The Arrival by Fred Saberhagen

Lobo’s eyes swung around to focus on Jubal. The man was saddened by Rosie’s fate, but he wasn’t crushed. “I told you. There was another Urod. That was my first job for Lekren.” An answer that was supposed to trump everything else.

Jubal decided he had got all the benefit from Rosie that he was going to get. He took the other by the arm. “Lobo, help me get Esther on the ship. She’s still alive, she’s Still got a mind, we’ve got to get her away.”

But it was useless. Lobo might shed a tear over the horrors in his own past, but he was shaking his head, and he could not be swayed.

Lobo’s communicator buzzed again, and Jubal took advantage of the opportunity to slip away.

Hastily he made his way back to the place he thought of as the observation deck, where he had left Esther. Now, he could see only one faint hope left, and it would last only as long as Lekren and Lobo were away from the ship.

As Jubal ran, in the distance somewhere there came another rumble of collapse.

Esther had not moved on her couch, and Jubal braced himself to hoist her once more onto his back But before he did that, he decided to get rid of the damned rubbery Siamese snake, the Taelon machine still coiled tightly round the girl’s right arm. It was beginning to look like Esther was soon going to be dead anyway, one way or another, and maybe this way she would at least have some chance to think and act for herself before that happened.

The way the snake felt now in Jubal’s hand, the way it twitched when his grip came on it, reinforced Jubal’s earlier impression that the strange artifact was somehow half-alive.

Tearing it loose was a horrific business, but to Jubal’s great relief it did not seem to do Esther any harm. No sign remained on her arm but a small red pressure mark, and that soon faded away entirely.

As soon as Jubal had ripped the snake away from her, Esther started to moan and stir a little in her sleep, though her eyes remained closed. She responded faintly when Jubal called her name, but though her eyelids quivered they did not really open.

Jubal picked her up in the fireman’s carry again, and headed for the ship at the best pace he could manage. Every time he lugged his burden around a corner, he feared to see Lobo standing there, waiting for him. At some corners he was sure that either Lobo or Lekren would be there… or someone, something even worse, like a dark Egyptian statue… but he saw no one, only an occasional example of the station’s ghostly dead.

To complicate his situation further, Jubal was getting more mental messages from the Urod. This time it was almost like having his own private television, except that he couldn’t tell if what he saw was really happening, or if it was just something the Urod wanted him to believe.

Jubal ran for the ship, desperate to get aboard before the station was utterly destroyed, and he was running as fast as he could, which was not very fast under Esther’s bouncing weight.

Desperately he pounded down the last short corridor, and with a gasp of relief carried Esther into the ship, pausing long enough to close the hatch behind them. Then he slung her body hastily into the control room’s right-hand seat She moaned faintly—she was still alive, then, still alive!

Screens on the control panel in front of him showed scenes from the interior of the station, and one screen was focused on the processing room.

Jubal fell into the left seat, and raised his hands like some desperate sorcerer’s apprentice, hoping that the ship somehow could be triggered into motion, made to carry them back to Earth—or at least free of the collapsing station. Right now he could see on screen that Lekren and Lobo were together in the processing room—and there was the Urod too. What came to Jubal from the Urod’s mind melded with what was on the screen, so he knew the human and the Taelon were trying with all their strength to somehow finish the Urod off.

Behind them, above them, around them, total destruction threatened—it looked and sounded like the whole station was on the verge of exploding or melting down.

Jubal reached out his hands toward the panel, determined to do something, though he had no idea of what it ought to be…

The little screen-figure of Lobo moved, and Jubal very clearly heard him say, “I will be happy to take her place, Lekren.”

“I understand, Lobo,” said the musical Taelon voice. “But I still hope to avoid that necessity. You can be of service. In so many other ways.”

Then Lekren’s body suddenly stiffened, and he turned to confront the basalt statue looming over them both on its new futuristic throne. The Taelon shrilled something in his bird-song tongue, first words then tailing off into a kind of scream—

Lobo was starting to draw his gun—

Jubal thrust his raised hands forward. He didn’t know how to fly, he didn’t know the first damn thing about it, but if you could get the engine running and the prop spinning, then you might be able to get her off the ground, and then—

Something happened, a kind of tiny lurch or jump, and in a moment he was certain that the ship was moving. He had really done it! He had certainly done something, because they had lurched free of the station. He felt no pressure of acceleration, but his eyes told him they had already gained terrific speed. Just in time, too, because there it went, the whole thing gone, in the biggest damned explosion he had ever seen or imagined. But quiet, shockingly quiet, still as a silent movie. Lobo gone, Lekren gone. Jubal could feel their deaths.

The Urod—?

The glare of the fireball was almost dazzling, even coming through the protective glass. And all in an eerie silence.

Control of the spaceship was in Jubal’s hands. But what should he do next? Experiment. If he moved just one finger, just a little bit, like this—

This time there was no sensation of movement, of travel, of the passage of any time at all. This time there was only the void…

Blackness. And then a hideous shock. His whole body engulfed, by something that felt like cold water…

It was cold water. Jubal opened his eyes, expecting, if he expected anything, to see the front window of the control cabin. But instead he was looking up at the floodlit twin towers of Casa Grande. He was sitting on the flat bottom of a shallow pool, with Esther practically in his lap, the two of them surrounded by four black basalt statues.

And in the foreground, poking out from between dense lilac bushes only a few feet away, a human face he recognized at once, that of a wide-eyed Errol Flynn. Beside Flynn’s face another, some young woman Jubal had never seen before.

The movie star and his girlfriend were laughing merrily, calling out some drunken words. But Jubal hardly noticed them, except to register the fact that they were both fully human, and wore no rubber snakes. There were no Taelons anywhere in sight, no men in leather jackets. And there was nothing like a ship.

Esther’s eyes were open now. The shock of the cold water. She squirmed around in Jubal’s arms, and he said a great silent prayer of thanksgiving, and gave her an enormous kiss.

She threw her arms around his neck, and kissed him back.

* * *

Chapter Sixteen

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The old man had fallen silent, staring into space.

“So,” Jonathan Doors prompted his father, “the ship brought you right back to San Simeon?”

Their long conversation had been several times interrupted, as various urgent business matters were brought to Jonathan’s attention. He also had to make some routine decisions regarding the upkeep of the estate. Also the two men had moved several times, Jonathan constantly looking to minimize the chance of being overheard by casual workers or curious Companions.

At the moment they were sitting in Jubal’s room in Casa Grande.

Jubal’s gaze returned to his son. “Not exactly, Johnny. That’s not quite what I said, is it?”

“What do you mean?”

“We were returned to San Simeon, all right. But I don’t think the spaceship brought us.”

“You’re losing me.”

“One minute Esther and I were in the control cabin, like I told you. Next thing I knew, we were both sitting in the fountain, getting soaking wet—”

“You were right back in the pool by the statues, where it all started.”

“That’s what I’m saying.”

“And you said you saw four stone statues?”

“If you want to be technical, which is a good thing to be in this case, I was looking at three statues and one Urod. That was back on its original pedestal.”

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred