The Arrival by Fred Saberhagen

“As far as I can tell, we have. I went up forward and looked out, but…” He fell silent; the Taelon wasn’t looking at Jubal and didn’t seem to be listening.

Suddenly Lekren burst out with a relatively long speech, in a strange, fluting language that reminded Jubal of birdsong.

Once again Jubal had the ugly feeling that Lekren’s mind, the mind of the only being with whom he could now communicate, was wandering. Only his awareness that Esther was lying, utterly helpless, just down the corridor, kept Jubal from cracking under the strain.

There were moments when he knew he was on the verge of running wildly, screaming, stampeding up and down in an effort to find a way off this ship and hide somewhere. But Esther was on board, and he, Jubal Doors, was her only hope. He couldn’t just abandon her, whatever else might happen.

Perhaps the Taelon sensed some of what the human was thinking. Lekren’s delirium, if that was what it was, had passed. “Jubal, you must help me. And help your fellow human.”

“Yeah, I know, I can see that. Why is she asleep? Or is she knocked out? Can’t you wake her up?”

“Not now.”

“Then when? I don’t know what’s going on, but I know we need help, and I’ll do my best. But you’ve got to tell me what to do!” By the time Jubal finished speaking, he was raising his voice in desperation. But of course it didn’t help.

“It is time. Jubal. Now it is time to convey the Urod off the ship. Then after that—then we must effect. The removal of Esther from the ship as well.”

“But how? Tell me how!” In Esther’s case, Jubal thought he could probably pick her up and carry her, but that wasn’t going to work with what was effectively a big stone statue, especially when it was encased in the equivalent of a ton of ice. “How am I supposed to manage the Urod?”

But Lekren’s lids were sagging shut again. He lapsed into unconsciousness without saying anything else.

The pilot’s eyes were closed. Jubal couldn’t see if he was breathing or not, but could just distinguish a pulse in the temple on one side of the hairless head.

Leaning over the rail on the side of the bunk, Jubal laid his hand on the Taelon’s forehead, which felt slightly cool and very human to his touch. But the man did not respond in any way.

Jubal considered. Assuming he could find some way of even lifting the Urod, moving that monstrous creature anywhere without help was out of the question—even if he knew where the Urod was supposed to go. Lekren might as well have told him to haul away the Washington Monument.

Of course, getting Esther off the ship might be within the realm of possibility. But before trying anything like that, it was necessary to make sure that the ship had really landed, and that some kind of help was actually available. So far no one in the world outside the Taelon ship seemed to be taking the slightest interest in its arrival.

Moving slowly back into Esther’s compartment, Jubal stood gazing down at her unconscious form. A sense of utter helplessness had been growing in him for some time, and now he was becoming more and more afraid. Now Jubal thought that Esther’s pretty little hands—unlike those of his run-down watch—had changed their positions slightly since the last time he’d walked by; otherwise he would be wondering again if she was still alive.

Yes. Yes. Her breasts were still rising and falling under the party dress. The movement was very light and slow, but it was there, and Esther was alive.

Well, he could only try. Jubal drew a deep breath and with a considerable effort pulled himself together. Something had to be done, and he seemed to be the only one aboard ship who was able to do anything.

Moving closer to Esther’s bunk, Jubal picked up her left hand, which was totally limp, squeezed it, then rubbed it briskly.

“Esther? Jeez, come on, girl. You can’t just leave me to struggle with all this all by myself. You can’t, I tell you!”

But oh yes she could. No sound came from her lips, no change of expression crossed her sleeping face.

Once more he tried to wake her, first shaking her lightly by the arm and then slapping her cheeks lightly. But such gentle methods had no effect. He had been rougher with the Taelon, but here he was afraid to try anything more strenuous.

Sick, panicked fear kept trying to take him over, and there were moments when the dark terror came near winning. She might be dying, for all he knew. She obviously needed help, and by now Jubal was pretty well convinced that she wasn’t going to get it here on the ship. Jubal already had some misgivings about simply following the pilot’s orders, but on the other hand he didn’t want to sit here and watch Esther sleep her life away. She was going to starve to death if nothing else.

He decided that the only thing to do was to get off the ship and look around. It was a good measure of his helplessness that he didn’t even know how to do that.

* * *

Chapter Eleven

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The Urod must have been aware of Jubal’s decision to seek some way of getting off the ship. Because no sooner had the young human started his search for some suitable hatch or door than he was again assaulted by that other voice, the wordless, frightening one that had come to bother him so fiendishly in his dreams. Now it terrified him by breaking in on his thoughts even while he was awake.

All of a sudden a wordless jumble of orders, of compulsions, came trampling through his brain, like an alien army on the march. Now he received the exact opposite of the warning given him by Lekren. He was not to listen to the Taelon’s lying words. If he did, he too would become a victim, another in the long series of those abused and slain by the so-called Companions. Soon he, Jubal, would also find himself shut up in a breathless, lightless void, buried beneath an infinity of smothering mud and rock…

And behind the power of the message, Jubal caught glimpses of the ruthless, domineering one who sent it. It was the portrait of a mind and not a body. Of a dominion of awesome power, consumed by ravenous hunger, and able to twist the foundations of reality in quest of satisfaction. No mere human could understand the limits of what this hunger wanted, how it might possibly be satisfied. It was a craving such as he, a feeble child of earth, could not even come close to understanding, such as he had never even imagined…

Lekren the Taelon had urged Jubal to close his mind to such intrusions, and now he could understand why. But closing one’s mind was easier said than done. Although, thank God, he was not compelled to do anything that the intruder commanded.

After a pause of less than a minute, the Urod’s soundless, wordless voice was back in Jubal’s skull again. Now it was urging, commanding him to do violence to the Taelon. It issued orders with great authority, but still Jubal was not absolutely compelled to obey.

He might refuse to obey the voice, but he could not escape it. Now it was thrusting vivid images before him, reminding him of the availability of the revolver, whose function the Urod evidently understood very well. Jubal saw, as in a dream, the gun in his own hand, aiming point-blank at the bald and helpless head of Lekren on his couch…

And then suddenly, as swiftly as it had burst upon him, the vision was gone, and so was the Urod’s stream of wordless commands. Cut off, blocked out, muffled to a point where Jubal would have had to strain to hear it in his mind.

It came to him that Lekren must somehow be aware of what was happening, and he, Jubal, must be getting Taelon help.

For a minute he stood leaning against the side of his bunk, eyes closed, both hands clasped over his ears. He was going to have to take some kind of action soon, it would be impossible to endure this situation as it was much longer.

Locating a way out of the ship turned out to be no trouble at all, once Jubal started to look for it in earnest. There was what certainly appeared to be a door, the very door he wanted, easily visible in the right sidewall as you stood in the control cabin, facing forward. Jubal hadn’t noticed a door on any of his previous visits to the cabin, but then his mind had been much occupied with other matters. And the door was easy enough to overlook, being mottled in shades of blue just like the wall around it. Anyway, it was certainly there now, a tall, wide, rectangular panel, situated just where, as he thought, the ship’s side must lie against the mysterious dark object, whose enormous bulk was still partially visible through the forward window.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred