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     © Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
     © Translated from Russian by Antonina  W. Bouis
     © MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc, New York
     Аркадий и Борис Стругацкие "Пикник на обочине"
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     Good science fiction is good fiction
     This  assertion is one which must be  made again, and over again, until
the  general  reader  and  the  "serious" critic  cease to associate science
fiction  solely  with  girls  in  brass  brassieres being rescued  from  the
advances of bug-eyed monsters by zap-gun-toting heroes in space armor. There
is as much of a spectrum of excellence in science fiction as there is in any
other field. Mickey Spillane is  not Dorothy Sayers or Ngaio Marsh. Hopalong
Cassidy is not  Shane or True Grit. And the best of science fiction is quite
as good as the best of any literature.
     It happens also to be the most explosively popular genre on the current
scene. American and English science fiction is widely read in France, Italy,
and Scandinavia, increasingly in Spain, Portugal,  and Latin America, and is
attaining  new  peaks  in  Germany  and  the  Netherlands. New  writers  are
appearing  in Europe, especially in France and  Italy,  and the translations
are beginning to Bow the other  way into the English-speaking world. And the
rise in printed science fiction  is reflected in  the  increasing  number of
cinema and television productions in the field
     There  are several reasons--and a great many more hypotheses-- for this
upsurge, but they are not within  the  purview of these  remarks and can  be
left to the dozens of postgraduate theses being written  on the  subject and
to the teachers of  high-school and  college courses in science  fiction (of
which there are,  at this writing,  over 1,500 in the U.S.A. alone). Suffice
it to say that there  has never been a  field of literature so limitless, so
flexible, so  able  to  evoke  astonishment  and  wonder,  so  free  of  the
boundaries of time and space and that arbitrary fantasy  we call reality, as
science fiction. Not since the invention of poetry.
     What is  not  generally  known  to  the  readers  of science fiction in
English is that the most widely read science-fiction writer in  the world is
not Heinlein  or  Bradbury or  Clarke, but  Stanislaw Lem, a  Pole; that the
largest science-fiction  section of  a writers'  union  is  in Hungary; that
excellent science fiction is being produced in East Germany, Czechoslovakia,
and  especially  in  the  Soviet  Union.  Some Of this--far  too  little--is
beginning to trickle into the English-speak- ing  world,  and, sad to say, a
certain portion suffers  from execrable translation. Some works have had the
hazards of translation more  than doubled by passing from the original  to a
second language before being  rendered from that  into English, a process in
which  the style  and  character  of  even a  laundry  list  could hardly be
expected to  survive. Keeping  that in mind, however, the  discerning reader
will find,  even  in the most brutalized  of translations,  a  strength  and
inventiveness marvelous to behold.
     In the  highest  echelon of Soviet  science-fiction  writers  stand the
names of Boris  and Arkady  Strugatsky. I first  encountered these  talented
brothers in a novel called Hard  to Be a Cod Remarkable, purely as a  novel,
for structure, characterization,  pacing, and  its  perceptive statements of
the human condition,  it  touches also on almost every  single quality  most
avidly sought by the science-fiction reader. It has space flight and  future
devices; it has  that wondrous  "what if ... ?" aspect in its  investigation
into  sociology; by  its richly detailed  portraiture of an alien culture it
affords a new perspective on the nature  of ours and ourselves; it even  has
that exciting hand-to- hand conflict so dear to the hearts of that cousin of
science fiction called swords-and-sorcery. And among  its highest virtues is
this:  though  there are battles and fights and  blood  and death  where the
narrative calls  for  them,  the super-potent protagonist  never  kills any-
body. Writers  everywhere,  keeping in  mind  in  these violent times  their
responsibility  for their influence, should  take note. It  can be done, and
done well, at no expense to tension and suspense.
     And  now comes Roadside Picnic. . . . In  the  so-called Golden Age  of
American  science   fiction,   when  the  late  John  W.  Campbell,   editor
extraordinary, gathered around  him in  a handful of  months the  great- est
stable of science fiction talent ever seen, he would throw out challenges to
his writers, like: "Write me a story about a man who will die in twenty-four
hours unless he  can answer this question: 'How do you know you're sane?' ";
and this one--surely one of the  most provocative of all: "Write me a  story
about a creature that  thinks as  well as a man but not  like  a man."  (The
answer "Woman" is disallowed as too obvious a rejoinder.)
     The Strugatskys  posit  that  the Earth experiences  a brief visit from
extraterrestrials, who  leave behind them--well,  call  it  litter, such  as
might be left by you and me (in  one of our less socially conscious moments)
after a  roadside picnic.  The nature of these discards,  pro- ducts  of  an
utterly alien  technology, defies most  earthly  logic,  to  say nothing  of
earthly analytical  science, and their  potential is  limitless.  Warp these
potentials into  all-too-human goals--the  quest for pure  knowledge for its
own sake, the search for new devices, new techniques, to achieve new heights
in  human   well-being;  the  striving  for   profit,  with  its  associated
competitiveness;  and  the  ravening  thirst  for  new  and   more  terrible
weapons--and you  have the framework of  this amazing  short novel.  Add the
Strugatskys' deft  and supple  handling  of loyalty and greed, of friendship
and love,  of despair and frustration  and loneliness, and  you have a truly
superb tale, ending most poignantly in  what can  only be called a blessing.
You won't forget it.
     Tale of a Troika is a very different thing indeed--so different that it
might have been  written by  quite different  authors--which  is the highest
possible  tribute  to the authors'  versatility. How much you  like  it will
depend  on your taste for satire and lampoon. It is, in nature,  reminiscent
of Lem's Memoirs Found in  a Bathtub, with  (and  here I confess to a highly
subjective  evaluation) one  important  difference: Lem's approach and style
are,  in  comparison, unleavened, no matter how deeply  he  plunges into the
surrealistic and the absurd. The cumulative effect is Kafkaesque horror. The
Strugatsky fury--and it is fury:  disgust  with hypocrisy, with bureaucratic
bumbling, with self-serving,  self-saving distortions of logic and  of truth
and  of  initially  decent  human  motivations--their  fury  is  laced  with
laughter, rich with  scorn,  effervescent with  the comic spirit. One has to
search back to  Alice's tea party to find a scene as  mad as  the chamber of
the Troika; yet, in  retrospect,  one  realizes  that one  has experienced a
profoundly serious  work, since every bent line illuminates a  straight one,
all illogic signifies the purity from which it has departed.
     A word of appreciation must  be extended to Ms.  Antonina W. Bouis, the
translator of these short novels. Russian I do not know; fiction I do; and I
must honor anyone who can so deftly pass emotion, character  dimension, even
conversational idiom, through so formidable a barrier. Theodore Sturgeon San
Diego, California 1976

     Arkady  and  Boris  Strugatsky  Translated from Russian by Antonina  W.
Bouis MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc, New York


     Roadside Picnic

     You have to make the good out  of the bad because that  is all you have
got to make it out of. * Robert Penn Warren



DOCTOR VALENTINE PILMAN, RECIPIENT OF THE NOBEL PRIZE IN PHYSICS FOR 19..

     "I suppose that  your  first  serious  discovery, Dr. Pilman, should be
considered what is now called the Pilman Radiant?"
     "I don't think  so.  The Pilman  Radiant wasn't the first, nor  was  it
serious,  nor  was  it really  a discovery. And it wasn't  completely  mine,
either."
     "Surely you're joking, doctor. The Pilman Radiant is a concept known to
every schoolchild."
     "That  doesn't  surprise  me.  According  to some  sources,  the Pilman
Radiant was discovered by a  schoolboy. Unfortunately, I don't re member his
name. Look it up in Stetson's  History of the Visitation --it's described in
full  detail there.  His version  is  that the radiant  was discovered by  a
schoolboy, that a  college student published the coordinates,  but that  for
some unknown reason it was named after me."
     "Yes,  many amazing things can  happen with a discovery. Would you mind
explaining it to our listeners, Dr. Pilman?"
     "The Pilman Radiant  is simplicity itself. Imagine that you spin a huge
globe and you  start firing bullets into it.  The bullet  holes would lie on
the  surface in a smooth curve.  The whole point of  what you call my  first
serious discovery lies in  the simple fact that all six Visitation Zones are
situated on the surface  of our planet as though someone had taken six shots
at Earth from a pistol located somewhere  along the Earth-Deneb  line. Deneb
is the alpha  star  in  Cygnus. The Point in  the heavens  from which, so to
speak, the shots came is the Pilman Radiant."
     "Thank you, doctor. My fellow Harmonites! Finally we have heard a clear
explanation of the Pilman Radiant! By the way, the day before  yesterday was
the thirtieth  anniversary of the Visitation.  Dr  Pilman, would you care to
say a few words to Your fellow townsmen on the subject?"
     "What in particular interests you? Remember, I wasn't in Harmont at the
time."
     "That makes it even more  interesting to hear what you  felt when  your
hometown  became  the site  of  an  Invasion  from a  supercivilization from
space."
     "To  tell the  truth,  I first thought  it was  a hoax.  It was hard to
imagine that anything like that could possibly happen In our little Harmont.
Gobi or Newfoundland seemed more likely than Harmont."
     "Nevertheless, you finally had to believe it."
     "Finally--yes."
     "And then?"
     "It suddenly occurred to  me that Harmont and the other five Visitation
Zones--sorry, my mistake, there were only  four  other  sites  known  at the
time-that  all  of  them  fit  on a  very smooth  curve.  I  calculated  the
coordinates and sent them to Nature. "
     "And you weren't at all concerned with the fate of your hometown?"
     "Not really. You see,  by then I had come to believe in the Visitation,
but  I simply could not force myself to believe the hysterical reports about
burning  neighborhoods  and monsters  that selectively devoured only old men
and children and about bloody battles between the invulnerable invaders  and
the highly vulnerable but steadfastly courageous Royal Tank Units."
     "You were right.  I  remember that our  reporters  really  botched  the
story. But let's return to science. The discovery of the Pilman Radiant  was
the first, but probably not the last, of your contributions to our knowledge
of the Visitation!"
     "The first and last."
     "But  surely  you  have  been  carefully  following  the  international
research in the Visitation Zones?"
     "Yes. Once in a while I read the Reports. "
     "You   mean   the   Reports   of   the   International   Institute   of
Extraterrestrial Cultures?"
     "Yes."
     "And what,  in  your opinion, has been the  most important discovery in
these thirty years?"
     "The fact of the Visitation itself."
     "I beg your pardon?"
     "The fact of the Visitation itself is  the most important discovery not
only of the past thirty years but of the entire history of mankind. It's not
so  important to  know just who  these visitors were. It's not important  to
know where they came from,  why  they  came, why  they spent so  little time
here,  or  where  they disappeared  to since.  The  important  thing is that
humanity now knows for sure: we are not alone in  the universe. I  fear that
the Institute of Extraterrestrial Cultures will never be fortunate enough to
make a more fundamental discovery."
     "This is very fascinating, Dr Pilman, but  actually I was thinking more
of advances and discoveries of a technological nature.  Discoveries that our
earth  scientists and engineers could use.  After  all,  many very important
scientists have proposed  that the discoveries made in the Visitation  Zones
are capable of changing the entire course of our history."
     "Well,  I don't subscribe  to that  point of view. And as for  specific
discoveries--that's not my field."
     "Yet for  the past two years you've been Canadian  consultant to the UN
Commission on Problems of the Visitation."
     "Yes.  But I  have  nothing  to do  with the  study of extraterrestrial
cultures. On the commission my colleagues and I represent the inter national
scientific community  when questions  come up  on implementing UN  decisions
regarding the internationalization of the Zones.  Roughly  speaking, we make
sure  that  the  extraterrestrial marvels found  in the Zones come into  the
hands of the International Institute."
     "Is there anyone else after these treasures?"
     "Yes."
     "You probably mean stalkers!"
     "I don't know what they are."
     "That's what we in Harmont call the thieves who risk their lives in the
Zone to grab everything they can lay their hands on. It's become a whole new
profession."
     "I understand. No, that's not within our competence."
     "I should think  not. That's police business. But I would be interested
in knowing just what does fall within your competence, Dr. Pilman."
     "There is a steady leak of materials from the Visitation Zones into the
hands  of irresponsible persons and  organizations. We deal with the results
of these leaks."
     "Could you be a little more specific, doctor?"
     "Can't  we talk about the arts instead? Wouldn't the  listeners care to
know my opinion of the incomparable Godi Muller?"
     "Of  course!  But I would  like  to  Finish with  science  first. As  a
scientist, aren't  you drawn to dealing with the extraterrestrial  treasures
yourself?"
     "How can I put it? I suppose so."
     Then,  we can  hope that one fine  day Harmonites will see their famous
fellow citizen on the streets of his home town?"
     "It's not impossible."







 BACHELOR,  LABORATORY  ASSISTANT AT THE HARMONT BRANCH OF THE INTERNATIONAL
INSTITUTE FOR EXTRATERRESTRIAL CULTURES

     The  night before,  he  and I  were in  the repository--it was  already
evening, all I had to do was throw  off my lab suit and I could head for the
Borscht to put a drop or two of the  stiff stuff  into my system. I was just
standing there, holding up the wall, my work  all done and a cigarette in my
hand. I was  dying  for a smoke--it was  two hours since I'd had one, and he
was still puttering around with his stuff. He had loaded, locked, and sealed
one safe  and  was  loading up the other one--taking  the empties  from  the
transporter, examining  each one  from every angle (and they're heavy little
bastards, by the way, fifteen pounds each), and carefully replacing them  on
the shelf.
     He  had been  struggling with those empties forever, and the  way I see
it,  without any benefit to humanity or himself. In  his shoes, I would have
said  screw it long  ago and gone to work on  something  else  for the  same
money.  Of course, on the other hand, if you think about it, an empty really
is something mysterious and  maybe even incomprehensible. I've handled quite
a few of them, but  I'm still surprised every  time I see  one. They're just
two  copper disks the size of a saucer, -about a quarter  inch thick, with a
space of a foot and a half between
     There's nothing else. I mean absolutely  nothing, just empty space. You
can stick your hand in them, or even your  head, if you're so knocked out by
the whole thing-just  emptiness and more emptiness,  thin  air. And for  all
that,  of  course, there is  some force  between them,  as I understand  it,
because you can't press them together,  and no one's been able to pull  them
apart, either.
     No, friends,  it's  hard  to describe them to  someone who  hasn't seen
them. They're too simple, especially when you look close and finally believe
your eyes. It's like trying  to describe  a  glass to someone:  you  end  up
wriggling your fingers and  cursing in frustration. OK, let's say you've got
it, and those  of  you who haven't get  hold  of a copy of  the  institute's
Reports--every issue has an article or. the empties with photos.
     Kirill had  been beating his brains out over the  empties  for almost a
year.  I'd been  with him from the start, but I still wasn't quite sure what
it was he wanted to learn from them, and, to tell the truth, I wasn't trying
very hard to find out.  Let him figure it out for  himself  first,  and then
maybe  I'd have a listen.  For now,  I understood only one thing:  he had to
figure out, at any cost, what made  one  of those empties  tick--eat through
one with acid, squash it  under a press, or  melt it in an oven. And then he
would  understand everything  and  be hailed  and honored, and world science
would shiver with ecstasy. For now, as I saw it, he had a long way to go. He
hadn't gotten  anywhere  yet,  and he was worn out. He  was sort of gray and
silent, and his eyes looked like a  sick dog's-they even watered. If it  had
been  anyone else, I would have  gotten him roaring drunk and taken him over
to some hard-working girl to unwind. And in the morning I'd have boozed  him
up again and taken him to another broad, and in a week he would have been as
good as new--bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Only that wasn't the medicine for
Kirill. There was no point in even suggesting it--he wasn't the type.
     So there we were  in the repository. I was watching him and seeing what
had  happened to him, how his eyes were sunken, and  I  felt sorrier for him
than  I ever  had for anyone. And  that's when I decided. I  didn't  exactly
decide, it was like somebody opened my mouth and made me talk.
     "Listen," I said. "Kirill."
     And he stood there with his  last empty  on the scales, looking like he
was ready to climb into it.
     "Listen," I said, "Kirill! What if you had a full empty, huh?"
     "A full empty?" He looked puzzled.
     "Yeah.  Your hydromagnetic trap, whatchamacallit . . . Object 77b. It's
got some sort of blue stuff inside."
     I could see  that  it was beginning to  penetrate. He looked up at  me,
squinted, and a glimmer of reason, as he  loved to call it, appeared  behind
the dog tears.
     "Hold on," he said. "Full? Just like this, but full?"
     "Yes, that's what I'm saying."
     "Where?"
     My Kirill was cured. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.
     "Let's go have a smoke."
     He  stuffed  the empty into the  safe,  slammed the door, and locked it
with three  and a half turns, and we went back into the lab. Ernest pays 400
in  cash for an  empty empty, and I could  have bled him  dry, the  son of a
bitch, for a full one, but  believe it or not, I didn't even think about it,
because  Kirill  came back to life before my eyes and bounded down the steps
four at a time, not even letting  me  finish my smoke. In short,  I told him
everything: what  it was like, and where it was, and  the best way to get at
it. He pulled out a map,  found the garage, put his finger on it, and stared
at me. Of course, he immediately figured it out about me--what was there not
to understand?
     "You dog, you," he said and smiled. "Well, let's go for it. First thing
in the morning. I'll order  the passes and the boot for nine  and  we'll set
off at ten and hope for the best. All right?"
     "All right," I said. "Who'll be the third?"
     "What do we need a third for?"
     "Oh no," I said.  "This  is no  picnic  with ladies.  What if something
happens to you? It's in the Zone," I said. "We have to follow regulations."
     He gave a short laugh and shrugged.
     "As you wish. You know better."
     You bet I did!  Of  course, he was just  trying to  humor me. The third
would be in  the way as far as he was concerned. We would run down, just the
two of us, and everything would be hunky-dory, no one would suspect anything
about me. Except  for  the fact that I knew  that people  from the institute
didn't enter the  Zone in two's. The rule is: two do the work and  the third
watches, and when they ask him about it later, he tells.
     "Personally, I would take Austin," Kirill said. "But you probably don't
want him. Or is it all right?"
     "Nope," I said. "Anybody  but  Austin.  You can take  Austin an-  other
time."
     Austin  isn't  a  bad  guy,  he's got  the  right  mix  of  courage and
cowardice, but I feel he's doomed. You can't explain it to Kirill, but I can
see it. The  man thinks he knows and understands the  Zone  completely. That
means  he's going to kick off soon. He can go right ahead,  but without  me,
thanks.
     "All right,  then," Kirill  said. "How  about  Tender?" Tender was  his
second lab assistant. An all-right kind of guy, on the quiet side.
     "He's a little old," I said. "And he has kids.
     "That's all right. He's been in the Zone before."
     "Fine," I said. "Let's take Tender.
     He stayed to pore over the map and I  made a beeline  for  the Borscht,
because I was starving and my throat was parched.
     I got back to the lab in the morning as usual,  around nine, and showed
my pass. The guard on duty was the lanky bean pole of a sergeant that I beat
the hell out of last year when he made a drunken pass at Guta.
     "Fine thing," he said  to  me. "They're looking for you  all  over  the
institute, Red." I interrupted him right there, polite-like.
     "I'm not Red  to you," I said. "Don't try that palsy-walsy stuff on me,
you Swedish dolt."
     "God, Red! Everybody calls you that.
     I was all wound up before going into the Zone and cold sober to boot. I
hauled him up by his  shoulder belt and told him in precise detail just what
he was and what maternal line he was descended  from.  He spat on the floor,
returned my pass, and said without any of the niceties:
     "Redrick Schuhart, your orders  are  to appear immediately before Chief
of Security Captain Herzog.
     "That's  better,"  I  said. "That's  the  ticket. Keep  plugging  away,
sergeant, you'll make lieutenant yet.
     Meanwhile I  was thinking, what was this curve coming my  way? What did
Captain  Herzog need me for during working hours? All right, I  went  off to
make my appearance.  His office was on the third floor,  a nice office, with
bars on the windows  just like  a police station. Willy was  sitting  at his
desk, puffing  on his pipe, and  typing some kind  of gibberish. Some little
sergeant was digging through the metal file cabinet in the corner. A new guy
I'd  never seen. We have  more sergeants  at the institute than  at division
headquarters. They're  all well-built healthy fellows. They don't have to go
into the Zone and they don't give a damn about world issues.
     "Hello," I said.  "You called  for me?" Willy looked  right through me,
moved away from the typewriter, laid  a hefty file on the  desk, and started
leafing through it.
     "Redrick Schuhart?"
     "The same, I answered, feeling  a  nervous laugh welling up. I couldn't
help it, it was funny.
     "How long have you been with the institute?"
     "Two years, starting my third."
     "Family?"
     "I'm alone," I said. "An orphan."
     Then he turned to his little sergeant and  gave him an order in a stern
tone.
     "Sergeant Lummer, go to the files and bring back case number one-fifty.
     The sergeant saluted and disappeared, and  Willy slammed the file  shut
and asked gloomily:
     "Up to your old tricks again?"
     "What old tricks?"
     "You know what tricks. There's new material on you here."
     So, I thought.
     "Where from?"
     He frowned and banged his pipe against the ashtray in irritation.
     "That doesn't  concern  you," he  said. "As  an old friend, I'm warning
you. Knock it off, knock it off for good. If they get you a second time, you
won't get off with six months.  And they'll kick you  out  of the  institute
once and for all, understand?"
     "I  understand,"  I said. "That  I  can understand. I just don't  under
stand what bastard could have squealed.
     But he  was  looking through  me again, puffing  on  his empty pipe and
flipping through the file. That meant that Sergeant Lummer had returned with
case #150.
     "Thank  you,  Schuhart, said Capt. Willy Herzog, also known as the Hog.
"That's all I wanted cleared up. You're Free to go.
     So I went to the locker room,  pulled on my lab clothes and lit up. All
along I kept thinking where the rumor could have come from. It had to be all
lies  if it  came  from  within  the  institute, because  nobody  there knew
anything  about me and  there was no way that anyone could. If it had been a
report From the police--again, what could they know there except for my  old
sins?  Maybe  they had  gotten Buzzard?  That  bastard, he'd drown  his  own
grandmother to save his skin. But even Buzzard didn't know anything about me
now.  I thought and thought  and didn't come up with anything very pleasant.
So I decided the  hell with it. The  last time I  had gone into the Zone  at
night was three months ago, and I had gotten rid of most  of  the stuff  and
had spent almost all of the money. They hadn't caught me with the goods, and
I was too slippery for them to catch me now.
     But then,  just  as I was  heading up the stairs,  I  suddenly  saw the
light,  and saw it so well that I had to go back  to  the  locker  room, sit
down, and have  another cigarette. It meant that I couldn't go into the Zone
today. Nor tomorrow, nor the day  after. It meant that those toads had their
eye on me again, that  they hadn't  forgotten me, or  if they had forgotten,
then somebody had  reminded them. And now it no longer mattered who had done
the reminding. No stalker, unless he was completely off his rocker, would go
near the Zone  even at gunpoint, not if he knew that he was being watched. I
should have been burrowing  into the deepest,  darkest  corner at  that very
moment.  Zone? What Zone? I hadn't been in  any Zone, even  with a pass, for
months! What are you harassing an honest lab worker for?
     I  thought the whole thing through and even felt a sense of relief that
I wouldn't be going into the Zone that day. But what would be the nicest way
of informing Kirill of the fact?
     I told him straight out.
     "I'm not going into the Zone. What instructions do you have?"
     At first, of course,  he just  stared at me bug-eyed. Then he seemed to
understand. He led me by the  elbow  into his little office, sat me down  at
his desk, and  sat on the windowsill facing me. We  lit up. Silence. Then he
asked me, careful-like:
     "Has something happened, Red?"
     What could I tell him?
     "No,"  I  said.  "Nothing  happened.  Yesterday  I blew twenty bills at
poker--that Noonan is a great player, the louse."
     "Wait a minute," he said. "Have you changed your mind?"
     I made a choking noise from the tension.
     "I can't,"  I  said  to him through clenched  teeth. "I can't,  do  you
understand? Herzog just had me up in his office."
     He went limp. He got that  pathetic look again and his eyes looked like
they were a sick poodle's again. He shuddered, lit  a new cigarette with the
butt of the old one, and spoke softly.
     "You can trust me, Red. I didn't breathe a word to anyone."
     "Skip it," I said. "Nobody's talking about you."
     "I haven't even told Tender yet. I made out a pass  in his  name, but I
haven't even asked him if he'll go."
     I  said  nothing and went on smoking.  It was funny  and  sad.  The man
didn't understand a thing.
     "What did Herzog say to you?"
     "Nothing in particular," I said. "Someone squealed on me, that's all."
     He  looked  at me kind of strange,  hopped  off the  sill,  and started
walking  up and down. He ran around his office and I sat blowing smoke rings
in silence.  I  was  sorry for  him, of course,  and  I felt bad that things
hadn't worked out better.  Some cure I came up with for his melancholy.  And
whose fault was it? My  own. I tempted a baby with a  cookie, but the cookie
was in  a hiding place, and the hiding place was guarded by mean men. . .  .
Then he stopped  pacing, came up close to  me, and  looking off to the  side
somewhere, asked awkwardly:
     "Listen, Red, how much would a full empty cost?"
     At first I didn't understand him. I thought at first that he was hoping
to buy one somewhere. Where would you buy one?  Maybe it was the only one in
the world and besides he couldn't possibly have enough dough for that. Where
would he get the  money from? He was a foreign scientist, and a  Russian one
at  that. And  then the thought  struck me. So the  bastard thinks  that I'm
doing it for the greenbacks? You so and so, I thought to myself, what do you
take me for? I  opened my mouth  to tell  him off. And I  shut  up. Because,
actually,  what  else could he take me for? A stalker is a stalker. The more
green stuff the better. He trades his life for greenbacks. And so it  looked
to him that yesterday I had  cast  my line and today I was  reeling  him in,
trying to raise my price.
     The thought  made me  tongue-tied. And he kept staring at  me intently,
without blinking.  And  in  his  eyes I  saw  not  contempt but  a  kind  of
understanding, I guess. Then I calmly explained it to him.
     "No one with  a pass has  ever  gone to the garage before. They haven't
laid the tracks to it yet. You know that. So here we come back from the Zone
and your Tender brags to  everybody how  we  headed straight for the garage,
picked up what we needed, and came right back. Like we just went down to the
warehouse or something. And it will be perfectly clear to everyone," I said,
"that  we knew ahead  of time  what  we  wanted  there. And that  means that
someone set us on  to it. And which of us three that  could have been--well,
there's no point  in  spelling it out for you. Do  you understand  what's in
store for me here?"
     I finished my  little speech.  We sat  staring into  each other's eyes,
saying  nothing. Suddenly he  clapped his hands, rubbed his  palms together,
and announced in a hearty tone:
     "Well, if you can't, you can't. I understand you, Red, and I can't pass
judgment. I'll go alone. Maybe it'll go fine. It won't be the first time."
     He spread out the  map on the windowsill, leaned on his hands, and bent
over it. All his heartiness seemed to evaporate before my eyes. I could hear
him muttering.
     "Forty yards, maybe forty-one, another three in the  garage itself. No,
I won't take Tender along.  What do you  think, Red? Maybe I  shouldn't take
Tender? He does have two kids, after all."
     "They won't let you out alone," I said.
     "They  will,"  he muttered. "I  know all  the  sergeants  and  all  the
lieutenants. I don't like those trucks! They've been exposed to the elements
for  thirty years and they're just  like  new.  There's a  gasoline  carrier
twenty feet away and it's completely rusted out, but they look  like they've
just come off the assembly line. That's the Zone for you!"
     He looked up from the map  and stared out the window.  And I stared out
the window, too.  The glass in our  windows is thick and leaded.  And beyond
the windows--the  Zone. There it  is, just  reach  out and you can touch it.
From the thirteenth Boor it looks like  it could  fit  in  the palm  of your
hand.
     When you  look at it, it looks like any other  piece  of  land. The sun
shines on it like on any other part of the earth. And it's as though nothing
had particularly changed  in it. Like everything  was the way it  was thirty
years ago.  My father,  rest  his  soul, could  look at  it  and  not notice
anything  out  of  place  at all. Except maybe  he'd  ask  why  the  plant's
smokestack  was still.  Was there a strike or something? yellow ore piled up
in cone-shaped mounds, blast furnaces gleaming in the sun, rails, rails, and
more rails,  a  locomotive  with  flatcars on the rails.  In other words, an
industry town. Only there were no people. Neither living nor dead. You could
see the  garage, too: a long gray intestine, its doors wide open. The trucks
were parked on the paved lot  next to it. He was right about the trucks--his
brains  were functioning God forbid you should stick your head  between  two
trucks. You have to sidle around them. There's a crack in the asphalt, if it
hasn't been  overgrown with bramble yet. Forty yards. Where was he  counting
from? Oh,  probably from the  last pylon. He's right, it wouldn't be further
than that from there. Those egghead scientists were making progress. They've
got  the  road hung  all the  way to the  dump, and  cleverly hung  at that!
There's that  ditch  where Slimy ended up,  just  two yards from their road.
Knuckles had told Slimy: stay as far away from the ditches as you can, jerk,
or there won't be anything to bury. When I looked down into the water, there
was nothing. This is the  way  it is  with the  Zone: if  you come back with
swag--it's a miracle; if you come back alive--it's a success; if the  patrol
bullets miss you--it's a stroke of luck. And  as for  anything else --that's
fate.
     I looked at Kirill and saw that  he  was secretly watching me.  And the
look on his face made me change my mind. The  hell with them all, I thought.
After all, what  can those  toads do to me? He  really  didn't  have to  say
anything, but he did.
     "Laboratory  Assistant  Schuhart,"  he  says.  "Official-and  I  stress
official--sources have led me  to  believe that an  inspection of the garage
could be  of  great scientific value. I am  suggesting  that we  inspect the
garage. I guarantee a bonus." And he beamed like the June sun.
     "What official sources?" I asked, and smiled like a fool myself.
     "They are confidential. But I can tell you." He frowned. "Let's say,  I
found out from Dr. Douglas."
     "Oh," I said. "From Dr. Douglas. What Dr. Douglas?"
     "Sam Douglas," he said dryly. "He died last year."
     My skin crawled. You so-and-so fool. Who talks about such things before
setting out? You  can beat  these eggheads over the  head with a two-by-four
and they still don't catch on. I stabbed the ashtray with my cigarette butt.
     "All right. Where's your Tender? How long do we have to wait for him?"
     In other words, we didn't touch on the subject again. Kirill phoned PPS
and ordered a flying boot. I looked over his map to see what  was  on it. It
wasn't bad. It was a photographic  process--aerial and highly  enlarged. You
could  even  see the ridges on the cover that was lying by  the gates to the
garage. If  stalkers could get their hands on a map  like  that  ... but  it
wouldn't be  of great use at night when the stars look down  on your ass and
it's so dark you can't even see your own hands.
     Tender made his entrance.  He was red and out of  breath. His  daughter
was sick and he had gone for the doctor. Apologized for being late. Well, we
gave him his  little  present:  we're off  into  the  Zone. He  even stopped
puffing and  wheezing at first,  he  was  so  scared.  "What do you mean the
Zone?" he asked. "And why  me?" However, talk of a double bonus and the fact
that Red Schuhart was going too got him breathing again.
     So we went  down to the "boudoir"  and  Kirill went  for the passes. We
showed them to another sergeant, who handed us special outfits. Now they are
handy things. Just dye them any other color than their original red, and any
stalker would gladly pay 500 for one without blinking an eye. I swore a long
time  ago that one of  these days I would figure out a  way to swipe one. At
first  glance it didn't  seem like anything special, just an outfit  like  a
diving suit  with  a  bubble-top  helmet  with a  visor. Not  really  like a
diver's--more  like  a  jet  pilot's  or  an  astronaut's.   It  was  light,
comfortable, without binding  any where, and  you didn't  sweat  in it. In a
little  suit like that you could go through fire, and gas couldn't penetrate
it.  They say  even a  bullet can't get through. Of course, fire and mustard
gases and bullets are all earthly  human things. Nothing like that exists in
the Zone  and there  is  no  need  to fear things like that in the Zone. And
anyway, to tell the truth, people drop like flies  in the special suits too.
It's another matter that maybe many many  more would  die without the suits.
The suits are too percent protection against the burning fluff, for example,
and against the spitting devil's cabbage.... All right.
     We pulled on  the special suits.  I poured the nuts and bolts  from the
bag into my hip pocket, and we trekked across the institute yard to the Zone
entrance.  That's the routine they have  here, so that everyone will see the
heroes  of  science laying  down  their  lives on  the  altar  of  humanity,
knowledge,  and the holy ghost. Amen. And sure enough--all the way up to the
fifteenth floor sympathetic faces watched us off. All we lacked  were waving
hankies and an orchestra.
     "Hup two," I  said to Tender. "Suck in your gut,  you flabby platoon! A
grateful mankind will never forget you!"
     He looked at me and I saw that he was in no shape for joking around And
he was right, this was no time for jokes. But when you're going out into the
Zone you can either cry  or  joke--and I  never  cried, even  as  a child. I
looked  at Kirill. He was holding  up  under the strain,  but was moving his
lips, like he was praying.
     "Praying?"  I  asked. "Pray  on, pray. The  further  into  the Zone the
nearer to Heaven."
     "What?"
     "Pray!" I shouted. "Stalkers go to the head of the line into Heaven."
     He broke out in a smile and  patted me on the back, as if to say  don't
be afraid,  nothing  will happen as long as you're with me,  and if it does,
well, we only die once. He sure is a funny guy, honest to God.
     We turned in our passes to the  last sergeant, only  this  time, for  a
change of  pace, it  was  a  lieutenant. I know him, his  father sells grave
borders in Rexopolis.  The  flying boot was  waiting  for us, brought by the
fellows from PPS and left at the passageway. Everyone else was waiting, too.
The  emergency first-aid team, and  firemen, and  our  valiant  guards,  our
fearless rescuers--a bunch of overfed bums  with a helicopter. I wish I  had
never set eyes on them!
     We got up into the boot, and Kirill took the controls and said:
     "OK, Red, lead on."
     Coolly, I lowered the zipper on  my  chest, pulled out  a flask, took a
good long tug, and replaced the flask. I can't do it without that. I've been
in  the Zone many  times, but without it--no,  I just can't.  They were both
looking at me and waiting.
     "So," I said. "I'm  not offering  any to you, because this is the first
time we're going in together,  and I  don't  know how the stuff affects you.
This is the way we'll  do things. Anything that I say you do immediately and
without  question. If someone  starts fumbling or asking questions I'll  hit
whatever  I reach first. I'll apologize  now. For example, Mr.  Tender, if I
order you to start walking on your hands you will immediately hoist your fat
ass into the  air and do  what I tell  you. And if you  don't, maybe  you'll
never see your sick  daughter  again. Got it? But I'll make sure that you do
get to see her."
     "Just  don't forget to give  me the  order," Tender wheezed. He was all
red and sweating and  chomping his lips, "I'll walk on my teeth, not just on
my hands, if I have to. I'm not a greenhorn."
     "You're  both greenhorns as far as I'm concerned," I said. "And I won't
Forget to give the orders, don't worry. By the way, do you know how to drive
a boot?"
     "He knows," Kirill said. "He's a good driver.
     "All right then," I said. "Then we're off, Godspeed. Lower your visors.
Low  speed  ahead along  the pylons,  altitude  three  yards.  Halt  at  the
twenty-seventh pylon."
     Kirill  raised the  boot to  three yards and went ahead in  low gear. I
turned around  without being noticed  and  spit over my left shoulder. I saw
that the  rescue squad had climbed into  their helicopter, the firemen  were
standing at  attention out of respect,  the  lieutenant at  the door  of the
passage was saluting us, the jerk, and above all of them fluttered the huge,
faded banner: "Welcome, Visitors." Tender looked like  he was  about to wave
to  them, but I gave him such a  jab in the ribs that he immediately dropped
all ideas  of such ceremonious bye-byes. I'll show  you how to say good-bye.
You'll be saying good-bye yet!  We  were off. The institute was on our right
and the Plague  Quarter on  our left. We were traveling from pylon to  pylon
right down  the middle of the street. It had been ages since  the  last time
someone had walked or driven  down this street. The asphalt was all cracked,
and grass  had grown in the cracks.  But that was  still our human grass. On
the sidewalk on our left there was black bramble growing, and you could tell
the boundaries of the Zone: the black growth ended at the curb as if it  had
been mown. Yeah, those visitors were well-behaved. They messed  up a  lot of
things but at least they set themselves clear limits. Even the burning fluff
never  came  to our side of the Zone--and you would think  that a stiff wind
would do it.
     The houses in the  Plague Quarter were chipped and dead. How ever,  the
windows weren't broken.  Only they  were so dirty that they looked blind. At
night,  when  you crawl  past, you can  see  the glow  inside,  like alcohol
burning  with blue tongues.  That's  the  witches'  jelly  breathing in  the
cellars.  just  a  quick  glance  gives  you  the  impression  that  it's  a
neighborhood like any other, the houses are like any others, only in need of
repair, but there's nothing  particularly strange  about  them. Except  that
there  are no people around. That brick  house, by the way, was the  home of
our math teacher. We  used to  call  him  The Comma. He  was a  bore  and  a
failure. His second  wife had  left him just before the Visitation, and  his
daughter had a  cataract on one eye, and  we used  to tease her  to tears, I
remember. When the panic began he and all his neighbors ran to the bridge in
their underwear, three miles nonstop. Then he was sick with the plague for a
long time. He lost all his skin and his nails. Almost everyone who had lived
in the  neighborhood was hit, that's why we call it the Plague Quarter. Some
died,  mostly the old people, and  not too many of  them. I,  for one, think
that  they  died  from  fright and not from the  plague.  It was terrifying.
Everyone  who lived  here  got sick. And  people in three neighborhoods went
blind.  Now we call those areas: First Blind Quarter,  Second  Blind, and so
on. They didn't go completely blind, but got sort of night blindness. By the
way,  they said  that  it wasn't any explosion that caused  it, even  though
there were plenty  of explosions; they said they  were blinded from  a  loud
noise. They said it got so loud that they immediately lost their vision. The
doctors told them that that was impossible and they should try to  remember.
But  they  insisted that it was a powerful thunderbolt that blinded them. By
the way, no one else heard the thunder at all.
     Yes, it was as though  nothing  had happened here. There  was  a  glass
kiosk, unharmed. A  baby carriage in  a driveway -- even the blankets in  it
looked clean. The antennas screwed up the effect though--they were overgrown
with some hairy stuff that looked like cotton. The eggheads had been cutting
their  teeth  on this cotton problem  for some  time.  You  see,  they  were
interested in looking it over. There wasn't any other like it anywhere. Only
in the Plague Quarter  and only on the  antennas. And most important, it was
right there, under their very windows. Finally  they had a bright idea: they
lowered an anchor on a steel cable from a  helicopter and  hooked a piece of
cotton. As soon as the helicopter pulled at it, there was a pssst! We looked
and saw smoke coming from the antenna, from  the anchor, and from the cable.
The cable  wasn't just smoking--it was hissing  poisonously, like a rattler.
Well, the pilot was no fool--there was a reason  why he was a lieutenant--he
quickly  figured  what was what  and  dropped the cable  and  made  a  quick
getaway. There  it  was,  the  cable, hanging down almost  to the ground and
overgrown with cot ton.
     So  we  made  it to the end of  the street and the  turn nice and easy.
Kirill looked at me: should he turn? I signaled: as  slow  as  possible! Our
boot turned and inched over the  last feet of human earth. The sidewalk  was
coming closer and the boot's  shadow was falling on  the bramble. That's it.
We were in the  Zone! I felt a chill. Each  time I  feel that  chill. And  I
never know if that's the  Zone greeting me or my stalker's nerves acting up.
Each  time I think that when I get  back I'll  ask if others  have the  same
feeling or not, and each time I forget.
     All  right,  so there we were  crawling  quietly  over  what used to be
gardens. The  engine was  humming  evenly under our feet, calmly-- it didn't
care,  nothing  was going to hurt it here. Then old Tender broke. We  hadn't
even gotten to  the first pylon when he started  gabbing. All the greenhorns
usually run  off  at the mouth  in the Zone: his teeth  were chattering, his
heart thumping,  his  memory  fading, and  he was  embarrassed  and  yet  he
couldn't  control himself. I think  it's like  a runny  nose  with  them. It
doesn't depend  on  the  person at  all--it just flows  and  flows. And what
nonsense they babble! They flip out over the landscape or they express their
views on the Visitors, or they  talk about things having  no relation to the
Zone--like Tender, who got all wound up over his new suit and couldn't stop.
How much he had paid for it,  how fine the wool was, how  the tailor changed
the buttons for him....
     "Shut up."
     He looked at me pitifully, flopped his lips, and went on: how much silk
it  took for the lining. The gardens had ended  by now, the clayey  lot that
used to  be the town dump was under us. And  I  felt a light  breeze. Except
there was no wind at all, and suddenly there  was a gust and  the tumbleweed
scattered, and I thought I heard something.
     "Shut up, you bastard!" I said to Tender.
     No,  he couldn't  shut himself up. He was on the pockets now.  I had no
choice.
     "Stop the boot!" I said to Kirill.
     He braked immediately. Good reflexes, I was proud of him. I took Tender
by  the shoulder, turned him toward me, and  smacked  him  in the  visor. He
cracked his nose, poor guy, against the glass, closed his eyes, and shut up.
And as soon as he was quiet, I heard it. Trrr, trrr, trrr... · Kirill looked
over at me, jaws clenched,  teeth  bared. motioned for him to be still. God,
please be  still, don't move a  muscle. But he also heard  the crackle,  and
like all greenhorns, he had  the urge to do something immediately, anything.
"Reverse?" he whispered. I shook my head desperately and waved my fist right
under his visor -cut it out. Honest to God, with these greenhorns  you never
know which way  to look, at the field  or at them. And  then I  forgot about
everything. Over the pile of old refuse, over broken glass and rags, crawled
a shimmering, a trembling, sort of  like hot air at noon over a tin roof. It
crossed over the hillock  and moved  on and on toward us, right next  to the
pylon;  it  hovered for  a  second  over the  road--  or did I  just imagine
it?--and slithered into the field, behind the  hushes and the rotten fences,
back there toward the automobile graveyard.
     Damn those eggheads! Some thinking to lay the road over the dump! And I
had been really sharp myself--what was I thinking of when I raved over their
stupid map?
     "Low speed forward," I said to Kirill.
     "What was that?"
     "The devil knows. It was, and now it's gone.  Thank  God. And shut  up,
please, you're  not a human being now, do you understand? You are a machine,
my steering wheel." I suddenly realized that I was running off at the mouth.
     "Enough. Not another word."
     I  wanted  another  drink. Let  me tell you,  these diving  suits  were
nonsense. I lived  through so much without a damn suit and will live through
so much more, but without a big glug at a moment like this --well, enough of
that!
     The breeze seemed to have died down and I didn't hear anything bad. The
only sound was the calm, sleepy hum of  the motor.  It was very sunny and it
was hot.  There was a haze over  the garage. Every- thing seemed  all right,
the pylons sailed past, one after the  other,  Tender was quiet,  Kirill was
quiet. The greenhorns  were getting a little polish. Don't  worry,  fellows,
you can breathe in the Zone, too, if  you know what you're about. We got  to
Pylon 27; the metal sign had  a red circle with the number 27  in it. Kirill
looked at me, I nodded, and our boot stopped moving.
     The blossoms  had fallen off and it was the  time for berries. Now  the
most important thing for us was total calm. There was no  rush. The wind was
gone, the visibility good. It was  as smooth as silk. I could  see the ditch
where Slimy  had  kicked off. There  was something  colored in it--maybe his
clothes. He was a  lousy guy, God rest his soul. Greedy, stupid,  and dirty.
Just  the type  to get  mixed up  with Buzzard  Burbridge. Buzzard sees them
coming a mile  away and  gets  his  claws into  them.  In general,  the Zone
doesn't ask who the good guys  are and  who the  bad ones are.  So thanks to
you, Slimy. You were a damned fool, and no one remembers your real name, but
at least you showed  the smart people where not to  step.... Of  course, our
best  bet would have been to get onto the asphalt. The asphalt is smooth and
you can see what's on it, and I know that crack well. I just didn't like the
looks  of those  two hillocks!  A  straight line to  the  asphalt led  right
between  them. There  they  were,  smirking  and  waiting. Nope, I won't  go
between them. A stalker commandment states that there should  be at  least a
hundred feet of clear space either on your left or your right. So, we can go
over the left hillock. Of course, I didn't  know what was on the other side.
There didn't seem to be anything on the map, but who trusts maps?
     "Listen, Red,"  whispered Kirill, "why don't we jump over? Twenty yards
up and then straight down, and we're right by the garage. Huh?"
     "Shut up, you jerk," I said. "Don't bother me."
     He  wants  to go  up. And what  if something  gets you at twenty yards?
They'll  never find all your bones. Or maybe the mosquito mange would appear
somewhere around here, then there wouldn't  even be  a little damp spot left
of you. I've had it up  to here with these risk-takers. He can't wait: let's
jump, he  says. It was clear  how to get to the hillock. And  then we'd stay
there  for a bit and think about the next move.  I  pulled  out a handful of
nuts and bolts from my  pocket.  I held them in my  palm and  showed them to
Kirill.
     "Do you remember the story of Hansel  and Gretel? Studied it in school?
Well, we're going to do it in reverse. Watch!" I  threw the first  nut.  Not
far, just like I wanted, about ten yards. The nut got there safely. "Did you
see that?"
     "So?" he said.
     "Not 'so.' I asked if you saw it?"
     "I saw it."
     "Now drive  the boot at the lowest speed over  to the nut and stop  two
feet away from it. Got it?"
     "Got it. Are you looking for graviconcentrates?"
     "I'm looking for what I should be looking for. Wait, I'll throw another
one. Watch where it goes and don't take your eyes off it again."
     The second nut also went fine and landed next to the first one.
     "Let's go."
     He started  the  boot. His  face  was  calm  and  clear.  Obviously  he
understood. They're  all like  that, the eggheads, the most important  thing
for them is to find a name for things. Until he had  come up with a name, he
was  too pathetic to look at--a real  idiot. But now that  he had some label
like graviconcentrate, he thought that he understood everything and life was
a breeze.
     We passed  the first  nut,  and the  second,  and a  third. Tender  was
sighing and shifting from foot to foot and yawning nervously--he was feeling
trapped, poor fellow. It would do him good. He'd knock off ten pounds today,
this was better  than  any diet.  I threw a fourth nut. There  was something
wrong with  its trajectory.  I couldn't explain what was wrong, but I sensed
that it wasn't right. I grabbed Kirill's hand.
     "Hold it," I said. "Don't move an inch."
     I picked up another one and threw  it higher and further. There it was,
the  mosquito  mange!  The nut flew up normally and  seemed  to be  dropping
normally, but halfway down it was as if something pulled it to the side, and
pulled it so hard that when it landed it disappeared into the clay.
     "Did you see that?" I whispered.
     "Only in the movies."  He was  straining to see  and I was  afraid he'd
fall out of the boot. "Throw another one, huh?"
     It was funny and sad. One! As though one would be enough!  Oh, science.
So I threw eight more nuts and bolts until I knew the  shape of  this  mange
spot. To be honest, I could have gotten by with seven, but I  threw one just
for him smack into  the middle, so  that he could enjoy his concentrate.  It
crashed into  the clay  like it was a ten-pound weight instead of a bolt. It
crashed and left a hole in the clay. He grunted with pleasure.
     "OK,"  I  said, "we had  our  fun,  now  let's  go. Watch  closely. I'm
throwing out a pathfinder, don't take your eyes off it."
     So  we got around the mosquito mange spot and got up on the hillock. It
was so small  that it looked  like a  cat turd. I had never even noticed  it
before. We hovered over the hillock. The asphalt was  less than twenty  feet
away. It was clear. I could see every blade of grass, every crack. It looked
like a snap. Just throw the nut and be on with it.
     I couldn't throw the nut.
     I didn't understand what was happening to me, but I just  couldn't make
up my mind to throw that nut.
     "What's the matter?" asked Kirill. "Why are we just standing here?"
     "Wait," I said. "Just shut up."
     I  thought I'd  toss the nut and  then we'll quietly move  along,  like
coasting on  melted  butter,  without  disturbing a blade  of grass.  Thirty
seconds  and we're  on  the asphalt. And suddenly I broke out in a sweat! My
eyes  were blinded  by  it. And I knew that I  wouldn't be  throwing the nut
there.  To the left, as  many as you want. The road was longer that way, and
there was a bunch of  pebbles that didn't seem too cozy, but I  was ready to
throw  in  that direction. But  not  straight  ahead. Not for anything. So I
threw the nut to the left. Kirill  said nothing, turned  the boot, and drove
up  to the  nut. Then he looked over  at me. I  must  have looked pretty bad
because he looked away immediately.
     "It's all  right," I said. "The path around is  faster." I  tossed  the
last nut onto the asphalt.
     It was  a  lot  simpler after that. I found the crack, and it was still
clean, not overgrown with any garbage, and unchanged in color. I just looked
at it and rejoiced in silence.  It led us to the garage door better than any
pylons or signposts.
     I ordered Kirill  to  descend  to four feet. I lay  Bat on my belly and
looked  into the open doors. At first I couldn't see anything because of the
bright sunlight. Just blackness. Then my eyes grew accustomed and I saw that
nothing seemed to have changed in the  garage since the last time. The  dump
truck was still  parked over the pit, in perfect shape, without any holes or
spots.  And  everything  was still  the same  on  the  cement Boor--probably
because  there  wasn't  too  much witches' jelly in  the pit and  it  hadn't
splashed  out since that time. There was only one thing that I  didn't like.
In the very back of the garage, near the  canisters,  I could see  something
silvery.  That  hadn't been  there  before.  Well, all right, so  there  was
something silvery, we couldn't go back now  just because of that!  I mean it
didn't shine  in any special way, just a  little bit  and in a  calm, even a
gentle way. I just got up, brushed myself off, and looked around. There were
the trucks on the lot, just like new. Even newer than they had been the last
time I was here. And the gasoline truck, the poor bastard was rusted through
and  ready to fall apart.  There was the cover on  the ground, just like  on
that map of theirs.
     I didn't like the looks of that cover. Its shadow wasn't right. The sun
was  at our backs, yet its shadow was stretching toward us. Well, all right,
it was far enough away from us. It seemed OK, we could get on with our work.
But  what  was  the  silvery thing  shining  back  there?  Was  it  just  my
imagination? It would be nice to  have a smoke now  and sit for a spell  and
mull it all over--why there was that shine over the canisters, why it didn't
shine next to them, why the cover was casting that shadow. Buzzard Burbridge
told me something about the  shadows,  that they  were  weird  but harmless.
Something happens here with the shadows. But what was that silvery shine? It
looked just like cobwebs on the trees in a forest. What kind of spider could
have spun it? I had never seen any bugs in the Zone. The worst part was that
my empty was right there, two steps from the canisters. I should have stolen
it that time. Then  we wouldn't be having any of  these problems now. But it
was too heavy. After all, the  bitch was full, I could pick it up all right,
but  as  for dragging  it on my back, in  the dark, on all fours... . If you
haven't carried an empty around,  try it: it's like hauling twenty pounds of
water without a pail. It was time to go. I wished I had a drink. I turned to
Tender.
     "Kirill and I are going into the garage now. You stay here. Don't touch
the controls without my  orders,  no matter what, even if the earth  catches
fire under you. If you chicken out, I'll find you in the hereafter."
     He  nodded at me seriously, as if to say, I won't chicken out. His nose
looked like  a plum, I had  really given  him a solid  punch. I  lowered the
emergency  pulley  ropes carefully,  checked  out the silvery glow one  more
time, waved Kirill on, and started down. On the asphalt, I waited for him to
come down the other rope.
     "Don't rush," I said. "No hurry. Less dust."
     We  stood on the asphalt,  the boot swaying next to us,  and the  ropes
wriggling under our feet.  Tender stuck his head over the rail and looked at
us. His eyes were full of despair. It was time to go.
     "Follow me  step for step, two steps behind  me,  keep your  eyes on my
back, and stay alert."
     I went on. I  stopped  in the doorway to look around. It's a  hell of a
lot easier working in the daylight  than at night! I  remember lying in that
same doorway. It was pitch black and the witches' jelly was shooting tongues
of flame  up  from the pit, pale blue, like burning  alcohol. It didn't make
things any lighter. In fact, the bastards made it seem even darker. And now,
it was a snap! My  eyes had gotten used to the murky light, and I could even
see the dust in the darkest corners. And there really was something  silvery
over  there--there  were silvery  threads stretching to the ceiling from the
canisters. They  sure looked like a spider's web.  Maybe that's all  it was,
too, but I was going to keep away from it. That's where I made my mistake. I
should  have  stood  Kirill right  next to  me, waited  for his eyes to grow
accustomed to the light, too, and then  pointed out the web to him. Point it
out to him. But I was used to working  alone. I saw what I had to see, and I
forgot all about Kirill.
     I stepped inside  and went straight for the canisters.  I crouched over
the empty. There didn't seem to be any web on the empty. I picked up one end
and said to Kirill:
     "Here, grab one, and don't drop it--it's heavy."
     I looked up  and felt a catch in my throat. I couldn't utter a sound. I
wanted to shout "Stop! Freeze!" but I couldn't. And I probably wouldn't have
had time,  anyway, it all happened  so  fast. Kirill stepped over the empty,
turned his back to  the  canisters, and got  his whole back into  the silver
web. I shut  my eyes. I went numb and the  only  thing I  heard was  the web
tearing.  It was  a weak  crackly noise. I was  crouched there  with my eyes
shut, unable to feel my arms or my legs, when Kirill spoke.
     "Well, shall we get on with it?"
     "Let's go."
     We picked up the  empty and headed for the door, walking side- ways. It
was terrifically heavy, the bitch, it was hard for the two of us to drag it.
We came out into the sun and stopped by the boot. Tender reached out for it.
     "OK," said Kirill. "One, two...."
     "No," I said. "Let's wait a sec. Put it down first."
     We set it down.
     "Turn around. Let's see your back."
     He  turned without  a single word.  I  looked--there was nothing on his
back. I turned him this way and that, but  there was nothing. I  looked back
at the canisters, and there was nothing there either.
     "Listen," I said to Kirill, still looking at the  canisters.  "Did  you
see the spider web?"
     "What web? Where?"
     "All right. We were lucky."
     But to myself I thought: actually, there's no way of knowing that yet.
     "All right, let's heave-ho."
     We stuffed the empty  into the boot and fixed it  so  that it  wouldn't
move around. There it was, the  pussycat, shiny new  and  clean, the  copper
gleaming  in  the sun.  Its blue filling  sifted  cloudily  in slow  streams
between  the  disks.  We  could  see  that it  wasn't an  empty  at all, but
something like a  vessel, like a glass jar with blue syrup. We looked at  it
some more  and then clambered into the boot and set off  on  the return trip
without messing around.
     These scientists  sure  have  it  easy!  First  of  all,  they  work in
daylight. And second, the only  hard part is  getting  into the Zone, On the
way back, the  boot drives itself.  In other words,  it has  a mechanism,  a
coursograph, I  guess you'd call it, that  controls the  boot and  drives it
exactly along the  course it took coming in. As we floated back, it repeated
all our  maneuvers, stopping and hovering for a bit, and then continuing. We
went over each of  my nuts and bolts. I could have gathered them up if I had
wanted to.
     My greenhorns were in a  great mood, of course. They were turning their
heads  every  which way and  their fear was  almost all gone.  They  started
gabbing.  Tender  was waving his arms around and threatening  to  come right
back after dinner to lay the road to the garage. Kirill plucked at my sleeve
and started explaining his graviconcentrate phenomenon to me--that  is,  the
mosquito mange spot. Well, I set them straight, but not right away. I calmly
told them about all the jerks who  blew it on the way back.  Shut up, I told
them, and  keep your eyes peeled, or the same thing will happen to you  that
happened  to Shorty Lyndon.  That  worked.  They didn't  even ask  what  had
happened to Shorty Lyndon.  We floated along  in silence and I only  thought
about  one thing. How I  would unscrew  the  cap. I was trying to picture my
first gulp, but the web kept glistening before my eyes.
     In  short,  we got  out  of  the  Zone,  and  we  were  sent  into  the
delouser--the  scientists call it the medical hangar--along  with the  boot.
They  washed  us  in three  different  boiling vats and  in  their  alkaline
solutions, smeared us  with  some gunk, sprinkled us  with some  powder, and
washed us again,  then dried us off  and said,  OK,  friends,  you're  free!
Tender and Kirill dragged the empty. There were so many people  who had come
to gawk that you couldn't push your way through them. And it was so typical.
They were all just watching and grunting  words of welcome, but not one  was
brave enough to lend a hand to the tired returnees. All right, that was none
of my business. Now nothing concerned me any more.
     I  pulled  off my special  suit, threw it on the floor--let the bastard
sergeants pick it  up--and headed straight for  the showers,  because I  was
sopping wet from head  to toe. I  locked  myself in  a stall, got  my flask,
unscrewed the  cap, and attached myself to it  like  a lamprey. I sat on the
bench, my knees empty, my head empty, my soul empty. Gulping down the strong
stuff like it was water.  Alive. The Zone had let me out. It let me out, the
bitch. The damn, treacherous  bitch. I was alive. The greenhorns could never
appreciate that. Only a  stalker could. Tears were streaming down my cheeks,
from the booze or what, I don't know. I sucked the flask dry. I was wet, and
the  flask  was  dry.  It didn't have that one last  gulp that I  needed, of
course. But that could be fixed. Everything could be fixed now. Alive. I lit
a  cigarette. I sat  there and felt that I  was  coming round. The bonus pay
came into my mind. That was a good deal we had at  the institute. I could go
right now and pick up  the envelope. Or maybe they'd  bring it to me here in
the showers.
     I started undressing slowly. I  took off my watch, and  saw that we had
spent five hours  in the Zone.  My God! Five  hours. I shuddered. God, there
really is no time in the Zone. Five hours. But if you think about it, what's
five hours to a stalker? A snap. How about twelve? Or how about two days? If
you don't  manage in one night,  you spend the  whole day face down  on  the
ground.  And you don't even pray, but mutter deliriously, and you don't know
if you're dead or alive. And then you finish up  the second night and get to
the  patrol  point with your swag. The guards  are there  with their machine
guns. And those bastards, those toads really hate you.  There's no great joy
in arresting you, they're  terrified that you're contaminated. All they want
to do is bump you  off  and they've got all the aces-go prove that you  were
killed  illegally. So  that  means you bury your face in the dirt again  and
pray until dawn and until dark again. And the swag lies next  to you and you
don't know whether it's just lying there or slowly killing you. Or you could
end up like Knuckles Itzak, who got stuck at  dawn  in an open space. He got
off  the  track and ended  up between  two  ditches. He couldn't go right or
left. They shot at him for two hours, but couldn't hit him. For two hours he
made believe he was dead.  Thank God, they finally  believed  it and left. I
saw him after that. I couldn't even recognize  him. He was  a broken man, no
longer human.
     I wiped my tears  and turned on the water. I showered  for a long lime.
First hot, then cold, then hot again.  I used up a whole bar of soap. Then I
got bored. I  turned off the shower. Someone was banging on the door. Kirill
was shouting:
     "Hey,  you stalker! Come on out of there! There's a scent of the  green
around here.
     Greenbacks,  that's  always good. I  opened the  door. He was  standing
there, half naked, in his shorts. He was  ecstatic, his  melancholy gone. He
handed me the envelope.
     "Here," he said. "From a grateful humanity.
     "I spit on your humanity. How much is there?"
     "In view of your bravery  beyond the call of duty, and as an exception,
two months' pay!"
     Yes, I could live on that kind of money. If I could get two months' pay
for every empty, I could have sent Ernest packing a long time ago.
     "Well, are  you pleased?" He was glowing, positively  radiant, grinning
from ear to ear.
     "Not bad. And  you?" He didn't answer. He hugged my neck, pressed me to
his sweaty chest, pushed me away, and disappeared into the next stall.
     "Hey!" I shouted after him.  "How's Tender? Washing out his underpants,
I bet?"
     "No way. Tender is surrounded by  reporters. You should see  him.  He's
such a big shot. He's telling them authoritatively... ."
     "How is he telling them?"
     "Authoritatively."
     "OK, sir. Next time I'll bring  my  dictionary along, sir." Then it was
like an electric shock. "Wait, Kirill. Come out here."
     "I'm naked."
     "Come out. I'm not a dame."
     He came out. I took him by the shoulders and turned his back toward me.
Nope. I  must have imagined it.  His back  was clean. The rivulets  of sweat
dried up.
     "What's with you and my back?" he asked.
     I kicked him in  his bare  can and dove  into my  stall and locked  the
door. Damn my  nerves. I was seeing things there,  and now I was seeing them
here. The  hell with it  all! I'd get tanked up tonight. I'd  really like to
beat  Richard, that's what I'd like. That bum can really play  cards.  Can't
beat  him with any hand. I  tried reshuffling,  even blessing them under the
table.
     "Kirill," I shouted. "Are you going to the Borscht tonight?"
     "It's not the 'Borscht,' it's pronounced 'Borshch.' How many times do I
have to tell you."
     "Skip it. It's  spelled  B-O-R-S-C-H-T Don't  bug us with your customs.
Are you going or not? I'd love to beat Richard."
     "Oh, I don't know, Red. You simple soul,  you  don't understand what it
is we've brought back."
     "And I suppose you do?"
     "Well, I don't either. That's true. But now for the First  time we know
what  the empties  are  for,  and if  my  bright  idea works, I'll  write  a
monograph. I'll dedicate it to you  personally: To Redrick Schuhart, honored
stalker, with respect and gratitude."
     "And they'll put me away for two years."
     "But  you'll  go  down  in   science.  That's  what  they'll  call  it,
'Schuhart's jar.' Like the sound of it?"
     While we  were  bulling, I  dressed.  put the empty Bask in  my pocket,
counted my money, and left.
     "Good luck, you complicated soul."
     He didn't answer. The water was making a lot of noise.
     There  was Tender  in person in  the corridor. Red and puffed up like a
turkey. Surrounded by coworkers, reporters, and 3 couple of sergeants (fresh
from  eating and  picking  their  teeth), he  was  babbling on and  on. "The
technology that we command," he  blathered, "al- most  completely guarantees
success and  safety." Then he  saw me and dried up a bit. He smiled and made
little  waving motions with  his hand. Well, I'd better split,  I thought. I
made for the door, but they caught me. I heard footsteps behind me.
     "Mr. Schuhart! Mr. Schuhart! A few words about the garage!"
     "No comment." I broke into a run. But there was no getting away.
     There was one  with a mike on my right, and another with a camera on my
left.
     "Did you see anything strange in the garage. Just two words!"
     "No comment!" I said, trying to keep the back of my head to the camera.
"It's just a garage."
     "Thank you. How do you feel about turboplatforms?"
     "Most wonderful." I started edging toward the john.
     "What do you think about the Visitation?"
     "Ask the scientists," I said, and slid behind the bathroom door.
     I could hear them scratching at the door. So  I called out: "I heartily
recommend that you ask Mr.  Tender how his nose came  to  look  like a beet.
He's too modest to bring  it up, but that was our most interesting adventure
there."
     They shot down the corridor. Faster than racehorses. I waited a minute.
Silence. Stuck  out my head. Nobody. And I went on my way, whistling a tune.
I went down to the lobby, showed  my pass to the bean-pole sergeant, and saw
that he was saluting me. I guess I was the hero of the day.
     "At ease, sergeant," said. "I'm pleased."
     He showed  so many teeth, you'd  think I was  flattering him beyond all
reason.
     "Well, Red, you sure are a hero. I'm proud to know you," he said.
     "So now you'll have something to tell the girls about back in Sweden?"
     "You bet! They'll just melt in my arms!"
     I guess he's right.  To tell the truth, I don't like guys who are  that
tall and rosy-cheeked. Women go nuts over them, and I don't know why. Height
is not the important thing. I was walking down the street and thinking along
these lines. The sun was shining and there was no one around. And suddenly I
wanted to sec Guta right then and there. just like that. To look  at her and
hold  her hand a while. After the Zone that's about  all you  can manage--to
hold hands. Especially when  you think of those stories about what stalkers'
children turn  out like.... Who needs  Guta  now? What I really needed was a
bottle, at least a bottle, of the hard stuff.
     I went past the parking lot.  There was a checkpoint there.  There were
two  patrol  cars  in  all  their  glory--low-slung and  yellow, armed  with
searchlights and  machine guns, the toads. And of course, the cops  had blue
helmets, too.  They were blocking  the whole street. There was no way to get
through. I kept walking with my eyes lowered, because it would be better for
me not  to see  them right  now. Not  in  daylight.  There's  two  or  three
characters there that I'm  afraid to recognize, because if  I do, that'll be
the end  of  them. It was a good thing for them that Kirill  lured  me  into
working for the  institute. Otherwise, by God, I would have found the snakes
and finished them off.
     I  shouldered  my  way through the crowd, I  was almost past it when  I
heard someone shout "Hey, stalker!" Well, that had nothing to do with me, so
I went on, rummaging for a cigarette in my pocket. Someone caught up with me
and took me by  the sleeve. I shook off the hand  and half turned toward the
man and said politely:
     "What the hell do you think you're doing, mister?"
     "Hold it, stalker," he said. "Just two questions.
     I looked up  at him. It was Captain Quarterblad. An old  friend. He was
all dried up and kind of yellow.
     "Ah, greetings, captain. How's the liver?"
     "Don't try to talk your way out of this, stalker." He was angry and his
eyes  bored into  me. "You'd be  better off  telling me  why  you don't stop
immediately when you're called."
     And right  behind  him were two  blue helmets, hands  on  holsters. You
couldn't see their eyes, just their jaws working under the helmets. Where in
Canada  do they find these  guys? Have they  been sent out here to breed? In
general I have  no fear of  the patrol guards in  daytime,  but  they  could
search me, the toads, and I wasn't too crazy about the idea just then.
     "Were  you calling  me,  captain?"  I  said.  "You  were  calling  some
stalker."
     "Are you trying to tell me that you're not a stalker?"
     "Once  the time I spent thanks to you was  over, I went  straight. Quit
stalking. Thanks to you, captain, my eyes were opened. If it hadn't been for
you....
     "What were you doing in the Prezone Area?"
     "What do you mean, what? I work there. Two years now.
     To bring the  unpleasant  conversation to  a  close, I  showed  Captain
Quarterblad my  papers.  He  took  my  hook  and  examined it page  by page,
sniffing and smelling every stamp and seal on it. He returned the book and I
could see how  pleased he was. His  eyes  lit up and there was  color in his
cheeks.
     "Forgive me,  Schuhart," he said.  "I didn't expect it of you. I'm glad
to see that my advice wasn't  wasted on you. Why, that's marvelous.  You can
believe me  or not, but even  back then I knew  that you  would turn out all
right. I just couldn't believe that a fellow like you...." He went on and on
like  a  record.  Looked like  I  had  saddled  myself  with  another  cured
melancholic.  Of  course,  I  listened,   eyes  lowered  modestly,  nodding,
spreading my arms innocently, and if  I  recall, shyly scuffing the sidewalk
with  my foot. The gorillas  behind  the captain's back listened  a bit, and
then got bored and went off some  place more exciting. Meanwhile the captain
was  painting  glorious vistas  for  my  future:  education was  the  light,
ignorance was darkness, and the Lord loves and appreciates honest labor, and
so on and so forth. He was slinging the same bull the priest used to give us
in prison every Sunday. And I  really needed  a  drink--toy thirst  wouldn't
wait. All right, I thought to myself, Red, you can put up with this too. You
have  to,  so be patient. He can't  keep it  up for  much longer  Look, he's
losing his breath al ready.  A lucky  break. One of the patrol  cars started
signaling. Captain  Quarterblad looked  around, heaved a sigh of dismay, and
gave me his hand.
     "Well, I'm glad I met you, Honest Mr. Schuhart. I would have been happy
to drink to this acquaintance. I can't have whiskey,  doctor's orders, but I
would have enjoyed  a beer. But, duty calls. We'll meet again," he said. God
forbid. But I shook his hand and blushed and shuffled my  feet, just like he
wanted me to. He finally left  me  and  I headed  swift as an arrow for  the
Borscht.
     It's always empty  that  time of day in the Borscht. Ernest  was behind
tile bar, wiping glasses, and holding them up to the light. It's amazing, by
the way, that whenever you come in, bartenders are always wiping glasses, as
though their salvation depended on it or  something. He'll  just stand there
all day--pick up a glass, squint at it, hold it  up to the light, breathe on
it, and start rubbing. He'll rub and rub, look it over again (this time from
the bottom) and then rub some more.
     "Hi, Ernie! Leave the poor thing alone. You'll rub a hole through it."
     He  looked at me through the glass, muttered something  indistinct  and
without a  further word poured me four  fingers  of vodka. I climbed up on a
stool,  took a sip,  made a  face, shook my head,  and had another sip.  The
refrigerator  was humming, the  jukebox was playing  something soft and low,
Ernest was laboring over another glass. It was peaceful. I finished my drink
and put the glass back down on the bar. Ernest immediately poured me another
four fingers.
     "A little better?" he muttered. "Coming round, stalker?"
     "Stick to your wiping, why don't you. You know, one guy rubbed until he
got a genie. Ended up on easy street."
     "Who was that?" Ernest asked suspiciously.
     "It was another bartender here. Before your time."
     "What happened?"
     "Nothing. Why do you  think the  Visitation  happened.  It was all  his
rubbing. Who do you think the Visitors were?"
     "You're a bum," Ernie said with approval.
     He went to the kitchen and came  back with a plate of grilled hot dogs.
He put the plate  in front of me, moved the catsup over toward  me, and went
back to  his  glasses. Ernest knows his stuff. His trained eye  recognizes a
stalker  returned from the Zone with swag  and he knows what a stalker needs
after a visit to the Zone. Good old Ernie. A humanitarian.
     I  finished the hot dogs, lit a  cigarette, and started calculating how
much Ernie must make on us. I'm not sure of the  prices the loot goes for in
Europe,  but I'd heard that an  empty can get  almost 2,500, and Ernie  only
gives us  400· Batteries there  cost at least  too and we're lucky if we can
get to from him. Of course, shipping  the  loot to Europe must  cost plenty.
Grease  this  palm and that  one.... and  the  stationmaster must be on  his
payroll too. When you think about  it, Ernest really doesn't make that much,
maybe fifteen or twenty per-  cent, no more. And if he gets caught, it's ten
years at hard labor.
     Here  my honorable meditations were interrupted by some polite type.  I
hadn't even heard him walk in. He announced himself next to my elbow, asking
permission to sit down.
     "Don't mention it. Please do."
     He  was a skinny little guy with a sharp nose and a  bow tie.  His face
looked familiar, but I couldn't  place him. He climbed up on  the stool next
to me and said to Ernest.
     "Bourbon, please!" And then turned to me. "Excuse me,  but don't I know
you? You work in the International Institute, don't you?"
     "Yes. And you?"
     He speedily whipped out his business card and set it in front of me.
     "Aloysius Macnaught, Agent Plenipotentiary of the Emigration Bureau."
     Well,  of course, I knew him. He bugs people to  leave the city. As  it
is, there's hardly half the population left in Harmont,  yet he has to clear
the place of us completely. I pushed away his card with my fingernail.
     "No thanks. I'm not interested. My dream is to die in my home- I town."
     "But why?" he jumped in  quickly. "Forgive my indiscretion, but  what's
keeping you here?"
     "What  do  you mean? Fond  memories of childhood. My  first kiss in the
municipal park.  Mommy and  daddy. My  first time drunk, right here in  this
bar. The police  station so  dear  to  my  heart...." I took a  heavily used
handkerchief from my pocket and dabbed my eyes.
     "No, I can't leave for any amount!"
     He laughed, took a tiny sip of bourbon, and spoke in a thoughtful way.
     "I  just  can't understand you Harmonites. Life is tough  in the  city.
There's military control. Few amenities. The Zone right next  to  you --it's
like sitting on a volcano. An epidemic could break out any day. Or something
worse.  I  can understand  the old  people. It's hard for them to leave. But
you, how old are  you? Twenty-two,  twenty-three?  Can't you understand that
the bureau is a charitable organization, we don't profit by this in any way.
We just want people to leave this hellhole and get back into  the mainstream
of life.  We underwrite the move, find you work.  For young people like you,
we pay for an education. No, I just don't understand!"
     "Do you mean nobody wants to leave?"
     "Not nobody. Some are leaving, particularly the ones with families. But
the young  folk and the old people--what do  you people want  in this place?
It's a hick town, a hole."
     I let him have it.
     "Mr. Aloysius Macnaught! You're absolutely right.  Our little town is a
hole. It always has been and still is. But now it is a hole into the future.
We're  going to  dump so  much through this hole into  your lousy world that
everything will  change  in  it.  Life will  be  different.  It'll be  fair.
Everyone will have everything that he needs. Some hole, huh? Knowledge comes
through this hole. And when we have the knowledge, we'll make everyone rich,
and we'll fly to the stars, and go anywhere we want. That's the kind of hole
we have here."
     I broke off here, because I noticed Ernest watching me in  amazement. I
felt uncomfortable. I don't usually  like using other  people's  words, even
when I  agree with them. Besides,  it  was  coming out  kind of funny.  When
Kirill speaks, you listen and forget to close your mouth. And  even though I
seem to be saying the same things, it doesn't come out  the same. Maybe it's
because Kirill never slipped Ernest any loot under the counter....
     Ernie snapped to attention and hurriedly poured me six fingers of booze
at once, as if to bring me  back to my senses. The sharp-nosed Mr. Macnaught
took another sip of his bourbon.
     "Yes, of course. Eternal batteries, the blue panacea. But do you really
believe things will be the way you described them?"
     "It's none  of your business what  I really believe. I was speaking for
the city. As for myself,  what do you  have in Europe that I haven't seen? I
know about your boredom.  You knock yourself out  all day, and  watch TV all
night."
     "It doesn't necessarily have to be Europe."
     "It's all the same, except that it's cold in Antarctica."
     The amazing part was that I believed it in my guts as I said it to him.
Our Zone,  the  bitch, the killer, was a hundred times dearer to  me at that
second than all of their Europes and Africas. And I wasn't drunk yet,  I had
just pictured for a minute how I would drag myself home in a herd of cretins
just  like myself, how I would be pushed and squeezed in the subway, and how
I was sick and tired of everything.
     "And what about you?" he asked Ernest.
     "I  have  a business," he replied  self-importantly. "I'm no punk. I've
invested all my  money in this business. The base commander himself comes in
once in a while, a general, you understand? Why should I leave here?"
     Mr.  Aloysius  Macnaught  tried to  make some point,  quoting a lot  of
figures. But I wasn't listening. I  took  a good long gulp, pulled out a lot
of change from my pocket, got off the stool and pumped the jukebox.  There's
a song on there: "Don't Come Back If  You're Not Sure." It has a good effect
on me after a trip to the Zone. The  jukebox was howling  and rocking. I had
taken my  glass  into the corner where I was hoping  to even old scores with
the one-armed bandit. And  time flew like a bird.  I was putting in my  last
nickel when Richard Noonan and Gutalin crashed  into the hospitable arms  of
the  bar. Gutalin was blotto,  rolling his  eyes and looking for a  place to
rest  his fist.  Richard  Noonan was tenderly holding him by  the elbow  and
distracting him with jokes. A pretty pair! Gutalin is a huge  black ape with
knuckles down to his knees, and Dick is a small round pink creature that all
but glows.
     "Hey!" shouted Dick. "There's Red! Come over and join us!"
     "R-r-right!" roared Gutalin. "There are only two real men in this whole
city--Red and me! All the rest are  pigs or  Satan's children. Red, you also
serve the devil, but you're still human."
     I came over with  my glass. Gutalin peeled off my jacket and seated  me
at the table.
     "Sit down, Red! Sit down, Satan's servant. I like you. Let's have a cry
over the sins of mankind. A good long bitter wail."
     "Let's wail," I said. "Let's drink the tears of sin."
     "For the  day is  nigh," Gutalin announced.  "For the  white  steed  is
saddled  and his rider has put  his foot in the stirrup. And the  prayers of
those who have sold  themselves to Satan  are in vain.  Only those who  have
renounced him will  be saved. You,  children of man  who were seduced by the
devil, who play  with the devil's  toys, who dig up Satan's treasures--I say
unto you: you are blind! Awake, you bastards, before  it's too late! Trample
the devil's  trinkets!"  He  stopped, as though he had forgotten  what  came
next. "Can I get a drink here?" he suddenly asked in a different voice. "You
know, Red, I've been canned again. Said I was an agitator. I keep explaining
to  them: Awake, blind ones,  you're  falling into the pit and taking others
with you! They  just laughed. So  I punched  the shop leader in the nose and
split. They'll  arrest  me  now. And for what?"  Dick  came over and put the
bottle on the table.
     "It's on me today!" I called to Ernest.
     Dick gave me a sidelong look.
     "It's perfectly legal," I said. "We're drinking my bonus check."
     "You went into the Zone?" Dick asked. "Bring anything out?"
     "A full empty," I said. "For  the altar  of science.  Are you  going to
pour that or not?"
     "An empty!"  Gutalin echoed  in sorrow. "You risked your life for  some
empty! You survived,  but  you  brought another devil's  artifact  into  the
world. How do you know, Red, how much of sorrow and sin. . . ."
     "Can it, Gutalin," I said severely. "Drink and rejoice that I came back
alive. To success, my friends."
     It went over well, the toast to success. Gutalin fell apart completely.
He  was weeping,  the tears streaming like  water  from a spout.  I know him
well. It's just  a phase. Weeping and preaching that the Zone is the devil's
temptation. That we should take nothing out of it and return everything that
we've  taken. And go on living as though  the Zone were not there. Leave the
devil's  things  to the devil. I  like him. Gutalin, I mean. I  usually like
weirdos.  When he has money,  he buys  up the  swag  without  haggling,  for
whatever price the stalkers ask, and  totes  it back at night  into the Zone
and buries it. He was waiting. But he would be stopping soon.
     "What's  a full empty?" Dick asked. "I know what a  plain empty is, but
this is the first time I've ever heard of a full one."
     I explained it to him. He nodded and smacked his lips.
     "Yes, that's very interesting. Something new.  Who did you go with? The
Russian?"
     "Yes, with Kirill and Tender. You know, our lab assistant."
     "They must have driven you crazy."
     "Nothing of the  kind. They behaved quite well. Especially Kirill. He's
a born stalker. He just needs a little more experience, to break him of  his
hurrying, and I'd go into the Zone every day with him."
     "And every night?" he asked with a drunken smirk.
     "Drop it. A joke's a joke."
     "I know. A joke's a joke,  but it can get me  into a  lot of trouble. I
owe you one."
     "Who gets one?" Gutalin got excited. "Which one is it?"
     We grabbed him by the arms and got him back  in his chair. Dick stuck a
cigarette in his mouth and  lit it. We calmed him  down.  Meanwhile more and
more people were coming in. The bar was crowded and  many of the tables were
taken. Ernest  had  gotten his  girls and they  were bringing drinks  to the
customers--beer,  cocktails, vodka. I noticed  that there were a lot of  new
faces in town lately, mostly young punks with long bright scarves hanging to
the Boor. I mentioned it to Dick. Dick nodded.
     "What  do  you expect? They're  starting a  lot  of  construction.  The
institute  is  putting  up  three new  buildings  and besides  that  they're
planning to wall  off the Zone from the cemetery to the old  ranch. The good
times are over for the stalkers."
     "When  were the good old days  for stalkers?"  I said. There you go,  I
thought, what's all this new stuff? I  guess I won't be able to make  a  few
bucks on the side any more. Maybe  it's for the best. Less  temptation. I'll
go into the Zone in the daytime, like a decent citizen. The money's not  the
same,  of course, but it's a lot safer.  The boot, the special suit, and  so
on, and no worries with the border patrol. I can live on my salary, and I'll
booze  it up  on the  bonuses. Then  I got really depressed.  Penny-pinching
again: I  can afford this, I can't  afford that. I'd have to  save up to buy
Guta the crummiest rag, no more bars, just cheap movies. It was bleak. Every
day was gray,  and  every  evening, and  every  night.  I was  sitting there
thinking, and Dick was yelling in my ear.
     "Last night at the hotel I went into the bar for a nightcap. There were
some  new guys there. I didn't like their looks at all. One comes over to me
and  starts  a  conversation in a roundabout way, lets me know that he knows
me,  knows what I do, where I work, and hints that  he's  ready to pay  good
money for various services."
     "An  informer," I said.  I wasn't very  interested. I've had my fill of
informers and little talks about services.
     "No, buddy, not an informer. Listen. I chatted for a bit, carefully, of
course, led him on. He's interested  in certain objects in the Zone. Serious
ones, at that. Batteries, itchers,  black sprays, and other  such baubles do
nothing for him. He only hinted at what he did want.
     "What was it?"
     "Witches' jelly, as far as I could understand," Dick said and looked at
me strangely.
     "Oh,  so he wants  the  witches' jelly,  does  he? How about some death
lamps while he's at it?"
     "I asked him the same thing.
     "And?"
     "Would you believe that he wants some, too."
     "Yes?" I said. "Well, let him go get it himself. It's a snap. There are
cellars full of witches' jelly. Let him take a bucket and bail out  as  much
as he wants. It's his funeral."
     Dick said nothing and watched  me without  even smiling. What  the hell
was he thinking? Was he thinking of hiring me? And then I got it.
     "Hold on," I said. "Who was that guy?  You're not allowed  to study the
jelly even at the institute.
     "Right." Dick was  speaking slowly and watching me. "It's research that
holds potential danger for mankind. Now do you understand who that was?"
     I understood nothing.
     "The Visitors, you mean?" He laughed, patted my hand, and said:
     "Why' don't we just have a drink instead. You're such a simple soul!"
     "OK by me," I said. But I was angry. The sons of bitches think I'm such
a simpleton, eh? "Hey, Gutalin," I said. "Gutalin! Wake up, let's drink!"
     Gutalin was fast asleep. His black cheek  lay on the black tabletop and
his hands drooped down to the floor. Dick and I had a drink without him.
     "All  right,  now," I said. "Simple soul or complicated,  I'll tell you
what  I would  do  about  that guy.  You know how much love  I have  for the
police, but I'd turn him in.
     "Sure. And the police would ask  you why this  guy turned to you rather
than someone else. Then what?" I shook my head.
     "It doesn't matter. You, you  fat  jerk, you've  only been in  the city
three years and haven't been in the Zone once. You've only seen the witches'
jelly in the movies.  You should see  it in real life and what it  does to a
human being. It's a horrible thing and it  shouldn't be  brought out of  the
Zone. You  know yourself that stalkers are a rough bunch,  all they  want is
money and  more  money, but even  the late Slimy wouldn't  have gone in on a
deal like that. Buzzard Burbridge wouldn't go for it either. I hate to think
who would need witches jelly and for what.
     "Well, you're right about all that,"  said Dick. "But you see, I'd hate
to be found one morning in bed  having committed suicide. I'm not a stalker,
but I am a  practical person anyway, and I like living, you  know. I've been
doing it for a long time and I've gotten into the habit."
     Ernest shouted from the bar:
     "Mr. Noonan! Telephone!"
     "What the hell!" Dick said angrily. "Must be Shipping Adjustment again.
They find you everywhere. Excuse me, Red."
     He got  up and  went to the phone. I stayed behind with Gutalin and the
bottle, and since Gutalin was of no help at all, I attacked the bottle on my
own. Goddamn that Zone. You can't get away from it. Wherever you go, whoever
you talk to,  it's always the Zone, the Zone, the Zone. It's easy for Kirill
to  talk about the eternal  peace and harmony that will  come from the Zone.
Kirill  is  a  fine  fellow  and no  fool --  on  the contrary,  he's really
bright--but he doesn't know a damn thing  about life. He can't even  imagine
what kind of scum and criminals hang around the Zone. Now somebody wants  to
get his hands on the witches' jelly.  Gutalin may be a drunk and a religious
nut,  but maybe he's got something there. Maybe  we should leave the devil's
things to the devil? Hands off.
     Some punk in a bright scarf sat in Dick's chair.
     "Mr. Schuhart?"
     "So what?"
     "My name is Creon. I'm from Malta.
     "So how are things in Malta?"
     "Things are fine in Malta, but that's not what I wanted to talk  about.
Ernest put me on to you.
     So, I thought. That Ernest really  was a bastard. Not a drop of pity in
him.  Here's this young guy--tan, and  clean, and pretty. Hasn't ever shaved
or kissed a girl. But Ernest doesn't care. He just wants to send more people
into the Zone. One out of  three will come back  with swag, and that's money
for him.
     "So how's old Ernest?" I asked.
     He looked over at the bar.
     "He looks well. I wouldn't mind trading places with him."
     "I would. Want a drink?"
     "Thanks, I don't drink."
     "A smoke?"
     "Forgive me, but I don't smoke, either."
     "Damn you then. What the hell do you need the money for?"
     He blushed and stopped smiling.
     "Probably," he said in a low voice, "that concerns only me, doesn't it,
Mr. Schuhart?"
     "You're  absolutely  right,"  I  said and  poured  myself another  four
fingers. My head was beginning to buzz and I was feeling a nice looseness in
my limbs. The Zone had  let  go of me completely. "I'm  drunk right now. I'm
celebrating, as you can see.  I went into  the Zone and came  back alive and
with money. It doesn't  happen very  often that  people  come back alive and
even  more  rarely that they come back with money. So why don't  we postpone
any serious discussions."
     He jumped up and  excused  himself. I saw that  Dick  was  back. He was
standing  by his chair  and I could  see  in  his  face  that  something had
happened.
     "Your tanks losing their vacuum again?"
     "Yep," he said. "Again."
     He sat  down, poured himself  a drink, freshened mine,  and I could see
that whatever it was,  it had nothing to do with faulty  goods. To tell  the
truth, he couldn't care less about the shipments--a model worker!
     "Let's have a drink, Red." Without waiting  for me he  gulped  down his
drink and poured himself another. "You know Kirill Panov died."
     I was so stoned that I didn't quite understand. Someone died. So what.
     "Well, let's drink to the departed."
     He  looked at me with his round eyes  and only then  did I feel as if a
string  had  snapped  inside my body. I  remember that I got  up  and leaned
against the table. I looked down at him.
     "Kirill?"  The  silver web was  before  my eyes  and  I could  hear  it
cracking again as it  tore. And  through the  eerie sound of the cracking  I
could hear Dick's voice as though he were in another room.
     "Heart attack. They found him in the shower, naked. Nobody knows what's
happened. They asked about you. I told them you were in perfect shape."
     "What's to understand? It's the Zone."
     "Sit down. Sit down and have a drink."
     "The Zone," I repeated. I couldn't stop saying it. "The Zone, the Zone.
. . ."
     I couldn't see anything around me except for  the silver web. The whole
bar  was caught  in the web  and as people  moved around,  the  web crackled
softly as they touched  it. The Maltese boy was standing in  the middle. His
childlike face was surprised--he didn't understand a thing.
     "Little boy," I said gently. "How much  do you need? Will a thousand be
enough?  Here, take  it.  Take it!" I  shoved the money  at him and  started
shouting: "Go to Ernest and tell him that he's a bastard and scum.  Don't be
afraid! Tell him! He's a coward,  too. Tell him and then go straight  to the
station and  buy a ticket for  Malta! Don't stop anywhere." I don't remember
what else  I shouted. I do remember ending up in front of the bar and Ernest
giving me a glass of soda.
     "You're in the money today?" he asked.
     "Yes, I've got some."
     "How about a little loan? I have to pay my taxes tomorrow."
     I realized that I had a bundle of money in my hand. I looked at the wad
and muttered:
     "That means he didn't take it. Creon of Malta is a proud  young man, it
seems. Well, it's out of my hands. Whatever happens now is fate."
     "What's the matter with  you?" my  pal Ernie asked.  "Had  a little too
much?"
     "Nope, I'm fine," I said. "Perfect shape. Ready for the showers."
     "Why don't you head on home? You've had a little too much."
     "Kirill died." I said to him.
     "Which Kirill? The one-armed one?"
     "You're one-armed yourself, you bastard. You couldn't make one man like
Kirill from a thousand like you. You rat, you son of a bitch, you lousy scum
bastard. You're dealing in death, you know that? You bought us all with your
dough. You want to see me tear your little shop apart?"
     And just when I reared back to lay  a good one on him I was grabbed and
hauled off somewhere. I couldn't understand  anything then and I didn't want
to. I was shouting and fighting and kicking and  when I came to I was in the
john,  all wet, and  my face was  in  lousy shape.  I didn't  even recognize
myself in  the  mirror.  My cheek was  twitching, I'd never had that before.
Outside  I  could hear a racket, dishes  breaking, the girls squealing,  and
Gutalin roaring louder than a grizzly:
     "Repent,  you good-for-nothings!  Where's Red? What have you  done with
him, you seeds of the devil?" And the wail of the police siren.
     As soon  as I heard it, everything became crystal clear in my  brain. I
remembered  everything, knew everything, and  understood  every- thing.  And
there was  nothing left in my soul but icy hatred. So, I  thought, I'll give
you a  party! I'll show  you what  a stalker  is,  you lousy bloodsucker!  I
pulled  out an  itcher from my watch pocket. It was brand new, never used. I
squeezed it a couple  of times to get it going, opened the door into the bar
and tossed  it  quietly  into the  spittoon. Then  I opened the  window  and
climbed out into the street. I really wanted to stick around  and see it all
happen, but I  had to get out of there as fast as possible. The itchers give
me nosebleeds
     I ran across the backyard. I could hear  my itcher working  full blast.
First all  the dogs in the neighborhood  started howling  and barking --they
sense the  itcher before humans  do. Then someone in the bar started yelling
so loud that my  ears clogged even at that distance.  I  could just see  the
crowd going wild in there--some fall into deep depression, others freak out,
and some panic with fear. The itcher is a terrifying thing. Ernest will have
a  long wait before  he can get a full house in his place again. The bastard
will guess of course that it was me, but I don't  give  a damn.  It's  over.
There is no more stalker  named Red. I've had  enough.  Enough of risking my
own life  and  teaching  other fools  how  to risk theirs. You  were  wrong,
Kirill, my old buddy. I'm sorry, but you were wrong and  Gutalin was  right.
This was no place for humans. The Zone was evil.
     I climbed over the fence and headed home. I was biting my lip. I wanted
to cry, but  I  couldn't.  All I saw was  emptiness and  sadness. Kirill, my
buddy, my only friend, how could it have happened? How will I get on without
you? You painted vistas for me, about a new world,  a changed world. And now
what? Someone  in far-off Russia will  cry for you, but I can't.  And it was
all my fault. No one  else but me, a good-for-nothing. How could I take  him
into  the  garage when  his eyes hadn't adjusted to the dark? I'd  lived  my
whole life like a wolf, caring  only about myself. And suddenly I decided to
be a  benefactor and  give him a little  present. Why  the hell  did  I ever
mention  that empty to him? When  I  thought about it,  I  felt a pain in my
throat and I wanted  to howl.  Maybe I did. People were avoiding  me  on the
street. And then things got easier: I saw Guta coming.
     She was  coming toward me, my beauty, my darling girl, walking with her
pretty little feet, her skirt swaying over her knees. Eyes followed her from
every doorway. But she was walking a straight line, looking at no one, and I
realized that she was looking for me.
     "Hello," I  said. "Guta, where  are you going?"  She took me in  in one
glance--my bashed-in face,  my wet jacket, my scraped hands--but she  didn't
say a thing.
     "Hello, Red. I was just coming to see you."
     "I know. Let's go to my place."
     She turned away and  said nothing.  Her  head is so pretty on her  long
neck, like a young mare's, proud but submissive to her master.
     "I don't know, Red. You may not want to see me any more."
     My heart contracted. What now? But I spoke calmly.
     "I don't understand  what you're  getting at, Guta.  Forgive me,  I'm a
little  drunk  today, so I'm not thinking straight. Why wouldn't want to see
you any more?"
     I took her hand and we walked slowly toward my place. Everybody who had
been eyeing her before  was hurrying to hide his mug now. I've lived on this
street all my life and everybody knows Red very well. And anyone who doesn't
will get to know me fast enough, and he can sense that.
     "Mother wants me to have an abortion," she said suddenly. "I don't want
to." I had walked several steps before I understood what she was saying.
     "I don't want an abortion. I want to have your child.  You  can do what
you want, go off to the four corners of the world. I won't keep you.
     I listened to her and watched her get heated up. And I was feeling more
and more  stunned. I just couldn't make  head  or tail of it. There was this
nonsensical thought buzzing in my head: one man less, one man more.
     "She keeps  telling me that a baby  by  a stalker will be a freak, that
you're  a  wanderer,  that we'll have no real  family.  Today  you're  free,
tomorrow you're in jail. But I don't care, I'm ready  for anything. I can do
it alone. I'll have him alone, I'll raise him alone, and make him into a man
alone.  I can manage  without you, too. But  don't you come around to me any
more. I won't let you through the door."
     "Guta,  my darling girl," I  said. "Wait a minute...." I couldn't go on
talking.  A nervous,  idiotic  laugh  was welling and  breaking me  up.  "My
honeypie, why are you chasing me away then?"
     I was laughing like a village idiot, and she was bawling on my chest.
     "What will happen to us now, Red?" she asked through her tears.
     "What will happen to us now?"



 MARRIED, NO PERMANENT OCCUPATION

     Redrick Schuhart lay behind a gravestone and looked at the road through
a  branch of the ash  tree. The searchlights of  the patrol car were combing
the cemetery  and once in  a while one caught him in the eyes. Then he would
squint and hold his breath.
     Two  hours had passed and things were still the same on  the  road. The
car was still parked, its motor throbbing evenly, and kept scanning with its
three  searchlights  the  rundown graves, the lopsided,  rusty  crosses  and
headstones,   the  overgrown  bushy  ash  trees,   and   the  crest  of  the
ten-foot-thick wall that broke off on the  left.  The border  patrol  guards
were  afraid  of the Zone.  They didn't  even get out  of the car.  Near the
cemetery, they  were even  too scared  to shoot.  Redrick  could hear  their
lowered voices once in a while, and once  in a while  he could see the light
of a  cigarette butt fly out of the  car  window and roll  down the highway,
skipping along and scattering weak red sparks. It was very damp, it had just
rained,  and  Redrick  could  feel  the  dank cold  through  his  waterproof
jumpsuit.
     He  carefully  released  the  branch, turned  his head,  and  listened.
Somewhere to the  right,  not too far, but not too close  either,  there was
someone else in the cemetery. The leaves  rustled  there once more  and soil
crumbled, and  then there  was  the soft thud  of  something hard and  heavy
falling. Redrick  started crawling backward,  carefully  and without turning
around, hugging  the wet grass. The  beam of light  swung  over his head. He
froze, following  its silent movement, and he thought he saw  a man in black
sitting motionless on  a  grave  between the crosses.  He  was sitting there
openly, leaning against a  marble obelisk, turning  his white face  with its
black sunken holes toward Redrick. Actually Redrick did not see him clearly,
nor was it possible in the split second he had, but he filled in the details
with his  imagination.  He crawled away a few more  steps  and  felt for his
flask  inside his  jacket.  He pulled  it out and  lay with  its warm  metal
against his cheek for a while. Then still holding onto the flask, he crawled
on. He stopped listening and looking around.
     There  was  a break in the  wall  and Burbridge was lying  there  in  a
lead-lined raincoat  with a  bullet hole in it. He was  still  on  his back,
Pulling at the collar of his sweater with both hands and moaning  painfully.
Redrick  sat  next  to him and unscrewed  the flask's cap. He carefully held
Burbridge's head, feeling the hot, sticky,  sweaty bald spot  with his palm,
and brought the Bask  to the old  man's  lips. It was dark, but  in the weak
reflections  of the  searchlights  Redrick could see Burbridge's  wide-open,
glassy eyes and the dark stubble that covered his cheeks. Burbridge greedily
took several gulps and then nervously felt for his sack with the swag.
     "You came back.... Good fellow.... Red. You won't leave an old  man  to
die."
     Redrick threw back his head and took a deep swallow.
     "It's still there. Like it was nailed to tile highway.
     "it's no accident," Burbridge said. He spoke in  spurts, on the exhale.
"Someone must have squealed. They're waiting for us"
     "Maybe, said Redrick. "Want another swallow?"
     "No. That's enough for now. Don't abandon me.  If you don't leave me, I
won't die. You won't be sorry. You won't leave me, will you? Red?"
     Redrick  did  not answer. He was looking over  at the highway  and  the
flashes of light.  He could see the marble obelisk, but he  couldn't tell if
he was sitting there or not.
     "Listen, Red. I'm not fooling. You won't be sorry Do  you  know why old
Burbridge is still alive? Do you know? Bob tile Gorilla blew it. Pharaoh the
Banker  kicked the bucket.  And what  a  stalker he was! And he  was killed.
Slimy, too.  And Norman Four-Eyes. Culligan. Pete the Scab. AII of them. I'm
the only who's survived. Why? Do you know?"
     "You  were always a rat, said Red, never taking  his eyes off the road.
"A son of a bitch."
     "A rat.  That's true.  You can't get by without being one.  But  all of
them were. Pharaoh. Slimy. But I'm the only one left. Do you know why?"
     "I know," said Red to end the conversation.
     "You're lying. You don't know. Have you heard about the Golden Ball?"
     "Yes.
     "You think it's a fairy tale?"
     "You'd better keep quiet. Save your strength.
     "It's all right.  You'll carry me  out. We've gone to the  Zone so many
times. Could you  abandon  me?  I knew  you  when. You  were so small.  Your
father....
     Redrick said nothing. He wanted a  cigarette  badly.  He  took one out,
crumpled the tobacco in his hand, and sniffed it. It didn't help.
     "You  have  to get me out. I got burned because of you. You're the  one
who wouldn't take the Maltese.
     The Maltese  was  itching  to  go  with them.  He  had treated them all
evening, offering a good percentage, swore that he would get a special suit,
and Burbridge, who was  sitting next to him, kept winking  to Red behind his
leathery  hand.  Let's take him, we won't go wrong. Maybe  that  was why Red
said no.
     "You got it because you were greedy,"  Red said  coldly. "I had nothing
to do with it. You'd better be quiet. "
     For a while,  Burbridge moaned.  He had his fingers in his collar again
and his head was thrown back.
     "You can have all the swag," he gasped. "just don't leave me.
     Redrick looked at his watch. There wasn't much time until dawn, and the
patrol car  was still there. Its spotlights were still searching the bushes,
and their  camouflaged  jeep was  quite  close to the police car. They could
find it any minute.
     "The Golden Ball,"  said  Burbridge.  "I found it. There were  so  many
tales about it. I spun  a few myself. That  it would  grant your every wish.
Any  wish,  hah!  If that were  true, I sure wouldn't be here. I'd be living
high on the hog in Europe. Swimming in dough."
     Redrick looked down  at him. In the flickering blue light Bur- bridge's
upturned face looked dead. But his glassy eyes were fixed on Redrick.
     "Eternal youth--like hell I got it. Money--the hell with that, too. But
I got health. And good children. And I'm alive. You can only dream about the
places I've been. And I'm still alive." He licked his lips. "I  only ask for
one thing. Let me live. And give me health. And the children.
     "Will you shut up?" Red finally said. "You sound like a dame. If I can,
I'll get you out. I'm sorry for your Dina. She'll have to hit the streets.
     "Dina,"  the old  man  whispered hoarsely.  "My little girl. My beauty.
They're  spoiled,  Red. I've  never refused them anything. They'll be  lost.
Arthur. My Artie. You know him, Red. Have you ever seen anything like him?"
     "I told you: if I can I'll save you."
     "No," Burbridge said stubbornly. "You'll get me out no matter what. The
Golden Ball. Do you want me to tell you where it is?"
     "Go ahead." Burbridge moaned and stirred.
     "My legs.... Feel how they are."
     Redrick reached out and moved his hand down his leg below the knee.
     "The bones...." He moaned. "Are the bones still there?"
     "They're there. Stop fussing."
     "You're lying. Why lie?  You  think I don't  know,  I've  never seen it
happen?"
     Actually all he could feel  was  the kneecap. Below, all the way to the
ankle, the leg was like a rubber stick. You could tie knots in it.
     "The knees are whole," Red said.
     "You're probably  lying," Burbridge said sadly. "Well, all right.  just
get me out. I'll give you everything. The Golden Ball. I'll draw you  a map.
Show you all the traps. I'll tell you everything."
     He promised other things, too, but Redrick  wasn't  listening.  He  was
looking  at the highway. The spotlights  weren't racing across the shrubbery
any more. They  were frozen. They converged on  that obelisk.  In the bright
blue  fog  Redrick  could see the  bent  black  figure wandering  among  the
crosses.  The figure seemed  to be moving blindly, straight into the lights.
Redrick saw it bump  into a huge cross, stumble, bump into the cross  again,
walk around it, and continue on,  its  arms outstretched before  it, fingers
spread wide. Then it suddenly disappeared, as though it fell underground; it
surfaced a few seconds later, to the right and farther away, stepping with a
bizarre, inhuman stubbornness, like a wind-up toy.
     Suddenly the  lights went  out. The transmission squealed,  the  engine
roared, and the blue and red signal lights showed  through  the  shrubs. The
patrol  car tore  away,  accelerated  wildly,  and  raced  toward  town.  It
disappeared behind the wall. Redrick gulped and unzipped his jump suit.
     "They've  gone  away."  Burbridge  muttered feverishly. "Red, let's go.
Hurry!" We shifted around, felt for and found his  bag, and tried to get up.
"Let's go, what are you waiting for?"
     Redrick was still looking toward the road. It was dark now, and nothing
could be seen, but  somewhere out there he was stalking, like an  automaton,
stumbling, falling, bumping into crosses, getting tangled in the shrubs.
     "All right," Red said out loud. "Let's go."
     He lifted Burbridge. The old man clamped  onto his  neck with his  left
hand.  Redrick,  unable to  straighten up,  crawled with  him  on  all fours
through the hole in the wall, grabbing the wet grass.
     "Let's go, let's  go," Burbridge whispered hoarsely. "Don't worry, I've
got the swag, I won't let go. Come on!"
     The path was familiar, but the wet grass was slippery, the ash branches
whipped  him in the face, the  bulky  old man was  unbearably  heavy, like a
corpse, and  the  bag  with the booty, clinking and clanging,  kept  getting
caught,  and he was afraid of running into him, who could be anywhere in the
dark.
     When they got out onto  the highway, it  was still  dark, but you could
tell that  dawn was coming. In  the little  wood across the road, birds were
making sleepy and uncertain noises,  and the  night  gloom was turning  blue
over the black houses in the distant suburbs. There was a chilly damp breeze
coming  from  there. Redrick put  Burbridge on the shoulder of the  road and
like a big black spider scuttled across the road. He quickly found the jeep,
swept off the  branches from  the  hood and fenders, and drove out onto  the
asphalt without turning on the  headlights. Burbridge was there, holding the
bag in one hand and feeling his legs with the other.
     "Hurry  up! Hurry. My knees, I still have my knees.  If  only we  could
save my knees!"
     Redrick picked him  up, and gritting  his teeth from the strain, shoved
him over the side. Burbridge landed on the back seat  and groaned. He hadn't
dropped the bag. Redrick picked up the lead- lined raincoat and  covered him
with it. Burbridge had even managed to get the coat out.
     Redrick took  out  a  flashlight and checked the  shoulder for  tracks.
There  weren't  too many  traces.  The  jeep  had Battened some of  the tall
grasses as it came  onto  the road, but the grass would stand up in a couple
of hours. There were an  enormous number of butts around the  spot where the
patrol car had parked. That reminded Redrick that  he wanted a smoke. He lit
one up, even though what he wanted more was to get the hell out of there and
drive as fast as he could. But he couldn't do that yet. Everything had to be
done slowly and consciously.
     "What's  the  matter?"  Burbridge  whined  from the  car. "You  haven't
spilled the water, and the finishing gear is dry. What are you  waiting for?
Come on, hide the swag!"
     "Shut up! Don't bug me! We'll head for the southern suburbs."
     "What  suburbs?  Are  you crazy? You'll ruin my knees, you  bastard! My
knees!"
     Redrick took a last drag and put the butt in his matchbox.
     "Don't be a jerk, Buzzard. We can't go straight through town. There are
three roadblocks. We'll get stopped once for sure."
     "So what?"
     "They'll take one look at your feet and it's curtains."
     "What about my legs? We were fishing, I hurt my legs, and that's that."
     "And what if they feel your legs?"
     "Feel them. I'll  yell  so loud  that they'll  never try feeling a  leg
again."
     But Redrick had already decided.  He lifted the driver's seat, flashing
his light, opened a secret compartment, and said:
     "Let me have the stuff."
     The gas tank under  the  seat was  a  dummy. Redrick took  the bag  and
stuffed it inside, listening to the clinking and clanging in the bag.
     "I can't take any risks," he muttered. "I don't have the right.
     He put  the  cover back on, covered  it up  with rubbish and rags,  and
replaced the seat. Burbridge was moaning and groaning, begging him to hurry,
and promising him the Golden Ball again. He twisted and shifted in his seat,
staring  anxiously into the growing light. Redrick paid no attention to him.
He  tore open the plastic bag of water with  the fish in  it, poured out the
water over the  fishing gear, and put the flopping  fish into the basket. He
folded up the  plastic bag and put it in his  pocket. Now  everything was in
order.  Two  fishermen  coming  back from a not very successful trip. He got
behind the wheel and started the car.
     He  drove all the way  to the  turn without putting on the lights.  The
vast  ten-foot wall stretched to  the left of them, hemming in the Zone, and
on  their  right  there  were occasional abandoned  cottages,  with  bearded
windows and peeling paint. Redrick could see well in the dark, and it wasn't
that  dark any more anyway, and besides, he knew that it was coming. So when
the bent  figure, striding rhythmically, appeared before the  car, he didn't
even slow down. He hunched over the wheel.  He was walking in  the middle of
the road--like all of them, he was headed for town.  Redrick passed him from
the left and speeded up.
     "Mother of God!" Burbridge muttered in the back seat. "Red, did you see
that?"
     "Yes."
     "God! That's all we need!" Suddenly Burbridge broke into a loud prayer.
     "Shut up!" Redrick shouted at him.
     The turn should have been right around there  somewhere. Redrick slowed
down, staring at the row of sinking houses and fences on the right. The  old
transformer  hut,  the pole with the supports, the  rotting  bridge over the
culvert. Redrick turned the wheel. The car tossed and turned.
     "Where are  you  going?"  Burbridge  wailed.  "You'll ruin my legs, you
bastard!"
     Redrick turned  around for  a  second and slapped  the  old man's face,
feeling his prickly stubbled cheek. Burbridge sputtered and fell silent. The
car was bouncing and the wheels  slipped in the fresh mud from last  night's
rain. Redrick  turned on the lights.  The  white bouncing  light illuminated
overgrown old  ruts, huge puddles, and rotten, leaning fences. Burbridge was
crying,  sobbing, and snuffling. He wasn't promising  anything any more.  He
was complaining and  threatening, but  in a very quiet and indistinct voice,
so that Redrick heard only isolated words. Something  about legs, knees, and
his darling Archie. Then he shut up.
     The  village stretched along the  western edge of the city.  There once
had been summer houses, gardens, orchards, and the summer villas of the city
fathers  and  plant directors. Green, pleasant places  with small lakes  and
clean sandy beaches, translucent birch groves, and ponds stocked with  carp.
