Moving forward through the ship again, chewing on one of the dark, flavored biscuits and trying to get up his nerve for another expedition into the strange place where the ship had landed, Jubal was pleasantly surprised to discover that Lekren was awake—more or less. The blue eyes regarded Jubal groggily as he came in.
Stepping up close to the Taelon’s bunk, Jubal said without preamble, “I’ve been off the ship.”
The pilot took a slow breath or two before responding; indeed he appeared to be only half awake. At last he said, “You have entered the station?”
—and somewhere in the mental background, the struggle between Taelon and Urod was still in progress—
“If that’s what you call the thing, yes. I’ve entered the place that the ship is now connected to. Or that we’ve landed on. Whatever you want to call it, I’ve been there.”
Lekren’s high forehead creased in a frown, as if this information presented him with some new problem. “Did no one meet you—in the station?”
“No one met me. Because there was no one there. No one alive, that is. I think some of the people who are supposed to be there have probably been killed.”
Jubal had to repeat the essence of his story several times, and describe the fallen bodies in as much detail as he could remember, before the meaning seemed to come through to the exhausted Taelon. Over and over, using simple words, Jubal tried to convey something of the sights and sounds and smells that had surrounded him during his scouting trip and made him cut it short.
And even as he stumbled through the simple narrative, he kept trying to understand: Where had he really been, when he went into what Lekren called the station? If the station was on a planet, attached to something like the earth, the Taelon had made no mention of that. But where else could it be, unless it was just drifting in space? It could be a bigger spaceship, of course—monstrously bigger, to judge by the length of the visible corridors aboard. Unless that too had been some kind of an illusion.
The Companion seemed vaguely shocked and certainly surprised by Jubal’s tale, but it took him a long time to respond to it. He was silent for so long that Jubal wondered if he had been rendered speechless.
Finally, desperate for solid knowledge, Jubal prodded his only conscious shipmate. “What were those bodies? The ones that vanished when I got close to them?”
“Re-adaptation,” Lekren got out at last At least that was the word that Jubal thought he heard.
“Listen, sir. Lekren. I’m asking if you can tell me anything about those bodies.”
Jubal also thought that he had heard the Taelon use the same word before, but it was no more helpful now than it had been the first time around.
“What do I do now?” he pressed again. He wasn’t totally sure that it would be wise, or even safe, for him to simply follow this stranger’s orders, but it might help to at least know what the orders were.
After pondering Jubal’s unwelcome information for a while longer, Lekren got out a few more words. “The station. Has been damaged.”
“Yep. I’d say that’s for sure.”
Lekren gasped suddenly. His eyes went wide, and his body arced up on the bunk, startling Jubal so the boy took a step back.
“… the Urod!” the Taelon choked out at last. “It contends with me… again… in my own mind…”
“What should I do?”
There was no immediate answer.
Presently Lekren, struggling visibly, managed to get himself under control. “There is nothing,” he managed finally. “Nothing you can do—about that.”
“We must unload the Urod,” the Taelon suddenly commanded, summoning as much strength as he could into his voice. When Jubal would have pressed him with another question, he managed to raise an imperious arm, cutting him off. “Carry it… into the station.”
“Carry it how?”
“I will tell you how. The Urod must be. Our top priority.”
“All right, I’ll try to help with that. But what about Esther?” Jubal wasn’t going to let that question be forgotten.
“She’s still unconscious. Has she been hurt or hasn’t she?
Didn’t you say she needed help?”
Gradually the Taelon seemed to be regaining full control over his own mind and body. But he was obviously still very weak.
“Yes,” he got out at last. “Esther. You must convey her into the station too. But first—the Urod. For that you need to obtain. The means of transport.”
“And how do I do that?”
“It may be. Difficult, Jubal. At places aboard the station, the pull of gravity may be—different.”
“The pull of gravity.” Jubal wondered if the pilot was delirious.
“Yes.” After a pause for gasping breath, Lekren’s body suddenly surged again, but this time the movement was entirely voluntary. He was making a great effort to sit up, and on the verge of succeeding.
Jubal, taken by surprise, stood frozen for a moment, then stepped forward and tried to help. But the Taelon’s body was heavier than it looked. The blue-clad frame went limp, and Lekren was soon forced to abandon his effort and let himself fall back, groaning and literally changing color.
For a time those groans were the only sound in the silent ship, while Jubal stared amazed at the panoply of visual transformation. Bright shades of red and green were coming and going rapidly, as if Jubal were looking into a kaleidoscope.
“You must go, Jubal,” the Companion whispered at last, in a voice even weaker than before. He had now returned to his original appearance, or very nearly. “Must go back aboard the station. Only you can do what must be done. We must neutralize. The Urod. At all costs.”
“But what should I do?”
“I will tell you.”
Lekren did his best to give instructions. It cost him a lot of effort, spread over many minutes. But at last Jubal had the outline of a plan in mind.
* * *
« ^ »
A few minutes later, Jubal was back aboard the station, trudging once more through the battered corridors. In his mind he kept doggedly going over and over the orders Lekren had just given him. This, he hoped, would keep him from forgetting too many of the intricate details of what he was supposed to do, and also free his mind from useless worrying. At the same time he was trying hard, though with only moderate success, to convince himself that the weight of metal in the right-hand side pocket of his sportcoat really made him feel safer.
In an odd way it was almost reassuring to see the phantom corpses lying as before, as if they were waiting for him, at the first intersection. Again it gave Jubal an eerie sensation to walk through the empty spaces from which those fallen bodies magically disappeared at his approach. He had told Lekren about them, and the Taelon had seemed shocked, but had not doubted Jubal’s story.
After a single glance down the left-hand passage, at those other, distant bodies lying mounded there, Jubal turned his back on them, and strode determinedly down the right-hand branch, concentrating fiercely on the job at hand. According to his mentor, all the objects he had to find and the things he had to do lay in this direction.
Moments later Jubal had entered the large, furnished room. It was a chamber as big as an indoor gymnasium, with a pale, vaulted ceiling two or three stories above the floor, plenty high enough for basketball. But what Jubal saw when he looked around drove any images of sport out of his mind. Here the destruction had been even more savage than in the hallway. From inside the big room he could see that the very structure of the station was badly wrecked. Several cavities had been blasted in the deck, each one easily big enough for a man to fall through. Large jagged holes in the walls revealed their impressive thickness, and through the lowest of these gaps Jubal could catch glimpses of other rooms beyond, strangely lighted and eerily designed.
Everywhere he looked, something strange invited exploration, and at the same time sent signals urging caution. But his only chance of getting out of here seemed to lie in going forward. Detouring warily around the big holes in the floor, Jubal stared down into uncertain darkness. He thought of using his little flashlight to probe those depths, but decided he’d better save the batteries for some time when he really needed light. Besides, he wasn’t sure he wanted to see what lay hidden by the darkness below. Bad smells were coming up. And there were other places where the floor, or deck, felt unsafe. Once the surface under his feet vibrated sharply when he stepped on a certain spot, sending him briefly staggering.