Half an hour after the new owner’s arrival, the damaged SUV had been taken off to a garage to await repairs, and one of the caretakers was bringing Doors some breakfast on the terrace beside the outdoor swimming pool.
The Neptune Pool, he seemed to recall, was so named for its most prominent group of white marble statuary, showing the sea god with his usual guard of horses and tritons. It was one of the features of the place that old W. R. Hearst, something of an enthusiastic swimmer, had evidently prized the most. Three hundred and forty-five thousand gallons of heated water, Doors seemed to remember from some list of specifications, and he could see that it was over a hundred feet long. The indoor pool, of course, was comparable in size and elegance; but that was for rainy days.
One of his first acts on arrival had been to personally decode the message from his father. The result was reassuring in a way, but had done nothing to relieve his curiosity. It simply let him know that Jubal Doors was on his way to San Simeon, and wanted to see his son about a matter of some urgency as soon as he got there. Jubal might, of course, have called his son directly on his global communicator, but the old man tended to prefer the older methods.
And just what might be so urgent was something of a puzzler. Jubal was now getting well into his eighties, and had been substantially retired for a decade. Jonathan, who generally had a thousand other things to think about, tended to lose track of his father, sometimes for months at a time, and on occasion he felt guilty about it. But as far as he knew, the old man remained as healthy and active as his age would let him be, energetically pursuing his own interests, reading, writing, and gardening. Finances were certainly no problem.
Rather than eating more simply and practically in the kitchen of the main house, Doors had asked the worker doing temporary duty as cook to bring his breakfast out on the terrace, mainly because the Taelon had practically insisted on remaining outside, and he did not want to leave his guest alone.
It was the outdoor statuary that seemed to impress Va’lon most. And there was certainly a fair amount of work to be inspected, in marble and other stones. Single figures and carved groups were scattered plentifully about, on the esplanade that curved around the pool and branched to the three guest “cottages”—the smallest had ten rooms—and along the broad white stairs that went up to the plaza in front of Casa Grande.
Va’lon had politely declined offers of various kinds of food and drink. He had not yet consumed anything by mouth, not where Doors could see him anyway, but had made what seemed a limited concession to biology by visiting a bathroom shortly after their arrival. Now the Taelon was coming back from a quick walking tour around some of the buildings, on which he had been accompanied by one of the security people. Doors noted for the first time that the Companion was carrying a small device, probably some kind of camera.
“I can well believe that this establishment is unique among the constructions of your world,” the Taelon commented on his return to stand beside the table where Doors was breakfasting.
Beside Jonathan’s personal communicator, there was already a small stack of papers on the table, mostly print-outs from communications gear recently installed in the Casa Grande room that was going to be his temporary office; the need to make certain business decisions had inevitably caught up with the master of the house.
In response to a gesture of invitation, Va’lon pulled out a chair and sat down gracefully. “It is indeed impressive,” he continued.
“Wait’ll you get a look inside the main house.” Doors nodded in the direction of those formidable walls of stone, the huge mass suggesting a Spanish church or fortress. “One visitor here some decades back—a man named George Bernard Shaw, maybe you’ve heard of him—said that this place shows what God could have accomplished, if only he’d had the money.”
Va’lon inclined his head gracefully, in a way that seemed to indicate he had some awareness of the identities of both God and George Bernard Shaw. Whether he appreciated the point of the joke was a little harder to determine.
“As I believe I mentioned before, Jonathan, we consider the creation of fine museums among the highest esthetic achievements of advanced civilization. This estate that you now own is certainly a fine museum, whatever other values it may possess.” Without a pause, or change in tone, the Companion added, “We would like to buy it from you, with all its contents and appurtenances.”
Doors paused in the act of wiping some egg yolk from his plate with a piece of toast. “Excuse me, did you say ‘buy it’?”
“I did indeed.”
“I don’t know if we’re on the same wavelength here, Va’lon. It wasn’t long ago—remember?—that I paid the state of California more than two billion dollars for this property.”
The Companion performed his gracious little bow, which he could do with perfect ease while seated. “We realize that, and we understand that you would be entitled to make some financial profit. Still, our offer is quite serious.”
Va’lon looked around at palm trees and a hundred other kinds of vegetation, with four Mediterranean mansions of various sizes raising their red-tiled roofs in the background, and white marble scattered about in stark emphasis.
“In my personal opinion, this would be an ideal site for us—for the Companions—to establish our North American headquarters. Perhaps even our world headquarters. Your price would be paid in earthly currency, in dollars if you prefer, as soon as trade has enriched us to that extent—which I believe will not take an enormous length of time, considering what we have to offer. Or we could supply you with commodities of equal value.”
Doors sipped his coffee, a necessary move to give himself a little time to think. He felt an impulse to accept the offer at once, and an even more generous impulse to deed the property over to the Taelons as a gift, in the cause of cementing human-Companion relations. But the same wary instinct that had enabled him to amass an enormous fortune now made him insist on having a little time to think the business over.
His need to answer was further postponed by the sound of a small aircraft, purposefully entering the airspace over the estate, at such low speed and altitude that the shape of its wings could be easily made out. Va’lon looked up sharply at the sound, and his face showed the first expression like real alarm that Doors had seen on it. But for the moment he said nothing.
Doors pushed aside the remains of his breakfast and stood up, stretching, and rubbing his eyes. “Looks like my dad is here,” he announced. “This place has its own little airstrip, as I mentioned before.” Then he stared.
The Companion, who a few hours ago had endured a near lynching with apparent calm, was now definitely showing signs of uneasiness. Va’lon asked, in a suddenly abrupt though still melodious voice, “I had not expected this. Is it possible to divert the aircraft elsewhere? To ask that your father complete his journey by land, as we did?”
Jonathan squinted into the steadily rising sun. “Might be possible, even at this late stage, but… no, I guess not even possible now. Looks like the pilot’s already on his landing approach.”
“It is going to land beyond that hill.” And the Companion seemed relieved. “It will not fly any nearer—any nearer the house than that?”
“That’s right. Our strip’s over there. It’s not a helicopter, or one of those VTOL craft some people have. Just a middle-sized fixed-wing jet. We’re still somewhat old-fashioned here at San Simeon.” Doors chuckled, but privately he had been given something to wonder about. Why should the interstellar explorer be nervous about the approach of an ordinary airplane? Even if Va’lon had been asked to ride in one, he must know that the safety records of human flying machines at the start of the twenty-first century were pretty good. But of course he hadn’t been pressed to take a ride. And the plane that worried him hadn’t even flown directly over his head…
Meanwhile Va’lon seemed quite his usual self again, calm and philosophical. “I look forward to meeting your father. Will you walk with me, Jonathan, while we await his arrival?”
Doors rubbed his face again. “Of course,” he agreed, and tried to remember just how long he’d been awake. Well, as soon as he’d seen his father, he’d hit the sack for a few hours.
The Companion showed no hesitation or uncertainty about where he wanted to go on his little walk. He led his wondering host along one sun-drenched walkway after another, until they were standing in front of Sekhmet. Four similar, though not identical, black stone images of the same goddess of ancient Egypt, arranged around a fountain, now dry, and flanked on two sides by pink tile steps and half-encircled by a stone balustrade. Here Va’lon, his camera—if it was a camera—once more in hand, stopped to discuss his theories regarding archives and their curators.