The Little One (02/09)

The Little One

By Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky

Chapter Two
Silence and Voices

For the following two hours, I was very busy, so I paid no attention to the silence, nor to the emptiness.  For starters, I conferred with Hans and Vadim.  I woke Hans up, so he was slurring and mumbling some nonsense about rain and low pressure.  He was fairly useless.  As to Vadim, I had to spend some time to convince him that I was not joking and not trying to pull his leg.  It was especially difficult considering that I kept breaking into a nervous laughter.  Eventually, I convinced him that I was laughing for a different reason.  At that point, he also got serious and told me that his lead robot stops spontaneously, but that actually is not surprising; it’s hot, the work is being done in extreme conditions, so the system didn’t have enough time to accommodate.  Could my problems be caused by cold?  Maybe, but I couldn’t be certain.  Actually, that’s what I was hoping to find out from Vadim.  Then Vadim called in Ninon, a smart girl from ER-8; all three of us discussed this possibility, but didn’t come up with anything firm, so Ninon, the smart girl she is, suggested that I contact the chief robotic engineer at the base.  He supposedly knows these construction systems as the back of his hand, because he contributed to their development.  Well, I knew that, but I felt really bad about bugging the chief on the third day of working independently, and without any reasonable guesses to boot.

So I ended up sitting down at my console, opening up the program, and looking for bugs in it; command after command, group after group, field after field.  I have to say I found no defects.  I was ready to bet my life on my code being error-free before, but now I wouldn’t mind betting my honor on it in addition.  As to the standard fields, the situation was a bit worse.  I had only a cursory knowledge of many of them and, were I to check every standard field anew, I would fall way behind schedule.  So I decided to compromise.  I temporality excluded from the program all fields that weren’t needed, simplified the program to the limit, entered it into the system and placed my finger on the start button, and suddenly realized that for a while now, I’d been hearing something-something strange, completely out of place, and incredibly familiar.

A child was crying.  Somewhere far away, on the other end of the ship, behind many door, a child was crying desperately, screaming and choking.  A baby, actually.  No older than a year.  I slowly raised my hands and covered my ears with the palms.  The crying stopped.  I stood up, ears still covered.  More precisely, I realized that I was standing for a while, covering my ears, that my shirt was stuck to my back with perspiration, and that my jaw was hanging open.  I closed my mouth and carefully took my hands off my ears.  No crying.  The usual damned silence, save for the buzzing of the fly in the cobweb in some invisible corner.  I took a handkerchief out of my pocket, slowly unfolded it, and carefully wiped my forehead, cheeks, and neck.  Then, equally slowly folding the handkerchief, I strolled in front of the console.  I didn’t know what to think.  I lightly knocked on the computer case and coughed.  Everything was normal; I could hear what I was doing.  I headed for the seat, and then the baby started crying again.

I don’t know how long I stood still and listened.  The scariest part was that I heard it very distinctly.  I even realized that is was not a meaningless meow of a newborn, nor an upset roar of a toddler; the screaming and choking came from a baby who couldn’t yet walk and talk, but was no longer breast-fed.  I have a nephew like this, he’s just over a year old-

The radio call signal sounded like thunder, and my heart almost jumped out of my rib cage.  Holding onto the console, I approached the radio and turned on the receiver.  The baby kept crying.

“So what are you up to?” Vadim asked.

“Nothing,” I said.

“No ideas?”

“None,” I said.  I caught myself covering the microphone with the palm of my hand.

“I can barely hear you,” Vadim said.  “So what are you going to do?”

“Whatever,” I mumbled, barely controlling my speech.  The baby kept on crying.  Now the crying was a little quieter, but I still could hear it.

“Are you okay, Stas?” Vadim asked worriedly.  “Did I wake you up or something?”

I really wanted to say, “Listen, I keep hearing a crying baby.  What do I do now?”  But I understood how something like this can be perceived.  So I coughed and said,

“You know, I’ll call you back in about an hour.  I may have come up with something, but I am not sure yet…”

“Okaaaaay,” Vadim drawled perplexedly and ended the call.

I stood by the radio a while longer, then returned to my console.  The baby sniffled a few times and got quiet.  Tom, meanwhile, stopped again.  What a useless trunk!  Jack and Rex have stopped, too.  I punched the check-up call button with all my might.  No effect.  I wanted to cry, but then it occurred to me that the system is turned off.  I myself turned it off two hours ago, when I sat down to debug the program.  What a worker!  Should I call the base and ask to be replaced?  Damn shame…  I caught myself anxiously waiting for the whole thing to begin anew.  Then I realized that if I stayed here, in the control room, I wouldn’t be able to do anything other than listen, and sure enough, I would hear a lot!

I decisively turned on the diagnostics, took a toolbox out of its closet, and almost ran out of the control room.  I tried to control myself, so this time, I handled the parka relatively quickly.  The ice-cold air stung my face, further adding to my self-control.  The heels of my boots digging into the sand with crunching sounds, I briskly walked to the construction site, not looking back, aiming straight for Tom.  I wasn’t looking off to the sides, either.  Icebergs, fogs, oceans-none of that was of interest anymore.  I was conserving the flowers of my liver for my job duties.  I didn’t have many of those flowers left, but the duties were still there, perhaps there were more of them now than before.

First off, I checked Tom’s reflexes.  Tom’s reflexes turned out to be in great shape.  “Excellent!” I said aloud, took a scalpel out of the toolbox, and in a single movement, as it this were an exam, opened the back of Tom’s skull.

I worked excitedly, almost madly; I was quick, accurate, and precise, like a machine.  I’ve never worked like this in my entire life.  My fingers were freezing, my face was freezing, I had to figure out a way to breath so that the moisture in the air I exhaled wouldn’t frost the operating field, but I didn’t want to even think about shepherding the robots into the onboard shop.  I was feeling better and better, I wasn’t hearing anything untoward anymore, I forgot that I could in fact hear something untoward and made two runs to the ship for spare parts for Tom’s coordination system.  “You’ll be like new,” I kept saying.  “You’ll never run away from work again.  I will heal you, my old man, set you straight and introduce you to the right people.  You want to be introduced to the right people, don’t you?  I’m sure you do!  If you know the right people, everyone will love you and take care of you.  But what can I say?  Can you be introduced to the right people with an axiomatic unit like this?  With an axiomatic unit like this, you wouldn’t even be accepted to the circus, not to mention the circle of the right people.  With an axiomatic unit like this, you’d start doubting every last thing, take pauses to think it all over, learn to pick your nose with a profound expression on your face.  Does it make sense?, you’d think.  Is it all really necessary?  What is the purpose of all those landing strips and foundations? I’ll fix you up, buddy…”

“Shura,” a raspy female voice moaned somewhere close by.  “Where are you, Shura?  It hurts…”

I froze.  I was inside Tom’s belly, constrained on all sides by the colossal bumps of his muscles, only my legs sticking out, and suddenly I was scared like in the scariest of nightmares.  I don’t know how I managed not to start screaming and thrashing hysterically.  It’s possible that I fainted for a while, because I don’t remember hearing or even thinking anything; I remember only staring at the surface of the nerve shaft lit with a greenish light.

“What’s happened?  Where are you?  I can’t see anything, Shura,” the woman rasped, cringing with unbearable pain.  “There’s someone here…  Say something, Shura!  It hurts so bad!  Help me, I can’t see anything…”

She rasped and cried, repeating the same things over and over again, and I was beginning to think I could see her pain-distorted face, drenched in cold sweat of death; the rasping wasn’t just pleading and pain anymore, now it was rage, demanding and commanding.  I felt as if strong ice-cold fingers were reaching for my brain to clutch, squeeze, and extinguish it.  Delirious, clenching my teeth to the point of a spasm, I groped for a pneumatic valve with my left hand and pressed it with all my might.  Compressed argon streamed out with a wild howling roar, and I kept pressing the valve, sweeping away, reducing to dust, destroying the raspy voice inside my head; I felt I was going deaf, and the feeling brought me indescribable relief.

Then I found myself standing next to Tom, frozen to the bone, blowing on my freezing fingers and repeating with a happy smile, “Acoustic curtain, get it?  Acoustic curtain…”  Tom was visibly leaning to the right; the world around me was hidden by a huge cloud of airborne frost and sand.  Keeping my hands under my armpits to keep them warm, I walked around Tom and saw that the jet or argon, dug a huge pit on the edge of the site.  I stood above that pit for a moment, still repeating the acoustic curtain line, but I was beginning to feel that it’s time to stop repeating; I realized that I m standing in the bitter cold without a parka on, I recalled that I took the parka off and put it on the ground right where the pit is now, tried to remember if I had anything important in the pockets, couldn’t think of anything, lightheartedly waved it away, and started a wobbly jog toward the ship.

In the airlock, I found a new parka, then went into my cabin, coughed before entering, as if warning someone inside that I was about to come in, entered, and immediately lied on the bed, face to the wall, and pulled the parka over my head.  I was fully aware that my actions are completely meaningless, that I was going to my cabin with a purpose, but I forgot what the purpose was, so I lied down and covered myself to show someone who could be watching me: this is why I came here.

I am sure it was some kind of hysterical bout, so after a while, I actually felt happy that my hysteria took such a completely harmless shape.  It was clear to me that my work here is finished.  It was highly likely that I was never to work in space again.  It was, of course, maddeningly humiliating and, well, embarrassing; I failed, I broke down on my first independent operation, even though I was sent, as a beginner, to the safest and calmest place.  I felt humiliated by the fact that I turned out to be a complete nervous wreck and embarrassed that I patronizingly felt sorry for Kaspar Manukian when he didn’t make it into Project Ark because of some sort of above-normal nervous something or other.  The future appeared to me in the darkest colors possible: quiet sanitariums, check-ups, procedures, psychologists’ careful questions, and oceans of compassion and sorrow, crushing waves of compassion and sorrow falling on me from every side…

Suddenly, I threw the parka aside and sat up.  All right, I said to the silence and the emptiness, you won.  I won’t be the next Gorbovsky.  And I’ll survive it.  So here’s the plan.  Tonight, I will tell Vanderhuse everything, and tomorrow, quite possibly, my replacement will arrive.  Damn, look at the mess on my site!  Tom is decommissioned, the schedule is blown, the stupid pit next to the landing strip, too…  I suddenly remembered why I came here, pulled out a desk drawer, found a crystal player with a recording of Irukan battle marching music, and stuck it into my right ear.  Acoustic curtain, I said to myself one last time.  I picked up the parka, went to the airlock, took a few deep breaths to calm down, turned on the crystal and stepped outside.

Now I felt good.  Around me and inside me, barbarian trumpets were roaring, brass cymbals crashing, drums beating; covered in orange dust, the legions of Telem heavily stomped through the ancient city of Setem; towers were ablaze, roofs kept caving in, and there were those terrifying whistles of wall-crushing battle dragons, breaking the enemy’s mind.  Surrounded and walled by these thousand-year-old noises, I got back into Tom’s entrails and completed the diagnostics without an incident.

Jack and Rex were finishing up filling the pit and the last liters of argon were being pumped into Tom’s guts, when I saw a quickly growing black spot above the beach.  The glider was coming back.  I looked at my watch; I was 17:58 local time.  I made it through the day.  Now I could turn off the cymbals and drums and think again: do I need to bother Vanderhuse and the base?  It wouldn’t be easy to find me a replacement; on top of that, it would be an incident for the record, the work on the entire planet may be delayed, all kinds of commissions would be formed to do all kinds of checks and audits, the business would grind to a halt, Vadim would walk around angry like a demon.  Not to mention the look I would get from Doctor of Xenopsychology, COMCON Member, Special Commissioner in charge of Project Ark Gennady Komov, a rising star of science, the favorite student of Dr. Mboga, the new competitor and new collaborator of Gorbovsky himself…  No, I had to think if over.  I looked at the approaching glider thinking, I really had to think it over.  First, I had an entire evening in front of me, and second, it all could wait.  After all, my feelings were my business, while my resignation would affect everyone.  Plus, the acoustic curtain worked great.  So it probably could wait.  Yes.  Let’s put it off…

All those thoughts left my head as soon as I saw Maika’s and Vanderhuse’s faces.  Komov looked as usual; he looked around as if everything he could lay his eyes on belonged to him, and for so long that he was getting tired of it.  Maika, however, was pale almost to the point of being blue, as if she was getting sick.  Komov jumped down on the sand and curtly asked me why I didn’t respond to radio calls (then his eyes darted to the crystal player in my ear, he snorted derisively and went into the ship, not sticking around for the answer).  Vanderhuse slowly got out of the glider and was coming my way, nodding sadly for whatever reason and more than even looking like an ailing old camel.  Maika, meanwhile, still sat in her seat, slouching, hiding her chin in the fur collar; her eyes looked glassy, and her freckles seemed to be black.

“What’s happened?” I asked worriedly.

Vanderhuse stopped in front of me.  His head looked up, his jaw moved forward.  He took me by the shoulder and shook gently.  My heart skipped a bit; I didn’t know what to think.  He shook me again and said,

“A very sad find, Stas.  We found a wrecked ship.”

I swallowed hard and asked,

“Ours?”

“Yes.  Ours.”

Maika crawled out of the glider, waved to me anemically, and headed for the ship.

“Casualties?” I asked.

“Two,” Vanderhuse replied.

“Who?” I asked with some difficulty.

“We don’t know yet.  It’s an old ship.  The wreck happened many years ago.”

He took my arm, and we followed Maika together.  I calmed down a little.  In the beginning, I thought that someone from our expedition crashed.  But still…

“I never liked this planet,” I said impulsively.

We came into the airlock, got undressed, and Vanderhuse started to pick the thorns off his parka.  I decided not to wait for him and went to see Maika.  Maika was lying on her bed, her knees up to her chin, facing the wall.  This pose reminded me of something recent, and I said to myself, let’s be calm, no tears or compassions.  I sat at her desk, drummed my fingers on it and asked her in a businesslike tone,

“Is that ship really old?  Vander says, it crashed many years ago.  Is that true?”

“It is,” Maika spoke into the wall after a pause.

I looked at her sideways.  The sharp claws of conscience tore at my soul, but I continued in the same businesslike tone,

“How many is many?  Ten?  Twenty?  It doesn’t make any sense.  This planet was discovered two years ago…”

Maika didn’t answer.  I drummed my fingers again and toned down, but still businesslike,

“Although those could be explorers…  Some free researchers…  Was there two of them?”

At that point, she flew up and sat facing me, the palms of her hands pushing against the bedspread,

“Two!” she screamed, “Yes!  Two!  You emotionless piece of wood!  You idiot!”

“Wait!” I said, caught by surprise.  “What are you-”

“Why did you come here?”  she continued, almost in a whisper.  “Go to your robots and discuss with them how many years it’s been and how little sense it makes that there are two of them as opposed to three or seven…”

“Now wait, Maika!” I said desperately.  “That’s not what I wanted-”

She covered her face with her hands and said incoherently,

“All their bones were broken…  But they were still alive…  They tried to do something…  Look,” she asked, taking her hands off her face, “Can you please leave me alone?  I’ll come out soon.  I promise.”

I carefully got up and left.  I wanted to hold her, say something nice and consoling, but consolation was a skill I didn’t possess.  In the hallway, I suddenly started shaking.  I stopped and waited for it to pass.  What a day!  And I can’t even tell anyone.  And I probably shouldn’t tell anyone.  I opened my eyes and saw Vanderhuse standing at the door of the control room looking at me.

“How’s Maika?” he asked quietly.

He probably saw an answer on my face, because he sadly nodded and went into the control room.  And I plodded to the kitchen.  Just out of habit.  Traditionally, after the glider came back, we all sat down to dinner.  But today, it seemed, would be different.  What sort of dinner would it be, really?  I screamed at the cook because I thought it cooked a wrong menu.  It didn’t, of course; the dinner was ready, a good dinner, as usual, but today it should be better than usual.  Maika probably wouldn’t eat at all, and she really needed to.  I ordered the cook to make a fruit jelly with whipped cream, the only favorite food of hers I knew of.  For Komov, I couldn’t think of anything extra to order, for Vanderhuse, having thought about it, neither, but just in case I added a few glasses of wine to the common menu; maybe someone needed a little boost…  Then I went to the control room and sat at m console.

The kids were working like clockwork.  Maika still wasn’t there, and Vanderhuse and Komov were putting together an urgent message to the base.  They were arguing.

“This is not information, Jacob,” Komov was saying.  “You know better than I do that there is a standard format: the state of the ship, the state of the remains, the apparent cause of crash, finds of special importance…  And all that.”

“Yes, of course,” Vanderhuse replied.  “But you have to agree, Gennady, all that boiler plate stuff only makes sense for biologically active planets.  In this particular situation-”

“In that case, let’s not send anything.  In that case, let’s get into the glider, fly over there right now, and put together a complete report.”

Vanderhuse shook his head.

“No, Gennady, I am absolutely against that.  A commission of this kind must include at least three people.  Also, it’s already dark; we won’t be able to inspect the location…  Not to mention that these things are best done after a good rest, not after a full day of work.  What do you think, Gennady?”

Komov pursed his thin lips and lightly banged the table with his fist.

“This is such a bad timing,” he said unhappily.

“Things like this always come at a bad time,” Vanderhuse consoled him.  “Never mind, tomorrow the three of us will go there-”

“Maybe we shouldn’t report it today at all?” Komov interrupted.

“That I can’t do,” Vanderhuse said regretfully.  “And why don’t we want to report it anyway?”

Komov stood up, put his hands behind his back, and looked down at Vanderhuse.

“Don’t you understand, Jacob,” he said with unmasked irritation.  “It’s an old ship, unidentified, the log has been erased for whatever reason…  If we send in a report like this,” he picked up the piece of paper from the table and waved it in front of Vanderhuse’s face, “Sidorov will think that we don’t want, or are unable, to conduct an investigation on our own.  For him, it will be yet another problem: put together a commission, pick good people for it, fight off the curious passerby…  We’ll look ridiculous and stupid.  Also, Jacob, what will our work here be like if a crowd of curious passerby lands here?”

“Hmm,” Vanderhuse said.  “So you simply don’t want a bunch of strangers to invade our turf.  Right?”

“Exactly,” Komov said firmly.

Vanderhuse shrugged.

“Well…” He thought for a while, took the paper away from Komov, and wrote a few words on it.  “How about this?  ER-2 to Base,” he quickly read aloud.  “Urgent.  In Sector 102, a shipwreck has been found.  Earth ship, type Pelican, registered number is so and so; remains of two humans, apparently a man and a woman, found inside.  Ship’s log has been erased.  A detailed inspection,” he raised his voice and lifted his index finger to add significance, “to commence tomorrow.  What do you think, Gennady?”

For a few seconds, Komov was lost in thought, rocking forth and back shifting his weigh from his toes to his heels and back.

“Well,” he said finally, “Let’s leave it at that.  Anything, as long as we’re not disturbed.  Let’s leave it at that.”

Suddenly, he quickly walked out of the control room.  Vanderhuse turned to me.

“Stas, please transmit this.  And isn’t it dinner time already?”  He got up an thoughtfully uttered one of his mysterious phrases, “If you have an alibi, the bodies won’t be far behind.”

I encoded the message and sent it out in an unscheduled impulse.  I felt really weird.  Recently, literally a minute ago, something poked at my subconscious and was now sticking out like a splinter.  I sat in front of the radio, listening to the ambient noises.  That’s very different, listening to ambient noises when you know the ship’s full of people.  Here’s Komov briskly walking along the circular hallway.  He always walks as if he’s in a hurry, but at the same time he knows that he doesn’t have to be, because without him, nothing would start.  Here’s Vanderhuse humming something unintelligible.  Maika responds, and her voice sounds normal, high-pitched and independent; she seems to be okay, or at least trying.  No silence, no emptiness, no flies in cobwebs…  Suddenly, I realized what the splinter was; the voice of a dying woman in my hallucination and the dead woman in the shipwreck…  A coincidence, of course…  But a scary one nevertheless.

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