The Little One (06/09)

The Little One

By Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky

Chapter Six
Non-humans and Questions

We worked through the night. In the mess hall, we built a makeshift diagnostic machine with an embedded emotion indicator. Vanderhuse and I put it together out of random spare parts. The device turned out to be weak, anemic, with disgusting sensitivity, but it could still measure some physiological parameters fairly well; as to the indicator, it could only read three major positions: clearly negative emotions (red light on the panel), clearly positive emotions (green light), and the rest of emotional spectrum (white light). What else could we do? In the medical bay, there was a great stationary diagnostic machine, but it was clear as day that The Little One wouldn’t agree to be placed into a matte-white casket with a massive airtight lid. Anyway, by nine o’clock we were somewhat ready, and then we faced the problem of WCS duty.

Vanderhuse, being the ship’s captain and thus in charge of safety, security, and all that, categorically refused to cancel the duty. Maika, who spent on duty the second half of the night, naturally hoped that she, of all people, would be present at the official visit. However, she was bitterly disappointed. It turned out that only Vanderhuse could operate the diagnostic machine. It further turned out that only I could maintain the diagnostic machine, which required constant adjustment. Finally, it turned out that Komov, based on some considerations of higher xenopsychology, would prefer that there were no women present during the first meeting with The Little One. Long story short, Maika, pale with rage, went back to her duty. Vanderhuse, still calm and composed, managed to track her with the indicator’s intake funnel, so that everyone could see that the emotion indicator is operational; the red light was on until Maika disappeared in the corridor. However, she could still hear what happens in the control room through the intercom.

At 9:15 local time, Komov stepped into the middle of the mess hall and looked around. Everything was ready. The diagnostic machine was adjusted and turned on, there were sweets on the table, the lighting was adjusted to imitate local daylight. Komov briefly repeated his instructions on how to behave during the contact, turned on the registers, and told us to take our seats. Komov and I sat at the table across from the door, Vanderhuse squeezed himself behind the diagnostic machine’s control panel, and the waiting began.

He arrived at 9:40 local time.

He stopped in the doorway, clutching the doorframe with his left hand and bending his right leg. For a whole minute, he stood still, looking at one by one through the slits in his mask. It was so quiet that I could hear his breathing, rhythmic, strong, free, as if it was a well-oiled machine working. Up close and well lit, he made an even stranger impression. Everything about him was strange; his pose, completely unnatural to a human yet seemingly comfortable; his glistening, as if lacquered, greenish-blue skin; the unpleasant disproportion in the location of his muscles and tendons; his unusually large knees; his feet, amazingly narrow and long. He wasn’t particularly small; he was about as tall as Maika. He had no fingernails on the fingers of his left hand. In his right fist, he clutched a handful of fresh leaves.

His gaze finally settled upon Vanderhuse. He looked at Vanderhuse for so long and with such intensity that I started pondering whether The Little One figured out the purpose of the diagnostic machine. Our brave captain, meanwhile, nervously fluffed up his sideburns with a bent finger and, contrary to all instructions, made a slight bow.

“Phenomenal!” The Little One said loud and clear in Vanderhuse’s voice. The indicator flashed a weak green light.

The captain nervously fluffed up his sideburns again and smiled uncertainly. Immediately, The Little One’s face came alive. Vanderhuse was rewarded by a series of horrifying grimaces, replacing each other instantaneously. Vanderhuse broke into cold sweat. I don’t know how it would end, but The Little One suddenly detached himself from the doorframe, slid along a wall, and stopped by the videophone screen.

“What is this?” he asked.

“A videophone,” Komov answered.

“Yes,” The Little One said. “Everything’s moving, but there’s nothing there. Images.”

“We have food,” Komov reported. “Do you want some?”

“The food is separate?” The Little One asked incredulously and approached the table. “This is food? It doesn’t look like it. What a charade!”

“It doesn’t look like what?”

“It doesn’t look like food.”

“Try it anyway,” Komov advised, pushing a plate of meringues his way.

Suddenly, The Little One fell to his knees, stretched his hands forward, and opened his mouth. We fell silent, dumbfounded. The Little One didn’t move. His eyes were closed. This lasted for a few seconds, and then he slowly rolled over onto his back, sat up and in a sudden move threw the crumpled leaves on the floor in front of him. A wave of ripples ran across his face again. With fast and very precise touches of his fingers, he started moving the leaves around; every now nd then he would also use his leg. Komov and I got up from out seats and watched him, stretching our necks. The leaves, meanwhile, were arranged into a strange motif, definitely intentional, but drawing absolutely no associations in me. For a second, The Little One froze still, and suddenly, in one quick motion, he shifted the leaves into a pile. His face froze.

