The Arrival by Fred Saberhagen

“Have they?” The old man didn’t sound convinced.

“She’ll be joining us here in a little while,” said Jonathan, and felt a chill. What if the so-called Companions had some private reason, not so noble, for wanting to examine Amanda and provide her medical care?

“Driving over, or flying?”

Jonathan glanced at his watch. “She said they were going to drive. Ought to be getting here shortly.”

* * *

Chapter Seventeen

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The van that had brought Amanda and her crew of medical support was parked at the foot of the broad tile steps just below the esplanade, and she was coming up the steps in her new motorized wheelchair. It was equipped with some handy accessories that largely solved the problem of stairs for someone who could barely breathe.

The smile froze on Jonathan’s face when he looked down and saw her. The last time Doors had seen his wife, back at their own home, several Taelon medical devices had been attached to her. Most of those were gone now. But today there was a new addition, coiled round her right arm. This particular Taelon machine matched with terrifying closeness the image called up by Jubal’s words, describing a rubber Siamese snake.

The thing on Amanda’s arm, whatever it might be, touched Jonathan as he bent to embrace her, and he could feel his own left arm instinctively trying to pull back from the contact. Maybe it was only his imagination, but the rubbery texture suggested something half-alive.

“I’m very thoroughly wired up,” Amanda observed in a weak voice. At the moment a nasal tube was feeding bottled oxygen into her ravaged lungs.

“I see that.” It cost Jonathan a great effort to keep his voice light.

“Are there more stairs? No? Then let me walk with you,” Amanda said, and got up out of her chair.

Amanda was having a relatively good day, up out of her chair and walking, leaning on a cane. She paused frequently to catch her breath, but was not gasping as much as Jonathan had heard her doing in the past.

This time Doors was on her left, and her left arm was in continuous contact with him. Every time he glanced at the snake on her right arm it gave him the cold chills; because what he saw matched so exactly his father’s description of the device that had been attached to Esther Summerson.

He braced himself for his father’s reaction, when Jubal got his first look at the thing on Amanda’s arm. In the nature of things, that was going to happen very soon.

Still trying to keep his tone easy, even cheerful, Doors asked, “What’s this new gadget?”

“It monitors my vital signs, and half a dozen other things, or so my new physician tells me. He didn’t actually promise that it would make breathing easier, but there are moments when I think it’s helping.”

Jonathan frowned. He was all too familiar with the unpredictable variation of good days and bad days that cystic fibrosis inflicted on its victims and their families. “Does it have needles actually stuck into your arm, or what?”

Amanda raised her right arm slightly, and showed him how she could flex the elbow without much interference. “Do you know, I’m not certain? It doesn’t hurt a bit, not even as much as a normal IV, so I don’t believe so.”

“Namor didn’t say?”

She shook her head. “Doc Namor may be great, I suppose he probably is. But he’s not the most forthcoming physician I have ever dealt with.”

“No? I’ll have a go at him when I see him again.”

“Be my guest.”

Even now, as Jonathan Doors looked out across an expanse of fancy foliage, punctuated by tile walks and white marble statues, he could see some of his workers in a distant flowerbed, doing something very industrious. A lot of the other flowerbeds were really getting rundown, now that he looked at them closely. It came to him that the place really needed a bigger maintenance and security staff, whatever else might happen in the next few days.

Amanda was getting her first look at San Simeon today, and she was suitably impressed, as was practically everyone who saw the place.

“As long as I’m here, I’d like to do a complete tour.”

“So would I,” her husband agreed. “I don’t suppose I’ve seen a tenth of the rooms yet. We’ll check it all out together one of these days, when I have time.”

One of the bedrooms in Casa Grande had been made ready for Amanda’s arrival, and her baggage had already been installed in it, while her human caretakers were assigned rooms nearby. Namor, the Companion physician, was out in one of the satellite mansions with his fellow Taelons.

Her human physician, Dr. Kimura, appeared loaded with a backpack and two large handbags. Doors supposed that some of the contents were medical equipment. Dr. Kimura only nodded and smiled in passing; Doors made a mental note to ask her whether the Taelon treatments were really helping.

“Looks like there ought to be enough room for us all,” Amanda commented, getting her first close look at Casa Grande. “This is like standing in front of a cathedral.”

“With thirty-eight bedrooms in the main’ house alone, we’re not exactly pinched for space,” Jonathan observed.

“Which one is mine?”

“You know what? You’re in luck—there happens to be a vacancy right next to my own room. Nice views. I think the bed was once slept in by Cardinal Richelieu—or maybe his bed’s in another room down the hall.”

“I trust the cardinal is not still in it.”

“I think he got up and left about four hundred years ago.”

“Oh, goody. I’m going to like this place. So many rooms, so many beds. Have you tried them all out?”

“Not yet. That would be a big job.”

“Could you use some assistance in the project?”

“Absolutely. It might take us years to complete, but we ought to at least make a start.”

And Jonathan fell silent, because he had just seen Jubal emerge, cane in hand, from the main front door of Casa Grande, and start toward them with his usual briskness. But the old man stopped suddenly when he was still fifteen feet from Amanda, and his son saw him turn pale. Jubal’s eyes under their bushy brows were riveted on the snake.

The old man’s cane wobbled in his grip, and he made his way to a nearby bench, murmuring that he guessed he ought to sit down.

Amanda was concerned. “You all right, Jubal?”

“Yeah, yeah. Good to see you, Mandy. Go on in, talk to you later.”

“See you soon, Dad.” And father and son exchanged a knowing look.

Jonathan and his wife entered Casa Grande through the same portal Jubal had come out of, an enormous iron-grilled doorway that Doors had heard was once part of a Spanish convent. This entrance was set squarely in the middle of a massive white stone front, about four stories high, between a pair of hundred-foot steeple-topped towers.

Jonathan jabbed a finger skyward. “They tell me our water supply is up there.”

“Where? In the sky?”

“Not the California sky. No, our water’s pumped from a spring about a mile away. What I meant was, there’s a big storage tank concealed inside each tower, just below the belfry.”

“Ah. And I suppose the belfries are hung with real bells—let’s hope they don’t ring too loud.”

“They don’t. They better not, I’ve given some orders about that.”

“How about real bats?”

“I don’t remember any livestock being mentioned in the inventory.”

Moments later the couple had entered Casa Grande by the front door, and were crossing a dimly lighted entrance hall, Amanda’s cane tapping lightly on fantastic tile. Now they confronted a narrow, ancient grillwork door with a dark space behind it.

“This elevator looks like an antique,” she observed. “Are you sure it works?”

“It probably is. But it has, for me, so far. Though usually I use the stairs, just for exercise. Gee, that would be awful—the two of us trapped in a little elevator like this.”

Presently they were settled in the suite, and one of the workers was bringing up Amanda’s baggage. There were many things that Jonathan wanted to tell his wife, but his fears of being overheard had not abated. He had to assume that Taelons possessed superb eavesdropping technology, if they wanted to use it.

When Jonathan asked Amanda for more details regarding her experience with the Taelon treatment, she gave him a mixed report. But on the whole he got the impression that she felt that her condition was improving. The treatment itself caused no discomfort of any kind. It bothered her somewhat that Namor was remarkably reticent about the details of the therapy, how it was actually supposed to work. Maybe the human medics would learn an enormous amount from him some day, but so far that hadn’t happened.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred