The Arrival by Fred Saberhagen

But the strangeness of alien thought and emotion was too much for Jubal just now. Turning his back on the Urod, he started to retrace his steps toward his own compartment, and was much relieved when the mental pressure suddenly disappeared.

Meanwhile his mundane hunger persisted. He had pulled another biscuit from his pocket and was beginning to chew on it. The dark ones and light ones had somewhat different flavors; they both tasted like nothing he could really identify, but both were good enough to keep him coming back for more.

He meant to confront the Taelon again, and get some straight answers as to what this situation was all about, and he also felt an instinctive compulsion to put as much distance as possible between himself and the Urod.

The nameless man had still not stirred when Jubal passed back through his compartment. Neither had Esther, when he reached hers.

Feeling tired, Jubal sat down briefly on the edge of Esther’s bunk, put out a tentative hand and stroked her smooth forehead once, reverently, regretfully.

“Did I get you into this?” he murmured. “Was it something I did? I don’t think so. But if it was, I’m sorry, girl, I’m sorry.”

Being sorry, of course, wasn’t going to help either one of them. But then, at the moment, Jubal couldn’t see any way to do Esther any good, or himself either. It seemed pretty clear now that Urod and Taelon were engaged in some kind of long-term struggle, and that they had more or less fought each other to a standstill in this round.

And the truly frightening thing for Jubal was that he couldn’t be sure that the dark urgings of the Urod were not more truthful than the crippled Companion’s reasoned words. Obviously the Taelon had thought it necessary to bring Esther and Jubal aboard the ship, but Jubal was not entirely convinced that Lekren had their own safety in mind.

Returning to the room where the Companion lay, Jubal was slightly, unreasonably relieved to find Lekren once again awake and evidently anxious to talk.

Speaking was no easier for the Taelon than it had been before. “Jubal. What is happening?”

“I’ve been down that way,” said Jubal, pointing. “I’ve seen the Urod.”

The Companion on the bunk nodded, a slight motion. “You did not—talk?”

“No. How could we? That thing it’s in—it’s all sealed up.”

“That is good.”

Jubal raised both hands to his own head. “We didn’t talk, but it was trying to get into my mind. Is that what you mean? I think it’s been giving me nightmares. I can hear it—or feel it—now, if I try.”

“Do not try. Understand that it has been—weakened.

Rendered comparatively weak. For the time being. Even now I. Am engaging what remains of its powers. With my mind. So it cannot really hurt you. As long as it remains confined.”

“I wish I could keep it out of my head.”

“You must try to do so. That is vitally important.”

“Yes. I am trying. But—” Jubal raised both hands to his head, a helpless gesture. “How can I do that?”

“When we reach. Our destination. You will be given. Whatever help you need. Before you are returned to Earth. Your memory will be. Washed clean of nightmares, and of much else besides.”

“Good,” said Jubal. But he wasn’t sure he meant the word wholeheartedly. It might not be good to lose all his memories of this incredible experience. If such things as Taelons and Urods really existed, and it seemed they did, then it was important to know about them.

But on the other hand, if he could just go home—he and Esther too, of course—he wasn’t going to quibble about the details. As for the blond man—well, he’d been dead when Jubal first saw him. Any change from that state seemed like progress.

After a moment he asked Lekren, “What is our destination? Where are you taking the Urod?”

“To a place of encasement.”

“You mean—confinement? A prison?”

“That is close to the reality.”

“Is that the same place as the museum you were talking about before?”

“The two are together, yes.”

Lekren had some kind of answer for everything. But it seemed to Jubal that the answers had really explained nothing yet “But how did I get on this ship? And how did Esther?” Jubal wanted a clear explanation from the Taelon, some alternate version of the dark reality that had been painted for him by the Urod.

The Companion said, “It was necessary to bring you both.

For your own good. As I have told you. There was fighting. Great local re-adaptation of reality.”

“Great what?”

The only answer was difficult breathing.

Jubal pursued, “And once we’ve reached this prison, or museum, or whatever it is, Esther and I can get the help we need?”

“Yes. All the help. Whatever may be needed.”

“And then, as soon as all that’s been taken care of, we can go home? You’ll take us back to where we came from?”

“That is what I hope and plan.”

And Lekren lapsed into unconsciousness again.

There was an interval in which Jubal tried to examine his surroundings more thoroughly. He really had to believe it now, the marvelous and crazy fact: He was riding aboard a spaceship. The word called up crude images from comic strips and sent them floating through his mind, pictures of rocket ships resembling armored naval vessels, rows of rivets showing in their sides. In his mind’s eye he could call up page after page of newspaper comics, with Buck Rogers and Killer Kane blasting away at each other with their disintegrator guns…

Not the kind of spaceship ride he had ever imagined, though. And Jubal could not rid himself of the suspicion that the Urod might have told him the truth, that it was really the Taelon who was his most dangerous enemy.

“Have you any other questions?” the bald one asked Jubal when the boy had come back to talk to him again.

Now that Jubal’s mind felt like it was working again, he had so many that he didn’t know where to start. “Yes. Who are you?”

“I have told you my name.”

“I remember that, but—you said that you are a—Taelon? Did I get that name right?”

A weak nod of assent, eyelids lowering.

“Sorry, I don’t know what a Taelon is.”

“The more you learn… the more you will be required to forget. Before you return home.”

“Then Esther and I are going home?”

“You need not. Ask so repeatedly. I am doing all I can. To make that possible.”

“Thank you.”

Again the small nod of acknowledgement.

“I guess my real question is—well, I just don’t understand what’s going on.”

“There is much you cannot know as yet… even if I explained—much of my explanation—would have no meaning to you. You may think of me as a shade, or a phantom, for in a few hours I will be utterly forgotten. In the meantime, you may think of me as your Companion.”

“Why will you be forgotten?”

That question received no immediate answer. Jubal went back to his own bunk, where he took off his shoes and coat, lay down, and tried to think.

He was more tired than he realized, and before he even knew he was near sleep, dark dreams had claimed him once again.

* * *

Chapter Ten

« ^ »

This time the dreams were even more vivid than before. Through dim rooms and endless hallways that might have been those of Casa Grande, he was pursued and terrorized by a horde of dark stone statues. Even as he ran, Jubal knew that flight was useless, because all the world around him was being put through a wringer of hideous changes, and when it was over, the world would be unrecognizable and uninhabitable as well.

There came a moment when a monumental figure that was huge and black, but armed with gleaming white teeth very much like Errol Flynn’s, had pursued Jubal into the Neptune Pool, where it was threatening to drown him. Meanwhile a woman he knew had to be Esther Summerson, all grown up, wearing a palm tree for a hat, sat at poolside taking notes. Jubal wanted to scream for help, but didn’t dare because his father was in a meeting with important dead men in the great house, and at all costs must not be disturbed.

But then Jubal did scream anyway, at least he thought he did. And with the loud noise he came immediately awake.

He was sitting upright on the bare bunk, breathing heavily, almost on the brink of screaming again, and he knew a terrible disappointment that the whole business of Lekren and the spaceship seemed to be reality and not a dream. He could only wonder if his second awakening here was delivering him into a worse nightmare than the one he had escaped.

When Jubal sat up, his eyes had immediately turned to the doorway leading aft, to Lekren’s room and Esther’s. That was also the direction in which the Urod lay, radiating a power that had filled Jubal’s mind with dreams of terror, visions of a black statue that might be going to walk in through that doorway any second now. Visions of a changed world, an altered reality in which any imaginable horror could become real…

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred