The Arrival by Fred Saberhagen

That thought was enough to make him shudder. But it wasn’t going to happen. He, with Lekren’s advice and help, was going to do the job the Taelon wanted done, and then they were heading back to earth. Lekren had promised, or as good as promised, that as soon as they had the Urod disposed of, Jubal and Esther would be on their way home.

Yes, his instructions were simple enough. The only problem was that they were so far proving impossible to carry out. Jubal was stopped by blocked passageways, and he saw no blue wedges or black spheres. In several places he peered through walls of colored glass into other rooms, most of which were very notably the wrong shape for any human activity that Jubal could imagine—except maybe some of them would do as giant playground slides, or rooms in a funhouse in a highly challenging amusement park.

Once, coming to a closed door marked with a highly intriguing neon symbol, very nearly a regular American dollar sign, he took a chance and fooled around with the door until he found a way to open it, only to slam it shut again a moment later, just in time to shut out an advancing swirl of what looked like blowing yellow dust. Beyond the dust there had been a suggestion of green foliage in the background. It was an intriguing sight, but not, he thought, worth risking the yellow whirlwind for.

There was yet another chamber of a most peculiar shape, long and bent, crooked as the drawing of a lightning bolt, and filled almost from wall to wall by an object that reminded Jubal of nothing so much as an enormous banquet table, and therefore put him vaguely in mind of the refectory in Casa Grande.

On earth, among objects as familiar as trees and buildings, clouds and stars, Jubal generally found his sense of direction quite reliable. But before his newly rewound watch had ticked off an hour in this environment he began to worry about being able to find his way back to the ship, never mind locating the place Lekren insisted they must reach. Still he pressed on. He thought that if he could find a ball of string, he would unwind it as he progressed. In some ways this reminded him of the funhouse in a big amusement park; and of course nothing so prosaic as a ball of string was anywhere in sight.

Sometimes it seemed to him that each step forward brought a fresh surprise. Jubal didn’t see how he could ever regard this place as homelike, but he gradually began to feel a little less insecure, to lose his fear that something deadly or horrible was going to jump out at him from around the next corner.

Jubal had another problem that worried him more than the chance of getting lost: He still couldn’t decide whether he should trust the Taelon wholeheartedly or not. If he decided not to co-operate with Lekren, then what about Esther? There would seem no point in bringing her off the ship at all.

But what would happen to her then?

No, he wasn’t ready yet to declare open rebellion, he had to learn more about the situation first Lekren gave the impression of being a man—or a Taelon—badly hurt but struggling to do his duty. And Lekren, after all, seemed to have some idea of what this was all about, and Jubal simply did not.

Before collecting the hospital gurney and wheeling it back to the ship, Jubal made one last effort to locate the place to which Lekren was so fanatically determined to deliver, at all costs, the encased and time-frozen body of the Urod.

So for, wherever Jubal had moved aboard the station, the pull of gravity had felt perfectly normal to him, just as it had on the ship. He had never thought about it, any more than he would have when walking in Colorado or California. Probably it would never have crossed his mind that conditions might be other than they were, had not Lekren mentioned the feet in one of his rambling statements. But something else about the orientation of the spaces that Jubal was now exploring had been subconsciously bothering him, and eventually he figured out why.

“Down” here inside the station had started out being identical with “down” aboard the ship. But that did not hold for everywhere he went.

Eventually Jubal took note of a distant landmark, a tall column standing in a high room, whose top apparently tilted more and more away from him as he moved farther and farther away from it. Other distant features behaved in a similar way.

The truth, as he finally realized, was that “down” was gradually shirting. He was moving about through the outer layers of a huge sphere, and down was always toward the center of the sphere, just as it was on the earth. But this world was so enormously smaller than the earth that its curvature was readily visible.

But even that was not the strangest thing in this environment.

For a while it seemed to the explorer that he was climbing uphill, and then that he was going down again; and yet again he was sure that the floor of a room was steadily increasing its slant beneath his feet as he advanced across it. Hastily he scrambled in retreat, before the slope became too steep for him to cling to it at all.

Jubal experienced the most obvious example of this peculiarity when he reached a kind of observation deck.

Now he had finally reached a portion of the station where there were no visible signs of battle damage. If he was going to discover a living survivor anywhere, he thought, it ought to be here.

Poking around nearby, he discovered more toilets, of the same general kind as that on the ship. There was a water fountain, too, but unfortunately no food. Not even any place where it seemed possible that food might be stored. He was getting sick of the taste of those damned biscuits, that at first had been so appetizing. But he was going to need something to eat.

The deck was a large space, well-lighted and big enough for a softball game, and furnished with an assortment of objects some of which looked like chairs, and more things that might have been chairs, if their users had bodies that folded in the wrong places when they sat down. This broad area was walled on three sides by a smooth curve of glass offering a panoramic view of the outside.

From this broad window the outer surface of the Station sloped down and away for several hundred yards, then dropped off abruptly into a gulf of space and distant stars. For some reason the view of space from here was much clearer than the only one he’d been able to get from inside the ship, and what Jubal saw now bore a much more convincing resemblance to the night sky of earth.

But he spent only a little time gazing at the stars, because what he could see in the middle distance was more interesting. The distant rim of the long slope was divided into dozens, scores, of smooth notches, like so many spaces waiting to be occupied—that was the purpose that immediately suggested itself to Jubal, because one of the huge notches—and only one—was filled already. A smooth, almost cylindrical object, which had to be large although at the distance it looked quite small.

Somehow Jubal felt certain at first glance that the smooth cylinder was the spaceship in which he had arrived. Because a small tight beam of light, stabbing out from the ship at intervals, occasionally swept across the observation window. In the intermittent flashes Jubal recognized the same pattern of dots and dashes as he had noted from inside the ship’s cabin. Red, green, blue, red, green, blue. He had come on a long, twisted walk, and he was now looking back at the little ship where Esther was sleeping helplessly, in the company of strange monsters.

Jubal remained on the observation deck for what felt like a long time, looking out Seeing part of the outer surface of the station, seeing the tiny ship in which he had traveled, all against the incredible backdrop of unfamiliar stars. All of it true, all of it real. He was gripped by a sense of wonder that was strong enough to ease his fears.

He was on his way back to the ship when at last, almost by accident, he did manage to locate the place that his Companion had been so eager for him to find.

“This has got to be it,” he murmured to himself aloud.

Large and plain and unmistakable on the door was the symbol Lekren had told him to look for—it did indeed resemble a blue blade, or wedge, carving a sphere of black. The sign looked three-dimensional when Jubal first saw it from a distance of twenty yards or so, but had flattened out into a mere decorated plane when he looked up at it from almost directly underneath.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred