The Arrival by Fred Saberhagen

For example, the carved, dark wood beams and panels of the billiard room’s Gothic ceiling (whatever kind of ceiling that might be, thought Jubal; he had no clue) had been imported at tremendous expense from somewhere in Spain, and they were somewhere around five hundred years old. Jubal might have been tempted to believe that the housekeeper was making it all up, but what he had already seen of the rest of the house and its surroundings had him just about convinced that here at the Ranch anything was possible.

So Esther and Jubal were left pretty much to themselves in the billiard room to socialize, under the unobtrusive but persistent chaperoning eyes of some of the household help, most of whom seemed to be Filipinos. Meanwhile all the adult guests would be going through what sounded like a regular evening ritual of cocktails at 7:30 in the Assembly Hall. That was what the little printed notices called the room, which to Jubal made the whole place sound uncomfortably like yet another kind of school. Not that it looked in the least like any kind of school he had ever seen, or even imagined.

The advance scouting report received by Jubal’s dad, from someone who knew someone who had been there, said the Assembly Hall covered twenty-five hundred square feet, an area bigger than the entire floor space of many houses. Its walls of imported stone, like those of many of the other rooms, were at least two stories high, and were hung with an emperor’s ransom in ancient European tapestries. The silver and the furniture of the Assembly Hall would have been welcome additions to any museum on the planet.

Jubal’s dad had also been warned that Hearst liked to get aboard his private elevator at some other level, and then enter the Assembly Hall through a concealed door to the left of the enormous fireplace—also imported, of course, though no one seemed to know from where—doing his playful best to startle guests who had been keeping an eye on the regular entrance in expectation of his arrival.

No, schools of any kind were not Jubal’s favorite places.

When he said something along that line, just trying to make conversation with Esther Summerson, she turned her eyes his way and seemed to look directly at him for the first time. It soon turned out that the two of them had at least a dislike of school in common, which was more than either of them had expected. Jubal had been somehow expecting to meet some kind of spoiled, impossible movie brat, and Esther… well, he didn’t know exactly what she had been anticipating from him, but as they conversed in the billiard room she began to seem a bit relieved, if not pleasantly surprised.

Jubal of course had been made to put on a coat and tie for the occasion, and Miss Summerson, as old W.R. himself had called her when they were introduced, had on what Jubal supposed should be classified as an evening gown. They were expected to amuse themselves for an hour or so, and then they would be notified when the time came to join the adults for dinner.

There weren’t too many places to sit down in the billiard room. Esther hitched one leg up, putting a strain on her fancy dress, and perched sidesaddle on the edge of the billiard table, indifferently giving Jubal a glimpse of leg up to about the knee. Her legs weren’t bad, in his opinion, but nothing spectacular. She selected one of the ivory balls and began to roll it back and forth on the firm green surface, bouncing it gently first off two cushions, then off three, trying to get it to come back to her waiting hand.

Jubal noted that the massive table at the north end of the billiard room was really for pool, while that on the south, lacking pockets at the sides and corners, was for billiards. When he mentioned the fact, the distinction was lost on Esther. Jubal’s education was fairly advanced in some ways—but games of any kind had never seemed very important to him.

“What do you do in Colorado?” Esther finally asked, after she had managed to get the bouncing ball to return obediently.

“My Dad owns some mines there. And some cattle. I go to school.”

“You ever work on the ranch? Or in the mines?”

He almost had to laugh out loud at the last suggestion. “Wouldn’t work in the mines, nohow. I’ve seen how that goes. Last summer I worked for a while on our ranch.”

Next they talked about horseback riding. Esther had tried it twice before discovering that she was seriously allergic to horses. That was going to be a problem in some movie roles, and the possibility of having to ride was already costing her some sleepless nights.

Conversation soon turned to animals in general—both liked dogs, but neither owned one—and from that to the particular specimens in old Hearst’s zoo.

Esther and Jubal had each caught glimpses of different exotic species, from their respective cars, when they arrived. Each vehicle had been forced to stop and wait for a minute or two, until some creature decided to get out of its way.

“The lions and bears are locked up, in cages out behind the main house somewhere, but sometimes you can hear ’em roaring. That’s what they say, I haven’t seen ’em yet.”

“Let’s go take a look.”

Jubal looked at his wristwatch. “Maybe we better wait till after dinner. We can play hooky from the movie.”

* * *

Chapter Five

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At about nine o’clock on Friday evening, the well-fed company rose from the dinner table, amid a general murmur of social conversation, mostly in anticipation of the new movie they were about to see. Jubal and Esther, exchanging glances, avoided the general migration in the direction of the fifty-seat movie theater built into the lower level of Casa Grande. Tonight’s feature film, according to the neatly printed little schedule distributed earlier in the day, was going to be Charge of the Light Brigade, starring Errol Flynn and featuring, among others, David Niven.

The picture sounded pretty good to Jubal, but Esther wasn’t into war movies, and he would rather spend time with her than with Errol Flynn. Now, while their host and his other guests were going to the show, Esther and Jubal slipped out of the house. A minute later, they had left the more brightly lighted area of the walks and patios to take another look at the beasts. Esther seemed fascinated by animals in general. Jubal could take them or leave them.

There was no problem getting around the grounds at night, at least in the areas that guests were generally expected to inhabit, and which were as well-lighted as any downtown streets that Jubal had ever seen. The lamps, on pillars, weren’t simply glass, but glowing globes of alabaster.

One of the caretakers at the zoo had already told Jubal that there were about three hundred animals altogether, not counting the fifteen hundred or so birds, who of course had their own enclosures. Of the four-legged beasts, the great majority were grazers—elephants, antelope, several kinds of goats, you name it—that were pretty much allowed to run free, inside vast fenced areas.

Currently there were only a few meat-eaters on hand—one lion, a few bobcats, one cheetah, one leopard, and a bear—and all of these were behind secure barriers of one kind or another. The whole zoo area was brightly lighted, like the rest of the walks and patios.

Halfway between the lion’s cage and the leopard’s, Jubal stopped and tilted his head to listen. “Sounds like another plane coming in.”

“Will they land at night?” Esther wondered.

“I bet they’ve got lights at the strip. Sure, at a place like this they must have.”

And that, as Jubal Doors was to tell his son more than six decades later, that was where the experience began that was to change his life forever.

First came the sound, echoing in Jubal’s brain. Putting his fingers in his ears did not muffle it at all, suggested it was being created somehow inside his head—anyway, surely no animal that had ever walked on earth could make a noise like that. Not that it was actually that loud, but…

And the noise was only the beginning, it was only the least important part.

Nothing seemed to have changed objectively in Jubal’s surroundings. But it was as if the whole world had suddenly become a strange, forbidding, and unnatural place.

None of the outlines or colors of the objects that he could see had been changed, but everything had somehow been transformed. The trees had extra branches, and their leaves were strange; palm fronds looked sawtoothed like dandelions. He saw a flower opening its mouth, and there were teeth inside. Whether these disturbing alterations were taking place only in Jubal’s mind, or somewhere in the foundations of the surrounding world, he couldn’t tell. But he endured a momentary, unpleasant suspicion that he was dreaming, followed quickly by an illogical regret that he was not. He was wide awake, and could not seriously imagine otherwise.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred