A Guy from Hell (03/08)

A Guy from Hell

By Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky

Chapter Three

In a word, guys, I’ve got myself in a bind like no other Fighting Cat before me.  Here I am, sitting on a luxurious lawn, neck-deep in the soft grass.  Around me, total paradise, sort of like the resort on Lake Zagguta, only there’s no lake.  The trees… never seen this kind before; deep-green leaves, soft and silky, and hanging off the branches, huge fruit—they’re called pears—tasty, and you can eat as many as you want.  To my left, a grove, and in front of me, a house.  Korney says he built it himself.  Maybe, I don’t know.  I only know that when I was assigned to guard His Highness’ hunting lodge, it was a house all right—luxurious, built by some really smart people—but it’s nowhere near this one.  In front of the house, a pool, the water is so clear that if you see it, you get thirsty and too scared to swim.  And all around, the prairies.  I haven’t been there yet.  And so far, have no desire to go.  I’m too busy without the prairies.  I’m trying to understand in which language I’m thinking, snake milk!  As long I live, haven’t spoken any languages except my native Alai.  Of course, the military phrasebook doesn’t count; all kinds of “hands up”, “down on the ground”, “who’s in charge”, and all that.  But now, I can’t understand which language is my native, that Russian of theirs or the Alai.  Korney says, they stuffed that Russian into me in the amount of twenty-five thousand words and idioms in one night, while I slept after the surgery.  I don’t know about that.  An idiom…  What’s the Alai for it?  No idea.

Well, what did I think in the beginning?  A special lab.  We have those, I know.  Korney is our intelligence officer.  Looks a lot like one.  And they’re about to train me for an extremely important mission.  Perhaps His Highness’ interests spread onto another continent.  Or onto another planet, damn it.  Why not?  What do I know?

First, I thought, stupidly, that everything around me is a simulation.  Then I lived here for a day, two days—no, it doesn’t look that way.  The city, is that a simulation?  Those huge blue things that show on the horizon every now and then, are they a simulation?  And the food?  You pick up a tube, sort of like toothpaste, squeeze some on a plate, and then—here you go!—it starts bubbling and sizzling, so you have to grab the other tube and squeeze it, and before you can gasp, there a huge steak on the plate, all golden, and the aroma… nah, too good for words!  That, guys, is no simulation.  That is meat.  Or, say, the night sky; all constellations are bent out of shape.  And the moon.  Is that a simulation too?  Actually, this one looks a lot like a simulation.  Especially when it’s high.  But on the rise… that’s scary!  It’s huge, swollen, red, coming up from behind the trees…  I’ve been here for a while, five days, I think, but I still shiver when I see it.

So the way I figure, things are crappy.  They are strong, bastards, so strong you can see it with the naked eye.  And against them, against their entire power, I stand alone.  And the scariest part is, no one back home knows anything about them.  They walk all over our Giganda, as if they’re at home, they know everything about us, and we know nothing about them.  Why did they come, what do they want with us?  Scary…  Only imagine the devilish things they can do: all those instantaneous jumps over hundreds of kilometers, with no airplanes, no automobiles, no railroads; those buildings of theirs, rising higher than clouds, impossible, improbable, like nightmares; the self-cleaning rooms, the food out of the thin air, the miracle doctors…  This morning (was it a dream?), Korney, straight out of the pool, nothing on him, except his swimming trunks, flew up into the air, like a bird, turned around over the garden, and disappeared behind the trees…

When I thought about that, I shivered all the way down to my liver.  I got up, ran across the lawn a few times, ate a pear to calm down.  I’ve been here for mere five days!  What could I have seen here?  Take this lawn, for example.  My window looks straight out onto it.  So last night, I woke up from some sort of hoarse meowing.  Cats fighting?  But no, I already figured there were no cats.  I snuck to the window, looked out.  There it was.  Standing up.  In the middle of the lawn.  What it was, I don’t know.  Triangular, huge, white.  While I was rubbing my eyes, it started to melt into the air.  Like a ghost, I swear.  Actually, they do call them ghosts.  I asked Korney next morning, and he said, those are our Ghost-class starships for midrange flights, under twenty light-years.  Can you imagine?  They think twenty light-years is midrange!  Giganda, meanwhile, is eighteen light-years away…

Say what you will, but they can possibly want only one thing from us: slaves.  Someone has to work around here to provide for this paradise…  Korney keeps telling me: learn, look into things, read; in three or four months, you’re going to go home and start building a new life, yada, yada, the war will be over in three or four months, since we have decided to do something about it and will end it soon.  That’s when I caught him.  Who, I said, will win the war?  No one, he answered.  There’s going to be peace, and that’s it.  Sooo…  I get it.  They just don’t want us to waste the human material.  They want everything peaceful and quiet, no riots, uprisings, or bloodshed.  Sort of like when the herders don’t let the bulls fight and gore each other.  Whoever among us is dangerous to them will be eliminated, whoever necessary, bought off, and off they go stuffing the hulls of their “ghosts” with a mix of Alais and rat eaters…

But, Korney, however…  I can’t help liking him.  In my mind, I understand that there can’t be any other way, they wouldn’t put any other kind of man in charge of me.  In my mind, I get it, but I still can’t hate him.  Madness, really.  I believe him like a fool.  Listen to him with my ears wide open.  Meanwhile, I know that very soon, he will start suggesting that their world is wonderful, ours is ugly, and that our world has to be remade along the lines of theirs, and that I have to help them do it, as a guy of intelligence, willpower, and strength, quite fit for the real life…

Actually, he already started little by little.  He’s managed to crap on every great person we hold in high regard.  Both field marshal Brahgg and One-Eyed Fox, the great chief of intelligence; he even started making some innuendos about His Highness, but at that, I stopped him, of course…  Everyone got vilified.  Even the Imperials, so as to show how impartial people are around here.  He spoke highly of only one person, Cheetah.  Looks like he knew him personally.  And valued.  In that man, he said, a great educator died.  Over here, he would be in high esteem…  Oh well.

I wanted to stop, but didn’t get a chance; I started thinking about Cheetah.  Oh, Cheetah…  It’s not the end of the world that the guys died: Jackrabbit, Nose…  Tick, a rocket under his arm, threw himself under a tank… that’s okay.  That’s what we were born for.  But Cheetah…  I can barely remember my father, and my mother, well, she was just a mother…  But you, I will never forget.  I came to the school weak; famine, had to eat cat meat, almost got eaten myself, my father came back from the war with no arms or legs, useless, swapped everything for vodka…  And in the barracks, what?  In the barracks, life isn’t very sweet, either; you know what the rations are like.  And who gave me their canned food?  I’d be standing nighttime duty, hungry to the point of grinding the teeth; suddenly, he would appear from nowhere, listen to the report, stick a horsemeat sandwich (his own horsemeat sandwich, to which he was entitled by status) into my hand, and disappear…  And that long-distance marching exercise, when he carried me for twenty kilometers on his back when I fainted?  The guys were supposed to carry me, and they would, except they were so weak that they fell every ten paces.  And what do the regulations say?  If one can’t march, one can’t serve.  So one must go home, back to living under a stinking staircase and hunting cats…

No, I will never forge you, Cheetah.  You died the way you taught us to die.  And since I survived, I have to live up to your memory.  How though?  I am in a bind, Cheetah.  In a huge bind!  Where are you?  Teach me what to do…

They are trying to buy me off here.  First of all, they saved my life.  Then they healed me, more like built me anew; I don’t even have a single cavity in my teeth—did they grow me new ones?  But that’s not all.  They feed me like a steak cow, they know what kind of chow problem we’ve got.  Say nice words, put a good man in charge of me…

At that point, he called me in for dinner.

We sat down at the table in the living room, took those tubes, made our food.  Korney made himself something really strange—a bunch of transparent yellowish threads, looked like a dead swamp hedgehog—poured a brown sauce over it, little pieces of meat or fish on top, and it smelled…  I don’t know what the smell was, but it was strong.  Somehow, he had to eat it with sticks.  He stuck two sticks between his fingers, took his plate up to his chin, and started stuffing everything into his mouth.  And winking at me.  Meaning, he’s in a good mood.  I, meanwhile, had almost no appetite, either from all the thinking of from all the pears.  I made myself some meat anyway.  Boiled.  Wanted it roasted, but it came out boiled.  That’s okay, it was edible, and that was good enough.

“I’ve done well today,” Korney intimated, gobbling his hedgehog.  “What have you been doing?”

“Nothing special.  Swam.  Sat in the grass.”

“Have you gone into the prairies?”

“No.”

“Pity.  I keep telling you, there’s a lot of interesting things out there.”

“I will.  Later.”

Korney finished the hedgehog and picked up the tubes again.

“Have you thought about what you would like to see?”

“No.  I mean, yes.”

“So?”

What should I lie to him?  I really didn’t want to go anywhere, not until I’ve figured out this house, so I blurted out,

“The moon.”

He looked at me, surprised.

“So what’s the holdup?  The null cabin is in the garden, I gave you the codebook…  Dial the number, and off you go.”

Like I really cared about the moon!

“I will,” I said, “as soon as I put my galoshes on…”

I have no idea where this expression came from.  Must have been one of those idioms.  They stuck it into my head, and now it comes out every now and then.

“What?” Korney asked, raising his eyebrows.

I didn’t say anything.  Now I have to go to the moon.  I said it, so I have to go.  But what for?  Actually, it wouldn’t hurt to see…  As soon as I thought how much I have to see here, everything went dark in front of my eyes.  And that’s just to see!  But I have to remember, organize it in my head like bricks in a wall, but my head is a mess, like I’ve been here for hundred years, and throughout all those years, I’ve been shown some crazy movie with no beginning or end.  He actually isn’t hiding anything from me.  Null transportation?  Not a problem!  He explains about null transportation.  He seems to explain very accessibly, he even shows me models.  I understand the models, but I can’t understand how the null cabin works to save my life.  Curving of the space, get it?  Or, say, the food from the tubes.  He spent three hours explaining it to me, but what did I remember?  Sub-molecular compaction.  And expansion.  Sub-molecular compaction is very nice, even wonderful.  It’s chemistry.  But where does the roasted meat come from?

“Why are you so sad?” Korney asked, wiping his mouth with a napkin.  “Having a hard time?”

“Headache,” I said angrily.

He hemmed and started cleaning the table.  I, of course, tried to help, but that was a job too small for one.  All you need to do is to open a lid in the middle of the table and push everything into it; you don’t even have to close it, it closes itself.

“Let’s go watch a movie,” he said.  “A friend of mine made a great film.  Old-style, two-dimensional, black-and-white.  You’ll like it.”

“What’s it about?” I asked anemically.  I really didn’t want to see any movies.  Not in the mood.  Everything around me is a movie.  Delirium-style.  Full-color, three-dimensional.

“There’s a bit about war, too,” he said.  “Although it’s taking place in the medieval times…”

Long story short, I had to sit down and watch that movie.  What a bunch of nonsense!  It’s about love.  Two aristocrats are in love with each other, but their parents are against it.  There are, of course, a couple of fights, but it’s all swords.  Although I have to admit, it’s made well; our movie makers can’t do this.  One man impaled another with a sword, so three fingers worth of the blade came out of his back, steaming…  So that’s what they may need slaves for.  I almost threw up when I thought about it, so I could barely sit through the rest of it.  In addition, I wanted to smoke pretty badly.  Korney, just like Cheetah, doesn’t approve of smoking.  He even offered to have the habit healed, but I didn’t agree: that’s probably the only thing left from the original me.  Anyway, I asked for permission to go to my room.  Supposedly to read about the moon.  He believed me.  And let me go.

So I went back to my room, and it felt like coming home.  I redid this room for myself as soon as I got here.  That, by the way, was quite a torture.  Korney, of course, explained everything to me, but I, if course, didn’t quite get it.  So there I was, standing in the middle of the room, shouting like a psycho, “A chair!  I want a chair!”  Only later have I worked it out little by little.  Turns out, you don’t have to shout, you just quietly imagine that chair down to the last detail.  So I did.  Including the leather upholstery on the seat that was torn and then sewn together later.  That was when Jackrabbit sat on it after an outdoors tactical exercise and then stood up and snagged the upholstery with a grapnel hook.  And the rest is just as it was in Cheetah’s little room: a steel-framed bed with a green woolen blanket over it, a bedside table, a steel crate for weapons, a small table with a lamp on it, two chairs and a wardrobe.  I made a real door, too, painted in two colors, orange and white, His Highness’ colors.  Instead of a transparent wall, I put in a single window.  Under the ceiling, a lamp with a tin shade…

Of course, this is all simulation: there isn’t any tin, or steel, or wood around here.  And, of course, I have no weapons in the steel crate—the only thing I have in there is the single assault rifle cartridge that I had in my jacket pocket.  There’s nothing on top of the bedside table, either.  Cheetah had a photograph of a woman and a child; they said it was his wife and daughter, he never talked about it.  I wanted to put up a photo of Cheetah.  As I last saw him.  But I failed.  Looks like Korney was right; to get this done, you need to be some kind of artist or sculptor.

But overall, I like my little doghouse.  In here, my soul calms down; other rooms are like open field, wherever you are, you’re always in a line of fire.  This said, I am the only one who likes it.  Korney took a look, didn’t say anything, but I thought he was unhappy.  But that’s not the biggest problem.  Believe it or not, the room itself doesn’t like the way it is.  Or the house doesn’t.  Or, snake milk, the invisible power that controls everything around here.  As soon as I look the other way, the chair is gone.  Or the lamp under the ceiling.  Or my steel crate turns into a niche, the kind they keep their micro-books in.

Just like now.  Look, the bedside table is gone.  Well, it’s not gone, but it’s not my bedside table, not Cheetah’s, and not really a bedside table.  Who knows what it is: some semi-translucent contraption.  Praise God the cigarettes stayed the way they were.  I made them myself.  Naturally, I sat down in my favorite chair, lit up a cigarette, and destroyed that contraption.  To be honest, with pleasure.  And brought my bedside table back.  I even remembered its tag number: 0064.  No idea what that number means.

So here I am, sitting, smoking, looking at my bedside table.  My soul is a little calmer, there’s a nice semi-darkness in the room, the window is narrow, great for defense in a firefight.  If only I had a weapon.  So I started thinking, what should I put on top of the bedside table?  I thought and thought, and finally came up with something.  I took the medallion off my neck, opened the lid and took out the portrait of Her Highness.  I grew a frame around it as best I could, put it in the middle, lit up another cigarette, and here I am, sitting and staring at the beautiful face of The Maiden of Thousand Hearts.  All of us Fighting Cats are her knights and protectors till death takes us.  Whatever good we have about us belongs to Her.  Our tenderness, our kindness, out compassion—all of it is from Her, for Her, and in Her name.

So there I was, sitting around, and suddenly it occurred to me: in what kind of state am I in front of her?  A short-sleeved shirt, shorts, naked arms and naked legs…  Damn!  I jumped up so that the chair fell backwards, opened the wardrobe, tore off all this white-and-blue crap, and put on the real clothes: a combat camouflage jacket and camouflaged pants.  Off with the sandals, I’m putting on my heavy tan boots.  Belt on, tightened to the point of taking my breath way.  Too bad I don’t have a beret; it must have burned so badly that even they couldn’t restore it.  And maybe I just lost it in the chaos…  I looked in the mirror.  That’s much better: not a snotty boy, but a Fighting Cat; the buttons are glistening, the Black Beast on the insignia is baring its teeth in eternal fury, the belt buckle is straight over the bellybutton, like it’s nailed.  Too bad I don’t have a beret!

Suddenly I realized that I was singing the Fighting Kittens March, as loudly as I could, coarsely, and there were tears in my eyes.  I finished, wiped my eyes, and did it again, this time at half the volume, just for pleasure, from the first line, which always touches my heart (“There is a crimson blaze on the horizon”), to the last upbeat one (“A Fighting Cat is never lost”).  Actually, we wrote another verse for it, but singing it while sober, especially in front of the Maiden’s portrait, is quite impossible.  I remember Cheetah publicly twisting Crocodile’s ears for that verse…

Snake milk!  Again!  Once again, the lamp turned into some stupid light fixture.  What am I going to do?  I tried turning it back into my lamp, but then thought better of it and destroyed it altogether.  Desperation came over me.  How can I handle these people if I can’t even handle my own room?  Or this damn house…  I picked up the chair and sat back down.  The house.  Whatever you say, guys, this house isn’t right.  It seems simple: a two-storey house; next to, it a grove; all around it, twenty-five kilometers in every direction, prairies, flat as a board; two people in the house, Korney and I.  That’s it.  But no, guys, that’s not it.

First off, the voices.  Someone talks, and not just one person, and not a radio, either.  The voices are all over the house.  And not at night; in broad daylight.  Who talks, who they talk to, about what—not a clue.  Note, by the way, that Korney isn’t in the house when it happens.  Which is another question: where does he disappear to?  Although I think I found an answer to that.  Got scared, but found an answer.  Here’s what happened.  The day before yesterday, I was sitting by the window, watching the null cabin.  It’s over at an angle, at the end of a sandy walk path, about fifty paces away.  Then I heard a door slam somewhere inside the house; immediately, it got quiet, and I felt like I was alone in the house once again.  So, I thought, he isn’t leaving through the null cabin.  And then, it suddenly dawned on me: a door!  Where in this house, except for my room, is there a door that can be slammed?

So I jumped out of my room and went down to the first floor.  Looked here and there, found a well-lit hallway, a window running all along the wall; well, that’s how they always do it.  Suddenly, I heard footsteps.  I don’t know what stopped me.  I hid and froze in place.  The hallway is empty, at the far end of it, a door, a common painted one…  How I managed to miss it before, I have no idea.  But that’s not important.  The footsteps were important.  A few people.  Closer, closer, and suddenly—my heart dropped—right out of the wall step three men in a single file.  Snake milk!  Imperial paratroopers, in full combat gear, wearing those spotty overalls of theirs, assault rifles under their arms, hatchets hanging off their belts in the back…  I got down on the ground right away.  I was alone and bare-handed.  If they looked behind them, I would be done.  They didn’t.  They just stomped to the far end of the hallway and were gone.  The door got slammed, as if from a draft, and that was it.  Well, guys…  I ran straight back to my room and came to my senses only there…

I still don’t understand what this could mean.  Well, now I understand how Korney disappears from the house.  Through that same door.  But how did the rat eaters get here, in full combat gear to boot?  And what is that door?

I threw the cigarette butt on the floor, watched the floor suck it in, and got up.  It’s a bit scary, but I have to start at some point.  And if I start anywhere, I must start at that door.  It’s much nicer to sit in the garden with a pear in my mouth… or, say, sing marching songs behind the closed door of my room…  I stuck my head out and listened.  Quiet.  But Korney is home.  Maybe this is even better.  If anything happens, I’ll scream; he’d bail me out.  I went down to the hallway and tiptoed through; I even spread my arms.  It took me forever to get to that door.  Ten paces forward, stop, listen, keep on going.  Made it.  A door like any other.  A nickel-plated handle.  I put my ear to it, couldn’t hear a thing.  I pushed it with my shoulder; it wouldn’t open.  I grabbed the handle and pulled.  It still wouldn’t open.  Interesting.  I wiped the sweat from my forehead, looked over my shoulder.  No one around.  Grabbed the handle again, pulled again, and it suddenly opened.  Whether out of fear or surprise, I closed the damn thing right away.  And in my empty head, a single thought was jumping around like a pea in a gasoline tank: don’t go there, you idiot, stay out of it; no one is bothering you, do you don’t bother anyone…  At that point, even the last thought was gone.

I saw: written on the wall next to the door, in small tidy letters, the Alai word, ‘meaning’.  Actually, there was much more written there, six lines total, but the rest was math, in which I only understood the pluses and minuses.  So here’s what it looked like: four lines of that math, then the word ‘meaning’, double-underlined, then two more lines of formulas, with a thick border around them; whoever wrote this, had his chalk crumble when drawing it.  Surprise…  My poor head, previously an empty gasoline tank, was now so overcrowded with thoughts that I even forgot about the door.  So I am not alone, there are other Alais here?  Who?  Where?  Why haven’t I seen you yet?  Why have you written this?  Is this a sign?  For whom?  Me?  But I don’t get this math…  Or was the math just a distraction?  Before I could figure anything out, I heard Korney call me.  I rushed off like crazy and went to my room on tiptoes.  Dropped onto a chair, lit up, and picked up a book.  Korney called out a couple more times, then knocked on my door.

This, by the way, is really great: even though he is in his own house, he’d never come in without knocking.  I like that.  We always knocked before entering Cheetah’s room.  But right then, I wasn’t thinking about that.  “Come in,” I said, and made a pensive face, as if I was so involved in reading that I couldn’t see or hear anything.

