The Little One (03/09)

The Little One

By Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky

Chapter Three
Voices and Ghosts

Surprisingly, I slept like a log.  In the morning, I, as usual, got up half an hour before everyone else, checked on the breakfast in the kitchen, stopped at the control room to check on the kids, and then jumped out to do some calisthenics.  The sun wasn’t out yet, but it was almost light and very cold.  My nostrils were gluing up, my eyelashes were freezing together, while I did my exercises trying to get back into the ship as soon as I can.  And then I saw Komov.  Today, he must have gotten up before me, went somewhere, and was now coming back through the construction site.  Unusually, he was walking slowly, as if lost in thought, absent-mindedly tapping himself on the leg with a twig he held in his hand.  I was finishing up when he came up to me and said hello.  I, of course, greeted him back and was about to come in, but he stopped me by asking me a question,

“Tell me, Popov, when you stay here alone, do you walk away from the ship?” 

“Meaning?”  I was surprised, not so much at the content of the question, but at the realization that Gennady Komov himself thought it important to find out how I spend my time.  I have a complicated attitude toward Gennady Komov.  I don’t particularly like him. 

“Meaning, do you go anywhere?  To the swamp, for example, or into the hills?” 

I hate it when someone talks to you, but looks anywhere but at you.  Especially when that someone is wearing a warm hooded parka, while you only have your sweats on.  But nevertheless, Gennady Komov is Gennady Komov, so I hugged myself and dancing in one place answered,

“No.  I don’t have enough time for walks.” 

At that point, he finally noticed that I was freezing and politely pointed at the hatch with his twig, saying, “Please.  It’s cold.”  But once in the airlock, he stopped me again,

“Do the robots move away from the construction site?”

“The robots?”  I couldn’t understand what he was getting at.  “No.  Why?”

“Well, I don’t know.  To look for materials, perhaps?” 

He carefully leaned his twig against the wall and began to unbutton his parka.  I began to get irritated.  If he somehow found out about problems in my construction systems, then one, it’s none of his business, and two, he could talk to me about it directly.  Spare me the interrogation… 

“Construction material for this type of robotic system,” I said as dryly as I could, “is whatever it has under its feet.  In our case, it’s sand.” 

“And rocks,” he added casually, hanging his parka on a hook. 

With that, he got me.  But it was absolutely none of his business, and I replied in a challenging tone,

“Yes!  And rocks, if they’re available.” 

For the first time, he looked me in the eye. 

“I’m afraid you misunderstood me, Popov,” he said unexpectedly softly.  “I am not going to meddle in your work.  It’s just that I don’t understand something, and I thought I’d ask you, because you’re the only person who can help me.” 

Well, talk to me nicely, and I’ll talk nicely to you. 

“Generally speaking, they really don’t need those rocks,” I said.  “Yesterday, the system was acting up, so the machines threw those rocks all over the site.  Who knows why they did it.  But then they put it all away.” 

He nodded. 

“Yes, I noticed.  What kind of problem was it with the system?” 

I briefly told him about yesterday, leaving out the intimate details, of course.  He listened, nodded, then picked up his twig, thanked me for the explanation, and departed.  And only in the mess hall, as I was eating buckwheat cereal with cold milk, it occurred to me that I still didn’t understand what it was that the favorite student of Dr. Mboga couldn’t understand and to what extent I was able to help him.  If at all.  I stopped eating and looked at Komov.  No, looks like I failed. 

Generally, Gennady Komov looks like a person out of this world.  He always seems to look at something that’s behind the horizon and think about something devilishly grand.  He comes down to earth only if someone or something, accidentally or deliberately, stands in the way of his studies.  Then, with a steady hand, quite often mercilessly, he removes the obstacle and soars back to his Olympus.  These are the stories told about him, and, strictly speaking, there’s nothing wrong with it.  When someone studies alien psychologies, and does it successfully, fights on the frontlines and has no mercy on himself, and all the while he is one of the planet’s most renowned “future shapers”, he can be forgiven for a lot of things, and we can cut him some slack in terms of manners.  After all, not everyone can be as charming as Gorbovsky or Dr. Mboga. 

