The Little One (07/09)

The Little One

By Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky

Chapter Seven
Questions and Doubts

At breakfast, Komov was very talkative.  He looked like he didn’t sleep a wink; his eyes were red, cheeks sunken, but he was cheerful and excited.  He was filling up on strong tea and telling us his preliminary findings and conclusions.

According to him, there was no doubt that the locals have modified the boy’s organism in the most radical ways.  They seemed to be daring yet knowledgeable experimenters: they have altered his physiology and, to some extent, his anatomy, they have expanded the active area of his brain and gave him new physiological mechanisms that cannot be developed with the science we possess.  The goal of those anatomic and physiological modifications was most likely trivial: the locals simply attempted to adapt the helpless human baby to the inhuman living conditions of this world.  It wasn’t clear why they so seriously interfered in the functioning of his central nervous system.  It was possible that it came about accidentally, as an unintended consequence of other anatomic and physiological modifications.  But it was equally possible that they had tapped the reserves of human brain deliberately.  If that were true, there would be a whole new slew of guesses to make.  For example, they were trying to help The Little One preserve his infant memories and impressions to ease his reintegration into the human society.  Indeed, hanging out with us came very easily to The Little One; he doesn’t see us as freaks or monsters.  But it was still possible that The Little One’s enormous memory and his incredibly developed capacity for sound reproduction are but a side effect of brain modification by the locals.  Perhaps their foremost objective was to create a stable mental connection between themselves and The Little One’s central nervous.  The existence of such connection appeared highly likely.  In any case, it was difficult to come up with a different explanation for some pertinent facts, such as spontaneous (not involving logic) arrival of answers to The Little One’s questions; invariable coming true of every conscious and even unconscious desire of The Little One; The Little One’s inability to leave this region of the planet.  This was also highly likely to be reason for the distress The Little One’s was experiencing since the arrival of the humans.  The Little One himself couldn’t explain how exactly the humans interfere with his life.  It was obvious we weren’t interfering with his life.  We were interfering with that of the locals.  Which brought us yet again to the question of the locals’ nature.

Simple logic forced us to assume that the locals are either microscopic or enormous; one way or another, their physical size must be beyond comparison with that of the Little One.  This was why The Little One perceived them and their manifestations as elements, a part of nature surrounding him since infancy.  (“When I asked him about the whiskers, The Little One told me matter-of-factly that it was the first time he saw them, but he sees something for the first time every day.  We were unable to find a word to name those things collectively.”)  Personally, Komov was inclined to think that the locals are enormous super-organisms, quite far apart from both humanoids and the non-humanoids the human race encountered previously.  So far, we knew next to nothing about them.  We saw the monstrous structures (or body parts?) above the horizon, whose appearance and disappearance were clearly related to The Little One’s visits.  We heard The Little One replay mysterious sounds describing his “home”.  We understood that the locals possess extremely advanced theoretical and practical knowledge; one only needs to look at what they made out of a common human baby.  And that was it.  We didn’t even have a lot of questions, although the questions we did have were rather fundamental.  Why did the locals save and maintain The Little One, why were they interested in him in the first place, why did they even care?  How did they know humans, and they did seem to know humans quite well, including the basics of our psychology and sociology?  Why, in spite of all of the above, were they so disinclined to communicate with humans?  How could their obviously high level of knowledge be reconciled with a complete absence of any traces of sentient activity?  Or was the present sorry state of the planet a direct consequence of such activity?  Or was this state sorry only from our perspective?  So those were the big questions.  He, Komov, had some ideas about it all, but he thought airing them at this point would be premature.

In any case, it was clear that the discovery made here was a first-rate one; it had to be developed, but developing is only possible with The Little One’s intermediation.  Soon, the mentoscope and other special equipment would arrive.  We’d be able to use it to its fullest only if The Little One trusted us completely, and moreover, had a need for us.

“I decided that I am not working the contact today,” Komov said, pushing away an empty glass.  “Today is your turn.  Stas, you will show him Tom.  Maya, you will play ball with him and give him a ride in the glider.  Don’t be embarrassed, guys, have some fun!  Just imagine he is your gifted little brother…  Jacob, you will have to go on duty.  After all, it was you who instituted it…  If The Little One makes it to you, let him touch your sideburns; he’s really interested in them.  I, meanwhile, would hide away like a spider, watching and recoding everything.  Therefore, youngsters, each of you will have to wear a “third eye”.  If the Little One asks about me, tell him I am thinking.  Sing him songs, show him a movie…  Stas, show him the computer, tell him about how it works, try figuring out how fast he can compute.  I suspect you might be surprised…  And let him ask questions, lots of questions.  The more the better…  All right, guys, to your stations!”

He got up and sped off.  We looked at each other.

“Any questions, Mr. Robotic Technician?”  Maika asked.  Coldly, not friendly at all.  These were her first words this morning.  She even didn’t say good morning to me today.

“No, Ms. Quartermaster,”  I said, “No questions, Ms. Quartermaster.  I can see you, but I can’t hear you.”

“It’s all well and good,” Vanderhuse said pensively.  “I am not worried about my sideburns.  But!”

“Exactly,” Maika said, getting up.  “But.”

“I am trying to say,” Vanderhuse went on, “that last night, a message from Gorbovsky came in.  He was very delicate, yet unambiguous, in asking Komov not to rush the contact.  And he yet again hinted that he would like to join us.”

“So what did Komov say?” I asked.

Vanderhuse looked up and, fondling his left sideburn, looked at me over his nose.

“Komov said something irreverent,” he said.  “Verbally, of course.  His written reply was along the lines of thank you for your advice.”

“And?” I asked.  I really wanted to see Gorbovsky.  I haven’t really seen him even on the news.

“And that was it,” Vanderhuse said, also getting up.

Maika and I headed to the armory.  In the armory, we took out and put on the wide flat hoops of the “third eye”—you know, those portable transmitters that single scouts wear to transmit visuals and sounds of what the scout sees and hears.  A simple, but powerful thing; they only recently started to ship those with the ERs.  We had to fiddle with them a little to fit them so that the hoops don’t press too hard on the temples, don’t slide down on the bridge of the nose, and the camera lens isn’t blocked by the hood.  I was desperately trying to be funny, to make Maika laugh at me, anything to get her out of her stupor.  All in vain; Maika remained glum, kept silent, or answered curtly.  Actually, that does happen to her—she gets temporarily depressed, and it is usually best to leave her be on those occasions.  But right now, I thought Maika wasn’t depressed; she was angry, specifically with me.  Somehow, I felt that I let her down, and I had absolutely no idea what to do about that.

Then, Maika went to her room to look for a ball, and I let Tom out and herded him over to the landing strip.  The sun was up, the night’s bitter cold was receding, but it was still nippy.  My nose immediately froze.  In addition, there was a light, but very unkind breeze blowing in from the ocean.  The Little One was nowhere to be seen.

I ran Tom back and forth along the landing strip to let him warm up.  Tom was ecstatic with all the attention he was getting and faithfully kept asking for orders.  Then Maika came and brought a ball, so we kicked it around for about five minutes, just to keep warm, although, to be honest, it was fun, too.  I kept hoping that Maika would eventually warm up, but it was in vain yet again.  Eventually, I got tired of it and asked her directly what was eating her.  She stopped the ball, sat on it, tucked the tails of her parka around her, and got all miserable.

“Really, what is it?” I repeated.

Maika looked at me and turned away.

“Can you please answer?” I asked louder.

“It’s windy today,” Maika said, absentmindedly looking at the sky.

“What?” I asked.  “What does the wind have to do with anything?”

She tapped her finger on her forehead, next to the third eye’s lens and said,

“You-ka i-ka-di-ka-ot-ka.  We-ka are-ka be-ka-ing-ka re-ka-cor-ka-ded-ka.”

“You-ka are-ka the-ka i-ka-di-ka-ot-ka.  The hoop’s got a translator in it.”

“Indeed,” Maika said.  “So I say, it’s windy today.”

“Yes,” I confirmed.  “Windy indeed.”

I stood still for a while, feeling very constrained and trying to come up with a neutral topic for conversation; I couldn’t think of anything except the aforementioned wind, and then it occurred to me that it might be good to go walk around.  I haven’t been anywhere yet; I’ve been here for a week, but I barely had a chance to stand on the ground, mostly seeing it onscreen.  There was also a chance we could run into The Little One somewhere in the thicket, especially if he decides to make it happen, and that would be both pleasant and useful; we could talk to him in his habitual surroundings.  I explained it all to Maika.  She, still silent, got up and started walking toward the swamp; I, my nose in the fur lining of the parka and my hands deep in its pockets, followed.  Tom, itching to help in any way he can, started after me, but I told him to remain in position and wait for further instructions.

We didn’t go into the swamp, of course, but went around it instead, forcing our way through the thick undergrowth.  What a pitiful vegetation it was; pale and puny, withered bluish leaves with a metallic tint, brittle knotty branches, spotty orange bark.  The bushes were rarely as tall as I was, so Vanderhuse wouldn’t be risking his sideburns here.  Under our feet, there was a soft layer of fallen leaves mixed with sand.  Frost was sparkling in the shades.  But in spite of all that, the vegetation commanded certain respect.  It must be difficult to grow here; at night, temperature could fall to twenty degrees below freezing, during the day it was rarely warmer than freezing, and only salty sand to put roots in.  I don’t think there is a plant on Earth able to adapt to such joyless conditions.  And it was very strange to imagine that somewhere among those frozen bushes, a tiny naked human being was wandering, his bare heels stepping on the frost-covered sand.

I thought I saw a movement in the dense brush to my right.  I stopped and called out, “The Little One!”, but no one responded.  The frozen icy silence was all around us.  No rustling of the leaves, no buzzing of insects; it suddenly felt like we were wandering inside a theatrical stage set.  We went around a fog bank sticking out of the hot swamp and began ascending the slope of a hill.  Actually, it was a sand dune, held in place by the bushes.  The higher we went, the harder the sand under our feet became.  When we reached the crest, we looked around.  The ship was hidden by the fog, but we could see the landing strip well.  It surface was brightly glistening in the sun; the ball left behind was a lonely black dot in the middle of it; bulky Tom was uncertainly hovering over it trying to decide whether he should remove the unwanted item from the landing strip or guard this thing left behind by humans with his life.

Suddenly, I noticed traces of footsteps on the frozen sand, dark moist spots on the silvery frosted surface.  The Little One came by here very recently.  He sat on the crest, then got up and walked down the slope, away from the ship.  The traces led into a thicket covering the bottom of a ravine between the dunes.  “The Little One!”, I called out again, and again he didn’t call back.  Then I started down into the ravine.

I found him immediately.  The boy was lying down, stretching, his cheek pressed against the ground, hands holding his head.  He seemed strange and impossible here; he was completely out of place in this icy landscape.  He contradicted it.  For a second, I wondered worriedly if something had happened to him.  It was too cold and too unwelcoming there to think anything else.  I squatted next to him, called his name, and after he remained silent, I gently slapped him on his naked bony butt.  It was the first time I touched him, and I almost screamed; he felt hot as an iron.

“Has he worked it out?” The Little One asked without lifting up his head.

“He is thinking,” I said.  “It’s a difficult question.”

“How do I find out if he worked it out?”

“You come by, and he’ll tell you.”

“Ma-ma,” The Little One said suddenly.

I looked around.  Maika stood close by.

“Ma-ma,” The Little One repeated without moving.

“Yes, my bell,” Maika said quietly.

