That was all they needed now, for the two of them to fall into a hole.
He pushed on at random, and suddenly it seemed his luck had turned: He had found his way back to the observation deck.
Jubal wondered if there was any point in taking Esther back to the ship. Of course the two of them would have to get aboard eventually, if they were ever going to get home. But it was all too easy to picture himself carrying her into the control cabin only to find that Lekren was there too, and in full command. And even if it should turn out that Jubal and Esther had the vessel all to themselves, was he prepared to try to fly it?
Jubal didn’t think so, not yet anyway. He was not quite that desperate. He had to try to find some other way.
Possibly there could be, somewhere on the station, another spaceship that would be easier to operate? But when he had looked out through the window of the observation deck, he had seen that all the docking spaces save one were vacant.
Laboriously he carried his limp burden back to the great window, to look again. There was still only one small flashing light in all that outer darkness.
At last, with his own weariness about to overcome him, he found what looked like a good place to put Esther down, where he at least could feel that she was relatively safe and partially hidden. It was a kind of high-backed couch, offering a broad bed, soft to the touch. Any searcher would have to approach her closely, and from the right direction, to see her.
Sitting beside her, Jubal tried to rest. If only he could work out some kind of deal with the Urod—but Jubal’s repeated contact with its mind had led him to doubt that was possible. How could you work out an arrangement with an entity that used no words? Worse than that, how could you make a deal with something that hungered to eat your mind, squeezing the psychic essence from the brain like juice from an orange… by contrast, Lekren seemed eminently reasonable, and a whole lot closer to being human.
Once more Jubal was having to fight to keep his eyelids open. Once more he by down and slept, exhausted, this time on the broad couch beside the girl he was trying to save.
When he woke up, mind relatively clear and rested after what had felt like a nap of perhaps an hour, Esther was still asleep. Probably her snake was too—at least it wasn’t twitching. Jubal stroked her forehead, tenderly, and decided to leave her where she was for the time being. He had awakened with a decision ready: The only way out of this would be for him to reach some final settlement with Lekren. But first he, Jubal, would go back to the ship and try to gather more food. He was getting very tired of Taelon biscuits, but he didn’t want to fall over with weakness either.
This time Jubal had no trouble finding his way. He was back in his original compartment aboard ship, and had discovered a different cabinet that he was now ransacking in search of some different kind of provender, when he heard rapid sounds, and caught a glimpse of a moving body in a doorway. Moving much too quickly and efficiently for it to be Lekren.
The figure in the doorway was not a Taelon, but still it was disturbingly familiar. A tall blond man in a black leather jacket, the former case of rigor mortis, now looking totally recovered. He was standing between Jubal and the control cabin, blocking the only way out. The man’s cool blue eyes were fixed on Jubal, but he was talking to someone else, and Jubal could hear only half the conversation.
The man had something in his right hand, and for a moment Jubal feared it was a weapon. But then he realized, from the way the man was holding it, that it must be some kind of telephone, in use.
“He’s here, Lekren,” the newcomer was saying into the device. “Right. Yes. Yes sir. We’ll join you at the processor in a little while.”
“You!” Jubal gasped.
The man in the dark jacket clipped his telephone—if that was the right word for the device—onto his belt. He seemed faintly puzzled by Jubal’s recognition.
“Seen me before, kid?” His voice, the first human voice other than his own that Jubal had heard in several days, sounded straight American, gravelly and competent.
“Yes. The first time I saw you was at San Simeon. I thought you were dead.” Jubal let go the lid of the cabinet he had been holding open, and the door promptly slid shut.
The other received the information calmly. “Oh, that’s it. No, not quite dead. I tangled with a Urod there, and got a touch of time-freezing. But Lekren pulled me out of it.”
Only now did Jubal notice that the man was no longer wearing his rubber snake. The leather gloves were gone too, revealing large, pale, capable-looking hands.
“My name’s Lobo, by the way. Lekren gave the ship a call, told it to wake me up. So here I am.” He smiled as if he were aware how wild that statement must sound.
Jubal nodded. “Lobo.”
Lobo gave Jubal a look, sizing him up, and Jubal was reminded of Captain Murray, though in fact the two men did not look much alike. “Lekren tells me your name’s Jubal. Jubal Doors.”
“Lobo means ‘wolf in Spanish, in case you’re wondering.”
“Okay.” It crossed Jubal’s mind that the blond man did not look at all Spanish.
Lobo leaned in the doorway, seeming perfectly at ease. He said, “Lekren tells me also that there’s some things you don’t seem to understand.” Now it seemed to Jubal that he was speaking with just a trace of some accent that Jubal could not identify.
“What is it I don’t understand?”
“How important it is to help the Taelons.” Lobo sounded like a preacher, teaching an elementary lesson in how important it is to pray.
Lobo ignored the question. “See, the thing is, Jubal, the Companion thought you were going to be a real help to him when he got here—that’s why he brought you along in the first place.”
That didn’t seem to make sense. “But Lekren wasn’t expecting this place to be all shot up like this. Was he?”
“No. No.” And Lobo frowned and shook his head, as if at the suggestion of something horrible.
“So, what kind of help did he think he would need from Esther or me?”
Lobo stared at him, not angry, just puzzled, as if the idea of argument was something he hadn’t encountered before, and so he wasn’t quite prepared for it. After thinking it over for a little while, he said: “What Lekren has to do here, the business with the Urod, is very important You can’t imagine how important that really is.”
“All right, maybe so. Lekren’s doing a great job. But I still don’t get it. Why did he have to bring me and Esther? What was going on at San Simeon?”
Lobo, leaning in the doorway with folded arms, seemed to be pondering how best to begin a lengthy story. “How much has he told you about the Urod?”
“Not much. Only that it’s very dangerous. And for some reason it has to be run through a certain machine, here on the station.”
Lobo nodded reasonably, as if to say yes, yes, he knew all that. “Like I say, Lekren originally thought you’d be a big help. But then he began to realize that you just didn’t understand—that you needed help. I guess the shock and all had been too much for you. So he woke me up. I’ve been here before.”
Jubal could feel his body starting, trying, to relax. Here at last was a human voice, two open human eyes. Reasonable, so far unthreatening. Someone he could communicate with. “Why didn’t he just wake you up in the first place, instead of me?”
“Mainly because he wasn’t sure how healthy I’d be—like I said, I had a little run-in with the Urod too.” Turning and beckoning, Lobo led Jubal forward, into the place Jubal thought of as the control cabin. When they were both in there Lobo gestured at the right-hand seat “Here, kid. Sit down.”
“You’re going to take off? Not without Esther!”
Lobo was faintly amused. “No, we’re not going anywhere. Sit.”
Taking the left seat himself, Lobo began to get busy.
First he did something—Jubal could not quite see what—that turned off the bright flashing outside light. Then he began making gestures over the instrument panel, not quite touching it at any point. The displays all changed as he tinkered with them, still not touching. Jubal realized, with a creepy feeling in his scalp, that the whole panel could be set to give readings in human language, setting out letters and numbers that Jubal found familiar.