The Little One (05/09)

The Little One

By Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky

Chapter Five
Humans and Non-humans

“Stand your stations!” Komov commanded excitedly, picked up his equipment, and departed.

I looked at Maika.  Maika stood in the middle of the control room, her eyes staring into the distance, her lips moving soundlessly; she was thinking.

I looked at Vanderhuse.  His eyebrows were raised high, sideburns sticking out sideways; for the first time in my memory, he didn’t look like a mammal, but rather, like a devil fish pulled out of water.  On the observation screen, Komov, loaded with equipment, briskly walked along the construction site toward the swamp.

“So!” Maika uttered.  “That’s why there were toys…”

“Why?” Vanderhuse inquired lively.

“He played with them,” Maika explained.

“Who?” Vanderhuse asked.  “Komov?”

“No.  Semyonov.”

“Semyonov?”  Vanderhuse asked, surprised.  “Um…  So what?”

“Semyonov junior,” I said impatiently.  “The passenger.  The baby.”

“What baby?”

“The Semyonovs’ baby!”  Maika said.  “Don’t you understand why they built a sewing device?  Baby caps, baby shirts, diapers…”

“Diapers!”  Vanderhuse repeated, stunned.  “So they had a baby!  Yes, yes, yes, yes!  And I keep wondering where they managed to pick up a passenger, and with the same last name, too!  I never even…  But of course!”

A radio call came in.  I automatically picked up.  It was Vadim.  He spoke quickly and quietly; he must have been afraid to be caught.

“What’s happening, Stas?  Only quickly, we’re about to take off…”

“There’s no way to tell it quickly,” I said unhappily.

“Well, try it.  Found the Wanderers’ ship?”

“What Wanderers?”  I was stunned.  “Where?”

“Well, those Wanderers Gorbovsky keeps looking for…”

“Who found it?”

“Well, you did!  Didn’t you?”  Suddenly, his voice changed.  “Checking settings,” he said officially.  “Turning off.”

“What have they found?”  Vanderhuse asked.  “What ship?”

I waved him off.

“That was just a call from the curious …  So he was born in April 47, and the last contact was in May 48…  Jacob, how often were they supposed to get in touch?”

“Monthly,” Vanderhuse said.  “If the ship is in the free search—”

“Wait a minute,” I said, “May, June…”

“Thirteen months,” Maika said.

I didn’t believe her at first and counted myself.

“Yep,” I said.

“Unbelievable, isn’t it?”

“What exactly is unbelievable?” Vanderhuse asked cautiously.

“When the ship crashed,” Maika said, “the baby was thirteen months old.  How did he survive?”

“The locals,” I said.  “Semoynov destroyed the ship’s log.  So he must have seen something…  Komov shouldn’t have barked at me!  It was a real baby cry!  Haven’t I heard one-year-olds cry before?  They recorded it, and when he grew up, they played it to him…”

“To record, they would have to have technology,” Maika said.

“Well, they could just remember it,” I said.  “This is unimportant.”

“Aha,” Vanderhuse said slowly.  “He saw non-humanoids or humanoids with machines.  That’s why he erased the log.  According to the regulations.”

“It doesn’t look like there’s a machine-building civilization here,” Maika said.

“So it’s non-humanoids…”  Suddenly, something occurred to me.  “Guys,” I said, “if there are non-humanoids here, then we’ve got something truly rare…  A human intermediary, don’t you see?  He is both human and non-human, both humanoid and non-humanoid!  It’s never happened before.  People didn’t even dream of it!”

I was ecstatic.  Maika was ecstatic too.  The prospects were bright to the point of blinding.  They were foggy and uncertain, but blindingly bright nevertheless.  It wasn’t just that for the first time in history a sure-footed contact with non-humanoids was possible.  The human race finally had a chance to look into a unique mirror, to open the door into a formerly inaccessible world of completely different psychology, so Komov’s vague ideas of vertical progress could finally gain some experimental foundation…

“Why would non-humanoids mess around with a human baby?”  Vanderhuse said thoughtfully.  “What do they get out of it and what do they know about it?”

The prospects immediately lost some of their brightness, but Maika immediately replied in a challenging tone,

“On Earth, there were cases when non-humanoids brought up human children.”

“Well, that’s on Earth!”  Vanderhuse said unhappily.

And he was right.  All known sentient non-humanoids were much farther away from humans than wolves, bears, or even octopi.  Kruger, a very capable researcher, claimed that the sentient slugs of Garrota consider humans and their technology to be a figment of their imagination rather than a material phenomenon…

“Be that as it may, he survived and grew up!”  Maika said.

And she was right, too.

I am a natural skeptic.  I don’t like being carried away into the realm of fantasy.  Unlike Maika.  But there was nothing else to assume.  A one-year-old baby.  An icy desert.  Alone.  It’s clear that he wouldn’t be able to survive on his own.  And on the other hand, the erased log.  What else was there to think?  Some humanoid aliens accidentally happened by, brought the baby up, and then left the planet?  Nonsense…

“What if he didn’t survive?”  Maika said.  “What if all that’s left of him is his cry and the voices of his parents?”

For a second, I felt like everything was ruined.  Maika always makes stuff up.  But then I thought of something.

“Then how does he get into the ship?  How does he order my robots around?  No, guys, either we found a close—well, not just close, identical—replica of the human race, or we’re dealing with a space Mowgli.  I don’t know which is more unbelievable.”

“Neither do I,” said Maika.

“Me too,” said Vanderhuse.

Suddenly, the loudspeaker said in Komov’s voice,

“Attention on board!  I am in position.  Look around carefully.  I can’t se much from where I am.  Have there been any messages?”

I looked at the receiver.

“A whole stack,” I said.

“A whole stack,” Vanderhuse said into the microphone.

“Stas, have you sent my messages out?”

“Um…  Not all of them yet,” I said and quickly sat down in front of the radio.

“Not all of them yet,” Vanderhuse announced into the microphone.

“You’re on a spaceship, not in a cattle barn!”  Komov announced.  “So quit philosophizing and do something useful.  Maya, keep watching the screens.  Forget everything else and watch the screens.  Popov, I want all of my messages to be sent within the next ten minutes.  Jacob, read my incoming messages…”

When I finished the transmission and looked around, everyone was busy.  Maika sat at the observation screens.  The panoramic screen showed Komov, a tiny figure at the very edge of the swamp; fog was swirling above the swamp, and there didn’t seem to be any other movement within seven kilometers of the ship.  Komov sat with his back to us; obviously, he expected our Mowgli to emerge from the swamp.  Maika slowly turned her head this way and that, looking at the surroundings; every now and then, she would zoom in on a suspicious segment, only to find a dry bush, or a lilac shadow of a sand dune on the glistening sand, or a blurred spot in the middle of a clump of dwarf trees.

Vanderhuse was mumbling in the microphone, “—possible psyche types colon sixteen N slash 32 Zeta or sixteen M, yes, as in Mother, slash thirty-one Epsilon—”  “Enough,” Komov would say, “Next.” “Earth, London, Cartwright.  Dear Gennady, I remind you again that you promised to review—”  “Enough.  Next.”  “Press center—”  “Enough.  Next.  Jacob, please only read those from the Center or the base.”  Pause.  Vanderhuse flips through the messages.  “Center, Bader.  Equipment you requested is being null-transported to the base.  Report your preliminary findings on the following: (1) other regions likely to be inhabited—”  “Enough.  Next.”

At that point, I got a call from the base.  Sidorov was asking for Komov.

“Komov is out on a contact,” I said guiltily.

“Has it started yet?”

“No.  We’re waiting.”

Sidorov coughed.

“Okay, I’ll call him later.  It’s not urgent.”  He took a pause.  “Are you nervous?”

I listened to my feelings.

“N-no, it’s not that we’re nervous…  It just feels strange.  Like a dream.  Like a fairy tale.”

Sidorov sighed.

“I shouldn’t distract you,”  he said.  “Good luck.”

I thanked him.  Then I put my elbow on the console, stuck my chin into the palm of my hand, and listened to my feelings again.  Feels strange indeed.  Both human and non-human.  I doubt he’s actually human.  A human child brought up by wolves grows up to be a wolf.  By bears, a bear.  But what if a human child were to be brought up by a giant squid?  The squid wouldn’t devour the child, but bring it up instead…  No, that’s not it.  A wolf, a bear, a giant squid—they are not sentient.  Not in the xenological sense of the word at least.  But what if our Mowgli was brought up by sentient beings that are in some sense like the giant squid?  Or even more alien to us than the giant squid?  After all, it was they who taught him to generate diverting phantoms and all the rest of his mimicry; there is nothing in the human body that can do that, so it must be artificial…  Wait, but why does he need mimicry?  Against what does he need protection?  This planet is empty! Or is it?

I imagined enormous caves lit by ghostly lilac light, dark tunnels with deadly dangers hiding in them, and a little boy who tiptoes along a sticky wall, ready to disappear, to dissolve in the faint light, on a moment’s notice, leaving the enemy only a flimsy shadow, slowly dissolving in the air.  Poor little boy!  We have to get him out of here soon…  Stop, stop, stop!  This is nonsense.  It doesn’t work that way.  There can be no sophisticated life forms without other, less sophisticated, life forms around them.  How many species have they found here?  Eleven or twelve; and that’s the entire range from a virus to a human child.  No, it doesn’t work that way.  Something’s wrong here.  Well, we’ll find out soon enough.  The boy will tell us everything.  And what if he doesn’t?  How much human wolves told humans about wolves?  What is Komov counting on?  I felt an urge to ask Komov right now what he is counting on.

Vanderhuse read the last message, stretched in his seat, put his hands behind his head, and said dreamily,

“Come to think of it, I knew the Semyonovs.  I have to say, they were great guys, but very strange.  The romantic archaists.  Alexander knew all about the old laws, and quoted them all the time.  We thought they were laughable and nonsensical, but he found them charming…  Catastrophe, agony, hideous monsters are getting into the ship…  Destroy the log, erase your trace, because the trace leads to Earth!  Yes, that sounds a lot like him.”  Vanerhuse fell silent for a while.  “By the way, there are more solitude seekers than it is commonly believed.  Solitude is not a bad thing, what do you think?”

“Not for me,” Maika said curtly, without taking her eyes off the screen.

“It’s because you’re young.”  Vanderhuse objected.  “When Alexander Semyonov was your age, he loved having friends, many friends.  He loved working with friends, in a big noisy company.  To brainstorm, to feel the tense excitement all the time, to compete all the time, and it doesn’t matter in what: wing jumping, the number of jokes cracked per unit of time, the recall of some statistical tables, anything, really.  And in-between, to sing, loudly, his own verses, accompanying himself on a knackophone.”  Vanderhuse sighed.  Usually, this passes when you find your true love…  But I don’t know anything about that.  I only know that in early 34, Alexander and Marie left to join the Free Search Group.  Actually, I haven’t seen them since.  I only talked to them once on the video…  I worked as a dispatcher, and Alexander was asking clearance to exit from Pandora.”  Vanderhuse sighed again.  “By the way, his father is still around.  His name is Pavel.  I’ll have to go see him when we get back…”  He fell silent.  “If you want to know my opinion, I was always against the free search.  It’s an archaism.  People roam the space on their own, it’s dangerous, and the scientific gain is negligible; sometimes, they simply get in the way…  Remember Kammerer’s story? [1]  They keep pretending that we have conquered the Cosmos, that it is our home.  This is wrong.  And it will always be wrong.  Cosmos is Cosmos, and humans will always be simply humans.  More experienced perhaps, but no amount of experience is sufficient to be at home in the Cosmos…  As far as I know, Alexander and Marie found nothing in the Cosmos, at least nothing worth telling others about.”

“However, they were happy,” Maika said without turning her head.

“What makes you think so?”

“Because otherwise, they would have returned!  Why would they want to search for something if they were already happy?”  Maika looked at Vanderhuse angrily.  “What else is there to search for, except happiness?”

“I could say that a happy person wouldn’t be searching for anything,” Vanderhuse said, “but I am not prepared for such a deep discussion, and neither are you, what do you think?  Sooner or later, we would begin to extend the concept of happiness to include non-humanoids—”

“Hey you aboard!”  Komov’s voice came in.  “Keep watching!”

“Exactly,” said Vanderhuse, and Maika turned back to the screen.

Now all three of us were watching the screen.  The sun was low, barely above the mountaintops, so the foothills were already shaded.  The landing strip glistened brightly, the cap of steam over the swamp appeared heavy and still, and its top layer, sun shining through it, turned bright purple.  Everything was completely motionless, including Komov.

“Five hours,” Vanderhuse said quietly.  “Isn’t it dinner time?  Gennady, will you eat?”

“No, I don’t need anything,” Komov said.  “I’ve packed a few things to go.  You should eat though; we may be too busy later.”

I got up.

“I’ll go make something.  What are the orders?”

Suddenly, Vanderhuse said,

“I see him!”

“Where?” Komov asked immediately.

“He’s coming our way along the shore, from the iceberg.  About sixty degrees to the left from your vector.”

“Yep,” Maika said, “I see him too!  He’s coming indeed.”

“I can’t see him!”  Komov said impatiently.  “Give me the distance.”

Vanderhuse stuck his face to the distance meter and read off the coordinates.  Now I could see him too; along the edge of black water, slowly, as if unwillingly, a greenish crooked figure was walking toward the ship.

“No, still can’t see,” Komov said, irritated.  “Tell me what’s going on.”

“Um, all right…”  Vanderhuse began, then cleared his throat.  “He’s walking slowly, looking at us…  A bunch of twigs in his hands…  He stopped, poked the sand with his foot…  Ugh, naked in this cold…  He’s walking again…  Looking your way, Gennady…  Curious; his anatomy isn’t human; well, not exactly human…  He stopped again, and he keeps looking your way.  Can’t you see him?  He’s pretty close; now he’s closer to you than he is to us…”

Pierre Semyonov, the space Mowgli, was approaching.  Right now, he was about two hundred meters away, and when Maika zoomed in on him, even his eyelashes were visible.  The setting sun was shining through the gap in-between two peaks, so it was light; long shadows were stretching across the beach.

He was a kid, a boy about twelve years old, lanky, bony, long-legged, with sharp shoulders and elbows, but that was about as far as his resemblance to a common boy went.  His face wasn’t that of a boy; the features were human, but the face was static, stone-still, frozen, like a mask.  Only his eyes were alive, large and dark; he shot looks left and right, as if through slits in his mask.  His ears were big and floppy, the right one noticeably larger than the left one; starting under his left ear and going all the way down his neck to his collarbone was an irregularly shaped dark scar, clearly improperly healed.  His matted reddish hair fell over his forehead and shoulders in clumps, sticking out in all directions, rising like a crest on top of his head.  A scary, unpleasant face, and to make it worse the color: deadly bluish-green, and glossy, as if oiled.  Actually, his entire body had that gloss.  He was completely naked, and when he got close to the ship and threw his twigs down on the sand, it was immediately apparent that he was sinewy, without a trace of that childish defenselessness.  He was skinny, yes, but not emaciated; rather, he was amazingly sinewy in an adult way, not muscular, not athletic, but sinewy; his other scars, equally scary-looking, were visible now: a deep one on his left side, going down from the rib cage to the upper thigh (that’s why his posture was crooked!), another scar on his right leg, and a deep indentation in the middle of his chest.  It looked like he’d led a hard life.  The planet resolutely chewed on the human child, but seemingly has been able to bring him into compliance with itself.

Now he was about twenty paces away, at the very edge of the dead zone.  A bunch of twigs was at his feet, and he stood, his arms lowered, watching the ship.  He probably couldn’t see the camera lenses, but he seemed to look straight into our eyes.  His posture wasn’t human, either.  I don’t know how to explain this.  It’s just that humans don’t stand in this pose.  Ever.  Not when resting, not when waiting for something to happen, not even when tense.  His left leg was pulled slightly back and slightly bent at the knee, but he seemed to put his weight on it nevertheless.  He also thrust his left shoulder forward.  You can see a similar pose in an athlete getting ready to throw a disc, but only for a moment; you can’t stand like this for a long time, it’s neither comfortable nor graceful, but he did, for a few minutes, and then he suddenly squatted and started picking through his twigs.  I said squatted, but that’s not right; he bent his left leg, but he stuck the right one forward, without bending it; even looking at it was uncomfortable, especially when he started fiddling with his twigs, using his right leg to help his hands.  Then, he lifted up his face, stretched out his hands, a twig in each fist, and started doing something that I really can’t describe.

I can only say that his face came alive; well, it didn’t just come alive, it burst into motion.  I don’t know how many facial muscles a human being has, but they all seemed to work at the same time, each on its own, without a pause, in a very complex fashion.  I don’t know what I can compare it to.  Perhaps ripples on the water reflecting the sunlight?  Except the ripples are uniform and chaotic, uniform in their chaos, but here, there was a certain rhythm, a rational order showing through a waterfall of tiny motions; it wasn’t a convulsion, or agony, or panic.  It was a dance of muscles, if you will.  It started with the face, then shoulders and chest joined in, then hands; the dry twigs started twitching in the clenched fists, crossing, weaving, fighting, rustling, drumming, stridulating like a field full of grasshoppers. It lasted no longer than a minute, but it hurt my eyes and blocked my ears.  And then it wound down.  The dancing and singing went from the sticks into the hands, from the hands into the shoulders, then back into the face, and then it was over.  A static mask was looking up at us yet again.  The boy got up, stepped over a heap of twigs, and suddenly stepped into the dead zone.

“Why are you not responding?”  Komov shouted.  “Jacob!  Jacob!  Can you hear me?  Why are you not responding?”

I came to my senses and looked around searching for Komov.  The xenopsychologist, his posture tense, stood facing the ship, casting a long shadow on the sand.  Vanderhuse cleared his throat and said,

“I can hear you.”

“What’s happened?”

Vanderhuse paused.

“I don’t think I can describe it,” he said.  “What about you guys?”

“He was talking!”  Maika said in a muffled voice.  “That’s how he talks!”

“Look,” I said, “wasn’t he going for the entrance hatch?”

“Possibly,” said Vanderhuse.  “Gennady, he went into the dead zone.  It’s possible he is headed for the entrance hatch…”

“Watch the hatch,” Komov commanded quickly.  “If he comes in, immediately tell me and lock yourselves up in the control room…”  He paused.  “I’ll be expecting you in an hour,” he suddenly said in his usual calm and businesslike tone, as if talking away from the microphone.  “Will you get it done in an hour?”

“I am not following,” Vanderhuse said.

“Lock yourselves up!”  Komov shouted into his microphone, irritated.  “Do you understand me?  Lock yourselves up if he enters the ship!”

“That I understand,” Vanderhuse said.  “Where are you expecting us in an hour?”

There was a pause.

“I’ll be expecting you in an hour,” Komov repeated, all business again, and again talking away from the microphone.  “Will you get it done in an hour?”

“Where?”  Vanderhuse said.  “Where are you expecting us?”

“Jacob, can you hear me?”  Komov asked loudly, clearly worried.

“I can hear you very well,” Vanderhuse said and looked at us over his shoulder with a confused expression on his face.  “You said you’d be expecting us in an hour.  Where?”

“I didn’t say—” Komov started, but suddenly he was interrupted by Vanderhuse’s voice, also muffled as if he too talked away from a microphone,

“Is it dinner time yet?  Stas must be missing us back on the ship, what do you think, Maika?”

Maika giggled nervously.

“It’s him…” she said, pointing at the screen.  “It’s him…  over there…”

“What’s happening, Jacob?” Komov screamed.

An unfamiliar voice (it took me a moment to figure out whose voice it was) said,

“I will heal you, my old man, set you straight and introduce you to the right people…”

Maika buried her face in the palms of her hands and laughed hysterically.

“Nothing special, Gennady.”  Vanderhuse said, wiping his sweaty forehead with a handkerchief.  “A misunderstanding.  The client talks in our voices.  We hear him through the external microphones.  Just a misunderstanding, Gennady.”

“Can you see him?”

“No.  Wait, there he is again.”

The boy was once again standing by his twigs, in a different, but equally uncomfortable, pose.  Yet again, he was looking straight at us.  Then his mouth opened slightly, his lips curled strangely, showing gums and teeth on the left side of his mouth, and we heard Maika’s voice,

“After all, if I had your sideburns, I might see life in a different light…”

“Now he’s talking in Maika’s voice,” Vanderhuse said, unperturbed.  “He just glanced your way.  Can you see him yet?”

Komov was quiet.  The boy, his head still turned toward Komov, froze like a stone, a strange figure in the darkening twilight.  Suddenly, I realized it wasn’t him.  The figure was slowly dissolving.  The dark edge of the water was now visible through it.

“Ah, I see him!”  Komov said with some satisfaction.  “He’s standing about twenty paces away from the ship, right?”

“Right,” Vanderhuse said.

“I don’t think so,” I said.

Vanderhuse took a closer look.

“Um, yes, I think you’re right,” he agreed.  “It must be…  What do you call it, Gennady?  A phantom?”

“Stop.” Komov said.  “Now I can see him for real.  He’s coming my way.”

“Can you see him?”  Maika asked me.

“No,” I replied.  “It’s already dark.”

“Darkness has nothing to do with it,” Maika objected.

She was probably right.  The sun, however, has set and twilight darkened, but on screen, I could still see Komov and the melting phantom, and the landing strip, and the iceberg far away, but the boy wasn’t there.

Then I saw Komov sit down.

“He’s coming,” he said quietly.  “I am about to get busy.  Don’t distract me.  Keep watching the surroundings, but no locators, no active means whatsoever.  Try to make do with infrared optics.  Out.”

“Good hunting,” Vanderhuse said into the microphone and got up.  He looked downright solemn.  He looked at us sternly over his nose, fluffed up his sideburns in a well-rehearsed fluid motion and uttered, “The herds are shut in byre and hut, for loosed till dawn are we.”

Maika yawned fitfully and slowly said,

“Am I actually sleepy or just nervous?”

“Speaking of, sleep is something we won’t see a lot of going forward,” Vanderhuse stated.  “Here’s what we should do.  We’ll let Maika get some rest.  I will stay at the screen, while Stas can sleep by the radio.  After four hours, I would wake him up, what do you think, Stas?”

I didn’t object, although I had my doubts about Komov’s ability to spend so much time in the cold.  Maika, still yawning, had no objections, either.  When she left, I offered Vanderhuse to make him some coffee, but he declined under some ridiculous pretext; he probably wanted me to get some sleep.  So I settled by the radio, flipped through the new incoming messages, found nothing urgent, and handed them over to Vanerhuse.

For a while, we were silent.  I wasn’t sleepy at all.  I kept thinking about what Pierre Semyonov’s caregivers might be like.  A human child brought up by wolves runs on all four and growls.  So does a human child brought up by bears.  Generally, it is the upbringing that defines a living creature’s modus vivendi.  Well, not completely, but noticeably.  How, then, did our Mowgli grow up to walk erect?  Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?  He walks using only his legs, he actively uses his hands; none of this is inborn, it’s all taught.  He can talk.  Of course, he doesn’t understand what he says, but it is obvious that the part of his brain that handles speech is splendidly operational…  And he has a total recall!  Strange, very strange.  Non-humanoids I know about would be absolutely unable to bring up a human child in this fashion.  They could perhaps feed him, or domesticate him.  They could study him in their labs that look like large-scale operating models of intestines.  But see a human in him, preserve a human in him?  Not likely.  Are they humanoid after all?  I don’t get it.

“In any event,” Vanderhuse said suddenly, “they are humane in the broadest sense of the word, since they have saved our baby’s life, and they are geniuses, since they have managed to bring him up while possibly knowing nothing of hands and legs.  What do you think, Stas?”

I chuckled uncertainly, and he fell silent.

It was quiet in the control room.  The base wasn’t bothering us, Komov didn’t contact us, either; the otherwise dark screen was intermittently flashing with the rainbow-colored sheets of aurora borealis, and in their light, we could see Komov, sitting completely still; as to the boy, I wasn’t able to see him at all, not even for a moment.  But they must have been working hard, since the ship’s primary mainframe would every now and then chomp and purr, digesting and organizing the data it was receiving from the translator.  Then I fell asleep and had a dream; there were some sullen unshaven octopi, all wearing blue gym outfits and carrying umbrellas, they taught me how to walk, and I laughed so hard that I kept falling off my feet, causing them an extreme displeasure.  I woke up because I felt a soft and unpleasant push on my heart.  Something happened.  There was some kind of trouble.

Vanderhuse sat in a tense pose, slouching in front of the screen, his hands firmly holding the armrests.

“Stas!” he called out quietly.

“Yes?”

“Take a look at the screen.”

I was already staring at the screen, but so far, I wasn’t seeing anything special.  Just as before, the celestial lights were flashing, Komov was sitting in the same pose, the iceberg was reflecting pink and green.  Then I saw it.

“Above the mountains?” I whispered.

“Yes.  Exactly, above the mountains.”

“What is it?”

“I don’t know.”

“How long has it been there?”

“I have no idea.  I noticed it about two minutes ago.  I thought it was a tornado…”

At first, I thought so too.  Rising above the pale jagged line of the mountain ridge against the background of rainbow-colored canvasses was something that looked like a long thin whip, a black curve that looked like a scratch on the screen’s surface.  This whip was oscillating, barely noticeably, it bent; sometimes, it would slack a little and then straighten again, and I could see that it wasn’t smooth, but jointed, like a shoot of bamboo.  It was sticking out above the mountain ridge, which was at least ten kilometers away, as if someone sitting on the other side of the ridge put up an enormous fishing pole.  It made the familiar landscape look unreal, like a stage set for puppet show.  Watching this somehow felt unnatural, lurid, and ridiculous at the same time, as if an unrealistically enormous face appeared above the mountaintops.  All in all, it was something way out of scale, something impossible, something my very idea of proportion.

“Is it them?” I asked, whispering.

“It can’t be natural…” Vandehuse said slowly.  “But it can’t be artificial, either.”

I felt the same way.

“We have to tell Komov,” I said.

“Komov switched off,” Vanderhuse replied.  He was aiming a distance gauge.  “The distance is stable.  Fourteen kilometers.  And that thing is vibrating, it’s shaking all over.  The amplitude is at least hundred meters…  A completely impossible thing.”

“So how tall is it?” I mumbled.

“About six hundred meters.”

“Wow…” I said.

He suddenly jumped on his feet and pushed two buttons at the same time, the emergency external radio call (“All immediately return aboard!”) and the internal call (“All to the control room!”).  Then he turned to me and commanded in an unusually sharp tone,

“Stas!  To the WCS, on the double.  Activate the forward AMG.  Sit there and wait.  Don’t do anything unless commanded.”

I rushed out into the corridor.  From the living quarters, I could hear the muffled sounds of the gathering signal.  Maika was running toward me, pulling on a jacket as she ran.  She had shoes, but no socks, on her feet.

“What’s happened?” she asked in a raspy sleepy voice from a distance.

I waved her off and poured myself down the ladder into the Weapons Control Station.  I was somewhat feverish, but calm.  In some sense, I was even proud; it was a rare situation to be in.  So rare in fact that I was sure that ever since this ship’s first start, no one ever came into the WCS, except maybe spaceport workers doing diagnostics on the automatics.

I fell into a seat, turned on the surround screens, turned off the automatics of the anti-meteorite guns and immediately blocked the rear gun, so that I don’t shoot the nadir accidentally.  Then I took the manual targeting controls, and the crosshairs came up on screen; I guided it past the jagged iceberg, past the fog over the swamp, past Komov (he was now standing, his back to the flashes, and looking toward the mountains)…  A little higher.  There it is.  Black, vibrating, absurd, completely impossible.  And next to it, another one; it’s shorter, but it is raising, stretching out, bending…  Damn, how are they doing it?  What sort of power do they have at their disposal, what sort of material is it?  What a sight!  Now it looked like a monstrous cockroach hiding behind the mountains stuck out his antennae.  I guesstimaged the angle and adjusted the scope to be able to hit both targets in a single shot.  The only thing left was to push the firing pedal…

“WSC!” Vanderhuse barked.

“WCS online!” I replied.

“Ready!”

“Roger that!  Ready!”

That sounded really cool.  Like in a movie.

“Do you see both targets?” Vanderhuse asked in his usual voice.

“Yes.  I can cover them in a single impulse.”

“Now take a look forty degrees east; a third target.”

I looked; indeed, another giant whisker was bending and shaking in the ghostly light.  I didn’t like that.  Will I have enough time?  Well, I should…  I rehearsed it in my mind; I release an impulse, then make two motions to rotate the gun to face the third target.  I’ll make it.

“I see the third target,” I said.

“That’s good,” Vanderhuse said.  “But don’t get carried away.  Shoot only on my command.”

“Affirmative,” I grumbled.

If it shoots the ship with some sort of…  I don’t know…  space-curving weapon, I won’t ever get a command.  I was visibly shaking now.  Then I looked out to see how Komov was doing.  Komov was handling it quite well.  He was sitting again, his side turned to the giant cockroach.  I immediately got a grip, not in the least because I finally saw a tiny black figure next to Komov.  I even felt embarrassed.

Indeed, what’s wrong with me?  What reasons are there to panic?  Well, there are the whiskers…  Big whiskers, no argument about it; I would even say whiskers of mind-boggling magnitude.  But after all, they could well be antennae.  Perhaps they’re just watching us.  We watch them, they watch us.  And not so much us as their charge, Pierre Semoynov.  They want to make sure he’s okay and no one is abusing him in any way…

And, to think about it, an anti-meteorite gun is a scary thing, I really wouldn’t want to use it here.  It’s one thing to flatten a cliff to make room for a landing pad or, say, to fill up a ravine to create an artificial lake, but firing on a living thing like that…  Actually, has an AMG ever been used for defense?  I think so.  First, there was an incident, I can’t remember where, when a robot cargo ship lost control and was about to fall onto a campsite; they had to burn it.  Then, I remember a case study; on a biologically active planet, a scout ship experienced a “direct insurmountable impact of the biosphere”…  Well, it’s not clear whether it really happened, but the captain decided that it did and fired the forward gun.  He burned everything between himself and the horizon, so later, the investigators couldn’t figure out what happened.  He ended up suspended for a long time…  Well, what can I say, an anti-meteorite gun is a scary thing.  The last line of defense.

To distract myself, I measured the distance to the targets and computed their height and thickness.  The distances were fourteen, fourteen point five, and sixteen kilometers.  Height, between five hundred and seven hundred meters, while thickness was fairly uniform: about fifty meters at the base and less than a meter at the tip.  And they actually were jointed, like bamboo shoots or extendable antennae.  I also thought I could discern some surface movement going upward, peristaltic-like, but maybe that was just an optical illusion.  I tried to work out the properties of the material from which this kind of appendage could be built, but I kept coming up with nonsense.  I’d love to touch it with a probing radar, but I can’t do that.  We don’t know how they would react to it.  Not to mention that this isn’t that important.  The important thing is, this civilization is certainly technological.  Highly developed.  Quod erat demonstrandum.  I don’t understand, however, why they would dig into the ground, leaving their home planet to be consumed by emptiness and silence.  Although if you think about it, every civilization has its own idea of comfort.  On Tagora, for example—

“WCS!”  Vanderhuse shouted into my ear, startling me.  “What’s your visibility of the targets?”

“I see them—” I started to say automatically, but immediately stopped; there were no more whiskers above the mountains anymore.  “There are no targets,” I said, crestfallen.

“Asleep on duty, are we?”

“Not at all…  They were here a moment ago, I saw them with my own eyes…”

“And what exactly did you see with your own eyes?” Vanderhuse inquired.

“The targets.  Three of them.”

“And then?”

“And now they aren’t there.”

“Hmm,” said Vanderhuse.  “A strange occurrence, what do you think?”

“Yes,” I said compassionately.  “Very strange.  They were here, and then they weren’t.”

“Komov’s coming back,” Vanderhuse said.  “Maybe he figured something out?”

Indeed, Komov, with all kinds of equipment cases hanging off him, was awkwardly (his legs must have been numb) walking back to the ship.  Every now and then, he looked back, perhaps to say goodbye to Pierre, but Pierre was nowhere to be seen.

“Stand down,” Vanderhuse said.  “Drop everything and run to the kitchen; make something hot and nutritious.  Gennady must be cold as an icicle.  Although he sounds happy, what do you think, Maika?”

I immediately scuttled off to the kitchen and got busy making mulled wine, coffee, and snacks.  I didn’t want to miss a word of what Komov was about to tell us.  But when I rolled a food tray into the control room, Komov hasn’t told anyone anything yet.  He stood in front of the table rubbing his frozen cheek; on the table, there was the largest and the most detailed map of our location; Maika was pointing out the locations of the recently seen whiskers-antennae.

“There’s nothing there!” she was saying animatedly.  “Only cold rocks, canyons hundred meters deep, volcanic openings…  And nothing alive.  I flew over there dozens of times.  Even the bushes don’t’ grow there.”

Komov absentmindedly, yet thankfully, nodded to me, picked up a mug of mulled wine with both hands, stuck his face into it and started sipping noisily, grunting, burning himself, and blowing out happily.

“And the ground is weak, too,” Maika continued, “I wouldn’t hold the weight of such a structure.  It’s tens, if not hundreds, thousands of tons!”

“Yes,” Komov uttered, and put the empty mug on the table with a bang.  “This is strange indeed.”  He energetically rubbed the palms of his hands together.  “I am really cold,” he reported.  This was a completely different Komov, ruddy, red-nosed, kind, eyes sparkling with exhilaration.  “Strange, guys, it is strange.  But this is not the strangest; stranger things have happened on faraway planets.”  He fell into an armchair and stretched out his legs.  “Today, I am hard to surprise.  In the past four hours, I have heard a lot…  A few things need to be verified, of course.  But here are two fundamental facts that are now, if you will, float on the surface.  First, The Little One—that’s his name, The Little One—have learned to speak fluently and understand almost everything said to him.  And this is a boy who during his entire conscious life haven’t talked to a person once!”

“What do you mean, fluently?”  Maika asked distrustfully.  “Fluently after four hours of training?”

“Indeed, fluently after four hours of training!” Komov confirmed triumphantly.  “But this was first.  Now second, The Little One remains convinced that he is the only inhabitant of this planet.”

We didn’t get it.

“Why the only?”  I asked.  “How can he be the only?”

“The Little One is convinced,” Komov stressed the last word, “that except him, there are no intelligent aboriginal life on this planet.”

Silence fell.  Komov got up.

“We’ve got work to do,” he said.  “Tomorrow morning, The Little One is planning to pay us an official visit.”


[1] Kammerer’s story is told in another novel, An Inhabited Island.  (Translator’s note.)

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