The Little One (08/09)

The Little One

By Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky

Chapter Eight
Doubts and Decisions

The Little One was walking away from the ship, westward along the coast, straight through the dunes and brush. At first, the third eye kept his attention. He would stop, take the hoop off, turn it this way and that in his hands, so our monitor screen would show the pale sky, or the bluish-green mask of his face, or the frost-covered sand. Eventually, he let the hoop alone. I don’t know if it was the way he moved of the way he put the hoop on, but it looked like the lens wasn’t facing exactly forward, but somewhat off to the right instead. The screen showed a succession of dunes and frozen bushes; sometimes, we would see the purplish mountaintops of the black ocean with glistening icebergs on the horizon.

It seemed that The Little One was wandering aimlessly; he just went wherever his eyes led him, as far away from us as he could get. Several times, he ascended to the tops of a dune to look our way. The monitor screen showed the blindingly white cone of the ER-2, the silvery ribbon of the landing strip, the orange hulk of Tom, parked all by himself against the unfinished wall of the weather observation station. But try as we might, we couldn’t find The Little One on any of our observation screens.

After about an hour, The Little One abruptly turned toward the mountains. Now the sun was shining straight into the lens, so the picture quality got worse. The dunes soon ended, so The Little One was walking through a thin forest, stepping over the twigs rotting on the ground, among knobby trunks covered with peeling spotty bark, on the brown soil imbibed with icy moisture. Once, he climbed on top of a lonely rock of granite, stood there looking around, then jumped down, picked up two semi-rotten boughs and went on, knocking them on each other. At first, the knocking was random, then, a rhythm appeared in it, and mixing into the rhythm was some sort of buzzing or humming. The sound of it was continuous and unpleasant, and it was getting louder. Most likely, it was The Little One who was buzzing and humming; it might have been a song, or perhaps a conversation with himself.

On he went, knocking, buzzing and humming; meanwhile, larger and larger rocks were visible in-between the trees. Then, a lake appeared onscreen. The Little One went into the water without stopping; for a second we could see the stirring of water, then, the picture darkened and disappeared: The Little One dove.

He stayed underwater for a very long time; I thought he actually drowned the transmitter and we wouldn’t see anything else, but in about ten minutes, the picture came back, blurred, washed-out, and fluid. At first, we couldn’t make anything out, but soon, there was an image of a hand on the right of the screen; jumping and wriggling on the palm of the hand was a small and ugly Pantian fish.

When the eye’s lens finally cleared, The Little One was running. Tree trunks rushed at us, only to jump aside at the very last moment. He ran very quickly, but we heard neither footfall nor breathing; there was only the noise of the blowing wind and the sun flashing though the tangled leafless boughs. Suddenly, something strange happened; The Little One halted abruptly in front of a gray rock and plunged his hands into it to the elbows. I don’t know, maybe there was a well-camouflaged opening in it, but I think there wasn’t. When The Little One withdrew his hands a few seconds later, they were black and shiny, and the black shiny coating dripped from the tips of his fingers and fell on the ground with a clearly audible wet thumping. Then the hands disappeared from the view, and The Little One ran on.

He stopped in front of an elaborate structure that looked like a leaning tower; it took me a few seconds to realize that it was the crashed Pelican ship. Only now I saw how badly it crashed and what the long years on this planet did to it. It wasn’t a particularly pleasant sight. Meanwhile, The Little One approached slowly, looked into the opened hole of the hatch (for a moment, the screen went dark), then equally slowly walked around the ill-fated ship. Yet again, he stopped in front of the hatch, lifted up his hand, and put the palm of his black hand with fingers spread onto the corroded hull. He stood like that for about a minute; we heard the buzzing and humming again, and I thought I saw streaks of bluish smoke rise from under the spread fingers. Finally, he took away his hand and took a step back. The blackened dead outer shell now bore a clearly visible print; a palm of a hand with fingers widely spread.

“You my cricket on the hearth,” a hearty baritone said.

“My little bell!” a female voice responded.

The baby cried.

The palm print abruptly moved aside and disappeared. Now the screen showed a slope of a mountain; cracked granite; old rock slides; a mess of jagged rocks, sharp edges glistening in the sun; bunches of anemic grass; deep impermeably black ravines. The Little One was climbing up the slope, we saw his hands grab the protrusions, the rock was moving down the screen in spurts; we heard his breathing, steady and noisy, and then the movement was flowing and fast, my head span momentarily, the slope suddenly was far away, dropping down and to the side, and we heard a short burst of The Little One’s harsh laughter. There was no doubt: The Little One was flying.

Onscreen, the grayish-lilac sky was shining; off to the side, something was pulsing, looking like a torn off piece of dusty muslin. The bright lilac sun slowly floated across the screen; the dusty muslin covered everything and then disappeared. Far below, we saw the plateau covered in lilac mist, the horrible scars of bottomless canyons, the unrealistically sharp peaks covered in snow—a joyless icy world stretching to the horizon and beyond, dead, cracked and bristling. We saw The Little One’s sturdy knee, shining as if lacquered, hanging above the abyss, and his black hand, holding tightly onto something invisible.

To be honest, by then, I stopped believing my eyes and checked if the transmission was being recorded. It was. But Vanderhuse looked just as puzzled as I felt, and Maika was squinting and craning her neck this way and that, as if her shirt collar bothered her. Only Komov was completely calm and still; he sat with his elbows on the console, his chin on his interlaced fingers.

The Little One, meanwhile, was descending. The rocky desert approached fast, slowly turning around an invisible axis, and it was clear where that axis originated: a black crack across a brown field full of broken rocks. The crack grew wider, its sunlit edge seemed smooth and precisely vertical, and there was no way to see its bottom—it was completely dark inside. The Little One fell into that darkness full-speed; the picture disappeared, so Maika turned on amplification, but even amplification didn’t let us see anything but gray stripes flowing across the screen. Then, The Little One let out a loud scream, and the movement stopped. “He crashed!” I thought, horrified. Maika clutched on my arm.

The screen was full of blurred unmoving spots, everything was gray and black, and there were strange sounds—bubbling, raspy gurgling, hissing. The familiar black hand with fingers widely spread appeared and disappeared. The blurred spots started moving, gurgling and bubbling got louder, then quieter, an orange light came on and went off, then another, and another… Something made a roaring sound, which echoed multiple times. “Turn on the infrared,” Komov said through his teeth. Maika grabbed the infrared amplifier’s knob and turned it to the maximum. The screen got lighter, but I still wasn’t understanding anything.

The space was full of phosphorescent fog. But it wasn’t just a fog; there was some structure to it, like a sample of a living tissue under an out-of-focus microscope, and within that structured fog, there were lighter areas and collections of dark pulsating kernels, and it all was hanging in mid-air, sometimes disappearing and then appearing again, and The Little One was walking through it, as if it didn’t exist; he walked with his hands stretched forward and shining, his fingers still widely spread and vibrating in a complicated rhythm, and everything around him was bubbling, rasping, murmuring, and ticking.

So he went on for a while, and we began to notice that the motif of the structure is paling and dissolving, and then only the milky glowing and the barely noticeable outline of The Little One’s spread fingers were visible onscreen. And then, The Little One stopped. We realized it because the sounds stopped approaching and retreating. Those sounds. An avalanche, a cascade of sounds. Raspy rumbles, low-pitched murmurs, suppressed squeaks… something made a wet bursting sound and splashed all over… buzzing, screeching, gong-like banging… And then through the even glow, dark spots began to show, dozens of dark spots, large and small; blurry at first, they began to take shape, looking more and more like something amazingly familiar, and suddenly I realized what it was. It was utterly impossible, but I couldn’t see it otherwise. People. Dozens, hundreds of people, a crowd organized into some sort of formation and visible from above… And then, something happened. For a split second, the image was completely clear. But it was too short to actually see anything. Then, there was a desperate scream, the picture turned on its head and disappeared altogether. Immediately, Komov’s enraged voice seethed,

“Why did you do that?”

The screen was dead. Komov stood unnaturally straight, his clenched fists pushing against the console. He stared at Maika. Maika was pale yet calm. She also stood up and was now facing Komov. She was silent.

“What just happened?” Vanderhuse asked carefully. It seemed that he had no idea.

“You are either a hooligan or—” Komov stopped. “I am excluding you from the contact group. You are forbidden to leave the ship, to enter the control room and the weapons control station. Leave this room now.”

Maika, still silent, turned around and left. Without a second’s pause, I started after her.

“Popov!” Komov said curtly.

I stopped.

“Please transmit this recording to the Center. Extremely urgent.”

He looked me straight in the eye, and I felt unwell. I’ve never seen this Komov. This Komov had the undisputable right to order people around, put them under house arrest, and generally nip any mutiny at the bud. I had a feeling I was about to split into two. “Like The Little One,” a thought rushed through my head.

Vanderhuse cleared his throat and said slowly,

“Um, Gennady. Perhaps not to the Center? Gorbovsky is already at the base. Perhaps to the base, what do you think?”

Komov was still looking at me. His narrowed eyes looked icy.

“Yes, of course,” he said, somehow calmly. “Copy to Gorbovsky at the base. Thank you, Jacob. Popov, proceed.”

I had no other option but to proceed. But I was unhappy. If we were hats, like in the old times, I would put mine on backwards. But I didn’t have a hat on, so I, while extracting the tape from the recorder, limited myself to asking in a challenging tone,

“And what exactly just happened? What was it that she did?”

For a while, Komov was silent. He was back to his seat, chewing on his lip and drumming on the armrest with his fingers. Vanderhuse, sideburns spread to the sides, also looked at him expectantly.

“She turned on the projector,” Komov said finally.

It didn’t occur to me right away.

“What projector?”

Komov, without responding, pointed out a depressed button.

“Ah,” Vanderhuse said sadly.

I didn’t say anything. I picked up the tape and went over to the transmitter. To be honest, I had nothing to say. People have been noisily and dishonorably banned from space for far lesser misdeeds. Maika turned on the emergency flash projector mounted on the hoop. You can imagine what the cave’s inhabitants must have felt like when a tiny sun suddenly flashed in the otherwise eternal darkness. An unconscious scout can be found by the light of this flash from the orbit even on the light side of a planet… even if he is buried in rubble… This projector flashes in a wide spectral range, from ultraviolet to ultra-short radio… There wasn’t a single case when this flash failed to scare off the maddest and most bloodthirsty animal. Even tahorgs, which aren’t afraid of anything in the world, brake with their hind legs, stopping their otherwise unstoppable attack… “She’s flipped,” I thought desperately. “She went completely mad…” But aloud, while sitting down at the transmitter, I said,

“So what? She made a mistake, pushed the wrong button…”

“Indeed,” Vanderhuse said. “This is probably what happened. She might have wanted to turn on the infrared projector… The buttons are next to each other… What do you think, Gennady?”

Komov was silent. He was doing something at the console. I didn’t want to look at him. I turned on the transmitted and demonstratively looked away.

“That’s unpleasant, of course,” Vanderhuse was mumbling. “Indeed, it may be reflected in… Active impact… Can’t be pleasant… Um… We have all been nervous over the last few days, Gennady. It’s not surprising the girl made a mistake… I myself wanted to do something… to improve the picture somehow… Poor boy. I think it was he screaming…”

“Here,” Komov said. “Take a look. Three and a half frames.”

I heard Vanderhuse wheeze apprehensively. I couldn’t help it and looked at them. I couldn’t see anything behind their heads, so I got up and came closer. Onscreen, there was that which I saw at the last moment, but didn’t have time to process. The picture quality was great, but I still couldn’t figure out what it was. Many people, a multitude of black figures, absolutely identical, forming line after line. They stood on a smooth and well-lit surface. The figures in the front looked larger, those in the back, in complete accordance with the laws of perspective, smaller. The rows seemed to be endless and morphed into solid black lines in the distance.

“This is The Little One,” Komov said. “Can you see?”

Now I saw it: indeed, it was The Little One, repeated, as if through great many mirrors, great many times.

“Looks like multiple reflection,” Vanderhuse murmured.

“Reflection…” Komov repeated. “In that case, where is the reflection of the flash? And where is The Little One’s shadow?”

“I don’t know,” Vanderhuse admitted honestly. “Indeed, there had to be a shadow.”

“What do you think, Stas?” Komov asked without turning around.

“Nothing,” I said curtly and returned to my seat.

In reality, of course, I did think; my brain was in overload, but I couldn’t come up with anything. Of all things, this reminded me most of a formalist pen drawing.

“Well, we haven’t found out a whole lot,” Komov said. “Even what little we had wasn’t that good…”

“Ouch,” Vanderhuse said, got up clumsily, and left.

I also wanted to leave, to see how Maika is holding up. But I looked at the clock and realized that the translation has about ten minutes to go. Komov was doing something behind my back. Then, his hand stretched out over my shoulder, and a blue outgoing message form landed on the console in front of me.

“This is an explanatory note,” Komov said. “Send it out immediately after you transmit the recording.”

I read the message.

From: ER-2 / Komov. To: Base / Gorbovsky. Copy: Center / Bader. I just forwarded you a recording from a TG transmitter carried by The Little One. The recording was made between 13:46 and 17:02 local time; terminated due to accidental activation of emergency flash owing to my negligence. Situation is currently uncertain.

I didn’t get it and read the message once again. Then I looked over at Komov. He sat in the same pose, his chin over his interlaced fingers, and stared at the observation screen. I wasn’t like I was overwhelmed with thankfulness. No. Too small was my sympathy for the man. But I had to respect what he did. In this kind of situation, not everyone would do something as decisive and simple. And it really didn’t matter why he did what he did; whether because he felt sorry for Maika (doubtful), or because he was embarrassed of his overreaction (more likely), or because he is one of those managers who sincerely believe that they are responsible for their subordinates’ misdeeds. At any rate, Maika’s chances of being banned from space have dropped substantially, while Komov’s reputation just took a noticeable hit. All right, Gennady, this one is a point in your favor. This is something that has to be encouraged. And as to Maika, we’ll have to talk. What the hell, really? What is she, a child? Did she decide to play with dolls here?

The transmitter rang and turned itself off, so I started working on the message. Vanderhuse came in, pushing a serving cart in front of himself. Completely noiselessly and with precision worthy of the best robotic server, he put a tray next to Komov’s right elbow. Komov thanked him absentmindedly. I picked up a glass of tomato juice, drank it down and poured some more.

“What about the salad?” Vanderhuse asked, aggrieved.

I shook my head and said, addressing Komov’s back,

“I am all done. May I be dismissed?”

“Yes,” Komov replied without turning around. “Do not leave the ship.”

In the hallway, Vanderhuse told me,

“Maika is eating.”

“Hysterical?” I asked angrily.

“Just the opposite. I would say that she it calm and happy. And not a trace of remorse.”

We came into the mess hall together. Maika sat at the table, ate soup and read a book.

“Hello, prisoner,” I said, sitting down in front of her with my glass.

Maika looked up from her book and looked at me, squinting one eye.

“How’s the management?” she asked.

“Thinking heavily,” I said looking at her. “Trying to decide whether to string you up immediately or take you to Dover to be chained and quartered.”

“And what’s on the horizons?”

“No change.”

“All right,” Maika said. “He won’t be back.”

She said it with the clear air of satisfaction. Her eyes were alight with cheerfulness and mischief, just like before. I took a sip of tomato juice and shot a sideways look at Vanderhuse. Vanderhuse, emotionless, was eating my salad. Suddenly, I thought our captain is quite happy that he is not in charge of this operation.

“Well,” I said, “it looks like you just blew our contact.”

“Guilty as charged,” Maika answered curtly and went back to the book. Only she wasn’t reading. She was waiting for more.

“Let us hope that all is not lost,” Vanderhuse said. “Let us hope that this is just another complication.”

“Do you think The Little One will be back?” I asked.

“I think so,” Vanderhuse said with a sigh. “He loves asking questions. And now he has a whole lot more.” He finished the salad and got up. “I am off to the control room,” he announced. “To be honest, this is quite an ugly story. I understand you, Maika, but I cannot justify what you did. This is no way to behave…”

Maika didn’t respond, and Vanderhuse left, pushing a serving cart in front of himself. As soon as his footsteps died down, I asked, trying to sound both polite and strict,

“Did you do it accidentally or deliberately?”

“And what do you think?” Maika asked, eyes glued to the book.

“Komov just claimed it was his fault,” I said.

“Meaning?”

“The flash, according to him, went off due to his negligence.”

“Very nice,” Maika said slowly. She put the book down and stretched. “A great gesture.”

“Is this all you can tell me?”

“And what exactly do you want? An admission of guilt? A show of remorse? Some crying on your shoulder?”

I took another sip of juice. I was holding back my anger.

“First of all, I would like to know, accidentally or deliberately?”

“Deliberately. What next?”

“Next, I would like to know why you did it.”

“I did it to stop this ugly business once and for all. Next?”

“What ugly business? What are you talking about?”

“It was disgusting!” Maika said forcefully. “It was inhuman. I couldn’t just sit there and watch a foul comedy turn into a tragedy.” She threw the book away. “And don’t you glare at me! And don’t you dare to stand up for me! Oh, he is so magnanimous! The favorite student of Dr. Mboga! I’ll quit anyway. Quit, become a schoolteacher and will teach children how to stop the fanatics of abstract ideas and fools who assist them!”

I had every intention to be polite until the end. But at this point, my patience wore thin. I am generally not big on patience.

“Insolent!” I said, failing to find words. “You’re behaving like an insolent child! Insolent!”

I tried to take another sip of juice, but it turned out that the glass was empty. Little by little, I drank it all.

“Anything else?” Maika said with a smirk of contempt.

“That’s it,” I said glumly, looking at the empty glass. Indeed, I had nothing else to say. I was out of ammunition. It was possible that my real intent for visiting Maika wasn’t to find out what happened, but simply to cuss her out.

“Well, if that’s it,” Maika said, “you should head over to the control room and give your friend Komov a big kiss. And another one to your friend Tom and your other robotic friends. And we, you know, are only human, and nothing human is alien to us.”

I pushed the glass away and stood up. There was nothing to talk about anymore. Everything was clear. I used to have a friend; now I don’t. Oh well, we’ll have to endure.

“Bon appétit,” I said, and walked out into the hallway on unbending legs.

My heart was pounding, my lips trembled disgustingly. I locked myself in my room, fell on the bed, and buried my face in the pillow. In the bitter and bottomless empty space inside my head, unsaid words whirled, collided, and dissipated. Stupid. Stupid! Well, suppose you don’t like the project. So what? People aren’t supposed to like everything! After all, you weren’t invited to be here, you got here accidentally, so behave properly! You know nothing of contacts, you damn quartermaster… Sketch your silly maps and do what you’re told! What do you know of abstract ideas? And where have you seen them remain abstract? It could be abstract today, but tomorrow history could stop without it… All right, you don’t like it. Then excuse yourself! It was going so well; we just started getting it right with The Little One, he is such a great kid, so smart, you could move mountains with him on the team! Were it not for you, quartermaster… And you call yourself my friend… Now I don’t have The Little One, and I don’t have a friend, either… And Komov’s been great, too: he blundered through like a tank, not asking anyone’s advice, not even explaining anything… Nope, not another contact for me; I’ve had it! As soon as all this commotion is over, I am applying to Project Ark-2, along with Vadim, Tanya, and the smart girl Ninon. I will work like a beast of burden; no talk, no distractions. And no contacts! Finally, I fell asleep and slept so deeply that only the snores rolled off, as my great-grandfather used to say. Come to think of it, I slept less than four hours in the last two days. Vanderhuse was barely able to wake me up. It was my time to go on duty.

“What about Maika?” I asked, not yet fully awake, but quickly caught myself. Vanderhuse pretended he didn’t hear me.

I took a shower, got dressed, and went into the control room. The unpleasant thoughts of yesterday took over again. I didn’t want to talk to anybody or see anybody. Vanderhuse signed off duty and went to bed after informing me that there’s nothing going on around the ship and in six hours, Komov will relieve me.

It was precisely twenty-two hundred hours local time. Onscreen, the flames of aurora borealis were flashing above the mountains, strong wind blew in from the ocean, tearing apart the cap of fog above the hot swamp, pressing leafless bushes to the ground, throwing onto the beach fragments of instantly freezing foam. On the landing strip, leaning slightly into the wind, Tom was hanging out all by himself. His signal lights indicated that he is in the middle of a downtime, has no tasks outstanding, and remains ready to carry out any order. I turned on the external acoustics; for a minute or so, I listened to the roar of the ocean, the whistling and howling of the wind, the drumming of ice-cold drops on the hull, and then I switched off.

I tried to imagine what The Little One might be doing right now, thought back to the hot structured fog, the blurred spots of light, or, perhaps, not light, but warmth, and that even glow, filled with a soup of strange sounds, and the mysterious formation of reflections, which were not reflections… Oh well, in there, he is warm, comfortable, secure, and he has a few—quite a few—things to think about. He is probably hiding in some rocky corner and stewing over Maika’s transgression. (“Ma-ma…”—“Yes, my little bell”, I remembered.) From The Little One’s viewpoint, it has to look very unfair. If I were he, I would never come back here. And Komov was so happy when Maika put her hoop on The Little One. “Great job, Maya,” he said. “This is a great gamble, I wouldn’t risk it…” Well, nothing good came out of it anyway. The TG designers could improve a few things, too. The camera, for example, has to be stereo… Although the TG was designed for a different purpose… But still, we were able to steal a few glances. For example, we saw The Little One fly. Only how did he fly, why, and on what? And that scene at the Pelican crash site… The planet of invisible creatures. Well, we could see a few curious things, if only Komov allowed the launch of the guard/scout. Would he allow it now? Well, at first, we won’t even need the guard/scout. For starters, we could just use the high resolution radar to look around the horizon…

The radio pinged; an incoming call. I took it. An unfamiliar voice very politely, almost timidly, asked for Komov.

“Who is this?” I asked in a not particularly welcoming tone.

“Um, I am a member of Commission for Contacts. My name is Gorbovsky,” I sat down. “I really need to speak to Gennady. Or is he asleep?”

“Just a minute, Leonid,” I mumbled. “I’ll get him right away, Leonid…” I turned on the intercom. “Komov to the control room,” I said. “An urgent call from the base.”

“Um, it’s not really urgent—” Gorbovsky protested.

“Leonid Gorbovsky calling!” I added solemnly into the intercom, so Komov would make it quick.

“Young man…” Gorbovsky called out.

“Stas Popov, robotic technician, on duty!” I reported. “On my watch so far, no incidents!”

