The Little One (01/09)

The Little One

By Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky

Chapter One
Emptiness and Silence

“You know,” Maika said, “I am having a really stupid sense of foreboding…”

We were standing by the glider; she was looking down at her feet and kept hitting the frozen sand with the heel of her boot.

I couldn’t think of anything to say in response.  I wasn’t having any sense of foreboding, but overall, I didn’t like it here, either.  I squinted and looked at the iceberg.  It was sticking out above the horizon like a huge pile of sugar, like a blindingly white jagged fang, very cold, very static, very much in one piece, with none of those beautiful reflections and color gradations; you could see that it collided with this flat defenseless shore a hundred thousand years ago and intends to stick around for another hundred thousand, to the envy of all its siblings drifting in the open ocean.  The beach, smooth, grayish-yellow in color, glistening with billions of tiny scales of frost, came up to it, and on the right, there was the ocean, lead-colored, breathing out the smell of cold metal, covered in tiny ripples, and at the horizon, black like ink and unnaturally dead.  On the left, over the hot springs, covering the swamp, was gray layered fog; beyond the fog, the bristly hills were barely visible, and farther yet, there were sheer cliffs with spots of snow on them.  The cliffs stretched along the entire coast as far as the eye could see, and above the cliffs, in the cloudless, but also joyless, icy grayish-lilac sky, the tiny heatless off-lilac sun was coming up.

Vanderhuse got out of the glider, immediately pulled the fur-lined hood over his head, and walked over to us.

“I am ready,” he informed us.  “Where’s Komov?”

Maika shrugged and blew on her freezing fingers.

“Should be coming shortly, I suppose,” she said absent-mindedly.

“Where are you off to today?” I asked Vanderhuse.  “To the lake?”

Vanderhuse looked up and sleepily looked at me over the tip of his nose, which made him look like an aged camel with lynx-like sideburns.

“You’re bored here all alone,” he said compassionately.  “But you’ll have to endure, don’t you think?”

“I think I’ll have to.”

Vanderhuse looked yet higher up and with the same camel-like insolence looked towards the iceberg.

“Yes,” he said compassionately, “it looks a lot like Earth, but it isn’t Earth.  That’s the problem with Earth-like worlds.  You always feel deceived.  Feel like someone stole everything from you.  But you can get used even to that; what do you think, Maika?”

Maika didn’t respond.  She’s really sad today.  Or angry?  Well, that’s been known to happen.

Behind us, with a quiet popping sound, the hatch membrane broke open, and Komov jumped out onto the sand.  Hurriedly, zipping up his parka on the go, he came up to us and asked sharply,

“Ready?”

“Ready,” Vanderhuse said.  “Where are we off to today, Gennady?  Back to the lake?”

“Well,” Komov said, fiddling with a button on the neck of his parka, “As far as I understand, Maya, you have to cover segment sixty-four today.  My points are the western shore of the lake, height seven, height twelve.  We will work out scheduling details on our way.  Popov, I’d like to ask you to send out the radio messages; I left them in the control room.  You can communicate to me through the glider.  We are to return by eighteen hundred hours local time.  Should we delay, we’ll notify you.”

“Okay,” I said without enthusiasm; I didn’t like the mention of a possible delay.

Maika, still silent, started walking toward the glider.  Komov finally worked out the button, ran his hand across his chest, and also started walking toward the glider.  Vanderhuse squeezed my shoulder.

“Don’t spend too much time looking at these landscapes,” he said.  “Stay home as much as you can and read.  Take good care of the flowers of your liver.”

He slowly climbed into the glider, settled in the pilot’s seat, and waved to me.  Maika finally allowed herself to smile and also waved to me.  Komov, looking through me, nodded my way, the cabin dome closed, and I couldn’t see them anymore.  The glider quietly started moving, then quickly accelerated forward and upward, immediately turned into a black dot and disappeared, as if it never was.  I was left alone.

For a while, I stood with my hands in the pockets of my parka and watched my kids work.  They did a lot of work during the night, got all pale and skinny, and now, their energy intakes deployed to the maximum, they were greedily swallowing the watery broth fed to them by the anemic lilac sun.  And nothing else mattered to them.  And nothing else was needed, even I wasn’t needed, at least until they complete their program.  Actually, Tom, the awkward fat boy he is, flashed me a ruby headlight every time I got into his field of vision; you could mistake it for a greeting, for a polite, yet absent-minded, bow, but I knew that it means simply, “I and the rest of the gang are fine.  We’re working our assignment.  Are there any new instructions?”  I didn’t have any new instructions.  I had lots of loneliness and lots and lots of dead silence to look forward to.

It wasn’t the silence of an acoustic lab that plugs your ears like cotton, and it wasn’t the wonderful silence of the countryside evening on Earth that refreshes, gently washes over your mind, pacifies you and connects you the very best the world has to offer.  It was a special kind of silence: piercing, as transparent as vacuum, seriously getting on your nerves – the silence of an enormous and completely empty world.

I looked around like a cornered animal.  Well, I really shouldn’t talk about myself this way; I would have said simply, “I looked around”.  In reality, however, I didn’t simply look around; I looked around like a cornered animal.  The robots worked in silence.  The lilac sun shone in silence.  This had to end somehow.

For example, I could finally get myself together and walk over to the iceberg.  It was about five kilometers away, and the standard instruction categorically forbids a crew member on duty to step away from the ship farther than hundred meters.  Under different circumstances, it would be tempting to risk it and disobey the instruction.  But not here.  Here, I could walk five, or even hundred and twenty five, kilometers away, and nothing would happen to me, or to my ship, or to a dozen other ships that landed in the different climate zones of this planet south of me.  There will be no bloodthirsty monster ready to devour me in those crooked bushes; there are no monsters here.  There won’t be a fierce typhoon coming in from the ocean to lift the ship up and throw it against those sullen rocks; no typhoons have been recorded here, and no earthquakes, either.  There won’t be a super-urgent call from the base declaring a biohazard emergency; biohazard emergency is impossible here, there are no viruses or bacteria that are dangerous to multi-cell organisms.  There’s nothing here, except the ocean, the rocks, and the dwarf trees.  It’s no fun to disobey the instruction here.

But following it is no fun, either.  On any decent biologically active planet, I wouldn’t be standing here, hands in the pockets, on the third day since landing.  I would run around like crazy.  Tuning, launch, and daily activity review of the guard/scout.  Setting up an Absolute Biological Safety Zone around the ship (and the construction site).  Securing the aforementioned ABSZ against an underground attack.  Every two hours, check and replacement of filters: onboard external, onboard internal, and personal.  Setting up a disposal site for refuse, including expended filters.  Every four hours, a complete clean-up of robots’ control systems.  Periodic checks of data coming in from medical service robots roaming outside ABSZ.  And lots of small stuff: weather probes, seismic reconnaissance, risk evaluation for cave-ins, typhoons, landslides, mudslides, brush fires, volcanic eruptions…

I imagined myself in a spacesuit, sweaty, sleep-deprived, angry and getting dumber by the minute, flushing fat boy Tom’s nerve nodes, while the guard/scout hovers above my head and with an idiotic determination tells me for the twentieth time that there is a dangerous spotted frog of an unknown species under that fallen tree; and my headphones, meanwhile, are full of alarm signals from the gravely upset medical service robots that just found a virus exhibiting a non-standard reaction to the Baltermanz test and thus theoretically capable of breaking through the bio-blockade.  Vanderhuse, locked inside the ship as the physician and the captain is supposed to be, shares with me his concern about the ship drowning in the swamp, while Komov, calm as a block of ice, radios in a message: the engine of his glider, as far as he understands, has been eaten by small ant-like insects, and at the moment, those ants are tasting his spacesuit…  Ouch!  Well, to a planet like that, they wouldn’t let me go.  They let me go to this planet, for which no instructions have been written.  Because no one needs them.

I paused in front of the hatch, shook the grains of sand off the soles of my boots, waited a little, put my hand on the warm breathing side of the ship, and poked my finger at the membrane.  Inside the ship, it was also quiet, but that was the silence of a home, of an empty, yet comfortable, apartment.  I took off my parka and proceeded straight to the control room.  I didn’t linger at my console – I could see that everything was fine – but went straight to the transmitter instead.  The messages were on the desk.  I turned on the encoder and started to type in the text.  In the first message, Komov suggested locations for three campsites, reported about the fish released into the lake yesterday, and suggested that Kitamura shouldn’t rush the reptiles.  That was more or less understandable, but from the second message, addressed to the Central Informatorium, I understood only that Komov really needs data on the Y-factor for a bi-normal humanoid with a four-story index including nine digits and fourteen Greek letters.  That was some dense higher xenopsychology, of which I, as any normal humanoid of index zero, understood exactly nothing.  And I didn’t have to.

After I typed up the text, I turned on the service channel and transmitted all messages in a single impulse.  Then I registered the transmission, and then it occurred to me that I should send in my first report.  Well, whatever could pass for a report…  “Team ER-2, construction to standard 15, percentage of completion, date, signature.”  That’s it.  I had to get up and walk over to my console to look up the percentage of completion, and I suddenly realized why I all of a sudden wanted to file a report.  It really had nothing to do with reporting; I am probably becoming an experienced robotic technician, so seeing and hearing nothing, I simply felt the work stoppage.  Tom stopped again, just like he did yesterday, for no apparent reason.  Just like yesterday, I, irritated, jabbed the check-up button, “What’s the matter?”  Just like yesterday, the stoppage signal immediately turned off, and the ruby light came on, “We’re fine, working the assignment.  Are there any new instructions?”  I sent out an instruction to resume work and turned off the video screen.  Jack and Rex were working hard, so Tom got moving, too, but for the first few seconds, the movement was sort of sideways, although it came back to normal immediately.

“Well, my friend,” I said aloud, “it looks like you’re getting tired and you need to get cleaned.”  I looked up Tom’s maintenance record.  His service was due tonight.  “All right, we should be able to last until tonight, what do you think?”

Tom didn’t object.  For a while, I watched them work, then, I turned the screen off; the iceberg, the fog over the swamp, the dark cliffs…  I wanted to be away from it all.

I did send in a report nevertheless and immediately called ER-6.  Vadim responded immediately, as if he was waiting for me to call.

“So what have you got going?” we asked each other simultaneously.

“We’ve got nothing,” I replied.

“Our lizards died out,” Vadim told me.

“Well,” I said, “Komov, the favorite student of Dr. Mboga, warned you; don’t rush the reptiles.”

“Who was rushing?” Vadim objected.  “If you want to know my opinion, they simply won’t survive here.  Too hot!”

“Do you swim?” I asked enviously.

Vadim took a pause.

“We dip,” he said reluctantly.  “From time to time.”

“Why the tone?”

“It’s empty,” Vadim said.  “Like a nightmarishly large bathtub…  You wouldn’t understand.  A normal person can’t imagine a bathtub this incredible.  One time, I swam out about five kilometers, at first, everything was great, and then I realized that I am not in a swimming pool; it’s an ocean!  And except for me, there is not a single living creature in it…  No, old man, you wouldn’t understand.  I almost drowned.”

“Huh,” I said.  “So you’ve got problems too…”

We chatted for a few more minutes, and then Vadim got a call from the base, and we hastily said our goodbyes.  I called ER-9.  Hans didn’t pick up.  Of course, I could call ER-1, ER-3, ER-4, and so forth up to ER-12, and talk some more about how empty and lifeless the place is, but what good would it do?  None, if you think about it.  So I turned off the radio and moved to my console.  For a while, I just sat there, looking at the displays and thinking about how what we do is doubly good; not only are we saving the Pantians from inevitable extinction, we are also saving this planet: from emptiness, from the dead silence, from pointlessness.  Then it occurred to me that Pantians must be a fairly strange race, if our xenopsychologists think that this planet is the best fit for them.  The way of life on Panta must be really strange.  Imagine, they are transported here (well, not all of them at first, just two or three representatives from each tribe), they see this frozen beach, this iceberg, the empty icy ocean, the empty lilac sky, they see it all and they say, “Wonderful!  Just like home!”  Hardly believable.  Although by the time they come to see it, it won’t be as empty.  There will be fish in the lakes, game in the forests, edible mollusks on the shoals.  Maybe some lizards will acclimate, and some birds will poop all over the iceberg.  And then, the Pantians don’t have much of a choice.  If we were to find out that our sun was about to explode and lick every bit of life off the Earth, I wouldn’t be picky.  I might say to myself, well, we’ll get by somehow.  Although no one is really asking the Pantians.  They don’t understand any of it; they have no cosmography, not even a primitive one.  They will never find out that they have been relocated to a different planet…

Suddenly I realized that I heard something.  Some rustling, like a lizard running by.  I must have thought of a lizard because of the recent conversation with Vadim; in reality, the sound was barely audible and completely indeterminable.  Then, there was a ticking sound coming from the far end of the control room, and immediately the sound of running water from somewhere.  At the very threshold of perception, there was the buzzing of a fly caught in a cobweb and rapid mumbling of irritated voices.  Then, the sound of lizard running through the hallway again.  I felt my neck getting tense to the point of a spasm and stood up.  In the process, I touched a reference book sitting on the edge of the console, and it fell on the floor with a deafening noise.  I picked it up and threw it back onto the console, making even more deafening noise.  I hummed a vigorous marching song and loudly stomped into the hallway.

That’s what silence does to you.  Silence and emptiness.  Vanderhuse explains it to us every evening with utmost clarity.  Human beings are not like the nature, they can’t tolerate the emptiness.  When faced with emptiness, they strive to fill it.  They fill it with visions and imaginary sounds, unless they can fill it with something real. Over the last three days, I have heard plenty of imaginary sounds.  I suppose I have visions to look forward to…

I marched along the hallway, by the empty living quarters, by the library, by the armory, and as I was passing the medical bay, I felt a weak smell, fresh yet unpleasant, like ammonia spirit.  I stopped and sniffed.  A familiar smell.  Although what it is, I can’t tell.  I stuck my head into the operating room.  The always-on robot surgeon, a huge white octopus mounted on the ceiling, looked at me with its huge greenish eyes and lifted its arms to signal readiness.  The smell was stronger in here.  I turned on the emergency ventilation and marched on.  It’s incredible how sharp my senses have become.  Say what you will, but my sense of smell has never been particularly acute…

My marching patrol ended in the kitchen.  Here, there was plenty of smells, but I had nothing against those.  Whatever they say, a kitchen must smell.  On other ships, kitchens are odorless, like control rooms.  I would never let that happen.  I have my own ideas.  Cleanliness, yes, but a kitchen must smell good.  Tasty.  Appetizingly.  I have to put together four meals a day, and I have to do it with no appetite of my own, because appetite and emptiness-silence seem to be incompatible…

It took me at least half an hour to put together a menu.  It was a difficult half-hour, but I did what I could.  Then I turned on the cook, gave it the menu, and went to see how the kids are doing.

As soon as I entered the control room, I saw something extraordinary.  All three display screens on my console showed a complete stop.  I ran up to the console and turned on the video display.  My heart skipped a bit; the construction site was empty.  I’ve never seen this happen.  I haven’t even heard of it happen.  I shook my head and ran to the exit.  Someone hijacked the robots?  A stray meteorite hit Tom’s brain?  The program went mad?  Impossible!  I dropped into the airlock and grabbed my parka.  My arms couldn’t find the sleeves, buttons seemed to disappear altogether, and as I was fighting the parka, just like Baron Munchausen once fought his rabid fur coat, I was imagining a creepy picture; someone unknown and impossible was leading away my Tom, like a small dog on a leash, and the robots were obediently following into the fog, into the swamp, they submerge into the brown liquid and disappear forever…  I kicked the membrane and jumped out.

My vision blurred momentarily.  The robots were right there, next to the ship.  They crowded by the cargo hatch, all three of them, gently pushing each other, as if each one wanted to be the first to enter the cargo hold.  That was impossible, indecent, and scary.  It looked like they wanted to hide in the cargo hold, to find a refuge from something, to save themselves.  Robot madness does happen, but it is exceedingly rare, and I have never heard of a construction robot gone mad.  But my nerves were so jagged that I was ready to believe it just happened.  But nothing happened.  As soon as Tom saw me, he stopped fidgeting and flashed a signal, “Waiting for instructions”.  I decisively made a hand signal, “Return to the location, continue with the program”.  Tom obediently backed up, turned around, and went right back to the site.  Jack and Rex, naturally, followed.  And I still stood by the hatch, my throat was dry, my knees were weak, and I really wanted to sit down.

But I didn’t.  I started to get myself into a working order.  My parka was buttoned all wrong, my ears were getting cold, drops of sweat were quickly freezing on my forehead and cheeks.  Slowly, trying to control my every movement, I wiped my face dry, buttoned up properly, pulled the hood down to my eyebrows, and put on the gloves.  It’s embarrassing to admit that I was scared.  Actually, it wasn’t the actual fear, more like remnants of fear mixed with shame.  A robot technician who got scared of his own robots…  I realized that I would never tell anyone about this episode.  Damn, my legs were shaking; they still feel weak, and my innermost desire right now is to go back to the ship, think about what happened in a calm and businesslike manner, and figure it out.  Look over some reference books.  Truth is, I simply must be afraid to approach the kids…

I decisively stuck my hands into my pockets and walked over to the construction site.  The kids were working as if nothing happened.  Tom, as usual, thoughtfully asked for new instructions.  Jack was working the foundation for the dispatch building, just as the program said.  Rex was zigzagging along the finished part of the landing strip, clearing it.  Something must be wrong with the program.  Why did they throw all those rocks on the landing strip?  They weren’t here before, and they are not necessary, either; there’s enough materials without them.  Since Tom stopped an hour ago, they were doing something wrong.  Twigs on the landing strip; why?  I bent down, picked up a stick and strolled forth and back, thumping the side of my boot with it.  How about I stop them right now and not wait for the scheduled check-up?  Could it be that I messed up the program that badly?  Mind-boggling…  I threw the stick into the pile of rocks Rex collected, turned around and went back to the ship.

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