The Arrival by Fred Saberhagen

But no one and nothing came through the doorway into Jubal’s little room. He remained as alone as he had ever been. Gradually his breathing slowed to normal.

Overwhelmed by a sudden urge to know what time it was, to form some estimate of how long he had been in this mysterious place, he looked at his wristwatch. But to his shock and horror he discovered that the timepiece was no longer ticking. The hands indicated a quarter to five, but that was meaningless. It had run down and stopped—he had forgotten to wind it.

Getting to his feet, Jubal deliberately walked through the little chain of rooms again, pausing briefly in passing to look at the occupant of every bunk. Again he found every one of them unconscious: Lekren lay changing color faintly even as Jubal watched; Esther slept on, like the princess in some tale of magic; and the nameless blond man seemed to be enjoying his mysterious restoration to life. None of them were wearing wristwatches, though the two humans still had rubber Siamese snakes wrapped on their right arms.

Moving on boldly, not giving himself a chance to think about it, Jubal stepped into the last compartment. Once more he dared to look directly at the source of dark dreams, the Thing, the Urod. This time Jubal seriously considered whether he ought to be trying to find some way to kill it. Whether it might be able to detect his thought he could not tell. Anyway, he could imagine no way of getting at it, inside the thickness of its ice-hard armor.

Having inspected all his shipmates again and learned nothing new, Jubal returned to the compartment he was unhappily coming to think of as his own. There he once more stretched out on his bunk, and tried to relax, tried to come up with a constructive thought.

There was an awesome loneliness in his predicament, being the only conscious being, human or inhuman, aboard the ship. He had spent time at the bedside of each of his four fellow passengers and had tried talking to all of them. So far, only one, Lekren, had answered—two, if you counted the Urod’s onslaught on his sanity as a reply.

The situation was immensely exhausting, and Jubal was actually dozing off again when something happened that jarred him wide awake. No mind-games this time, this was real! There had been a slight but definite change in his physical environment. A little bump, a jar, followed by a subtle alteration in the air around him.

Something in the sound and feel of the event sent Jubal’s mind jumping to the conclusion that the ship had probably just landed somewhere. What had happened hadn’t felt at all like the landing of a rocket ship on a planet, at least not the way Jubal’s imagination, fueled by movies and comic strips, had pictured such an event. Somehow the coining together of two massive objects had been accomplished so gently that Jubal could not be sure that anything had really changed. There was a subtle change in air pressure, a slight difference in illumination, as if doors somewhere in the ship, but out of his line of sight, had been silently opened, giving access to a different environment, a brighter world.

And now, long moments after the original bump, the floor or deck beneath his feet vibrated slowly in a limited up and down motion, like an elevator starting and stopping. It went through one cycle, and that was that.

Jubal waited for the sound of more doors opening or closing, he braced himself for footsteps, and unfamiliar and probably inhuman voices. If no one got off a newly arrived ship, and he didn’t see how anyone could have disembarked from this one, then people, or Taelons, or someone ought to be coming on board to investigate.

If the ship had really landed somewhere, then there ought to be bells, announcements, something…

But nothing further happened. There was only silence.

It occurred to Jubal that if the ship had reached its intended destination, maybe Esther would now be allowed to wake up. Lekren had said something about medical help being available when they landed, help for himself and for Esther if they needed it. The pilot, in his rambling discourse with Jubal, had also raised the idea of an interstellar museum, but Jubal thought that might have been only delirium, due to Lekren’s mysterious injuries.

Finally Jubal’s anxiety to learn what was happening overcame his reluctance to move. If they had landed, if any doors had really opened, he had to find out where. Jumping to his feet, he hurried forward to the control cabin. This time he threw himself into one of the seats, to get the best view possible out of the forward window. The small light was still blinking rhythmically, red, green, blue, but otherwise the view had altered drastically. Now on the right side there appeared a curving, blurry-looking bulk, very near, that of some unidentifiable dark mass against which the ship had evidently come to rest. This object was so featureless that Jubal could not immediately tell whether it was another ship, a building, or part of a planet.

Now that the ship seemed to have come to rest somewhere, Jubal kept hoping from one moment to the next that Lekren the Taelon would call out, summoning Jubal back to his bedside so he could tell him or show him what to do next. Failing that, he expected that someone (another Taelon probably) from the facility where they had landed would come aboard and somehow set matters right.

But nothing happened. If the ship had indeed landed somewhere, it seemed that no one knew or cared.

Returning once more to the Taelon’s bedside, Jubal made a serious attempt to awaken him. The effort took some time and involved considerable difficulty, including repeated shakings. But at last he managed to partially rouse the Companion. By that time Jubal had received the chilling impression that Lekren’s condition seemed to be worsening instead of getting better.

The blue eyes were squinting at him now, as if the pilot were trying to get a clear view of Jubal from a great distance.

Jubal tried to speak loudly and distinctly. “Lekren? I think we’ve arrived. Somewhere.”

“Jubal. What—?”

“I say, I think we’ve landed.”

Only gradually did the Taelon seem to become fully aware of what was going on around him.

Still making an effort to protect his control over his ship, the pilot was able to concentrate intermittently on the little panels extending from the wall display above his head.

He lay for some time making strange gestures at his instruments, and squinting at them as if he had never seen them before. After a while he spoke again, with as much difficulty as before. “Yes. It seems we have arrived. But our problems. Are not over.”

“What’s wrong now?”

“Understand, Jubal. We must be in the midst. Of a great and. Prolonged conflict.”

“What kind of conflict? You mean a war?”

The Taelon ignored the questions. “But there is no help for it,” Lekren enjoined his human passenger. “We must go forward.”

It took Jubal a moment to understand that Lekren was not talking about mere physical movement inside the ship. “Forward where?”

“You must help me with the Urod, Jubal. Take it—to where it must be taken. And you must carry Esther off the ship as well.” Lekren wanted to say more but he had to rest.

Another spell of gasping overtook him. The color of his face, the very texture of his skin, was varying strangely. But eventually the changes went away, leaving him with his original appearance.

“But you want to take the Urod off the ship first?” Jubal wondered.

A small nod signed agreement. “Dealing with. The Urod. Will be difficult. And even dangerous. But we must. Do it. Every precaution. Must be taken. To make sure. That he does not escape.”

“How can he escape? He’s in that block of—of stuff like ice.”

No answer, except hard breathing.

“And if he did, how could I stop him?”

The blue eyes seemed to be gazing from a great distance.

“What do you want me to do now?” Jubal demanded at last, feeling himself near despair.

Again the pilot turned his attention to his private display, the little panels of shimmering lights, and studied them in silence for a time. Then he raised one arm and let it fall again, in a graceful gesture of near-despair. Jubal had the sudden impression that the arm in its blue sleeve now was thinner than it had been, looking wasted, even though the blue sleeve seemed to fit as well as ever.

The Taelon’s lips were moving again. “If only I can speak to the Synod. Everything will be all right.”

“I didn’t get that. If you can speak to the what?”

Lekren was great at ignoring questions. “We have landed, have we not?”

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred