Jonathan cleared his throat. “So, Namor is a physician. It seems that may be very fortunate for Amanda and me.”
“Yes.” Again the gesture of agreement.
“And you?” Doors asked. The Taelon had not been shy about asking blunt questions, so he thought he too might as well be direct. “A space pilot, perhaps?”
Va’lon turned to him with the same gentle smile. “No, my real profession—to use the nearest term for it that I can find in your language—is something else entirely.”
He paused for a moment, as if considering the best way to approach his subject. “It is generally considered, among our people, that one of the surest indicators of an advanced civilization is its willingness, even eagerness, to seek out intellectual engagement with other—perhaps, though not necessarily—lesser cultures. By such engagement I mean not only direct contact, but an involvement through collection, preservation, study.”
Jonathan took a moment to think that over. “Ah, I see. Or I think perhaps I do. You mean you are something like a museum curator?”
“That is very close to what I have in mind.” And once more Va’lon performed the modest, almost self-effacing bow.
Doors wasn’t sure what he would have predicted as an opening topic of conversation, had someone asked him yesterday, but it would not have been this. But then, he supposed there was no reason to expect minds from beyond the stars to be predictable.
“Well, if museums are your chief interest,” he said at last, “you’ve come to the right planet. Here on earth, as your thorough preliminary studies have doubtless informed you, we have a great many such institutions, and some of them are very good. One variety specializes in what we call natural history. Others are devoted to anthropology, or to specific kinds of technology…”
“I understand.” The Taelon was giving him keen attention.
“… while many more, I suppose a majority, concentrate on art, in one form or another.”
Va’lon moved closer by half a step, and his face, his whole being, seemed to open up. “I have been on your world only a few minutes,” he said, evidently well pleased. “And we have come already to a subject that I find truly fascinating.”
“I’m very glad to hear it—though I must say I am a little surprised at the turn the conversation has taken.
The Taelon did not seem interested in his surprise. “I understand that you, Jonathan Doors, are the owner of one of the finest, the most catholic—you will understand that I use the word in the sense of ‘universal’—collections of art, of antiques, of historical memorabilia of all kinds, on the entire planet.”
Doors frowned at his guest. “I don’t know who told you that. I’m no collector, never have been… but wait. Oh hell. Yes, of course I am now, in a sense. I’ve hardly even laid eyes on much of the stuff yet, but it’s been legally mine for the last couple of months. “You’re talking about San Simeon, of course.”
Va’lon gravely signed assent. His attention was now riveted on Doors even more closely than before.
* * *
« ^ »
Half an hour later, Doors and Va’lon were sitting indoors, at a small table on a kind of covered porch just off the room that had been dedicated to computers and communications. Somewhat to Doors’s mystification, San Simeon was still the prime subject of discussion. As often as the human attempted diplomatically to turn the talk to some (as it seemed to him) more interesting subject, such as space travel, cosmology, or the prospects for the conquest of disease, his new Companion neatly turned it back again.
Meanwhile Amanda had retired to her own sitting room down the hall, accompanied by some of the people who handled her day-to-day care. She must be, her husband thought, pretty well worn out by a long day. Despite her tiredness she had given in to Namor’s eager willingness to begin a thorough physical examination at once. That project was now getting under way, with the help and under the observation of the two human nurses and one physician who happened to be on hand.
When Doors turned his head to look in the opposite direction from Amanda’s room, he could see that the French doors to the patio had been closed. The visitors from space had assured their host that there would be no more spacecraft arriving tonight in the skies of California. On that subject he had to assume that they knew what they were talking about.
Jonathan had of course offered his visitors refreshment, but they had graciously declined. He certainly wasn’t going to press them, thinking, God knows what their ordinary food might be.
He himself, feeling excited but by no means too excited to eat, was enjoying a ham sandwich and a bottle of beer.
So far, only a few snippets of information had come out of the room in which Amanda was undergoing her latest medical exam. These were items repeated by a nurse, who had heard the Taelon physician utter them, and they were all cautiously favorable. Optimistic enough so that Jonathan Doors knew a steadily growing elation. This emotion he tried, with all the grim experience of late middle age, to keep under tight control.
If he was going to keep his mind from dwelling uselessly, prematurely, on his wife’s prospects for a near-miraculous cure, he had to think actively of something else. And this effort to refocus his attention was enormously helped by the fact, incredible yet undeniable, that a true interstellar alien was at this moment sitting only an arm’s length from him. Jonathan Doors had been granted the opportunity of a lifetime to engage in a preliminary exploration of a mind, a keen intelligence, that had to be vastly different from his own.
So far, from the intellectual point of view there seemed to be only one flaw, and that perhaps a minor one, in this situation: it was something of a disappointment that Va’lon kept relentlessly turning the talk back to the subject of the San Simeon estate. More particularly the Companion seemed interested in the mind-boggling trove of treasure, arts and antiques in every form, accumulated on those grounds by William Randolph Hearst, the famous newspaper publisher who had now been dead for something like half a century.
Doors decided that since he seemed doomed to spend his first hour of conversation with an extraterrestrial on the subject of the late Air. Hearst and his treasures, he might as well make sure the Taelon had his facts straight.
“Within the last few years,” Jonathan began, “the state of California, finding itself in some financial trouble, went on a big privatization kick. They started selling off buildings, lands, and monuments left and right. It seemed likely that the Hearst estate, which had been a state monument for years, would be sold off, including over a hundred acres surrounding the buildings. The real-estate developers were ready to move in. Now I see nothing intrinsically wrong with developing real estate. But—it just seemed to me a very special place. Some people call it the enchanted hill. Besides, I thought I owed the people of California something. My business here has been very successful.”
Va’lon, who had an incredible air of seeming perfectly at ease in what to him must be utterly alien surroundings, had made a graceful tent out of his long fingers.
“And your expression of gratitude was indeed vigorous,” he observed. “The purchase price, I understand, was something more than two billion dollars.”
“That’s about right,” said Jonathan. And added simply. “I could afford it.”
“But the estate had never been owned by any member of your family before.”
“No-o!” Doors emphatically shook his head. “My folks have been well-to-do, as the saying is, for the last few generations. But they were never in that league, financially.”
“Indeed, Jonathan,” the exotic visitor pressed on, “I can scarcely restrain my eagerness to examine the collection there. I trust it is being well cared for.”
“I think I have the right people there to do a pretty good job of caretaking—if I ever grow lax about that, and I won’t, the insurance companies would keep me in line.”
“And your ultimate plans for the estate—?”
“That’s still to be decided, except that I want to preserve it pretty much as it is, for people to visit and enjoy. It’s closed to the public right now, but I’ll be glad to give you a tour anytime.”
“Possibly this very morning?” And the Companion shifted in his chair, gracefully conveying the idea of impatience. It was as if he had rushed halfway across the Galaxy, or for some comparable distance, with no more urgent or profound goal in mind than visiting San Simeon.
Jonathan blinked at him, and took a moment to remind himself yet again that when visitors dropped in from beyond the stars, there was really no reason to expect them to come equipped with a familiar and predictable psychology. Still, he thought he himself had a well-developed sense of when people, including extraterrestrials, were serious and when they were not. And Va’lon was as serious about this as anyone could be, without giving the impression of fanaticism that crossed over into mental illness.