Gorbovsky took a pause, then said uncertainly,

“At ease…”

There was the sound of footsteps, and Komov briskly walked into the control room. His face was drawn, eyes glassy, dark circles under the eyes. I got up and offered him the seat.

“Komov here,” he said. “Is this you, Leonid?”

“Yes, it is, hello…” Gorbovsky responded. “Listen, Gennady, can we somehow make it so that we can see each other? There are some buttons on here…”

Komov only looked at me, and my hands automatically went to the console and patched the camera in. The radio operators typically keep the camera off by default. For a variety of reasons.

“Aha,” Gorbovsky said happily. “I can see you now.”

Our screen was now showing a picture, too; it was the familiar long and slightly concave face of Leonid Gorbovsky. Although in his portraits he looked like an ancient philosopher, right now we looked worried and disappointed; on his duckbill of a nose, to my sheer amazement, there was a scratch, which looked fresh. When the picture stabilized, I stepped back and quietly sat into the watch commander’s seat. I felt I was about to be kicked out of the room, so I started to fiercely watch the ships surroundings pounded by the hurricane.

Gorbovsky said,

“First of all, thank you, Gennady. I looked at all your materials, and I have to tell you, it was something special. Maddeningly interesting. Inventive, graceful, illuminating…”

“I am flattered,” Komov said curtly. “But?”

“Why but?” Gorbovsky wondered. “You mean, and? And the majority of the Commission is of the same opinion. It’s hard to believe the amount of work that was done over two days.”

“This is not my doing,” Komov said dryly. “Favorable circumstances, and that’s that.”

“Not at all,” Gorbovsly objected lively. “You have to admit, you knew beforehand who you’re dealing with. That’s not easy, knowing beforehand. And then, your decisiveness, intuition… energy…”

“I am flattered, Leonid,” Komov repeated, slightly more loudly.

Gorbovsky took a pause and suddenly asked very quietly,

“Gennady, what do you think is going to happen to The Little One?”

The feeling that I was about to be asked to leave the control room rose to its apogee. I shrank and stopped breathing.

Komov said,

“The Little One will be an intermediary in the contact between Earth and the locals.”

“I understand,” Komov said. “That would be wonderful. But what if the contact doesn’t happen?”

“Leonid,” Komov said harshly. “Let’s be straight. Let’s spit out what we’re really thinking right now and what our greatest fears are. I am trying to turn The Little One into Earth’s instrument. To that end, I am using, ruthlessly, if you will, everything at my disposal to restore a human being within him. The problem is, the human psyche, the human view of the world, seem to be alien to the locals who brought The Little One up. They are repelled by us, they don’t want us. And this attitude permeates The Little One’s entire subconscious. For better or worse, the locals left enough human in The Little One to give us a chance to win over his conscious mind. The current situation is critical. The Little One’s conscious mind belongs to us. His unconscious, to them. It’s a serious high-risk conflict, I realize that, but it is solvable. I need literally a few more days to get The Little One ready. I will disclose the true state of affairs to him, I will free his unconscious, and The Little One will be completely turned into our co-worker. I am sure you understand, Leonid, what the value of this cooperation would be for us… I envision many difficulties. For example, the unconscious repulsion could potentially evolve—after we disclose the true state of affairs to him—into a conscious effort to protect his home and his saviors from us. New dangerous stress factors may emerge. But I am sure we will be able to convince The Little One that our civilization are equal partners, each with its own advantages and disadvantages, so he, as an intermediary, will be able to draw from both sides for the rest of his life, with no concern about the well-being of either side. He will be proud of his unique status, his life will be full of joy and…” Komov took a pause. “We must, we absolutely have to risk it. There won’t be another chance ever again. This is my opinion, Leonid.”

“I see,” Gorbovsky said. “I know your ideas, I appreciate them. I know what the purpose of this risk is. But you have to agree, risk must have reasonable limits. From the very beginning, I was on your side. I knew we’re taking a risk, I was scared, but I kept thinking, maybe it’ll work itself out? The prospects, the opportunities! And I also kept thinking, we will always have a chance to retreat. I couldn’t even imagine that the boy would turn out to be so communicative that it would get to this point within two days.” Gorbovsky took a pause. “Gennady, there won’t be a contact. We have to stand down.”

“There will be a contact,” Komov said.

“There won’t be,” Gorbovsky repeated softly, yet insistently. “You understand full well, Gennady, that we are dealing with a curled-up civilization. An inward-looking intelligence.”

“This isn’t inwardness,” Komov said. “This is quasi-inwardness. They have sterilized the planet and obviously maintain it in this state. They somehow saved and brought up The Little One. Finally, they are quite well aware of the human race. This is quasi-inwardness, Leonid.”

“Well, Gennady, a complete inwardness is a theoretical idealization. There will always be some functional activity directed outward, such as sanitation. As to The Little One… I realize that I am only speculating, but if this civilization is old enough, its humanism could evolve into an unconditional social reflex, into a social instinct. The child was saved simply because they felt the need for it…”

“It is all possible,” Komov said. “Speculations aren’t important right now. The important thing is, we’re dealing with quasi-inwardness; there are still avenues for contact. Of course, the convergence process will be lengthy. We may need ten times or hundred times the time it takes to get close to an outward-looking civilization… No, Leonid. I thought about what you just said, and you understand that you haven’t told me anything new. It’s just your opinion against mine. You suggest we retreat, I want to use the chance.”

“Gennady, I am not the only one who thinks that there won’t be a contact,” Gorbovsky said quietly.

“Who else thinks that?” Komov inquired with slight sarcasm. “August-Johann-Maria Bader?”

“No, it’s not just Bader. To be honest, I withheld from you one trump card, Gennady… Did it ever occur to you that Shura Semoynov erased the ship’s log before landing on the planet, while still in space? Not because he saw intelligent monsters, but because he was attacked in space and concluded that this planet belongs to a highly developed aggressive civilization? Well, it occurred to us. Not right away, of course; at first, we drew the right conclusions from a wrong assumption, just like you did. But as soon as we thought of it, we started searching around the planet. So two hours ago, a message came in; it’s finally found.” Gorbovsky fell silent.

I expended enormous efforts to keep from screaming, “What? What’s finally found?” I think Gorbovsky expected an exclamation to that extent. It didn’t come. Komov was silent. Gorbovsky was forced to continue.

“It has great camouflage. It absorbs almost all radiation it receives. We would never find it if we weren’t looking for it, and even then, we had to use something brand-new; they explained it to me, but I didn’t get it; it’s something they called a vacuum concentrator. So we found it and boarded it. It’s an automatic satellite, something like an armed sentry. Judging by the details of design, it was put here by the Wanderers. A long time ago, about 100,000 years. Luckily for Project Ark, it carried only two charges. The first one was struck at the time immemorial, we’ll probably never find out at whom. The second one hit the Semyonovs. The Wanderers thought this planet was off-limits; I can’t come up with any other explanation. The question is, why? Given what we know, there’s only one answer: they knew from their own experience that the local civilization is not communicative; moreover, it is inward-looking; moreover, a contact would mean a serious shock to this civilization. If August-Johann-Maria Bader were the only one who agreed with me… But as far as I remember, you always respected the Wanderers, Gennady.” Gorbovsky took another pause. “But there’s still more to it. Other things being equal, we could, the Wanderers’ opinion notwithstanding, afford some careful and gradual attempts to turn outward those inward-looking locals. Worst case, our experience would be enriched by another failure. We’d put up a warning sign and go home. This would have been a matter between our two civilizations… But the fact of the matter is, between our two civilizations, like between the rock and a hard place, there is a third one, and for that, and its only member, The Little One, we have been solely responsible for the last few days.”

I heard Komov take a deep breath; a long pause followed. When Komov spoke again, his voice sounded unusual; it was sort of broken. He talked about the Wanderers; first, he was surprised that the Wanderers put in a sentry satellite and programmed it in a borderline criminal way, but then he recalled some circumstantial evidence that suggested the Wanderers always travel in convoys; any single spaceship, in their opinion, cannot be anything but an unmanned probe. He also talked about the end of a barbaric epoch; the fifty years of single-man free search flights; too many casualties, too many silly mistakes, too little gain. “Yes,” Gorbovsky agreed, “I thought about it, too.” Then, Komov recalled some cases of mysterious disappearances of automated scouts near certain planets. “We couldn’t get around to checking them out, but now they can be seen in a new light.” — “Indeed!” Gorbovsky agreed enthusiastically. “I have not thought of that, and it’s a fascinating thought.” They talked about the sentry satellite, marveling at it carrying only two charges, wondered what it reveals about the Wanderers’ idea of habitability of the Universe, found that it probably isn’t very different from ours, but it seems that the Wanderers intended to return here, but for whatever reason didn’t; perhaps Borovik was right in thinking that the Wanderers have left the Galaxy altogether. Komov half-jokingly suggested that the locals are in fact the Wanderers; settled down, satiated with external information, focused on themselves. Gorbovsky jokingly began to interrogate Komov as to how this evolution of the Wanderers must be viewed in the light of the vertical progress theory.

Then they talked about Dr. Mboga’s health, suddenly jumped to placating some Island Empire and the role of someone called Rudolph, whom they also for whatever reason called the Wanderer, in it; then, they moved to a seemingly related issue, the limits of competence of the Galactic Security Council, agreeing that only humanoid civilizations are within that competence… Very soon, I stopped understanding what they were talking about and, more importantly, why they were talking about it and not something else.

Then Gorbovsky said,

“I must be tiring you, Gennady, my apologies. Go rest. It was pleasure speaking with you. We haven’t seen each other in a while.”

“But I am sure we will see each other soon,” Komov said bitterly.

“Yes, I think in about two days. Bader is on his way, and so is Borovik. I think, the day after tomorrow, the entire COMCON will be at the base.”

“So I’ll see you the day after tomorrow,” Komov said.

“Say hello to your man on duty… Stas, was it? He’s very… um… ceremonial, I would say. And Jacob, definitely say hello to Jacob! And the rest of the crew, of course.”

They said their goodbyes.

I sat quietly, like a mouse, still staring at the observation screen, not seeing or understanding anything. Behind my back, there wasn’t a sound to be heard. Minutes lasted intolerably long. I wanted to turn around so badly that my neck got stiff and a piercing pain developed under my shoulder blade. It was obvious to me that Komov has been defeated. At any rate, I was defeated utterly. I was looking for a response Komov could use, but all I could come up with was a nonsensical, “Why should I be concerned about the Wanderers? Wanderers, so what? I am, in a way, a Wanderer myself…”

Suddenly, Komov said,

“So what’s your opinion, Stas?”

I almost blurted out, “Why should I be concerned about the Wanderers?”, but restrained myself. For a second, I sat still for extra significance, then turned around along with the seat. Komov, his chin on his interlaced fingers, stared at the blank screen of the visor. His eyes were half-closed, his mouth line downright doleful.

“I think we may have to wait…” I said. “What else can we do? And it’s possible The Little One won’t come back anymore… At any rate, he may come back, but not soon…”

Komov smirked with the corner of his mouth.

“The Little One will definitely come back,” he said. “The Little One loves asking questions way too much. Can you imagine how many new ones he’s got now?”

This was almost word for word what Vanderhuse said in the mess hall.

“Then perhaps…” I mumbled indecisively, “perhaps it’s really for the better…”

Well, what could I tell him? After Gorbovsky, after Komov himself, what could be said by an unnoticeable rank-and-file robotic technician, twenty years old, work experience six and a half days; he might be a good guy, hardworking, curious, and all, but, you have to admit, not a person of great mind, somewhat simple and ignorant…

“Perhaps,” Komov said anemically. He got up, started walking toward the exit dragging his feet, but stopped halfway. His face suddenly became distorted. He almost shouted, “Don’t any of you understand that The Little One is the only case, the essentially impossible case, and thus one and only! This is never going to happen again. Do you understand? Never!”

He left, and I stayed, facing the radio, my back to the screen, trying to sort out not so much my thoughts, but my feelings. Never! That’s right, never. How confused have we all become here! Poor Komov, poor Maika, poor The Little One… And who’s the poorest? Now we’re probably going to leave this place. The Little One would be a little better off, Maika would go on to be a teacher, so the poorest one has to be Komov. You just can’t make this up: you blunder—personally blunder!—into a most unique situation, a most unique opportunity to find experimental basis for your ideas, and suddenly it all blows up into tiny pieces! Suddenly, The Little One, who was to be a trusted helper, an invaluable intermediary, a battering ram knocking down every obstacle, becomes the primary obstacle himself… You really can’t choose between The Little One’s future and the vertical progress of the human race. There has to be a logical flaw, like in Zeno’s paradoxes… But what if there isn’t? What if this is exactly the choice to be made? After all, it involves the human race… Deep in thought, I turned with the seat to face the screen, looked at the surroundings, and gasped. The big questions immediately dropped out of my head.

The hurricane was gone. Everything was white with frost and snow, and Tom stood right next to the ship, at the very edge of the dead zone, in front of the entrance hatch, and I immediately realized that The Little One must be sitting there in the snow, not daring to come in, lonely, pulled apart by two civilizations…

I got up and rushed through the hallway. In the airlock, I automatically grabbed a parka, but immediately dropped it, threw my entire body at the hatch membrane, and dropped outside. The Little One wasn’t there. Silly Tom flashed a light, asking for orders. Everything was white and shining in the light of aurora borealis. But very close to the hatch, at my feet, there was something black and round. I took a step back. All kinds of hell went through my mind for a moment. It took me a few seconds to make myself bend down to look.

It was our ball. Around it was our third-eye hoop. The lens was smashed, and the hoop itself looked like it survived a rock slide.

And not a trace on the shroud of snow.

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