“I understand,” he proclaimed. “This is your food. I don’t eat this way.”

“Look, this is how you do it,” Komov said.

He extended his hand, picked up a meringue, deliberately slowly brought it up to his mouth, carefully bit a piece and started chewing exaggeratedly. A convulsion ran over The Little One’s dead face.

“No!” he almost shouted. “You can’t pick it up and put it into your mouth. You’ll get sick!”

“How about you try it?” Komov offered again, glanced at the diagnostic machine, and immediately changed the tack. “You’re right. Let’s not. What do we do now?”

The Little One squatted on his left heel and said in a hearty baritone,

“The cricket on the hearth. Nonsense. Explain again: when are you leaving?”

“It’s hard to explain right now,” Komov replied softly. “We really, really need to find out everything about you. You have told us nothing about yourself. When we find out everything about you, we’ll leave if you want us to.”

“You know everything about me,” The Little One proclaimed in Komov’s voice. “You know how I came to be. You know how I got here. You know why I came to see you. You know everything about me.”

I was surprised beyond belief, but Komov seemed to take it in stride.

“Why do you think I know all that?” he asked calmly.

“I thought about it. I understood.”

“This is phenomenal,” Komov said calmly, “but not exactly right. I don’t know anything about how you lived here before I came.”

“You will leave as soon as you find out everything about me? Is that so?”

“Yes, if you want us to.”

“Then ask,” The Little One said. “Ask quickly, because I want to ask you, too.”

I glanced at the indicator. Just glanced, for no reason at all. And felt really weird. Just a moment ago, the light was neutral white, but now, the red light of negative emotions shone like a ruby. I also noticed that Vanderhuse had a concerned expression on his face.

“First,” Komov said, “tell me why you hid out for so long.”

“Kurvispat,” The Little One enunciated and changed position; now he was squatting on his right leg. “I knew for a long time people would come again. I waited; it felt bad. Then I saw people come. I started thinking and realized that if I tell people, they would leave, and it would be good. They definitely would leave, but I didn’t know when. There are four people. It’s a lot. Even one is a lot. But it is better than four. I walked up to one and talked during the day. I walked up to one and talked during the night. What a charade! Then I thought, one can’t talk when he’s alone. I walked up to the four. It was a lot of fun, we played with images, we ran like a wave. Another charade! In the evening, I saw one sitting by himself. You. I thought and realized, you were waiting for me. I came up to you. Cheshire cat! That’s what happened.”

He spoke in Komov’s clipped voice, but the meaningless utterances came out in that unfamiliar hearty baritone. His hands and fingers never stayed still; he himself moved constantly, and his moves were fluid and steady, as if he morphed from one pose into the next. It was a fantastic sight; the familiar walls of the mess hall, the smell of vanilla from the sweets, everything so homey and common, save for the lilac light and a flexible, fluid, and fast little alien creature in the middle of it all. And a concerned ruby light on the console.

“How did you know people would come again?” Komov asked.

“I thought and I realized.”

“Perhaps someone told you?”

“Who? The rocks? The sun? The bushes? I am alone. I and my images. But they are silent. You can only play with them. No. People came and went,” he quickly moved about a few leaves on the floor. “I thought and realized, they would come again.”

“Why did it feel bad?”

“Because of people.”

“People never hurt anyone. People want everyone to feel good.”

“I know,” The Little One said. “I already told you, people would leave, and it would be good.”

“What is it people do that makes you feel bad?”

“Anything. They are, or they can come; that’s bad. They leave forever; that’s good.”

The red light on the panel really bothered me. I couldn’t hold it anymore and kicked Komov’s leg under the table slightly.

“How did you know that if you told people to leave, they would?” Komov asked, ignoring me.

“I knew that people want everyone to feel good.”

“But how did you know? You’ve never talked to people before.”

“I thought a lot. For a long time, I didn’t understand. Then I realized.”

“When? A long time ago?”

“No, just recently. When you went away from the lake, I caught a fish. I was very surprised. The fish died for whatever reason. I started thinking and realized that you would definitely leave if I told you.”

Komov bit his lower lip.

