The Little One (04/09)

The Little One

By Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky

Chapter Four
Ghosts and Humans

I woke up late, with a heavy head and a solid intent to see Vanderhuse in private right after breakfast and tell him everything.  It seems to me, I never felt so unhappy in my entire life.  It was all over for me, so I didn’t even bother with calisthenics, but simply took a fortified ionic shower and shuffled to the mess hall.  On the threshold, I realized that last night, what with all my troubles, I forgot to give the cook instructions for breakfast, and that did me in completely.  I mumbled some vague greeting and, feeling that I am red as a boiled lobster with pain and shame, I sat into my chair and desolately looked over the table, trying not to meet anyone’s gaze.  The meal was, to put it mildly, reminiscent of a monastery.  Everyone was having bread and milk.  Vanderhuse salted his piece.  Maika buttered hers.  Komov chewed on his dry, without even touching the milk.

I had absolutely no appetite; I was downright scared to think of chewing on something.  I got a glass of milk, took a sip.  In my peripheral vision, I saw that Maika was looking at me; she clearly wanted to ask what was happening to me and all that.  But she didn’t, and Vanderhuse made a long speech about how good for you, health-wise, a “light” day was and how good for us was this breakfast.  He explained to us in detail what fasting meant and spoke respectfully of the early Christians who were religious about it.  He also told us about Lent and its Russian version, Maslenitsa, but soon he realized that he is getting too vivid describing crepes with caviar, stopped talking, and, quite perturbed, started to play with sideburns.  The conversation just wouldn’t start.  I was worried about myself, Maika was worried about me.  As to Komov, he, just like yesterday, seemed out of place.  His eyes were red; he mostly looked at the table in front of him, but every now and then, he would suddenly lift up his head and look around, as if someone just called out his name.  He made a huge mess of breadcrumbs all around him and kept throwing crumbs around, so I really wanted to slap him on the wrist like a toddler.  So there we were, a sad company, and poor Vanderhuse was going out of his way trying to cheer us up.

He was working his way through a long and boring story, which he was making up as he went and couldn’t quite make it up completely, when Komov made a strange muffled sound, as if a dry piece of bread blocked his throat.  I looked at him across the table and got scared.  Komov sat up straight, both hands grabbing at the edge of the table, his red eyes bulged out of their sockets; he was looking at something behind me and was quickly getting pale.  I turned around.  I froze.  Standing by the wall, between the film library and the chess table, was my ghost from last night.

Now I could see him very clearly.  It was a man, well, a humanoid in any case, small, skinny, completely naked.  His skin was dark, almost black, and glistened as if oiled.  His face I either didn’t see or couldn’t remember seeing, but it immediately occurred to me, just like it did in my nightmare, that the little man was bent off to one side and sort of vague.  And then, the eyes; large, dark, completely motionless, blind, like a statue’s.

“There he is!  Over there!”  Komov shouted.

His finger was pointing a different way, and over there, as I was watching it, a new figure appeared out of the thin air.  It was the same motionless glistening ghost, but now it froze in the middle of a run, like a photograph of a starting sprinter.  In the same second, Maika threw herself under his feet.  A chair flew aside and made a racket, Maika with a militant scream flew through the ghost and bumped into a videophone screen, I saw the ghost shiver and melt away, and Komov was already screaming,

“The door!  The door!”

I looked and saw someone small, white and matte, like the mess hall’s wall, bent over in a silent run, slip through the doorway and disappear in the hallway.  And then I rushed after him.

I am ashamed to think about it now, but at the time, I didn’t care what this creature was, where it came from, or why it is here; I felt only an immense relief, I realized that effective immediately, all my nightmares and fears were over for good, and I also felt a passionate desire to catch up, grab, immobilize, and bring back.

In the doorway, I collided with Komov, knocked him off his feet, stumbled over him, ran a few steps on all fours.  The hallway was empty, but there was the familiar sharp smell of ammonia; Komov was shouting something from behind, there was a drumming sound of footsteps; I got up, ran through the airlock, dove into the hatch that didn’t yet have a chance to grow a membrane, and flew out into the lilac sunlight.

I immediately saw him.  He was running toward the construction site, running lightly, barely touching the frozen sand with his bare feet; he still looked bent off to one side and the movements of his elbows were really strange as he ran, but now he wasn’t dark, nor matte white, but light lilac, and the sun reflected off his skinny shoulders and sides.  He ran straight at my robots, and I slowed down thinking that he was about to get scared and turn right or left, but he didn’t get scared; he ran ten paces away from Tom, and I couldn’t believe my eyes when the majestic fool politely signaled to him the usual “waiting for instructions”.

“To the swamp!” Maika’s voice, short of breath, shouted behind me.  “Run him toward the swamp!”

The little local, however, already was heading toward the swamp.  I had to admit, he knew how to run, and the distance between us was closing very slowly.  The wind was whistling in my ears, Komov was shouting something from afar, but Maika was decidedly louder.

“Off to the left!” she screamed excitedly.

I took off slightly to the left, got onto the landing strip, a completed section, plain, with a convenient hard surface, and things immediately improved: I started gaining.  “You aren’t going anywhere,” I kept thinking to myself.  “No, my friend, you aren’t going anywhere now.  You will answer for everything…”  I kept watching his moving shoulder blades, his bare legs, the small clouds of steam rising from behind his shoulder.  I was gaining and feeling very excited.  The landing strip was about to end, but there was barely hundred paces left to the gray shroud of fog above the swamp, and I was gaining.

When he ran to the edge of the swamp, to the sad-looking bunches of dwarf reeds, he stopped.  For a few seconds, he stood as if undecided, then looked at me over his shoulder, and I saw his large dark eyes again, only they weren’t motionless, just the opposite, very lively and seemingly amused.  Suddenly, he squatted, hugged his legs, and rolled forward.  I didn’t understand right away what happened.  A moment ago, there was a strange little man, maybe not a man, but he definitely looked like one, and now, no man in sight, but instead, there is a ridiculous gray ball rolling through the bog throwing around dirt and muddy water.  And quickly!  I haven’t made it to the edge yet, but he already disappeared into the fog, and I could only hear rustles, splashes, and high-pitched whistles getting progressively quieter behind the grayish shroud.

Maika stomped over and stopped, breathing hard.

“He got away,” she said unhappily.

“He got away,” I said.

For a few seconds, we stood there, peering through the opaque wisps of fog.  Then Maika wiped sweat from her forehead and said,

“I got away from the old woman, I got away from the old man-”

“And from you, quartermaster, I will get away even more easily,” I added and looked around.

So.  The fools were running, and the smart ones, as you can surmise, stood there and watched.  Maika and I were on our own.  The little figures of Komov and Vanderhuse were visible next to the ship.

“Nice run,” Maika said, also looking at the ship.  “At least three kilometers, what do you think, captain?”

“I agree with you, captain,” I replied.

“Listen,” Maika said thoughtfully.  “Could we have imagined it all?”

I grabbed her by the shoulders.  The feelings of freedom, health, excitement, the anticipation of bright prospects have exploded inside me.

“What do you know about it, newbie?”  I screamed, almost crying with happiness and shaking her with all my might.  “What do you know about hallucinations?  And you really don’t have to know!  Live happily and don’t ever think about anything of the sort!”

Maika just blinked her eyes at me, not understanding; she tried to get out of my grip, and I shook her for the last time, threw a hand around her shoulders and pulled her toward the ship.

“Wait,” Maika weakly tried to fight me off, “What are you doing, really?  Let me go, what’s with the tender gestures?”

“Let’s go, okay?”  I kept repeating.  “Let’s go!  We’re about to get our asses handed to us by the favorite student of Dr. Mboga.  I have a feeling we shouldn’t have run, there was no reason to…”

Maika broke free, stood there for a second, then squatted, lowered her head, hugged her legs, and leaned forward.

“No,” she said straightening up again.  “I don’t get that.”

“There’s no need to,” I said.  “Komov will explain everything.  First he’ll call us names, we blew his contact, but then he’ll explain…”

“It’s cold!” Maika said, jumping up.  “Let’s run!”

And we ran.  My first excitement has abated, and I began to think about what actually happened.  It looks like the planet is inhabited!  And very much so: large humanoid creatures, possibly sentient, possibly even civilized…

“Stas,” Maika said on the run, “Could it have been a Pantian?”

“Where would he come from?” I marveled.

“Well…  Who knows…  We don’t know all the details of the project, do we?  Maybe transportation has already commenced.”

“No,” I said.  “He didn’t look like a Pantian.  Pantians are tall and red-skinned…  And they wear clothes, too, and that one was completely naked!”

We stopped in front of the hatch, and I let Maika go first.

“Brutal!” she said, rubbing her shoulders.  “Well, shall we go get our suppositories?”

“Half meter long,” I said.

“Well-oiled,” Maika said.

“Seventy-five millimeters in diameter,” I said.

We tiptoed into the control room, but we were unable to remain unnoticed.  We were expected.  Komov was pacing the control room, his hands clasped behind his back, while Vanderhuse, peering into nowhere with his jaw stuck forward, was spooling his sideburns: the right one on the right index finger, the left one, on the left.  When Komov saw us, he stopped, but Maika left him no chance to speak.

“He got away,” she reported in a businesslike voice.  “Straight through the swamp, and in a very unusual way-”

“Be quiet,” Komov interrupted her.

“Well, it’s about to begin,” I thought, getting ready for arguing my way out of it.  And I was wrong.  Komov told us to sit down, sat down himself, and spoke directly to me,

“I am listening, Popov.  Tell me everything.  Down to the last detail.”

Interestingly, I wasn’t even surprised.  I thought the question was quite natural.  So I told him everything: the rustles, the smells, the child’s cries, the woman’s screams, the strange dialog last night, and the black ghost in the wee hours of this morning.  Maika listened with her mouth open, Vanderhuse frowned and shook his head, and Komov peered into my face; his squinting gaze was piecing and cold yet again, he kept biting his lower lip, and every once in a while, he would interlace his fingers, cracking his knuckles.  When I finished, silence set in.  Then Komov asked,

“Are you sure it was a child crying?”

“Um, yes…  Sounded like it anyway…”

Vanderhuse loudly took a deep breath and gave the armrest of his chair a few slight slaps.

“And you suffered through it all!”  Maika said fearfully.  “Poor thing!”

“I have to tell you, Stas-” Vanderhuse began significantly, but Komov interrupted him,

“And what about the rocks?”

“What do you mean, rocks?”  I didn’t understand.

“Where did the rocks come from?”

“You mean, at the construction site?  The robots must have brought them.  What does it have to do with anything?”

“Where would the robots get the rocks?”

“Well–”  I started and stopped.  Where indeed?

“It’s sandy beaches all over,” Komov went on.  “Not a single pebble.  The robots haven’t left the site.  So why are there rocks on the landing strip?  And twigs?”  He looked at us and smirked.  “Those are rhetorical questions, of course.  I can add that at the ship’s tail, right under the beacon, there is a scattering of rocks.  A very curious scattering.  I can also add-  I’m sorry, were you finished, Stas?  Thank you.  Now listen to what happened to me.”

Komov, it turns out, also had a hard time.  His trials, however, were of a slightly different nature.  It was an intelligence test.  The second day after arrival, during the release of Pantian fish into the lake, he saw an unusual bright-red spot twenty paces away; it dissolved and disappeared before he decided to come closer.  The following day, he found a dead fish, clearly one those released the day before, on a hilltop.  In the early morning of the fourth day, he woke up distinctly feeling alien presence in his room.  No alien was apparent, but he thought he heard the popping sound of the hatch membrane bursting.  When he stepped out of the ship, he found a scattering of rocks near the ship’s tail and rocks and twigs all over the construction site.  After talking to me, he was convinced that something wrong was going on around the ship.  He was almost positive that the search groups overlooked some extremely important environmental factor, and only his deep-seated belief that intelligent life would be impossible to overlook kept him from taking drastic measures.  He made sure, however, that our group’s operating area didn’t become the target of invasion by the “curious passerby”.  This is why he kept trying to word the crash investigation report in a way that would leave no room for ambiguity.  Meanwhile, my being both agitated and depressed confirmed his suspicions that the unknown beings are capable of entering the ship.  He set out to wait for another entry, and it occurred this morning.

“So here are the conclusions,” he declared, as if lecturing.  “At least this area of the planet, contrary to the results of preliminary research, is inhabited by large vertebrates, and there are reasons to believe that those beings are sentient.  Looks like they are troglodytes who adapted to life in underground cavities.  Based on what we just witnessed, the average aborigine is anatomically similar to a human being, possesses outstanding mimicry skills and possibly the related capability to produce phantoms for protection by distraction.  I have to note that among large vertebrates, this capability has been noted only among a few species of rodents on Pandora; on Earth, only cephalopods possess it.  I must also emphasize that in spite of those non-human and even non-humanoid skills, the aborigines are unusually close to humans not only anatomically, but physiologically and specifically neurologically.  That’s it.”

“What do you mean, that’s it?”  I exclaimed in fear.  “What about those voices I heard?  Were they hallucinations after all?”

Komov smirked.

“Calm down, Stas,” he said.  “You are fine.  Your ‘voices’ are very easy to explain if we assume that the structure of their vocal apparatus is similar to ours.  The similarity of vocal apparatus, plus the imitation capacity, plus phenomenal phonetic memory…”

“Wait,” Maika said.  “I understand they could listen into our conversations, but what about the woman’s voice?”

Komov nodded.

“Indeed, we have to assume they were present during the agony.”

Maika whistled.

“Way too convoluted…” she mumbled doubtfully.

“Feel free to offer an alterative,” Komov objected coldly.  “Although we will know the names of the deceased fairly soon.  If the pilot’s name was Alexander-”

“Okay,” I said.  “But what about the crying child?”

“Well, are you sure it was a crying child?”

“What could be mistaken for it?”

Komov stared at me, pressed his finger against his upper lip, and suddenly uttered a series of muffled barking sounds.  Barking is the best way of describing it I can think of.

“What was it?” he asked.  “A dog?”

