Jubal tried to make his voice as casual and reasonable as he could. “Then I think we’d better climb back aboard the ship right away and get out of here. No, wait, listen to me! I know what Lekren says he wants, but he’s sick, or hurt, his mind is wandering most of the time.”
Lobo was shaking his head.
Jubal pressed on. “I don’t think he knows what he’s doing, Lobo. He can stay here with the Urod if he wants to. But Esther needs help, and you and I need help too. You’d better fly the three of us back to earth. We’re not going to get what we need here.”
Jubal had started out forcefully, but his words trailed away. Lobo looked normal again, but he wasn’t even taking Jubal seriously enough to be annoyed.
“Jubal, I think you’re the one whose mind is wandering. The Urod’s the first thing we have to worry about. Lekren needs us to help him.”
“All right, so maybe he’s in worse shape than any of us. But he can’t get what he needs here, the whole place is a ruin. If you love him as much as you say, you’d better get him back to earth and into a hospital.”
Lobo almost chuckled. “Fat lot of help they’d give him.” Then the man turned grim again. “I know he’s hurting bad, and it worries me; but once the Urod goes, he’ll be better.”
And for all Jubal knew, that might be true. Lekren himself had once told him the same thing.
“I bet the spaceship has an automatic pilot.”
“I bet it does.” Lobo was perfectly ready to admit all kinds of things.
“And you know how to use it.”
“Then send us back, me and Esther,” Jubal pleaded.
“No. Can’t be done.”
Jubal itched to draw the gun, and give orders with Lobo looking down the muzzle. But suppose the man was so crazy that he still refused? Or suppose he agreed to set the controls of the ship, how would Jubal know how he was really setting them?
“Can’t be done,” Lobo repeated. “She has to be at the processing center.”
Lobo shook his head. His face had the expression of a man forced to listen to stupid questions from a kid. “‘Why?’ I’ll tell you. Ever see how a man handles an alligator, kid?”
“At one of those ‘gator farms they have in the South. Say you’ve got one of moderate size, not too big to lift, but big enough to chew your arm off. And you want to carry it from one pond to another.”
“No, I never saw a ‘gator farm. What have ‘gator farms got to do with anything?”
“More than you think. I’m trying to explain. The only way to handle a Urod, kid, is to give it something to bite on. With gators they use chickens. While a ‘gator has a nice, juicy chicken in its jaws, it’s not gonna bother with your arm. Only an Urod don’t have teeth, so you have to give its mind something to bite on—something nice and big and juicy, like an earth-human mind. Could be Esther’s, or yours, or mine.” Lobo’s calm voice made what he was saying all the more horrible.
Jubal had to fight down a sudden urge to vomit Taelon biscuits. The last ones he’d eaten seemed to by lying in his stomach in an undigested lump. “I vote for yours,” he said, and let his right hand hang near the side pocket of his coat, and wondered if he could make himself use the gun.
But Lobo was not offended, and if he noticed what Jubal’s right hand was doing, he didn’t seem to care.
“That’s because you don’t understand, kid. I’m too useful to Lekren in other ways.”
Jubal supposed that maybe Lobo’s implant rendered him a little careless when it came to dealing with other human beings. Jubal said, “Tell me about it so I understand.”
“Okay. Right now, the Urod might be trying to push your girlfriend, little Essie, away from him, because he knows she’s bait. But get her close enough, and he’ll snap her up. He won’t be able to resist her nice human mind. Urods are like that, it’s their weakness. And when he snaps her up, the big trap snaps him. Lekren’s really got him.”
“What happens to Esther?”
“What happens to the chicken? But that doesn’t really matter, does it?”
“Not if we can save Taelon lives. Don’t you see the difference?” It was as if Lobo really thought that chickens and humans were practically on a level. “Look, it could have been you or me instead of her. But I’m too useful. And Lekren must have something else in mind for you too.”
Jubal’s right wrist brushed the bulge in his side coat pocket. He supposed that when Lobo was revived, the man must have noticed that his revolver was gone, but simply assumed it had been lost in the skirmish at San Simeon. So far Lobo should have no particular reason to think that Jubal had taken it. And so far he had not said anything to Jubal about the missing weapon.
Meanwhile the Taelon had said nothing about the pistol either—maybe it had never occurred to him, in his befuddled state, to pay any attention to earthly weapons.
“I want you to see something,” the man said, and held out the communicator for Jubal to take. As soon as the boy reached with his right hand, Lobo grabbed him by the wrist and spun him into an embrace.
The man’s arms felt incredibly strong, and he was as skillful at this as he had been at working the instrument panel; in a moment Jubal’s balance was broken, and he came down on the hard deck with a crash that knocked out most of his wind.
Lobo’s wiry weight was on top of him, completing his paralysis. In the next moment Lobo’s hand was skillfully extracting the pistol from the side pocket of Jubal’s coat.
Then the man was on his feet again, picking up the dropped communicator as an afterthought, and Jubal was free to try to get up, if he could. For the moment all he could think of was that now he was going to be shot dead while he lay helpless. But no one was shot. Lobo had the gun now, but he wasn’t bothering to aim it. Instead he just dropped it in his jacket pocket and reached out to give Jubal a hand getting up; no hard feelings.
But Jubal didn’t try to jump him—as soon as he was on his feet with a good lungful of air he darted away, rounding a corner into the museum, taking a winding path among the display cases.
With Lobo’s feet pounding only a few strides behind him, Jubal led him to where the young human woman was on display. There Jubal stopped, gasping. He couldn’t think of anything else to do, anywhere else to run.
Lobo seemed startled when his gaze fell on the naked woman in her glass case. Not really totally surprised; to Jubal he looked like a man suddenly reminded of someone of something he might not want to be reminded of, that he had long forgotten.
For the moment Jubal was ignored. Moving a little closer to the case, Lobo whispered a name to the woman inside.
“Rosie?” And for just a moment, amazingly, the man seemed about to weep. He stood in front of the display, gazing at her. Once he started to put his hand on the glass, but the figure inside twitched and stirred, ready to go into the first movement of her programmed demonstration, only to quiet at once when Lobo jerked both hands behind him. Evidently he knew what the performance would be like, and he didn’t want to see it.
Meanwhile Jubal edged a step closer to him. “You know her?” Not that there was really any need to ask the question.
It took Lobo a long time to answer, but at last the words came readily enough. “Knew her pretty well at one tune.” He had fought down the urge to cry, it seemed, and his voice was tired and dull, fit for that of an old man talking about some event in his distant childhood.
“How did she get put in this case here, Lobo?”
Again there was a pause. “Last year,” Lobo said at last. “Lekren was hunting another Urod, I was helping.” Then he added, “Rosie worked for me in my office.”
“Your private detective’s office.”
“And Rosie was helping you—hunt?”
Jubal pushed him, prodded him. “But the way it worked out, she was just what Lekren thought he needed—a chicken. Someone to put in the ‘gator’s jaws.”
Again, Lobo nodded.
“And when her mind got—chewed up—in the process, her body got put in here, behind the glass.”