m with you, whatever you say,” he said.

We visited the address given in the ad, and got to talk to a normal-appearing native with slit eyes and a fishy stare. He said that Marjud saw only Terran females, and he couldn’t help us.

I persuaded him to change his mind in a few minutes, and then he told us that Marjud was staying in a dhol cave outside the city. The dhol caves were made by a long-dead, semi-intelligent race of quadrupeds, and it wasn’t uncommon for the none-too-particular Venusians to set up housekeeping in them.

There was a guard hanging around the entrance to this one. The contact man pointed out the guard and fled. The guard argued and I had to slug him with the butt of my gun. Harry went over and looked at him.

He turned to me and his face was clammy white. It was one of the equatorial species.

“What’s the matter?” I said.

“What is it?”

I told him. “Marjud is worse,” I said.

“Stay here, Chuck,” he said, drawing his own weapon. “If I don’t come out within five minutes, come in blasting.”

I started to argue, but I knew that he really wanted it that way. I had more experience at the rough and tumble arts, but he had taken a back seat so far, and it was his right. It was for Sukey.

I waited, while the minutes dragged. Just as I was ready to go in, Harry came out. There was a sick look on his face that I had never seen before. He was one of those people who can’t stand the sight of freaks or anomalies.

He took a deep breath of that damp, heavy, tasteless air, as though it were wine.

“You found him?”

“It was like—like hitting a—a—” He gagged.

“I know,” I said. “I saw a picture of him once. What did you learn?”

“Probably it doesn’t make any sense. She—Mrs. Campbell—gave him ten thousand dollars, Colonial money. I got that much out of him. In return he arranged for them to visit what he calls a ‘sacred rainbow garden’, whatever that means, near the equator. I got the approximate location of the place.”

For the first time I got plenty scared. I knew about the rainbow gardens, all right. On most of the surface of Venus the direct rays of Sol never penetrated the numerous layers of poisonous clouds that shielded and sheltered the livable atmosphere and the mild, though dreary climate underneath. But in certain areas curious updrafts allowed small shafts of sunlight to reach the surface. The areas were never large, but wherever the light struck, the effect upon a drab, colorless world was like magic.

For a reason that science had never been able to learn, objects on Venus, whenever exposed to direct sunlight, instead of giving off white light, diffracted it into its spectral components, and showed up in gorgeous, blinding hues. Also, the vegetation within these charmed areas was subtly changed. The constant, radiant mist caused the trees and plants to take on warped, nightmarish shapes.

The natives worshipped the rainbow gardens, and bathed in the colored mists that eternally swept up into the blackness of space from the surface.

I didn’t want to upset Harry, but I had spent enough years on Venus to hear a lot of curious stories that had circulated through the north about those strange regions.

“Come on,” I said, “we’d better not waste any time.”

We had been able to charter an old-fashioned flutter-plane, which could land more or less vertically, and Harry had the approximate longitude of the place from Marjud.

We could see it a long way off, fortunately, and it was like a big waterspout, except for its preternatural straightness, reaching up in a silvery, swirling column through the gray cloud layer twelve miles overhead.

He didn’t swing the flutter-plane too near to it. The updrafts around it, at this altitude, were supposed to move at terrific speed, and could shatter even a rocketship.

There was some kind of gray stone building rising out of the gray-green forest at the foot of the column, and we landed a quarter of a mile away, so as not to attract attention. We walked in, and in a few minutes were able to make out the domes of the temple rising over the tops of the trees.

The masonry was of a rough, dark basalt, crude and unbeautiful. The work of the primitive tribes that lived in the area. I had heard of giant towers and spired old cities which were supposed to have been the work of an ancient, long-dead, and highly evolved race, but there had never been any evidence of such places. Probably these native temples had started the stories. There was plenty of reason to believe that the planet Venus was new and in the first evolution when men from Earth arrived.

Behind the temple itself rose a fifty foot wall of the same undistinguished stone, and inside this wall the mysterious column of mist rose. Within that mist lay the rainbow garden.

The only entrance appeared to be through the temple itself.

We were in an enormous rotunda, a sort of congregational throne room where thousand of natives might gather during the orgies that were irregularly held.

There was not a living thing in sight in all that domed vastness. Hundreds of idols of obscure primitive gods lined the walls.

Harry cupped his hands to his mouth. “Anybody here?” The words bellowed and bounced against the lofty ceiling, echoing and reechoing. And they got results right away.

From somewhere among those shadows at the other end of the room there was a blue flash. The air crackled and fried near my ear. We flopped on the floor and returned the fire. There was a scream. One of us had made a lucky hit. We waited ten minutes and advanced.

We found the body of a Venusian in colonial garb, one of the slim, regular-featured northern tribesmen. I knew that he must be Marjud’s agent, for Northerners were rarely found in these latitudes if they could help it.

Beyond the dead Venusian lay a narrow passageway that must lead to the inner chambers.

Harry wanted to rush the place. “Take it easy,” I said. “These boys are tricky, and they have little poison spears that kill on contact. There’s bound to be a few of them hanging around the garden—the priests. That was Marjud’s underling back there. We haven’t met the natives yet.”

We met them right away. Three of them had been waiting for us in a sort of transept. Something—a blunt hatchet probably—bounced off my shoulder and sent a sharp pain through it. I swung my fist and caught the assailant in his skeleton midriff, doubling him up. I could only see the outline of his shape in that gloom, and I didn’t like it. It was out of a nightmare. Harry was having better luck. He shoved the muzzle of his gun into the Venusian’s belly and burned a hole through him.

The other one tried to run, but he didn’t get far.

Harry was breathing hard. He grinned at me. “You okay?” he said.

“I’ll have a shoulder that’s sore as hell for a while,” I said, “but let’s go.”

