Translated by Ilya Avroutine (ilia.avroutine[]gmail.com)

 Copyright © Vyacheslav Rybakov
 Copyright © Translation Ilia Avroutine. 1997


     As the pilot Sprague flew fresh crews to the Miranda
stations he reported meeting an object of alien origin just
beyond the orbit of Jupiter. The news flew all across the Solar
system and many a ship went to see that wonder. It was a perfect
sphere about a mile in diameter. It did not respond to any
signals and none of the sensor scans helped. Sprague sent a
search group to the Sphere. They immediately found a hatch on its
surface. The Centre on Earth ordered them to avoid any contact
and wait until the arrival of the specialists.  But the Sphere
was right there, as if waiting to be explored. The button near
the hatch was clearly visible and too enticing. Someone just
could not help it.
     They went in, and immediately past the hatch there was a
small room which ended in yet another hatch leading into the
Sphere... The second hatch opened just as easily. Everyone was
playing guessing games, with the number of theories increasing
every minute. They still maintained full contact with the search
group after the first hatch closed. Breathless with excitement,
the scouts, interrupting each other, reported about a perfectly
recreated Earth environment inside the Sphere. It was really hard
for them to keep their space suits on. The scouts were walking in
waist-high grass towards the bushes that followed the river bank.
"It's a shame we are trampling the grass. We leave such a trail
behind us..."
     It was only then they thought it could be a trap.


     He stopped.
     Andrew switched the poppies from his right to his left hand
and pounded on the enormous trunk of a sycamore tree, the bark of
which was warm like human skin. Then Andrew looked up at the
endless cloud of leaves, as if asking the tree for luck, and
dialed Socero's number yet another time. This, after all the
countless attempts he had made during the past three days! As
before, there was no answer. Andrew threw the phone up in the air
and caught it again. He had no one else to call. He wanted to put
the phone away but then a gray-haired man with the thin face of a
musician asked to borrow it. Andrew handed him the phone and
turned to the sea to give the man some privacy.
     "No, they said no," said the musician quietly and quickly.
"Mercury's completely sealed off, some construction under way.
are limited to asteroids and Mars. There are a few charming
places over there..."
     That's interesting, Andrew thought. What can they be
building again? Maybe they need single pilots? No, Socero would
have told him. But Socero has disappeared somewhere, I keep on
calling him and calling him... He is my last real friend. Jesse
left for the Star Expedition. Marat died on that ... on that
damned place.
     As he got closer to "Espaniola," the celebrating crowds
became even more dense and wild. Here, nobody showed any
particular interest in or envy for the poppies that Andrew picked
on a distant plane about half an hour ago. He got them for Sima,
to bring to her the beautiful breath of the steppe.
     Andrew went down to the beach and noticed a lonely boy of
about seven. The boy was clumsily trying to make stones skip on
the smooth surface of the smoky-pink sea. Ploughing the gravel
with the tips of his shoes, Andrew came closer to the boy.
     "Hey, what're you doing, stupid?" he asked. "There's a girl
swimming there, and she's real pretty. Look! You'll break her
head!"
     The boy turned around. He did not look like Andrew's son at
all. The boy was gloomy and long-faced and he scowled at Andrew.
     "No, I won't," he replied dimly. "I can't reach her."
     "What if you reach her by accident? Accidents always happen
when nobody expects them, that's why they are called accidents.
Before you throw, check if there is anybody on the trajectory and
leave yourself some space. Then you take the stone by the sides,
get down and throw it strictly parallel to the water's surface.
Like this," Andrew demonstrated.  The boy squealed.
     "Yeah, this had to be my personal record till the day I
die," thought Andrew. "I wonder, how it happened."
     "You got it?" he asked the boy. "Look again." He carefully
prepared to throw again, anticipating a fiasco. The stone, in
fact, almost slipped out but the throw was not that bad. The
stone happily skipped a few times but a second later somebody's
bald head, loudly snorting in a scuba mask, surfaced at the very
same spot where the stone had just flown over. "Holy cow!" Andrew
gasped, sweating. "Here you go -- another second and... Terrible
consequences right there. I could have hit him pretty hard. This
beach is just like an anthill."
     "OK, here's your chance to go down in history," he said to
the boy who looked at him with admiration. "Just make sure you
throw over there."
     The boy took a piece of gravel in his hand and asked "Is
this the way to do it?"
     "Yeah, that's correct," said Andrew and sat next to the boy.
      The boy drew back his hand preparing to throw and as he
repeated his question the stone fell out.
     "No, that's not the way to do it," said Andrew.
     They played for a few minutes but the boy got bored fast.
His face became gloomy again. Andrew jumped on his feet and dug
out a good-sized boulder.
     "This will be one big skip now!" he screamed and threw it in
the water like a cannonball. The boy laughed, grabbed the stone
next to him, lifted it with effort and clumsily threw it about
three feet out into the sea.
     "There's another big skip!" he squealed with his high-
pitched voice.
     "And now -- here's the skip of all skips!" Andrew screamed
in just as high-pitched voice. He grabbed the boy and, fully
dressed, stormed into the water. The boy screeched and laughed so
hard that he became breathless. He beat his arms and legs against
the water. About twenty onlookers were smiling at them from the
shore. "Sk-i-i-p!" screamed the boy. Andrew had already noticed a
man in bright trunks and a very bright shirt, tied in a knot at
his belly, hurrying towards them with a concerned look on his
face and a brightly colored giant towel in his hands.
     Andrew dragged the boy to the shore and the boy ran to the
man screaming "Daddy, daddy! This is so cool!" Andrew was
completely wet and water was dripping down from him. The man came
closer and, stunned, looked right into the Andrew's face. "I
guess, he recognized me," thought Andrew, frustrated.
     "Is that you?" asked the man, visibly shaken. There is only
one possible answer to this question.
     "No, it's not me," said Andrew.
     A rather pretty plump woman, also brightly dressed, moved to
her husband's assistance. The boy was still shaking his father's
hand: "Daddy, why don't you ever skip the stones in the sea?" but
the atmosphere was getting tense. The man hesitated for a second
and then resolutely threw the towel over his son like they cover
a bird's cage to make the bird go quiet.
     "You should be ashamed of yourself," pronounced the woman
through her clenched teeth as she reached them. "I noticed you a
long time ago and let you entertain Vadik, but this is too much!"
     "I am sorry," Andrew apologized. He felt awkward and
ashamed. "Well, you know, the little guy just stood there. He
looked so lonely, I sort of felt sorry for him."
     "A spiritually rich person is never lonely!"
     As he was being rubbed energetically, Vadik tried to say
something from under the tight towel but it came out muffled.
     "He was already in the water three times, and that's all
he's allowed. Besides, this is bad for his cultural development.
We said: 'three, and only three.' And now a complete stranger
appears and breaks all the rules! First of all, it undermines the
authority of the rules, and secondly, our authority."
     "I am sorry," said Andrew, now barely able to contain his
anger.
     "You are an adult but you behave like a kid! You went in the
water with your clothes on!"
     "Oho, did I tell you I was so sorry?" said Andrew. He was
openly mocking her now. Only the husband got it. He narrowed his
eyes and stopped massaging the boy, as he turned to his wife.
     "Klara, please..."
     Later, the man caught up with Andrew on the boardwalk along
the embankment.
     "Wait!" he breathed out and grabbed Andrew's elbow. "I must
say that... I always wanted to meet you and tell you... I envy
you!"
     "What are you talking about?" sighed Andrew. "I don't
understand."
     "Oh yes! You..." the man was breathless, having run for
quite a while. "You are so free! You wanted to get in the water
with your clothes on -- and you did. You wanted to destroy the
Sphere -- no problem!
     "What a nut," thought Andrew gloomily. "He would run away
from this freedom if he had it!"
     "I wouldn't put pants and the Sphere on the same level..."
     "You are even freer with my son than me!.."
     "But I have not seen mine for ages now," Andrew consoled
him.
     The man become silent and frowned. Then he burst out. "I
also had an opportunity! I did. But I didn't do it... And when I
heard about you later, I thought, that's somebody with guts! By
that time the pilots were a little scared. What if you meet the
Sphere... it will lure you in! And I was scared, too. I didn't
tell anyone, but I was scared. After that time when it
disappeared after luring everyone on the station in, many were
saying 'we should blow it up, burn it with plasma!' They were
only saying! And you alone had the guts..."
     "You know," replied Andrew. "I understood something a long
time ago. If a person has a conscience, he should feel free to do
the things that he wants. If this person does what others tell
him rather than what he wants, the world becomes one unique
person smaller. But you know that the more diverse a system is,
the more dynamic it is and better positioned for the future.
Fulfilling our desires is simply our duty."
     After a short silence the man said, "I envy you." He let go
of Andrew's elbow.
     "Did you vote for or against?" asked Andrew, curious. The
man took it as a reproach and looked elsewhere.
     "If I had voted for your pardon, my comrades would not have
understood me!" His voice had changed.
     "I see."
     "The people's anger was great then."
     "I remember that."
     "You have to understand me! I had just gotten a new
assignment at that time. That crew had never come across the
Sphere. Nobody on that crew had the reason to be afraid of it and
to hate it as you and I did!"
     Andrew genuinely tried to recall if he was afraid of the
Sphere. Probably not. The idea that the Sphere would lure him
right out of his ship had never occurred to him.
     "This was my first assignment as a Third Pilot. And Klara
was so proud of me! How could I?"
     Andrew nodded.
     "Well, yes. It's so much easier to destroy a person than the
Sphere..."
     The man shook.
     "You didn't get it," he said forgivingly, yet disapprovingly
to Andrew. "You didn't really understand it. I felt for you so
much."
     "Oho, I am so sorry," said Andrew.


     The first search party safely returned to the ship, but the
fate of the second expedition, much more numerous and better
equipped, was tragic. They worked in the Sphere for eight hours
until their program was completed and Sprague, who kept in
constant contact with the searchers, ordered them to return. They
confirmed the receipt of the order. Then contact was lost.
Fifteen minutes later Sprague sent three people to the rescue.
Later, they said that it was because of those three Sprague
eventually blew his brains out. The second group reported from
the entrance of the Sphere. The grass inside showed no signs
anybody walking on it. Sprague ordered them to enter the Sphere
to search for traces but not to go more than three hundred feet
beyond the entrance. If the brief search was to be fruitless,
they had to return immediately. In twelve minutes they lost them,
too.
     Immediately after that Sprague received a call from the
cargo ship that was approaching the Sphere to tow it closer to
Earth, as planned. Their radar identified an object ahead of
them, slightly off their course. This was a slowly floating space
suit. The beacon on the suit was transmitting the call signs of
Sprague's ship. The person in the suit did not respond to their
hails. All the suits on Sprague's ship were accounted for, except
those in which the search groups left. Half an hour later, the
cargo ship reported that they picked the suit up. They found a
corpse inside, but the cause of death could not be identified
(and was never to be found.) They sent an image of the body to
Sprague's ship. It was a chemical analyst that went to the Sphere
with the second group. They found him twenty four million miles
from the Sphere, about forty minutes after losing contact.
     Sprague left three cyberbeacons near the Sphere and flew to
the rendezvous with the cargo ship. His powerful scanning
equipment was working at full power. He decided to look for the
other people from the group that went to the Sphere in that
remote area of space and possibly save them. His hope was
illusory at best, but they could not afford to give up. They did
not find anything. Two hours later all of the cyberbeacons lost
the Sphere on their radars.


     He started smiling from afar.
     Sima was sitting at the table near the bowsprit of the
"Espaniola".
     They met a year ago, and Sima was attracted to Andrew right
away. It was a tough time for her then. She has never said why.
He supported her the best he could and gradually grew to love
her, as if someone who is so tired of himself is capable of
loving. He needed her. Otherwise he had nobody to live for, and
he could not live for himself.
     "This is for you," he said, falling on one knee and handing
her the bouquet.
     "Thanks," she replied. She held it in her hands for a while,
as if not knowing what to do with it, and then put it on the
table. Andrew got up. His knee left a round wet stain on the
floor.
     "Imagine," he said as he sat down. "Couldn't reach Socero
for the fifth straight day."
     "Why do you need him, all of a sudden?" asked Sima, trying
to keep a straw in the corner of her mouth.
     "I always need him. And I need you, too."
     She smiled with contempt and let the straw fall into the
wine glass. Without turning to Andrew, she lazily said:
     "Vanda told me that a week ago the Mercurian Department for
Special Projects hired a big group of experienced pilots. I think
she mentioned Socero."
     Andrew tilted his head to the side, visibly surprised.
     "Is that so! Why?"
     Sima shrugged her shoulders. It was obvious that her
thoughts were far away and she struggled to keep up the
conversation.
     "Why didn't he call me..."
     "What, does he have to report to you?"
     "Well, we are very close, after all. You know, we used to
play together as kids!"
     They were both fifteen then. Yes, that was beautiful! They
spent all summer in military exercises in the woods of Western
Byelorussia, breaking blockades that their teachers planned with
great skill. Oh, that feeling of the cold steel of a weapon, of
trust in yourself and those around you, as they breathed in the
smoke of gunpowder. And while on break, it occurred to them how
different it would have been for real...
     "And what was so special about it," said Andrew dreamily,
closing his eyes. "There was a sense of 'yes, I can!' There was
unity! We blew up that bridge. Oh, Sima, you should have seen how
we blew up that bridge! It was a dream, of epic proportions!" He
sighed. "Did Vanda mention what's going on there, by any chance?"
     "Listen, Andrew," said Sima, meditating. She finally turned
to him. "Do you need me? Really?"
     "Yeah," he answered, surprised.
     She shook her head.
     "You don't need anybody." There were tears and triumph in
her voice. "You love only yourself, and you love yourself so much
that you try to make everybody need you. It doesn't matter who.
You were with me only because I needed you!"
     She stopped and looked at him challenging, waiting. He was
silent.
     "Am I not correct?"
     "Yes, you are correct," he said, his voice tender. "Like a
child. A child always has an easy solution in any situation."
     "I didn't know you were so knowledgeable about children!"
     She could be merciless and did not hesitate to hit him when
she wanted to.
     Andrew felt her cold fingers. He thought that a person who
hurt somebody else is suffering herself and wants forgiveness and
affection.
     She took away her hand and said with the dry tone of a
judge:
     "When was the last time you saw your son?"
     "A long time ago," he answered quietly. "Why? I am after
all..."
     "You know what, I am not talking about those things you've
done in space! I didn't care much about your Sphere when it was
out there, and care even less now that you've burnt it. Although,
personally, I wouldn't do a stupid thing like that, no sane
person would.... I always thought that Herostrates were losers,
even before I met you. When I met you I was surprised. You were
an excellent pilot! But now I understand, you just like
destroying things that are dear to others. It boosts your self
esteem. Don't blame your family problems on this Sphere. You
should honestly say: 'yes, I wanted to destroy that too!'..."
     "Oh, Sima, Sima," he uttered. "Very well then. Imagine: your
son tells you..."
     "I don't have any children," she said harshly. "You're just
trying to hurt me!"
     He only clenched his teeth.
     She went on: "I don't have any children because my workload
is  heavy, and what I do is so important! What would my comrades
think if I left them? Especially considering that one cannot rely
on men for help, of which you are an example!"
     Genetic engineers truly were in short supply, Andrew
thought, trying to justify her words. But didn't he recently hear
the story about the comrades that would not understand, just a
short while ago?.. She wanted me to force her, he understood.
     "OK," he said diplomatically. "Let's take a swim."
     "You are pathetic!" She abruptly put her empty glass on the
table. "Look! Everything that you do, you can't get right! It
would have been easier if you were just mean. But no, you always
have this attitude! I used to think you were so special... so
kind... omnipotent and all-knowing."
     "You are talking as if you hate me!"
     "Yes, I hate you! You are a bad person, Andrew."
     She rose abruptly.
     "Please, don't follow me. I am hurting so much more than you
are. So much more."
     She sharply turned around and walked away.
     "Your flowers!" he yelled like a moron. She did not even
miss a step.
     A man rose to meet her, smiling. She took his arm and
briefly glanced back to make sure that Andrew was looking. Then
she kissed the man on the cheek and they walked away along the
boardwalk. Andrew suspected it was the same musician who borrowed
his phone but he was not sure. That guy waited for so long,
thought Andrew. I wonder what she told him about me? 'Just a co-
worker. We have an important project and it is so much work! It
is an urgent fifteen minute meeting. Will it be too much trouble,
dear, if I asked you to wait over there?' A poor soul. She is
waiting for someone to live her life for her, so she could attach
herself to him as an infinitely fragile decoration... Claiming to
be a pinnacle of passivity and taking pride in being fair, she is
weak and, in reality, just a cruel shrew. There is nothing one
can do about that. It all starts in childhood. There is your
indecisiveness, fears, and rules... He remembered those muffled
sounds that Vadik made from under the towel.
     He was very depressed. There was something awkward,
shameful, and disappointing about the whole situation. Something
that you might feel if Desdemona tripped in the middle of the
stage, sweared coarsely and lit a cigarette.
     The world is strange, Andrew thought, aloof. They will
forgive you if you cheat on them or do mean things to them. They
may not even notice it. But if you give them your love and
tenderness but not the way they wanted, you will never be
forgiven by anyone. Because they know: they were already given
the best. If they did not get it "correctly", there is nothing
else to look for in the relationship. And it's time to leave.


     They stumbled across the Sphere for the second time eight
years later, in a different place. The patrol boat reported the
encounter to Earth and remained at a distance, waiting. A very
well equipped large expedition, hastily put together, arrived
there a week later.
     The computer engineers opened a hatch and sent a robot,
stuffed with state-of-the-art equipment, inside the first room,
but could not get any further. For a whole week, the robot tried
unsuccessfully to get beyond the second hatch. The scientific
council of the expedition met almost without interruptions. They
teleconferenced with the specialists from Earth, and even brought
over a special cutting machine, all to no avail.
     Finally, the Third Pilot, Tramble, suggested that it
probably took a human presence to open the hatch. From a
scientific point of view this theory was absolute garbage. It
would have remained that way but Tramble, after a two-day
struggle, got outside of the ship, allegedly for the routine
maintenance trip to the exterior of his ship. He contacted the
bridge once he reached the Sphere. They could not stop him.
     The hatch opened as soon as the human hand touched it.
Tramble got in and then came back immediately. He set up a
cyberbot that slowly moved inside, transmitting a picture of a
spiral corridor with nothing but cold emptiness inside, just like
in open space. Somebody suggested that this was a different
Sphere from the one that Sprague met, but that was obviously
false since they immediately found the traces left by Sprague's
people in the microscopic layer of dust on the surface of the
Sphere. Judging from the dust, the Sphere was approximately a
million and a half years old. Eight hours passed and the corridor
seemed endless. Then they lost contact with the cyberbot.
     They immediately sent another one. Second Pilot Mark
Blakeman went with it to open the hatch. The external hatch
closed and the people on the bridge heard a scream "I see Earth
there! Only a human can see it!" Then they lost contact again.
They sent another man to open the external hatch only. There was
only a cyberbot in the first room. They could not open the
second, internal hatch. They wasted a week of fruitless attempts.
About twelve hours before Marat's supplies would have run out,
the captain himself went to the Sphere, without saying anything
to anybody. He opened the internal hatch and indeed saw high
grass, untouched, and a blue sky. For about half an hour, the
captain kept dialing Marat on the radio, without going beyond the
second hatch. Then he let the cyberbot into the green inside of
the Sphere. The cyberbot rushed ahead leaving a trail in the
grass. The captain came back.
     The cyberbot was transmitting the pictures of the corridor
for more than twenty four hours, as it covered twenty miles along
the narrow winding canal, and then they lost it. They ran out of
cyberbots. The expedition went back to Earth the same day,
leaving eight beacons at various distances from the Sphere. Forty
two minutes later the cyberbeacons reported the disappearance of
their assigned object.


     He jolted.
     "Is that you, Andrew?" he heard a melodic female voice
behind him.
     No, this couldn't be Sima. A woman of blinding beauty was
standing before him. A man, just as imposing, was towering next
to her. A panther hide was thrown over his shoulder. His long
blue hair was curled. Andrew recognized the woman. Gardener
introduced them last winter. Gardener was one of those people who
are always unhappy about everything and who have been hanging
around Andrew lately, taking him to be their own kind.
     "Good evening, Gulchekra, I am glad to see you."
     "Do you mind if we join you?" asked the woman.
     "Not at all! Quite the opposite."
     "Andrew, please meet Vespasian," said Gulchekra, sweetly.
"'Sian, this is Andrew. He threw the Sphere on the Sun."
     She pronounced it as if she was pointing to a curious
monster in a jar: This one's got two heads.
     "Yes, so I've heard," pronounced Vespasian.
     Gulchekra laughed and went to the bar, as Vespasian made
himself comfortable in an arm-chair and stared at Andrew with his
giant brown eyes.
     "Have you been with her?"
     "What? Me...", Andrew was lost for a moment. "No."
     "Don't lie to me! I can see right through you. You are so
simple and straight-forward, you couldn't do it on your own
initiative! This is all her, she's a Shakti(*) . Being with her, a
man can't help being a genius. The Sphere! That was a brilliant
move!..."
     His lips shook with contempt and he broadly gestured with
his hand.
     "That was beautiful! A mark of genius, like I said! Put an
end to their troubles, all their efforts! Self-fulfillment of
such a grand scale, so daring! For our world of fake virtues this
was a truly heroic deed! I will never believe that supreme powers
had not communicated with you then."
     "Who communicated with me?"
     "There", he raised his arms to the sky. "Are the
intersections of astral highways that bring together the worlds
of ascending and descending incarnations..."
     Gulchekra came back, carefully carrying a gold-plated tray
of three drinks.
     "What's the talk about?" she sat down and grabbed her glass.
     "You, honey," said Vespasian.
     "Listen, Gulchekra, I need to ask you something that may not
be entirely appropriate right now..."
     "Yes?" Gulchekra seemed to be genuinely interested and her
body tilted towards Andrew.
     "When did you last see Gardener? The reason I brought that
up, and I am sorry, is that his brother works at the
Transportation Department in Houston. Do you recall by any
chance... whether he said anything about the new construction
project on Mercury?"
     On hearing Gardener's name Gulchekra smiled with a carefully
rehearsed touch of mystery, ю la Mona Lisa, but it was clear that
the question itself disappointed her.
     "Would you stop that!" Vespasian angrily cried out and hit
the table with his fist so hard that the petals flew off the
poppies. "You are sitting next to the most beautiful woman in the
world! And you are talking about something that boring! Coward!
You dwell on worthless things, on routine, and are afraid to set
your spirit free!"
     "Please calm down, dear," Gulchekra, frightened, murmured
with admiration. "You never spare yourself, you are so
intense..."
     "Yes, I am," gloomily pronounced Vespasian, collapsing into
the arm-chair. "It is difficult to always strive for
perfection... But I do!" he said and looked at Andrew. "On a
beach. In the mountains. At home. Even when I sleep. The quest
for self-perfection cannot be discreet." Disgusted, he threw the
straw out of his glass, finished his cocktail and got up. "Gul',
it's time to go."
     Andrew abruptly threw his untouched cocktail overboard.
     I think I used almost the same words when I lectured Vadik's
father on desires... Oh, words, what you do to us!
     The next moment he was laughing. I saved them all! I saved
all those who would have had to go to the damned Sphere, either
by their own accord, or by somebody's order. Is all this
inhumanity really necessary so we can know the nature of the
Universe? When someone is sent on a suicide mission, and they go
and disappear without a trace?
     And they thought I degraded them because I put both those
who would rise to the challenge, and those who would cowardly
crawl back, on the same level.
     Yes, there is some sense in the "Nothing deserves to be
destroyed by violence" principle. But what he got along with his
mother's milk told him differently. People don't deserve to die!
People don't deserve to suffer! Something that is dangerous
deserves to be destroyed! Deep in his heart, Andrew was still
convinced this was true. And it was all the harder because now he
could not trust anybody, not even his own heart.


     The Sphere became a legend. Old captains would tell horror
stories about it. The fact that the Sphere was so deadly and
dangerous gave it that special aura and attraction, not unlike,
perhaps, the magic castles and mysterious cemeteries of the old
ages. As for sleeping beauties of the past -- the prospect of
learning about vortex flight, which the Sphere apparently used,
would make up for them with room to spare.
     By the time a yacht of newlyweds came across the Sphere, a
couple dozen mysterious deaths had already been blamed on it. The
lovebirds panicked and immediately called a patrol. The patrol
dispatcher was barely able to persuade them not to leave before
help arrived. It was believed, among countless other things
people believed they knew about the Sphere, that as long as
somebody human was around the Sphere, looking at it, it would not
disappear. The dispatcher, a former pilot himself, believed in
the superstitions of his profession. The moment the patrol boat
came, the honeymooners took off, cut their trip short, and, as
rumor has it, they swore never to leave Earth. The patrol boat
took up observation, while the Council for Space Exploration and
Navigation was in full session for a few days with only slight
interruptions.
     They decided not to risk exploring the Sphere but to keep it
under surveillance. For the next year and a half there was an
observation station at the Sphere where observer crews were
constantly on duty. Shifts changed every two weeks. The value of
these observations was practically nil, but they seemed to prove
the superstition. The Sphere did not disappear. The station's
other, rather unexpected duty was to foil the attempts made by
all kinds of daredevils to get into the Sphere.
     One time the crew did not respond to a scheduled briefing
call. When the patrol boat arrived, they found the station empty
and the Sphere nowhere in sight. They found a crystal voice
recorder in the Command room. Later, all sorts of scientists
spent hours listening to the stuttered speech: "He called us and
we went. How could we not go if he called us? He let me go, but
Chen and Joshua stayed there and they're waiting for me. Your
stupid patrol boat's too close and will spoil everything! We'll
be back, I know, because he told me so, we'll be back!" They did
not come back.
     About three years ago, Andrew piloted a cargo ship loaded
with heavy machinery to Mercury. He met the Sphere between the
orbits of Mercury and Venice. He immediately unhooked his load
and just left it floating in space. Andrew grabbed the Sphere in
his ship's gravitation hooks and, without reporting anything to
Earth, accelerated towards the Sun. As he dragged the sphere to
our star, his crew mutinied but, after a short struggle, Andrew
locked everybody in their quarters. Locking up his crew was the
hardest part of it all. He continued to accelerate past the orbit
of Mercury and let go only when he had almost reached the Sun's
corona. As the ship slowed down, the gravity force was almost at
the limit for human survival but Andrew stayed at the monitor for
several hours to make sure the Sphere fell on the Sun. Later, the
doctors were surprised he did not faint. Deep inside the
photosphere of the Sun, the Sphere started to break up. He could
clearly see it penetrating the furious layers of solid flames.
Then it swelled up slowly and burst into a string of blindingly
bright huge beads that continued their trek into the fiery abyss.


     He came to.
     Andrew took out his phone and requested Socero's personal
data from directory information.
     The computer voice said after a very long silence:
"Placement area-- Mercury, observation station. Position--pilot-
operator. Immediate contact not possible due to job specifics."
     "What's going on?" thought Andrew. "They can't close the
whole planet because of this station! What kind of station is it,
anyway?" Suddenly it became chilly. He juggled his phone in the
air a few times and then called somebody he knew in the Bureau of
Special Projects.
     "Oh, hello, buddy," Sam was obviously happy to hear from
him. "This is so unexpected. You know, I thought you left Earth a
long time ago..."
     "Well, I've got a serious question here. What are you
building there on Mercury?"
     Sam only blinked.
     "Are you looking for single pilots?"
     "Why, nothing to do?"
     "Well, I can always find something. We've been brought up to
work hard. This spring I slaved for the volcanologists. I am not
much of anything now, but I grab odd jobs here and there... But I
want to fly."
     "Not much of anything... Why are you so sarcastic, Andrew,
buddy. You were always so optimistic!"
     "Optimistic my ass," Andrew muttered.
     Sam sighed deeply.
     "You don't see Lola, do you?"
     "No."
     "What about the little guy?"
     "Hey, you know what," said Andrew, "F*** you! Once he came
up to me and said: 'Father, how come nobody likes you?' He was
about to turn five... I had to sit down. I said 'what about
Mummy, what about uncle Socero?' And he said: 'when you go out
and Mummy thinks I can't see her, she cries and says 'why do I
have to suffer through this?' And I still don't know if I did the
right thing. I can't tell him that his dad is the best and other
people don't understand him. On the other hand I don't want to
explain to a baby what ostracism is. I want him to have character
when he grows up, not to be a conformist and somebody's slave.
He's got to have his own opinion! Anyway, skip it, let's talk
business."
     "So you know some sophisticated words," murmured Sam.
"Ostracism here, ostracism there... Your Lola is still casually
asking about you, if you are all right, if you look sharp in the
clothes your girlfriends pick for you! We don't have a job for
you," he said almost vindictively. "I have no idea what the hell
the station is about. That's not my department's worry.
Astronomers found something on the Sun, that's all I can say.
We've had to put two other projects on hold and suspend a few
others indefinitely because of that station."
     "But why did you stop the tourism?"
     "What tourism?"
     "You don't let tourists on Mercury."
     "How should I know?" Sam spread his hands. "It's the first
time I hear about this. Tourists... I've got enough worries in my
own department! And there's only me now to look after my two
small daughters... You want me to think about tourism now...
Leave that station alone! Nobody told me and I am grateful for
that. Everybody has to mind their own business.
     "All right, easy now!" Andrew laughed. "Let's pretend this
conversation never happened!"
     "I know what you're getting at. Minding other people's
business -- that's your heroic deed! I don't even want to think
if you were right or wrong to burn the Sphere. But they did the
right thing when they punished you. Because you meddled in other
people's business. And, obviously, you f*** up! You gotta stick
to what you are good at."
     "OK," said Andrew. "Take care. Sorry I bothered you."
     "Hey, hold on," Sam stumbled. "Maybe you'll drop by
sometime?"
     "Why me? You're too busy to be bothered by someone like me."
     "You can bother me." Suddenly Sam asked quietly, "You know
how things are. Day in, day out, not much is happening. Bother
me, please?"
     "All right," Andrew smiled and Sam's hesitant smile flashed
on the screen.
     The moment the screen turned blank, Andrew threw it on a
table. All the alarming thoughts that were lurking in his
subconscious brain came together. A horrible idea struck Andrew.
     The Sun!!!
     It can't be true, that's crazy! How could the Sphere... I
saw it melt myself!
     But what do I know? What if when the Sphere collapsed the
vortex channel opened up? And now it is draining plasma from the
Sun to some unknown place in the Universe? Why didn't I think
about it then! This can't be happening. This just can't be
happening!
     He called up the nearest helio-observatory. The director was
away at a conference, indefinitely. Where? On Mercury. He called
the observatory at Hinduk. Three leading Sun scientists were away
at a conference, indefinitely. Where? On Mercury.
     He called the Spaceport. It took him five minutes to find
out there was no way he could get hold of a ticket to Mercury. He
rushed out to the embankment.
     "The wrong thing! I did it all wrong!"
     "The 'wrong thing' becomes truly evil only when the one who
did it either does not understand and dies, or attacks it like
Don Quixote once attacked windmills. And this encounter with the
'wrong thing' is both a crisis and a trial. There are only two
ways out: either to collapse or bring yourself to a new level. I
have to know!"
     Andrew reserved a speedy, single-seat space yacht.
     "To hell with everything, but I have to find out the truth.
I can get to Mercury on my own. I'll steer the yacht above the
elliptic orbit and then accelerate from above it to get to open
space. Haven't I spent a lot of time piloting ships in that area?
I've got nothing to lose now!" He ordered a taxi to the
spaceport. Then Andrew switched off his phone, threw it in the
grass, pushed it deeper to the ground with his heel, and went for
a swim.
     He quietly glided through the cold pearly fog, weightless,
as if in space. The surface of the sea blended with the sky and
everything was bright silver. He laughed as he splashed the water
with his palms. He tried to remember Lola. Now that he had made
up his mind, the memories were fresh and painful again, as if it
was not yet over but merely interrupted for a bit. He heard a
splash in the distance...
     Somebody was expecting him on the beach.
     "Hi, Vadik," said Andrew. "What're you doing here?"
     "I'm waiting for you to come out," said the boy who was
sitting near Andrew's clothes. "I saw you get in the water. Mom
said it was all right for you to play with me."
     "Sorry, Vadik," Andrew was rushing to get his pants on, as
he contemplated how long the taxi must have been waiting for him
by now. "I don't have time to play today. I have some very
important business to take care of and have to go away."
     "Let's play!" demanded the boy.
     "Look, I'm really sorry," said Andrew, feeling somewhat
guilty, as he buttoned up his shirt. "In three hours my yacht
will be ready at the spaceport, so you can see for yourself that
I have no time to play."
     "You are bad!" screamed the boy and delivered a rather
painful blow to Andrew's leg. "Stay here! I will bring my mom and
she will tell you!"
     Andrew did not say anything and just shook his head as he
started walking towards the taxi. Vadik followed him,
continuously pounding him on the leg with his tiny fists.
     "You're a moron-man!" he screamed. People turned around to
look at the scene and were clearly disapproving of Andrew.
SYou're an idiot-man! You lie to me. You have nothing to do!
Father said they don't let you into space! Come play with me!
Play with me!"



     At first, Andrew was not officially reprimanded. But nobody
wanted to fly under his command. He was not surprised, he had
after all locked his crew up at a critical moment.
     A month later, there was a special session of the Council
for Space Exploration and Navigation. The main item of their
agenda was 'the problem in which a worthy professional found
himself as a result of his unprecedented and unexplainable
action'. Andrew refused to reveal the reasons for what he had
done. He only said: "I believe what I did was just and therefore
the right thing to do. I solved a problem that was begging to be
solved for a long time. I did my duty the way I understand it and
the rest is up to the decision of this Council, whatever it will
be."
     He was then accused of being arrogant, a charge that was
made against him both in his presence and absence. The Council
was divided and deadlocked. Then they announced a referendum for
all pilots and, by a large margin of votes, Andrew was banned not
only from being a commanding officer, but from piloting in open
space.




     He stepped forward.
     The hatch wasn't fully open yet and the air in the cabin was
still stirring from the change of atmospheric pressure, but he
still stepped forward. There, on the other side of the opening
hatch, his eyes met Socero's.
     Strangers were standing behind Socero. Andrew's vision
suddenly blurred.
     All remained at their places for a while.
     "Your shirt's all bloody," said Socero finally.
     "I had to brake abruptly." Andrew's voice was hoarse. "And I
didn't really need that near-collision with the idiot on the
spaceskaph boat..."
     There were tears in Socero's eyes. And pride, and pity, and
traces of fear, too.
     "You'll loose your yacht license, too."
     "Not the first time," answered Andrew, and Socero nodded.
     "You could've gone right through the roof of a hangar."
     "To hell with it."
     "Andrew, they're gonna send you back immediately!"
     "I flew so fast that the nearest patrol is ninety minutes
away," said Andrew. "Besides, I may not be in the best shape for
another space flight," he added with a challenge in his voice.
     Socero's lips started trembling. And then Socero hugged
Andrew, but he felt Andrew's full weight on his shoulders --
Andrew was sinking to the ground. Socero did not have time to
cry. He took Andrew in his arms and carried him away from the
blindingly bright ribbed hangar.
     "This is my friend," he said to the people who stood some
distance away. They were silently looking as Socero went by. Then
one of them quickly moved to open the heavy door to let Socero
out.
     "You should've seen me fly," happily whispered Andrew,
sniffing. He closed his eyes. "It was a dream... it was
beautiful... You should've seen me."
     "Yes, I saw it. You psycho! Criminal!... This is my friend,"
he said to two people who hugged the walls as they let Socero
pass down the narrow corridor."
     "Wait, I can walk by myself!" Suddenly Andrew came to.
     "Oh shut up, for God's sake!" said Socero. "Shut up and take
slow deep breaths. Are you capable of that?"
     "I used to be, once." Andrew smiled.
     "This is where I live," Socero brought Andrew to his
quarters and slowly put him on a bed. Again he looked straight
into the Andrew's eyes, lips trembling.
     "Andrew, you know, I really couldn't tell you anything. It
would've been more than a security breach... Especially to
you..." He did not finish and shook his head. "If we didn't make
it on time," his face grew gloomy. "You would have found out
yourself. But if we'd made it -- you would have been the first to
know! You know, I dreamt so many times: everything's all right, I
try to tell you everything, but can't open my mouth." He squeezed
out a laugh, looking into Andrew's eyes, as if trying to find
something there.
     "It's OK," said Andrew. "Let's just breath slowly now."
     "You aren't cold, are you? A blanket?"
     "No, I'm all right, don't worry about it," Andrew felt so
cozy and relaxed, as he probably had not felt since his
childhood. "Just sit down."
     "Listen, how did you guess? Who told you?"
     Andrew smiled again.
     "Magic," he said. "There, at the intersections of astral
highways that bring together the worlds of ascending and
descending incarnations..."
     Socero burst out laughing, visibly relieved.
     "Hey, you want some coffee? Tea? I have some nice tea with
honey?"
     "No, I'm all right for now," said Andrew. "I'll be fine in
no time. Better tell me the whole story. I can't blow this one
again, can I?"

_______________________________
 * Shakti is the dynamic energy of a Hindu god personified as his
female consort, it is a cosmic energy as conceived in Hindu
thought.


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