The Final Roadside Circle of Picnic Paradise

Everything is now understandable. It’s odious, that I understand…. Better if I understood nothing, better if, upon regaining consciousness, I shrugged my shoulders and climbed out of the bath. Would it have been understandable to Strogoff and Einstein and Petrarch? Imagination is a priceless gift, but it must not be given an inward direction. Only outward, only outward… What a tasty worm some corrupter has dropped from his rod into this stagnant pool! And how accurately timed! Yes indeed, if I were commander of Wells’ Martians, I would not have bothered with fighter tripods, heat rays, and other such nonsense. Illusory existence … no, this is not a narcotic, a narcotic has a long way to go to approach it. In a way this is exactly appropriate. Here. Now. To each time its own. Poppy seeds and hemp, the kingdom of sweet blurred shadows and peace — for the beggar, the worn-out, the downtrodden… But here no one wants peace, here no one is dying of hunger, here is simply a bore. A well-fed, well-heated, drunken bore. It’s not that the world is bad, it’s just plain dreary. World without prospects, world without promise. But in the end man is not a carp, he still remains a man. Yes, it is no kingdom of shades, it is indeed the real existence, without detraction, without dreary confusion. Slug is moving on the world and the world will not mind subjecting itself to it.






Some strange and very new sensation was slowly filling him. He realized that this sensation wasn’t actually new, that it had long been hiding somewhere inside him, but he only now became aware of it, and everything fell into place. And an idea, which had previously seemed like nonsense, like the insane ravings of a senile old man, turned out to be his sole hope and his sole meaning of life. It was only now that he’d understood—the one thing that he still had left, the one thing that had kept him afloat in recent months, was the hope for a miracle. He, the idiot, the dummy, had been spurning this hope, trampling on it, mocking it, drinking it away—because that’s what he was used to and because his whole life, ever since his childhood, he had never relied on anyone but himself. And ever since his childhood, this self-reliance had always been measured by the amount of money he managed to wrench, wrestle, and wring out of the surrounding indifferent chaos. That’s how it had always been, and that’s how it would have continued, if he hadn’t found himself in a hole from which no amount of money could rescue him, in which self-reliance was utterly pointless. And now this hope—no longer the hope but the certainty of a miracle—was filling him to the brim, and he was already amazed that he’d managed to live in such a bleak, cheerless gloom …

At this paint, finally, I understood that all this was extraordinarily amusing. Everyone laughed. There was lots of room around me and music thundered forth. I swept up a charming girl and we began to dance, as they used to dance, as dancing should be done and was done a long, long time ago, as it was done always with abandon, so that your head swam, and so that everyone admired you. We stepped out of the way, and I held on to her hands, and there was no need to talk about anything, and she agreed that the van driver was a strange man. Can’t stand alcoholics, said Rimeyer, and pore-nose is the most genuine alcoholic, and what about Devon I said, how could you be without Devon when we have an excellent zoo, the buffaloes love to wallow in the mud, and bugs are constantly swarming out of it. Rim, I said, there are some fools who said that you are fifty years old — such nonsense when I wouldn’t give you over twenty-five — and this is Vousi, I told her about you, but I am intruding on you, said Rimeyer; no one can intrude on us, said Vousi, as for Seus he’s the best of Fishers, he grabbed the splotcher and got the ray right in the eye, and Hugger slipped and fell in the water and said — wouldn’t it be something for you to drown — look your gear are melting away, aren’t you funny, said Len, there is such a game of boy and gangster, you know, you remember we played with Maris… Isn’t it wonderful, I have never felt so good in my life, what a pity, when it could be like this every day. Vousi, I said, aren’t we great fellows, Vousi, people have never had such an important problem before, and we solved it and there remained only one problem, Vousi, the sole problem in the world, to return to people a spiritual content, and spiritual concerns, no, Seus, said Vousi, I love you very much, Oscar, you are very nice, but forgive me, would you, I want it to be Ivan, I embraced her and felt that it was right to kiss her and I said I love you…

He didn’t remember when the whole thing ended. He just noticed that he could breathe again, that the air was once again air instead of a burning steam scorching his throat, and he realized that they had to hurry, that they had to immediately get away from this hellish oven before it descended on them again. He climbed off Arthur, who lay completely motionless, squeezed both of the boy’s legs under his arm, and using his free hand to help pull himself along, crawled forward. He never took his eyes off the boundary where the grass began again—dead, dry, prickly, but real. Right now, it seemed to be the most magnificent place on Earth. The ashes crunched between his teeth, waves of residual heat kept hitting his face, sweat poured right into his eyes—probably because he no longer had eyebrows or eyelashes. Arthur dragged behind him, his stupid jacket caught on things, as if on purpose; Redrick’s scalded ass burned, and each movement caused his backpack to slam into the back of his scalded head. The pain and oppressive heat made Redrick think with horror that he’d gotten thoroughly cooked and wouldn’t be able to make it. This fear made him work harder with his free elbow and his knees, forcing the vilest epithets he could think of through his parched throat; then he suddenly remembered, with some kind of insane joy, that he still had an almost-full flask inside his jacket. My dear, my darling, it won’t let me down, I just need to keep crawling, a little more, come on, Redrick, come on, Red, a little more, damn the Zone, damn this waterless swamp, damn the Lord and the whole host of angels, damn the aliens, and damn that fucking Vulture …

I’ll make it through, I’ll make it through, thought Redrick. Not my first time, it’s my life story: I’m deep in shit, and there’s lightning above my head, that’s how it’s always been. And where did all this shit come from? So much shit … it’s mind-boggling how much shit is here in one place, there’s shit here from all over the world … It’s the Vulture’s doing, he thought savagely. The Vulture came through here, he left this behind him. Four-Eyes kicked the bucket on the right, the Poodle kicked the bucket on the left, and all so that the Vulture could go between them and leave all this shit behind him. Serves you right, he told himself. Anyone who walks in the Vulture’s footsteps always ends up eating shit. Haven’t you learned that already? There are too many of them, vultures, that’s why there are no clean places left, the whole world is filthy … Noonan’s an idiot: Redrick, he says, you’re a destroyer of balance, you’re a disturber of peace, for you, Redrick, he says, any order is bad, a bad order is bad, a good order is bad—because of people like you, there will never be heaven on Earth. How the hell would you know, fat ass? When have I ever seen a good order? When have you ever seen me under a good order? My whole life all I’ve seen is guys like Kirill and Four-Eyes go to their grave, so that the vultures can crawl wormlike between their corpses, over their corpses, and shit, shit, shit …

They hung around on the corners, huddled around streetlights, gauche, smoked to the gills, leaving the sidewalks behind them strewn with bits of candy paper, cigarette butts, and spittle. They were nervous and showy melancholic, yearning, constantly looking around, stooped. They were awfully anxious not to look like others, and at the same time, assiduously imitated each other and two or three popular movie stars. There were really not that many, but they stood out like sore thumbs, and it always seemed to me that every town and the whole world was filled with them — perhaps because every city and the whole world belonged to them by night. And to me, they seemed full of some dark mystery, But I too used to stand around of evenings in the company of friends, until some real people turned up and took us off the streets, and many a time I have seen the same groups in all the cities of the world, where there was a lack of capable men to get rid of them. But I never did understand to the very end what force it is that turns these fellows away from good books, of which there are so many, from sport establishments, of which this town had plenty, and even from ordinary television sets, and drives them out in the night streets with cigarettes in their teeth and transistor sets in their ears, to stand and spit as far as possible, to guffaw as offensively as possible, and to do nothing. Apparently at fifteen, the most attractive of all the treasures in the world is the feeling of your own importance and ability to excite everyone’s admiration, or at least attract attention. Everything else seems unbearably dull and dreary, including, perhaps above all, those avenues of achieving the desirable which are offered by the tired world of adults.

After leaving the Metropole, he hailed a cab and took it to the other side of town. He didn’t know the driver, a new guy, some pimply beaked kid, one of the thousands who had recently flocked to Harmont looking for hair-raising adventures, untold riches, international fame, or some special religion; they came in droves but ended up as taxi drivers, waiters, construction workers, and bouncers in brothels—yearning, untalented, tormented by nebulous desires, angry at the whole world, horribly disappointed, and convinced that here, too, they’d been cheated. Half of them, after lingering for a month or two, returned home cursing, spreading news of their great disappointment to almost every corner of the globe; a rare few became stalkers and quickly perished, never having made any sense of things and turning posthumously into legendary heroes; some managed to get jobs at the Institute, the brightest and best-educated ones, capable at least of becoming lab assistants; the rest founded political parties, religious sects, and self-help groups and idled away their evenings in bars, brawling over differences of opinion, over girls, or just for the hell of it. From time to time they organized protests and petitions, staged demonstrations, went on strike—sit-down strikes, stand-up strikes, and even lie-down strikes—enraging the city police, administrators, and established residents; but the longer they stayed, the more thoroughly they calmed down and resigned themselves to things, and the less they worried about what exactly they were doing in Harmont.

If you take a quick look at it, everything seems OK. The sun shines there just like it’s supposed to, and it seems as if nothing’s changed, as if everything’s the same as thirteen years ago. My old man, rest his soul, could take a look and see nothing out of place, might only wonder why there isn’t smoke coming from the factories—Is there a strike on? Yellow ore in conical mounds, blast furnaces gleaming in the sun, rails, rails, and more rails, on the rails a locomotive … In short, the typical industrial landscape. Except there’s no one around: no one living, no one dead. Ah, and there’s the garage: a long gray tube, the gates wide open, and trucks standing next to it on the lot. Thirteen years they’ve stood, and nothing’s happened to them. Kirill got that right—he has a good head on his shoulders. God help you if you ever pass between those vehicles, you must always go around … There’s a useful crack in the pavement there, if it hasn’t filled with brambles. Four hundred feet—where’s he measuring that from? Oh! Must be from the last marker. Right, can’t be more than that from there. These eggheads are making progress after all … Look, they’ve laid a route all the way to the dump, and a clever route at that! There it is, the ditch where the Slug kicked the bucket, all of six feet away from their route. And Knuckles kept telling the Slug, “You idiot, stay away from those ditches or there will be nothing left to bury!” A real prophecy that was—nothing left to bury indeed. That’s the Zone for you: come back with swag, a miracle; come back alive, success; come back with a patrol bullet in your ass, good luck; and everything else—that’s fate.

I couldn’t believe it, because they do not raise monuments to Yurkovskys. While they live, they are appointed to more or less responsible positions, they are honored at jubilees, they are elected to membership in academies. They are rewarded with medals and are honored with international prizes, and when they die or perish; they are the subjects of books, quotations, references, but always less and less often as time passes, and finally they are forgotten altogether. They depart the halls of memory and linger on only in books. Vladimir Sergeyevitch was a general of the sciences and a remarkable man. But it is not possible to erect monuments to all generals and all remarkable men, especially in countries to which they had no direct relationship and in cities where if they did visit, it was only temporarily. In any case, in that Year of the Scales, which is of significance only to them, he was not even a general. In March he was, jointly with Dauge, completing the investigation of the Amorphous Spot on Uranus. That was when the sounding probe blew up and we all got a dose in the work section — and when we got back to the Planet in September, he was all spotted with lilac blotches, mad at the world, promising himself that he would take time out to swim and get sunburned and then get right back to the design of a new probe because the old one was trash…. I looked at the hotel again to reassure myself. The only out was to assume that the life of the town was in some mysterious and potent manner highly dependent on the Amorphous Spot on Uranus. Yurkovsky continued to smile with snobbish superiority. Generally, the sculpture was quite good, but I could not figure out what it was he was leaning on. The apparatus didn’t look like the probe.

“Amusingly enough, relatively little. We’ve found many marvels. In a number of cases, we’ve even learned how to adapt these marvels to our needs. We’ve even gotten used to them. A lab monkey presses a red button and gets a banana, presses a white button and gets an orange, but has no idea how to obtain bananas or oranges without buttons. Nor does it understand the relationship between buttons and oranges and bananas. Take, say, the spacells. We’ve learned to apply them. We’ve even discovered conditions under which they multiply by division. But we have yet to create a single spacell, have no idea how they work, and, as far as I can tell, won’t figure it out anytime soon. Here’s what I’d say. There are a number of objects for which we have found applications. We use them, although almost certainly not in the ways that the aliens intended. I’m absolutely convinced that in the vast majority of cases we’re using sledgehammers to crack nuts. Nevertheless, some things we do apply: spacells, bracelets that stimulate vital processes … all sorts of quasibiological masses, which caused such a revolution in medicine … We’ve gained new tranquilizers, new mineral fertilizers, we’ve revolutionized astronomy. In any case, why am I listing them? You know it all better than I do—I see you wear a bracelet yourself. Let us call this group of objects useful. You could say that, to a certain extent, these objects have benefited humanity, although we can never forget that in our Euclidean world every stick has two ends …”

On page twelve, the paper devoted a column to an article by “the outstanding proponent of the latest philosophy, the laureate of many literary prizes, Doctor Opir.” The treatise was titled “World Without Worry.” With beautiful words and most convincingly indeed, Doctor Opir established the omnipotence of science, called for optimism, derided gloomy skeptics and denigrators, and invited all “to be as children.” He assigned a specially important role in the formation of contemporary (i.e., anxiety-free) psychology to electric wave psychotechnics. “Recollect what a wonderful charge of vigor and good feeling is imparted by a bright, happy, and joyful dream!” exclaimed this representative of the latest philosophy. “It is no wonder that sleep has been known for over a hundred years to be a curative agent for many psychic disturbances. But we are all a touch ill: we are sick with our worries, we are overcome by the trivia of daily routine, we are irritated by the rare but still remaining few malfunctions, the inevitable frictions among individuals, the normal healthy sexual unsatisfiedness, the dissatisfaction with self which is so common in the makeup of each person. … As fragrant bath salts wash away the dust of travel from our tired bodies, so does a joyful dream wash away and purify a tired psyche. So now, we no longer have to fear any anxieties or malfunctions. We well know that at the appointed hour, the invisible radiation of the dream generator, which together with the public I tend to call by the familiar name of ‘the shivers,’ will heal us, fill us with optimism, and return to us the wonderful feeling of the joy of being alive.” Further, Doctor Opir expounded that the shivers were absolutely harmless physically and psychologically, and that the attacks of detractors who wished to see in the shivers a resemblance to narcotics and who demagogically ranted about a “doped mankind,” could not but arouse in us a painful incomprehension, and, conceivably, some stronger public-spirited emotions that could be dangerous to the malevolently inclined citizens. In conclusion, Doctor Opir pronounced a happy dream to be the best kind of rest, vaguely hinted that the shivers constituted the best antidote to alcoholism and drug addiction, and insistently warned that the shivers should not be confused with other (not medically approved) methods of electric wave application.

In Bolivia, government troops, after stubborn fighting, had occupied the town of Reyes. The rebels were pushed across the River Beni. In Moscow, at the international meeting of nuclear physicists, Haggerton and Soloviev announced a project for a commercial installation to produce anti-matter. The Tretiakoff Gallery had arrived in Leopoldville, official opening being scheduled for tomorrow. The scheduled series of pilotless craft had been launched from the Staryi Vostok base on Pluto into the totally free flight zone; communications with two of the craft were temporarily disrupted. The General Secretary of the UN had directed an official message to Orolianos, in which he warned that in the event of a repetition of the use of atomic grenades by the extremists, UN police forces would be introduced into Eldorado. In Central Angola, at the sources of the River Kwando, an archaeological expedition of the Academy of Sciences of the UAR had uncovered the remains of a cyclopean construction, apparently dating from well before the ice age. A group of specialists of the United Center for the Investigation of Subelectronic (Ritrinitive) Structures had evaluated the energy reserves available to mankind as sufficient for three billion years. The cosmic branch of Unesco had announced that the relative population growth of extraterrestrial centers and bases now approached the population growth on Earth. The head of the British delegation to the UN had put forth a proposal, in the name of the great powers, for the total demilitarization, by force if need be, of the remaining militarized regions on the globe.

He landed on his hands, rolled over, jumped up, and, crouching, relying only on memory and on luck, blindly threw himself into a narrow passage between the rows of boxes; he bumped into the boxes as he ran, listening to them clang and clatter into the passage behind him, and, stumbling, ran up the invisible steps, rammed his whole body into a rusty tin-plated door, and burst into Ernest’s garage. He was shaking and breathing heavily, red spots swam in front of his eyes, and his heart thumped loudly and painfully in his throat, but he didn’t even stop for a second. He immediately threw himself into a corner and, skinning his hands, started to tear down the mountain of junk that hid the missing planks in the garage wall. Then he lay on his stomach and crawled through the hole, listening to something tear in his jacket. Out in the yard—as narrow as a well—he crouched by the garbage bins, pulled off his jacket, and tore off his tie; he quickly looked himself over, dusted off his pants, stood up, and, running across the yard, ducked into a low foul-smelling tunnel that led to an identical adjacent yard. As he ran, he pricked up his ears, but the wail of the police sirens wasn’t audible yet; then he ran even faster, scattering recoiling children, diving under hanging laundry, and crawling through holes in rotten fences—trying to quickly flee this district while Captain Quarterblad still hadn’t cordoned it off. He knew these places like the back of his hand. In these yards, these cellars, and these abandoned laundries he had played as a boy, everywhere around here he had acquaintances and even friends, and under different circumstances it would be child’s play to hide here and sit it out, even for a whole week; but that wasn’t why he had made a “daring escape from custody” right under Captain Quarterblad’s nose, instantly adding a year to his sentence.

Everything around them was unbearably hot, and he felt nauseated from the dry cruel heat, from the stench, from exhaustion; and his scalded skin, which blistered at the joints, smarted violently, and it seemed to him that through the hot haze that was shrouding his consciousness, his skin was trying to scream at him, begging for peace, for water, for cold. Memories, so worn out they didn’t seem to be his, crowded in his bloated brain, knocking one another over, jostling one another, mingling with one another, intertwining with the sultry white world, dancing in front of his half-open eyes—and they were all bitter, and they all reeked, and they all excited a grating pity or hatred. He attempted to break into this chaos, tried to summon from his past some kind of sweet mirage, feelings of happiness or affection. Out of the depths of his memory he squeezed the fresh laughing face of Guta, then still a girl, longed for and untouched—it would appear for a moment but would then immediately get flooded with rust, distort, and turn into the sullen, furry face of the Monkey, overgrown with coarse brown hair. He tried to remember Kirill, a holy man, his fast, certain movements, his laugh, his voice, promising fantastic and wonderful places and times, and Kirill would appear in front of him—but then the silver cobweb would sparkle brilliantly in the sun, and there’d be no Kirill, and instead Raspy Hugh would be staring Redrick in the face with angelic unblinking eyes, and his large white hand would be weighing the porcelain container. Some dark forces burrowing in his consciousness immediately broke through the barrier of will and extinguished the little good that was still preserved in his memory, and already it seemed that there had never been anything good at all—only smirking mugs, mugs, mugs …

“Well, don’t take offense — we are all equal before the grim reaper, you understand. What am I trying to say? That Intels are the most difficult clients, that’s all. Isn’t that right, Eli? If one of your barbers or bookkeepers comes here, he knows very well what it is he needs. He needs to get his blood going, to show off and be proud of himself, to get the girls squealing, and exhibit the punctures in his side. These fellows are simple, each one wants to consider himself a man. After all, who is he — our client? He has no particular capabilities, and he doesn’t need any. In earlier times, I read in a book, people used to be envious of each other — the neighbor is rolling in luxury and I can’t save up for a refrigerator — how could you put up with that? They hung on like bulldogs to all kinds of trash, to money, to cushy jobs — they laid down their lives for such things. The guy with a foxier head or a stronger fist would wind up on top. But now life has become affluent and dull and there is a plenty of everything. What shall a man apply himself to? A man is not a fish, for all that, he is still a man and gets bored, but can’t dream up something to do for himself. To do that you need special talents, you need to read a mountain of books, and how can he do that when they make him throw up. To become world-famous or to invent some new machine, that’s something that wouldn’t pop into his head, but even if it did, of what use would it be? Nobody really needs you, not even your own wife and children if you examine it honestly. Right, Eli? And you don’t need anybody either. Nowadays, it seems, clever people think things up for you, something new like these aerosols, or the shivers, or a new dance. There is that new drink — it’s called a polecat. Wanna me knock one together for you? So he downs some of this polecat, his eyes crawl out of their sockets, and he’s happy. But as long as his eyes are in their sockets, life is just as dull as rainwater for him. There is an Intel that comes here to us, and every time he complains: Life, he says, is dull, my friends… but I leave here a new man; after, say, ‘bullets’ or ‘twelve to one,’ I see myself in a completely new light. Right, Eli? Everything becomes sweet all over again, food, drink, women.”

“Right, right, black sparks. Good name. Well, you know their properties. If you shine a light at such a bead, the light will be emitted after a pause, and the length of the pause depends on the weight of the ball, its size, and a number of other parameters, while the frequency of the emitted light is always less than its original frequency. What does this mean? Why? There’s an insane idea that these black sparks are actually vast expanses of space—space with different properties from our own, which curled up into this form under the influence of our space …” Valentine took out a cigarette and lit it. “In short, the objects in this group are currently completely useless for human purposes, yet from a purely scientific point of view they have fundamental significance. These are miraculously received answers to questions we don’t yet know how to pose. The aforementioned Sir Isaac mightn’t have made sense of the microwave emitter, but he would have at any rate realized that such a thing was possible, and that would have had a very strong effect on his scientific worldview. I won’t get into details, but the existence of such objects as the magnetic traps, the K-twenty-three, and the white ring instantly disproved a number of recently thriving theories and gave rise to some entirely new ideas. And then there’s also a third group …”

There was the time when Alhagana and Burris served up a complaint in the U.N. that the separatists were using a new type of weapon — freeze bombs. We threw ourselves furiously into a search for underground laboratories and even arrested two genuine underground inventors (sixteen and ninety-six years old, respectively). And then it turned out that the inventors were in no way connected, and the awful freeze bombs were acquired by the separatists in Munich from a refrigerator warehouse — and were in fact reject super-freezers. True, the effect of these super-freezers was indeed horrible. Used in conjunction with molecular detonators (widely used by undersea archaeologists in the Amazon for dispersing crocs and piranhas), the super-freezers were capable of instantaneous temperature depression of one hundred and fifty degrees centigrade over a radius of twenty meters. Afterward, we spent much effort indoctrinating ourselves with the concept that we should keep in mind that in our times, literally every month, masses of new inventions appear with the most peaceful of applications, but with the most unexpected side effects. These characteristics are often such that lawbreaking in the area of weapons manufacture and stockpiling becomes meaningless. We became extremely cautious about new types of armament, employed by various extremists, and only a year later got caught by another twist, when we went looking for a mysterious apparatus with which poachers lured pterodactyls from the Uganda Preserve at a great distance. We found a clever do-it-yourself adaptation of the “Up-down” toy in combination with a fairly generally available medical device.

Teacher smiled embarrassedly and kept wiping his glasses. He was a good man and we always kidded him, but he never took offense. From the very first night I observed that his courage was not great, but he never retreated without being commanded. We were still chattering and joking when there was a thunderous crash, the burning building wall collapsed, and straight out of the swirling flames and clouds of smoke and sparks swam a Mammoth attack tank, floating a yard above the pavement. This was a new horror, the likes of which we hadn’t seen yet. Floating out in the middle of the street, it rotated its thrower as though looking around, and then, hovering on its air cushion, began to move in our direction, screeching and clanking metallically. I regained my wits only by the time I was behind a gate post. The tank was now considerably closer, and at first I couldn’t see anyone at all, but then Iowa Smith stood up in full view out of the carrier, and propping the butt of the Fulminator against his stomach, took aim. I could see the recoil double him up. I saw a bright flash against the black brow of the tank. And then the street was filled with roar and flame, and when I raised my burned eyelids with great effort, the street was empty and contained only the tank. There was no carrier, no mounds of broken brick, no leaning kiosk by the neighboring house — there was only the tank. It was as though the monster had come awake and was spewing waterfalls of flame and the street ceased being a street and became a square. Peck slapped me hard on the neck and I could see his glassy eyes right in front of my face, but there was no time to run toward the trench and break out the launcher.

“Don’t get distracted!” said Valentine strictly. “Listen to what I’m telling you. It’s very strange.” He picked up his glass, drank off half in one gulp, and continued, “We don’t know what happened to the poor people of Harmont at the very moment of the Visit. But now one of them has decided to emigrate. Some ordinary resident. A barber. The son of a barber and the grandson of a barber. He moves to, say, Detroit. Opens a barbershop, and all hell breaks loose. More than ninety percent of his clients die in the course of a year; they die in car accidents, fall out of windows, are cut down by gangsters and hooligans, drown in shallow places, and so on and so forth. Furthermore. The number of municipal disasters in Detroit increases sharply. The number of gas pump explosions jumps by a factor of two. The number of fires caused by faulty wiring jumps by a factor of three and a half. The number of car accidents jumps by a factor of three. The number of deaths from flu epidemics jumps by a factor of two. Furthermore. The number of natural disasters in Detroit and its environs also increases. Tornadoes and typhoons, the likes of which haven’t been seen in the area since the 1700s, make an appearance. The heavens open, and Lake Ontario or Michigan, or wherever Detroit is, bursts its banks. Well, and more to that effect. And the same cataclysms happen in any town, any region, where an emigrant from the neighborhood of a Zone settles down, and the number of cataclysms is directly proportional to the number of emigrants that settle in that particular place. And note that this effect is only observed with emigrants who lived through the Visit. Those who were born after the Visit have no impact on the accident statistics. You’ve lived in Harmont for ten years, but you moved here after the Visit, and you could safely move to the Vatican itself. How do we explain this? What do we have to give up—statistics? Or common sense?” Valentine grabbed the shot glass and drained it in one gulp.

…There, there, said Rimeyer. Now you have got it. You just have to be honest with yourself. It is a little shameful at first, and then you begin to understand how much time you have lost for nothing…. …Rimeyer, I said, I wasted time not for myself. This cannot be done, it simply cannot, it is destruction for everyone, you can’t replace life with dreams…. …Zhilin, said Rimeyer, when man does something, it is always for himself. There may be absolute egotists in this world, but perfect altruists are just impossible. If you are thinking of death in a bathtub, then, in the first place, we are all mortal, and in the second place, if science gave us slug, it will see to it that it will be rendered harmless. And in the meantime, all that is required is moderation. And don’t talk to me of the substitution of reality with dreams. You are no novice, you know perfectly well that these dreams are also part of reality. They constitute an entire world. Why do you then call this acquisition ruin?… …Rimeyer, I said, because this world is still illusory, it’s all within you, not outside of you, and everything you do in it remains in yourself. It is the opposite of the real world, it is antagonistic to it. People who escape into this illusory world cease to exist in the real world. They become as dead. And when everyone enters the illusory world — and you know it could end thus — the history of man will terminate…. …Zhilin, said Rimeyer, history is the history of people. Every man wants to live a life which has not been in vain, and slug gives you such a life…. Yes, I know that you consider your life as not having been in vain without slug, but, admit it, you have never lived so luminously, so fully as you have today in the tub. You are a bit ashamed to recollect it, and you wouldn’t risk recounting it to others. Don’t. They have their life, you have yours…. …Rimeyer, I said, all that is true. But the past! Space, schools, the struggle with fascists, gangsters — is all that for naught? Forty years for nothing? And the others — they did it all for nothing, too?… …Zhilin, said Rimeyer, nothing is for nothing in history. Some fought and did not live long enough to have slug. You fought and lived long enough…. …Rimeyer, I said, I fear for mankind. This is really the end. It’s the end of man interacting with nature, the end of the interplay of man with society, the end of liaisons among individuals, the end of progress, Rimeyer. AU these billions of people submerged in. hot water and in themselves… only in themselves…. … Zhilin, said Rimeyer, it’s frightening because it’s unfamiliar. And as for progress — it will come to an end only for the real society, only for the real progress. But each separate man will lose nothing, he will only gain, since his world will become infinitely brighter, his ties with nature, illusory though they may be, will become more multifaceted; and ties with society, also illusory but not so known to him, will become more powerful and fruitful. And you don’t have to mourn the end of progress. You do know that everything comes to an end. So now comes the end of progress in the objective world. Heretofore, we didn’t know how if, would end, But we know now. We hadn’t had time to realize all the potential intensity of objective existence, it could be that we would have reached such knowledge in a few hundred years, but now it has been put in our grasp. Slug brings a gift of understanding of our remotest ancestors which you cannot ever have in real life. You are simply the prisoner of an obsolete ideal, but be logical, the ideal which slug offers you is just as beautiful. Hadn’t you always dreamed of man with the greatest scope of fantasy and gigantic imagination…. …Rimeyer, I replied, if you only knew how tired I am of arguing. All my life I have argued with myself and with others. I have always loved to argue, because otherwise life is not worth living. But I am tired right now and don’t wish to argue over slug, of all things…. …Then go on, Ivan, said Rimeyer….

They stood pressed against each other, men, women, and youngsters, boys and girls, shifting from foot to foot, waiting for I knew not what. There was almost no talking. Here and there cigarette tips flared, lighting hollow cheeks and compressed lips. Then a clock began to strike the hour, and over the square, gigantic luminous panels sprang into flaming light. There were three of them — red, blue, and green, irregularly shaped rounded triangles. The crowd surged and stood still. Around me, cigarettes were put out with subdued movements. The panels went out momentarily and then started to flash in rotation: red-blue-green, red-blue-green… I felt a wave of hot air on my face, and was suddenly dizzy. They were astir around me. I got up on tiptoes. In the center of the square, the people stood motionless; I had the impression that they were seized rigid and did not fall only because they were pressed in by the crowd. Red-blue-green, red-blue-green. Wooden, upturned faces, blackly gaping mouths, staring, bulging eyes. They weren’t even winking there, under the panels. A total quiet fell, so that I jumped when a piercing woman’s voice nearby yelled: “Shivers!” All at once, tens of voices responded: “Shivers! Shivers!” People on the sidewalk on the square’s perimeter began to clap hands in rhythm with the flashes, and to chant in even voices, “Shivers! Shivers! Shivers!” Somebody prodded me in the back with a sharp elbow. I was pressed forward to the center, toward the panels. I took a step and another and started through the crowd, pushing the stiffened bodies aside. Two youngsters, rigid as icicles, suddenly started thrashing wildly, grabbing at each other, scratching and pounding with all their strength, but their faces remained frozen in the direction of the flashing sky… red-blue-green, red-blue-green. And just as suddenly as they started, they grew still again.

By the end of the century, when the first triumphs of wave psychotechnology were realized, and when psychiatric wards began to empty, amid the chorus of exulting cries of science commentators, the little brochure by Krinitsky and Milanovitch had sounded like an irritating dissonance. In its concluding section the Soviet educators wrote approximately as follows: In the overwhelming majority of countries, the education of the young exists on the level of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This ancient system of education always did and continues to posit as its objective, first of all and above all, the preparation for society of qualified but stupefied contributors to the production process. This system is not interested in all the other potentialities of the human mind, and for this reason, outside of the production process, man, en masse, remains psychologically a cave dweller, Man the Uneducated. The disuse of these potentialities causes the individuals’ inability to comprehend our complex world in all its contradictions, to correlate psychologically incompatible concepts and phenomena, to obtain pleasure from the examination of connections and laws when these do not pertain directly to the satisfaction of the most primitive social instincts. In other words, this system of education for all practical purposes does not develop in man pure imagination, untrammeled vision, and as an immediate consequence, the sense of humor. The Uneducated Man perceives the world as some sort of essentially trivial, routine, and traditionally simple process, a world from which it is possible only by dint of great effort to extract pleasures which are, in the end, also compulsively routine and traditional. But even the unutilized potentialities remain, apparently, a hidden reality of the human brain. The problem for scientific education consists precisely in initiating the action of these possibilities, in teaching man to dream, in bringing the multiordinality and variety of psychic associations into quantitative and qualitative coordination with the multiordinality and variety of interrelationships in the world of reality. This problem is the one which, as is well known, must become the fundamental one for mankind in the coming proximate epoch. But until this problem is resolved, there remains some basis to fear that the successes of psychotechnics will lead to such methods of electrical stimulation as will endow man with an illusory existence which can exceed the real existence in intensity and variety by a considerable margin. And if one remembers that imagination allows man to be both a rational being and a sensual animal, and if one adds to that the fact that the psychic subject matter evoked by the Uneducated Man for his illusory life of splendor derives from the darkest, most primitive reflexes, then it is not hard to perceive the awful temptation hidden in such possibilities.

“Science! Her Majesty!” he exclaimed. “She matured long and painfully, but her fruits turned out to be abundant and sweet. Stop, Moment, you are beautiful! Hundreds of generations were born, suffered, and died, and not one was impelled to pronounce this incantation. We are singularly fortunate. We were born in the greatest of epochs, the Epoch of the Satisfaction of Desires. It may be that not everybody understands this as yet, but ninety-nine percent of my fellow citizens are already living in a world where, for all practical purposes, a man can have all he can think of. O, Science! You have finally freed mankind. You have given us and will henceforth provide for us everything — food — wonderful food — clothing of the best quality and in any quantity, and to suit any taste! — shelter — magnificent shelter. Love, joy, satisfaction, and for those desiring it, for those who are fatigued by happiness — tears, sweet tears, little saving sorrows, pleasant consoling worries which lend us significance in our own eyes…. Yes, we philosophers have maligned science long and angrily. We called forth Luddites, to break up machines, we cursed Einstein, who changed our whole universe, we vilified Wiener, who impugned our godlike essence. Well, so we really lost that godlike substance. Science robbed us of it. But in return! In return, it launched men to the feasting tables of Olympus. Aha! Here is the potato soup, that heavenly porridge. No, no, do as I do… take this spoon, a touch of vinegar… a dash of pepper… with the other spoon, this one here, dip some sour cream and… no, no… gently, gently mix it…. This too is a science, one of the most ancient, older in any cue than the ubiquitous synthetic…. By the way, don’t fail to visit our synthesizers, Amalthea’s Horn, Inc. You wouldn’t be a chemist? Oh yes, you are a litterateur! You should write about it, the greatest mystery of our times, beefsteaks out of thin air, asparagus from clay, truffles from sawdust…. What a pity that Malthus is dead’! The whole world would be laughing at him! Of course, he had certain reasons for his pessimism. I am prepared to agree with those who consider him a genius. But he was too ill-informed, he completely missed the possibilities in the natural sciences. He was one of those unlucky geniuses who discover laws of social development precisely at that moment when these laws cease to operate. I am genuinely sorry for him. The whole of humanity was but billions of hungrily gaping mouths to him. He must have lost sleep from the sheer horror of it. It is a truly monstrous nightmare — a billion gaping maws and not one head. I turned back and see with bitterness how blind they were, the shakers of souls and the masters of the minds of the recent past. Their awareness was dimmed by unbroken horror. Social Darwinists! They saw only the press of the struggle for survival: mobs of hunger-crazed people, tearing each other to pieces for a place in the sun, as though there was only that one single place, as though the sun wasn’t sufficient for all! And Nietzsche… maybe he was suitable for the hungry slaves of the Pharaohs’ times, with his ominous sermons about the master race, with his supermen beyond good and evil… who needs to be beyond now? It’s not so bad on this side, don’t you suppose? There were, of course, Marx and Freud. Marx, for example, was the first to understand that it all depended on economics. He understood that to rip the economics out of the hands of greedy nincompoops and fetishists, to make it part of the state, to develop it limitlessly, was the very way to lay the foundations of a Golden Age. And Freud showed us for what, after all, we needed this Golden Age. Recollect the source of all human misery. Unsatisfied instincts, unrequited love, and unsated hunger — isn’t that right? But here comes Her Majesty, Science, and presents us with satisfactions. And how rapidly all this has come to pass! The names of gloomy prognosticators are not yet forgotten, and already… How do you like the sturgeon? I am under the impression that the sauce is synthetic. Do you see the pinkish tint? Yes, it is synthetic. In a restaurant we should be able to expect natural sauce. Waiter! On second thought — the devil take it, let’s not be so finicky. Go on, go on… Now what was I saying? Yes! Love and hunger. Satisfy love and hunger, and you’ll see a happy man. On condition, of course, that your man is secure about the next day. All the utopias of all times are based on this simplest of considerations. Free a man of the worry about his daily bread and about the morrow, and he will become truly free and happy. I am deeply convinced that children, yes, precisely the children, are man’s ideal. I see the most profound meaning in the remarkable similarity between a child and the carefree man who is the object of utopia. Carefree means happy — and we are so close to that ideal! Another few decades, or maybe just a few more years, and we will attain the automated plenty, we will discard science as a healed man discards his crutches, and the whole of mankind will become one huge happy family of children. The adults will be distinguished from the children only by their ability to love, and this ability will, again with the help of science, become the source of new and unheard-of joys and pleasures…. Excuse me, what is your name? Ivan? So, you must be from Russia. Communist? Aha… well, everything is different there I know…. And here is the coffee! Mm, not bad. But where is the cognac? Well, thank you! By the way, I hear that the Great Wine Taster has retired. The most grandiose scandal befell at the Brussels contest of cognacs, which was suppressed only with the greatest of difficulties. The Grand Prix is awarded to the White Centaur brand. The jury is delighted! It is something totally unprecedented! Such a phenomenal extravaganza of sensations! The declaratory packet is opened, and, oh horrors, it’s a synthetic! The Great Wine Taster turned as white as a sheet of paper and was physically ill. By the way, I had an opportunity to try this cognac, and it’s really superb, but they run it from crude and it doesn’t even have a proper name. H ex eighteen naphtha fraction and it’s cheaper than hydrolyzed alcohol…. Have a cigar. Nonsense, what do you mean you don’t smoke? It’s not right not to have a cigar after a dinner like this…. I love this restaurant. Every time I come here to lecture at the university, I dine at the Olympic. And before returning, I invariably visit the Tavern. True, they don’t have the greenery, nor the tropical birds, and it’s a bit stuffy and warm and smells of smoke, but they have a genuine, inimitable cuisine. The Assiduous Tasters gather nowhere but there — at the Gourmet. In that place you do nothing but eat. You can’t talk, you can’t laugh, it’s totally nonsensical to go there with a woman — you only eat there! Slowly, thoughtfully…”

All the landmarks agreed with the map, but Redrick didn’t feel satisfied. The instinct of a seasoned stalker protested against the very idea—absurd and unnatural—of laying a path between two nearby hills. All right, thought Redrick. We’ll see about that. I’ll figure it out on the spot. The trail to the valley went through the swamp, through a flat open space that looked safe from here, but taking a closer look, Redrick noticed a dark gray patch between the hummocks. Redrick glanced at the map. It had an X and the scrawled label SMARTASS. The dotted red line of the trail passed to the right of the X. The nickname sounded familiar, but Redrick couldn’t remember who this Smartass was, or what he looked like, or when he’d been around. For some reason, the only thing that came to mind was this: a smoky room at the Borscht, unfamiliar ferocious mugs, huge red paws squeezing their glasses, thunderous laughter, gaping yellow-toothed mouths—a fantastic herd of titans and giants gathered at the watering hole, one of his most vivid memories of youth, his first time at the Borscht. What did I bring? An empty, I think. Came straight from the Zone, wet, hungry, and wild, a bag slung over my shoulder, barged inside, and dumped the bag on the bar in front of Ernest, angrily glowering and looking around; endured the deafening burst of taunts, waited until Ernest, still young, never without a bow tie, counted out some green ones—no, they weren’t green yet, they were square, with a picture of some half-naked lady in a cloak and wreath—finished waiting, put the money in his pocket, and, surprising himself, grabbed a heavy beer stein from the bar and smashed it with all his might into the nearest roaring mug. Redrick smirked and thought, Maybe that was Smartass himself?

I considered the problem, and recounted the story of the traveling salesman in the upper bunk. She liked it, but I think she missed the point. I made a correction in my aim, and told her the one about the president and the old maid. She laughed a long time, kicking her wonderfully long legs. Then, taking courage from another shot of brandy, I told about the widow with the mushrooms growing on the wall. She slid down to the floor and almost knocked over the tray. I picked her up under the armpits, hoisted her back up in the chair, and delivered the story of the drunk spaceman and the college girl, at which point Aunt Vaina came rushing in and inquired fearfully what was going on with Vousi, and whether I was tickling her unmercifully. I poured Aunt Vaina a glass, and addressing myself to her personally, recounted the one about the Irishman who wanted to be a gardener. Vousi was completely shattered, but Aunt Vaina smiled sorrowfully and confided that Major General Tuur liked to tell the same story, when he was in a good mood. But in it there was, she thought, a Negro instead of the Irishman, and he aspired to the duties of a piano tuner and not a gardener. “And you know, Ivan, the story ended somehow differently,” she added after some thought. At this point I noticed Len standing in the doorway, looking at us. I waved and smiled at him. He seemed not to notice, so I winked at him and beckoned for him to come in.

The guidebook was printed on bond paper with a gilt edge. Interspersed with gorgeous photographs, it contained some curious information. In the city there were fifty thousand people, fifteen hundred cats, twenty thousand pigeons, and two thousand dogs (including seven hundred winners of medals). The city had fifteen thousand passenger cars, five thousand helis, a thousand taxis (with and without chauffeurs), nine hundred automatic garbage collectors, four hundred permanent bars, cafes, and snack bars, eleven restaurants, and four first-class hotels, and was a tourist establishment which served over one hundred thousand visitors every year. The city had sixty thousand TV sets, fifty movie theaters, eight amusement parks, two Happy Mood salons, sixteen beauty parlors, forty libraries, and one hundred and eighty automated barber shops. Eighty percent of the population were engaged in services, and the rest worked in two syntho-bakeries and one government shipyard. There were six schools and one university housed in an old castle once the home of crusader Ulrich da Casa. In the city there were also eight active civilian societies, among them the Society of Diligent Tasters, the Society of Connoisseurs and Appraisers, and the Society for the Good Old Country Against Evil Influences. In addition, fifteen hundred citizens were members of seven hundred and one groups where they sang, learned to act, to arrange furniture, to breast-feed, and to medicate cats. As to per-capita consumption of alcoholic beverages, natural meat, and liquid oxygen, the city was sixth, twelfth, and thirteenth highest in Europe respectively. The city had seven men’s clubs and five women’s clubs, as well as sport clubs named the Bulls and Rhinos. By a majority of forty-six votes, someone by the name of Flim Gao had been elected mayor. Peck was not among the municipal officials.

Reg and Len came over after school, and Len said, “We have decided, Ivan. We will go to the Gobi Central.” He had red fuzz on his lip and huge red hands, and I could see that it divas he who had thought up the Gobi trip, and quite recently — not more than ten minutes ago. Reg, as usual, was silent, chewing on a blade of grass and placidly studying me with his calm gray eyes. He has become altogether a square, I thought, and said, “Wonderful book, isn’t it?” “Yes, indeed,” said Len. “We understood at once where we should go.” Reg was quiet. “Heat and stench are suspended in the shadow of these hard laboring dragons,” I said from memory. “They devour everything under them — the ancient Mongolian prayer gate, the bones of a two-humped beast fallen in some sand storm…” “Yes,” said Len, while Reg went on chewing his blade of grass. “Every time,” I continued (now from Ichin-dagli), “that the sun arrives at a mathematically precise required position, a strange mirage blossoms out in the East — of a strange city with white towers which no one has yet seen in reality. ” “One should see that with his own eyes,” said Len, and laughed. “Friend Len,” I said, “it’s too fascinating and therefore too simple. You will see that it’s too simple yourself and it will become an unpleasant disappointment.” No, I hadn’t said it right. “Friend Len,” I said, “what sort of a mirage is that? Here is one. Seven years ago, in your mother’s house, I saw a truly marvelous mirage: both of you standing before me almost grown up…” No — I was saying that for myself, not for them. It should be said differently. “Friend Len,” I said, “seven years ago you explained to me that your people were accursed. We came here and removed the curse from you and Reg and from many other children who had no parents. And now it’s your turn to remove, the curse, which…”

Redrick, amazed at how loud this kid’s voice was, took a sip and closed his eyes, listening to the hot, all-cleansing stream as it poured down his throat and spread through his chest; then he took another sip and passed the flask to Arthur. That’s all, he thought listlessly. We made it. We’ve made it through this, too. And now for what’s owed me. You thought that I’d forget? No, I remember everything. You thought I’d be grateful that you left me alive, that you didn’t drown me in this shit? Screw you—you’ll get no thanks from me. Now you’re finished, you get it? I’m going to get rid of all this. Now I get to decide. I, Redrick Schuhart, of sober judgment and sound mind, will be making decisions about everything for everyone. And all the rest of you, vultures, toads, aliens, bonys, quarterblads, parasites, raspys—in ties, in uniforms, neat and spiffy, with your briefcases, with your speeches, with your charity, with your employment opportunities, with your perpetual batteries, with your bug traps, with your bright promises—I’m done being led by the nose, my whole life I’ve been dragged by the nose, I kept bragging like an idiot that I do as I like, and you bastards would just nod, then you’d wink at each other and lead me by the nose, dragging me, hauling me, through shit, through jails, through bars … Enough! He unfastened the backpack straps and took the flask from Arthur’s hands.

Arthur wiped his nose with the back of his hand and moved forward, splashing through the puddles. He was limping and no longer looked as straight and athletic as before—he’d gotten bent and was now walking carefully and very cautiously. Here’s another one I’ve dragged out, thought Redrick. How many does that make? Five? Six? And the question is: What for? What is he, my flesh and blood? Did I take responsibility for him? Listen, Red, why did you drag him out? Almost kicked the bucket myself because of him. Right now, with a clear head, I know: I was right to drag him out, I can’t manage without him, he’s like a hostage for my Monkey. I didn’t drag out a man, I dragged out my mine detector. My trawler. A key. But back there, in the hot seat, I wasn’t even thinking about that. I dragged him like he was family, I didn’t even consider abandoning him, even though I’d forgotten about everything—about the key and about the Monkey. So what do we conclude? We conclude that I’m actually a good man. That’s what Guta keeps telling me, and what the late Kirill insisted on, and Richard always drones on about it … Yeah, sure, a good man! Stop that, he told himself. Virtue is no good in this place! First you think, and only then do you move your arms and legs. Let that be the first and last time, got it? A do-gooder … I need to save him for the grinder, he thought coldly and clearly. You can get through everything here but the grinder.

My shirt had dried, and as the cafe emptied, I pulled it on and went over to sit at a table and to watch. Two meticulously dressed gentlemen in the corner were sipping their drinks through straws. They called attention to themselves immediately — both were in severe black suits and black ties, despite the very warm night. They weren’t talking, and one of them constantly referred to his watch. After a while, I grew tired of observing them. Well, Doctor Opir, how do you like the shivers? Were you at the square? But of course you were not. Too bad. It would have been interesting to know what you thought of it. On the other hand, to the devil with you. What do I care what Doctor Opir thinks? What do I think about it myself? Well, high-grade barber’s raw material, what do you think? It’s important to get acclimatized quickly and not stuff the brain with induction, deduction, and technical procedures. The most important thing is to get acclimatized as rapidly as possible. To get to feel like one of them…. There, they all went back to the square. Despite everything that happened, they still went back to the square again. As for me, I don’t have the slightest desire to go back there. I would, with the greatest of pleasure at this point, go back to my room and check out my new bed. But when would I go to the Fishers? Intels, Devon, and Fishers. Intels — maybe they are the local version of the Golden Youth? Devon… Devon must be kept in mind, together with Oscar. But now the Fishers.

Yes, I’d like to know how all this will end. By the way, about ten years ago I knew with absolute certainty what would happen. Impenetrable police lines. A belt of empty land fifty miles wide. Scientists and soldiers, no one else. A hideous sore on the face of the planet permanently sealed off … And the funny thing is, it seemed like everybody thought this, not just me. The speeches that were made, the bills that were proposed! And now you can’t even remember how all this unanimous steely resolve suddenly evaporated into thin air. On the one hand, we are forced to admit, on the other hand, we can’t dispute. And it all seems to have started when the stalkers brought the first spacells out of the Zone. The batteries … Yes, I think that’s really how it started. Especially when it was discovered that spacells multiply. It turned out that the sore wasn’t such a sore; maybe it wasn’t a sore at all but, instead, a treasure trove … And now no one has a clue what it is—a sore, a treasure trove, an evil temptation, Pandora’s box, a monster, a demon … We’re using it bit by bit. We’ve struggled for twenty years, wasted billions, but we still haven’t stamped out the organized theft. Everyone makes a buck on the side, while the learned men pompously hold forth: On the one hand, we are forced to admit; on the other hand, we can’t dispute, because object so-and-so, when irradiated with X-rays at an eighteen-degree angle, emits quasiheated electrons at a twenty-two-degree angle. The hell with it! One way or another, I won’t live till the end.

Treachery, treachery. Here, too, they’ve cheated me, left me voiceless, the bastards … Riffraff. I was born as riffraff, and I’ve grown old as riffraff. That’s what shouldn’t be allowed! You hear me? Let that be forbidden in the future, once and for all! Man is born in order to think (there he is, Kirill, finally!). Except that I don’t believe that. I’ve never believed it, and I still don’t believe it, and what man is born for—I have no idea. He’s born, that’s all. Scrapes by as best he can. Let us all be healthy, and let them all go to hell. Who’s us? Who’s them? I don’t understand a thing. If I’m happy, Burbridge is unhappy; if Burbridge is happy, Four-Eyes is unhappy; if Raspy is happy, everyone else is unhappy, and Raspy himself is unhappy, except he, the idiot, imagines that he’ll be able to wriggle out of it somehow. My Lord, it’s a mess, a mess! My entire life I’ve been at war with Captain Quarterblad, and his whole life he’s been at war with Raspy, and all he’s ever wanted from me, the blockhead, was one thing—that I stop being a stalker. But how do I stop being a stalker when I have a family to feed? Get a job? And I don’t want to work for you, your work makes me want to puke, you understand? If a man has a job, then he’s always working for someone else, he’s a slave, nothing more—and I’ve always wanted to be my own boss, my own man, so that I don’t have to give a damn about anyone else, about their gloom and their boredom …

On the way home, I was overtaken by the change of shifts. The streets filled up with cars. Controller copters appeared over the intersections, and sweaty police cleared constantly threatening jams with roaring bull horns. The cars moved slowly, and the drivers stuck heads out of windows to light up from each other, to yell, to talk and joke while furiously blowing their horns. There was a instant screech of clashing bumpers. Everyone was happy, everyone was good-natured, and everyone glowed with savage glee. It seemed as though a heavy load had just fallen from the soul of the city, as though everyone was seized with an enviable anticipation. Fingers were pointed at me and the other pedestrians. Several times I was prodded with bumpers while crossing — the girls doing it with the utmost good nature. One of them drove alongside me for quite a while, and we got acquainted. Then a line of demonstrators with sober faces walked by on the median, carrying signs. The signs appealed to people to join the amateur club ensemble Songs of the Fatherland, to enter the municipal Culinary Art groups, and to sign up for condensed courses in motherhood and childhood. The people with signs were nudged by bumpers with special enthusiasm. The drivers threw cigarette butts, apple cores, and paper wads at them. They yelled such things as “I’ll subscribe at once, just wait till I put my galoshes on,” or “Me, I’m sterile,” or “Say, buddy, teach me motherhood.” The sign carriers continued to march slowly in between the two solid streams of cars, unperturbed and sacrificial, looking straight ahead with the sad dignity of camels.

I slowly undress. I take off my watch and look at it—my Lord, we were in the Zone for more than five hours! Five hours. I shudder. Yes, my friends, there’s no such thing as time in the Zone. Although, really, what’s five hours to a stalker? Nothing at all. You want twelve hours instead? Or maybe two whole days? When you don’t finish in one night, you stay in the Zone all day long facedown in the dirt; you can’t even pray properly but can only rave deliriously, and you don’t know if you are dead or alive. And the next night when you finish, you try to get out with the swag, except the guards are patrolling the borders with machine guns. And those toads hate you, they get no pleasure from arresting you, the bastards are scared to death that you might be contagious—they just want to shoot you down … And they are holding all the cards: go ahead and prove later that they killed you illegally. So there you are again, facedown in the dirt, praying until dawn, then until dusk, the swag lying beside you, and you don’t even know if it’s simply lying there or slowly killing you. Or maybe you’ll end up like Knuckles Isaac—he got stuck in an open area at dawn, lost his way, and wound up between two ditches—couldn’t go left or right. They shot at him for two hours, couldn’t hit him. For two hours he played dead. Thank God, they finally got tired of it, figured he was finished, and left. I saw him after that—I didn’t recognize him. They broke him, left only a shell of a man.

The sun was baking, red spots were swimming in front of his eyes, the hot air rippled at the bottom of the quarry, and because of this, the Sphere seemed to dance in place, like a buoy in the waves. He walked past the excavator bucket, superstitiously raising his feet high and taking care not to step on the black splotches, and then, sinking into the crumbly rubble, he dragged himself across the quarry to the dancing and winking Sphere. He was covered in sweat and suffocating from the heat, but at the same time he was chilled to the bone, trembling hard all over, as if hungover, and the flavorless chalk dust was crunching between his teeth. And he was no longer trying to think. He just kept repeating to himself in despair, like a prayer, “I’m an animal, you can see that I’m an animal. I have no words, they haven’t taught me the words; I don’t know how to think, those bastards didn’t let me learn how to think. But if you really are—all powerful, all knowing, all understanding—figure it out! Look into my soul, I know—everything you need is in there. It has to be. Because I’ve never sold my soul to anyone! It’s mine, it’s human! Figure out yourself what I want—because I know it can’t be bad! The hell with it all, I just can’t think of a thing other than those words of his—HAPPINESS, FREE, FOR EVERYONE, AND LET NO ONE BE FORGOTTEN!”

The fun and games are over. Now the most important thing is to stay completely calm. We’re in no hurry, there’s no wind, and the visibility is good. Over there’s the ditch where the Slug kicked the bucket—you can make out something colorful in there, maybe some clothes of his. He was a lousy guy, rest his soul, greedy, stupid, and dirty; that’s the only kind that get mixed up with the Vulture, those the Vulture Burbridge spots a mile away and gets his claws into. Although, to be fair, the Zone doesn’t give a damn who the good guys and the bad guys are, and it turns out we gotta thank you, Slug: you were an idiot, and no one even remembers your real name, but you did show us smarter folks where not to go … OK. The best thing, of course, would be to get to the pavement. The pavement’s flat, you can see everything, and I know that crevice in it. Except I don’t like those mounds. If we head straight to the pavement, we have to pass right between them. There they stand, smirking and waiting for us. No, I’m not going between the two of you. That’s the stalker’s second commandment: it has to be clear for a hundred paces either to your left or to your right. Now what we could do is go over the left mound … Although I have no idea what’s behind it. According to the map there’s nothing there, but who trusts maps?

Dreariness and desolation! There had to be some curse upon these people, some awful predilection for dangers and disasters. Imperialism, fascism, tens of millions of people killed and lives destroyed, including millions of these same boobs, guilty and innocent, good and bad. The last skirmishes, the last putsches, especially pitiless because they were the last. Criminals, the military driven berserk by prolonged uselessness, all kinds of leftover trash from intelligence and counterintelligence, bored by the sameness of commercial espionage, all slavering for power. Again we were forced to return from space, to come out of our laboratories and factories, to call back our soldiers. And we managed it again. The zephyr was gently turning the pages of History of Fascism by my feet. But hardly had we had the time to savor the cloudless horizons, when out of these same sewers of history crept the scum with submachine guns, homemade quantum pistols, gangsters, syndicates, gangster corporations, gangster empires. “Minor malfunctions are still encountered here and there,” soothed and calmed Doctor Opir, while napalm bottles flew through university windows, cities were seized by bands of outlaws, and museums burned like candles…. All right. Brushing aside Doctor Opir and his kind, once again we came out of space, out of the labs and factories, recalled the soldiers, and once again managed the problem. And again the skies were clear. Once more the Opirs were out, the weeklies were purring, and once more filth was flowing out of the same sewers. Tons of heroin, cisterns of opium, and oceans of alcohol, and beyond all that something new, something for which we had no name…. Again everything was hanging by a thread for them, and boobs were solving crosswords, dancing the fling, and desired but one thing: to have fun. But somewhere idiot children were being born, people were going insane, some were dying strangely in bathtubs, some were dying no less strangely with some group called the Fishers, while art patrons defended their passion for art with brass knuckles. And the weeklies were attempting to cover this foul-smelling bog with a crust, fragile as a meringue, of cloyingly sweet prattle, and this or that diplomaed fool glorified sweet dreams, and thousands of idiots surrendered with relish to dreams in lieu of drunkenness (so that they need not think)… and again the boobs were persuaded that all was well, that space was being developed at an unprecedented pace (which was true), and that sources of energy would last for billions of years (which was also true), that life was becoming unquestionably more interesting and varied (which was also undoubtedly true, but not for boobs), while demagogue-denigrators (real-thinking men who considered that in our times any drop of pus could infect the whole of mankind, as once upon a time a beer putsch turned into a world menace) were foreign to the people’s interests and deserved of universal condemnation. Boobs and criminals, criminals and boobs.

He took another look at Arthur, and for some time watched, squinting, as he lightly stepped over the ties two at a time—wide shouldered, narrow hipped, the long raven hair, like his sister’s, bouncing in rhythm to his steps. He’d begged it out of me, Redrick thought sullenly. He did it himself. And why did he have to beg so desperately? Trembling, with tears in his eyes. “Please take me, Mr. Schuhart! I’ve had other offers, but I only want to go with you, you know the others are no good! There’s Father … But he can’t anymore!” Redrick forced himself to cut this memory short. Thinking about it was repellent, and maybe that was why he started thinking about Arthur’s sister, about how he’d slept with this Dina—slept with her sober and slept with her drunk, and how every single time it’d been a disappointment. It was beyond belief; such a luscious broad, you’d think she was made for loving, but in actual fact she was nothing but an empty shell, a fraud, an inanimate doll instead of a woman. It reminded him of the buttons on his mother’s jacket—amber, translucent, golden. He always longed to stuff them into his mouth and suck on them, expecting some extraordinary treat, and he’d take them into his mouth and suck and every single time would be terribly disappointed, and every single time he’d forget about the disappointment—not that he’d actually forget, he’d just refuse to believe his memory as soon as he saw them again.

“Sorry,” I said. Oscar continued to talk, but I was no longer listening. Something flared in my mind. The traditional initial model for all our undertakings, with its invariant axiom predicating the existence of a ramified organization of evildoers, had been shattered into dust, and I was only amazed that I had failed heretofore to recognize its inane complexity in the context of this simple-minded country. There were no secret shops guarded by gloomy persons with brass knuckles, there were no wary, unprincipled businessmen, there were no traveling salesmen with double-walled shirt collars stuffed with contraband, and it was quite for nothing that Oscar was drafting the elegant chart of squares and circles, connected by a confusion of lines, and inscribed with the words “center,” “staff,” and numerous question marks. There was nothing to demolish and be and no one to send off to Baffin Land…. But there was modern industry involved in everyday trade, there were state stores where slugs were sold for fifty cents apiece, and there were — but only in the beginning one or two individuals not devoid of inventiveness and dying of inactivity and thirsting for new sensations. And there was the medium-sized country where, once upon a time, abundance and affluence were the end to be attained, and they never did become the means to another end. And that was all that was needed.

And he would have waited it out, and everything would have been just fine, they’d have only sweated a bit, but Arthur lost his head. Either he didn’t hear what was being shouted to him, or he got scared out of his wits, or maybe he got even more scalded than Redrick—one way or another, he stopped controlling himself and, letting out some sort of guttural howl, blindly darted, hunching over, back to where they came from, the very place they had to avoid at all costs. Redrick barely had time to sit up and grab Arthur’s leg with both hands, and Arthur crashed heavily to the ground, squealed in an unnaturally high voice, kicked Redrick in the face with his free leg, and wriggled and flopped around. But Redrick, also no longer thinking straight from the pain, crawled on top of him, pressing his face into Arthur’s leather jacket, and tried to crush him, to grind him into the ground; he held the twitching head by the long hair with both hands, and furiously used his knees and the toes of his shoes to pound Arthur’s legs and ass and the ground. He dimly heard the moans and groans coming from underneath him and his own hoarse roar, “Stay down, asshole, stay down, or I’ll kill you,” while heaps of burning hot coal kept pouring on top of him, and his clothes already blazed, and the skin on his legs and sides, crackling, blistered and burst. And Redrick, burying his forehead in the gray ash, convulsively kneading the head of this damned kid with his chest, couldn’t take it anymore and screamed as hard as he could …

Each step raised a small cloud of white dust, the dust settled on their boots, and it stank—or, rather, it was Arthur that reeked, walking behind him was unbearable—and it was a while before Redrick realized that the stench mostly came from himself. The odor was nasty but somehow familiar—this was how it stank in town on the days the north wind would carry the factory smoke through the streets. And his father stank the same way when he came home from work—huge, gloomy, with wild red eyes—and Redrick would scurry into some distant corner and from there would watch timidly as his father would tear off his work coat and hurl it into his mother’s arms, pull his giant worn boots from his giant feet and shove them under the coatrack, and lumber to the bathroom in his socks, his feet sticking to the floor; then he’d spend a long time in the shower, hooting and noisily slapping his wet body, clanging basins, muttering things under his breath, and finally roaring all over the house: “Maria! You asleep?” You had to wait while he washed up and sat down at the table, which already contained half a pint of vodka, a deep dish with a thick soup, and a jar of ketchup, wait until he drained the vodka, finished the soup, burped, and got started on the meat with beans, and then you could come out of hiding, climb onto his knees, and ask which foreman and which engineer he’d drowned in sulfuric acid today …

Looking at him, Noonan remembered what had happened when Boyd’s lab assistants showed up here to pick up this corpse. There were two lab assistants, both strong young guys, athletes and all that, and there was a doctor from the city hospital, accompanied by two orderlies—coarse brawny men used to lugging stretchers and pacifying the violent. One of the lab assistants described how “that redhead,” who at first didn’t seem to understand what was going on, let them into the apartment and allowed them to examine his father—and they might have just taken him away like that, since it looked like Redrick had gotten the idea that Dad was being taken to the hospital for preventive measures. But when the knucklehead orderlies—who in the process of the preliminary negotiations had hung around the kitchen and gawked at Guta washing windows—were summoned, they carried the old man like a log: dragging him, dropping him on the floor. Redrick became enraged, at which point the knucklehead doctor stepped forward and volunteered a detailed explanation of what was going on. Redrick listened to him for a minute or two, then suddenly, without any warning at all, exploded like a hydrogen bomb. The lab assistant telling the story didn’t even remember how he ended up outside. The redheaded devil kicked all five of them down the stairs, not letting a single one of them leave unaided, on his own two legs. Every one of them, according to the lab assistant, flew out the front door as if shot from a cannon. Two of them stayed unconscious on the pavement, and Redrick chased the remaining three for four blocks down the street, after which he came back to the Institute’s corpse-mobile and broke all of its windows—the driver was no longer in the vehicle; he had fled in the other direction.

I picked up a tray, collected some sort of a meal, and sat down by the window away from the rest of the patrons. I wanted to think. I sensed that there was enough data to ponder the problem effectively. Some sort of pattern seemed to be forming. Boxes of Devon in the bathroom. Pore-nose spoke about Buba and Devon (in whispers). Eli talked of Buba and “slug.” A clear chain of links — bath, Devon, Buba, slug. Further: the sunburned fellow with the muscles cautioned that Devon was the worst of junk, while the roundhead saw no difference between slug and the grave. It all had to fit together. It seemed to be what we were looking for. If so, then Rimeyer had done the right thing to send me to the Fishers. Rimeyer, I said to myself, why did you send me to the Fishers? And even order me to do as I was told and not to fuss about it? And you didn’t know, after all, that I was a spaceman, Rimeyer. If you did know, there were still the other games with bullets and “one against twelve,” besides the demented cyber. You really took a dislike to me for something or other, Rimeyer. Somehow I have crossed you. But no, said I, this cannot be. It is simply that you did not trust me, Rimeyer. It is simply that there is something that I do not know yet. For example, I do net know just who this Oscar is who trades in Devon in this resort city and who is connected with you, Rimeyer. Most likely you have been meeting with Oscar before our conversation in the elevator … I don’t want to think about that.

The pimply driver reeked of alcohol, and his eyes were red like a rabbit’s, but he was extremely agitated and immediately started telling Redrick how a corpse from the cemetery showed up this morning on his street. “He came to his old house, except this house, it’s been boarded up for years, everyone has left—the old lady, his widow, and his daughter with her husband, and his grandkids. He passed away, the neighbors say, about thirty years ago, before the Visit, and now here you go—hello!—he’s turned up. He walked around and around the house, rattled the door, then sat down by the fence and just stayed there. A crowd gathered—the whole neighborhood had come to gawk—but, of course, no one had the guts to go near. Eventually, someone figured it out: broke down the door to his house, gave him a way in. And what do you know, he stood up and walked in and closed the door behind him. I had to get to work, don’t know how it turned out, all I know is that they were planning to call the Institute, so they’d take him the hell away from us. You know what they say? They say the military has been drafting an order, that these corpses, if their relatives have moved out, should be sent to them at their new place of residence. Won’t the family be delighted! And the stench of him … Well, he’s not a corpse for nothing.”

When he left, I rang up the service bureau and dictated a telegram; “Have found the meaning of life but am lonely brother departed unexpectedly come at once Ivan.” Then I turned on the radio again, and again it howled and screeched. I took off the back and pulled out the local oscillator-mixer. It was no mixer. It was a slug. A beautiful precision subassembly, of obviously mass-produced derivation, and the more I looked at it, the more it seemed that somewhere, sometime, long before my arrival here, and more than once, I had already seen these components in some very familiar device. I attempted to recollect where I had seen them, but instead, I remembered the room clerk and his face with a weak smile and his understanding, commiserating eyes. They are all infected. No, they hadn’t tried slug — heaven forbid! They hadn’t even seen one! It is so indecent! It is the worst of the worst! Not so loud, my dear, how can you say that in front of the boy… but I’ve been told it’s something out of this world…. Me?… How can you think that, you must have a low opinion of me after all…. I don’t know, they say over at the Oasis, Buba has it, but as for myself — I don’t know…. And why not? I am a moderate man — if I feel something is not right, I’ll stop…. Let me have five packets of Devon, we have made up a fishing party (hee, hee!). Fifty thousand people. And their friends in other towns. And a hundred thousand tourists every year. The problem is not with the gang. That’s the least of our worries, for what does it take to scatter them? The problem is that they are all ready, all eager, and there is not the slightest prospect of the possibility to prove to them that it is terribly frightening, that it is the end, that it is the last debasement.

… Peck registered a hit on the armored carrier with the Fulminator. It spun on a single tread, hopping in the piles of broken bricks, and two fascists immediately jumped out in their unbuttoned camouflage shirts, flung a grenade apiece in our direction, and sped off into the darkness. They moved knowingly and adeptly, and it was obvious that these were not youngsters from the Royal Academy or lifers from the Golden Brigade, but genuine full-blown tank corps officers. Robert cut them down point-blank with a burst from his machine gun. The carrier was bulging with cases of beer. It struck us that we had been constantly thirsty for the last two days. Iowa Smith clambered into the carrier and began handing out the cans. Peck opened them with a knife. Robert, putting the machine gun against the carrier, punched holes into the cans with a sharp point on the armor. And the Teacher, adjusting his pince-nez, tripped on the Fulminator straps and muttered, “Wait a minute, Smith; can’t you see I’ve got my hands full?” A five-story building burned briskly at the end of the street, there was a thick smell of smoke and hot metal, and we avidly downed the warm beer, and were drenched through and through, and it was very hot and the dead officers lay on the broken and crushed bricks, with their legs identically flung out in their black pants, and the camouflage shirts bunched at their necks, and the skin still glistening with perspiration on their backs.

Strugatsky & Strugatsky

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