No obvious knob or latch was visible, only a diamond-shaped boss in the center of the otherwise plain panel. As soon as Jubal touched that spot, the door went sliding silently aside. Now Jubal stood looking through what must be a matching hatchway, also conveniently open, in the side of the mysterious dark object, straight down a narrow corridor some ten or twelve yards long. The corridor was lighted well enough to show its discoverer a number of surprising things.
Involuntarily Jubal gasped. Whatever vague expectations regarding this landing place had been forming in his mind went dissolving back into chaos. The walls and floor and overhead of the short hallway before him were of some dull beige material. And their surfaces would have been almost featureless, except that they were pocked and cratered and scorched, as if a crew of brawny, eager workers had gone over them with a set of heavy hammers and a blowtorch. Here and there a jagged edge, a fringe of frayed material, showed where a hole had been punched or blasted. And in the same moment there wafted in through the newly open doorway the smell of death, of rotting flesh.
Some thirty feet from where Jubal was standing, the corridor split into two branches, diverging at right angles. Just at the intersection Jubal could see lying on the deck what looked like a couple of bundles of old clothes, each bundle partially concealed within one branching of the passage.
A moment passed before his perception suddenly shifted, and he realized that he was looking at two fallen bodies. One, on the left, he assumed to be that of a Taelon, mainly because it was clad in blue like Lekren. The other, for all that Jubal was able to distinguish from this distance and angle, might well have been human. Dark wavy hair was barely visible, beyond a mound of clothing of bright, discordant colors.
Jubal’s first impulse was to jump back into the ship and slam the door on the horror he had just discovered. But he would learn nothing by doing that, and he desperately needed knowledge. Instead, he took a firm grip on his nerves and slowly advanced.
Keeping his gaze fixed on the bodies as he moved ahead, he saw to his amazement that the nearer he came to them, the harder they were to see. Each was gradually engulfed by a field of shimmering transparency, suggesting to Jubal that he was looking at some kind of an illusion. By the time he reached the intersection, both corpses had entirely disappeared. In dull bewilderment he stared down at an empty floor.
Bending over, he found that he could pass his hand freely through the space where he had clearly seen two dead bodies lying. Amazingly, the smell had disappeared as well.
Straightening again, he turned his gaze down the left branch of the split corridor, which ran straight for many yards. Here the walls and ceiling were of neutral gray, and featureless except for being marked here and there by damage. The light was adequately bright, and as far as Jubal could tell, it sprang out from nothing but the walls themselves. In the distance, as far away as the remote end of a football field, he thought there might be more bodies lying on the floor, but they were so far away that he could not be sure. At about the same distance, the corridor seemed to turn into a kind of vaulted arcade. From that direction there also came faint noises, a whining that might have been produced by strange machinery, or possibly from living throats. In the circumstances the sound was intimidating.
Nothing Jubal could see or hear gave him any encouragement for seeking help in that direction. He supposed that the distant corpses might also disappear when he came near them, but he felt no urgency about finding out.
Turning his gaze down the corridor’s right branch, he observed that at a distance of thirty or forty yards it opened into a high, broad, cavernous room, more brightly lighted than the hall, but only partially visible through the narrow doorway at the hallway’s end. Jubal could see parts of several large pieces of furniture, including tables, some brightly colored. Next to one table stood what looked like a wheeled cart, or hospital gurney, whose designed purpose might very well be the transport of live patients or dead bodies. Here was at least the feint suggestion of a hospital, implying some possible availability of medical help. Whether or not Esther really needed help, Lekren surely did. The furnished room would definitely have to be checked out.
Jubal started down the right branch, but slowed to a stop after only a few steps. He was receiving too many warning signals, not from the Urod now but from his own senses. The visible signs of destruction were everywhere in this place, along with the occasional smell of death. The evidence seemed overwhelming that a kind of gun battle, perhaps a war, had indeed been fought through these corridors and rooms, weapons of some strange type scorching and breaking the walls, pocking them as if by the blows of massive hammers. And it seemed more and more ominous that no living person came to meet him, no one even knew that he was here.
The boy thought of calling out, trying to summon help, but the words stuck in his throat. After all, he wasn’t completely sure whether Esther urgently needed medical help or not And he could not escape the feeling that in this weird place, littered with ghostly dead, a loud call for assistance might bring disaster down on him instead.
After a few moments of hesitation Jubal decisively turned his back on the distant room and started to return to the ship. Just as he stepped through the double hatchway into the control cabin, he gave one more glance back over his shoulder. The fallen bodies at the intersection were once more clearly visible, just as he had first seen them.
Shuddering faintly, Jubal touched the center of the exit door again, and to his great relief it immediately slid closed, sealing itself with a solid sound. He slumped against it, breathing more freely, only to jump to attention a moment later, when it occurred to him to wonder if the door could be opened from the outside. He looked for some way to double-lock it, but could find none.
For a full minute Jubal remained leaning against the door, trying to rest and think. Then moved out of the control cabin and walked partway aft through the series of small rooms. It was strange to realize that compared to the place he had just visited, this ship was beginning to seem like home.
Entering Lekren’s compartment, Jubal was disappointed but not surprised to find the Taelon still unconscious.
Moving on again, he observed in passing that Esther had turned her head a little more to one side, but she still gave every appearance of sleeping peacefully.
Jubal supposed that she must have been brought on board at about the same time he was, but he had awakened spontaneously and she had not.
The only answer he could immediately come up with was that he had had no odd Taelon device, no rubbery Siamese snake, attached to his arm.
Proceeding aft into the compartment of the unnamed man, Jubal found him still as thoroughly knocked out as everybody else. The blond man’s right arm, like Esther’s, still bore a coiled artificial snake.
Contemplating the final doorway in the series, Jubal braced himself for another mental assault from the Urod. But this time he did not enter the Urod’s room, and he was left in peace. The last onslaught, though, had reminded him of something that might prove to be a useful asset in his situation: the existence of the revolver that ought to be still available in the side pocket of the blond man’s jacket.
The man on the bunk did not stir when Jubal relieved him of his weapon.
Last summer on the Colorado ranch, the boy had done a little shooting, with his father’s approval, and under the supervision of one of the hands who had a reputation and a way with firearms. Jubal had not shown much natural talent as a marksman, but he had gained enough familiarity with this type of weapon to be able now to swing out the cylinder and count the five blunt-nosed, brass-jacketed cartridges that lay in their chambers ready to go to work. One chamber out of the six was empty.
Being armed did not banish fear completely—far from it But the weight now in the side pocket of his own coat did make him feel at least six inches taller. He had the feeling that he was going to need all the advantages he could scrape up, if he had to go exploring in that eerie place where the dead vanished but the stink remained.