A Beetle in an Anthill (Excerpts)
By Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Translation copyright © 2009 by Nikolai Chuvakhin. All rights reserved.
By ten o’clock, the marching order settles completely. We’re walking the middle of the street, Schekn is ahead on the axis of the route, I am behind and off to the left. The initial idea – keeping close to walls – had to be abandoned, since the sidewalks are filled with peeled-off pieces of drywall, broken bricks, shards of glass, rusty metal roofing, not to mention that twice already, crumbling ledges fell down almost on our heads without any discernible reason.
The weather is not changing; the sky is still cloudy, damp warm wind is blowing in gusts, flinging around assorted garbage, rippling stinking water standing still in black puddles. The hordes of mosquitoes assail, dissipate, and assail again. Waves of mosquitoes. Tornadoes of mosquitoes.
Lots of rats around. I have no idea what they eat in this stone desert. Snakes, maybe? Lots of snakes around, too, especially close to manholes, where they bunch together into tangled wriggling lumps. I have no idea what snakes eat here, either. Rats, maybe?
The city, clearly, has been abandoned a long time ago. The man we saw at the outskirts was obviously mentally unsound and wandered in by chance.
A message from Rem Zheltukhin’s group: he hasn’t seen anyone so far. He is delighted with his part of this dump and swears that soon he will determine the index of this civilization down to the second digit. I am trying to imagine the entirety of the dump: giant, endless, spanning over a half of this world. My mood goes sour, and I stop thinking about it.
My camouflage overalls are working poorly. Camouflage matching the background develops with a five-minute delay, and sometimes doesn’t develop at all; instead, the overalls cover themselves with spots of beautifully clear spectral colors. Looks like there is something in this atmosphere that interferes with the chemistry of the overalls. Remote support abandoned all hope to debug the overalls remotely. They give me directions on how to adjust it in the field. I follow, and as a result my overalls are completely maladjusted.
A message from Espada’s group. Looks like they landed a few kilometers off the mark due to fog, so they can see neither cultivated fields nor settlements observed from the orbit. They see ocean and the shore, a kilometer-wide band covered with a black crust, possibly solidified fuel oil. My mood goes sour again.
Remote support people categorically protest when Espada decides to turn off camouflage. A short, but noisy argument erupts over the radio. Schekn grumpily comments, “The notorious human technology! Funny.”
He is wearing no overalls and no heavy helmet with transformers, although all that was specially made for him. He refused, as usual, without explaining his reasons.
He is running along the half-erased lane separation line, with hind legs slightly off to one side, as our dogs do sometimes, plump, fluffy, with a huge round head turned slightly to the left, so that his left eye peers straight ahead and the right one looks sideways at me. He is paying no attention to snakes, nor to mosquitoes, but rats are of interest, but of a purely gastronomic nature. However, right now he is full.
I think he already drew some conclusions about this city and possibly about this whole planet. He indifferently declined the idea to look around a remarkably well preserved town home in Block Seven; the house with its beauty and elegance seemed absolutely out of place among buildings stripped by time and overgrown with wild ivy. With disgust, he sniffed at two-meter wheels of a military armored vehicle, still reeking gasoline, half-buried under the rubble. Without any curiosity, he looked at the macabre dance of the local man mentioned earlier, who jumped at us, little bells on his clothing ringing, covered all over with colorful rags (or were they ribbons?) To all this strangeness, Schekn is indifferent; he somehow didn’t want to separate it out of the background, although at the beginning, for the first few kilometers, he was clearly excited, kept looking for something, breaking the ranks in the process, tried to sniff something out, snorting and spitting, muttering something unintelligible in his language…
“Here’s something new,” I say.
It looks like an ion shower cabin; a cylinder about two meters tall and a meter in diameter, made of semi-translucent amber-like material. An oval door, as tall as the cylinder itself, open. Looks like this cabin used to stand up vertically; then, an explosive charge was detonated at its side, and now it is leaning to the side, so that the edge of its bottom lifted up along with a slab of asphalt and clay-like dirt attached to it. In any other respect, it is unharmed, although there was nothing to be harmed in the first place: inside, it was as empty as an empty glass.
“A glass,” says Vanderhuse, “but with a door.”
I dictate an interim report. He takes dictation, then asks: “Any questions?”
“Two obvious ones; why was this thing put here and in whose way did it stand? Note that there are no wires or cables hooked to it. Schekn, do you have questions?”
Schekn is more than indifferent; he is scratching an itch, with his rear turned towards the cabin.
“My people do not know these things,” he pontificates, “my people are not interested in this.” And starts scratching again, with a challenging look about him.
“That’s it for me,” I say to Vanderhuse, and Schekn immediately gets up and continues along the route.
His people, you see, are not interested in this, I think to myself walking behind him slightly off to the left. I want to smile, but I really shouldn’t. Schekn hates those smiles; his sensitivity to the smallest nuances of human facial expressions is astounding. Strange; where did it come from? Their own faces (or is it muzzles?) are almost void of expressions, at least in human view. A common mutt has richer expressions. But he understands human smiles very well. Indeed the Bigheads understand more about humans than humans understand about the Bigheads. And I know why. They are sentient, so we feel awkward studying them. They, however, feel no such awkwardness. When we lived in their fortress, when they sheltered, watered, fed, and protected us, I would often find out that I have just been experimented upon. Martha complained to Komov about the same thing, and so did Rawlingson. Only Komov never complained; I think he is too ambitious for that. Tarascon, however, ended up running away. He moved to Pandora, where he happily studies those monstrous tahorgs… Why is Schekn so interested in Pandora? He kept putting off our departure from there. I’ll need to check if it is true that a group of Bigheads has asked for transport to relocate to Pandora.
“Schekn,” I say, “would you like to live on Pandora?”
“No, I need to be with you.”
He needs to be. The problem is, their language has only one modality. There is no difference between “need”, “must”, “want”, or “can”. When Schekn speaks Russian, he seems to choose between those words randomly. You can never tell what he means exactly. Maybe he wanted to say that he loves me, that he feels bad when I am not around, that he likes to be only with me. Or maybe that he has a duty to be with me and he intends to carry it out honorably, even though what he wants most is to prowl through the orange jungle, greedily listening to every sound, enjoying every smell, of which Pandora has plenty…
Like an undulating metallic ribbon, a huge snake starts to cross the street, then winds into a coil in front of Schekn and threateningly raises its rhombic head. Schekn doesn’t even pause; a short casual swing of a front paw, and the rhombic head hits the sidewalk. He trots on, leaving behind a wriggling beheaded body.
And those silly people were afraid to let me go with Schekn! He’s a first-class fighter, he’s smart, he is absolutely fearless, inhumanly fearless as a matter of fact. But… There’s always a “but”, isn’t there? If I had to, I would fight for Schekn as I would for a human, as I would for myself. What about Schekn? I don’t know. On Saraksh, they fought, killed, and died to protect me, but somehow, I always thought they were not fighting for me, their friend, but for some abstract, although very important, principle. I’ve been friends with Schekn for five years now; his feet were still webbed when we met, I taught him to speak the language and to use the Delivery Line. I was at his side when he got sick with his alien diseases, of which our physicians were not able to make any sense. I tolerated his bad manners, put up with his inconsiderate remarks, forgave him for doing things that I wouldn’t forgive anyone else. And to this day, I still don’t know what I mean to him…
A call from the ship. Vanderhuse reports that Rem Zheltukhin found a rifle in his dump. The information is trivial. Vanderhuse simply wants me to keep talking. He worries, a kind soul, when I remain silent for a long time. We talk nonsense.
Every time I get on a call, Schekn starts behaving like a dog, feeding, scratching, or looking for fleas. He knows full well I don’t like it and puts together these demonstrations, as if to get back at me for breaking away from our loneliness for two.
It is beginning to drizzle. The street ahead is covered with gray misty haze. We pass Block Seventeen (the crossing street is paved with stone), walk by a rusty van on flat tires, then by a relatively well-preserved building with granite fronting and wrought iron latticework over first floor windows. To our left is a park separated from the street by a low stone fence.
As we pass the leaning arch of the gate, out of wet bushes, with noise and jingling of the bells, an odd-looking tall man in multi-colored clothes jumps on the fence.
He is thin as a skeleton, yellow-faced, hollow-cheeked and glassy-eyed. Wet tufts of red hair stick out this way and that, loose arms flail about frantically, and long legs ceaselessly jerk in dancing moves, so that from under his huge feet, fallen leaves and cement crumbles fly off to all sides.