A dozen passageways led from the main one. “Where do we look first?” Harry wanted to know.

“We’d better split up. That way we can cover more territory.”

“I don’t like to leave you alone with that bum shoulder.”

“Forget it. If there were any more around, they’ve cleared out by now. Get going.”

I had a pocket light that I used in the darkest passages. Most of the cloisters and compartments were empty, and didn’t look as though they’d been used in years.

At the end of one passageway I found the rooms of the priests, very sparsely furnished, and from there I got a glimpse from a narrow ventilation slit at the garden itself. The colored mists and the weird trees. But no animate being was moving out there.

In the last room, the door was barred with a crude, vertical bolt. I blasted off the bar, and opened the door. Behind it I found Sukey Jones.

She stood there looking scared, and not believing that it was really me. Her eyes were big as dollars.

And when she was sure, the way she threw herself at me and hugged me, it was embarrassing.

“Chuck, Chuck! I never thought I’d see you again. I never—I’m so—!” And that was all I got out of her for the next couple of minutes. I gave her my handkerchief to dab at her eyes, and I got the story at last.

She had been there two days without food and water, locked in.

They had arrived a week ago, and during that time she had seen nothing except the interior of this room.

Althea Campbell had heard rumors of the rainbow gardens, and that the natives, by bathing in the radiation given off by the colored mists, were able to restore youth and vigor for long periods of time. She had seen the chance of restoring her own body to its youthful bloom and of working the miracle that she had sought for so many years on half a dozen planets. She had sought out Marjud, who alone had contacts that could get them into the forbidden area.

“I still don’t get it,” I said. “Where is she now, and why has she got you locked in here?”

“I was afraid after we arrived, and I didn’t want to do it. She said we had to take off our clothes and go with the priests into the rainbow garden. I refused, and she slapped me and said that I was impertinent and ungrateful. I threatened to run away and tell the authorities, so they locked me in here.

“The she-devil!” I said.

“Oh, she’s really not so bad,” said Sukey, forgivingly. “It’s just that she’s a little mad when it comes to being young and beautiful. She was forever talking about the way her arms and legs looked, and all, and crying, and bawling me out.”

“Come on,” I said. “Let’s find Harry and get out of here.”

Her lip quivered. “H-Harry? Is he here too?”

“Somewhere,” I said, trying to frown at her, and not succeeding, “and worried to death. If I was him I would skin you alive.”

“I just wanted a chance to come to Venus. That’s why I took the job as maid to Mrs. Campbell. I knew that she was tremendously wealthy and came to Venus every year to the beauty culturists.”

I didn’t press the subject. The sky over Venus hadn’t faded her complexion much, luckily.

It was still fine, even if she did look a little beat.

We went out into the hallway and I yelled for Harry. He answered. He seemed to be outside.

I looked out one of the ventilation slits. He was standing out there with his back to me, looking into the rainbow garden. The mists were rising in wispy colors here and there, and I could tell without looking at my chrono that the long Venusian night was approaching, for the distorted shapes of the trees were vague, and could no longer be seen more than a few yards away.

“Up here!” I said. And he looked up.

He pointed to the garden. “Thought I heard somebody calling out there,” he said, pointing.

“Don’t go away,” I said. “And don’t go in there, whatever you do. I’ll be right out.”

I grabbed Sukey’s arm. “We’ll surprise him,” I told her.

Sukey Jones came up from behind Harry and put her hand on his arm. He turned and they just looked at each other for the space of half a minute.

Harry’s voice was kind of choked. He said, “Sukey, I—”

And then we all heard it. It was a woman crying. The sound came from the garden. Harry took a step toward the mists.

“Wait,” I said. And I shouted, “Mrs. Campbell, is that you?”

“Here!” Her voice was faint and plaintive. Just as I had remembered it.

“Come on out. We’ve come to take you home.”

“I—I can’t.”

“How long has she been in there?” I asked Sukey. “Do you know?”

“All of the time, I suppose.”

I shook my head. “It’s risky business, but we can’t leave her, I suppose. I’ll go in.”

“I can’t let you do that,” Harry said. “I’m the logical one to go. Listen!” We could hear her crying. A vexed, lost-little-girl sound.

I shoved Harry aside. “You don’t know what you’re getting into,” I said. “Take Sukey, and—”

That was the first and only time that Harry ever swung at me. The first thing I knew, I was sitting on the ground with my head spinning.

Harry was looking down at me and grinning sardonically. “I hated to do that, Chuck,” he said, “but you see, it has to be me that goes after her.”

He turned and took both of Sukey’s thin shoulders in his hands. He couldn’t speak for a while. His eyes were talking, though; saying they were awfully sorry. And then he took a couple of steps into that colored mist before he stopped and looked back.

He was still smiling, but it was a secret smile. He said, “It’s too bad, Sukey, but you know, eighteen million bucks are eighteen million bucks.”

“What the—?” I said.

“Harry, darling, is that you?” The voice of Mrs. Campbell was closer now.

“Coming, Althea dear!” he said, and laughed at me. “Do you suppose I wasted all those Thursdays, Chuck?” he said. “‘Bye. Take care of Sukey for me. Althea and I’ll be along later.”

He turned his back on us and went deeper into the mists, calling her name, spreading the bushes with his hands and trying to see her.

He was hazy now, hardly visible.

But I saw Althea Campbell just an instant before he did. She came out of the rainbow mist from behind him, and her now-blonde hair glimmered with reds and greens, and blues and gold and purple. Her naked body was snow white. She had got her money’s worth, I suppose. Marjud had promised her that pale complexion.

And the curious radiations had given her smooth legs and arms that were pearl-white and long, and supple, and graceful.

She came from behind Harry and put her arms around him.

All of them.