A Guy from Hell (04/08)

A Guy from Hell

By Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky

Chapter Four

By the time they reached the abandoned road, the sun was already high above the prairies.  Dew has dried out; hard short grass rustled and crackled underfoot.  Myriads of grasshoppers rang and screamed all around; a sharp bitter odor rose from the warmed-up soil.

It was a strange road.  Perfectly straight, it came from the dull blue horizon, cut the visible world in half, and went over the dull blue horizon again, towards a place where day and night, something very far away and very big flashed dimly, flickered, moved, rose, and fell.  The road was wide; it glimmered dully in the sunlight, and it looked like it was laid atop the prairies, a massive stripe of some dense, but not solid, material, a few inches thick and rounded at the edges.  Gahg stepped on it and, amazed by the unexpected sensation of elasticity, lightly jumped a few times.  Of course, it wasn’t concrete, but it wasn’t asphalt, either.  Something like very dense rubber.  And it felt cool, not the usual sweltering hot of a pavement.  No traces of any kind visible on the surface, and no dust, either.  Gahg bent over and ran his hand over the smooth, almost slippery, surface.  Then he looked at the palm of his hand.  The palm of his hand remained clean.

“It has shrunk considerably over the last eighty years,” Dramba boomed.  “When I saw it last, it was over twenty meters wide.  Back then, it still moved.”

Gahg jumped on the ground.

“Moved?  Moved how?”

“It was a self-propelled road.  Back then, there were a lot of them.  They went all over the globe, and they flowed, more slowly near the edges, very fast in the middle.”

“You didn’t have automobiles?” Gahg asked.

“We did.  I can’t tell you why people started building these roads.  I only have indirect information.  That had something to do with environmental cleanup.  Self-propelled roads cleaned.  They took everything harmful from the atmosphere, the water, the ground.”

“Why isn’t it moving now?” Gahg asked.  “Can you turn it on?”

“No.  The roads were controlled from the special facilities.  The closest one was pretty far away from here.  But it’s possible that those centers are no more.  No longer necessary.  I can see that everything changed.  This road used to be full of people.  Now, there’s no one.  The sky used to full of flying vehicles; air traffic flowed in several layers.  Now, the sky is empty.  On both sides of this road, there used to be wheat as tall as I am.  Now, it’s prairies.”

Gahg listened, his mouth slightly open.

“My receptors,” Dramba went on in a monotone, “used to catch hundreds of impulses each second all over the frequency spectrum.  Now, I feel nothing but atmospheric discharges.  At first, I thought I was unwell.  But now I know: I am the same.  The world changed.”

“Maybe the world is unwell?” Gahg asked quickly.

“I don’t understand,” Dramba said.

Gahg turned away and looked in the direction of the flashing and stirring horizon.  “Yeah, right,” he thought, “like these people can be unwell”.

“And what’s over there?” he asked.

“Antonov,” Dramba replied.  “It’s a city.  Eighty years ago, it wasn’t visible from here.  It used to be an agricultural town.”

“And now?”

“I don’t know.  I keep calling the informatorium, but there’s no reply.  Communications technology changed, Gagh.  Everything changed.”

Gahg kept looking at the mysterious twinkling, and suddenly something appeared from beyond the horizon, impossibly huge, looking like an unimaginably large triangular sail, gray and blue almost like the sky, only slightly darker; it slowly completed a majestic arc-wise motion, like a hand of a clock, and disappeared, dissolved in the foggy haze.  Gahg caught his breath.

“Have you seen that?” he whispered.

“I have,” Dramba said dejectedly.  “Don’t know what it was.  It didn’t use to happen.”

Gahg shrugged.

“What are you good for anyway?” he grumbled.  “All right, let’s go home.”

“You wanted to see the rocket launchpad,” Dramba reminded.

“Sir!” Gahg said curtly.

“I don’t understand…”

“When addressing me, you will add ‘sir’!”

“I understand, sir.”

