“I guess it is.” But the more time Jubal spent aboard the station, the more he talked to Lekren, the more he shivered in the mental presence of the Urod, the more he contemplated the memory of Esther’s gentle, helpless face, totally dependent on him, the more rebellious he felt.
Lekren and Lobo exchanged worried comments about the possible presence aboard the station of something or someone they called a Jaridian.
“What’s that?” Jubal asked. Nobody bothered to answer him.
“Where’d you put her, kid?” Lobo, hanging the communicator back on his belt again, continued to sound patient and sympathetic.
“I’ll show you.” But Jubal had had a sudden idea. There was something else he wanted to show Lobo first.
“We’re heading toward the processing room,” Lobo remarked a minute later, as they trudged along.
“I know.” Then Jubal lifted his head, listening. There were times when he wondered if there could be some other dangerous entity roaming about the station. Now and then strange, distant sounds came drifting to his ears, and sometimes he seemed to catch a dart of movement from the corner of his eye. And several times the thunderous crash that “had so alarmed him was repeated. But all that might be explained by the fact that decks and bulkheads were progressively collapsing.
Obviously Lobo was worried too. “Doesn’t sound good,” was his comment on the latest distant uproar. His gaze darted this way and that. “Doesn’t look good in here. I mean the whole damn station. We’d better get this job done and get out.”
Jubal’s heart leaped up at the suggestion. “Good idea,” he agreed. They walked on a few more paces in silence while he tried to decide how to phrase his next question. At last he said, “You have a kind of special feeling about Lekren, huh? I mean you worry about him.”
“Oh yeah.” Lobo was casual. “I feel that way about all Taelons.”
“You do? Why?”
“Told you I was here on the station once before, when everything was working. Well, that time they gave me a type of brain implant.” He jerked a thumb casually over his shoulder. “Back there’s the room where they operated on me.”
At first Jubal wasn’t sure that he’d heard right. “Operated? What for?”
“To make me better.”
Jeez, was the man crazy? “I meant, what was wrong with you?”
“It wasn’t so much that anything was wrong. Just that I didn’t have the right ideas about certain things.” Lobo humorously tapped his own forehead, smiling. “But that got taken care of.”
“They put something in your bead?”
“You let them?”
“Yes. It helps me think clearer. I have a better life.”
“What is it?”
“They call it a cyber-viral implant. It’s an experimental model.”
Lobo shrugged. “CVI for short.”
“Something that makes you want to work for them.”
“Right. Working for them, feeling better, that amounts to the same thing.”
“Huh,” said Jubal, not knowing what else to say.
Lobo smiled at him. “They had to do mine twice before it took properly. But the second time was a big success.” Lobo paused, gazing into the distance. “Big success,” he repeated.
“Huh.” Jubal was staring at Lobo’s head, looking for some evidence of the surgery, but all he could see was a thick growth of hair, no trace of any scar.
“They don’t want to waste me,” Lobo said. “They’ve got a big investment in me, and I’ve probably only got a couple of years.”
“A couple of years to what?”
“The CVI shortens my life to some extent—”
“You call that better?”
“—but it’s well worth it. I may only have a couple of years to go, but I can get a lot done in that time.” He registered Jubal’s look of horror, and tried to reassure him. “They’ll find better ways to do it, soon enough. Ways to extend the life-span with a CVI.”
Jubal couldn’t find anything to say.
Lobo gave him a knowing look. “Time will come when everybody on earth will have one.”
“Yours will probably be a lot better than mine, less side effects. They’ll have perfected the business by then. So in a way, Jubal, you shouldn’t envy me. In fact I could almost envy you.”
* * *
« ^ »
Their conversation was interrupted by a heavy vibration in the deck beneath their feet, followed quickly by a loud noise that raised in Jubal’s mind the image of a series of gigantic doors, slamming one after another. He raised his head and listened to more of the same, with variations. The sounds he was hearing now had nothing directly to do with Urods.
“What is it?” he demanded.
But for once Lobo was, if anything, more surprised than Jubal. “Don’t know,” the man said. “Something else must be breaking down.”
Pulling out his communicator, he hastily put in a call to Lekren, to make sure the Taelon was all right, down at the other end of the long corridor from the museum.
The two of them held a conference. This time Lobo held his phone turned away from Jubal, so the boy could see nothing on the screen, and hear only one end of the conversation.
Meanwhile there were more and more sounds of disaster, suggesting walls and floors and whole buildings collapsing. It seemed to Jubal that the spans between episodes of noise were growing shorter and shorter. First the gaps had been measured in hours, and now only in minutes.
A faint cloud of dust came drifting toward them, through an array of openings in a nearby wall.
Jubal started to look around for some place to take shelter, but then decided that if the whole station was going to collapse in the next few minutes, there was no point.
“Jubal, Lekren wants to talk to you.”
And the Taelon, his voice drifting over the communicator, his face small on its little screen, said something to the effect that they must get the Urod taken care of before utter destruction overtook them. “Otherwise all our efforts will have been in vain.”
Jubal muttered something that might have been an agreement. Eventually things quieted down. Slowly he forced himself to let go of the stanchion he had been gripping; it looked like the station was going to hang together for a while yet.
He had to get on with what must be done.
He and Lobo resumed their walk, which was supposedly taking them to Esther. And Lobo was able to tell Jubal more, on the subject of how wonderful it was to have a CVI.
“Don’t bother,” Jubal said. “I promise I won’t envy you for having a Taelon thing stuck in your head. Just help Esther and me to get home. And while we’re waiting to do that, tell me what this place is.”
The other shrugged. “Just think of it as the station—we don’t have to know any more than that”
“That’s what Lekren called it. Like a railroad station?”
“Something like that. It’s a place where meetings happen. Connections are made, and things and people get moved around. But also where certain things are stored.”
“What kind of things?”
“Things like museums have. Specimens, like the ones you saw. Not only people, but animals, vegetables, flowers. Some of them are rare, some are dangerous.”
“Like the Urod.”
Lobo nodded. “Like Urods, for example. Nobody wants to keep a Urod in his own back yard, but people can come and look at them here, when necessary for scientific reasons.”
“Companions.” Lobo’s look said that Jubal ought to have understood that without being told.
“I see. Go on.”
“Not much more to tell. But, Jubal.”
Lobo had an earnest, worried look. “I love the Companions. It’s only right and just for all of us to love them. You should too.”
“Great,” Jubal said.
“They’re so much better than we are.” The man sounded perfectly sober and sincere.
“Great. Sure.” Now Jubal was really beginning to believe what Lobo was telling him about the implant. Still, he couldn’t be a 100 percent sure. Jubal supposed that being temporarily dead, or time-frozen if you wanted to call it that, might be enough to scramble anybody’s brain.
Jubal wasn’t at all sure about how he felt about taking orders from a dead man.
They were approaching the museum area now, from a direction opposite to that of the processor room. The vast array of display cases would be only a short distance ahead.
Then suddenly Lobo started pressing the fingers of both hands to his temples.
The blond man shook his head. “My CVI.”
“The thing they put in my head. Sometimes it hurts a little.”
Seizing the moment when it seemed that Lobo might be a little distracted and uncertain, Jubal made a last try at argument. “Do you know how to fly the spaceship?”
“Fly it? Yeah, Lekren’s taught me quite a lot. Makes me more useful. I could fly it if I had to.” With a contented little smile, Lobo spread his large, pale hands, made rapid motions with his fingers, putting Jubal in mind of a piano player warming up.