The Arrival by Fred Saberhagen

No doubt about it, there was a string of approaching headlights on the distant coastal road, and another, closer, on the long, winding drive ascending from the highway. They were coming closer at high speed.

Then, even as Doors watched, the distant flickering and flaring of small-arms fire. Headlights went out, or slewed sideways and stopped. It seemed the enemy had not yet used up all their ammunition.

And meanwhile, all this time, like background music of a particularly ugly style, running through his mind, Jonathan could still intermittently sense the struggling Urod.

His perception of it became somewhat clearer the more the contact was repeated and prolonged. A monstrous being trapped in the snares of its enemies, surrounded now by layers and meshes of metal, strange composite materials, and pure force, who even after being loaded on the ship, kept fighting to escape.

But the energies that gave the Urod its strange life were fading and failing, and Doors got the distinct impression that the creature’s chances of breaking loose again were, at the moment, pitifully small. But it was still giving the Taelons as much as they could handle, distracting them, preventing them from watching the humans as closely as they might have otherwise.

The lanky security agent, Carson, called in again. No sir, he wasn’t hit, nor was Shorty as far as he knew. But he, Carson, had a problem and needed some kind of help.

Doors went to see what was the matter.

He found Carson crouching in a closet, wondering if he was going mad. The combat veteran had put down his weapon and was clutching his head with both hands.

“God, Mr. Doors, what have they done, shot the house full of some kind of gas? I’m—I’m having visions—hearing things—”

“I doubt poison gas has anything to do with it. Probably not the militia at all, just some of the bad dreams that we were promised earlier. I can feel it too, if that’s any comfort.” And how I can feel it. “I guess the difference is, I’ve worked into it gradually, sort of, and I know what it is.”

Carson looked marginally relieved. “But what can we do?”

“Hang in there and it’ll go away.” Doors tried to sound much more confident than he felt. “I close my eyes—just for a moment—and think of something else. Most of the time it works.”

“What is the damned thing, Boss?”

“See me later and I’ll tell you all I know, which isn’t much.” And you will be a rich man, and so will all my other workers who have made it through this night with me. But we won’t even talk about that now.

The Urod’s ongoing struggle was invisible to human eyes, but it was not without profound effect on human minds. Doors was sufficiently familiar with it that he thought he could chart the creature’s progress toward oblivion. No doubt some of the other humans in the vicinity could do the same.

By now all the survivors of Casa Grande must know that staying awake was not always protection against bad dreams.

If the defenders were partially disabled by the mental effects produced, the attackers were no better off, also suffering the mental strains and delusions inflicted by the Urod. Doors saw a man run wildly across the plaza, spraying bullets into the air at nothing.

The Urod effect was probably the reason no coherent effort to occupy and search the building had yet begun.

Jonathan rejoined his wife. The room they were in contained some heavy furniture, a bureau and two massive chairs, and he began to tug and shift these pieces, creating a hiding place for Mandy, what he could hope would be a sanctuary. The fear and suspicion engendered by his father’s story had gradually hardened into a practical certainty: What the dear Companions meant to do with his wife would mean her death, or possibly some fate that was genuinely worse than death—and now, at a time when anything that might happen to her could probably be blamed on the militia attack, it would be easier than ever for them to get away with it.

Jonathan had already torn her loose from their damned machine, and when a chance came he was going to get her away from here somehow, no matter what the risk…

Danger loomed, worse than that from some fanatic’s bullets. Two Taelons, Amanda’s would-be kidnappers, were back in the building—if they had ever left it. Doors could hear their familiar, tireless, patient footsteps on the stairs.

The image of their approach came from the Urod—and Jonathan feared that he could expect no further help from his peculiar sometime ally—the Urod was now in the last stages of being finally, permanently, squelched.

Jonathan decided not to lock the door. If he left it open, maybe they could hide. Putting his lips against his wife’s ear, he drew her back behind the heavy furniture, and whispered, “Not a sound. This time we won’t be able to talk them out of it.”

He could hear the Taelons coming down the hall, looking into one room after another. The first gray brightening of morning light, hazing the atmosphere outside the shattered windows, showed him the two tall figures, now actually entering the room. Va’lon’s cheek was marked by a fresh scar.

Doors pressed Amanda’s slim form back behind the furniture, deeper into the shadows.

Va’lon’s voice was clear and quiet, easy to understand despite the uproar. The fine tones of a great actor, maybe Richard Burton.

“Jonathan? Amanda? The way to our ship is open now, and it is safe.”

Lying motionless, peering out between the bureau and a chair, Doors could see that one of them was carrying the same rubbery Siamese snake, or maybe its twin, that Jonathan had so recently and violently disconnected from Amanda’s arm.

Jonathan pressed his wife more firmly than ever back into the niche where they were sheltering. Silently the pressure of his grip communicated: Don’t talk. Don’t even breathe.

Turning his eyes toward Amanda, he saw that she had her pistol drawn in her right hand.

In some distant portion of the great house alarms abruptly started ringing, buzzing, evidently powered by emergency batteries. Just a little late. He prayed that the sound would be enough to drown out Amanda’s wheezing. Was Taelon hearing especially acute, more so than that of earthly humans? He had no way to know.

The sounds of fighting had largely died away, though there still came an occasional explosion of gunfire. There had been temporary lulls before, and probably this one was only temporary too.

The Taelons were still in the room. A clear and pleasant voice called out in cheerful tones. “Jonathan? Amanda? Come out! The way is clear, but we can wait no longer. The attacking humans will be here soon.”

And the two tall, blue-clad forms fluted at each other in their own tongue. There was challenge and anger in the stance of their bodies and the tone of their voices.

But evidently they had decided not to search in every nook and cranny, but to move on to other rooms. One shook his head, and in a very human, gesture probed his own ears with his fingers, as if trying to clear them. Suddenly Jonathan realized that the Urod was not yet vanquished altogether, the Taelon minds and senses were still suffering the effects of the long struggle.

Jonathan and Amanda remained in hiding until the Taelon pair had moved on. Despite the tones of calm and patience in the Companions’ musical voices, Doors could see and hear that they were under a strain, and they were in a hurry.

Looking at Amanda’s face, Jonathan saw that she was silently, grimly marveling at the decisions he was making, at the risks he was willing to take to keep her out of their control. He saw the urgent questions growing in her eyes…

The two prowling Taelons were comparatively distant now, round several angles of hallway, and Jonathan thought that he could risk a whisper, barely audible.

“How’re you doing, Mandy?”

Her response was no louder. “I think I feel better than I have any right to feel. Better this than…” She didn’t finish. Instead she added, “I hope your dad’s all right.”

“I think he is. I talked to him on the global… I think the visitors are going downstairs again.”

Yes, the pair of Taelons were descending, he could hear the feet.

Moments after the two companions had moved on, the two humans heard heavier footsteps, and Jonathan knew they were made by the combat boots of the militia.

Then a few more gunshots hammered the early morning air, the first in some time, and frighteningly loud, sounding as if they came from just down the hallway. Someone was not yet entirely out of ammo. The only attackers with any cartridges left were those who had rationed their use early. The more dangerous among them, armed with at least half a brain apiece.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred