The Little One (09/09)

The Little One

By Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky


He calls me every time he wants to talk.

“Hello, Stas,” he says. “Can we talk? Can we?”

The allotted communication time is four hours a day, but he never sticks to the schedule. He doesn’t recognize it. He calls me when I sleep, when I sit in a bathtub, when I write reports, when I prepare for another conversation with him, when I help guys taking apart the Wanderers’ sentry satellite… I am not angry. You can’t be angry with him.

“Hello, The Little One,” I reply. “Of course, let’s talk.”

He squints, as if with pleasure, and asks his standard question,

“Are you real now, Stas? Or is it your image?”

I assure him that it is I, Stas Popov, in person and no images are involved. Many times I have explained to him that I cannot build images, and he must have understood it a long time ago, but the question remains. Perhaps this is the way he jokes, perhaps he can’t imagine a normal exchange of greetings without this question, and maybe he simply likes the word “image”. He has a number of favorite words: “image”, “phenomenal”, “hoist the royal sail”…

“Why does an eye see?” he begins.

I explain to him why an eye sees. He listens carefully, often touching his eyes with his long delicate fingers. He is a great listener, and although by now he abandoned the habit of thrashing madly when something amazes him, I can always feel about him a certain excitement, a hidden unbridled passion, an indescribable, and unfortunately inaccessible to me, all-consuming thrill of learning.

“Phenomenal!” he praises me when I finish. “Nutcracker! I’ll think it over, and then ask again…”

By the way, his lonely meditations over what he heard (the mad dance of facial muscles, the intricate motifs of rocks, twigs, and leaves) sometimes lead him to very strange questions. One is coming up right now,

“How was it determined that people think with their heads?” he asks.

I am slightly dumbfounded, so I start talking nonsense. He still listens carefully, and gradually I start making sense, find some ground under my feet, and everything is going smoothly, and we both seem happy, but when I finish, he explains,

“No. This is very particular. This is not always and not everywhere. If I think with my head, why am I incapable of thinking without using my hands?”

I feel we are entering a slippery area. The Center categorically directed me to avoid at any cost any conversation that might tip The Little One off to the idea of the locals. And I have to say, that’s a good directive. Avoiding those conversations altogether isn’t always possible, and lately I began to notice that The Little One is beginning to cringe even at his own references to his way of life. Is he beginning to suspect? Who knows… For a few days now, I am expecting a direct question. I both want to hear it and am afraid of it…

“Why are you capable of it, and I am not?”

“That we don’t know yet,” I admit and add carefully, “There’s a possibility that you’re not exactly human…”

“Then what is human?” he asks immediately. “What exactly is human?”

I have a very faint idea of how such a question can be answered and primise him to tell him about it when we meet again. He made an erudite out of me. Sometimes, I swallow and digest information for days at a time. The Primary Informatorium now works for me, the best experts in all kinds of subject matter work for me, I have the right to call upon any of them at any time and ask for explanations: about modeling P-abstractions, metabolism of abyssal life forms, approaches to making up chess problems…

“You look tired,” The Little One says compassionately. “Are you tired?”

“Not a problem,” I say. “It’s tolerable.”

“It’s strange that you get tired,” he says thoughtfully. “I never get tired. And what is tired anyway?”

I take a deep breath and proceed to explain to him what fatigue is. He is listening, while spreading in front of himself a bunch of rocks, machined for him by the good old Tom in the shapes of cubes, spheres, blocks, cones, and more complicated solids. By the time I finish, there’s a most complex structure towering in front of The Little One; it doesn’t look like anything, yet it is in its own way harmonious and strangely intelligible.

“You explained well,” The Little One says. “Tell me, is our conversation being recorded?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Is the image quality good, clear? Image!”

“As usual.”

“Then have Grandpa look at this design. Look, Grandpa, the cooling nodes are here, here, and here…”

The Little One’s grandfather, Pavel Semyonov, works in realizing Percival abstractions. He is an unremarkable scientist, but a great erudite, and The Little One shares his creations with him. Pavel told me that The Little One often thinks naively, but always originally, and some of his designs are of interest for the Percival theory.

“Absolutely,” I say. “I will definitely transmit it. Today.”

“And maybe it’s unimportant,” The Little One announces suddenly and destroys his entire design in a single motion. “What is Leo doing?” he asks.

Leo is the senior engineer at the base, a joker and a storyteller. When Leo talks to The Little One, the radio waves are filled with laughter and excited screams, and I experience something akin to jealousy. The Little One loves Leo and asks after him every time. Sometimes he asks about Vanderhuse, and I can feel that the sweet mystery of the sideburns is still unresolved and burning. Once or twice, he asked about Komov, so I had to explain to him what Project Ark-2 was and why it needs a xenopsychologist. As to Maika, he hasn’t asked about her once. When I tried to mention her, tried to explain to him that even though Maika deceived him, it was for his own benefit—when I tried to explain it all to him, he simply got up and left. And just like that, he got up and left when I tried to explain to him what lies are…

“Leo is sleeping,” I say. “It’s night here, or, rather, the night part of daily cycle.”

“So you were sleeping, too? I woke you up again?”

“That’s not a problem,” I say sincerely. “It’s more interesting to be with you than to sleep.”

“No. Go sleep,” The Little One orders decisively. “Strange creatures we are. We have to sleep.”

The “we” warms my heart. However, The Little One says “we” a lot lately, so I am beginning to get used to it.

“Go sleep,” The Little One repeats. “But first, tell me: while you sleep, no one’s going to come to this beach, right?”

“No one,” I say. “You don’t need to worry.”

“This is good,” he says, satisfied. “So you sleep, and I’ll go think for a while.”

“Of course, go,” I say.

“See you,” The Little One says.

“See you,” I say and sign off.

But I know what’s going to happen next, so I don’t go to sleep. It is completely clear to me that today, I am going to be sleep-deprived again.

He is sitting in his usual pose, to which I now got used so it doesn’t seem contorted anymore. For a while, he stares into the blank screen on the old Tom’s forehead, then looks up to the sky, as if hoping to see, at a height of two hundred kilometers, my base docked to the Wanderers’ satellite, and behind his back is the now-familiar landscape of the off-limits planet Ark: sandy dunes, stirring cap of fog over the hot swamp, the gloomy mountain ridge in the distance, and above it, thin long lines of colossal, still, and possibly forever, mysterious structures, resembling flexible, nervously quivering antennae of a monstrous insect.

Down there, it’s spring; the bushes are blooming, their flowers large and unexpectedly bright, warm air streaming above the dunes. The Little One looks around absentmindedly; his fingers pick through the polished little stones. He looks over his shoulder toward the mountain ridge, turns away, and for a while, sits still, his head hung low. Then, having decided, he stretches his hand toward me and pushes the call button under Tom’s nose.

“Hello, Stas,” he says. “Have you slept?”

“Yes,” I reply. I want to laugh, although I am also very sleepy.

“It would be good to play now, Stas. Right?”

“Yes,” I say. “That wouldn’t be bad.”

“Cricket on the hearth,” he says and stays silent for a while.

I am waiting.

“All right,” The Little One says briskly. “Then let’s talk again. Okay?”

“Of course,” I say. “Let’s talk.”

The end

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