For a while, they walked in silence.  Grasshoppers jumped away from their feet like dry splashes.  Gahg threw sideways looks at the quiet giant lumbering next to him.  He suddenly realized that Dramba, just like that road, has a different air about him, fresh and cool.  Actually, he was made from something similar, too; dense and elastic, so his arms sticking out of the sleeves of a blue overalls had the same glean to them.  Gahg also noticed that Dramba always tries to be between him and the sun.

“All right, tell me about yourself one more time,” Gahg ordered.

Dramba repeated that he was an android serial number such and such, one of an experimental series of expedition robots, built in such and such year (about hundred years ago — quite an old dude!), activated on such and such date.  Worked in this expedition and that; on Yaila, suffered a serious accident and was partially destroyed; rebuilt and upgraded, but no longer participated in expeditions.

“Last time, you said you spend five years in a museum,” Gahg interrupted.

“Six years, sir.  In the Discovery Museum in Lübeck.”

“All right,” Gahg grumbled.  “And then, you spend eighty years in that niche at Korney’s house…”

“Seventy-nine, sir.”

“All right, all right, stop correcting me at every step…”  Gahg paused.  “Were you bored just standing there?”

“I don’t know what boring is, sir.”

“So what were you doing there?”

“Standing by for orders, sir.”

“Orders…  Are you at least glad to be out?”

“I don’t understand the question, sir.”

“What a dumbo…  Well, that’s irrelevant.  Tell me something else though.  In what way are you different from people?”

“In every way, sir.  Chemistry, control system, purpose.”

“And what is that purpose, you dumbo?”

“Carry out all orders I am capable of carrying out.”

“Ha!  And what’s people’s purpose?”

“People don’t have a purpose, sir.”

“What an idiot!  A villager.  What do you know about real people?”

“I don’t understand the question, sir.”

“And I am not asking you anything yet.”

Dramba was silent.

They walked through the prairies, deviating from the straight way home, because Gahg was suddenly interested in a structure on the top of a low hill to their right.  The sun was already high, hot air streamed all over the prairies, the suffocating sharp odor of grass and soil was getting stronger.

“So you’re ready to carry out any order I give?” Gahg asked.

“Yes, sir.  If it is within my capabilities.”

“All right…  So what if I order you to do one thing, and someone else, the opposite?  What then?”

“I don’t understand who is giving the second order.”

“Um, doesn’t matter.”

“It does matter, sir”

“Well, let’s say, it’s Korney…”

“I would carry out Korney’s order, sir.”

For a while, Gahg was quiet.  What an animal, he thought.  What a worthless piece of crap!

“Why?” he asked finally.

“Korney is older, sir.  His index of social significance is far greater.”

“What’s that index?”

“He has greater social responsibility.”

“How would you know?”

“His level of awareness is much higher.”

“So what?”

“The higher the level of awareness, the greater the responsibility.”

Smooth, Gahg thought.  Can’t argue with that.  Everything’s right.  Truly, I am like a small child here.  Well, we’ll see

“Indeed, Korney is a great man,” he said.  “I am a long way from him.  He sees everything, he knows everything.  Now you and I are walking here, talking, and he must be listening to every word.  If we do something wrong, he’ll make us regret it…”

Dramba was silent.  Who knows what was going on in his big-eared head.  No face to speak of, no eyes, no way to understand.  And his voice is the same all the time…

“Am I right?”

“No, sir.”

“What do you mean, no?  You think there are things Korney doesn’t know?”

“Yes, sir.  He asks questions.”

“You mean, right now?”

“No, sir.  Right now, I have no contact with him.”

“So you think he can’t hear what you say right now?  Or what I say to you?  He, if you want to know, can hear eve our thoughts!  Not just conversations…”

“I understand, sir.”

Gahg looked at Dramba hatefully.

“What do you understand, you idiot?”

“I understand that Korney has mind-reading equipment at his disposal. ”

“Who told you?”

“You did, sir.”

Gahg stopped and spit angrily.  Dramba immediately stopped as well.  If only it were possible to hit him between the ears, but no, too high up.  What a dumbo!  Or is he pretending?  Be calm, Cat, be calm!  Cold resolve and self-control.

“And before I told you, you didn’t know, did you?”

“No, sir.  I knew nothing of this equipment’s existence.”

“Do you, porcupine, mean to say that a man as great as Korney can’t see or hear us now?”

“Please clarify: does mind-reading equipment exist?”

“How do I know?  Well, forget the equipment!  You can transmit picture and sound, right?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Are you transmitting now?”

“No, sir.”

“Why?”

“I have no orders to do so, sir.”

“Ha!  No orders,” Gahg grumbled.  “All right, what are you standing around for?  Move it!”

For a while, they walked in silence.  Then Gahg asked,

“Listen, you!  Who is Korney?”

“I don’t understand the question, sir.”

“Well…  What’s his position?  What does he do?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

Gahg stopped again.

“What do you mean, you don’t know?”

“I have no information.”

“He is your master!  You don’t know who your master is?”

“I do.”

“So who is he?”

“Korney.”

Gahg clenched his teeth.

“Dramba, my friend, this is coming off really strange,” he said softly.  “Korney is your master, you’ve been in his house for eighty years, and you know nothing about him?”

“Not exactly, sir.  My first master was Jan, Korney’s father.  Korney got me from him.  That was thirty years ago, when Jan went away and Korney built the house where Jan’s camp used to be.  Since then, Korney is my master, but I never worked with him, so I don’t know what he does.”

“I see…” Gahg said and started walking again.  “So you know nothing about him at all?”

“Not really.  I know a lot about him.”

“Tell me,” Gahg demanded.

“Name, Korney.  Height, six feet five inches, weight, estimated indirectly, approximately two hundred pounds, age, estimated indirectly, approximately sixty, index of social significance, estimated indirectly, approximately point nine–”

“Wait,” Gahg said, overwhelmed.  “Shut up for a minute.  Tell me something important, not this nonsense!”

“I don’t understand the order, sir,” Dramba replied immediately.

“Um…  Is he married or not?  What’s his education?  Children?  Get it?”

“I have no information on Korney’s wife.  Nor on his education.”  The robot paused.  “Have information about his son.  Andrei, age approximately twenty-five.”

“You don’t know anything about a wife, but know about a son?”

“Yes, sir.  Eleven years ago, I received an order to assist a teenager, approximately fourteen at the time, whom Korney called ‘son’ and ‘Andrei’.”  Was under his command for four hours.

“And then?”

“I don’t understand the question, sir.”

“Have you seen him ever again?”

“No, sir.”

“I see,” Gahg said thoughtfully.  “So what were you doing with him over those four hours?”

“We talked.  Andrei asked me about Korney.”

Gahg stumbled.

“What have you told him?”

“All I knew; height, weight.  Then he interrupted me.  He demanded that I tell him about Jan’s work on other planets.”

Sooooo…  That, it seems, is how things stand.  Well, that’s none of my business.  But what a dumbo!  It clearly makes no sense to ask him about the house; he wouldn’t know a thing.  He just thwarted all my plans…  Why did Korney put him with me?  Am I wrong?  By devil, how can I test him?  I can’t take a step unless I test him!

“May I remind you,” Dramba said, “that you intended to go home?”

“So I did.  What’s the problem?”

“We’re off the heading, sir.”

“Like you were to be consulted,” Gahg said.  “I want to see that thing on the hill…”

“This is an obelisk, sir.  A memorial over a mass grave.”

“Whose?” Gahg asked quickly.

“The heroes of the last war.  Hundred years ago, the archeologists found a mass grave on this hill.”

Let’s see, Gahg thought and started walking faster.  A daring, even scary, thought came to him.  Risky, he thought.  They’re going to bite my head off!  But what for?  What do I know?  I am new here, understand nothing, know nothing…  And most likely, it’s not going to work, either.  But if it is…  If it works, then it’s for sure.  Fine, let’s try it.

The hill wasn’t very high, sixty or seventy feet.  About as tall was a granite plate towering above the hilltop, polished smoothly on one side and hewn roughly on all others.  On the polished surface, there was an inscription in an old script that Gahg didn’t understand.  Gahg walked around the obelisk and returned to its shadow.  He sat down.

“Private Dramba!” he said, not too loudly.

The robot turned his big-eared head toward him.

“When I say ‘private Dramba’,” Gahg said, still not too loudly, “you must respond, ‘Yes, corporal, sir!'”

“Yes, sir.”

“Not ‘sir’, ‘corporal, sir’!” Gahg screamed and jumped on his feet.  “‘Corporal, sir’, you get it?  You village trough!”

“I understand, corporal, sir.”

“Not ‘I understand’; ‘aye’!”

“Aye, corporal, sir!”

Gahg walked very close, cocked his hip, and stared into the impregnable matte latticework.

“I will make a soldier out of you yet, my friend,” he said in a tenderly threatening voice.  “What kind of posture is it, you bum?  Attention!”

“I don’t understand, corporal, sir,” Dramba boomed in a monotone.

“When commanded to attention, one shall put his heels together, toes apart, chest forward as far as possible, palms of his hands on his hips, elbows apart from the core…  Like this.  Not bad…  Private Dramba, at ease!  When commanded at ease, one shall put one foot to the side and clasp his hands behind his back.  Now, I really don’t like your ears.  Can you lower your ears?”

“I don’t understand, corporal, sir.”

“Those things sticking out, can you lower them when commanded at ease?”

“Aye, corporal, sir.  I can.  But it will impair my vision.”

“That’s okay, you can live with that…  Now let’s try it…  Private Dramba, attention!  At ease!  Attention!  At ease!”

Gahg returned to the shadow of the obelisk and sat down.  Wow, if only he could have a platoon of soldiers like this.  This one grasps everything on the fly.  He imagined a platoon of Drambas positioned near that village and smacked his dry lips.  This devil, perhaps, won’t go down even if hit by a rocket.  One thing is still unclear though: does this idiot think or not?

“Private Dramba!” he barked.

“Aye, corporal, sir!”

“What are you thinking, private Dramba?”

“Awaiting orders, corporal, sir!”

“Good!  At ease!”

Gahg brushed the beads of sweat off his upper lip with his fingers and said,

“From now on, you are a soldier of His Highness the Duke of Alai.  I am your commander.  All my orders are the law you live by.  No reasoning, no questions, no idle talk!  You must excitedly think of a minute when you will be privileged to die in the name of His Highness’ glory!”

The idiot probably isn’t getting half of it, but that’s okay.  The important thing is to beat the basics into his head.  And beat the stupidity out.  And whether he understands or not is unimportant.

“You must forget whatever you were taught before.  I am your teacher!  I am your father and your mother.  Only my orders are to be followed, only my words can be your orders.  Everything I tell you and every order I give you is a military secret.  Do you know what a secret is?”

“No, corporal, sir.”

“Um…  A secret is something that must be known only to me and you.  And His Highness, of course.”

That’s a little too steep, he thought.  Too early.  He’s a complete villager.  Oh well, we’ll see.  For now, let’s run him out.  Let the bum sweat.

“Attention!” he commanded.  “Private Dramba, thirty circles around this hill, on the double.  Go!”

Private Dramba started running.  He ran lightly and strangely, not per regulationы and not at all like a man; he wasn’t even running, he flew in giant leaps, spending a lot of time in the air, and still kept his arms pressed against his hips.  Gahg, his mouth slightly open, watched him.  Wow!  This felt like a dream.  Absolutely quiet half-run half-flight, no thumping of feet, no raspy breath, and not a single misstep, despite rocks, humps, and holes…  Put a tin of water on his head, and he wouldn’t spill a drop!  What a soldier!  Seriously, guys, what a soldier!

“Faster!” he barked.  “Move it, you anemic cockroach!”

Dramba changed pace.  Gahg started blinking: Dramba’s legs disappeared.  Instead of legs, under his still perfectly vertical body, only a foggy shimmer, like a fast-spinning propeller, was visible.  The ground gave in; the giant started living traces that quickly formed a deep rut; now there was also sound, the whistling of air being cut through and the soft rustling of soil setting.  Gahg was barely able to keep track.  Suddenly, it was all over.  Dramba stood before him at attention, static, huge, emanating coolness.  As if he never ran.

Wow, Gahg thought.  Try sweating this one out…  But have I brought him to his senses or not?  Well, let’s risk it.  He looked at the obelisk.  This is disgusting, really.  There are soldiers laid to rest here…  Heroes.  What they fought for and against whom, I really didn’t get, but how they fought, I saw.  May we all fight like this in our final hour.  Was it for a reason Korney showed me those movies?  Was it? Inside Gahg’s soul, a superstitious horror stirred.   Has Korney foreseen this?  No way, he couldn’t have foreseen it, he is no God…  He just wanted to give me a hint as to whose progeny I am dealing with.  Were they alive, they wouldn’t let it happen, they would drive me away…  All right, but what if it were the rat eaters?  No, still disgusting…  Also, the rat eaters are stinking cowards.   And these were soldiers, I saw it with my own eyes!  Damn, I want to throw up…  And what if Cheetah were here?  What if I reported my plan to him?  What would he say?  I don’t know.  I only know that he would want to throw up too.  Anyone would, if they are a man and not a sack of manure.  But there are a lot of things a soldier might want to throw up from.  When I scraped guts from the pavement, I wanted to throw up, too…  No, Cat, guts were a different matter altogether.  This is a symbol.  A matter of honor!

He looked at Dramba.  Dramba stood at attention, indifferently moving his eyes-ears.  But what else can I do?  The intent it right.  Disgusting, yes.  Slimy.  I could break someone’s face if they suggested it at another time.  But I am out of options.  I may never have another occasion.  I can test everything at once.  Test this idiot, and also find out if I am under surveillance…  Being disgusting is the whole point.  No one would stand by if they saw it; they would stop me if they could.  All right, enough idling.  I am not doing this for pleasure.  I am not a parasite.  I am a soldier and do my soldiering the best way I know how.  Forgive me, brave brothers.  If you can.

“Private Dramba!” he called out in a jarring voice.

“Aye, corporal, sir!”

“Here’s an order!  Topple this stone!  Go!”

He jumped aside, not feeling his legs under him.  If there were a trench, he would jump into a trench.

“Now!” he squealed, hurting his vocal cords.

When he opened his eyes, Dramba was standing in front of the obelisk, leaning forward.  Huge shovel-like hands slipped on the granite and sank into the dry soil.  Giant shoulders moved.  This lasted a second.  The robot froze, and Gahg, terrified, saw his mighty legs swell and shorten, turning into low, thick pedestals flattened at the bottom.  Then the hill shook.  There was a loud creaking sound, and the obelisk leaned barely noticeably.  Then Gahg broke down.

“Stop!” he shouted.  “Halt!”

He kept screaming, no longer able to hear himself,  swearing in Russian and in Alai; there was no need for this screaming, and he already understood it, but kept at it nevertheless, and Dramba stood in front of him at attention, repeating in a monotone, “Aye, corporal, sir, aye, corporal, sir…”

Then he came to.  His throat burned, his entire body ached.  Stumbling, he walked around the obelisk, touching the granite with shaking fingers.  Everything was just as before, only at the foundation, under the cryptic inscription, there were two gaping holes in the ground.  He began to push earth into them using the heels of his boots.

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