“Okay. Okay, let me think” Jonathan paced, feeling a flow of nervous energy. “You’ve had sixty-five years to mull this over, and it seems I’ll be lucky if I get that many minutes. But yes, perhaps that would fit. You just happened to be there on the weekend when this Lekren—and some other Taelons with him—?”
“Never heard about them, if there were.”
“—came to collect the runaway Urod. Only it turned out to be a much tougher job than they’d anticipated.”
“You can say that again.”
Jonathan said, after taking thought, “All right, that moves my question back a notch. Why did the Taelons pick that particular time, that day, that weekend, to come after the Urod?”
“I can think of one good reason, son, why they came in the summer of ’36.”
“They could have been worried about the possibility that ownership of the estate was soon going to change hands. Did I mention that the Hearst empire was on the brink of a financial crisis at the time?”
“I think you did say something about that.”
“Well, obviously our dear Companions were already listening to our radio broadcasts, and paying careful attention. So they were well aware of our Great Depression. And if they knew anything of Hearst’s spending habits they would have seen his problems coming. New ownership of San Simeon could mean that some unsuspecting humans would soon be hauling all the statues away—or trying to. So the Synod that my wounded pilot kept talking about might have given him orders to act pronto.”
Jonathan, pacing again, was silent for half a minute. Finally he said, “I’ll say this for your story, Dad—so far I’ve only been able to spot one big, glaring inconsistency in it”
Jubal snorted. Damned if he was going to ask what that might be.
The younger man paced some more, and stopped. “And during all these hours or days you were with Lekren, he was never able to communicate with this Synod that was so important to him?”
“Right. And I think there were two reasons for that. One, Lekren was injured, partially crippled in mind and body. Two, our captive Urod knew this, and kept him tied up in some kind of mental mud-wrestling match, so he couldn’t reach his Synod in the usual way—whatever way that might have been.” The old man paused there. “Anything else you’d like to know? What’s your inconsistency?”
“It’s in the times, Dad, as I’m sure you realize. First, this Taelon spaceship takes you zooming away to some place light-years distant. Then you say you were there for several days…”
“Son, have you read up on the theories scientists have come up with in the last few years? The real stuff is getting wilder than Buck Rogers ever was, or Flash Gordon either. Faster-than-light travel, even time travel, all theoretical possibilities. There was no miracle involved in what happened to Esther and me. Not when Taelons and Urods are concerned. The Taelon ship was destroyed, but the Urod came back here the same way it got here in the first place.”
“A re-adaptation of reality.”
“Maybe. That was the magic word that Lekren kept dropping on me whenever my questions got especially awkward.
The Urod did what it could, and I was lucky enough to be dragged along with it, and so was Esther.”
“So the pair of you were safely home again, and all the scary aliens were gone.”
“All of them but one,” Jubal amended, looking in the direction where the four black basalt statues were not quite visible. He fell silent for a moment. “And that one’s still waiting. Maybe it just likes it here. I’ve been scared of it for a long time, scared I’d hear it was up to some new deviltry here. When I got here from Charleston I was scared to go near it at first, but I finally figured what the hell, I’m over eighty years old now and what am I worried about. I walked right up close to it, and I thought I could feel it in my mind, with just a little effort. It’s still waiting for another Taelon shuttle to show up.”
“Yes, okay. And you never saw a Taelon again, or heard from them, until—?”
“Until yesterday morning, when you introduced me to your friend Va’lon.”
“I was almost ready to turn over the estate to him, Urod and all,” Jonathan admitted with a sigh. “But now I’m damned if I know whether he’s anybody’s friend or not.”
“I don’t want him for mine,” said the old man shortly. “I’ve had one Taelon friend in my life, and he almost finished me off.”
“Yep. I’ve been thinking, Johnny. In 1936 they made a big effort to get the Urod out of here. They might have been successful, though at a heavy cost to themselves—if it hadn’t been for the fact that there’d been some kind of battle at their deep-space station. Who knows who was fighting who, but it put a crimp in all their plans. After that fiasco, they had other things to worry about, and gave up on visiting earth for a while, gave up for the time being on trying to remove old Sekhmet.”
“That all seems to hang together.” Jonathan nodded slowly. “They postponed their efforts, until they could figure out some new method of Urod removal. And they had time to make whatever preparations they thought they needed, before they tried again. But the fact that Sekhmet was still squatting here has worried them all along—and it still does.
“Now, sixty-five years later, when they’ve decided to come openly to Earth—who knows why they’ve suddenly done that?—they see the Urod as a world-class problem, one of the very first things they have to deal with, as soon as they arrive. It’s like they don’t even dare to concentrate on anything else, like diplomacy and trade, until they’re sure he’s been taken care of.
“They’ve been studying us for a long time. Probably at least since we began sending radio messages into space, back around 1900. What if they’ve had a base here in our solar system for decades? Maybe for centuries?
“However that may be, they somehow know a hell of a lot about us earthlings before they arrive. Among other things, they even know that I’ve just become the owner of San Simeon. They’re so eager to get Sekhmet out of the way, maybe so worried about what might happen if they don’t, that they send one of their shuttles to land in my back yard. They arrange matters so that Va’lon is on the scene, right here”—he thumped with his hand on the armrest of the bench—”within a few hours of his landing.”
“But taking care to make sure that he arrives in a ground vehicle.”
“And they knew about Amanda too; I mean even about her illness.”
“We’ve tried to minimize publicity about that, as you know, but it’s certainly been no secret. There were news items on television from time to time.”
“And the Taelons absorbed them all, gathered every scrap of information about you that they could. Because they had to have access to the estate as soon as possible, had to be able to set up some kind of elaborate Urod-snatching operation as quickly as they could, if possible without a media circus watching everything they did. Because they had to disable the remaining Urod before it really came out of its time-freeze for more than a couple of minutes, and did something to them that they couldn’t stand—maybe yanked this whole solar system right out of their control.”
The old man’s voice was trembling now, and he emphasized his words with little jabs of a shaking finger. “Because the Taelons need us for something, son, or they need our world, this little chunk of dirt and rock and water. Don’t ask me why, or for what, because I haven’t got a clue. But our dear Companions need us like the breath of life!”
“Jesus,” said Jonathan Doors, softly. He wasn’t a profane man, as a rule, and this time he wasn’t sure if he meant the word as an oath or as a prayer.
The rain, which had drummed down fiercely for a few minutes, was letting up again, and patches of blue had reappeared. Soon the sky would be as sunny as if it had never happened. Crazy weather patterns.
Meanwhile. Jonathan’s father was still talking. “They went to great lengths to make sure they had you on their side. Landed one of their ships right in your back yard, and what was the very first thing they did when you met them? Sounds like they couldn’t wait to get one of their own physicians started, testing and treating her.”
“They’ve helped Amanda a lot already.” But as soon as Jonathan said that, he wondered if it was mainly wishful thinking. He had talked to his wife by global within the past few hours, and she had seemed well satisfied with the new treatments, but there were no miracles as yet.