The Arrival by Fred Saberhagen

“Course you haven’t, son. You’re fairly smart, but you’ve been talking to some of the best con men in the universe. You can’t see anything wrong with them, but what do you know? What do you know about ’em, really?”

The answer to that was so obvious that Jonathan didn’t bother to give it. Instead he asked his father, “So, you say Murray tucked the two of you back into your respective rooms. What happened after that?”

“Not much. I told you my watch had stopped. But I knew we must have been gone several days, and I started trying to think up some story that people might buy to explain that length of absence. Fat chance! But it turned out Murray didn’t want to hear any explanations. He wasn’t interested, because he simply didn’t think we’d been gone that long.

“So, before I said goodnight to the captain I came right out and asked him what day it was. He wasn’t too surprised at the question—it must have fit right in with his assumption that I’d had too much to drink—and he gave me a straight answer: It was three o’clock Monday morning, and Esther and I couldn’t have been gone more than about four hours.

“That made no sense to me at the time, but I couldn’t think about it, and just accepted it gratefully. I was totally exhausted, as you may well imagine, and when I woke up in my bed in my room in Casa del Mar, it was just after noon on Monday, and my parents were knocking cheerfully on my door. I think Murray had even reset my watch for me before he tucked me in. I was starved, and I think I ate two breakfasts. Couldn’t get the taste of those damned Taelon biscuits out of my mouth.

“My Dad was in a good mood that Monday, ready to go home, thinking he’d got some kind of business deal going. I don’t remember what the deal was, but he counted our weekend as quite a success. We were due to leave San Simeon Monday afternoon, and my folks were chuckling and teasing me about how hard it was to wake me up.”

“And Esther?”

“She overslept a little too, as her parents delicately put it. I saw her for just a little while on Monday, and we talked. She said she was missing her shoes somewhere, and her dress was ruined. But none of that seemed to be a big deal, and it was just perfectly obvious that she had no memory, none at all, of what we’d both been through. We said a friendly goodbye, and it was a long time before I saw her again…”

“It would have been the easiest thing in the world for me to convince myself that it had all been a dream. Except for a couple of facts. One, I was stiff and sore in some unusual places. My back ached, and my arms ached from carrying Esther—but I was sixteen, and I snapped back fast. My clothes were pretty much a mess, but that could have happened anywhere. Another clue was something that happened when I looked in the mirror, in my bathroom in my room in Casa del Mar, when I finally got out of bed the next day.

“At that age I had started shaving—patchy little whiskers sprouting on my face here and there—and I swear my whiskers had grown a couple of days longer.

“Orson Welles did his War of the Worlds radio broadcast in October of 1938. Reporting an invasion from Mars scared the hell out of half the country, just a couple years after my own scare. I think it was his idea of a Halloween stunt.

“It was one of his regular radio dramas, but much of it had the sound of a special news program, and people who tuned in in the middle got confused. Panic broke out in places. There were even a handful of people,’ scattered here and there across the country, who were getting out their guns, ready to defend their families. Or actually to kill ’em, to keep ’em from being taken prisoner by bug-eyed monsters.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“If you think I’m exaggerating, you could look it up. It was sheer luck that no one got killed or seriously hurt. If you created that kind of an uproar now, there’d be lawsuits from here to the moon and back”

The old man paused. “But can you imagine how I felt, listening to that broadcast?” Jubal paused again. “And I knew from the start that what Orson Welles put on the radio was only a play. If I hadn’t known that…”

Jonathan Doors thanked his father for his warning, and assured the old man that he would deal successfully with the Taelons somehow, and that in the course of that dealing, however it went, he would let slip to them no hint of his father’s adventures on a Taelon vessel a couple of human generations in the past.

Jubal indeed seemed to need reassurance, for he was growing increasingly worried.

He said, “They’re back here now, and sooner or later they’ll have another go at that black thing that’s still sitting there. Have they said anything to you about it yet?”

“Not a word about that specifically, though they talk about the collection sometimes. And I have noticed Va’lon—well, looking at it.”

“I’ll bet you have. Bet your life he and his pals intend to do something about it, too. I’m worried that when they do, they’ll find out what really happened back in ’36, and they’ll tie it to me somehow.”

“How could they do that?”

“Who knows? Some of the things they can do are practically magic.”

“Would you feel safer going back to Charleston, Dad?”

“Go back there and do what? Just sit around waiting for news reports? Nope. Actually I feel better staying here. At least I can keep an eye on you and Amanda this way, and maybe I can do you some good, answer a question for you or something.”

Doors gripped his father by the hand.

* * *

Chapter Eighteen

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In the middle of the afternoon of Day Two, Jubal, pleading weariness and a lack of sleep over the last few days, had announced that he was retreating to his bedroom for a nap.

An hour or so later Jonathan tapped gently at the door on the third floor of Casa Grande, not wanting to disturb his father if he was asleep, then eased it open. He looked in at the old man, sound asleep in one of the house’s many elaborately carved, royal beds. Bushy eyebrows gave his familiar face the stern, intelligent expression of a Renaissance prince at rest. His son felt a burst of irrational envy, of one who had passed on the basic responsibilities of life to someone else. But the feeling was only momentary. Jonathan had long ago convinced himself that envy of any kind was foolishness.

What he had wanted to say to his father this time could wait. Easing the door shut again, Jonathan made a quiet but determined effort to get away by himself somewhere, for a little while, and give his problems some intensely concentrated thought.

He unhooked his global from his belt and turned it all the way off, then snapped the unit back in place. For a little while, any emergencies would have to be managed without his help.

Had there been any horses in the old stables, he would probably have taken one out for a ride. But in recent years the property that old William Randolph Hearst had called the Ranch had been devoid of any kind of livestock.

Jonathan made a deliberate effort to keep from walking anywhere near the black statues.

He supposed there was still a slim possibility that his father was totally crazy, or at least that the old man had built up an elaborate set of false memories or delusions about the events of 1936.

Of course that would be an unwelcome and unpleasant situation, difficult to deal with. But it would be better than the only alternative. The more Jonathan thought about that, the worse it looked. It would mean that the Taelons, or some of their leadership at least, were very far from being the benevolent peacemakers and healers they represented themselves to be. They were instead major-league liars, capable of murderous violence. Highly intelligent, advanced beings, quite willing to install mind-altering implants in human brains, for no other reason than to make humans into more useful tools. Such healing and helping as the Companions might actually accomplish upon the earth would probably be done with the sole purpose of brightening their image in human eyes, thus ultimately creating billions of willing… allies? Servants?

To judge by Jubal’s narrative, the relationship preferred by the Taelons would more likely be that of masters and slaves.

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Categories: Saberhagen, Fred