On the other hand, for the last few days, I’ve been remembering, with surprise and bitterness, Tatiana’s enthusiastic stories; she worked with Komov for a whole year, she probably had a crush on him, and described him as very sociable, witty, and all that.  She actually said he was the soul of the party.  I am not sure I’d want to go to a party with this kind of soul. 

Anyway, I always thought Gennady Komov struck me a person out of this world.  But at today’s breakfast, he outdid himself.  He kept pouring salt on his food.  He’d pour, taste, and absent-mindedly clear the plate into the waste receptacle.  He also kept mistaking mustard for butter.  He’d put some mustard on a sweet toast, taste it, and send it where the plate content just went.  He wouldn’t answer any of Vanderhuse’s questions, but he attached to Maika like a leech trying to find out if she and Vander always work together during mapping or break up sometimes.  Every now and then, he would look around nervously, and one time, he actually ran into the hallway and came back after a few minutes only to put more mustard on toast, until the damn mustard was taken away from him. 

Maika was nervous, too.  She answered curtly, kept looking into her plate, and hasn’t smiled once over the entire breakfast.  However, I understood very well what she must be going through.  I would be nervous, too, if I were to do what she was about to do.  After all, she is as old as I am, and although she is more experienced than I am, it’s not the kind of experience that would help her today. 

Long story short, Komov was nervous, Maika was nervous, Vanderhuse, looking at them, was also beginning to look worried, so it became clear to me that bringing up the question of my possible participation in the upcoming investigation would be absolutely inappropriate.  I figured that I had another day of silence and emptiness to look forward to, and also started to get nervous.  The mood at the table turned downright gloomy.  And then Vanderhuse, being both the captain and a physician, decided to lighten the mood.  He raised his head, put forward his jaw, and gave us a long look over his nose.  His lynx-like sideburns opened sideways.  For starters, he told a few starship pilot jokes.  The jokes were old and well-worn; I made myself smile, Maika wasn’t reacting, and Komov reacted really strangely.  He listened carefully and seriously, nodded at punch lines, and then thoughtfully looked an Vanderhuse and said solemnly,

“You know, Jacob, your sideburns would go really well with tufts of hair on the tips of your ears.”

The delivery was great, and under different circumstances, I would laugh wholeheartedly, but right now, it seemed completely tactless.  Vanderhuse, however, seemed to be of the opposite opinion.  He smiled happily, fluffed up his sideburns (first left, then right) with his finger, and told us the following story. 

Once upon a time, an Earthman landed on a civilized planet, initiated contact, and offered the locals his services as Earth’s greatest expert in design and operation of perpetual motion machines of first kind.  The locals, naturally, cling to the super-intelligence ambassador’s every word and, following his directions, get working.  The work is complete, but the machine is not working.  The Earthman spins its wheels, gets in the thick or rods and cogs, and swears at the locals.  “Your technology,” he says, “is retarded; these units here all have to be redone, and those over there need to be replaced, don’t you think?”  The locals have nowhere to run, so they start redoing and replacing.  And as soon as they’re done, an ambulance rocket from Earth lands, the orderlies seize the inventor and administer a proper injection, the doctor apologizes to the locals, and the rocket departs.  The locals are sad and embarrassed, they can’t look each other in the eye, they are ready to go home, but suddenly, they realize that the engine is working.  Yes, my friends, the engine started working and continues to work for hundred and fifty years now. 

I honestly liked this simple story.  It was clear that Vanderhuse made it up himself, most likely just now.  To my sheer amazement, Komov liked it too.  By the middle of the story, his eyes stopped searching for mustard, he stared at Vanderhuse, and kept looking at him until the end, and then said something to the extent that the idea of one contacting party’s insanity appears to be theoretically curious.  “At any rate, up until now, the general theory of contact has not considered this possibility, although back in the early twenty-first century, someone named Strauch proposed to add schizoids to spaceship crews.  Even then it was known that the schizoid types have a great ability for unbiased association.  Where a normal person would look at chaos and try to see something familiar, known, stereotypical in it, a schizoid would not only see it as it is, but would also create new stereotypes, stemming directly from the inner nature of the chaos in question.  By the way,” Komov continued, gradually lighting up, “this property appears common among schizoid individuals representing very different mind types.  And since the possibility that the object of contact is a schizoid individual cannot be ruled out, failing to diagnose the schizoid can lead to dire consequences for the contact, so the problem that you, Jacob, touched on seems to be worthy of some scientific attention.” 

Vanderhuse , smiling, announced that Komov can have his idea as a gift and said that it was time to head out.  As soon as he said it, Maika, who was listening to Komov with a great deal of interest, her mouth half-open, suddenly wilted.  I wilted, too; all that talk of schizoids made me think of some unpleasant things.  And here’s what happened then.

Vanderhuse and Maika already left the mess hall; Komov paused at the door, and suddenly turned around, firmly took me by the elbow, and, looking all over my face with his cold gray eyes, said quietly and quickly,

“What are you worried about, Stas?  Has something happened?”

I almost lost it.  I was flattened by the supernatural perceptiveness of this expert in schizoids.  But I was able to get a grip.  Too many things were about to be decided.  I backed up and asked in immeasurable surprise,

“What are you talking about, Gennady?”

He kept scanning my face and asked, even more quietly and more quickly,

“Are you afraid to be left alone?”

But I as already back in the saddle. 

“Afraid?”  I asked him back.  “Well, that’s an overstatement, Gennady.  I am not a child after all…” 

He let my elbow go. 

“Would you like to fly out with us?”

I shrugged. 

“I’d love to.  But I had those malfunctions yesterday.  I think I better stay.”

“All right,” he said with an uncertain expression on his face, suddenly turned around and left. 

I stood around the mess hall for a while, pulling myself together.  My mind was in disarray, but I felt like I just passed an exam. 

They waved me goodbye and flew away, and I didn’t even look at the glider after it took off.  I immediately returned to the ship, picked a stereo pair of crystal players, armed both of my ears, and dropped into the seat in front of my console.  I watched the kids work, read incoming messages, talked to Vadim and Ninon (it was comforting to find out that Vadim is also playing music very loudly), cleaned the premises, put together a luxury menu with some extras for those needing a little boost–all that among the drumming, the ringing, the howling of flutes and the meowing of knackophones.  In other words, I was methodically, ruthlessly, and usefully killing time.  And throughout this time-killing, a torturous thought gnawed at my mind: how did Komov find out about my weakness and what does he intend to do about it?  Komov was driving me crazy.  All those things he didn’t understand after going to the construction site, the talk of schizoids, the strange interlude in the mess hall…  Damn, he even offered me to fly out with them, he was clearly worried about leaving me alone!  Am I really that obvious?  But Vanderhuse didn’t notice anything…

These thoughts haunted me throughout most of the day.  At fifteen hundred hours, much earlier than I expected, the glider returned.  I barely had time to take off and hide away the crystal players when the whole company poured into the ship.  I greeted them in the airlock with a thoroughly thought through expression of subdued welcome, asked no questions of substance and only wondered if anyone would like some refreshments.  I might, however, have been speaking too loudly after six hours of drumming and ringing, so Maika, who to my sheer joy looked quite satisfactory, stared at me with some surprise, while Komov quickly looked me over from head to toe and hid in his cabin without uttering a word.

“Refreshments?” Vanderhuse said thoughtfully.  “You know, Stas, I am going into the control room to write the inspection report, so if you wouldn’t mind bringing me a glass of tonic when you have a minute, that would be appropriate, don’t you think?” 

I said I would, Vanderhuse retired to the control room, and Maika and I went to the mess hall where I poured two glasses of tonic; I gave one to Maika and took the other to Vanderhuse.  When I returned, Maika was pacing the mess hall with a wineglass in her hand.  Yes, she was much calmer than she was in the morning, but there was still some tension about her, so to help her unwind, I asked,

“So what did you find out about the ship?” 

Maika took a sip, licked her lips and said, looking through me,

“You know, Stas, this is all for a reason.” 

I waited for a continuation, but she was silent. 

“What is for a reason?”  I asked.

“Everything!”  Her hand, still holding a wineglass, made a vague all-encompassing motion.  “This is a castrated world.  Pale anemia.  Mark my words: that ship crashed here for a reason, we found it for a reason, and our entire enterprise, this whole project, everything will fail on this planet!”  She finished her wine and put the wineglass on the table.  “The elementary security rules are not being followed, the majority of workers here are lightweights like you and, well, me…  And only because the planet is biologically passive.  But does it matter?  Any human being with any intuition at all feels something wrong within an hour of getting here.  There used to be life here, and then the star flashed, and it was all gone in an instant…  Biologically passive?  Yes!  But necrotically active.  That’s what Panta is going to be like some years later.  Low trees, scrawny grass, and everything around soaked in ancient death.  It smells like death, get it?  Even worse, it smells like former life!  No, Stas, mark my words, the Pantians won’t acclimate here, they will have no joy here.  A new home for an entire race?  No, it’s not a new home, it an old haunted castle…” 

I shivered.  She noticed it, but misunderstood the reason. 

“Don’t worry,” she said, smiling sadly.  “I’m fine.  Just trying to express my thoughts and forebodings.  I see you don’t understand me, but try to think what kind of foreboding I have if the words that keep slipping off my tongue are ‘necrotic’ and ‘haunting’…”

She started pacing the mess hall again, stopped in front of me and continued,

“On the other hand, the planet’s parameters are great, very rare.  Biological activity is near zero, atmosphere, hydrosphere, climate, thermal balance–everything seems made to order for Project Ark.  But I am willing to bet my life that none of the project organizers have been here, and if they had, they didn’t have the nose for life…  They are all old wolves, covered in scars, survived all kinds of hell…  Their nose for physical danger is great!  But for this…”  She snapped her fingers a few times and even cringed, poor thing, with inability to express it.  “Well, what do I know, maybe those who came here did feel something was wrong, but how would they explain it to those who’ve never been here?  But do you understand me at least a little?” 

She looked at me point-blank with her green eyes, and I was trying to make a decision, and when I made the decision, I lied,

“Not entirely.  I mean, you’re right about some things…  The silence, the emptiness…”

“Nope,” she said, “even you don’t understand.  Oh well, enough of that.”  She perched herself on the table opposite from me, and suddenly she poked my cheek with her finger and laughed.  “I spat it all out, and it feels better all of a sudden.  Komov isn’t exactly a good conversationalist, and it makes no sense to go to Vander with any of it; he’d throw me into the medical bay and leave me there to rot…” 

Her tension, and mine too, immediately abated, and the conversation turned into an easy chat.  I complained about yesterday’s troubles with robots, told her about Vadim swimming alone in an entire ocean, and asked how the quartermaster business was coming along.  Maika replied that they tentatively allocated four sites for camp grounds, good sites, too, and, other things being equal, any Pantian would happily live here his or her entire life, but since this business is doomed anyway, there’s really nothing to talk about.  I reminded Maika that she has always been a natural skeptic and her skepticism hasn’t always been justified.  Maika objected saying that it wasn’t her natural skepticism, but rather, the skepticism of nature and that I am too young and inexperienced and should stay at tension before her.  To that, I said that a truly experienced person would never argue with a robotic technician, for the robotech is the axis around which the ship’s life revolves.  Maika noted that most axes of rotation are in fact imaginary lines, no more than a set of coordinates satisfying certain conditions…  Then we proceeded to an argument about whether there is a difference between “axis of rotation” and “axis of revolution”, so we chatted, and it probably looked really cute on the outside; I don’t know what Maika was thinking about at the time, but I kept wondering if I should run a diagnostic of the ship’s security systems right away.  However, those systems were designed to protect against a biological danger, and it was impossible to tell if they are fit against a necrotic one, but God takes care of those who take care of themselves, water doesn’t flow under a flat stone, and, generally speaking, the slower you go, the farther you get. 

Anyway, when Maika started yawning and complaining of lack of sleep, I sent her to take a nap before dinner and went straight to the library, found a dictionary, and looked up the meaning of the word “necrotic”.  The meaning made a heavy impression, so I decided to start the diagnostic immediately.  Before that, however, I ran by the control room to look at the kids working and found Vanderhuse arranging the pages of his inspection report into a neat pile.  “I’ll take it to Komov,” he told me when he saw me, “then have Maika take a look, and then we’ll discus it, what do you think?  Do you want me to call you in as well?”  I said by all means and told him I’d be in the security bay.  He looked at me curiously, but didn’t say anything and left. 

I got called in about two hours later.  Vanderhuse told me over the intercom that the report has been reviewed by all members of the commission and asked me if I wanted to read it.  I really wanted to, but I was in the middle of a diagnostic, the guard/scout’s entrails scattered all over the place, time pressure mounting, so I told him that I may not be able to read it, but will definitely come in for the discussion as soon as I am done.  “I’ve got about an hour of work left,” I said, “so eat dinner without me.” 

By the time I got to the mess hall, the dinner was over and the discussion had begun.  I got myself some soup, sat off to the side, and started listening. 

“I can’t accept the meteorite theory without a qualification,” Vanderhuse was saying emphatically.  “The Pelicans are very well protected against meteorite hazard.  The ship would simply evade.”

“I am not arguing,” Komov replied, looking at the table and cringing with disgust.  “But if we assume that the meteorite attack occurred at the moment when the ship left the hyperspace–”

“Yes, of course,” Vanderhuse agreed.  “In that case, of course.  But the probability–”

“You surprise me, Jacob.  The ship’s primary engine is completely destroyed.  A huge through and through hole with traces of thermal impact.  In my opinion, any reasonable person would have to conclude it could have been only a meteorite.” 

Vanderhuse looked very unhappy. 

“Well…  Okay,” he said.  “Let’s have it your way…  You just don’t understand, Gennady, you’re not a pilot…  You just don’t understand how unlikely it is.  In the precise moment the ship exited the hyperspace, a large meteorite of a huge energy…  I don’t know what to compare it to in terms of its low probability!”

“All right.  What do you propose?”

Vanderhuse looked around to garner support and having found none, said,

“Okay, let’s leave it at that.  But I would insist on stating it in a speculative key.  Say, ‘the facts stated above led us to assume’–”

“To conclude,” Komov corrected. 

“To conclude?” Vanderhuse frowned.  “No, Gennady, what conclusion can there be?  It’s just an assumption!  So, ‘led us to assume that the ship was struck by a meteorite at the moment of exiting from hyperspace’.  Like that.  I propose we agree on this.” 

For a few seconds, Komov thought, his teeth clenched, then said,

“Agreed.  On to the next correction.” 

“Wait a minute,” Vanderhuse said.  “What about you, Maika?”

Maika shrugged. 

“Honestly, I don’t see a difference.  Overall, I agree.”

“Next correction,” Komov said impatiently.  “We don’t need to ask the base what to do with the remains.  This has nothing to do with the investigation.  We’ll have to send a separate message saying that the pilots’ remains have been placed in containers, cast into protective plastic, and will be delivered to the base shortly.” 

“However–” Vanderhuse started with a brain-scattered look about him.

“I’ll do it tomorrow,” Komov interrupted.  “Myself.”

“Perhaps we should bury them here?” Maika said quietly.

“I have no objection,” Komov said immediately.  “But as a general rule, in these situations the remains are transported to Earth…  What?” he turned to Vanderhuse.

Vanderhuse, with his mouth open, shook his head and said,

“Nothing.”

“Long story short,” Komov said, “I suggest we exclude this part from the report.  Entirely.  Do you agree, Jacob?” 

“I think so,” Vanderhuse said.  “What about you, Maika?”

Maika was undecided, and I understood her.  It was all happening is a terribly businesslike manner.  Not that I know how it should happen, but I think these things can’t be decided by a majority vote. 

“Excellent,” Komov said, as if nothing had happened.  “Now on to the causes and circumstances of the pilots’ deaths.  The autopsy report and photos are satisfactory, and as to the formulation, I propose, ‘The positions of the bodies suggest that the pilots’ deaths resulted from the ship’s collision with the planet’s surface.  The man died first, after erasing the log.  The woman remained alive for some time and attempted to abandon ship.  She died in the airlock.’  And then as drafted.” 

“Hmm,” Vanderhuse said doubtfully.  “Isn’t it a little too certain, Gennady?  If we look at the autopsy report, against which you had no objection, the poor woman was unable to crawl her way to the airlock.”

“Nevertheless, that’s where she ended up,” Komov said coldly. 

“But it is precisely this fact–” Vanderhuse started movingly, his hands to his chest.

“Look, Jacob,” Komov said.  No one knows what a person can do under exceptional circumstances.  Especially a woman.  Recall the story of Martha Priestly.  Recall the story of Kolesnichenko.  And think about history in general, Jacob.” 

Silence fell.  Vanderhuse sat back, looking unhappy and ruthlessly pulling his sideburns. 

“I am not surprised she made it to the airlock,” Maika said.  “But there’s something I don’t understand.  Why did he erase the log?  There was an impact, the man is dying…” 

“Well, that’s actually…” Vanderhuse said tentatively, “That’s actually possible.  In agony, his hands thrashed all over the console, so he turned the key accidentally by brushing against it…” 

“The question of the log,” Komov said, “has been entered into the list of facts of special importance.  Personally, I think this mystery will never be solved.  If it is indeed a mystery, rather than a random occurrence.  On to the next.”  He quickly shuffled the sheets of paper around.  “Actually, I have no further suggestions.  The terrestrial micro-flora and micro-fauna apparently died out; we found no traces of either…  What else…  Personal papers.  It’s not our business to review them, also their shape is such that we could easily destroy them.  Tomorrow, I’ll conserve them and bring them here…  Ah!  Popov, there’s something here that’s in your department.  Are you familiar with robotic equipment of type Pelican ships? 

“Yes, of course,” I said, quickly pushing my plate aside. 

“If you don’t mind,” he threw a sheet of paper my way, “here’s the list of all robotic mechanisms found.  Check and see if any is missing.” 

I looked at the inventory.  Everyone looked at me in anticipation. 

“Yes,” I said, “it appears everything is in place.  Even the initial scouts are all present; usually, some are missing…  And here’s something I don’t understand.  What does it mean: ‘a repair robot reconfigured into a sewing device’?”

“Jacob, explain,”  Komov commanded. 

Vanderhuse looked up and moved forward his jaw. 

“You see, Stas,” he said, as if lost in thought, “It’s hard to explain.  It’s actually a repair robot reconfigured into a sewing device.  A device that sews, you see?  One of them, the woman probably, had an unusual hobby.”

“Aha,” I said, surprised.  “But it’s definitely a repair robot?” 

“No doubt about it,” Vanderhuse said assuredly. 

“In that case, it’s the full set,” I said, returning the inventory to Komov.  “Spectacularly full.  They probably haven’t landed on a single heavy planet.”

“Thank you,” Komov said.  “When the final report is ready, I would like you to sign off on the loss of surviving robotic machinery.” 

“But there is no loss,” I objected. 

Komov ignored me, and Vanderhuse explained,

“This is just a section title, Loss of Surviving Robotic Machinery.  You will state your conclusion that there was no loss.” 

“So,” Komov said collecting the sheets of paper into a pile.  “Now I’d like to ask you, Jacob, to finalize this, then we’ll sign it and it can go out.  And now, unless someone has any additional considerations, I should go.” 

No additional considerations were apparent, so he left.  Vanderhuse sighed heavily, got up, weighed the sheaf of paper in the palm of his hand, looked at us throwing his had back, and also departed. 

“Vander is seriously unhappy,” I noted putting some meat on my plate. 

“I am unhappy, too,” Maika said.  “That was really undignified.  I can’t explain; maybe I am being childish and naïve…  But there has to be…  A minute of silence, I suppose…  But no, let’s get the wheels spinning; position of remains, loss of robotic machinery, topographic parameters…  Damn!  Like lab practice at school…”

I was in complete agreement. 

“Komov can’t let anyone talk!” she continued angrily.  “To him, it’s all clear, even obvious, but in reality, it’s not clear at all.  The meteorite and especially the log.  And I don’t believe him when he says it’s clear!  He’s up to something, and Vander understands that, only he doesn’t know what to do about it…  Or maybe he thinks it’s all immaterial…”

“Maybe it is indeed immaterial…”  I mumbled undecidedly. 

“I am not saying it’s material!” Maika objected.  “I just don’t like the way Komov behaves.  I don’t understand him.  And I don’t like him!  Everybody’s been bending my ears about him, and I keep walking around counting remaining days of working with him…  I will never ever work with him again!”

“Well, it’s not going to be long,” I said in a reconciling tone.  “About twenty days…”

At that, we separated.  Maika went to work on some of her measurements and quartermaster maps, and I went to the control room, where a small surprise was waiting for me: Tom reported that the foundation has been laid completely and asked to inspect and accept.  I put on a parka and ran over to the construction site.

The sun has already set, the twilight was darkening.  The twilight is strange here; dark violet, like watered-down ink.  There is no moon, but aurora borealis is shining, and a great one at that!  Giant banners of colored light silently flap over the black ocean, fold and unfold, tremble and quiver, as if in the wind, change colors from white to green to pink, and suddenly go out, leaving behind dim colored spots, but then light up again, and then the stars disappear, the twilight disappears, everything takes on unnatural, but very clear, colors; the fog above the swamp turns red and blue, the iceberg glows like a piece of amber, and along the beach, the greenish shadows quickly move back and forth. 

Energetically rubbing my freezing cheeks and nose, I was inspecting the completed foundations in this wondrous light.  Tom was following me around, solicitously recalling the relevant figures, and when aurora borealis went out, he equally solicitously turned on the floodlights.  It was, as usual, dead quiet, only frozen sand crunching under the heels of my boots. Then I heard voices; Maika and Vanderhuse came out to get some fresh air and to enjoy the celestial spectacle.  Maika liked aurora borealis a lot; it was the only thing she liked on this planet.  I was far away from the ship, about hundred meters, so I couldn’t see them, but I could hear their voices very well.  At first, however, I barely listened.  Maika was saying something about the damaged treetops, and Vanderhuse hummed something about the erosion of the onboard quasi-organics; they seemed to discuss the causes and circumstances of Pelican’s demise. 

There was something strange in their conversation.  Again, at first I really wasn’t listening and only after a while it occurred to me what it is.  They seemed to talk without listening to each other.  For example, Vanderhuse would say, “One planetary engine survived, otherwise they would be unable to maneuver through the atmosphere…”  Maika, meanwhile, was onto something else, “No, Jacob, it’s at least ten years, if not fifteen.  Look at these knobs…” 

I came down into one of the foundations to inspect the bottom, and when I came back up, the conversation was a little more cohesive, but less understandable.  They seemed to rehearse some sort of play.

“And what’s this?” Maika asked. 

“I’d say it’s a toy,” Vanderhuse answered.

“I’d say so too.  But why is it here?”

“A hobby.  Nothing surprising, a fairly common hobby.”

It looked a lot like our passing time at the base in the anticipation of regrouping.  Vadim, for example, could suddenly shout so that the entire canteen would hear, “Captain!  I have decided to detach the tail and dive into the hyperspace!”, and some other clown would immediately shout back, “Good decision, captain!  Don’t forget the head!”  And so on.

However, this strange conversation ended soon.  I clearly heard the hatch membrane pop, and it was quiet again.  I inspected the last foundation, praised Tom for good work, and told him to switch Jack over to the next stage.  The flashes abated, and in the ensuing darkness, nothing was visible except my robots’ onboard lights.  I felt like the tip of my nose was about to freeze solid and fall off, so I raced to the ship, felt for the membrane, and jumped into the airlock.  The airlock is wonderful.  It is one of the most wonderful rooms on the ship.  It must be because the airlock is the first room, and it gives you a sweet feeling of being home; you are back into your own, warm, protected, out of the alien, icy, threatening.  From darkness into light.  I threw off the parka and, grunting and rubbing the palms of my hands against each other in stride, went into the control room. 

Vanderhuse was already there, his papers all around him, his head mournfully bowed, writing the final version of the report.  The encryption machine energetically made whirring noises under his fingertips. 

“My guys finished the foundation,” I bragged. 

“Uh-huh,” Vanderhuse replied.

“So what was it about toys you were saying?”  I asked. 

“Toys…” Vanderhuse repeated absent-mindedly.  “Toys?” he asked again, without stopping the whirring of the machine.  “Oh, toys…”  He put away a sheet of paper and picked up another one. 

I waited a little and reminded,

“So what was it about toys?” 

“What was it about toys…” Vanderhuse repeated with an emphasis and looked up at me.  “Is that how you put it?  That, you see…  Well, who knows what those toys are.  Over there, on the Pelican…  Excuse me, Stas, can I finish first, what do you think?”

I tiptoed to my console, watched Jack for a little while (he was beginning to raise the walls of a weather observation station), and then, still tiptoeing, walked out of the control room and went to see Maika. 

Every imaginable light in her room was on, and she was sitting cross-legged on her bed, also very busy.  On her desk, on her bed, all over the floor, there were large-format maps, mapping sketches, aerial photographs, drawings and notes, and Maika was looking at one thing at a time, making notes, sometimes grabbing a magnifying glass and sometimes, the bottle of juice that was sitting on the chair close by.  After watching her for a while, I picked a moment when the juice bottle left the chair, and plopped onto the chair myself, so when Maika, without looking, shoved the bottle back, she put it right into my hand. 

“Thanks,” I said and took a sip. 

Maika looked up. 

“Ah, it’s you,” she said with displeasure.  “What do you need?”

“Just thought I’d stop by,” I said jovially.  “Had a nice walk outside?”

“Didn’t even think about it,” she objected, taking the bottle away from me.  “Just sitting here slaving away; didn’t do anything last night, so all kinds of stuff piled up…  Forget the walks!” 

She handed the bottle back to me, I automatically took a sip, vaguely worried about something, and then it dawned on me.  Maika was wearing home clothes, her favorite fuzzy sweater and a pair of shorts; there was a bandanna on her head, and her hair under it was wet. 

“Did you just take a shower?” I asked stupidly. 

She answered something, but I already understood everything.  I got up.  I carefully put the bottle onto the seat.  I mumbled something, I don’t remember what exactly.  I somehow made it to the hallway, then to my room, turned off the overhead light for whatever reason, turned on the nightlight for whatever reason, laid down on the bed and turned to face the wall.  I was shaking again.  I remember fragments of thoughts whirling in my head, sounding like, “Now it’s all lost, finally and irreversibly”.  I caught myself trying to listen up.  And I was hearing something again, something untoward.  At that point, I got up with a start, got a sleeping pill and put it under my tongue.  Then I laid down again.  Lizards stomped along on the walls, the shaded ceiling rotated slowly, the nightlight sometimes almost went out and sometimes shone unbearably brightly, the dying flies desperately buzzed in the corners.  I think at some point, Maika came in, looked at me with concern, covered me with something and disappeared, and then Vadim appeared, sat down at my feet, and said angrily, “Why are you still in bed?  The whole commission is expecting you, and you decided to lie down.”  “Speak louder,” Ninon said to him, “there’s something wrong with his ears, he can’t hear you.”  I made a stone face and said that it was all nonsense.  I got up, and we all entered the crashed Pelican; all organics inside dissipated, there was a sharp ammonia smell, just like the other day in the hallway.  But it wasn’t really the Pelican, it looked more like the construction site, the kids were working on something, the landing strip shone wonderfully in the sunlight, and I was afraid that Tom would run over the two mummies that laid across the way; well, everyone thought they were mummies, but they actually were Komov and Vanderhuse, only it was important that no one realized that, because they talked and only I heard them.  But there is no way to get away from Maika.  “Can’t you see he’s not well?” she dais angrily and covered my nose and mouth with a handkerchief wetted in ammonia spirits.  I almost suffocated, shook my head and sat up. 

My eyes were open, and in the glow of the nightlight, I immediately saw a man in front of me.  He stood very close to the bed, leaning forward and intently looking me in the face.  In the pale light, he looked dark, almost black; a nightmarish figure bent off to one side, faceless, vague, void of sharp outline; the light was similarly vaguely reflecting off his chest and shoulder. 

Already knowing how this is going to end, I extended my hand toward him, and my hand went right through him, as if he was made of air; he shook, started to melt, and in a few seconds disappeared without a trace.  I leaned back and closed my eyes.  Do you know that the king of Algiers has a bump under his very nose?  Under his very nose…  I was drenched in sweat, and it was so stuffy that I almost suffocated.   

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