The Arrival by Fred Saberhagen

Large portions of the walls of the big room were relatively undamaged, only scarred and pitted here and there, and these bore functioning displays. Electric symbols in languages he had never seen before were flashing on and off in different colors, eerily reminding Jubal of neon advertising signs. None of the symbols meant anything at all to him, but in his current mental state, their very shapes seemed to convey a kind of menace.

For all that Jubal could tell, the only real function of the room he was now exploring was as a storage place for furniture. There were tables and cabinets, chairs and benches—and certain other objects that might have served as chairs and benches, except that their users would require an anatomy considerably different from human or Taelon.

Besides the passage by which Jubal had entered the big room, four or five other corridors of different sizes led into the chamber at floor level. Jubal carefully made the rounds of the room’s perimeter, avoiding the several pits in the floor, taking a good look down each passageway. A couple of them, unfortunately including the one Lekren’s instructions required him to use, were almost totally blocked by wreckage. All were littered with debris, scarred and burned. And Jubal could see, scattered down two or three of those mysterious hallways, more of the ghostly dead.

Choosing the nearest open corridor, he explored it to a distance of thirty or forty paces. At that point it took a sharp curve, in what seemed the wrong direction, if he was going to reach the destination Lekren had assigned. Some of the bodies of the slain were clearly visible ahead when Jubal entered the tunnel-like passage, but as before they disappeared like desert mirages when he drew near.

There were never any Urods among these spectral casualties, as far as he could tell—certainly he had spotted nothing that looked like a statue of Sekhmet. Some of them, he was sure, were blue-clad Taelons. Others looked like earthly humans, dressed in a variety of ways but not in uniforms. And there were other shapes and forms that he did not know how to classify.

Jubal’s only knowledge of warfare came from books and films. But it seemed to him only logical that if there were many slain, there ought to have been some wounded too. So far he had seen no survivors of the carnage, and he could only suppose vaguely that they must have been taken away somewhere by the victors in the battle—whoever they had been.

Returning to the big room, he turned his attention to examining its contents. He noted with some satisfaction that what had looked from a distance like a cart or gurney proved to be just that. It was basically a metal frame about waist high, with a flat, smooth top and four black wheels—there were several other units like it scattered among the other furniture, and their simple, comprehensible shapes made them seem about the least-alien artifacts that he had seen since waking up aboard the spaceship.

Eyeing the width of one of these rolling tables, Jubal thought it would fit easily through the hatchway to the ship, which was relatively broad, and might just squeak through the narrower doorways between compartments aboard.

But, he supposed, even if the cart proved too wide, he could pick Esther up and carry her out of the ship in his arms—assuming he could harmlessly detach the several pieces of equipment that were now connected to her.

But such details could be worked out. Jubal had bigger problems. What Lekren seemed to be saying, and what Jubal had gone along with until now, was that Esther really stood in serious need of medical help; it had occurred to Jubal that it might be only the device wrapped around her arm that kept her in an enforced state of sleep, and if it were disconnected she might wake up spontaneously, just as he had.

And there seemed another reason to be wary: whatever help Esther might need at this point, it seemed very doubtful that she could find it anywhere in this ruin. The place was looking less and less like a hospital, or even a first-aid station, with every minute that Jubal spent inside it. Nor had he actually seen anything yet that seriously suggested a museum. A prison? Possibly, though the explorer had not yet come to any cells or prisoners.

When it came to carrying people off the ship, Jubal supposed he might be able to manage the Taelon pilot too, though he didn’t look forward to making that attempt. But Lekren was focused on moving the Urod as the most important objective, and that would be quite another matter. If Jubal really had to attempt that, he was going to need serious help.

Leaving the gurney behind for now, Jubal set out to try to find the site where Lekren was so determined to deliver the encapsulated image of Sekhmet. The direct route being blocked, he would have to try to find a way around.

Walking, then climbing over wreckage, he made some headway down the next passage he attempted, which was only partially blocked. When he was stopped, he made some further advance by burrowing, shifting some of the fallen debris—there were mounds of powder that he could scrape aside like sand, in double handfuls. There were chunks of what might have been stone or concrete, some much too heavy for him to lift, and there were long springy rods or stems, also very hard to move, of some material he could not identify. Jubal worked for several minutes without being able to advance more than a few feet. Another couple of minutes were enough to convince him that this was the wrong approach; he might succumb to old age before he cleared the way.

He would have to try one of the other corridors.

He was trying to decide which passage to try next when he was startled by a loud, disturbing noise. A distant, reverberating crash, as if something enormously heavy, like a whole level of a building, had collapsed. The deck shuddered violently beneath Jubal’s feet, and for a moment blind panic rose up threatening to overwhelm him.

Instinctively he began to retrace his steps in the direction of the ship. But before he had gone more than a few paces, the distant rumbling died away, and the world around him seemed as stable as it had ever been. When things had remained quiet and seemingly secure for another minute, he resumed his exploration.

While in the midst of probing another half-blocked passageway, Jubal suddenly experienced an urgent if illogical need to know what hour of the day it was, and of what day. He didn’t know how long he had been asleep aboard the ship, but certainly days had passed since their strange departure from San Simeon. It might be Tuesday by now, or even Wednesday. Whatever else was happening, by now the people gathered on the Enchanted Hill must have launched a search for him and Esther. They must be trying desperately to guess whether the two kids had run off together or had been kidnapped. And if the influence and resources of William Randolph Hearst were behind the effort, it would be one tremendous search indeed.

If (no, when!) he and Esther got home, no one was going to believe the story he had to tell. But right now Jubal would gladly swap his current crop of problems for that one.

Jubal’s watch could not tell him how long he and Esther had been Lekren’s guests—or prisoners. But he had rewound the timepiece and set it running, and it could at least let him know how much time he had now spent aboard the station. His original plan had been to use no more than an hour in this scouting attempt before he headed back to the ship.

Again he worked hard for a few minutes at trying to clear wreckage from the latest passage he had entered, and again he made just enough progress to bring him in sight of even greater piles of rubble ahead, huge enough to convince him that trying to get through this way would be a hopeless task.

Lekren had told him of a certain symbol—a blue blade, or wedge, carving a sphere of black—that marked the door of the room to which they must convey the Urod, and Jubal was constantly on the lookout for it. As soon as he had located the door bearing such a sign, he was to open it, enter the room behind, and inspect the machinery that it contained. If none of the equipment appeared badly damaged, he would report the fact to Lekren, and then the two of them would somehow convey the Urod there.

The instructions Jubal had been given were simple, easy enough to remember, despite the fact that he kept being confused and distracted by his surroundings. This place was truly, utterly, and wildly strange, so alien that he didn’t see how he’d ever be able to get used to it, if he were to live here for a year.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred