The Arrival by Fred Saberhagen

“You stay put,” he told his wife as he snatched up his father’s sturdy cane and headed for the door. “I’ve got other people to look after.”

“Never mind us, what about you?” his wife snapped back.

Just as he was leaving the room, Jubal, pulling one fist sharply away from the other, miming a drawing gesture, silently reminded his son about the concealed sword blade in the cane.

“S’all right, son. Go on with what you have to do. We’ll be all right.”

“Right. Hang in there, Dad.” And that was all the time that Jonathan could spare.

As soon as Jonathan was gone, Jubal suffered an attack of faintness. He moved shakily to a chair and more or less fell into it.

Amanda hobbled to his side. “Are you all right, Dad?”

“Just dizzy. It’ll pass.”

Looking closely at the old man, Amanda was afraid that he was going to pass out. Jubal was sunken deeply into the big chair, some kind of antique rocker, imported at great cost from God knew where. Jubal sat there feebly rocking, his eyes looking into some distance beyond what Amanda could see. Suddenly his whole body looked smaller than before.

Now she was the one who needed to sit down. And where was her spare oxygen?

Making his way down the hall, Jonathan breathed in a faint smell of smoke, something other than the ubiquitous stink of burnt explosive from fired cartridges. The smoke wasn’t thick or bad, and right now a serious fire seemed to Jonathan only a minor possibility. Anyone who tried to burn this building down would find that it was quite a job.

Having reached the branch of hallway that he thought he wanted, Doors began looking into room after room, cautiously seeking the one from which the call had come. He supposed the whole thing might be a cunning ambush, some trick to draw him out of hiding. But when one of his people cried for help…

Instead of an ambush, he found genuine disaster, two of his workers in one room, both sprawled on the floor, one still and the other moaning, There was a fair amount of blood. From the way the men were dressed, he judged they were both on the housekeeping staff.

Hasty examination showed that one was stone dead, with a head wound.

The living, breathing victim was oozing blood from a leg wound and in a fair amount of pain, but Jonathan thought the prognosis was quite good. No bones broken, no major blood vessels torn. The wound had probably been caused by a ricochet, or a chunk of antique European rock that had been blasted loose from a window casement. But obviously this man would be of no use running messages or scouting. In fact, there was probably no use trying to move him at all.

“I got hit, Boss.” And the man muttered a string of obscenities, which seemed to be his preferred way of expressing pain.

“I can see that,” Doors agreed. “Looks like you’re through for the day, but you’ll be all right. Let me see what I can do about this bleeding.” Tearing, sometimes using his pocketknife to cut, he converted part of a sheet that had been covering furniture into pieces of handy size. In another minute, he quickly got a passable pressure bandage in place.

“Any guns in here?” Jonathan queried, looking hopefully about. But there was nothing better than a sword-cane, nothing at all in fact. These two unlucky gobs of cannon-fodder had not so much as a peashooter between them.

Bandaging completed, Doors tried his global again. The jamming still reigned supreme, and he barely restrained himself from hurling the device across the room.

After a few more words to his wounded employee—he hoped they were inspiring—Doors started back as quickly as possible to the room where he had left Amanda and his father.

Every time he went through a doorway, or even passed one, he took a tight grip on Jubal’s cane, half-expecting to encounter invading militiamen. But still it seemed that none had found their way into the house, or at least they had not reached this level.

But, to Jonathan’s amazement, during the few minutes he’d been absent two Companions had somehow found their way to the suite he shared with Amanda—it was as if the Taelon pair had threaded their way through the maze of rooms and corridors and stairs with an exact knowledge of where to look for her, though Jonathan was reasonably sure that none of his interstellar visitors had entered this part of the big house before. Va’lon, like his compatriots, had been utterly absorbed in dealing with the Urod, and had not been in to see his patient.

And a new suspicion rose: Had they tagged her with some kind of tracer, so they were aware of her location at all times?

The snake again. It could well be something in the damned half-rubber snake.

When Jonathan burst into the room, Amanda was standing between two Taelons. Va’lon was on one side of her chair, Namor on the other, as if they had just helped her to her feet. And in that moment Jonathan had the impression, with no direct evidence to back it up, that they were on the point of marching her away like a prisoner between them.

Jubal had pushed himself up out of the rocking chair, and was making some ineffective protest, to which the visitors appeared to be listening with every show of courtesy.

Jonathan moved quickly to Amanda’s side, in the process deliberately bumping Va’lon, who made no resistance or objection. But the Taelon moved away from her no farther than he had actually been pushed.

“Johnny, you’re all blood!”

Doors looked down at himself, brushed at his shirt. “None of it’s mine.” He made no apology for the collision.

Amanda pulled free from Namor, who made no serious effort to restrain her. She clung to Jonathan, while he argued with the two visitors from beyond the stars. The Companions continued to be calmly insistent that Amanda must be transported to their waiting ship.

“Her condition urgently requires it,” Namor insisted. His strong, pale fingers danced briefly around the special marker on her rubber snake, as if he might be adjusting something.

Doors wondered how effective a weapon a suddenly drawn sword blade would be against two Taelons. He decided that the chance of changing their minds by that means was very small—so was the chance of disposing of them both. He was not entirely abandoning the option, and still held the cane in his hand, but he would only fall back on it as a last desperate resort.

Urgently he protested, “There are bandits out there.”

“Bandits?” The Taelon seemed politely puzzled.

“I mean these lunatic attackers, whoever the hell they are. She can’t go out there now.” And Amanda added her own vigorous objections.

“A path of safety will be created as necessary,” Va’lon promised, the last word being almost drowned out by a renewed sound of firing. He and his confederate stood there calmly* apparently unarmed in this almost undefended fortress, unfazed by the noise of death, spasmodically hammering and ricocheting nearby. They looked like men supremely confident of their authority whenever they chose to exert it, and Jonathan had to envy them their coolness.

In spite of the fact that one of them was wounded now. A bullet from that latest burst, or more likely a fragment of stone blasted out of the window embrasure, had scored on the right cheek of Va’lon, who ignored the injury.

Doors found the sight reassuring, evidence that they were not immune to physical harm. The trickle of blood looked gray, in the moments when he could see it at all in the window’s half-light, compounded of flickering muzzle flashes and failing electricity.

“Better have that taken care of,” Doors admonished. Neither Companion took notice.

“Jonathan, we are all intensely concerned about Amanda’s welfare,” the uninjured Taelon assured him.

“Of course, of course. My wife and I understand your position on that. It’s just that we’re upset.” And now, it might be time to try sudden capitulation. Jonathan Doors, pretending now to be in full agreement with the Companions, insisted that he could and would assist his wife to the ship without help from anyone else.

“All right, we can’t just argue all day. We’ll go to your shuttle. Amanda gets aboard, but I stay here. Looks like I’ve got a war to fight.” Two wars, actually, and they’re both crowding in on me at once. And even as he spoke he secretly gave Mandy’s arm a gentle squeeze, knowing that she would read the message properly.

“It is vitally important, Jonathan,” Namor chided loftily.

“All right, I’ll take her down on the elevator.” He gave Amanda a look that said: Trust me, play along for now.

“That’ll be easier for me—don’t try carrying me down the stairs!” Amanda objected, picking up her cue immediately. The tone of her voice threatened panic.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred