Only now did Jubal notice that two large objects had somehow been brought into the room since his last visit These were two empty museum cases, their two glass doors standing open, which now had been moved into place beside the central machine.
“One of these is for the Urod?” Jubal asked.
“That is correct.”
“And the other?”
Lekren did not answer.
The Urod bombarded Jubal with images of himself, Jubal, and Esther, dead-eyed and naked in their separate cases, two mindless bodies slowly dancing on display.
The feeling of being trapped in an impossible situation, the images his imagination presented regarding what was about to happen next, were suddenly too much for Jubal. It was all more than he could take.
He grabbed the taller Taelon roughly by the front of his upper garment, and shook the almost unresisting body. “Why do we have to put her right in there with that thing?” Jubal yelled at him. “What good is that going to do her?”
When Lekren did not answer, Jubal shoved the weary Taelon away by main force. The willowy blue-clad body staggered, and seemed at every moment about to collapse. But it did not.
Jubal bellowed out his fear and rage. “You lied to me, didn’t you? About the woman in the display case. She’s no image, she’s real!”
Still, Lekren did not appear to have heard him. His blue eyes were fixed on Esther where she lay helpless, and now, ignoring Jubal, he was tottering back to her side.
Jubal thrust himself between them. “She’s real! As real and solid as you or me. And so is Esther. Is that what you want for her? You can’t have her!”
Crazy pictures were forcing their way into Jubal’s mind, and he couldn’t be sure if they were being broadcast to him from the Urod, or were only his own fantasy, born in a mind inflamed with uncertainty and fear.
The Taelon might have been carved out of blue-white stone. “We must.” If he had been feeble moments ago, now he was immovable.
“I’m asking why. What good is it going to do?”
Now he was being bombarded with a new set of images from the Urod, in which the concepts chiefly conveyed were a hungry craving, a desperate need for freedom. The intensity of the barrage was such that he missed whatever Lekren might have said.
And when Jubal could stand it no longer, he grabbed the cart with Esther on it, wrenched it away from Lekren, and shoved it out of the processing room, driving it at a dead run down the first side corridor he saw.
He feared that he could find no safety anywhere. But he would have to do the best he could.
* * *
« ^ »
Jubal ran, in fear, pushing ahead of him the gurney with Esther bouncing on it. He could not have given a logical reason why he had to run so fast from a man who could barely walk, but instinct lashed him on. He feared that Lekren was something more than a man, and that even in his weakened state the Taelon could call on powers that were more than human.
The Urod’s hunger, the Urod’s fear, were raging like a forest fire in Jubal’s mind. But at bottom it was Jubal’s own will, something deep in himself that made the decision for him. Instinct urged him to turn against the Taelon pilot, and logic argued that the only way to do that was to give the surviving Urod some kind of help.
And at the same time Jubal was bitterly aware that neither he or Esther could long survive the Urod’s hunger, if it was ever allowed to have its way with them.
He was chasing the cart down a battered corridor, as fast as he could run, entering a part of the station where he had not been before. Esther’s body bounced a little as the cartwheels stumbled on the damaged deck, but the sweet dreamer’s smile stayed on her face, just as the rubber snake stayed on her arm.
Ready now to try anything to foil Lekren’s plan, Jubal played with the idea of getting the Urod out of the machine, and if necessary back to the spaceship. If it could control the ship, if it could fly them back to earth… He thought the Taelon might well be too weak to stop him.
But the Urod would have to wait. Right now getting Esther away to some temporary hiding place was Jubal’s only immediate thought.
When Jubal stopped running at last, he was out of breath and his pulse was hammering in his ears. Around him, the station was as strange as it had ever been, strange as it always would be, no two rooms of it alike.
When the tumult in his own body had died down a little, he moved to Esther’s side and looked closely at the device attached to her bare arm, just below the short sleeve of her summery dress.
Right now the mental turmoil emanating from Urod had faded into the background again. But Jubal was sure it would return. He knew that he had better get as much thinking as possible done while he had the chance, now, while his mind was relatively clear.
If only Esther could walk! If only she could think for herself, see and hear, listen to what Jubal had to tell her, and talk to him!
Maybe she would wake up if he could rid her of the Siamese snake. He debated with himself whether he ought to try to tear Esther free from the Taelon device by force.
Gritting his teeth, he clamped the rubbery snake in his left hand and the girl’s arm in his right. He thought he felt the snake, the sken, squirm with some volition of its own, as he tried, first hard, then harder, to force them apart. But the only result was that Esther’s forehead creased in a faint frown, and a moan escaped her lips. Jubal groaned louder, in sympathy, and ceased his effort.
If he couldn’t free her from the snake, it was all the more important that he do everything else possible for her protection. And Jubal, guiding and gently pushing the gurney with its helpless burden, realized that he was now trying to find his way back to the station’s observation deck.
He was possessed by the half-formed idea that another ship—some ship, any ship—might suddenly appear in one of the many formerly empty docking spaces, and that he would be able to signal to it from the broad window. Not that he had any reason to expect any such arrival.
Jubal had another half-formed reason for seeking out the observation deck—and this one, he had to admit to himself, was even crazier. It was just the kind of place where, if it were on Earth, he would expect to find a public telephone.
But somehow he had taken a wrong turn, and the observation deck eluded him.”
In the course of his wanderings with Esther on the cart, he entered a room that seemed no stranger than most of the other rooms aboard the station—but it turned out to be a place where gravity was becoming dangerously intense. On entering that room there was a feeling like that of being on a rapidly whirling merry-go-round, but somehow reversed, so that the all-but-irresistible force tried to pull you to the center instead of throwing you away. And at the center of the room, there was only a blur, something so hard to see that his eyes at first refused to read it as a warning.
Almost too late, he recalled what Lekren had once babbled to him regarding treacherous variations in gravity.
Suddenly the gurney, only three feet closer to the center than Jubal himself, feeling as if it weighed a ton, was impossible to hold back. All Jubal could do was snatch Esther from it before it was swallowed up in blurry nothingness.
Staggering in retreat, he entered one new room after another. Always something new to see and hear, and now at every step he feared he would encounter some new danger. Carrying Esther in his arms like a baby was okay for about a minute, but the strain soon began to tell, and Jubal could discover no convenient place to put her down. Meanwhile she remained a dead weight, frighteningly inert. If only he could simply tear that damned thing off her arm… almost he made the effort, but again he shuddered inwardly at the possible consequences, and held back.
Soon he had to stop and put Esther and her rubber snake down on the deck for a minute, to rest his muscles and catch his breath. When Jubal picked her up again, he wound up draping her over his shoulders in a fireman’s carry, which was a lot easier.
Twice he stopped, realizing that he had been walking with eyes shut, and had gone astray from the right path.