A Guy from Hell (02/08)

A Guy from Hell

By Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky

Chapter Two

There were two people sitting next to Gahg’s bed. One was lean, with wide bony shoulders and big bony hands. He sat with his legs crossed, his big fingers interlacing over his knee. He was wearing a gray sweater with an open collar, narrow blue pants of strange design, clearly not a part of any uniform, and red-and-gray pleated sandals. His face was sharp, tan, with pleasant hardness in its features; light eyes with a squint, gray hair—a disorderly, yet somehow well-managed mop. A straw kept moving from one side of his mouth to the other.

The other was a kind-looking man in a white coat. His face was ruddy, young, not a single line on it. A strange face. Well, not the face, but the expression. Like saints on old icons. He looked at Gahg from under the blond bangs obscuring his forehead and smiled like it was his birthday. He was very pleased about something. He even talked first.

“How are we feeling today?” he inquired.

Gahg pushed against the bed with the palms of his hands, bent his legs, and easily sat up near the headboard.

“Normal…” he said, surprised.

He didn’t have anything on, not even a sheet to cover him. He looked at his legs, at the familiar scar above the knee; he touched his chest and immediately felt something that didn’t use to be there: two indentations under his right nipple.

“Wow!” he said, unable to hold it.

“And another one in your side,” the kind one noted. “Higher, higher…”

Gahg felt for the scar in his right side. Then he quickly looked over his bare hands.

“Wait a minute…” he mumbled. “I was burning…”

“Indeed you were!” the ruddy one exclaimed and made a gesture with his hands to show how. It appeared Gahg burned like a drum of gasoline.

The lean one with the sweater was quiet, staring at Gahg, and there was something in his look that made Gahg tighten and say,

“Thank you, doctor, sir. How long have I been unconscious?”

The ruddy kind one suddenly stopped smiling.

“What’s the last thing you remember?” he asked in an almost sneaky tone.

Gahg cringed.

“I destroyed… No! I was burning. Must have been a flame thrower. I was running around looking for water…” He fell silent and felt the scars on his chest again. “That’s probably when I got shot…” he said, unsure. “Then…” He felt silent and looked at the lean one. “Have we held them back? Have we? Where am I? In which hospital?”

The lean one didn’t answer, so the kind one started talking again.

“How should I tell you…” Seemingly puzzled, he rubbed his round knees with considerable force. “What do you think?”

“My apologies…” Gahg said and lowered his feet off the bed. “Has it really been that long? Six months? A year? Just tell me,” he demanded.

“Timing is not the issue…” the ruddy one said. “It’s been five days.”

“How long?”

“Five days,” the ruddy one repeated. “Right?” he asked the lean one.

The lean one silently nodded. Gahg smiled indulgently.

“Well,” he said. “Okay. You’re the doctors, you know better. After all, what difference does it make? I would only like to know, Mr.—” he made a pause and looked at the lean one, but the lean one showed no reaction. “I would like to know what’s happening at the frontline and when I would be able to return to active duty…”

The lean one was still shifting a straw from one side of his thin-lipped mouth to the other.

“Can I still hope to be assigned back to my unit… to the capital city school?”

“That’s unlikely,” said the ruddy one.

Gahg glanced at him sideways and stared at the lean one.

“I am a Fighting Cat,” he said. “Third year… I have commendations. I have one personal commendation from His Highness…”

The ruddy one shook his head.

“That’s irrelevant,” he said. “That’s not the problem.”

“What do you mean, irrelevant?” Gahg said. “I am a Fighting Cat! Don’t you know? Here!” He lifted his right arm and showed—again, to the lean one—the tattoo under his arm. “If you try to stick me somewhere to manage uniform storage, you’ll be held responsible! His Highness personally shook my hand! His Highness presented me with—”

“We believe you, we do, we know!” the ruddy one started waving his hands, but Gahg interrupted him,

“Doctor, sir, I am not talking to you! I am addressing the commanding officer!”

At this point, the ruddy one suddenly snorted, closed his face with the palms of his hands, and emitted a high-pitched disgusting laugh. Gahg, stunned, looked at him, then moved his gaze onto the lean one. The lean one finally spoke,

“Don’t mind it, Gahg.” His voice was deep and significant, fitting well with his face. “We can’t send you to the capital city school yet. It’s possible that you will never return to any Fighting Cats school…”

Gahg opened his mouth and closed it. The ruddy one stopped giggling.

“But I feel…” Gahg whispered. “I am completely healthy. Or have I been maimed? Tell me, doctor, sir, have I been maimed?”

“Oh no,” the ruddy one responded quickly. “Your arms and legs are in perfect order, and as to your mind… Do you remember who Gahng Gnook was?”

“Yes sir… He was a scientist. He claimed there are many inhabited worlds… The Imperial fanatics hung him upside down and shot him with crossbows…” Gahg paused. “Only I cannot recall the precise date, my apology. But it’s been before the first Alai uprising…”

“Very good!” the ruddy one complimented him. “So what does modern science think of Gahng’s idea?”

Gahg paused again.

“Can’t say exactly… There are no reasons to dismiss it out of hand. At school, in the Practical Astronomy class, it was never mentioned directly. It was only mentioned that Aigon and Pirra… and others… Kakga, for example… are planets similar to ours… Yes, that’s right! Aigon has an atmosphere, discovered by Gridd, the great founder of Alai science, so there may be life as well…”

He caught his breath and looked at the lean one alarmingly.

“Very good,” the ruddy one said again. “What about other stars?”

“What exactly about other stars, I beg your pardon?”

“Can life exist in the vicinities of other starts?”

Gahg started to sweat.

“N-no…” he uttered. “No, because it’s vacuum. It can’t.”

“But what if there are planets around those stars?” the doctor mercilessly pushed on.

“Ah! Then it can, of course. If a star has a planet with an atmosphere, it could well have life.”

The ruddy one, satisfied, leaned back in his chair and looked at the lean one. The lean one took the straw out of his mouth and looked straight into Gahg’s soul.

“You are a Fighting Cat, are you not, Gahg?” he said.

“Yes sir!” Gahg perked up.

“And a Fighting Cat is a self-contained combat unit,” the lean one’s voice now clanged like the metal of regulations, “capable of handling anything unexpected, imaginable or unimaginable, right?”

“And use it,” Gahg continued, “to advance the honor and glory of His Highness the Duke and His House!”

The lean one nodded.

“Do you remember the Beetle constellation?”

“Yes sir! An ecliptic constellation of twelve bright stars, visible in the summer time. The First of Beetle is—”

“Stop. Do you remember the Seventh of Beetle?”

“Yes sir. An orange star—”

“—in the vicinity of which,” the lean one interrupted him, his finger pointing up, “there is a planet system not yet known to the Alai astronomy. One of those planets has an atmosphere. Many billions of years ago, life began on it. Moreover, there is a civilization on it, far ahead of Giganda’s civilization. Gahg, you are on that planet.”

Silence fell. Gahg, tense, waited for continuation. The lean one and the doctor looked at him intently. The silence stretched on. Finally, Gahg broke,

“I understand, commander, sir,” he reported. “Please continue.”

The doctor grunted; the lean one blinked a few times in a quick succession.

“Ah,” he said calmly. “He thinks we’re testing his mind and giving him instructions for a training exercise,” he explained to the doctor. “This isn’t a training exercise, Gahg. This is real. I worked on your planet, on Giganda, in the northern jungle of the Duchy. I accidentally found you during battle. You were lying on the ground, burning, with a fatal wound to boot. I moved you to my spacecraft… that’s a machine for interstellar travel… and brought you here. Here, we healed you. This is not a training exercise, Gahg. I am not a commander, and, of course, I am not Alai. I am a man of Earth.”

Gahg ran his hand through his hair, thinking.

“Is it assumed, commander, sir, that I know your language and the living conditions on this planet? Or do I not?”

Silence fell again. Then, the lean one said with a smirk,

“You seem to think you’re in Intelligence class…”

Gahg allowed himself to smile back.

“Not exactly, commander, sir.”

“How is it, then?”

“I believe… I hope that the commanders are giving me the honor of undergoing a special test in order to verify my worthiness of a new highly important assignment. I am proud, commander, sir. I will do my best to be worthy of—”

“Listen,” the ruddy doctor suddenly said to the lean one. “Can we just leave everything as is? It’s not difficult to simulate the conditions. You said it’s going to be only three or four months!”

The lean one shook his head and started talking to the ruddy one in a strange language. Gahg looked around, trying to look absent-minded. The room was unusual. A rectangular room, slick cream-colored wall, checkered ceiling, with each square shining from the inside in red, orange, blue, or green. The black matte floor… and the chairs in which those two are sitting look like they either grow out of the floor or maybe are a part of it. Gahg touched the floor with his bare foot. The sensation was pleasant, like touching a soft warm animal…

“All right,” the lean one said finally. “Get dressed, Gahg. I’ll show you something… Where are his clothes?”

The ruddy one hesitated for a second, then leaned sideways and took—seemingly out of the wall—a flat transparent package. Holding it in his hand, he spoke to the lean one again and talked for quite a while, while the lean one kept shaking his head more and more vigorously; finally, the lean one took the package away from the ruddy one and threw it into Gahg’s lap.

“Get dressed,” he ordered again.

Gahg carefully looked over the package. The package was made from some transparent material, velvety to the touch, and inside it was something very clean, soft, and light, white and blue. Suddenly, the package disintegrated, dissipated into a bunch of silver sparks that melted in the air, and falling on the bed and unfolding were a pair of blue shorts, a white-and-blue jacket, and something else.

Gahg, with a stony face, began to get dressed. The ruddy one suddenly asked loudly,

“Maybe it’s better if I come with you?”

“No need,” said the lean one.

The ruddy one threw up his white soft hands.

“What is it with you, Korney? What’s with your fits of intuition? We seemed to have written everything out, agreed about everything—”

“As you can see, not about everything.”

Gahg put on a pair of absolutely weightless sandals, which miraculously fit his feet. He stood up, put his heels together, and nodded.

“I’m ready, commander, sir.”

The lean one looked him over.

“How do you like it?” he asked.

Gahg shrugged.

“Of course, I would prefer the uniform…”

“You’ll have to do without,” the lean one grumbled, getting up.

“Yes sir,” Gahg said.

“Thank the doctor,” the lean one said.

In a precise motion, Gahg turned to the ruddy man with a saintly face, put his heels together again, and made another nod.

“Thank you, doctor, sir,” he said.

The doctor waved his hand anemically.

“You should go… Cat…”

The lean one was already leaving, walking straight toward a solid wall.

“Goodbye, doctor, sir,” Gahg said with a smile. “I hope that we won’t meet here again, and that you will hear only good things about me.”

“So do I,” the ruddy one replied doubtfully.

But Gahg was no longer talking to him. He caught up with the lean one just as a door appeared, rather than opened, in the wall; they stepped into a hallway, also cream-colored, also empty, and also lighted by who knows what.

“What are you expecting to see right now?” the lean one asked.

He walked in long strides, moving his long legs energetically, but the way he put his feet down with some especial softness vividly reminded Gahg of Cheetah’s inimitable walk.

“I don’t know, commander, sir,” Gahg replied.

“Call me Korney,” the lean one said.

“Yes, Korney, sir.”

“Just Korney…”

“Yes… Korney.”

The hallway little by little turned into a stairway, descending in a smooth wide spiral.

“So you don’t mind being on another planet?”

“I’ll try to handle it, Korney.”

They were almost running down the stairs.

“Right now, we are in a hospital,” Korney was saying. “Outside its walls, you will see many unexpected things, even some scary ones. But keep in mind, you are completely safe here. However strange things are, they cannot threaten you or harm you. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Korney,” Gahg said and allowed himself another smile.

“Try to figure out what’s what on your own,” Korney went on. “If you don’t understand something, by all means ask. You can believe the answers you get. Lying isn’t something people do here.”

“Affirmative…” Gahg replied with the most serious look about him.

At this point, the endless stairway ended, and they came out into a spacious well-lit lobby with transparent front wall, beyond which there was plenty of greenery; walk paths were filled up with yellow sand, and strange metal installations glistened in the sun. A few people in bright and, let’s face it, silly outfits talked about something in the middle of the lobby. Their voices were just like their outfits—vulgar, loud to the point of indecency. Suddenly, they all stopped talking, as if someone turned them off. Gahg realized they were looking at him… No, not at him. At Korney. Their smiles fell off their faces, faces froze, gazes were lowered; soon, no one was looking at Korney, no one even looked their way; Korney, meanwhile, walked past them in complete silence, as if he didn’t notice any of it.

He stopped before the transparent wall and put his hand on Gahg’s shoulder.

“How do you like this?” he asked.

Huge, many times human arms span, wrinkled trunks; wisps, clouds, heaps of blinding, piercing green above them; smooth yellow walk paths, and along them, dark-green shrubs, impermeably thick, full of bright, unbelievably lilac flowers; suddenly, out of the shadows, an amazing, completely impossible animal, seemingly consisting only of legs and neck, stepped out onto a sand-filled clearing, turned its small head, and looked at Gahg with its huge velvety eyes.

“Colossal…” Gahg whispered. His voice was straining. “Great work!”

“It’s a zebrogiraffe,” confusingly and at the same time seemingly clearly explained Korney.

“Is it dangerous for humans?” Gahg asked in a businesslike tone.

“I told you, there’s nothing dangerous or threatening here.”

“I understand; there’s nothing dangerous here. How about there?”

Korney bit his lip.

“Here is there,” he said.

But Gahg wasn’t listening anymore. He was shocked to see a man walking by the zebrogiraffe, very close to it. He saw the zebrogiraffe lower its neck (it looked like a dappled barrier came down) and the man, barely stopping, petted the animal on the back of its neck and kept walking, by an edifice built of twisted spiky metal, by rainbow-colored feathers hanging in the mid-air, took a few low steps up and entered the lobby through the transparent wall.

“By the way, he is also from another planet,” Korney said softly. “He’s been treated here, and soon, he’ll be back to his planet.”

Gahg swallowed dryly, staring at the now-healthy extraterrestrial. He had strange ears. Well, strictly speaking, there were almost no ears; the hairless skull was unpleasantly full of bumps and knotty ridge-like protrusions. Gahg swallowed again and looked out at the zebrogiraffe.

“Isn’t it—” he started, but stopped.

“Yes?”

“My apologies, Korney… I thought… I thought… everything… I mean, everything beyond the wall…”

“No, this is not a motion picture,” Korney said with a hint of impatience. “Nor is it a cage in a zoo. Everything is real, and that’s the way it is everywhere. Do you want to pet him?” he asked suddenly.

Gahg tensed up.

“Affirmative,” he said hoarsely.

“Well, if you don’t want to, you don’t have to. You just have to understand—”

Korney suddenly stopped. Gahg looked up at him. Korney was looking over his nead into the lobby, where voices and laughter sounded again, and his face changed, unexpectedly and strangely. It had a different expression, a mix of longing, pain, and expectation. Gahg had seen those expressions before, but he didn’t have time to remember where and when. He turned around.

On the other side of the lobby, standing right by the wall, was a woman. Gahg didn’t have a chance to really look at her; she disappeared in a moment. But she was dressed in red, she had coal-black hair and bright (blue, it seemed) eyes on her white face. A flicker of red flame against the cream color of the wall. And then, nothing. Korney said calmly,

“All right, let’s go…”

His face returned to the way it was before, as if nothing happened. They walked along the transparent wall, and Korney was saying,

“We’re about to get to another place. We’ll just get there, you see? We won’t fly, we won’t drive, we’ll just get there, so keep in mind—”

Behind, them, several voices laughed loudly. Gahg’s ears went red, and he turned around. No, the laughter wasn’t directed at them. No one was even looking in their direction.

“Get in,” Korney said.

It was a round booth, not unlike a payphone, only its walls were matte, rather than transparent. There was a door in the booth, and it smelled like the outdoors after a big thunderstorm. Gahg insecurely stepped inside. Korney squeezed in after him, and the door’s opening disappeared.

“I’ll explain later how it’s done,” Korney was saying. He was slowly pushing buttons on a small console built into the wall. Gahg saw similar consoles on the arithmetic machines in the school’s accounting office. “Okay, I am putting in a code,” Korney continued, “Done… Can you see the green light? It means that the code is acceptable, and the destination is open. Now we depart… The red button over here…”

Korney pushed the red button. To stay on his feet, Gahg had to grab Korney’s sweater. The floor disappeared for a moment, then reappeared, and the matte walls suddenly were brighter.

“That’s it,” Korney said. “Get out.”

There was no lobby. There was a broad, brightly lit hallway. An elderly woman wearing a cloak glistening like mercury stepped aside, letting them pass, looked over Gahg severely, glanced at Korney, and suddenly she flinched, quickly dashed into the booth, and the door disappeared after her.

“Straight ahead,” Korney said.

Gahg started walking. After a few paces, he caught his breath.

“A blink of an eye, and we’re twenty kilometers away,” Korney said behind his back.

“Amazing…” Gahg replied. “I had no idea we could do things like that…”

“Well, to be precise, you can’t, not yet…” Korney objected. “Over here, to the right.”

“I mean, in principle… I understand, it’s all top secret, but for the army—”

“Come on in,” Korney gently pushed him on the back.

“—for the army, this kind of thing is invaluable… For the army, for the intelligence…”

“All right,” Korney said. “Right now, we’re in a hotel. This is my room. I was staying here while you were being treated.”

Gahg looked around. The room was large and completely empty. Not a trace of furniture. Instead of a front wall, blue sky; other walls are all different colors, the floor is white, and the ceiling, like in the hospital, is colored checkers.

“Let’s talk,” Korney said and sat down.

His lean butt had to hit that white floor. But the floor bulged up to meet his falling body, sort of flowed around it, and turned into an armchair. A second ago, the armchair didn’t exist. It just grew instantaneously. Straight out of the floor. In plain sight. Korney crossed his legs and habitually interlaced his fingers over his knee.

“We argued a lot, Gahg,” he said, “about what we should do with you. What to tell you, what to withhold from you. What to do so, God forbid, you don’t go insane…”

Gahg licked his dry lips.

“I—”

“It was suggested that we keep you unconscious for the next three to four months. It was suggested that we hypnotize you. A lot of stupid things were suggested. I was against them all. And here is why. First, I believe in you. You are a strong, well-trained boy; I’ve seen you in battle and I know you can manage a lot. Second, we all will be better off if you see our world, if only a small part of it. And third, I’ll be honest: I may have a use for you.”

Gahg was silent. His legs were stiff; his hands were hidden behind his back, one squeezing the other full force, painfully. Korney suddenly leaned forward and said, as if reciting an incantation,

“Nothing bad has happened to you. Nothing bad is going to happen to you. You are safe. You are just traveling, Gahg. You are visiting, do you understand?”

“No,” Gahg said hoarsely.

He turned and started walking straight into the blue sky. He stopped. Looked around. His clenched fists turned white. He took a step back, another, then another, and kept backing up until his shoulder blades were against a wall.

“So… I am already there?” he said hoarsely.

“Yes, you’re already here,” Korney said.

“So what’s my mission?” Gahg said.

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