“I fell asleep on the shore of the ocean,” he said suddenly. “When I woke up, I saw human footsteps on the sand around me. I thought and realized: while I slept, a person walked by me. How did I know? I haven’t seen the person, I only saw footsteps. I thought, the footsteps weren’t there before, now they are, so they must have been made while I was asleep. Those are human footsteps, they were not left by waves or by a rock rolling down the slope. So a person walked by me, While I slept, a person walked by me. This is how we think. And how do you think? People came. You know nothing about them. But you thought and realized that they would leave forever if you talked to them. How did you think?”

The Little One fell silent for about three minutes. Then the dance of the muscles began again on his face and chest. Quick fingers pulled and pushed the leaves around. Finally, he pushed the leaves away with his foot and said in a loud hearty baritone,

“That is the question. Hoist the royal sails!”

Vanderhuse stifled a cough in his corner, and The Little One immediately turned to look at him.

“Phenomenal!” he uttered, still in that baritone. “I always wanted to know, why long hair on the cheeks?”

Silence ensued. Suddenly, I noticed that the ruby light went off and the emerald one came on.

“Answer him, Jacob,” Komov asked calmly.

“Um…” Vanderhuse said, going pink. “How should I say it, my boy…” He compulsively fluffed up his sideburns. “It looks good, I like it… I think it’s reason enough, what do you think?”

“Looks good… Like it…” The Little One repeated. “The little bell!” he suddenly said in a very tender voice. “No, you haven’t explained it. But that happens. Why only in the cheeks? Why not on the nose?”

“It wouldn’t look good on the nose,” Vanderhuse said instructively. “And it would get into your mouth when you eat…”

“Right,” The Little One agreed. But if it is on the cheeks and if you go through the bushes, it has to snag. My hair always gets snagged, even though it is on top of me.”

“Um,” Vanderhuse said. “You see, I don’t go through bushes often.”

“Don’t,” The Little One said. “It would hurt. The cricket on the hearth!”

Vanderhuse found nothing to reply, but he was visibly pleased. The indicator shone emerald, The Little One clearly forgot about his troubles, and our brave captain, who liked children very much, definitely experienced a degree of endearment. Additionally, he seemed to be flattered that his sideburns, which so far have been a target of more or less shallow jokes, have played such a noticeable role in establishing contact. But then, my time has come. The Little One suddenly looked me in the eye and said impulsively,

“And what about you?”

“What about me?” I asked, confused, in an aggressive tone.

Komov immediately kicked my leg with a clearly visible pleasure.

“I have a question for you,” The Little One announced. “Also always. But you were afraid. Once, you almost killed me; the hissing, the roaring, the air blast. I ran all the way to the hills. Those big warm things with lights on them, flattening the ground, what are they?”

“Machines,” I said and cleared my throat. “Robots.”

“Robots,” The Little One repeated. “Are they alive?”

“No,” I said. “They are machines. We made them.”

“Made them? Those big things? And they move? Phenomenal. But they are so big!”

“There are bigger ones, too,” I said.

“Bigger?”

“Much bigger,” Komov said. “Bigger than the iceberg.”

“And do they move, too?”

“No,” Komov said. “But they think.”

And Komov proceeded to explain what the cybernetic machines are. It was hard to follow The Little One’s emotional trajectory. Assuming his emotions were reflected in his bodily motions, one would have to conclude that he was astounded. He ran back and forth across the mess hall, like Tom Sawyer’s cat after having a sip of the painkiller. When Komov explained to him why my robots shouldn’t be considered to be either dead or alive, he climbed up to the ceiling and hung there limply, his hands and feet solidly stuck to the plastic. The story of giant machines that think faster than humans, calculate faster than humans, answer questions million times faster than humans, wound him into a ball, then unwound him, threw him out into the corridor, and a second later, threw him back in to our feet, breathing loudly, his huge eyes darkened, desperately grimacing. Never before and never after have I seen such a thankful listener. The emerald light on the indicator’s console shone like a cat’s eye, while Komov kept talking in precise, clear, simple sentences, his speech even and rhythmic; every now and then he inserted intriguing remarks, such as, “We can talk more about this later” or “Actually, this is much more complicated and much more interesting than that, but you don’t yet know when hemostatics is”.

As soon as Komov finished, The Little One jumped onto a seat, hugged himself with his long sinewy hands, and asked,

“Is it possible for the robots to listen to what I say?”

“You’ve already made that happen,” I said.

He quietly, like a shadow, dropped onto the table, breaking his fall with his hands.

“When?”

“You jumped in front of them, and the biggest one, his name is Tom, would stop and ask you if you have any orders for them.”

“Why didn’t I hear the question?”

“You saw it. Remember the little red light blinking? That was the question. Tom was asking it in his way.”

The Little One slid down to the floor.

“Phenomenal!” he quietly said in my voice. “That’s a game. Phenomenal game. Nutcracker!”

“What does ‘nutcracker’ mean?” Komov asked suddenly.

“I don’t know,” The Little One said impatiently. “Just a word. Feels good to say. Cheshire cat. Nutcracker.”

“Where do you know these words from?”

“I remember. Two big gentle humans. Much bigger than you are… Hoist the royal sails! Nutcracker… Cricket on the hearth. Marie, Marie! The cricket is hungry!”

To be honest, this made my skin crawl; Vanderhuse went pale, his sideburns hung down. The Little One was saying the words in a hearty baritone; it you closed your eyes, you could easily imagine a large man full of life and joy, fearless, strong, and kind… Then something changed in his intonation, and he quietly rumbled with indescribable tenderness,

“My little kitten…” And suddenly, in a tender female voice, “The little bell! Wet again…”

He fell silent, tapping his nose with his finger.

“And you remember all that?” Komov said, his voice slightly different now.

“Of course,” The Little One said in Komov’s voice. “Don’t you remember everything?”

“No,” Komov said.

“This is because you don’t think the way I do,” The Little One said assuredly. “I remember everything. Anything that ever happened around me I won’t forget. And if I do, I only have to think about it hard, and it comes back. If you’re interested, I’ll tell you more later. But now, answer me: what’s up above? Yesterday, you said stars. What are stars? Water falls from above. Sometimes, I don’t want it to fall, but it still does. Where does it come from? And where do spaceships come from? So many questions, I think a lot. So many answers that I don’t understand any. No, that’s not right. Many different answers, and they overlap, like leaves…” He swept the leaves on the floor into a pile. “They block each other, interfere with each other. Will you answer?”

Komov started talking, and The Little One yet again started jumping up and down, shaking with excitement. My head started spinning, so I closed my eyes and started thinking: about why the aborigines didn’t explain to The Little One simple things such as these; about how they managed to fool him into not even suspecting their existence; about how The Little One managed to have a total recall of what he heard as a baby; and about how scary it really is, especially the fact that he understands nothing of what he remembers.

Suddenly, Komov stopped talking; I smelled the strong odor or ammonia and opened my eyes. The Little One was nowhere to be seen; a weak, nearly transparent phantom was quickly dissolving over a handful of scattered leaves. From a distance, I heard a weak popping sound of the hatch membrane. Maika’s voice asked over the intercom with concern,

“Where’s he headed so fast? Did something happen?”

I looked at Komov. Komov was rubbing the palms of his hands together making a rustling sound and smiling pensively.

“Well,” he said slowly, “What a curious situation… Maya!” he called out. “Did those whiskers come out?”

“Eight of them,” Maika said. “They just disappeared, but before that, they were sticking out all over the ridge… And colored, too; yellow, green… I took a few pictures.”

“Good job,” Komov complimented her. “Now keep in mind, Maya: you have to be present at the next meeting… Jacob, pick up the registrar recordings, and let’s go sit down in my room. And you, Stas…” he stood up and walked over to the corner where an array of recorders was installed. “Here’s a tape, Stas, transmit it by unscheduled impulse straight to the Center. I’ll take the backup copy with me, I have to analyze it… Where did I see a projector around here? Ah, here it is. I think we have three or four hours until he returns… And, Stas! Take a look at the incoming messages. If there’s something important… Only from the Center, from the base, or personally from Gorbovsky or Mboga.”

“You asked me to remind you,” I said, getting up. “You need to talk to Mikhail.”

“Ah, yes!” Komov’s face now looked guilty. “You know, Stas, this is not exactly legal, but… Do me a favor, transmit the recording through two channels simultaneously: one to the Center, the other to the base, personal and confidential to Sidorov. I take full responsibility.”

“I can take it myself,” I grumbled once out the door.

When I arrived to the control room, I put the tape into the machine, turned on the transmitter, and flipped through the incoming messages. This time around, there weren’t many, just three; it seemed the Center took measures. One message was from the informatorium and consisted of numbers, Greek letters and symbols that I get to see only when testing printers. The second one was from the Center; Bader continued to demand preliminary considerations about the likely zones of aboriginal habitation, the likely Bülow types of anticipated contacts, and so on. The third message was from Sidorov at the base; he was requesting Komov’s instructions on the arrangements for equipment delivery. I pondered and decided that Komov may have a use for the first message; the third one has to be delivered out of respect for Mikhail; as to Bader, he can wait. What preliminary considerations are there anyway?

In half-hour, the automatic translator signaled the and of transmission. I took the tape out, picked up two radio messages, and headed over to Komov’s. When I came in, komov and Vanderhuse were sitting in front of the projector. On screen, The Little One ran back and forth lightning-fast, the tense faces, Komov’s and mine, were also visible. Vanderhuse was heavily leaning forward toward the screen, elbows on the table, clenched fists gripping sideburns.

“—abrupt rise in temperature,” he mumbled. “Up to forty-three degrees… [1] Now take a look at the encephalogram, Gennady… Here it is, the Peters wave, appearing again…”

On the table in front of them, there were long rolls of printouts from our makeshift diagnostic machine; many more rolls were strewn around on the floor and the bed.

“Aha…” Komov kept saying pensively, tracing along the printout with his finger. “Aha… Now wait a minute, what happened over here?” He paused the projector, turned around to pick up another roll, and saw me. “Yes?” he said, displeased.

I handed him the messages.

“What are these?” he asked impatiently. “Ah…” He scanned the message from the informatorium, smirked, and tossed it aside. “It’s all wrong,” he said. “Although how would they know?” Then he looked at Sidorov’s message and looked up at me. “Have you sent him—”

“Yes,” I said.

“Good, thank you. Send another message on my behalf that the equipment is not yet necessary. Until further notice.”

“Okay,” I said and went out.

I wrote and sent the message to the base and decided to go see what Maika was up to. Maika, looking worried, was working the gun controls. As far as I could see, she was practicing hitting far-apart targets.

“It’s hopeless,” she announced when she saw me. “If all of them spit at us simultaneously, we’re dead. Simply not enough time.”

“First, you can increase the impact angle,” I said, coming closer. “The efficiency, of course, will decrease by a factor of thousand or so, but you could still hit a quarter of the horizon. And second, do you really believe we can get spat at?”

“Do you?”

“Well, it doesn’t seem likely…”

“But if it doesn’t, why am I sitting here?”

I dropped on the floor next to her seat.

“I honestly don’t know,” I said. “We still have to observe. Since the planet turned out to be biologically active, we have to go by the instruction. After all, we can’t let the guard/scout out…”

We were silent for a while.

“Do you feel sorry for him?” Maika asked suddenly.

“Um, I don’t know,” I said. “Why sorry? I’d say, creepy. But feeling sorry for him… Why should I? He is chipper, lively… Not pitiful at all.”

“That’s not what I’m getting at. I don’t know how to say it… I was listening, and wanted to throw up over Komov’s posturing. He absolutely doesn’t care about the boy…”

“What do you mean, he doesn’t care? Komov has to initiate contact. He is running a certain strategy… You do understand that without The Little One, we will never establish contact, right?”

“I do. That’s probably why I want to throw up. The Little One knows nothing of the locals… A blind tool!”

“I don’t know about that,” I said. “I think you may be getting sentimental. He’s not really human. He’s local. We are establishing contact with him. To do that, we have to overcome certain obstacles, solve certain problems… We have to be rational about it, businesslike. Feelings don’t matter here. He, let’s face it, feels no love toward us. He can’t. After all, what is a contact? A collision of two strategies.”

“Ouch,” Maika said. “What a boring speech. Totally wooden. You really should stick to writing programs, Mr. Robotic Technician.”

I wasn’t offended. I saw that Maika has no objections on substance, and I felt that something is eating at her.

“Another foreboding, isn’t it?” I said. “But you do understand that The Little One is the only thread connecting us to those invisible beings. If The Little One doesn’t like us, if we can’t win him over—”

“Exactly,” Maika interrupted. “That’s exactly it. Whatever Komov says, whatever he does, you can still see that he has a single interest: the contact. Everything to reach the great goal of vertical progress!”

“What would be a better way?” I asked.

She shrugged.

“I don’t know. Perhaps Jacob’s… In any case, he was the only one of you who talked to The Little One like one would to a fellow human being.”

“You know what?” I said, slightly offended. “A contact at the sideburn level is not exactly a contact…”

We fell silent, pouting at each other. Maika kept turning the knobs with exaggerated effort, aiming the black crosshairs at the snow-covered mountaintops.

“Really, Maika,” I said finally, “do you not want the contact to go through?”

“I think I do,” Maika said with no enthusiasm. “You saw how happy I was when we first figured out what’s what… But now that I’ve heard your conversation… I don’t know. Maybe it’s just because I’ve never been on a contact before… I imagined it differently.”

“No,” I said, “that’s not it. I think I have an idea about what’s going on with you. You think he’s human.”

“You already said that,” Maika said.

“Please let me finish. You notice everything human about him. But look at it from the other side. Let’s leave aside the phantoms and the mimicry; what does he have in common with us? Similar appearance, erect walking. Well, vocal cords… What else? Even his muscles are different from ours, and you’d think those develop right out of the genes… You seem to be confused by the fact that he can talk. Indeed, he can talk magnificently… But even that in the final analysis isn’t ours! No human is capable of learning to speak fluently over four hours. And it’s not even about the vocabulary; you have to figure out the intonations, the phraseology… He’s a shape-shifter, if you will! Not a human being. A masterful imitation. Think about it: remembering what happened to you when you were a baby, and maybe even—who knows!—in your mother’s womb… Is this human? Have you ever seen an android? You haven’t, but I have.”

“So what?” Maika asked gloomily.

“A perfect android can only be built by modifying a human being. It would be a super-thinker, a super-athlete, a super-emotional, a super-whatever-you-want, a super-human, if you will, only it won’t be a human being…”

“Are you trying to say that the locals have turned him into a robot?” Maika said, smiling crookedly.

“Not at all,” I said, frustrated. “I am trying to convince you that everything human about him is an accident, a property of the raw material… We don’t have to be sentimental. Consider yourself negotiating with those multi-colored whiskers—”

Suddenly, Maika grabbed my shoulder and said quietly,

“Look, he’s coming back!”

I rose up and looked at the screen. From the swamp, heading straight for the ship, a tiny figure bent sideways was running full speed. A short blackish-lilac shadow dangled on the ground in front of it, a dirty crest of hair on the top of his head had a red tint to it. The Little One was coming back, The Little One was in a hurry. With his long arms, he was hugging and holding against his stomach something that looked like a large weaved basket full of rocks. It must have been a very heavy basket.

Maika turned on the intercom.

“Weapons Control Station paging Komov,” she said loudly. “The Little One is approaching.”

“I hear you,” Komov responded immediately. “Jacob, to the stations… Popov, relieve Glumova at WCS. Maya, to the mess hall.”

Maika got up reluctantly.

“Go, go,” I said. “Look at him up close, you vessel of sorrow.”

She snorted angrily and ran up the ladder. I took her seat. The Little One was very close now. He slowed down and looked at the ship; yet again, I had a feeling that he was looking me straight in the eye.

Suddenly, I saw: over the mountain range, in the grayish-lilac sky, the monstrous whiskers of the monstrous cockroaches appeared out of nowhere, as if on a developing photograph. Just like before, they slowly bent, shook, and convulsed. I counted six of them.

“WCS!” Komov called out to me. “How many whiskers on the horizon?”

“Six,” I replied. “Three white, two red, one green.”

“You see, Jacob,” Komov said, “it’s a repeating pattern. The Little One comes to visit with us, the whiskers are out.”

Vanderhuse’s muffled voice responded,

“I respect your insight, Gennady, but I still believe the watch duty to be necessary.”

“You’re well within your rights,” Komov said sharply. “Maya, please sit over here…”

I reported,

“The Little One has disappeared into the dead zone. He is carrying a huge basket of rocks.”

“Got it,” Komov said. “Get ready, colleagues!”

I listened intently and had quite a start at the sound of a racket out of the intercom. It took me a moment to realize that it was The Little One dumping his rocks on the floor. I heard his strong breathing, and suddenly, a baby’s voice said,

“Ma-ma!” And again, “Ma-ma…”

Then, I heard the now familiar choking cry of a year-old baby. Something automatically shrank inside me, but I quickly realized what happened: The Little One had seen Maika. It went on for less than thirty seconds; then the crying stopped, the rocks started clattering again, and Komov’s voice said in a businesslike tone,

“Here’s a question. Why am I so interested in everything? Everything around me. Why do I keep coming up with new questions? They make me feel unwell. They itch. Ten questions a day, twenty questions a day. I try to get away from them; I run, spend a whole day running or swimming—it doesn’t help. Then I start thinking. Sometimes, an answer comes. That is a pleasure. Sometimes, many answers come, and I can’t choose one. That is a displeasure. Sometimes, no answer comes. That is trouble. It itches badly. What a charade! First I thought questions were coming from within. But I thought about it and realized that anything coming from within should be pleasant. So the questions must be coming from the outside. Right? I am thinking the way you are. But then, where do they sit, what do they hang off of, what are they attached to?

A pause. Then, Komov’s voice again—the real Komov this time. Very similar, except the real Komov’s speech was less clipped and not as stark. You could tell them apart if you knew what was going on.

“I could answer this question right now,” Komov said slowly. “But I am afraid to make a mistake. I am afraid to give you a wrong answer. When I find out everything about you, I will be able to answer without a mistake.”

A pause. The rocks getting pushed across the floor were clattering and screeching.

“A fragment,” The Little One said. “Here’s another question. Where do the answers come from? You made me think. I always thought, if there is an answer, it’s pleasure, no answer, trouble. You told me how you think. I thought back and recalled that I, too, think like that often, and often an answer comes. I can see it coming. So I make a holder for the rocks. Like this one.”

“A basket,” Komov hinted.

“Yes, a basket. The first twig holds onto the second, the seconds holds onto the third, the third keeps on holding, and it comes out… a basket. You can see it happen. But much more often, I think,” the rocks started clattering again, “and the answer comes ready. There’s a heap of twigs, and suddenly, it’s a ready basket. Why?”

“I can answer this question, too,” Komov said, “only when I find out everything about you.”

“So find out!” The Little One demanded. “Find out soon! Why aren’t you finding out? I’ll tell you. There was a ship, bigger than yours, now it has shrunk, but it used to be much bigger. You know that. Then, it happened like this.”

Loud cracking and rustling came out of the intercom, and immediately, a child’s high-pitched squeal. And through that squealing, through the gradually quieting down cracking, the bangs, the sound of breaking glass, a man’s choking voice rasped,

“Marie… Marie… Ma… rie…”

The child was still squealing, and for a while, nothing else could be heard. Then, there was a quiet rustling sound, then a muffled groan. Someone crawled across the floor strewn with rubble, something rolled with a rattling sound. The painfully familiar female voice moaned,

“Shura… Where are you, Shura? It hurts… What happened? Where are you? I can’t see anything, Shura… Talk to me, Shura! It hurts so bad! Help me, I can’t see anything…”

All that over the unending squeal of a baby. Then, the woman was silent; after a while, so was the baby. I caught my breath and realized that my fists are clenched and my fingernails are cutting into the palms of my hands. My jaws were numb from clenching my teeth.

“That lasted for a long time,” The Little One said solemnly. “I was tired from screaming. I fell asleep. When I woke up, it was dark, just like before. I was cold. I was hungry. I wanted to be full and warm so badly that it became so.”

A cascade of sounds streamed out of the intercom, completely unfamiliar sounds. A level humming sound, a rapid series of clicks, something sounding like an echo; a low-pitched barely audible murmur; a squeak, a crunch, a buzzing sound, gong-like bangs, quiet crackling… It went on for a few minutes. Then everything was quiet, and The Little One, slightly out of breath, said,

“No. I can’t tell it this way. This way, my story will last as long as I’m alive. What do I do?”

“So you were fed? And warmed?” Komov asked in a flat voice.

“It became as I wanted it to be. And ever since, it was the way I wanted it to be. Until the first ship came in.”

“And what was that?” Komov asked and did what I thought was a brilliant imitation of the sound soup we just heard.

A pause.

“Oh, I see,” The Little One said. “You really can’t do it, but I understood you. But I can’t answer. Even you don’t have a word for it. And you know more words than I do. Give me more words. You gave me many valuable words, but none of them is right for this.”

A pause.

“What color was it?” Komov asked.

“None. Color is something you see with your eyes. Over there, you can’t see with your eyes.”

“Where is over there?” Komov asked.

“My place. Deep. Underground.”

“And how does it feel to the touch?”

“Wonderful,” The Little One said. “Pleasure. Cheshire cat! My place is the best. It was, until humans came.”

“Do you sleep there?” Komov asked.

“I do everything there. Sleep, eat, think. I only play here, because I like seeing with my eyes. And it’s too cramped to play there. It’s like underwater, only more cramped.”

“But you can’t breath underwater,” Komov said.

“Why? Of course you can. You can play, too. But it’s too cramped.”

A pause.

“Have you found out everything about me?” The Little One asked.

“No,” Komov said decisively. “I haven’t found out anything. You can see that we have no common words. Maybe you have words of your own?”

“Words…” The Little One said slowly. “It’s when the mouth moves, and you can hear it with your ears. No. Only humans do that. I knew there were words because I remember. Hoist the royal sails! What does it mean? I don’t know. But now I know what many words mean. I didn’t before. It was pleasure to speak. A game.”

“Now you know what ‘ocean’ means,” Komov said, “but you have seen the ocean before. What did you call it?”

A pause.

“I am listening,” Komov said.

“What are you listening to? Why? I called it. You can’t hear it. It’s within.”

“Perhaps you can show?” Komov said. “You have rocks and twigs…”

“Rocks and twigs are not for showing,” The Little One announced, angrily, I thought. “Rocks and twigs are for thinking. If it’s a hard question, rocks and twigs. If you don’t know what the question is, leaves. There are many things here. Water, ice; the ice melts well, so…” The Little One took a pause. “No words,” he announced. “Many different things. Hair… and a lot of things for which there are no words. But that’s over there, in my place.”

I heard a long heavy sigh. I thought it was Vanderhuse. Maika suddenly asked,

“And when you move your face? What’s that?”

“Ma-ma…” The Little One said in a tiny tender mewing voice. “The face, the hands, the body,” he continued in Maika’s voice, “are also things for thinking. There are many of those things. Too long to name them all.”

A pause.

“What do we do?” The Little One asked. “Have you thought of anything?”

“I have,” Komov said. “You take me to your place. I look around and find out a lot right away. Maybe even everything.”

“I thought about that,” The Little One said. “I know you want to see my place. I want you to, but I can’t. That’s a question! When I want, I can do anything. But not with humans. I don’t want them to be, but they are. I want you to come to my place, but I can’t. Humans are trouble.”

“I understand,” Komov said. “Then let me take you to my place. Would you like that?”

“Where?”

“To my place. Where I come from. To Earth, where all humans live. Over there, I’ll be able to find out everything about you, and quickly.”

“But this is very far away,” The Little One said. “Or did I misunderstand you?”

“It is far away,” Komov said. “But my ship—”

“No!” The Little One said. “You don’t understand. I can’t go far away. I can’t go far away, and I absolutely can’t go very far away. One time, I played on the ice. Fell asleep. Woke up in fear. Big fear, enormous. I even screamed. A fragment! A piece of ice floated away, and I could see only the tops of the mountains. I thought the ocean swallowed the land. Of course, I came back. I wanted it really badly, so the piece of ice went right back to the shore. But now I know that I can’t go far away. I wasn’t just scared. I was unwell. Like hunger, only much worse. No, I can’t go to your place.”

“Well, okay” Komov said in an artificially cheerful tone. “You must be tired of answering and explaining. I know you like asking questions. Ask me, and I will answer.”

“No,” The Little One said. “I have many questions for you. Why does a rock fall down? What is hot water? Why are there ten fingers, but only one is needed to count? Many questions. But I won’t ask now. Now is bad. You can’t go to my place, I can’t go to your place, no words. So you can’t fund out everything about me. What a charade! So you can’t leave. I am asking you: think of something to do. If you can’t think yourself, have your machines think million times faster. I am leaving. You can’t think when you talk. Think faster, because I am feeling worse than I did yesterday. And yesterday was worse than the day before yesterday.”

A rock rattled as it rolled. Vanderhuse signed again, long and heavy. Bfore I knew it, The Little One ran full speed toward the hills through the construction site. I watched him run across the landing strip and suddenly disappear, as if he never was. And right that second, as if on command, the multi-colored whiskers above the mountain range disappeared.

“All right,” Komov said. “We’re out of options. Jacob, please send a message to Sidorov, have him deliver the equipment; I see that I can’t make this work without a mentoscope.”

“Okay,” Vanderhuse said. “But I would like to point out, Gennady… Throughout the conversation, the indicator has not flashed green once.”

“I noticed,” Komov said.

“And those weren’t just negative emotions, Gennady. Those were clearly negative emotions…”

I couldn’t make out Komov’s answer.

I spent the rest of the evening and half of the night at the station. The Little One didn’t come. Neither did Maika.


[1] 109.4 Fahrenheit. (Translator’s note.)

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