From the neck down, he is encased in something that looks like tights with red, yellow, blue, and green checkers; the little bells sown onto his sleeves and pant legs keep jingling, his knobby fingers keep snapping producing an elaborate rhythm. A buffoon. A harlequin. His moves would be funny, if they didn’t look so scary in this dead city under the gray drizzling rain in front of an overgrown park that long since turned into a forest. No doubt it’s a mental case. Another mental case.
For a moment, I think it’s the same man we saw in the outskirts. But that one had ribbons and a fool’s cap with a bell, was not so tall, and didn’t look that emaciated. It’s just that they both are colorful and crazy. It seems highly improbable that the first two locals we meet should both be crazy clowns.
“It’s not dangerous,” Schekn says.
“We have to help him,” I say.
“Whatever you want. He’ll be in the way.”
I know full well he’ll be in the way, but there’s nothing to be done about it, and I start approaching the dancing buffoon, getting ready the tranquilizing suction cup.
“Danger behind!” Schekn says suddenly.
I abruptly turn. On the other side of the street, there’s nothing special. Just a two-storey town home; traces of violet paint, false columns, not a single unbroken glass in the windows, tall front doors opening into the darkness beyond. Just a house, but Schekn is watching it in with the utmost concentration. He lowers his body, puts his head close to the ground, and raises his small triangular ears. I feel a cold tingling between my shoulder blades; he hasn’t done that since we started our route. Behind us, the bells keep jingling, and suddenly it’s quiet again, except for the rustling of the rain.
“Which window?” I ask.
“I don’t know.” Schekn slowly turns his heavy head left and right. “It’s not in a window. Do you want to check it out? But it’s less intense now…” The heavy head slowly rises. “It’s gone. Now it’s the usual.”
“What do you mean, the usual?”
“As it was since we started.”
“Yes. It was dangerous since the beginning, but the danger was weak. Right now, it got strong, then went back to the beginning.”
“Is it people? Or an animal?”
“A lot of rage. Can’t say.”
I look back to the park. The crazy buffoon is gone, and nothing can be seen in the wet dense greenery.
Vanderhuse is worried sick. I dictate an interim report. Vanderhuse is afraid it was an ambush and the buffoon was supposed to distract me. He just doesn’t get it; if it were the case, the ambush would have been successful, because the buffoon did in fact distract me so I heard and saw nothing except him. Vanderhuse offers to send out a support group, but I decline. Our assignment is trivial and it is highly likely that we’re going to be pulled off pretty soon anyway and reassigned to support someone else, probably Espada.
A message from Espada’s group; he’s been shot at. With tracer bullets. Looks like warning shots. Espada continues the route. So do we. Vanderhuse is agitated to the limit, he sounds downright doleful.
Looks like we’re out of luck with our captain. Espada’s captain is a Progressor. Zheltukhin’s captain is a Progressor. And we’ve got Vanderhuse. That’s perfectly justified, of course; Espada’s is the contact group, Rem is the primary intelligence source, and Schekn and I are just walkabout scouts in an empty safe quadrant. An auxiliary group. But when something happens (and something always happens), we have only ourselves to count on. In the end, dear old Vanderhuse is a starship pilot, the most experienced there is. He is used to living by Instruction 06/3, “should signs of intelligent life be detected, take off immediately; if possible, destroy all traces of your stay.” And here, we have warning shots, blatantly obvious lack of desire for contact, and no one is in a hurry to take off; moreover, they keep pushing on asking for trouble.
Houses keep getting taller and more luxurious. Shabby, moldy luxury. A long line of mismatched trucks parked on the left. Looks like traffic here was left-sided. Many trucks are open-bed; cargo beds are filled with household goods. Looks like evidence of mass evacuation, only why would it proceed toward downtown? To the port, perhaps?
Schekn suddenly stops and raises his triangular ears out of the thick hair on top of his head. We are very close to an intersection, the intersection is empty, and so is the street beyond, as far as the gray mist allows seeing.
“Stink,” Schekn says. After a short pause, he adds, “Animals.” Another pause. “Many. Coming here. From the left.”
Now I can smell something, but it’s just wet rust of the trucks. Suddenly, I hear the thumping of thousands of feet, yelps, muffled growls, puffing and snorting. Thousands of feet. Thousands of throats. A pack. I look around, looking for a building to hide in.
“Damn,” Schekn says. “Dogs.”
And that same second, from a crossing street on the left, it started to flow. Dogs. Hundreds of dogs. Thousands. A dense flow of gray, yellow and black, stomping, puffing, emitting a sharp odor of wet dog. The head of the flow already disappeared in the crossing street to the right, but then a few creatures separate from the pack and turn our way. They are large and mangy, extremely lean, covered by clumpy hair. Shifty evil eyes, yellow fangs in salivating mouths. With high-pitched, as if lamenting, barks, they approach us, and not head-on, but along some elaborate arc, arching their backs and tucking their tails under their bellies.
“Get inside!” Vanderhuse is screaming. “Don’t just stand there! Get inside!”
I ask him to stop making noise. I reach into the pocket of my overall and put my hand on the scorcher’s handle. Schekn says, “Don’t. I’ll handle it.”
He slowly waddles toward the dogs. He is not assuming a battle position. He’s just walking.
“Schekn,” I say. “Let’s not get bogged down with this.”
“Let’s,” he replies without stopping.
I have no idea what he has in mind and follow him at a distance pointing to the ground with the scorcher held in the lowered hand. I have to increase the firing sector in case the entire dirty-yellow stream turns our way. Schekn keeps walking, but the dogs stopped. They back off, turning their sides to Schekn, arching their back even more and completely hiding their tails between their legs. When the closest one is about ten paces away, they suddenly run away with panic squeals and merge into the pack.
But Schekn keeps on walking. Straight on, along the divider line, waddling, as if the intersection before him were empty. I clench my teeth, raise the scorcher to the ready and shift my position to the divider line behind Schekn. The dirty-yellow stream is very close now.
Suddenly, there’s desperate squealing all over the intersection. The pack breaks ranks, getting out of the way. A few seconds later, there’s not a single dog in the cross street to the right, while the cross street to the left is filled with a wriggling mass of furry bodies, pushing paws and bared teeth.
We leave the intersection strewn with dirty clumps of dog hair, leaving the squealing hell behind. The intersection is still empty. The pack made a turn. Flowing around the line of trucks, it is now moving away from us, towards the outskirts. Squealing and howling die down little by little; another minute, and everything is just the way it was, only busy patter of paws, clicking of claws, puffing and snorting. I take a deep breath and put the scorcher back in its holster. I got scared all right.
Vanderhuse starts screaming. We get an official reprimand, both of us, for insolence and immaturity. Generally, Schekn is very sensitive to reprimands, but now, whatever the reason, he isn’t protesting. He only grumbles, “Tell him, there wasn’t any risk,” and then adds, “almost.” I dictate the report of the incident. I have no idea what happened at the intersection, but Vanderhuse understands even less than I do. I evade his questions, stressing that the pack is now moving toward the ship.
“If they get close, scare them away with fire,” I conclude.
We walk to the end of Block Twenty-Two, and I suddenly realize that the wildlife has disappeared off the street; not a single rat, not a single snake, even the frogs are gone. Did they all hide away because of the dogs, I wonder tentatively. No; that has to be Schekn.
Well into the fourth year of our acquaintance, I unexpectedly found out that Schekn speaks decent English. Around the same time, I learned that Schekn composes music – not symphonies, of course, but simple songs, very nice and absolutely enjoyable for an Earthman’s ear. And now this…
“How did you figure out the fire thing?” he asks.
I get tense. What is this fire thing I supposedly just figured out?
“Depends on what kind of fire we’re talking about,” I shoot in the dark.
“You don’t understand what I’m talking about? Or just don’t want to talk about it?”
Fire, fire, I think feverishly. It feels like I am about to learn something important. If I don’t hurry. If I say the right things. When did I talk about fire? That’s right, “scare them away with fire”!
“Every child knows that animals are afraid of fire,” I say, “that’s how I figured it out. Was it that difficult?”
“I think it was,” Schekn says grumpily, “you had no idea until now.”
He stops talking and casting sideways looks at me. That’s it for conversation. He’s so smart, isn’t he? He understands that I either didn’t understand what happened or don’t want to discuss it with other people listening in. In either case, the conversation should be ended. So, I supposedly figured our the fire thing. In reality I haven’t figured out anything, I just mentioned fire to Vanderhuse. And Schekn concluded that I figured something out. Fire, fire… Schekn, of course, didn’t have any fire. Or maybe he did; only I didn’t see it, but the dogs did. Whoa…
“Did you burn them?” I insinuate.