The Little One sat down; or, rather, he poured himself into a sitting position.

“Say that again!” he demanded.

“Yes, my bell,” Maika said.  Her face went pale; freckles suddenly became visible.

“Phenomenal!”  The Little One uttered, looking up at her.  “Nutcracker!”

I cleared my throat.

“We were waiting for you, The Little One,” I said.

He looked at me.  I was barely able to meet his gaze and not look away.  Say what you will, but his face looked scary.

“Why were you waiting for me?”

“Well, what do you mean, why?”  I was somewhat lost, but suddenly I had an idea.  “We miss you.  We feel bad without you.  No pleasure, you understand?”

The Little One jumped up and immediately sat back down.  Into a very uncomfortable position; I wouldn’t be able to sit like that for two seconds.

“You feel bad without me?”

“Yes,” I said decisively.

“Phenomenal,” he mumbled.  “You feel bad without me, I feel bad without you.  What a charade!”

“Why is it a charade?” I wondered.  “If we couldn’t be together, then it would have been a charade.  But now that we found each other, we can play…  You like playing, but you always played alone…”

“No,” The Little One objected.  “I played alone only in the beginning.  Then I was playing by the lake and saw my image in the water.  I wanted to play with it, but it fell apart.  Then I wanted to have images, many images, to play with them.  And it became so.”

He jumped up and ran a circle, leaving behind an intricate series of phantoms: black, white, yellow, red; then he sat down in the middle and proudly looked around.  I have to tell you, it was a sight to behold: a naked boy on the sand, and around him, a dozen of differently colored statues in different poses.

“Phenomenal,” I said and looked at Maika to encourage her to make some contribution to the conversation.  I felt awkward, because I kept talking while she remained silent.  But she didn’t say anything, just stared glumly, while the phantoms were slowly dissolving giving off the smell of ammonia.

“I always wanted to ask,” The Little One announced, “why do you wrap yourselves up?  What is this?”  He came up to me an pulled the tail of my parka.

“Clothes,” I said.

“Clothes,” he repeated.  “What is it for?”

I told him about clothes.  I am no Komov.  I have never lectured on anything, least of all on clothes.  But, false modesty aside, the lecture was a success.

“All humans wear clothes?”  The Little One asked, startled.

“Yes,” I said, just to get it over with.  I couldn’t understand what it was that startled him.

“But there are many humans!  How many?”

“Fifteen billion.”

“Fifteen billion,” he repeated, stretched out his hand and started repeatedly bending and straightening a finger with no fingernail.  “Fifteen billion!” he said and looked at the remnants of phantoms.  His eyes went dark.  “And all wear clothes…  And what else?”

“I don’t understand.”

“What else do they do?”

I took a deep breath and started telling him about what humans do.  As strange as it sounds, I didn’t think about it before.  I’m afraid The Little One might have gotten an impression that most people were involved in robotics.  However, I decided that for starters this wasn’t too bad.  The Little One wasn’t thrashing about the way he did during Komov’s lectures, nor did he tie himself into knots, but nevertheless he was listening, as if he were hypnotized.  When I finished, all confused and having given up on giving him an idea about art, he immediately asked another question.

“So many things to do,” he said.  “Why did you come here?”

“Maika, tell him,” I implored in a raspy voice.  “My nose is freezing…”

Maika gave me an alienated look, but nevertheless started, anemically and uninterestingly in my opinion, to tell the story of the late Project Ark.  I couldn’t stay out of it, so I started interrupting, trying to add some colorful details, inserted corrections, and finally realized that yet again I am the only person talking.  I thought it necessary to end the story with a moral.

“So you can see,” I said.  “We started a big thing, but as soon as we realized that your planet is occupied, we immediately dropped it.”

“So humans can find out what is to be?”  The Little One asked.  “No, that can’t be.  If they could, they would have left a long time ago.”

I couldn’t think of an answer.  The topic seemed slippery.

“You know, The Little One,” I said excitedly, “let’s go play.  You’ll see how much fun it is to play with humans.”

The Little One was silent.  I shot Maika a fierce look; what’s wrong with her, I can’t carry out this contact all by myself!

“Let’s go play, The Little One,” Maika chimed in with no enthusiasm.  “Or would you like me to give you a ride in a flying machine?”

“You’ll be flying up in the air,” I picked up the thread, “and everything will be down below—the mountains, the swamp, the iceberg…”

“No,” The Little One said.  “Flying is a common pleasure.  I can do that myself.”

I jumped.

“What do you mean, by yourself?”

A wave of ripples came across his face, his shoulders went up and down.

“I don’t have the words,” he said.  “When I want to, I fly.”

“So fly!” I blurted.

“Right now, I don’t want to,” he said impatiently.  “Right now, my pleasure is to be with you.”  He got up.  “I want to play!” he announced.  “Where?”

“Let’s run to the ship,” I offered.

He let out a sharp scream, and before the echoes of it died down in the dunes, we were racing through the brush.  I gave up on Maika; she can do whatever she wants.

The Little One slid between the bushes like a ray of light.  I don’t think he touched a single branch, or the ground, for that matter.  I, in my electrically heated parka, was brute-forcing my way through, like a sand tank, to the sound of cracking branches.  I kept trying to catch up with him, but I constantly got fooled by his phantoms, which he kept casting off.  At a clearing, The Little One stopped, waited for me to catch up, and said,

“Does it ever happen to you?  You wake up and remember that you just saw something.  Sometimes, it’s something you know well.  For example, flying.  Sometimes, it’s something new, something you haven’t seen before.”

“It does,” I said, catching my breath.  “This is called dreaming.  You sleep and dream.”

We started walking.  Somewhere behind, Maika was forcing her way through the cracking branches.

“Where does it come from?”  The Little One asked.  “What are dreams?”

“Unreal combinations of real experiences,” I rattled off.

He didn’t get it, of course, so I had to give him another little lecture about what dreams are, how they come about, what they are for, and how much worse off humans would be if dreams didn’t exist.

“Cheshire Cat!  But I still don’t understand why I dream about things that I have never seen before.”

Maika caught up with us and walked along, silent.

“For example?” I asked.

“Sometimes, I dream about being huge, about thinking, about questions coming to me one after another; very bright questions, amazing, and I find answers, amazing answers, and I know really well how an answer comes out of a question.  This is the greatest pleasure, to know how an answer comes out of a question.  But when I wake up, I don’t remember the questions and the answers.  I only remember the pleasure.”

“Hmm,” I said noncommittally.  “That’s an interesting dream.  But I can’t explain it.  Ask Komov.  Maybe he can.”

“Komov…  What is Komov?”

I had to explain our naming system to him.  We were coming around the swamp, and the ship and the landing strip were now visible.  When I finished, The Little One suddenly said,

“Strange.  It never happened to me before.”

“What?”

“Wanting something for myself and not getting it.”

“And what is it that you want?”

“I want to split in half.  Right now, I am one, but I want to be two.”

“Wow, man,” I said, “there’s nothing to want about that.  It’s impossible.”

“And if it were possible?  Would it be bad or good?”

“Bad, of course,” I said.  “I don’t quite understand what you’re trying to say…  You can get cut in half.  That’s really bad.  You can get sick; it’s called split personality.  That’s bad too, but that can be corrected.”

“Does it hurt?”  The Little One asked.

We stepped onto the landing strip.  Tom was rolling toward us, pushing the ball in front of him and happily flashing the signal lights.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said.  “You’re great as one.”

“No, I am not,” The Little One objected, but then, Tom came close, and fun began in earnest.

Questions poured out of The Little One like hail.  I could barely keep up with answering.  Tom barely kept up with carrying out commands.  The ball barely touched the ground.  And only The Little One kept up with everything.