He came in, stopped at the threshold, leaned against the door frame, and looked at me.  His face, unreadable.  I pretended to suddenly remember something and put out the smoke.  Then he spoke.

“How was the Moon?” he asked.

I was silent.  I had nothing to say.  In these situations, I keep expecting him to yell at me, but that never happens.  Just like this time.

“Let’s go,” he said.  “I want to show you something.  And then maybe we could jump over to the Moon.”

The Moon again!  I’m going to start losing hair over it pretty soon.

“Yes, sir.”  I said.  And, just in case, asked, “Would you like me to change?”

“Aren’t you hot wearing this?” he asked.

I only grinned.  Couldn’t stifle it.  What a question!

“My apologies,” he said, as if he just read my mind.  “Let’s go.”

So he took me somewhere he never took me before.  Say what you will, guys, but I will never figure out this house.  I didn’t even know that it had what it had.  In the living room, he pushed against the wall next to a book niche; a door opened, and behind it, a staircase leading down, to the basement.  It turned out the house had a whole another floor to it, underground, as luxurious as the rest of it and lit with daylight, but it wasn’t for living.  He’s got something like a museum down there.  A huge room, and all kinds of things in it.

“You see, Gahg,” he said with a strange expression on his face (was it sadness?), “I used to be a cosmozoologist, I researched life on other planets.  What a wonderful time it was!  I’ve seen many worlds, and each was full of wonderful mysteries; the entire human history wouldn’t be enough to work them all out…  Here, take a look!”  He pulled me by the sleeve into a corner, toward a strange dog-size skeleton on a black lacquered pedestal.  “See, it’s got two spines.  It’s an animal from Nistagma.  When we took the first specimen, we thought it was a deformity.  Then another one, then another…  Turns out, there is a whole new phylum of animal kingdom on Nistagma, the Deuterochordata.  There isn’t anything like it anywhere else, and even on Nistagma, there’s only this one species.  How did it come about?  Why?  It’s been fifty years, and no one has solved this problem…  Or this—”

And on he went.  Dragging me from one skeleton to another, waiving his hands, raising his voice; I haven’t seen him like this before.  He must have really loved that cosmozoology of his.  Or had some special memories thereto pertaining.

I don’t know.  From everything he told me, I barely understood or remembered anything; not that I tried, either.  What do I care about all that?  It was entertaining to watch him though, and the animals!  There must have been about a hundred.  Either skeletons or whole animals, enclosed into huge transparent blocks (for best preservation, I gather), or just stuffed hides, like in His Highness’ hunting lodge, or just heads or skins.

And in the second room…  As soon as we entered it, I backed up: the entire wall on the right is covered with a single skin.  Snake milk!  About twenty meters long, three, if not four, meters across, the edge hanging off the ceiling.  And the whole skin is covered with plates or scales, and each scale is the size of a good platter, and each gives off the pure emerald light with red sparks, so the entire room looks greenish.  I got all baffled, couldn’t take my eyes off that shining.  Damn, what wonders the world holds!  And the head is tiny, the size of my fist, and no noticeable eyes, and the mouth is too small to stick a finger into; how it fed its bulk, I have no idea…

Then, I noticed another door at the far end of the room.  Leading into a dark space.  We came closer, and, guys, that was no door.  It was a pair of open jaws.  The size of a door.  And not a room door, either, more like a garage door.  Or maybe even a hangar door.  That creature is called tahorg, and it is hunted on a planet called Pandora.  And Korney just walked past it, as if it were a tortoise, or maybe a frog.  Even though the head was as big as two railroad cars put together; our entire school would fit into this mouth.  What sort of body is attached to this kind of head?  And how do you hunt it?  With a rocket launcher, I suppose…

What else was there?  Um, birds of all kinds, huge insects…  I remembered the leg.  There was a leg in the middle of the room.  Also cast into that transparent material.  Well, that was one scary leg.  Longer than my height, knotty, like an old tree, talons, eight of them, the kind they draw Gugu the dragon with, each talon like a saber…  Okay.  But what’s remarkable about it?  Turns out, except for a few legs, and maybe tails, there isn’t anything of this beast in any museum.  It lives on a planet called Yaila, it’s been hunted for years, but not a single one has been taken.  Bullets can’t kill them, gases can’t kill them, they get out of any trap, no one has ever seen one dead, and the only way of taking it is in pieces.  Turns out, their damaged limbs simply fall off; for a while, they go on living—scratching or twitching or whatever—and then, of course, go still…  So, the leg.  I stood in front of it with m mouth open, just like that tahorg.  Great is the Creator indeed…

So we walked around for a while, Korney talking passionately, and I was little by little getting bored with all this, so I started thinking about my stuff.  First, about that inscription on the wall in the hallway, what I have to do about it and what conclusions to draw; then, something pushed me into thinking about Korney.  Why does he live alone?  He’s a rich, independent man.  Where is his wife, where are his children?  Actually, he did seem to have a woman.  First time I saw her was in the hospital, they were winking at each other across the lobby.  Then she came to see him here.  Well, I didn’t see her come, but I did see him walk her out all the way to the null cabin.  Only there isn’t real happiness there.  He says, “I expect you every day, every hours, always.”  And she replies, “I hate every day, every hour—” or something to that extent.  How about that?  If so, why did she bother to come over?  She only made the man upset to the highest degree.  So she gets into that cabin, poof, and she’s gone, and he, poor soul, just stands there, misery and pain on his face, and I finally remembered where I saw faces like this: that’s what the mortally wounded look like when they bleed out…  Seems like his love life is a disaster; as much of a stranger as I am, I can see it with the naked eye…  Maybe that’s why he works nights, just to get distracted.  That’s why he’s crazy about his zoology…  Will he ever let me out of this basement, or will we tour it for the rest of our lives?  Well, he isn’t letting me out.  Started explaining something again.  Have we been through half of it yet?  Seems like it…

So, once upon the time all this livestock lived thousands of light-years away from here.  Saw no grief, but had, of course, its problems and hassles.  So they came, stuffed it all in a bag, and dragged it off to this museum.  For scientific purposes.  So are we: living, fighting, making history, hating enemies, having no mercy on ourselves, and they’re looking at us and getting the bag ready.  For scientific purposes.  Or something.  What do we care?  Maybe we will all be displayed in basements like this one, and they will stand around, wave their hands, and debate why we are what we are, where we came from, and why.  And suddenly, I felt like all those animals were my family…  Well, not really, but, how do I even say it…  They say, when there’s a flood or, say, a fire in the jungle, predators and herbivores run away shoulder to shoulder and sort of become friends; I’ve heard stories.  So that was the feeling I got.  And that’s where I saw the skeleton.

It was standing in the corner, modestly, with no extra lighting, short in stature, shorter than I am.  Human.  The skull, the arms, the legs.  Have I not seen human skeletons?  Well, maybe the chest is a bit broader, the hands are small, some kind of webbing between fingers, and the legs are crooked.  But human nonetheless.

There must have been something wrong with my face, because Korney suddenly stopped, looked intently at me, then at the skeleton, then at me again.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.  “Is there something you don’t understand?”

I keep silent, staring at the skeleton, trying not to look at Korney.  It was as if I expected to see something like this.  And Korney said calmly,

“Yes, this is the notorious pseudo-Homo, another great mystery of nature.  Have you read about it yet?”

“No,” I said, thinking to myself, Now he’s going to explain everything to me.  He will explain it all very well.  Only should I believe him?

“This is an amazing story,” Korney said, “tragic in some ways.  You see, these beings had to be sentient.  Based on everything we know, they had to be.  But,” he spread his hands, “they weren’t.  The skeleton is nothing, I’ll show you the photographs later.  Scary!  In the last century, a research party on Magora discovered these pseudo-Homi.  They tried to establish contact for a while, observed them in their natural environment, and concluded that they are in fact animals.  Unbelievable, but true: they are animals.  So they were treated like animals: kept in kennels, killed when necessary for anatomic research, skulls and entire skeletons were gathered for collections.  After all, it was a unique situation.  The animal had to be sentient, but isn’t.  A few years later, they find an empty city on Magora.  A very powerful civilization.  Completely unlike ours or yours: never before seen, completely fantastic, but doubtlessly real.  Can you imagine the horror?  One of the original discoverers went insane, another shot himself…  It took twenty years to figure this one out!  It turned out that there is sentient life on that planet.  But completely inhuman.  So different from us, from you, or, say from the Leonidians, that our science couldn’t even anticipate its existence…  Anyway…  That was a tragedy.”  He suddenly seemed bored and started walking towards the exit, as if he forgot I was there, but when he reached the doorway, he stopped and said, looking at the skeleton in the corner, “And now, some believe that these are artificial creatures.  You see, the Magorans created them, simulated them if you will.  But why?  We were unable to establish a dialog with the Magorans…”  At that point, he looked at me, clapped me on the shoulder, and said, “That’s the story, brave brother.  That’s cosmozoology for you…”

I don’t know if he told me the truth or made it all up to completely mess up my brain, but after this, he lost interest in waving his hands and pontificating about the mysteries of nature.  So out of the museum we went.  He was quiet, so was I, my soul like a henhouse that hasn’t been cleaned in a while, so in this manner we got to his study.  He dropped into his chair in front of the screens, took a glass of his favorite fizzy drink out of thin air, and started sipping it through a straw, looking through me.  His study, by the way, apart from those screens and an insane number of books, is completely empty.  He doesn’t even have a desk; I still don’t understand what he does whet he has to, say, sign a document.  And not that he can’t afford it; he’s a rich man.  If I were him, I would sell that emerald hide if I had to, hire a bunch of servants, put statues all over the place, hang carpets on the walls; anyone who looked at it all would get the right impression…  Although what do I know?  He’s single.  And maybe his rank is such that he can’t live in luxury.  What to I know about his rank?  Nothing.  I only know he’s got a museum in the basement…

“Listen, Gahg,” he said suddenly, “you must be bored here, huh?”

This was a completely unexpected question.  What’s the right answer here?  And, to think of it, how do I know if I am bored here?  Miserable, sure.  Uncomfortable, yes.  Restless, yes.  But bored?  When a man is in a trench under fire, can he be bored?  He doesn’t have time to be bored.  Neither do I.

“No sir,” I say.  “I understand my situation.”

“And what exactly do you understand your situation to be?”

“I am under your command.”

He smirked.

“Under my command?  Oh well, let’s not talk about it.  As you see, I can’t spend all my time with you.  Not that you want it, either.  You try to stay away…”

“No sir,” I object politely.  “I will never forget that you are my savior.”

“Savior, huh?  Your salvation is pretty far away still.  But how would you like to meet an interesting individual?”

My heart skipped a bit.

“Whatever you command,” I said.

He paused to think.

“Well, I might command,” he said, getting up.  “It might be useful.”

Having said these cryptic words, he walked over to the far wall, did something, and the wall opened.  I looked and backed off.  I already got used to the walls opening and closing around here; in fact, I was downright bored with it.  But what did I think?  I thought he’d have me meet the mathematician; instead—snake milk!—there’s a hunk eight feet tall, broad shoulders, huge arms, and the face is covered with a mask, some kind of matte lattice over it, and sticking out from the sides of his head are… headlights?  Or ears?  Honestly, were I not wearing my uniform, I’d run away.  Honestly.  I’d run away even in my uniform, but my legs wouldn’t move.  So this hunk says in a hearty basso,

“Hi, Korney!”

“Hi, Dramba!” Korney said back.  “Step out here.”

So he stepped out.  And again, what did I expect?  That the entire house would shake from his footsteps.  He’s a monster, a statue!  Instead, he glided out, as if floating through the air.  Not a sound, not a rustle; he was just in the niche, and now he’s in the middle of the room, pointing his ears-headlights to me.  I feel the wall behind my shoulder blades; there’s nowhere to retreat.  Korney, meanwhile, laughed, old dog, and said,

“Don’t be scared, Fighting Cat!  It’s a robot!  A machine!”

Thanks, I thought.  I feel better already, just because it’s a machine!

“We don’t make these anymore,” Korney said, stroking the hunk’s elbow and blowing a speck of dust off it.  “But my father went to Yaila and Pandora with these.  Do you remember Pandora, Dramba?”

“I remember everything, Korney,” the hunk answers in his basso.

“Well, say hello,” said Korney.  “This is Gahg, a guy from hell.  He’s new to Earth, knows nothing about it.  You will be in his command.”

“Awaiting your orders, Gahg,” the hunk said, and lifted his arm almost to the ceiling in a greeting gesture.

Long story short, everything ended well.  And in the middle of the night, when the whole house was asleep, I tiptoed to that hallway and wrote under the formulas, “Who are you, friend?”

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