The size of the door and its impressive decoration suggested that something of great importance lay beyond. Jubal had an odd feeling that he had seen this entrance somewhere before, and then suddenly realized that it reminded him of the great iron-barred portal that served as the front door of Casa Grande.
No knob or lock was visible, but when he pushed gently on the huge grill it swung back smoothly to let him in.
The room behind the door was cavernous, and Jubal’s spirits rose when his first glance around showed him very little damage. But as he examined the room’s equipment more closely he felt let down.
“The House of Tomorrow,” he muttered to himself.
Occupying a central position, and dominating the chamber with its bulk, was an object that reminded Jubal of nothing so much as one of the experimental television sets he’d seen in the House of Tomorrow, a few years back. That had been at the Chicago World’s Fair, that he’d visited with his parents back in 1933. Except that the mysterious device before him now was much bigger than the television. It was round and enormous, with a glassy door in front, easily large enough to accommodate the Urod in his capsule—or to hold a small elephant, for that matter.
Turning away, he soon discovered a door in the rear of the room giving into another long corridor, a kind of tunnel, and when he had followed that to its other end it opened up into a vaster space, as big in itself as any museum he’d ever seen or imagined. Here were cases and cases of specimens. Various animals, and a great assortment of what appeared to be exotic vegetables, displayed in various stages of growth and development, on stages and worktables. Wandering into this area and looking around, Jubal discovered more of them, and still more, all neatly available for easy inspection.
There were dozens of display cases in all—no, he decided, probably there were hundreds. They were all constructed, for the most part, out of some hard glassy stuff, but smoother and clearer than that encasing the Urod on the ship. Here you could walk around each separate exhibit, and look at the specimen that it contained from every angle.
The visitor stood for a long time, awestruck, before one case, whose occupant was utterly reptilian in appearance, with scales and claws and pointed teeth, yet stood on two legs and held out a pair of fingered hands of very human shape.
He could detect no system, no plan, in the order in which the specimens were arranged and displayed. If there was any pattern, it was one that made no sense to Jubal. Rather the assortment seemed completely random.
He was about to turn and leave, when an image more shocking than any he had seen yet caught the corner of his eye.
It took Jubal a moment to realize that what had grabbed his attention was the visual impact of a shock of red human hair.
Approaching that particular case to examine it closely, he discovered one very human young woman, posed in a lifelike manner. Her body was completely nude, like all the other specimens, and under different conditions she would have been more than a little attractive. Her blue-green eyes were open, staring straight in front of her over Jubal’s head, and he could see no sign of breath or pulse.
Her skin was pale, though not too pale for life, and freckled somewhat on arms and hands and face. Her long hair, hanging loose, was a natural-looking red.
As was also the case with most of the other specimens, an outfit of clothing was shown in the case beside the woman’s body. There was a summer dress in a floral print, high-heeled shoes, sheer silk stockings, and a small collection of undergarments. Yes, and there was a hat, and a black leather purse. Had she been wearing those clothes, she would not have looked out of place walking down any street in any American city of Jubal’s memory.
Putting a hand against the flat glass of the case, he made a startling discovery. The touch must have activated some kind of a control, for at once the body inside (or the image of a body, if that was all it was) began to move with a dancer’s grace, smoothly adopting different attitudes, sitting, bending, lying down. Suddenly some of the clothing that had been exhibited separately was on the body. Now she was carrying her purse under one arm. Another movement of Jubal’s hand near the touchless external controls sent the purse jumping magically back to its original position.
When he moved back a step, all motion stopped, the woman resuming the pose she had had at the beginning.
Eventually Jubal turned away, beginning a slow retreat with many backward glances. But then he turned his back on the woman and resolved not to think of her until he could talk to Lekren again. Right now he needed no more amazing things to contemplate, no more terrible mysteries. He had a job to do, Esther’s life as well as his own to save.
* * *
« ^ »
His mission had been fundamentally successful, at least from the Taelon point of view. Now Jubal, unable to think of any better course of action, supposed that he had better return to the ship and report to Lekren. Then, before he did anything else, he would demand an explanation of why the young woman was in the glass case.
Besides, he was very tired. He was going to have to he down somewhere, sometime soon, and get some sleep.
Jubal decided to collect the gurney and bring it with him on his way back to the ship—on his way home. Of course the road to his real home lay through the ship, but over the last few hours the ship had actually taken on a positively homelike aura, in comparison with his present surroundings.
As Jubal moved through the alien rooms and corridors, on his way to claim the cart he needed, he kept looking over his shoulder, ever fearful of being attacked by some unearthly enemy. In his mind was the image of the woman in the display case, and he was afraid of whoever or whatever had put her there. It was the same power, he supposed, that had stocked all the other cases too.
But meanwhile, despite his fears, another part of his mind kept seeking desperately, hoping hungrily, to meet someone, practically anyone besides the dazed, half-human Lekren. He hoped it would be some reasonable authority, who could tell him what he ought to be doing next. And he really hoped it would be a human being. But he was ready to welcome almost anyone or anything that talked.
It could be another Taelon. Jubal was almost—but not quite—ready to seek companionship even with another Urod. Hell, it could be a goddamned talking jellyfish, if it would take some of the responsibility off his shoulders and give him good advice. But so far no luck. Everything he saw and heard indicated that he himself was the only living thing currently aboard the station.
So, he would go back now and report to Lekren, and between the two of them they would somehow dispose of the Urod, and it would cease to raise its frightening echoes in his mind. Then Lekren would show Jubal how to obtain from the station whatever help it might be able to offer Esther. And maybe there was something here that would do the blond man some good—though he actually seemed in relatively good shape now, for one who had been frozen stone dead—and then they would all get back aboard the ship, and Lekren would set a course that would deliver his human clients back to earth, to San Simeon where they belonged. Then, presumably, the Taelon could go back to his own home, wherever that might be.
All very fine. But meanwhile, Jubal’s feet were dragging, his head was spinning with weariness, and he had eaten his last biscuit—how many hours had passed since he had walked out of the ship to run Lekren’s errands? It was impossible to tell. He could no longer remember the position of his watch’s hands when he had last reset it. Maybe his mind was going, failing, with the strangeness all around him and the Urod’s wordless gibbering.
Well, he wasn’t going to let it fail. He would concentrate on the next job to be done, and then on the next after that.
Briefly Jubal worried about his ability to find his way back, even as far as the big room. But there proved to be no difficulty. On the outward leg of his journey he had done his best to keep a series of landmarks in mind; there was no trouble, on the station, in finding objects of distinctive appearance.