“Fire burns,” Schekn replies dryly.
“Can any Bighead do this?”
“Only Earth people call us Bigheads. The Southern degenerates call us vampires. Around the estuary of the Blue Snake, we’re called ghosts. On the Archipelago, tzehu… There’s no equivalent in Russian. It means someone who lives underground and can subjugate and kill others with the power of his spirit.
“I see,” I say.
It took me only five years to find out that my closest friend from whom I never hid a thing, can subjugate and kill others with the power of his spirit. Let’s hope that “others” means only dogs, but who knows… Just five years of friendship. Damn, why does it sting me so badly?
Schekn catches bitterness in my voice, but interprets it in his own way.
“Don’t be greedy,” he says. “You have a lot we don’t have and never will. You machines, you science…”
We step out to a square and immediately stop, because we see a cannon around the corner. It is to our left, low, as if pressing itself against the ground. A long barrel with a heavy blob of muzzle brake at the end, low and wide shield painted with camouflage zigzags, two halves of the metal frame set far apart, wheels with fat tires. Lots of shooting was done from this position, but that was a long, long time ago. Empty shells lying around have rusted through, the hooks on the frame cut through the asphalt and now there’s grass growing around them, there’s even a small tree growing by the left half-frame. The rusty breech is open, there’s no scope, at the rear of the position there are rotten ammunition crates, all empty. The shooting went on to the last shell.
I look over the shield and see the target. Actually, first I see huge holes overgrown with ivy in a building’s wall, and only then do I notice an architectural incongruity of sorts. Right in front of the building with holes, completely out of place, there is a small dim-yellow pavilion, single-story, flat-roofed, and I can clearly see that it, not the larger building behind it, was the target. They shot straight at it from fifty meters away, almost point-blank. The gaping holes in the wall of the building behind are misses, although you’d think missing from this distance would be impossible. However, there aren’t many misses, and you can’t help but be amazed by the solidity of this unprepossessing yellow structure that took so many hits without turning into a pile of garbage.
The pavilion’s location is very odd, and initially I think that it was moved by shelling, pushed onto the sidewalk and its corner almost driven into the wall of the building behind. That, of course, is not the case. The pavilion is standing right where it was put by some oddball architects, on a sidewalk, sticking out into the street, which undoubtedly should have been a traffic impediment.
Everything that happened here happened a long time ago, and the smells of fires and shooting have long since disappeared, but strangely, the air of the unknown artillerists’ hate, rage, and madness still lingers.
I start dictating another interim report, while Schekn sits down, mutters peevishly casting sideways looks at me, “Humans… No doubt about it… Iron, fire, and ruins, it’s always the same…” He seems to feel the air too, and probably more intensely than I do. He is probably thinking about his homeland, too; about the forests full of death machines, vast spaces burnt to ashes with only charred radioactive tree trunks sticking out of the ground, and the ground itself saturated with hate, fear, and death…
There’s nothing we can do at this square anymore. Except maybe hypothesize and paint mental pictures one more horrible than the next. We keep walking, and I start thinking that during the periods of global catastrophes, civilizations show every bit of abomination that has accumulated in the society’s gene pool over centuries. There are many forms of this scum, and by looking at them, you can see how unwell the civilization was by the time of the collapse, because very different cataclysms – pandemics, world wars, or even geological disasters – throw up the same scum: hate, animal egotism, cruelty that seems justified at the time but in reality is unjustifiable…
A message from Espada: he made contact. Komov’s order: all groups prepare translators for receiving linguistic data. I put my hand behind my back and click the switch on the portable translator…
It starts raining harder again, the fog gets even thicker, so the buildings on both sides of the street are almost impossible to see from its middle. Remote support goes into panic; they think bio-optical transformers are going down. I calm them down. They calm down, but then get insolent and start bugging me about turning on the anti-fog projector. I turn it on just for them. Remote support get excited, but Schekn sits down on his tail in the middle of the street and says that he wouldn’t take another step until someone gets rid of this stupid rainbow, which makes his ears hurt and his paws itch between the toes. He, Schekn, sees everything perfectly well without those absurd projectors, and if remote support people can’t see something, it’s only because they don’t need to see it. Instead, they should go do something useful, for example make Schekn’s favorite oatmeal stew with beans in anticipation of his return. Indignation erupts. Actually, remote support people are sort of afraid of Schekn. Any Earthman who meets a Bighead eventually starts being sort of afraid. At the same time, as paradoxical as it may sound, that same Earthman would be unable to perceive a Bighead as anything other than a large talking dog (circus, miracles of animal psychology, whatever…)
One of the remote support people unwisely threatens Schekn with withholding his lunch should he wish to continue being difficult. Schekn starts yelling. It is now apparent that he, Schekn, has lived his entire life without relying on remote support. Moreover, up until now we were doing just fine out here, especially because remote support was nowhere to be seen or heard.
I am standing in the rain as it’s getting harder and harder, listening to all this support nonsense with beans, seemingly unable to shake off some sort of dreamy stupor. It feels like I am watching a remarkably stupid play without beginning or end, where all actors have completely forgotten their lines and keep ad-libbing hoping (in vain) for some miraculous resolution. As if this play has been staged just for me, to hold me where I am as long as possible, to keep me from moving on; meanwhile, behind the scenes, someone is setting things up to make me realize that nothing is going to make any difference and we should turn around and go home…
With an enormous effort, I get a grip and turn the damn projector off. Schekn immediately stops in the middle of a long, carefully constructed insult and starts walking as if nothing happened. I walk behind him, listening to Vanderhuse putting things right on his ship, “What a shame! Impeding a field group! I’ll kick you out of the control room! I’ll suspend you! Quit your yapping!”
“Are you entertaining yourself?” I ask Schekn quietly.
He only gives me a sideways look.
“You’re such a squabbler,” I say, “and all you Bigheads are squabblers and brawlers.”
“It’s wet out here,” Schekn replies irrelevantly, “and there’s a lot of frogs around. You can’t put your foot down without stepping onto one… Trucks again,” he reports.
The fog ahead definitely smells of wet and rusty metal, and in about a minute, we find ourselves in the middle of a huge and disorderly herd of all sorts of motor vehicles.
Flatbed trucks, moving vans, giant semis, small teardrop-shaped cars, some monstrous contraptions with eight wheels each as tall as a person. Parked in the middle of the street and on the sidewalks, randomly and crookedly, bumping into each other, sometimes even on top of one another. Incredibly rusty, half-disintegrated, falling apart at the slightest touch. Hundreds of them. There’s no way of getting through it fast; you have to get around, squeeze through, climb over. All vehicles are full of household goods that have long since rotten beyond recognition…
Suddenly, the ugly labyrinth ends.
Well, the machines are still there, hundreds of them, but now they are parked in some resemblance of order, on both sides of the street and on the sidewalks, with the middle of the street completely open.
I look at Schekn. He shakes the water out of his coat, scratches himself with all four paws at the same time, licks his back, spits, swears and finally begins to shake, scratch, and lick all over again.
Vanderhuse asks worriedly why we deviated from the route and what sort of storage area we’ve just been through. I explain that it wasn’t a storage area. We discuss the findings; if it was an evacuation, then why did the locals evacuate from the outskirts into downtown?
“I am not going back this way,” Schekn says and angrily stomps on a frog trying to get by.
At two PM the headquarters broadcasts the first summary of findings. An ecological disaster is evident, but the civilization went extinct for some other reason. The population disappeared virtually overnight, but they didn’t die in wars, nor did they evacuate through the outer space; they just didn’t have that kind of technology. The planet is not a cemetery; it’s a junkyard. The few remaining locals barely survive in the countryside doing subsistence farming; no discernible culture, but great skills with semi-automatic rifles. Conclusion for Schekn and me: the city must be completely empty. I doubt it, and so does Schekn.
The street becomes wider, buildings and vehicles on both sides completely disappear in the fog, and I feel an open space ahead. A few more steps, and a low rectangular shape materializes ahead. Another armored vehicle, just like the one that was buried under the fallen wall, but this one looks like it grew into the asphalt.
I can’t see a thing in front of me. The fog in this square is especially, unnaturally dense, as if it was concentrating here for years and finally curdled like milk.
“Under your feet!” Schekn suddenly commands.
I look under my feet, but can’t see anything. Suddenly, I realize that under my feet is no longer the asphalt, but something soft, elastic, and slippery, like plush wet carpeting. I squat.
“You can turn on your projector,” Schekn grumbles.
