The Arrival by Fred Saberhagen

Still, the thing wrapped round her arm looked somehow familiar. It took him, another moment to recognize it as practically a duplicate of the Siamese snake he had tripped on and kicked aside when he got up. He wondered if this one too was somehow half-alive. Right now it seemed totally inert.

He could, of course, try to remove the strange thing from her arm. But for all he knew it was serving some vital function, keeping Esther alive.

Jubal tried again, gently and tentatively, to awaken her, touching her arm away from the snake, and her shoulder, but still her eyes remained closed.

He started to leave, heading for the next doorway in the series, opposite the one by which he’d entered. But he turned back at the last moment.

“I’m going to look around a little more,” he assured Esther’s unresponsive form. “I’ll be back soon.”

Then he turned away to go exploring.

* * *

Chapter Nine

« ^ »

Lekren had told Jubal that the man was not dead, but had made no mention of his being aboard the ship. But there could be no mistake about this discovery. In the bunk of the fourth compartment in the row, after Jubal’s chamber, Lekren’s, and Esther’s, lay the very man whose rigid corpse Jubal had once discovered stretched out in the long grass of San Simeon. Jubal could recognize the clothes, including the leather jacket and gloves, the same short blond hair. The only difference seemed to be that he was no longer a rigid corpse. The man’s eyes were now closed, and his arms lay more or less normally at his sides. Jubal could not resist poking at one shoulder to see if the terrific rigor still persisted. It did not.

This bunk, like Esther’s, was equipped with visible support systems, about the same number Esther had, connected to the occupant. And close inspection showed that the man was now breathing gently. Around his right arm, right over the sleeve of his black leather jacket, twined a rubbery Siamese snake.

For some time Jubal remained standing by the bunk, trying to manage something in the way of constructive thought. Captain Murray had said, plainly enough, that he and Oscar were going to haul this man’s body away and dump it somewhere beside a highway. If Hearst’s security agents had really done that, then the body, living or dead, must have been picked up again, somehow, by someone else, and brought aboard the ship. And cured of its rigor, and made to breathe.

Was it possible that Murray was somehow in league with Lekren? Had the security captain, instead of dumping the body somewhere at roadside, brought it directly here, aboard this ship?

Suddenly Jubal remembered the revolver, and Murray’s demonstration of tucking the weapon back inside the stranger’s pocket. It was still there; when Jubal gingerly pressed the leather over the jacket pocket, he could feel the hard metallic bulge.

And Jubal’s memory of the numbness in his own mind was now taking a more definite form.

Suddenly he remembered the dark dream that had troubled his most recent sleep.

What had Lekren called it, the thing that brought on fear and nightmares, and threatened to change the world? Yes—the Urod. The memory had come back to him because now Jubal could once more feel its pressure on his mind.

Now Jubal’s eyes turned, slowly, reluctantly, to the next doorway in the series of compartments. He didn’t want to go through it and confront what lay beyond. But he knew that he really had no choice.

The light was somewhat dimmer in the fifth small room in the row, and Jubal hesitated in the doorway, waiting for his vision to adjust. This chamber also seemed to be the last one in the series—or at least this time there was no visible doorway in the rear wall. And this one contained, as Jubal discovered when his eyes had accommodated themselves, yet another variation on the basic bunk. This unit, occupied like all the others, was less like a bed, more like a slab-like table or machine, with a different constellation of readouts and controls emerging from the walls to connect to it.

There was another notable difference. Here, there was no sign of rubbery artificial snakes, and no connections of any kind seemed to have been made to the occupant. No doubt it would have been hard to do so, because the figure on the rectangular slab was obscured inside a similarly shaped block of—something.

Its appearance at first suggested to Jubal that it might be a huge chunk of ice. But a tentative touch with one finger indicated that it was much stranger stuff. Its interior looked as shadowy as fog, and seemed to contain drifting movement. But the surface was hard as rock, and much too warm to be ice. Something in the feel of it struck Jubal as so unnatural that he jerked his fingers away, as if from burning heat.

He could just make out that there was something else inside the shadowy solid. A figure, so heavily obscured that Jubal needed half a minute or so to be sure of its appearance. But once he got a good look there could be no doubt: he was looking at one of the tall statues of Sekhmet from the walkway beside Casa Grande.

He had already gone beyond surprise. And there seemed a kind of logic in the discovery, as there might have been in a dream.

Not a statue, said Lekren’s remembered voice. It was never that. A very powerful enemy.

Now, gazing at the encapsulated shape, Jubal felt, or thought he felt, a faint stirring of the world, a variation in the reality around him. He thought he could see now that the black eyes had opened, stone statue or not, and that it was looking at him. Given the obscuring effect of the sealing material, it was hard to be sure, but somehow he could not really doubt the fact.

And in the next moment Jubal felt a telepathic touch, an approach to his mind by someone—or something—whose strangeness made the inhuman Taelon seem almost ordinary.

Jubal knew, without knowing how he knew, that this being, this presence, had no name, except such names as might have been given to it by its enemies, of whom there seemed to be a great many. So, at least, was Jubal’s shadowy impression. The entity before him now had, in some sense, gone beyond names, as Jubal had gone beyond surprise. And he could see, could feel, that it was not really male or female either. In some way it had gone beyond sex and gender too.

Now he knew, beyond a doubt, the source of the strange dreams that had been troubling him.

“Urod,” Jubal breathed. That was Lekren’s name for this. And what Lekren had said to him came back: There are certain beings in the universe. Who, though intelligent, have forfeited those innate rights. That intelligence commonly confers.

And it was at that moment that the inhabitant of the fifth compartment managed, in his own voiceless and terrible way, to open communication with Jubal. Jubal had no choice in the matter—if someone in the same room shouts at you, you have no choice but to hear him.

Jubal had no doubt that he was now confronting the powerful enemy of which Lekren had spoken.

In the same shadowy, nonverbal way, Jubal also got the impression that the Urod, like Lekren, had been injured. But he also had an overriding sense that, even imprisoned as it was, it had not given up the struggle that it waged against the Taelon. It was bound and entangled, but not completely, paralyzed but not entirely. Its mind was still largely free, and it was still patiently, relentlessly, endeavoring to seize control of the Taelon vessel that had been sent to effect its removal from San Simeon and from the Earth.

Yes, Lekren had told Jubal there had been fighting. But whether the Taelon realized the fact or not, the fight was certainly not over yet.

And the Urod was, from the beginning, very firm in its wordless insistence that Jubal should somehow enable it to get free. Currently confined in the crystalline mass, the Urod was time-frozen, bound in a condition out of phase with the rest of spacetime, and thereby restricted from exerting all but a fraction of his real power on his surroundings.

But already the Urod had somehow managed a mentally violent and almost-successful attempt to take over the ship. The wounded and enfeebled Taelon pilot had barely managed to beat back the attempt.

The only tool the Urod might now be able to use to achieve that end seemed to be Jubal himself.

It was hard to be sure, when the ideas communicated by the Urod lacked the hard form of words. But Jubal thought he could understand two things: first, that he was definitely being offered an alliance against the Taelon; second, that the Urod seemed to be making an effort to explain to him, as a potential ally, its own version of what was going on.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred