A slight nod of acknowledgement. “Do you understand me, Jubal?” the soft voice asked presently.
“I don’t know. I don’t know what I understand any more and what I don’t. Let’s start with where I am.”
“You are on a ship.” The voice remained patient despite its controlled pain. “Call it my ship. You will be returned. To your home. In good time.”
“Not the kind of ship that sails the watery ocean.” That all came out in one long breath.
Jubal shook his head. “I didn’t think it was.”
“So you are beginning to understand. That is good. You are a clever young man.”
“I’ve been up forward already, looking out.” He gestured with a nod. “There didn’t seem to be any pilot.”
“I am the pilot.” Lekren’s breathing was going a little easier now. “But this ship can steer itself. For a time. Listen to me, Jubal. Try to help me, and we will have nothing to worry about.”
Jubal thought about that one for a while. “Help you do what?”
“We will come to that. Are you sure your body is not injured?” the pilot prodded.
Jubal shook his head, no. “I’m worried,” he got out at last.
“Of course you are. It would be a sign of poor mental health if you were not worried, given the situation in which you find yourself.” Breath was coming almost normally. “And what has already happened to you. A re-adaptation of reality can be a trying experience for the most psychologically secure of beings—”
“Yes—and you humans of Earth are hardly the most secure.”
“Hardly,” Jubal echoed. Again it seemed that he could feel himself drifting. It would be a great comfort to wake up and find that this was all a dream. But he knew that wasn’t going to happen.
“Re-adaptation,” he repeated vaguely. Then, with a new stirring of alarm, “I’m not dead, am I?”
“I assure you, you are certainly not dead. As I have already told you, I hope soon to be able to send you on your way home.”
“And I’m not dead.”
“Not in the least.”
Indeed he seemed to be fully awake, but his condition was strange. Trying to think constructively about anything was like moving heavy weights of lead.
“Esther Summerson,” said Jubal at last. Esther had to be the friend this man was talking about. “What happened to her?”
“You will see your friend presently. Nothing that you need concern yourself about has happened to Esther. As I have said, I am doing my best to preserve her safely, and you as well.”
“But what’s happened to her already?”
“Nothing serious,” the gentle voice repeated. Then the speaker seemed to sense that more explanation would be required. “She is on this ship with us, and I expect you will see her soon. Much of her memory has already been altered. Her career as an entertainer will go on—or at least I see no reason why it should not. If you ever see her again, you will both hazily recall a certain weekend at San Simeon, but to neither of you will it seem especially memorable.
“People there will think you have been gone no more than a few hours, and you will not remember what happened during those hours. This ship will be entirely gone from your memory, and so will I. Your doctors will call the condition that you have amnesia. Those who care for you will be worried for a while, but there will be no more episodes of amnesia, and your life will go on much as it would have done, had you never met a Taelon or an Urod.”
‘If she’s on this ship,” said Jubal, “I want to see her.”
“Of course. Presently. But first, have you any other questions?”
Jubal thought, then nodded. “Who was the dead man? The one I came across last night? Or, no, I think that was two nights ago. Everything is a little blurred.”
Now, suddenly, the pilot’s breathing difficulty was back, so he once more had to speak in jerky little phrases. “Our enemy. Has a way of doing that. Blurring minds as well as. Demolishing bodies.” A painful pause, and then a wretched gasping groan.
“Our enemy the Urod,” Jubal prompted, when the man on the bunk seemed to have recovered somewhat.
“Yes. Actually, Jubal. There was no dead man. The man you discovered did not move. Could not move. Because for him. Time had been slowed. In a very special way. The result was. That he appeared. Lifeless and rigid.”
“But he wasn’t dead?”
“Who is he, then? Where is he?” Jubal looked at the doorway he had not yet tried, that must lead on to other rooms.
“His name would mean nothing to you.. I had hired him, recruited him, to help me. With a hazardous job. Which as we see. Proved to be more hazardous. Than even I…”
The words died off. The lids over the blue eyes’ sagged halfway shut.
No response. Jubal wondered if he should try to shake this pilot—if he was really a pilot—awake, but decided against it. Lekren had said the ship could fly itself for a time. And so far, being able to talk to Lekren had actually not been very helpful.
Jubal looked at the colored lights on the little panels on the machine that nursed the prostrate pilot, but their occasional changes in brightness and position told him nothing. Except that change of any kind suggested continued life.
He turned away from the bunk and its unconscious burden, and decided he might as well go exploring further. But first his body was making some practical demands that would soon need to be dealt with—and if this was a dream it was getting awfully realistic. For one thing, his bladder was growing uncomfortably full, and before trying to accomplish anything else he wanted to discover some facilities where he could deal with that. On top of that, he was starting to feel an overpowering thirst. And he was hungry too, or had the feeling he would be as soon as his more urgent needs allowed him to concentrate on food.
Returning to his original compartment, he soon discovered that one end of the low bunk’s top surface lifted easily, revealing beneath what appeared to be a kind of toilet, reminding Jubal of the type of plumbing he had encountered on train rides. Right now his need was such that he was willing to take a chance; when he had used the fixture, and lowered the lid again, he heard a reassuring, purring kind of flushing noise.
Having relieved one urgency, he was able to concentrate more thoughtfully on his surroundings. Now he noticed on one wall a kind of cupboard built inconspicuously into the blue paneling, which opened to reveal a fountain with a small basin, that seemed designed for both drinking and washing.
Packed neatly into pigeonholes above the basin were several dozen small white packages, unlabeled but giving off a faintly foodlike smell. Choosing a pack and tearing open its fragile wrapper, he found inside a cluster of biscuit-like objects, some pale and some dark. Now the aroma, somehow suggesting both fresh coffee and frying steak, was strong enough to make his mouth water.
A couple of minutes later he had slaked his thirst with a good drink, washed his hands and face, and was munching with satisfaction on a biscuit, having already stuffed several more into his pockets. Now ready to set out exploring, Jubal first looked in again on Lekren, and to his disappointment found the Taelon still unconscious. After pausing at the bedside for a few moments, Jubal moved on through the next doorway in the series.
He found himself in another similar compartment, containing yet another bunk, more like the one in which he had awakened than like Lekren’s. And having come this far he was not enormously surprised to discover Esther lying at full length on this bed, her eyes closed, her slender body still clad in the fancy dress she had been wearing when they went for their last walk. The hem of her skirt was decently smoothed down over her knees, her small feet were still shod in party shoes.
Going to her side immediately, Jubal took her hand. “Esther. Esther, wake up.”
There was no response, and her arm remained totally limp.
It was a relief to note the slight rise and fall of her breasts, and reassure himself that she was breathing. But it was frightening that her eyes stayed closed and she appeared to be unconscious.
Leaning a little closer, Jubal called her name, first softly and then louder. No good.
Taking a step back, he looked things over. Esther’s situation was not exactly the same as his own had been when he woke up. A soft cuff of some material encircling the girl’s right arm was connected by a flexible tube to the foundation of the bunk, and so was a pad of similar stuff that lay like a pillow beneath her head. But Esther’s connections to the machinery were not nearly as intricate or numerous as those of Lekren in the next room.