But I can see without a projector that the asphalt here is covered with a thick unappetizing crust, some pressurized damp mass overgrown with multi-colored mold. I take out a knife and lift up a layer of this crust; separating from the moldy mass is a piece of cloth or leather, and barely visible under it there’s something rounded (a button? a buckle?) And slowly straightening are some tiny wires or springs…
“They all walked through here…” Schekn says with a strange intonation.
I get up and keep walking, stepping on the soft and slippery. I try to reign in my imagination, but fail. They all walked through here, leaving behind their now-unnecessary cars and trucks, hundreds of thousands and millions of them pouring into this square, flowing around the armored vehicle with its threatening, but powerless machine guns, sometimes dropping some of the few things they tried to carry with them; they stumbled and dropped things, maybe they even fell and couldn’t get up, and whatever fell down was trampled upon by millions and millions of feet. And somehow I thought that it all happened at night, the human slush lighted by ghostly lights, and everything quiet, like in a dream…
“A pit,” Schekn says.
I turn on the projector. There is no pit. As far as the light can reach, the square, even and smooth, lights up with pale spots of luminescent mold; and glistening wetly two paces away, there is a large, approximately twenty by forty meters, rectangle of bare asphalt. It looks like it’s carefully cut out of the gleaming carpet of mold.
“Steps!” Shekn says with desperation. “Perforated! Deep! Can’t see…”
I get goose bumps; I have never heard Schekn speak in this tone of voice. Without looking down, I lower my hand; my fingers touch his large head, and I feel the nervous twitching of a triangular ear. The fearless Schekn is scared. The fearless Schekn presses his body against my leg, just like his ancestors pressed again the legs of their masters when they smelled something unfamiliar and dangerous outside the cave…
“There is no bottom…” he says desperately. “I can’t understand. There’s always a bottom. They all went there, and there is no bottom, and no one came back… Do we have to go there?”
I squat and hug him around the neck.
“I don’t see a pit,” I say in the Bighead language, “I see only an asphalt rectangle.”
Schekn is breathing heavily. All his muscles are tense, and he keeps pressing against me.
“You can’t see it,” he says, “you don’t know how. Four stairways with perforated steps. Worn. Gleaming. Going deeper and deeper. Into nowhere. I don’t want to go there. Don’t order me to.”
“Buddy,” I say, “what’s wrong with you? How can I order you to do anything?”
“Don’t ask,” he says. “Don’t invite me along.”
“We’re just going to leave,” I say.
“Yes! And fast!”
I dictate a report. Vanderhuse already patched me through to the headquarters, and when I finish, the entire expedition knows. Conversations ensue. Hypotheses are stated, measures are proposed. It gets noisy. Schekn little by little regains composure; he starts casting sideways looks around and constantly licks his chops. The noise dies down. We are ordered to keep going, and we gladly comply.
We skirt the dreaded rectangle, cross the square, pass the second armored vehicle locking the street from the other side, and again find ourselves between two lines of abandoned automobiles. Schekn once again runs ahead at a brisk pace, energetic, quarrelsome, and arrogant. I laugh to myself and think that if I were he, I would be overcome with awkwardness over the fit of almost childish fear that I couldn’t control back there, at the square. Schekn, however, is overcome with nothing. Yes, he was scared and couldn’t hide it, and he sees nothing shameful or awkward about it. Now he is thinking aloud, “They all went underground. If there was a bottom, I would assure you that they all live underground now, very deep, completely quiet. But there is no bottom! I don’t understand where they can live. I don’t understand why there is no bottom and how it can be.”
“Try to explain,” I say. “It’s very important.”
But Schekn can’t explain. Very scary, he keeps saying. Planets are round, he tries to explain, and this planet is round too, I saw it myself, but in that square, it is not round at all. It’s like a plate. And there’s a hole in the plate. And the hole leads from one empty place where we are to another empty place where we aren’t.
“And why didn’t I see that hole?”
“Because it’s glued over. You can’t. It was glued over against those who are like you, not against those who are like I…”
Then he suddenly informs me that there’s danger again. Small danger, the usual kind. For a while, it wasn’t there at all, but now it’s there again.
A minute later, a balcony falls off the façade of the building to our right. I quickly ask if the danger has diminished. He immediately responds that yes, it did, but not by much. I want to ask him from what side the danger is coming from, but then a gust of dense air hits me on the back, the wind starts whistling in my ears, and Schekn’s hair stands on its end.
A small hurricane rushes through the street. It is hot and it smells like metal.
“What’s happening over there?” Vanderhuse is screaming.
“Some sort of draft…” I reply through my teeth.
Another gust of wind sends me running forward a few paces. Humiliating, really.
“Abalkin! Schekn!” Komov is thundering. “Keep to the middle! Stay away from walls! I am blowing the fog off the square, you may see some buildings collapse…”
The wind blows Schekn off his feet and slowly drags him along the pavement next to some reckless rat.
“Is that all?” he asks irritably when the storm passes. He doesn’t even try to get up on his feet.
“That’s all,” says Komov. “You can move on.”
“Thank you very much.” Schekn says, and there is more poison in his voice than in the most poisonous snake.
Someone tries to stifle a laugh, but fails. Sounds like Vanderhuse.
“My apologies,” says Komov. “I had to blow the fog off.”
In response, Schekn utters the longest and most elaborate curse in the Bighead language, gets up, shakes off, and suddenly freezes in an uncomfortable pose.
“Lev,” he says, “there’s no danger anymore. At all. It got blown away.”
“That’s good enough for me,” I say.
Information from Espada. A very emotional description of the Chief Gattaukh. I can literally see him in my mind’s eye, an unimaginably dirty, smelly, and warty old man who looks like he is two hundred years old, but claims to be twenty-one, wheezing, coughing, spitting and blowing his nose, holding a semi-automatic rifle in his lap and every now and then shooting at the world above Espada’s head. He doesn’t want to answer any questions, but keeps asking his own, listening to answers with deliberate inattention and loudly proclaiming every other answer to be a lie…
The street flows into another square. Well, it’s not exactly a square; on the right, there is a semicircular park, behind which there is a long yellow building with a concave façade decorated with faux columns. The façade is yellow, and the bushes in the park are also withering yellow, as if in early fall, so I don’t see another “glass” right away.
This one is undamaged and glistens like new, as if it was installed among these yellow bushes just this morning; a cylinder two meters tall and one meter in diameter, made of semi-translucent amber-like material. It stands up vertically, and its oval door is tightly closed.
Vanderhuse and his team momentarily go mad with enthusiasm, while Schekn once again demonstrates his ambivalence and even contempt to all these things in which his people are not interested: he immediately starts scratching, with his rear turned towards the “glass”.
I walk around the “glass”, then gently take a little protrusion on the door with two fingers and carefully look inside. One glance is quite enough; the entire inside of the “glass” is filled with monstrous gangly legs, thorny half-meter pincers, and dull green eyes of a giant cancer-spider from Pandora in all its glory.
It wasn’t fear, but a reflexive reaction to the absolutely unforeseen. Before I realized what I was doing, my shoulder was already pushing the door closed with all the power I had in me.
Schekn is next to me, ready for an immediate and decisive fight. He is shifting his weight, moving his large head from side to side. His blindingly white teeth glisten wetly in the corners of his mouth. This lasts a few seconds, then he asks grudgingly, “What’s the matter? Who is attacking you?”
I grope for the scorcher, make myself to let go of the damn door, and start backing off, the scorcher at the ready. Schekn backs off too, getting more and more irritated.
“I asked you a question!” he says indignantly.
“You can’t feel it,” I say through my teeth, “can you?”
“Where? In this booth? There’s nothing in it!”
Vanderhuse and remote support people are making worried noises. I am not listening. I know without their suggestions that I can prop the door up with a log (if I can find one) or burn the whole thing with the scorcher. I keep backing off, eyes fixed on the door of the “glass”.
“There’s nothing in this booth!” Schekn repeats empathically. “And nobody. Hasn’t been for years. Do you want me to open the door and show you?”
“No,” I say, having a hard time managing my vocal cords. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Just let me open the door…”
“Schekn,” I say, “you’re making a mistake.”
“We don’t make mistakes. I am going. You will see.”
“You’re making a mistake!” I roar. “If you don’t come with me right away, it would mean you’re not my friend and you don’t care about me!”
I turn on my heels (the scorcher in the lowered hand, safety off, set for continuous discharge) and start walking away. My back is very wide and completely unprotected.
Schekn unhappily stomps behind, off to the left. He grumbles and tries to pick a fight. But when we retreat about two hundred paces and I start making inroads to reconciliation, Schekn suddenly disappears, leaving behind only the clicking sound of his claws on the asphalt. Now he is near the booth, and it’s too late to run after him, grab his hind legs and drag the idiot away, and the scorcher is now completely useless, and the damn Bighead is opening the door a crack and takes a long, endlessly long, look inside the “glass”.
Then, without uttering a sound, he closes the door and returns. Schekn is humiliated. Schekn is destroyed. Schekn admitting his utter uselessness and thus ready to tolerate any imaginable mistreatment in the future. He returns and sits down at my feet, his head lowered. We remain quiet for a while. I avoid looking at him. I look at the “glass”, feeling perspiration dry up on my temples, the skin tightening, muscular shivers going away, displaced by dull pain. Most of all, I want to hiss, “You bastard!” and slap him on his despondent, stupid, stubborn, brainless big head. But all I say is, “We got lucky. Whatever the reason, they don’t attack here…”
A message from headquarters. It is believed that “the Schekn rectangle” is an entrance into an interspatial tunnel, through which the population of the planet was evacuated. Presumably, by the Wanderers.
We are walking through an unusually empty area. No wildlife here, even the mosquitoes are gone. I feel rather discomforted, but Schekn shows no signs of worry.
“This time, you’re late,” he grumbles.
“Yeah, looks like it,” I reply readily.
This is the first time Schekn speaks after the cancer-spider incident. He seems to want to talk about things not present, which he doesn’t do often.
“The Wanderers,” he grumbles, “I keep hearing, the Wanderers this, the Wanderers that… Do you people know anything about them?”
“Very little. We know they are a super-civilization, far more powerful than we are. We assume that they’ve settled throughout our galaxy a long time ago. We also assume that they have no home, whether in our understanding of the term or yours. That’s why we call them the Wanderers…”
“Do you people want to meet them?”
“Well, how should I put it? Komov would give his right hand to make it happen. I, on the other hand, would prefer that we never see them…”
“Are you afraid of them?”
I don’t want to discuss this problem. Especially now.
“You see, Schekn,” I say, “that is a long conversation. Can you look around? It seems you’re a little absent-minded at the moment.”
“I am looking. Everything is quiet.”
“Did you notice that the animals are gone?”
“It’s because people come here often,” Schekn says.
“Is that so?” I say. “Well, that’s comforting.”
“Right now, there are none here. Almost none.”
Block Forty-Two is ending, we are approaching the cross street. Suddenly, Schekn says, “There’s a man around the corner. Alone.”
It’s a decrepit old man wearing a long black coat, a fur hat with earflaps tied under his unkempt beard, bright yellow gloves, and enormous boots with cloth tops. He moves laboriously, barely able to shuffle his feet. He is about thirty meters away, but even at this distance it’s easy to hear his heavy, whistling breathing, sometimes augmented with groans of exhaustion.
He is loading up a cart on tall thin wheels, something like a baby stroller. He shuffles off into a broken store window, stays inside for a long time, then slowly emerges, one groping for support, the other clutching two or three brightly labeled cans to his chest. Every time he makes it back to his cart, he drops onto a three-legged folding stool, sits on it for a while, resting, then starts slowly and carefully transferring the cans from his grip into the cart. Then he rests again, as if napping; then he gets up, and heads inside, a long black figure almost folded in half.
We are standing on the corner, barely hiding, because we realize that the old man sees or hears nothing. Shekn says he is alone here, there’s nobody around. I have no desire to make contact, but it looks like I’ll have to, at least to help him with those cans. But I don’t want to scare him. I ask Vanderhuse to show the picture to Espada so that Espada can determine whether he is a “wizard”, a “soldier”, or a “common man”.
The old man offloaded the tenth helping of cans and is now resting, slouching on his three-legged stool. His head is shaking and falls lower and lower toward his chest. Looks like he is falling asleep.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Espada announces. “Talk to him, Lev.”
“He’s too old for this,” says Vanderhuse doubtfully.
“He’s going to die.” Schekn grumbles.
“Exactly,” I say, “especially if I appear in front of him in my rainbow overalls…”
I didn’t finish the sentence. The old man suddenly lurches forward and softly falls on his side.
“That’s it,” says Schekn, “we can come and look if you want.”
The old man is dead; he is not breathing and there is no pulse. Looks like a massive myocardial infarction plus complete emaciation. But it’s not caused by starvation. He is simply very old. I kneel and look into his greenish-white face. The first normal person in this city. Dead. And I can’t do anything, because all I have is a field kit.
I inject him with two doses of microphagus and tell Vanderhuse to send the medics over. I am not going to stick around. There’s no point in it. He won’t talk. And if he does, it’s not going to be soon. Before I leave, I stand over him for another minute, looking at the cart half-filled with cans and at the toppled folding stool; it occurs to me that the old man must have dragged this stool everywhere he went and rested on it every minute or two…
About eighteen hundred hours, it starts getting dark. I figure we are about two hours away from the end of the route, and I offer Schekn a chance to rest and eat. Schekn doesn’t need to rest, but he would never pass up a chance to snack.
We settle on the edge of a vast defunct fountain in the shade of a stone-carved sculpture of some mythical winged monster, and I open up the rations. Around us, there are walls of dead buildings, it is dead quiet, but it is comforting to know that over tens of kilometers of our routes the dead emptiness is no more; people work there now.
Schekn never talks when he eats; however, when he is full, he likes to chat.
“That old man,” he says, thoroughly licking his paw. “Did they really reanimate him?”
“So he’s alive again, walking, talking?”
“I doubt he’s talking, never mind walking, but he’s alive.”
“Too bad,” Schekn grumbles.
“Yes. Too bad he can’t talk. It would be interesting to find out what’s there.”
“Where he was when he was dead.”
“You think there’s something there?”
“Has to be. I have to go somewhere when I am no longer here.”
“Where does electric current go when it’s turned off?” I ask.
“That I never understood,” Schekn admits, “but your analogy is flawed. No, I don’t know where current goes when it’s turned off. But I also don’t know where it comes from when it’s turned on. And I do know where I came from.”
“So where were you before you were born?” I ask insidiously.
But that question is no problem for Schekn.
“I was in the blood of my parents. And before that, in the blood of their parents.”
“Well, when you’re gone, you will be in the blood of your children…”
“What if I don’t get to have children?”
“Then you’ll be in the soil, the grass, the trees…”
“Not so! My body will be in the grass and the trees. But where will I be?”
“You weren’t in the blood of you parents, either; your body was. You don’t remember what is was like to be in the blood of your parents, do you?”
“What do you mean, don’t remember?” Schekn marvels, “I do remember quite a bit!”
“Ah, indeed…” I mumble, defeated. “You guys have genetic memory…”
“Call it what you want,” Schekn grumbles, “but I really don’t understand where I would go if I died now. I don’t have children…”
I decide to quit the argument. It is obvious that I will never be able to prove to Schekn that there’s nothing “there”. So I silently fold up the ration package, put it back into the backpack, and get comfortable by stretching out my legs.
Schekn thoroughly licked his second paw, smoothed to perfection the hair on his cheeks, and now starts another conversation.
“You surprise me, Lev,” he announces. “You all surprise me. Haven’t you had enough of this place? Why work without any reason?”
“Why without a reason? You see yourself how much we learned in a single day.”
“That’s exactly what I mean. Why do you have to learn about things that make no sense? What are you going to do with this knowledge? You keep learning, but you do nothing with what you’ve learned.”
“Give me an example,” I ask.
Schekn is a great polemist. He just won one debate and clearly wants to win another.
“For example, that bottomless pit that I found. Who and why would want a pit without a bottom?”
“That’s not really a pit,” I say, “it’s more like a door into another world.”
“Can you people walk through it?” Schekn inquires.
“No,” I admit, “we can’t.”
“So why do you need a door you can’t walk through?”
“We can’t do it today, but maybe we can do it tomorrow.”
“Broadly speaking. The day after tomorrow. Or next year…”
“Another world, another world…” Schekn grumbles, “Don’t you have enough room in this one?”
“Well, what can I say… There’s never enough room for imagination.”
“Yeah, right!” Schekn utters sarcastically. “As soon as you find another world, you immediately start changing it to look like yours. And, of course, your imagination gets cramped, and then you start looking for another world to remake.”
He suddenly stops his diatribe, and I realize there’s someone else here. Very close. Two paces away. Near the pedestal of the mythical monster.
It’s a perfectly normal local (probably, a “common man”), a strong tall male wearing tarpaulin pants and tarpaulin jacket, with a semi-automatic rifle hanging over his neck. A shock of uncombed hair almost covers his eyes, but his cheeks and chin are cleanly shaven. He stands near the pedestal, completely motionless, only his eyes slowly move from me to Schekn and back. Looks like he can see in the darkness no worse than we can. I have no idea how he managed to get so close to us without us noticing.
I carefully put my hand behind my back and turn on the translator.
“Come closer, sit down, we’re friends,” I say soundlessly, only moving my lips.
Half a second later, the translator emits some fairly pleasant guttural sounds.
The stranger gives a start and takes a step back.
“Don’t be afraid,” I say. “What’s your name? My name is Lev, his name is Schekn. We’re not enemies. We’d like to talk to you.”
No, it’s not working. The stranger takes another step back and half-hides behind the pedestal. His face is still expressionless, and it’s not clear if he understands what’s being said.
“We have good food,” I keep pushing. “Are you hungry or thirsty? Sit with us, it would be my pleasure to treat you…”
Suddenly I realize that the local might be freaking out hearing “we” and “us”, so I switch to singular in a hurry. That doesn’t help, either. The local hides behind the pedestal completely, and I can no longer see or hear him.
“He’s leaving,” Schekn grumbles.
Then I see him again; he crosses the street in long, completely noiseless strides, steps on the sidewalk on the opposite side, and without looking back once, disappears through a gateway.
… In the darkness, the city looks flat, like an old print. The mold is gleaming faintly inside the black window openings, and in the rare garden spots and on the flowerbeds, small ghastly rainbows are shining: the buds of the fluorescent flowers opened for the night. The smells are weak, but annoying. From behind the roofs, the first moon rises above the wide street, a huge serrated sickle flooding the city with unpleasant orange light.
This heavenly body causes unexplainable disgust to Schekn. He disapprovingly looks at it every minute, and every time he compulsively opens and shuts his muzzle, as if he is compelled to howl, but keeps restraining himself. This is doubly strange because on his native Saraksh, the moon is invisible due to atmospheric refraction and his attitude toward the Earth’s moon always was completely indifferent, as far as I know anyway.
Then we see children.
There are two. Holding hands, they slowly move along the sidewalk, as if trying to hide in the shadows. They are headed the same way Schekn and I are headed. Judging by their clothing, both are boys. One is taller, about eight years old, the other is little, four or five. They must have just come out of a small side street, otherwise I would have seen them from far away. They’ve been walking for a while, quite a few hours probably, they are very tired and can barely move their feet. The younger one isn’t really walking anymore, but dragging along holding the older one’s hand. The older one is carrying a large flat bag on a wide shoulder strap; he keeps straightening it up, and it keeps slapping his knees.
The translator interprets in a dry passionless voice, “I am tired; my feet hurt… Keep going, I tell you… Keep going… You’re a bad man… You’re a bad man yourself; you’re evil… A snake with ears… You’re an inedible rat tail yourself…” Okay. They stopped. The younger one twists his hand out of the older one’s grip and sits down. The older one lifts him up by the collar, but the younger one sits down again, and then the older one smacks him. The translator spits out a flurry of rats, snakes, foul-smelling animals and other fauna. Then the younger one starts crying loudly, and the puzzled translator shuts up. Time to interfere.
“Hello, kids,” I say soundlessly with my lips.
I came very close to them, but they noticed me only now. The younger one immediately stops crying and stares at me with his mouth wide open. The older one stares too, but warily, his lips pursed. I squat in front of him and say, “Don’t be afraid. I am a good man, I won’t hurt you.”
I know that linguistic analyzers can’t translate intonation, so I try to pick simple soothing words.
“My name is Lev,” I say. “I see you’re tired. Would you like me to help you?”
The older one is not responding. He still stares warily, with a lot of mistrust and suspicion; the younger one suddenly shows interest in Schekn and keeps staring at him; it seems that he is scared and intrigued at once. Schekn, looking all nice, is sitting off to the side, his large head turned away.
“You’re tired,” I say. “Let me get you some munchies…”
At this point, the older one starts screaming. They’re not tired, and they don’t want any munchies. As soon as he is done with this rat-eared snake, they will move on. And whoever stands in the way will get a bullet in the gut. And that’s it.
Very well. No one is going to stand in the way. And where are they going?
They go where they need to go.
Oh, really? Any chance we’re all going to the same place? In that case, the rat-eared snake could be carried along on the shoulder…
In the end, everything settles down. Four tablets of chocolate are eaten and two flasks of tonic are drunk. Each tiny mouth gets a half-tube of fruit paste squeezed into it. Lev’s rainbow-colored outfit is carefully studied and (after a short, but very animated argument) it is allowed to stroke Schekn, but only once and only on his back and under no circumstances on his head. Aboard, in Vanderhuse’s control room, tears of endearment flow in a mighty stream.
In a little while, the following information comes out.
The boys are brothers, the older one’s name is Iyadrudan, the younger one’s, Pritulatan. They used to live far away from here (attempts to clarify fail) with their father in a large white house with a pool in the yard. Until recently, they had two aunts and another brother – the oldest, eighteen years old – live with them, but they all died. After that, their father stopped taking them along when he went out for food and started to go alone; and before that, they used to go all together, the entire family. There is a lot of food around, here, there, and at the other place (attempts to clarify fail). Every time before he left alone, their father told them that if he doesn’t return before the nightfall, they are to take the book, step out into the avenue, and keep going until they see a beautiful glass house shining in the dark. But they were not to enter the house; they were to sit down close by and wait; people would come for them and take them to a place where they would see father, mother, and everyone else. Why at night? Because there are no bad people out at night. They only come during daytime. No, we haven’t seen them before, but we heard their bells ringing, playing songs, trying to lure us out of the house. When that happened, father and the oldest brother would grab their rifles and shoot them in the gut. No, they don’t know any other people; haven’t seen any. Although a long time ago, there were some people with rifles that came and spent the whole day arguing with father and the oldest brother; then mother and both aunts intervened. Everyone was screaming, but father, of course, convinced everyone, the strange people left and never came back…
The little Pritulatan falls asleep as soon as I pick him up. Iyadrudan, conversely, rejects all offers of help. He only allowed me to adjust his book bag and now walks beside me with an independent look about him, his hands in his pockets. Schekn runs ahead of us, not participating in the conversation. His appearance is that of complete indifference, but in reality, he is just as intrigued as any of us by the obvious assumption that the boys’ destination, the shining house, is in fact what we dubbed “Spot 96?.”
… What the book says, Iyadrudan can’t retell. In this book, all adults wrote about everything that happened each day. About how Pritulatan was stung by a venomous ant. About how water started to drain from the pool, but father stopped it. About how the aunt died; she was opening a can, mother looked at her, and she was already dead… Iyadrudan hasn’t read the book, he’s not good at reading and he doesn’t like to read; he’s got low aptitude. And Pritulatan has very high aptitude, but he’s still little and doesn’t understand anything. No, they’ve never been bored. How can you be bored in a house with five hundred and seven rooms? And in every room, there were rare things; some things, even father couldn’t tell what they were for. Only there wasn’t a single rifle. Rifles are rare these days. Maybe there was one in the house next door, but father wouldn’t let them shoot anyway. He said we have no need for it. When we leave for the shining house and the good people who meet us there take us to mother, then we can shoot all we want… Maybe it is you who is supposed to take us to mother? Then why don’t you have a rifle? You’re a good man, but you have no rifle, and father said that all good men have rifles…
“No,” I say. “I can’t take you to your mother. I am a stranger here and I want to meet the good people myself.”
“Pity,” Iyadrudan says.
We walk out into the square. Up close, “Spot 96” looks like a giant ancient jewelry box made of blue crystal in all its barbaric greatness, full of innumerable jewels and precious stones. Even whitish-blue light comes from within, lighting the cracked asphalt overgrown with the black stubble of weeds and the dead facades of houses on all sides of the square.
The walls of this amazing building are completely transparent, and inside, there is a shining and whirling exciting chaos of red, gold, green, and yellow, so you don’t right away see the wide, welcomingly open entrance with a few low steps leading up to it.
“Toys…” Pritulatan whispers ecstatically and starts wiggling, trying to crawl off me.
Only now do I understand that the jewelry box is full not of jewels, but of colorful toys, hundreds and thousands of colorful and extremely corny toys; absurdly huge brightly made-up dolls, ugly wooden toy trucks, and a great variety of brightly colored small things hard to make out from a distance.
The little high-aptitude Pritulatan immediately starts crying and begging for everyone to come into the magic house; it’s okay that father said not to come in, we’ll just come in for a moment, get that toy truck over there, and start waiting for the good people to come. Iyadrudan tries to stop him, first verbally, then, when it fails, by twisting his ear, and crying becomes inarticulate. The translator matter-of-factly pours out a large bag of “rat-eared snakes”; Vanderhuse’s control room is agitated, demanding calming and consolation; then suddenly everyone, including the high-aptitude Pritulatan, gets quiet.
From around the nearest corner, appears our recently seen acquaintance, the local with a rifle. Softly and noiselessly moving over the spots of blue light, his hands on top of the rifle hanging across his chest, he walks straight up to the children. As to me and Schekn, he pays no attention. He firmly takes the now-quiet Pritulatan by his left hand and the now-smiling Iyadrudan, by his right and leads them away, through the square, toward the shining building, to mother, father, and limitless opportunities to shoot as much as you want.
I look at their backs. Everything seems to go the way it’s supposed to, but something small, some trivial little thing spoils the picture. The proverbial drop of tar in a barrel of honey…
“Did you recognize it?” Shekn asks.
“What exactly?” I reply, irritated, because I cannot get rid of this mysterious eyesore ruining the view.
“Turn off the lights in this building and shoot a canon at it a dozen times…”
I can barely hear him. I suddenly understand what this eyesore is. The local walks away holding children’s hands, and I see how his rifle swings left and right as he is walking, like a pendulum. It can’t possibly swing like this. A heavy magazine rifle, weighing at least eight kilos, would never rock so energetically. A toy rifle, wooden or plastic, would. This “good man” has a fake rifle…
I have no time to think it through. The local has a toy rifle. The locals are snipers. Could the toy rifle have come from the toy pavilion? Turn off the lights in this pavilion and shoot a canon at it a dozen times… It’s an identical pavilion.. No, there’s no way to think it through on time.
On the left, bricks start falling, a wooden window frame falls down and cracks against the sidewalk. Along the ugly façade of a six-story building, the third one from the corner, a yellow shade is sliding down, so lightly and weightlessly that it’s hard to believe it causes plaster and pieces of bricks to fall off the façade. Vanderhuse is screaming something, the children are squealing in terror, and the shadow is already on the asphalt, still weightless, semi-transparent, and enormous. The mad shuffle of dozens of legs is almost imperceptible, and in this shuffle is a bulging long segmented body, carrying in front of itself the gleaming, as if lacquered, grabbing claws raised high…
The scorcher jumps into my hand by itself. I turn into an automatic distance meter, involved only in measuring the distance between the cancer-spider and the children running away from it across the square. (Somewhere over there, there’s also the local with his fake rifle, also running as fast as he can, right behind the children, but I am not watching him.) The distance is quickly shrinking, everything is clear, and when the cancer-spider gets into my sight, I shoot.
At the moment, it is twenty meters away. I don’t get to shoot the scorcher very often, so the result shocks me. The reddish-purple flash blinds me for a moment, but I can still see that the cancer-spider seems to explode. All of it, from the claws to the tip of the hind leg. Like an overheated steam boiler. Then, a sharp bout of thunder, echoes start rolling all over the square, and a dense, as if solid, cloud of white seam swells up in place of the monster.
It’s over. The steam cloud dissolves with a quiet hiss, panic screams and thundering of feet quiet down in the depth of a dark side street, and the jewelry box of the pavilion still shines its barbaric greatness in the middle of the square…
“Damn, that’s scary,” I mumble. “How did they get here, hundred parsecs from Pandora? And you haven’t smelled it, have you?”
Schekn has no time to reply. A rifle shot sounds and echoes all over the square, then immediately another. Somewhere very close by. Possibly around the corner. Well, yes, from the side street where they all ran into…
“Schekn, keep to the left, don’t expose yourself!” I command, already on the run.
I don’t understand what could be happening in that side street. Most likely, another cancer-spider attacked the children. So the rifle isn’t a toy? At that moment, three men emerge from the darkness of the side street and stop, blocking our passage. And two of them are armed with real automatic rifles, and the two barrels are pointed straight at me.
I can see everything very well in the bluish-white light; a tall gray-haired old man wearing a gray uniform with shining buttons, and at his sides and slightly behind, two strong-looking guys with rifles, also wearing gray uniforms, with ammo pouches on their belts.
“Very dangerous,” Schekn clicks in the Bigheads language. “I repeat, very!”
I downshift from running to walking and make an effort to force myself to put the scorcher back into the holster. I stop in front of the old man and ask, “What happened to the children?”
The rifle barrels are pointing at my stomach. In the gut. The guys’ faces are sullen and completely merciless.
“The children are fine,” says the old man.
His eyes are sparkling, as if he is amused. His face shows none of the armed guys’ heavy sullenness. A normal creased face of an old man, not without some grace in it. Although I may be imagining it, simply because instead of a rifle, he is holding a shining polished cane, which he lightly taps on the side of his tall boot.
“Whom have you shot at?” I ask.
“A bad man,” the translator interprets the reply.
“You must be the good people with rifles, then?” I ask.
The old man raises his eyebrows.
“Good people? What does that mean?”
I explain to him what Iyadrudan had explained to me. The old man nods.
“I see. Yes, we are the good people.” He looks me over from head to toe. “You are not doing badly, it seems… A translating machine behind your back… We used to have those, but huge, filling whole rooms… And side arms like yours we never had… Nice shot! Like a cannon. When have you landed?”
“Yesterday,” I say.
“Well, we were never able to fix our flying vehicles. No one to fix them. As you can see, a complete collapse. How did you manage? Fought them off? Or found some remedies?” He looks me over again. “Yes, you did good. And we here…”
“A complete collapse indeed,” I say carefully. “I’ve been here for a full day, but still don’t understand a thing.”
It is clear that he mistakes me for someone else. Initially, it may actually be for the better. Only I have to tread carefully, very carefully…
“I know you don’t understand a thing,” the old man says, “and this is strange to say the least… Have you not experienced any of that?”
“No,” I reply. “Nothing of the sort.”
The old man suddenly bursts into a long tirade, to which the translator immediately responds with a message, “language cannot be decoded”.
“I don’t understand,” I say.
“You don’t? And I thought I spoke the language of Transmountainia fairly well.”
“I am not from there,” I object. “And I have never been there.”
“Where are you from, then?”
I make a decision.
“That is not important,” I say. “Let’s not talk about us. We are okay. We don’t need help. Let’s talk about you. I understand very little so far, but one thing is obvious; you need help. What kind? What are the most urgent needs? That’s what we should talk about. And please, let’s sit down; I’ve been walking all day. Do you have a place where we could sit down and talk calmly?”
For a time, he silently scans my face.
“You don’t want to say where you’re from…” he finally says. “Well, that’s your right. You are stronger. Only that’s stupid. I know you’re from the Northern Archipelago. You weren’t attacked because they didn’t notice you. Good for you! But I want to ask, where have you been for the last forty years, while we here were rotting alive? You lived as you please, damn you!”
“You’re not the only people dealing with this catastrophe,” I object quite sincerely. “We just got around to you.”
“We’re very glad,” he says. “Let’s sit down and talk.”
We enter a building on the other side of the square, walk up to the second floor, and arrive to an unclean room with sparse furnishings; a table in the middle, a huge couch by the wall, and two stools by the window. Windows are facing the square, and the room is lighted by the whitish-blue glow of the pavilion. Someone is sleeping on the couch, wrapped up into a cape. On the table, cans and a large metal canister.
Having barely entered the room, the old man starts issuing orders. He wakes up the sleeper and sends him away somewhere. One of the sullen guys is ordered to take up the post and sits down on a stool by the window, where he remains without taking his eyes off the square. The other sullen guy starts opening cans, then stands at the door, leaning onto the frame.
I am asked to sit on the couch; then the table, with cans all over it, is dragged in front of me. The canister turns out to contain water, quite clean, although there’s a light iron taste to it. Schekn is not forgotten, either. The soldier that got raised from the couch puts an open can on the floor before him. Schekn doesn’t object. He is not eating the food though; instead, he moves back toward the door and sits down next to the guard. He is deliberately scratching, snorting, and licking his chops, vigorously pretending to be a common dog.
Meanwhile, the old man grabs the second stool, sits at the table opposite me, and the negotiations begin in earnest.
First of all, the old man introduces himself. Of course, he is a Gattaukh, and not just any Gattaukh, but Gattaukhokambomon, which seemingly translates as “the ruler of the entire territory and adjacent regions.” He rules the entire city, the port, and a dozen tribes living within fifty kilometers. What is happening outside his territory, he doesn’t really know, but suspects it’s about the same as here. The population of his area is currently under five thousand. There is no industry in the area, nor is there any systematic agriculture. There is, however, a laboratory in the suburbs. A good one, used to be one of the best in the world, Draudan himself still runs it. (“It’s strange that you haven’t heard about him; he got lucky, turned out he is a long-lifer, just like I am…”) But they’ve made no breakthrough there in the last forty years. And they probably won’t make one.
“This is why,” the old man concluded, “we shouldn’t beat around the bush. And let’s not haggle, either. I have only one condition; if you can treat it, treat everyone. No exceptions. If that condition is acceptable, name your other conditions. Any conditions. I will accept them without questioning. If not, you better stay away. We will all die here, of course, but you will have no life, either, as long as at least one of us is alive.
I keep quiet. I keep waiting for the headquarters to suggest something. Anything! But they, it seems, are as clueless as I am.
“I would like to remind you,” I finally say, “that I still have no understanding of your situation.”
“So ask your questions!” the old man barks.
“You said, treat. Are you having an epidemic?” He tiredly leans onto the table and rubs his forehead with his fingers.
“I warned you; do not beat around the bush. We are not going to haggle. Tell me one thing: do you have a universal cure? If you do, dictate your terms. If you don’t, we have nothing to talk about.”
“This way, we will never get anywhere,” I say. “Let’s assume that I don’t know anything about you. Say, I have slept through the last forty years. I don’t know what disease you’re suffering from, I don’t know which cure you need…”
“Nothing about the invasion?” the old man says, without opening his eyes.
“And nothing about the Great Abduction?”
“Almost nothing. I know that everyone left. I know that the aliens from outer space are somehow involved. Nothing else.”
“Ari-ens… From-out-er-space…” the old man laboriously repeats in Russian.
“People from the moon.. People from the sky…” I say.
He bares solid yellow teeth.
“Not from the sky, and not from the moon. From the underground!” he says. So you do know something…”
“I walked through the city. Saw a lot.”
“And you had nothing like that? At all?”
“Nothing of the sort,” I say firmly.
“And you haven’t noticed anything? Haven’t noticed the extinction of the human race? Stop lying! What are you trying to achieve by those lies?”
“Lev!” Komov’s voice whispers inside my helmet. “Play the cretin scenario.”
“I have my orders,” I say solemnly. “I only know what I am supposed to know! I only do what I am ordered to do! If I am ordered to lie, I will, but right now, I am under no such orders.”
“So what are your orders?”
“To conduct reconnaissance in the area and report everything.”
“What utter nonsense!” the old man says with exhausted disgust. “Oh well, have it your way. Whatever the reason, you want me to tell you what everyone knows… All right, listen.”
It turns out that those at fault are the disgusting race of creatures living beneath the planet’s surface. Forty years ago, that race undertook an invasion against the human race. It started with an unprecedented pandemic, which the non-humans unleashed on the entire planet. The agent that caused it still has not been identified. The disease manifested itself very simply; starting at age twelve, completely normal children began to age rapidly. After the critical age point, the development of human body accelerated geometrically. Sixteen-year-olds looked to be forty, old age began at eighteen, and very few lived past twenty.
The pandemic went on for three years, and then the non-humans first disclosed their existence. They offered all governments to relocate the population to “a neighboring world,” meaning their world underground. They promised that in that world, the pandemic will disappear by itself, so millions and millions of scared people ran into those special wells, never to be heard from again. Thus forty years ago ended the local civilization.
Of course, not everyone believed and not everyone was scared. Whole families and religious communities stayed behind. Under the monstrous conditions of the pandemic, they continued their hopeless efforts to survive. However, the non-humans wouldn’t leave alone even those pitiful few. They mounted a hunt for the children, for the last hope of the human race. They have flooded the planet with “bad people.” The early ones were bad imitations of people, funny-looking ones with painted faces, ringing their tiny bells and playing cheerful songs. Silly little kids gladly followed them and disappeared in amber-colored “glasses”. At the same time, the brightly lit toy stores appeared on major squares; a child would come in and disappear without a trace.
“We did all we could. We armed ourselves; there were plenty of weapons in the abandoned arsenals. We taught children to be afraid of the ‘bad people’, and then to destroy them using rifles. We tore down the cabins and shot point-blank at the toy stores, but then realized that a smarter way to handle it would be to put guards next to them and intercept the careless children at the threshold. But that was only the beginning…”
The non-humans kept sending new types of child hunters to the surface. First came the “monsters”. It’s almost impossible to hit one when it attacks a child. Then came the giant bright-colored butterflies; they fell on children, wrapped them in their wings, and disappeared. The butterflies are actually bulletproof. Finally, the most recent invention: the bastards indistinguishable from a common soldier. Those just take the unsuspecting kids by the hand and lead them away. Some even can talk.
“We know full well that we have practically no chances to survive. The pandemic is not abating, and we were hoping it would. Only one person out of hundred thousand remains unaffected. Myself, for example, or Draudan. There’s another boy, I watched him grow up; he is eighteen, and he looks eighteen. If you didn’t know any of this, you do now. If you did, keep in mind that we understand our situation. We are ready to agree to any conditions; we will work for you, we will be your subjects… Name your terms, but if you treat us, treat everyone. No elite, no chosen ones!”
The old man falls silent, reaches for a water mug, drinks greedily. The soldier standing by the door, shifts his weight from one foot to the other and yawns, covering his mouth with his hand. He looks about twenty-five. How old is he really? Thirteen? Fifteen? A teenager…
I sit still, trying to keep a stone face. Subconsciously, I expected something of the sort, but what I heard from a surviving eyewitness refuses to fit into my mind. I do not doubt the facts the old man mentioned, but it feels like a dream; each element taken separately is full of meaning, but everything put together looks like complete nonsense. Perhaps, the reason is that my very flesh and blood are affected by the preconceived notion about the Wanderers that we have on Earth?
“How do you know they are non-human?” I ask. “Have you seen them? You personally?”
The old man grunts. His face turns scary.
“I would give half of my pointless life to see one,” he utters in a hissing voice. “I would kill him with these bare hands… But, of course, I have not seen them. They are too careful and cowardly… It’s possible that no one ever saw them, except those stinking traitors from the government forty years ago. If you listen to rumors, they have no shape at all, like water or steam…
“In that case, here’s what I find strange,” I say. “Why would shapeless beings want to lure several billion people into their dungeons?”
“Damn you!” the old man says in a raised voice. “They are not human! How can you and I judge what the non-humans need? Maybe slaves. Maybe food. Maybe construction materials. What difference does it make? They destroyed our world! Even now, they wouldn’t leave us alone, exterminating us like rats…”
Suddenly, his face is distorted by extreme fear. With an energy surprising for his age, he jumps away to the opposite wall, throwing away the stool, which lands with a loud bang. Before I could blink, he is holding a large nickel-plated revolver with both hands, pointing it straight at me. The sleepy guards wake up with the same expression of mistrust and horror on their faces and start groping for their rifles.
“What happened?” I say, trying not to move. The nickel-plated barrel shakes; the guards, finally in possession of their weapons, clatter the locks in unison.
“Your stupid clothes finally worked,” Schekn clicks in his language, “you are almost invisible. Only your face is visible. You have no shape, like water or steam. Although the old man already decided not to shoot you. Or should I take him out just in case?”
“Don’t,” I reply in Russian.
The old man finally makes a sound. He is whiter than a whitewashed wall and speaks with a stutter, but it’s not fear, it’s hatred that makes him stutter.
“You damned underground shape-shifter!” he says. “Put your hands on the table! Left on top of the right! Here you go…”
“This is a misunderstanding,” I say angrily. “I am not a shape-shifter. I am wearing specially designed clothing. It can make me invisible, only right now it isn’t working well.”
“Oh, so it’s clothing?” the old man says in a mocking tone of voice. “In the Northern Archipelago, they have learned how to make invisibility clothes?”
“In the Northern Archipelago, they have learned to do a lot of things,” I say. “Put away your weapon, and let’s sort it out calmly.”
“You’re a fool,” the old man says. “You should have taken time to look at our maps. There is no Northern Archipelago. I figured you out right away, only I couldn’t believe how brazen you were…”
“Isn’t it humiliating?” Schekn clicks. “Okay, take the old one, and I’ll handle both young ones…”
“Shoot the dog!” the old man commands, without taking his eyes off me.
“I’ll show you the dog!” Schekn articulates in the clearest local tongue. “You babbling old goat!”
At this point, the boys’ nerves give up, and shooting begins…