From the outside, it probably looked like a lot of fun.  Well, we were having fun, and even Maika thawed out in the end.  We probably looked like mischievous teenagers who cut school to go to the beach.  At first, there was some awkwardness, a realization that we are working, not having fun, that our every move is being watched, that there’s something heavy left unsaid between us and The Little One, but it was gradually forgotten.  The only thing left was the ball flying straight into your face, and the excitement of a perfect kick, and the anger at Tom’s clumsiness, and the ringing in the ears from giddy screams, and the harsh cackling laugh of The Little One; it was the first time we heard his laughter, carefree and very childish…

It was a strange game.  The Little One made up the rules on the go.  He turned out to be incredibly tough and excitable, he passed up no chance to show off his physical abilities, he imposed competition upon us, and little by little it happened so that he started playing against the three of us and we kept losing.  At first, he won because we let him.  Then he won because we didn’t understand his rules.  Then we got the rules, but Maika and I were impeded by our parkas.  Then we decided that Tom was too clumsy, so we sent him away.  Maika got excited and started playing full force, I also did all I could, but we were still losing point after point.  We couldn’t do anything against this lightning-fast little devil, who intercepted any ball thrown at him, hit strongly and precisely, screamed unhappily when the ball spent more than a second on our side, threw us off with his phantoms or, even worse, by instantly disappearing from sight and reappearing elsewhere.  We were not about to surrender though; we gave off clouds of steam, we were out of breath, we were sweating, we were screaming at each other, but we fought to the bitter end.  Suddenly, it all ended.

The Little One stopped, cast a long look at the ball flying away, and sat down on the sand.

“That was good,” he said.  “I didn’t know I could feel that good.”

“What?” I screamed, out of breath.  “Are you tired, The Little One?”

“No.  I remembered.  Can’t forget.  It doesn’t help.  No pleasure helps.  Don’t ask me to play anymore.  I was feeling bad before, but it’s worse now.  Tell him to think faster.  I’ll tear myself in two if he doesn’t work it out quickly.  I am hurting on the inside.  I want to tear myself in two, but I’m afraid.  So I can’t.  If it hurts real bad, I won’t be afraid anymore.  He has to think quickly.”

“Oh, come on, The Little One!” I said, saddened.  I didn’t really understand what was happening to him, but I saw that he was actually hurting.  “Get it out of your head!  It’s just that you aren’t used to people.  We have to get together more often, play more…”

“No,” The Little One said and got up.  “I won’t be coming anymore.”

“Why?” I shouted.  “It was good!  And it can be even better!  There are other games, not just ball games…  The hoop games, the wings games!”

He was slowly walking away.

“There are chess!” I was quickly talking to his back.  “Do you know what chess is?  It’s the greatest game, it’s thousand years old!”

He stopped for a second.  I started explaining, quickly and excitedly, what chess is; the simple chess, the three-dimensional chess, the n-dimensional chess…  He stood and listened, looking away.  I finished with chess and started on pockars.  Meanwhile, I was desperately trying to think of every game I knew.

“Okay,” The Little One said.  “I will come back.”

With that, he slowly walked toward the swamp.  For a while, we looked at him go, then Maika shouted, “The Little One!”, ran after him, caught up and walked along.  I picked up my parka, put it on, found Maika’s parka, and started after them uncertainly.  I felt something unpleasant on the inside, and I didn’t understand what the problem was.  Everything seemed to end well; The Little One promised to come back, so he might be getting attached to us, so without us, he is worse off than he is with us… “He’ll get used to it,” I kept telling myself, “it’s okay, he’ll get used to it…”  I saw Maika stop while The Little One kept walking.  Maika turned around, hugged her shoulders, and ran toward me.  I handed her the parka and asked,

“So?”

“It’s okay,” she said.  Her eyes were transparent and somehow desperate.

“I think that eventually—” I started, but immediately stalled.  “Maika,” I said, “you’ve lost the third eye!”

“I haven’t,” Maika said.

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