“Sounds like it,” I said respectfully.

“Meanwhile, it was a sentence in one of Leonidian languages.”

I was flattened.  So was Maika.  For a while, everyone was silent.  Clearly, everything was exactly the way he described.  Everything checked out, everything was very elegant, but…  It was a great pleasure to realize that all fears are over and that it was our group that got to discover another humanoid race.  But this discovery also meant a very abrupt change in our lives.  And not just our lives.  First, it was obvious that Project Ark is over.  The planet is occupied, so we’ll have to find another one for the Pantians.  Second, if it turns out that the locals are indeed sentient, we will probably be asked to leave immediately, and the Commission for Contacts will arrive to replace us.  All these considerations were obvious to others as well.  Vanderhuse, with a disappointed look about him, pulled on his sideburns and said,

“Why necessarily sentient?  So far there are no reasons to believe that they have to be sentient, what do you think, Gennady?”

“I am not saying they are sentient,” Komov objected.  “I am saying there are reasons to believe it to be the case.”

“What are those reasons anyway?”  Vanderhuse continued to get upset.  He really didn’t want to leave the place he just got used to.  It was a known weakness of his; he loved places he got used to.  “What are those reasons?  Except for their appearance-”

“It’s not just anatomy,” Komov said.  “The rocks under the beacon are laid out in some sort of order; it’s clearly a sign.  The rocks and twigs on the landing strip…  I don’t want to make any categorical claims, but it looks a lot like an attempt to establish a contact carried out by humanoids with a primitive culture.  Secret reconnaissance and simultaneously, either gifts or warnings…”

“Yes, looks like it,” Vanderhuse mumbled and went into a stupor.

The silence ensued; then, Maika asked quietly,

“And what are the reasons to believe that they are so close to us in terns of physiology and neurology?”

Komov nodded with satisfaction.

“Here, we also have only indirect evidence,” he said.  “But it’s solid.  First, the locals are capable of entering the ship.  The ship lets them in.  For comparison, allow me to remind you that neither Tagorans nor Pantians, in spite of their enormous resemblance to humans, would be able to walk through the hatch membrane.  The hatch simply wouldn’t open…”

At that point, I slapped myself on the forehead.

“Damn!  It means my robots were in perfect order!  The locals must have been running in front of Tom, and he stopped because he was afraid he would run over a human…  They must also consider Tom a living being, so they waved their arms at him and accidentally imitated the danger signal.  It’s a really simple gesture…”  I demonstrated.  “So that’s why the kids wanted to beat each other to the hull…  That’s how it must have happened…  And I just saw it with my own eyes, too; Tom reacted to the local the way he would to a human.”

“Meaning?” Komov asked quickly.

“Meaning that when the local entered his field of vision, Tom signaled, ‘Waiting for orders’.”

“This is a very valuable observation,” Komov said slowly.

Vanderhuse sighed heavily.

“Well,” Maika said, “that’s the end of Project Ark.  Pity.”

“So what’s going to happen now?”  I asked, addressing no one in particular.

No answer.  Komov picked up his notes; under them, there was a little voice recorder.

“My apologies,” he said with a charming smile.  “To avoid wasting time, I recorded our discussion.  Thank you for precisely formulated questions.  Stas, may I please ask you to encode all this and transmit by unscheduled impulse straight to the Center, copy to the base?”

“Poor Sidorov,” Vanderhuse said quietly.  Komov shot him a look and then buried his gaze in his notes.

Maika pushed away her chair.

“At any rate, my quartermaster duties here are over,” she said.  “I’ll go pack.”

“Just a minute,” Komov stopped her.  “There was a question of what’s going to happen.  I’d like to answer.  As a full member of the Commission for Contacts, I assume command.  I declare our operating area the zone of anticipated contact.  Jacob, please put together an appropriate radio message.  All work under Project Ark is to cease immediately.  Robots are to be deactivated and placed in the hull.  No one goes out of the ship without my permission.  The hunt with bloodhounds we had this morning already created certain difficulties for the contact.  Any new misunderstanding would be extremely undesirable.  So, Maya, please put the glider into the hangar.  Stas, please start working on the robots…”  He lifted a finger.  “But first, send out the recording of our discussion…”  He smiled and wanted to say something else, but the radio decoder started making its cracking sounds.

Vanderhuse extended his long hand, picked up the message printout, and read it.  His eyebrows lifted in surprise.

“Um,” he said.  “They seem to have heard us.  Do you happen to be an inductor, Gennady?”

He passed the printout to Komov.  Komov read it and his eyebrows lifted up in surprise as well.

“Now that I don’t understand,” he mumbled, dropped the printout on the table, and started pacing the control room, his hands folded behind his back.

I picked up the printout.  Maika excitedly breathed into my ear.  The message was unexpected indeed.

Urgent, null-comm.  From: Center / Commission for Contacts / Gorbovsky.  To: Project Ark / Base / Sidorov.  Immediately cease all work under the project.  Prepare for possible evacuation of all personnel and equipment.  Additionally, to COMCON Representative Komov:  The ER-2 operating area is hereby declared a the zone of anticipated contact.  You are in charge.  Gorbovsky.

“Wow!” Maika said admiringly.  “Gorbovsky rocks!”

Komov stopped and gave us a grave look.

“Please proceed to carrying out my directives.  Jacob, please find me a copy of our investigation report.”

He and Vanderhuse started poring over the report, Maika went to put the glider into the hangar, and I sat by the radio and began to encode our discussion.  However, in less than two minutes, the decoder started cracking again.  Komov pushed Vanderhuse out of his way and ran over to the radio.  Leaning over my shoulder, he greedily read the lines being printed out.

Urgent, null-comm.  From: Center / Commission for Contacts / Bader.  To: ER-2 / Captain Vanderhuse.  Urgently confirm finding the remains of two, I repeat, two bodies aboard the ship and the state of the ship’s log described in your investigation report.  Bader.

Komov threw the printout to Vanderhuse and bit his thumbnail.

“So that’s what it’s all about,” he said.  “Oh well…”  He turned to me.  “Stas, what are you doing right now?”

“Encodeing,” I replied gravely.  I wasn’t understanding a thing.

“Let me have that recorder,” he said.  “Let’s hold on to it for now.”  He put the recorder into his pocket and buttoned it.  “All right.  Jacob.  Confirm what they are asking.  Stas.  Transmit the confirmation.  And then, Jacob, I’d like to ask you…  You understand it better than I do.  So do me a favor, look through our onboard library, see what you can find about ship logs.

“I know everything there is to know about ship logs,” Vanderhuse objected unhappily.  “Just tell me what it is you’re interested in.”

“I don’t really know what it is I’m interested in.  I am interested in figuring out whether the log was erased accidentally or deliberately.  And if deliberately, then why.  You see, Bader is interested in that too…  Don’t be lazy, Jacob.  There have to be rules that require the destruction of ship logs.”

“There are no such rules,” Vanderhuse grumbled quietly, but left to do the favor anyway.

Komov sat down to write the confirmation, and I was trying to figure out what was happening, why such a panic was going on, and how the Center could doubt the crystal clear formulations of our investigation report.  They couldn’t possibly think that we confused human remains and those of a local and added in an extra body…  And, damn, how did Gorbovsky figure out what’s going on here?  My thinking wasn’t producing any results, so I desperately looked at my terminal screens where everything was so plain and clear and bitterly thought that a stupid man is, sadly, a lot like a robot.  Take me, for example, sitting around, carrying out my orders: they told me to encode, I encoded; they told me to stop, I stopped; but what exactly is going on, and why, and how it’s going to end, I have no idea.  Just like my Tom; right now he is working full-speed trying to carry out my orders and has no idea that in ten minutes I would be down there to get him and his whole crew into the hull, and his work will be for nothing, and even he won’t be necessary here…

Komov handed me the confirmation, I encoded it, sent it out and was about to move over to my console, but a call from the base came in.

“ER-2?” a low calm voice said.  “Sidorov here.”

“ER-2 here,” I replied immediately.  “Popov, the robot technician.  Who would you like to speak to?”

“Komov, please.”

Komov was already sitting in the chair next to me.

“I’m listening, Athos,” he said.

“So what’s happening over there?” Sidorov asked.

“Locals,” Komov said after a pause.

“Details, if you please,” Sidorov said.

“First of all, Athos, keep in mind,” Komov said, “that I don’t know and don’t understand how Gorbovsky found out about the locals.  We ourselves began to figure it out barely two hours ago.  I prepared some information for you, even started to encode it, but everything got so confusing that I have to ask you to be patient.  The old man Bader just gave me a grand idea…  So please be patient.”

“I see,” Sidorov said.  “But the fact of the locals’ existence is reliable?”

“Absolutely,” Komov said.

I heard Sidorov sigh.

“Oh well,” he said.  “There’s nothing to be done about it.  We’ll start all over again.”

“I’m sorry it turned out this way,” Komov said slowly.  “I’m really sorry.”

“Not a problem,” Sidorov said.  “We’ll survive this.”  He took a pause.  “So what are you going to do next?  Will you wait for a commission?”

“No.  I am starting today.  And I’d like to ask you to leave ER-2 and the crew at my disposal.”

“Sure thing,” Sidorov said.  “All right, I won’t keep you any longer.  If you need anything…”

“Thanks, Athos.  And don’t get upset; it’s going to be all right.”

“So we shall hope.”

They said goodbye.  Komov gnawed on his thumbnail, looked at me with some strange irritation, and started pacing the control room again.  I thought I understood what was happening.  Komov and Sidorov were old friends; they went to school together, worked together, but Komov was constantly getting lucky, while Sidorov was called “Athos the Loser” behind his back.  I don’t know why it happened that way.  Anyway, Komov must feel really awkward right now.  And Gorbovsky’s message made it look like Komov reported to the Center over Sidorov’s head…

I quietly moved over to my console and stopped the robots.  Komov was sitting at the table, gnawing on his thumbnail and staring into the scattered pages of his notes.  I asked his permission to go out.

“Why?” he perked up for a second, but quickly caught himself.  “Ah, the robots…  Yes, please.  But as soon as you’re done, come back right away.”

I shepherded the kids into the hull, deactivated them, strapped them in for an unexpected take-off, and stood by the hatch for a few seconds, looking at the empty construction site, at the white walls of the weather station that was not to be, at the iceberg, still perfectly ambivalent…  The planet seemed different now.  Something changed.  There was some purpose behind the fog, the low foliage, the rocky cliffs with lilac spots of snow.  The silence was still there, but the emptiness was gone, and that felt good.

I came back into the ship, peeked into the mess hall, where the supremely annoyed Vanderhuse was digging through the library, and, feeling overwhelmed, I went to Maika to get some consolation.  Maika rolled out a giant composite map all over the floor of her room and laid on it, a magnifying glass in her eye socket.  She didn’t even turn to look at me.

“I don’t get it,” she said angrily.  “There’s nowhere for them to live.  We’ve surveyed all possibly suitable locations.  They can’t live in the swamp, can they?”

“And why not?” I asked, sitting down.

Maika sat up with her legs crossed under her and looked at me through the magnifying glass.

“A humanoid cannot live in a swamp,” she said significantly.

“Why not?” I objected.  “On Earth, there were tribes that lived on lakes; they built structures on stilts…”

“If only those swamps had a single structure in them…” Maika said.

“What if they live underwater, like water spiders, in air bubbles?”

Maika pondered.

“Nah,” she said regretfully, “he’d be dirty, he’d track dirt into the ship…”

“What if they have a water-resistant layer on their skin?  Water-resistant and dirt-repelling…  Did you see him glisten?  And where did he disappear?  And that locomotion mode of his… why?”

That got the discussion started.  Under the pressure of multiple hypotheses that I advanced, Maika was forced to admit that theoretically, there was nothing that would prevent the locals from living in air bubbles, although she personally was inclined to agree with Komov, who thought the locals to be cave dwellers.  “If you only saw those ravines,” she was saying.  “That’s where we need to check…”  She started pointing out locations.  The locations looked unwelcoming even on the map; first, knolls overgrown with dwarf trees, then, foothills full of bottomless cracks, finally, the mountain ridge itself, wild and harsh, covered in snow, and beyond it, endless rocky flats, gloomy, completely lifeless, deep canyons cutting through.  This was a deep-frozen bitterly-cold world, a world of bristled-up minerals, and simply thinking of having to live here and walk barefoot on the sharp pebbles gave me goose bumps.

“Don’t get depressed,” Maika consoled me.  “I can show you the infrared scans; under this plateau, there are large pockets of underground warmth, so if they do live in caves, they probably are not suffering from cold.”  I immediately retorted: what do they eat, then?  “If there are cave-dwelling people,” Maika said, “there could be cave-dwelling animals, too.  Then, there are moss and mushrooms, plus, plants that do photosynthesis in infrared are conceivable, too.”  I imagined this life, this pitiful parody of what we think life is-continuous, yet anemic struggle for survival, monstrous sameness of experiences-and immediately started feeling very sorry for the locals.  So I proclaimed that taking care of this race has to be a noble and thankful task.  Maika objected; she thought it was a totally different deal; the Pantians were doomed, and were it not for us, they would simply disappear, their history ended.  As to the locals, it was not at all clear if they had any use for us.  It was possible that they were thriving without out attentions.

This was an old argument of ours.  In my opinion, the human race knows enough to judge what sort of development has good historical prospects and what doesn’t.  Maika doubts that.  She thinks we know very little.  We encountered twelve sentient races, including three non-humanoid ones.  What sort of relationship we have with those non-humanoids, even Gorbovsky himself can’t tell.  Have we made contact or not?  If we have, was it something mutually agreed upon or have we simply forced ourselves onto them?  Do they perceive us as brothers in intellect or as rare natural phenomenon, like unusual meteorites?  With humanoids, it’s all clear; of nine humanoid races, only three have agreed to have anything to do with us, and even then, the Leonidians, for example, generously share their information with us, while politely, but decisively, rejecting ours.  It seems obvious that quasi-organic mechanisms should be preferred to domesticated animals, but the Leonidians reject the mechanisms.  Why?  For a while, we argued about it, got confused, swapped viewpoints (Maika and I do that all the time), and finally, Maika proclaimed that it’s all nonsense.

“That’s not important.  Don’t you understand what the primary purpose of any contact is?” she asked.  “Don’t you understand why the human race aspires to make contacts for two hundred years now, overjoyed when the contacts are successful and saddened when it doesn’t work?”

I did, of course.

“It’s the study of intelligence,” I said.  “Research into the highest product of evolution.”

“This is correct in general,” Maika said, “but it’s only words, because in reality, we are interested not in the problem of intelligence in general, but that of our own, human intelligence; in other words, we are mostly interested in ourselves.  For fifty thousand years now, we have been trying to understand what we are, but this problem can’t be solved from within; it’s just as impossible as lift yourself off the ground by pulling your own hair.  We have to look at ourselves from the outside, through alien eyes, completely alien…”

“And why exactly do we have to do that?” I inquired aggressively.

“Because,” Maika said significantly, “the human race is becoming galactic.  How do you see the human race in a hundred years?”

“How do I see it?”  I shrugged.  “Probably just like you do…  The end of biological evolution, breaking through the galactic barrier, entry into the null-world…  Contact vision becoming common, realization of P-abstractions…”

“I am not asking you about your ideas about the human race’s achievements in a hundred years.  I am asking you, how do you see the human race itself in a hundred years?”

I blinked, confused.  I wasn’t understanding the difference.  Maika looked at me victoriously.

“Have you heard of Komov’s ideas?” she asked.  “Vertical progress and all that?”

“Vertical progress?”  I began to remember something.  “Wait…  It’s Borovik, Mikawa…  Right?”

She reached into her desk and started rummaging.

“While you were in the bar dancing with your dear Tanya, Komov got the guys together in the library…  Here,” she handed me a crystal recorder, “Listen!”

I reluctantly put the recorder on and started listening.  It was something like a lecture, delivered by Komov; the record started in the middle of a sentence.  Komov spoke slowly, simply, very accessibly, seemingly adapting to the audience.  He drew examples, made jokes.  What he was trying to get at was along the following lines.

The man of Earth has achieved everything he planned and is now becoming the man of the galaxy.  For a hundred thousand years, the human race was crawling along a narrow cave, losing its members in cave-ins and dead ends, but there was always a goal, the blue light at the end of the tunnel; and now we are out of the cave, spreading over the vast expanse of a plateau.  The plateau is vast indeed, so there are places to spread into.  But now we see that it is indeed a plateau, and above it is the sky.  The new dimension.  Yes, it feels good to be on the plateau, and we can spend as much time as we want realizing P-abstractions.  And it seems that nothing pushes us up, into the new dimension…  But the man of the galaxy isn’t just the man of Earth living in the vast expanses of the galaxy according to the laws of Earth.  He is something more.  He lives according to different laws, he has other goals.  And so far, we know neither those laws nor those goals.  So, in a nutshell, we need to formulate the ideals of the man of the galaxy.  The ideals of the man of Earth were defined for thousands of years, based on the experience of ancestors, including other life forms.  The ideals of the man of the galaxy, it seems, should be defined based on the experience of other galactic life forms, including different sentient beings that have lived in this galaxy.  So far, we don’t even know how to approach this problem, and we will need to actually solve it, and solve it in a way that would minimize possible losses and errors.  The human race never accepts challenges it is not ready to tackle.  This is true, but this is also painful…

The record ended just like it began, in the middle of a sentence.

To be honest, this went straight over my head.  What do the galactic ideals have to do with it all?  In my opinion, humans in space aren’t galactic beings.  I’d say just the opposite; they extend Earth into space, along with its comforts, its norms, its mores.  If you want the truth, to me, as well as to everyone I know, the ideal future is one where our tiny planet expands itself to the edges of the galaxy and then possibly beyond.  I proceeded to communicate all this to Maika, but we suddenly noticed that Vanderhuse was in the room and it looked like he’d been there for a while.  He stood leaning against the wall, playing with his lynx-like sideburns and looking at us with an absorbed and absent-minded camel-like expression on his face.  I stood up and pulled a chair for him.

“Thank you,” Vanderhuse said, “but I’d rather stand.”

“So what do you think about it?” Maika asked him forcefully.

“About what?”

“About vertical progress.”

Vanderhuse was silent for a while, then sighed and said,

“We don’t know who discovered water, but it definitely wasn’t the fish.”

We pondered this apprehensively.  Then Maika flashed a smile, lifted her index finger, and said,

“Indeed!”

“That’s not mine,” Vanderhuse objected melancholically.  “It’s a very old aphorism.  I like it a lot, but haven’t had a chance to use it in a conversation.”  He fell silent for a minute, then said, “About the ship log.  Imagine, there actually was a rule.”

“What log?” Maika asked.  “What does a log have to do with any of this?”

“Komov asked me to find rules that would require the destruction of ship logs,” Vanderhuse explained sadly.

“And?” we said simultaneously.

Vanderhuse fell silent again, then waved his hand.

“It’s a shame,” he said.  “There is one such rule.  Or, rather, there used to be.  In the old Code of Regulations.  It’s not in the new one.  How would I know?  I am not a historian.”

He contemplated for a while.  Maika fidgeted impatiently.

“Yes,” Vanderhuse said.  “Anyway, you were required to destroy all cosmographic maps and ship logs if you were to crash-land onto an unknown planet with sentient population, which is either non-humanoid or humanoid, but with a machine-building civilization.”

Maika and I looked at each other.

“That poor guy, Pelican’s captain,” Vanderhuse continued, “really must have been into the old rules.  That one is about two hundred years old; it was thought up at the dawn of interstellar navigation, for now reason other that trying to think of everything.  But can you actually think of everything?”  He sighed.  “One could guess that’s what happened to the log.  So Komov guessed…  And you know how he reacted when I told him?”

“No,” I said.  “How?”

“He nodded and moved on to the next thing,” Maika said.

Vanderhuse looked at her with admiration.

“Exactly!” he said.  “He nodded and he moved on.  If I were him, I’d walk around proud of my intuition for a whole day…”

“So what does it mean?”  Maika said.  “Either non-humanoids or humanoids, but with a machine-building civilization.  I don’t get it.  Do you?” she asked me.

I find Maika’s tendency to proudly announce her being clueless very amusing.  I actually do that myself quite often.

“They rode up to the Pelican on bicycles,” I said.

Maika waved me away.

“There is no machine-building civilization here,” she mumbled.  “And there are no non-humanoids, either…”

Komov’s voice boomed over the intercom,

“Vanderhuse, Glumova, Popov, please report to the control room.”

“So it begins!” Maika said, jumping on her feet.

We flocked into the control room.  Komov stood by the table packing a portable translator into a plastic case.  The switches indicated that the translator is connected to the ship’s mainframe computer.  Komov’s face was unusually troubled and somehow very human, without any of his usual, and irritating, icy concentration.

“I am going out now,” he announced.  “First exposure.  Jacob, you are in charge.  The most important thing is to ensure continuous observation on all sides and uninterrupted operation of the mainframe.  I would suggest a three-shift duty at the observation screens.  Maya, please take the first shift immediately.  Stas, I’ve left some messages to send out.  Please transmit them as soon as possible.  I think there is no need to explain why no one should leave the ship.  That’s it.  Let’s get down to business.”

I sat by the radio and got down to business.  Komov and Vanderhuse were quietly talking behind my back.  On the other end of the control room, Maika was setting up the observation screens.  I shuffled through the messages.  It looked like while we were debating philosophical problems, Komov had to deflect a barrage.  Almost all outgoing messages were replies.  The processing order, absent directions, I set myself.

From: ER-2 / Komov.  To: Center / Gorbovsky.  Thank you for your kind offer.  I would not dare to pull you away from more important things.  Will keep you posted.

From: ER-2 / Komov.  To: Center / Bader.  I must decline the offer of the head xenologist position for Project Ark-2.  I would recommend Amirajibi instead.

From: ER-2 / Komov.  To: Base / Sidorov.  I implore you, keep the volunteers away.

From: ER-2 / Komov.  To: European Press Center / Dombini.  The presence of your science correspondent here is premature.  Please contact the Operating Center at the Commission for Contacts for information.

And so on and so forth.  There were also five or so messages to the Central Informatorium.  Those I simply didn’t understand.

I was in the middle of this, when the decoder started cracking yet again.

“Where’s it from?” Komov asked me from the other end of the control room.  He was standing next to Maika and looking at the surroundings.

“Center, Department of History,” I read.

“Ah, finally!” Komov said and headed my way.

“To: Project Ark,” I continued to read. “Vanderhuse, Komov.  The ship you found, registration number such and such, is the Pilgrim, an expedition starship.  Registered on Deimos, departed on 2 January 144 on a free search mission to Zone C.  The last communication received on 6 May 148 from the Shadow Area.  Crew: Semyonova, Marie-Louise, and Semyonov, Alexander.  Effective 21 April 147, a passenger: Semyonov, Pierre.  The Pilgrim’s archive–”

There was more to this message, but suddenly, Komov laughed behind my back, and I, amazed, turned to face him.  Komov laughed, he glowed.

“I knew it!” he said triumphantly, while we stared at him with our mouths open.  “I knew it!  It’s a human!  Don’t you get it, guys?  It’s a human!”

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