The Arrival by Fred Saberhagen

Then he recoiled from it momentarily; the thing was writhing, as if it might be alive, or half-alive, like a beheaded snake. Holding his breath, Jubal moved a step nearer and peered at it closely. Now it looked as dead as rubber, and he couldn’t see any head, or other organic parts.

There had been nightmares—

Forget the nightmares, and the rubbery snake as well, he had bigger problems to worry about. He was wide awake now, and he could still think. More or less. If he made an effort What kind of hospital put its patients to bed without taking off their shoes? And he registered the fact that his small borrowed flashlight still rested in one pocket of his sportcoat.

Someone must have carried him or dragged him into this chamber, and put him on this bed. But who, and why? Could he have fainted, somewhere? But he had never in his life just passed out cold.

Trying out his memory, he had to reach back for what felt like a long way before he came to anything that felt like firm ground. There was a recent Friday that felt solid enough. That was the day when Jubal and his parents had arrived on a visit to the fascinating place that old W. R. Hearst called the Ranch. The day when Jubal had talked to Marion Davies, who’d assured him that everything would be all right…

But now he felt certain, without having to think about it, that his present surroundings had no connection whatever with San Simeon. He had seen a fair number of the rooms in Casa Grande, and in the smaller houses, and all of them were certainly strange. But they were strange in ways very different from this one.

Now, slowly, more pieces of memory were coming back. The days of the weekend, Saturday and Sunday. Swimming in the Neptune Pool, going for walks with Esther, rubbing lotion on her back. Chatting with Marion, saying hello to Errol Flynn. Eating unfamiliar food from almost priceless dishes. Statues of Sekhmet that would not stand still, strange sensations. The discovery of a dead man, listening to the radio for news…

There were still some gaps. But now Jubal remembered how, on Sunday night, he had met Esther according to their arrangement, and how the two of them had gone walking together in the grounds.

According to Jubal’s plan, they had turned off the walk at what he’d thought was a nice, safe, convenient place… now he could recall all that pretty clearly. But everything that had happened after they left the walk had now faded into obscurity.

Sekhmet had been there, somehow. Jubal felt unreasonably sure of that. Every time he turned around, waking or dreaming, he seemed to run into Sekhmet…

But then somehow, at some time, for some reason, someone had carried or dragged or wheeled him into this strange place, and laid him on this peculiar bed. Did it make sense to assume that there’d been some kind of accident, and he’d been taken to a hospital? All right, this didn’t really look like a hospital. But what else could it be?

What bothered him most immediately was the fact that here was very strange.

He was surrounded by the silence, an almost eerie silence, the blue walls and ceiling, patterned with smooth white triangular panels that gave off a gentle, even light. And the two open doorways. Soon he was going to have to take a good look through them.

Coming to in a regular hospital after his tonsillectomy, years ago, Jubal had been sick, and he wasn’t sick now. At least he wasn’t nauseated. On the other hand, he was perfectly sure that he wasn’t completely right.

The temperature of the air in this peculiar environment was comfortable, and its atmosphere held hints—but only hints—of strange, exotic odors. But the smells were not the never-to-be-forgotten hospital blend of sickness and disinfectants. These were even sharper, stranger things. Where was Esther now? And where was he?

Once more Jubal looked around him, this time seeking actively for clues, trying seriously to take stock of the room. It hardly deserved to be called a room, being only an enclosed space no more than eight or nine feet wide. Looking over the foot of the bunk, he stood facing one of its blank walls, and it was next to that wall that a pair of door-sized apertures, one on the right side and one on the left, offered opportunities for exploration.

Still Jubal remained standing close beside his bunk. It ought to be perfectly easy to chose one of the doorways, move a couple of strides to his right or left, look through it, and very likely be able to find out where he was. But for some reason he felt frightened of what he might discover.

Instead of moving, he called out for Esther, trying her name several times, a little louder each time, with no result And then he called out a sharp Halloo for anyone who might happen to be listening.

This second effort brought a response. It was a strange, wounded sound, making him think of injured girls and dying cats, though not, thank God, of any noise associated with moving statues. But Jubal couldn’t tell whether it had reached him through the right doorway or the left.

Doing his best to move quietly, which was easy enough on this dull gray floor with its slightly yielding surface, Jubal went through the opening on his left, for no particular reason other than his impression that the light entering his chamber from that direction was slightly brighter than that coming through the other doorway.

He went through, and then immediately stopped, realizing that he must be aboard some kind of ship or aircraft. The compartment he had now entered was approximately the same size as that in which he had awakened, but here the shape was distinctly different. This one suggested to his inexperienced mind the cockpit or control cabin of a big airplane, though he saw no recognizable controls of any kind, no joystick or steering wheel or rudder pedals. A pair of seats, rather oddly shaped as Jubal thought, were placed facing a broad glassy surface like a windshield, with below it another surface planed and angled like the dashboard of an automobile, the latter studded with lighted gauges or instruments, indicators of some kind that indicated nothing to Jubal.

Just outside the windshield—if that was the right name for the frontal glass in this kind of vehicle—was a small lump on the hull housing a bright light. The light was blinking in a regular pattern, red, green, blue, red, green, blue, sending intermittent flashes and beams of brilliance pulsing away into the darkness. Out in front of the ship there seemed at first glance to be nothing but endless gloom, speckled in the distance, directly ahead, by a very few faint blue stars.

There was no visual clue to suggest that the ship was moving, but he supposed it might be. He had heard of automatic pilots being used on airplanes, though he had no idea how such a device might work.

One of the items on the dashboard was like nothing that Jubal had ever seen before—perhaps it was some kind of a gauge. It bore a little glowing image that he would have sworn was a solid object, a rotating block or cube, and he moved closer, caught up in a momentary fascination. But when he tried to touch the spinning cube, his cautious finger went right through it. Snatching back his hand, he inspected it fearfully, but nothing had happened to his finger.

This was in its own small way a wonderful event, but still Jubal almost immediately forgot all about it. Because the broad, high, glassy screen or window above the instrument panel offered what he had to accept as a look at the outside world.

And the world it showed him, when he began to consider it seriously, was bizarre indeed.

For a few yards beyond the windshield, or window, the view was almost what a sharp lad from Earth might have expected, once he realized that he was getting his first ride in a spaceship. There was an indeterminate amount of, well, space, and just outside and below the windshield the suggestion of a bulge representing the ship’s nose. But beyond that…

What Jubal saw when he tried to look into the distance in any direction was not a landscape of any kind. Nor was it a sky of any type that he could recognize, because it was neither blue, nor cloudy. The only stars in sight were the bluish handful dead ahead. He could not call the space immediately around them either bright or dark. Rather it was a kind of pure distortion, as if in that direction the entire universe turned, at some unfathomable distance, into cloudy glass. A distortion that tormented the eyes, not with physical pain but with a psychological discomfort, bred out of its uncertain depths and distances, and the seeming impossibility of bringing any part of it clearly into focus.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred