One of the dashboard readouts looked like a little stage, and on it a tiny glowing image danced. Jubal couldn’t tell what the object was, but it looked as three-dimensional as a chair.
Lobo waved his hand over the panel in a certain way, almost the movement of a musician’s fingers, and suddenly the content of all the displays shifted. Now there were colored numbers in many places, and for example Jubal could read in one place a little label that said, in plain English, “miles per hour.” At the moment the number in that square was zero, which he supposed made sense, because the ship wasn’t going anywhere.
Lobo seemed proud of his knowledge, glad of the chance to show it off, like a kid with a new toy. “Ever seen anything like this?”
“Not hardly. Never,” Jubal murmured absently, taking in the wonders. What he mainly noticed was that there was no way he could fly this thing—it would be like jumping into the cockpit of an airplane and trying to take off, where you’d be almost guaranteed to kill yourself. Except that this would probably be a hundred times worse. Only as a last, really desperate resort.
“Lekren knows what he’s doing, kid.”
“I guess maybe he does,” Jubal admitted. He couldn’t argue with the fact of his own ignorance. “I wish he’d tell me.”
Lobo leaned back in his pilot’s seat and paused. When he spoke again it was in a new tone, as if he had decided it was finally time to get down to business.
“Lekren tells me you’ve got a girl hidden somewhere.”
“What I’ve been trying to tell you. Her name is Esther Summerson, and she’s got a rubber snake on her arm just like you had. She can’t wake up, and she needs help. Help from her fellow human beings.”
Lobo did not react to the name. Well, Esther was hardly a famous movie star as yet. “Where is she?” he inquired patiently.
“I put her where she’ll be safe. How is she going to get the help she needs?”
The blond man continued to be mildly reasonable. “She can’t get any kind of help if you keep her stashed away.”
“Seems like she can’t get any if I bring her out Lekren was planning to—do something to her, and I didn’t know what I don’t trust Lekren,” Jubal burst out. Then his pent-up need for information broke loose. “Do you know where we are?” he demanded. “What is this place?”
Lobo’s smile was a little crooked, showing moderately bad teeth. He seemed pained by Jubal’s confessed lack of trust “Sure. Maybe not the exact astronomical details, but in a way, I know where we are. We’re way up in the sky, sonny boy. Way, way up in the sky.”
“I figured that much.”
“You did, huh?” Lobo shot out an arm and almost touched something on the panel, and a screen appeared, an unexpected window in the solid surface. The window lit up, and began to present a series of pictures, that Jubal could recognize as various views of rooms and corridors inside the station. The jagged holes and blasted places showed up clearly.
Lobo studied the pictures with his eyes squinted almost shut, as if he found it painful just to look at such extensive damage.
Jubal got the impression that the man’s earlier attitude of confidence was gradually being replaced by desperation.
Lobo muttered: “I’ve been here before, but the place wasn’t wrecked then. I remember my first visit. That was the trip of a lifetime.” The man seemed perfectly serious, and again the tone of reverence crept back into his voice. “All the stuff on the station was working then.”
That was interesting, but Jubal had different matters on his mind. He said, “So you just work for Lekren. You do whatever he tells you.” Jubal could feel the weight of the pistol in his side pocket, but he didn’t put his hand in there. Not yet. If he was going to force Lobo to fly the ship away, he had to first get Esther back on board.
The man smiled, a superior look. “Listen to the kid. Yeah, in a way. You could put it like that, I just work for him. I was once a private detective, had an office in ell-ay. Then one day I got hired for a certain job—and it turned out to be a helluva lot more than just a job.”
Jubal harked back to something he’d said earlier. “When I saw you at San Simeon I thought you were dead.”
“Yeah, Lekren’s told me about that. He and I went up against the Urod there; that was basically the job he’d hired me for. I got time-frozen for a little while; but—”
“Time-frozen, like the Urod?”
“Sort of. I just got a little touch, like I said. That was nothing.”
“Nothing. Lekren took care of it, found me, carried me aboard the ship, started the treatment to bring me out of it.” The man’s face creased suddenly, and it seemed he might be about to weep. “But then he got hurt, going up against the Urod without any help. He says it wasn’t my fault, but I…”
Lobo had to break off there. His voice was threatening to crack, as if he was unable to endure the thought that he had failed to save his Taelon master from injury.
The man took a moment to pull himself together. Then he got up from the pilot’s seat, and stretched. “Come on, kid. We’re going to find that girl you stashed away.”
One thing Lobo was certainly being truthful about: the man had indeed been aboard the station before. It showed in Lobo’s familiarity with this exotic environment, in the control that he could exercise over at least some of its machinery. Jubal, thinking furiously, battling confusion as best he could, decided that he had to show Lobo where the girl was. hidden. How else was he ever going to get Esther back on board the ship? It was either persuade the man beside him to help his fellow humans, or pull out the gun and try to shoot him. Jubal wasn’t sure he could do that in cold blood—but if he ever thought he had to, to protect himself and Esther, he would give it a good try.
Right now pulling a gun didn’t seem like a good idea at all.
Lobo was his most likely potential ally, the only other person here who could talk reasonably. And without Lobo there would be no one but Lekren able to control the ship. And Jubal was sure it would be no use trying, even at gunpoint, to get the Taelon to take them home.
Lobo was upset on first entering the station and getting a direct look at the damage. “My God, there must have been a real battle.” Lekren had told him about it, and he had seen some of it on the screens in the control cabin, but it hadn’t really sunk in until now.
“It looks like there was,” said Jubal. Then, still starving for information, he asked, “Who was doing the fighting here, Lobo? Was it Taelons against Urods, or someone else?”
At first Lobo would only shake his head. “I’d just be guessing,” he said at last.
“I saw a specimen of some other kind of race, back there in the museum, that looked like a reptile. But it had clothes and everything with it.”
Lobo only shook his head, as if to say how about that He did not seem surprised to hear mention of a museum.
Jubal was growing almost frantic for solid information. They passed some scattered corpses, only distantly visible. He pointed toward them. “Are these dead bodies real or not?”
Lobo tossed a glance in that direction. He was not really surprised. “You’d better believe they’re really dead.”
“But—are they really there or not?”
He didn’t get a straight answer. It looked like there were some things that Lobo understood no better than Jubal.
The communicator at Lobo’s belt began to buzz, and a moment later Lekren had joined them, in the form of a wavering image on the small screen of what Lobo said was his global communicator. This time Jubal was standing where he could see the unit better. No doubt about it, it was more than a wireless telephone, it was an amazingly small two-way combination radio and television.
Jubal was perfectly ready to carry on his argument with two people at once. Directing his question at the little picture, he demanded, “What good is it going to do Esther, if we carry her back there again?”
Lobo held the little screen turned toward Jubal. From it came Lekren’s voice, trying to be musical but wheezing with infirmity. “Jubal. Do you wish to assume command?”
“I—no, but I—”
“Then your only alternative in this emergency is to follow orders. Is that not correct? To help your fellow humans and to help me.”