The stink and pollution from the plant never reached this verdant glade--nor
did the city plumbing system. But now everything here was abandoned and they
passed  only one inhabited house--the window shone yellow through  the drawn
blinds,  the wash on the  line was wet from the rain, and  a huge dog rushed
out  at them furiously and  chased the car through the mud thrown up by  the
wheels.
     Redrick carefully drove over an old  rickety  bridge. When he could see
the turnoff to Western Highway, he stopped the car and turned off the motor.
Then he got. out and went on the road without looking back at Burbridge, his
hands  stuffed  into  the  damp  pockets  of  his jumpsuit.  It  was  light.
Everything  around them  was wet, still, and  sleepy. He  walked over to the
highway  and  peered  from  the bushes.  The police:  checkpoint  was easily
visible from  his vantage point: a  little trailer house, with three lighted
windows.  The patrol car was parked next to it. It was empty.  Redrick stood
watching for some time. There  was no action  at the checkpoint;  the guards
must  have gotten cold and wornout during the night  and  were warming up in
the  trailer.  Dreaming over  cigarettes  stuck  to their  lower  lips. "The
toads,"  Redrick  said softly. He found  the brass knuckles in  his  pocket,
slipped his fingers  into  the oval holes, pressed  the  cold metal into his
fist, and still hunched up against the chill and with his hands still in his
pockets, he  went back. The  jeep, listing  slightly to one side, was parked
among  the bushes. It  was a lost, quiet spot. Probably nobody had looked at
it in the last ten years.
     When Redrick  reached the car, Burbridge sat up and  looked at him, his
mouth open. He looked even older than usual,  wrinkled, bald,  unshaven, and
with rotten teeth.  They stared at each  other silently,  and then Burbridge
said distinctly:
     "The map . . . all  the traps, everything. . . . You'll find it and you
won't be sorry."
     Redrick listened  to him without moving; then he loosened  his  fingers
and let the brass knuckles fall into his pocket
     "All  right. All  you have to do  is lie there in  a faint. Understand?
Moan and don't let anyone touch you."
     He got behind the wheel and started the car.
     Everything went well. No one got out of the trailer when the jeep drove
slowly  past,  obeying all the signs and making all  the correct signals. It
accelerated and sped into town through die southern end. It was six A.M. The
streets were empty, the pavement wet and shiny black, and the traffic lights
winked lonely and unneeded at the intersections. They  drove past the bakery
with its high,  brightly lit windows,  and Redrick was engulfed in a wave of
the warm, incredibly delicious smell of baking bread.
     "I'm  starved,"  Redrick  said and stretched his stiffened  muscles  by
pushing his hands into the wheel.
     "What?" Burbridge asked frightenedly.
     "I'm starved, I said. Where to? Home or straight to the Butcher?"
     "To the Butcher, and hurry." Burbridge was ranting, leaning forward and
breathing hotly on Redrick's neck. "Straight to his house. Come on! He still
owes me seven hundred.  Will  you drive faster? You're crawling like a louse
in  a  puddle."  He  started cursing  impotently  and  angrily,  sputtering,
panting. It ended in a coughing fit.
     Redrick  did  not answer. He  had neither  the time  nor the energy  to
pacify Buzzard  when he was going  at full speed. He wanted to Finish up  as
soon as  possible and get an hour or so of  sleep  before his appointment at
the Metropole. He turned onto Sixteenth Street, drove two blocks, and parked
in front of a gray, two-story private house.
     The Butcher  came to the door himself. He had just gotten up and was on
his way  to the bathroom. He was wearing a luxurious robe  with gold tassels
and was carrying a glass with his  false teeth.  His hair was disheveled and
there were dark circles under his eyes.
     "Oh, itsh Red? Sho how are you?"
     "Put in your teeth and let's go."
     "Uh-huh." He nodded him into  the waiting  room and hurried off to  the
bathroom, scuffing along in his Persian slippers.
     "Who is it?" he asked from there.
     "Burbridge."
     "What?"
     "His legs."
     Redrick could hear running  water, snorting, splashing, and some- thing
fall and roll along the tile floor in the bathroom. Redrick sank exhaustedly
into an armchair and lit a cigarette. The waiting room was nice. The Butcher
didn't  skimp.  He  was a  highly  competent  and very  fashionable surgeon,
influential in both city and state  medical circles.  He had gotten mixed up
with the stalkers not for the money, of  course. He collected from the Zone:
he  took various types of swag, which he used for  research in his practice;
he  took  knowledge, since  he  studied  stricken stalkers  and the  various
diseases, mutilations,  and traumas  of the human body that  had  never been
known before; and he  took glory, becoming famous as the first doctor on the
planet  to be a  specialist  in nonhuman diseases of  man.  He was  also not
averse to taking money, and in great amounts.
     "What specifically  is wrong with  his legs?"  he asked, appearing from
the bathroom with a huge towel around his neck.  He was carefully drying his
sensitive fingers with the corner of the towel.
     "Landed in the jelly," Redrick said. The Butcher whistled.
     "Well, that's the end of Burbridge. Too bad, he was a famous stalker."
     "It's all right," Redrick said, leaning back in the chair. "You'll make
artificial legs for him. He'll hobble around the Zone on them."
     "All right." The Butcher's face became completely businesslike.
     "Wait a minute, I'll get dressed."
     While he dressed and made a  call--probably to his clinic to  pre- pare
things  for  the  operation--Redrick lounged  immobile  in the armchair  and
smoked. He moved only once  to get his flask. He drank in small sips because
there  was only a little on the bottom, and he tried to think about nothing.
He simply waited.
     They both walked out to the car. Redrick got in the driver's seat,  the
Butcher  next  to him. He  immediately  bent  over the back  seat to palpate
Burbridge's legs.  Burbridge, subdued and withdrawn, muttered  pathetically,
promising  to shower him with gold,  mentioning  his  deceased wife and  his
children repeatedly, and begging him  to save at least  his knees. When they
got to the clinic, the Butcher  cursed at not finding the orderlies  waiting
at the driveway and jumped out of  the moving car to run inside. Redrick lit
another cigarette. Burbridge suddenly spoke,  clearly and calmly, apparently
completely calm at last:
     "You tried to kill me. I won't forget."
     "I didn't kill you, though," Redrick said.
     "No, you didn't...." He was silent. "I'll remember that, too."
     "You do that. Of course, you wouldn't have tried to kill me." He turned
and  looked at Burbridge. The old man was  nervously  moving  his lips. "You
would have abandoned me just like that," said Redrick.
     "You would have left me  in the Zone and thrown  me in the water.  Like
Four-eyes."
     "Four-eyes died on his own," Burbridge said gloomily. "I had nothing to
do with it. It got him."
     "You bastard," Redrick said dispassionately, turning  away. "You son of
a bitch."
     The  sleepy rumpled attendants ran out onto the driveway, unfurling the
stretcher as they came  to the car. Redrick, stretching and yawning, watched
them extricate  Burbridge from the back seat  and  trundle him  off  on  the
stretcher. Burbridge lay immobile, hands folded on chest, staring resignedly
at the sky. His huge feet, cruelly eaten away by the jelly, were turned  out
unnaturally. He was the last of the old stalkers who had started hunting for
treasure right  after  the Visitation, when the Zone wasn't called the Zone,
when there were no  institutes, or walls,  or UN forces, when the  city  was
paralyzed  with  fear and  the world was snickering  over  the new newspaper
hoax. Redrick was  ten years  old  then and Burbridge was still a strong and
agile man--he  loved  to drink  when  others  paid, to brawl, to  catch some
unwary girl in a corner. His own children  didn't interest him in the least,
and he was a petty bastard even then;  when he was drunk he used to beat his
wife with a repulsive pleasure, noisily,  so that  everyone  could hear.  He
beat her until she died.
     Redrick turned  the  jeep  and,  disregarding  the  lights, sped  home,
honking at the few pedestrians on the streets and cornering sharply.
     He  parked in front  of the  garage,  and  when he  got out he saw  the
superintendent  coming toward him from across the little park. As usual, the
super was out of sorts, and his crumpled face with its swollen eyes mirrored
extreme distaste, as though he were walking on liquid manure instead  of the
ground.
     "Good morning," Redrick said politely.
     The  super stopped two feet in front of him  and pointed with his thumb
over his shoulder.
     "Is that your handiwork?" he asked. You could tell that those  were his
first words of the day.
     "What are you talking about?"
     "The swings, was it you who set them up?"
     "I did."
     "What for?"
     Redrick did  not answer  and went  over to unlock the garage  door. The
super followed.
     "I asked you why you set up the swings. Who asked you to?"
     "My daughter," he answered very calmly. He rolled back the door.
     "I'm not asking you about your daughter!" He raised his voice.
     "That's another  question. I'm asking you who gave  you  permission?  I
mean who let you take over the park?"
     Redrick  turned to  him  and stared at the bridge of his nose, pale and
covered with spidery veins. The super stepped back and spoke more softly.
     "And don't you repaint the terrace. How many times have I...."
     "Don't bother. I'm not going to move out."
     He got back in the car and started the engine. As he took the wheel, he
saw how white his knuckles were. Then he leaned out the window and no longer
controlling himself, said:
     "But if I am forced to move, you creep, you'd better say your prayers."
     He  drove into the garage, turned on the light, and closed the door. He
pulled the swag from the false gas tank, fixed up the car, put the bag in an
old  wicker basket,  put the fishing gear, still damp and covered with grass
and leaves, on top, and put the fish that Burbridge had bought in a store in
the  suburbs last night on top of everything. Then  he  checked the  car one
more time. Out of  habit. A flattened cigarette butt had stuck to  the right
rear fender. Redrick pulled it away--it was Swedish. He thought about it and
put it into the matchbox. There were three butts in it already.
     He didn't  meet anyone on the  stairs. He stopped in front of his  door
and it flew open  before he had time to get his keys. He walked in sideways,
holding  the heavy  basket under his arm, and immersed himself in the warmth
and  familiar  smells of home. Guta threw her arms around his neck and froze
with  her face on his  chest. He  could feel  her heart beating wildly  even
through his jumpsuit and heavy shirt. He didn't rush her--he stood patiently
and waited for her to calm down,  even though he  fully sensed for the First
time just then how tired and worn out he was.
     "All right," she finally said in  a low husky voice and let go  of him.
She turned on the light in the entry  and went into the kitchen. "I'll  have
the coffee ready in a minute," she called.
     "I've  brought some fish," he said in an artificially hearty tone. "Fry
it up, won't you, I'm starved."
     She came back, hiding her face in her loosened hair;  he set the basket
on the floor,  helped  her take  out  the net with  the fish,  and they both
carried the net to the kitchen and dumped the Fish into the sink.
     "Go wash up,"  she said. "By  the time you're  ready, the fish  will be
done.
     "How's Monkey?" Redrick asked, pulling off his boots.
     "She was  babbling all evening," Guta  replied. "I barely got her to go
to bed. She keeps asking, where's  daddy, where s daddy? She wants her daddy
all the time."
     She moved swiftly and quietly in the  kitchen, strong and graceful. The
water was boiling  in the pan on the stove and the scales were  flying under
her knife, and the butter was sizzling in the largest pan, and there was the
exhilarating smell of fresh coffee in the air.
     Redrick walked in his bare feet to the entry hall,  took the basket and
brought  it to the  storeroom. Then he looked into the  bedroom.  Monkey was
sleeping peacefully, her crumpled blanket  hanging on the floor. Her nightie
had ridden  up.  She was warm and soft, a little  animal breathing  heavily.
Redrick could not resist the temptation to stroke her back covered with warm
golden  fur,  and was amazed for the thousandth  time by the fur's silkiness
and  length. He wanted to pick up Monkey badly, but  he was afraid  it would
wake her  up-- besides, he was as dirty as hell and permeated with death and
the Zone. He came back into the kitchen and sat down at the table.
     "Pour me  a cup of coffee. I'll wash up later. A bundle of evening mail
was  on the table: The  Harmont Gazette. Sports, Playboy--there was  a whole
bunch of magazines--and the thick gray-covered Reports  of the International
Institute of Extraterrestrial Cultures,  issue  56.  Redrick took  a  mug of
steaming  coffee  from  Guta and reached  for  the  Reports.  Squiggles  and
markings, blueprints of some kind, and photographs of familiar  objects from
strange  angles.  Another  posthumous  article  by  Kirill:  "An  Unexpected
Property  of the Magnetic Trap  Type-77b." The surname Panov  was  framed in
black and below  in tiny type it said: "Dr. Kirill A.  Panov, USSR, perished
tragically  during an  experiment  in  April 19.."  Redrick tossed  away the
journal, gulped some  coffee, burning his mouth, and asked: "Did anyone drop
by?"
     "Gutalin was here," Guta said,  after  a slight pause. She was standing
by the stove and looking at him. "He was stinking drunk, I sobered him up."
     "How about Monkey?"
     "She didn't want to let him go, of  course. She started  bawling. But I
told  her  that  Uncle Gutalin wasn't feeling very  well. And she  told  me,
'Gutalin's smashed again.'"
     Redrick laughed and took another sip. Then he asked another question.
     "What about the neighbors?"
     Guta hesitated again before answering.
     "Like always," she finally said.
     "All right, don't tell me."
     "Ah!" she  said,  waving  her  hand in  disgust.  "The woman from below
knocked  at  our  door  last  night.  Her  eyes were  bulging  and  she  was
practically spitting with anger. Why are we  sawing in the bath- room in the
middle of the night?"
     "The dangerous old  bitch," Redrick said  through  his  teeth. "Listen,
maybe we should  move?  Buy a house  somewhere  out  in  the country,  where
there's no one else, some old abandoned cottage?"
     "What about Monkey?"
     "God, don't you think the two of us could make her life good?"
     Guta shook her head.
     "She loves children. And they love her. It's not their fault that.  . .
."
     "No, it's not their fault."
     "There's  no  use talking about it!" Guta  said. "Somebody  called you.
Didn't leave a name. I told him you were out fishing."
     Redrick put down the mug and got up.
     "OK. I'll go wash up. I've got lots of things to take care of."
     He locked himself in the bathroom, threw  his  clothes in the pail, and
placed the brass knuckles, the remaining nuts and bolts, and his  cigarettes
on the shelf.  He turned  himself under  the boiling hot shower  for a  long
time, rubbing his body with a rough sponge until it  was bright red. He shut
off the  shower  and sat  on the  edge of the  tub,  smoking. The pipes were
gurgling and Guta was clattering dishes  out in the kitchen.  Then there was
the smell of frying fish and Guta knocked, bringing him fresh underwear.
     "Hurry it up," she ordered. "The fish is getting cold."
     She was completely  back  to normal--and back to being  bossy.  Redrick
chuckled as he dressed--that is, put on hi shorts and T-shirt --and  went to
the table.
     "Now I can eat," he said as he seated himself.
     "Did you put your underwear in the pail?"
     "Uh-huh," he said with his mouth full. "Good fish."
     "Did you cover it with water?"
     "No-ope. Sorry, sir,  it won't happen again, sir. Will you  sit  still?
Forget it!" He  caught her hand and tried to  pull her into his lap, but she
pulled away and sat across from him.
     "You're  neglecting your husband," Redrick said,  his mouth full again.
"Too squeamish?"
     "Some husband you are now. You're just an empty bag, not a husband. You
have to be stuffed first."
     "What if I could?" Redrick asked. "Miracles do happen, you know."
     "I haven't seen miracles like that from you before. How about a drink?"
Redrick played with his fork indecisively.
     "N-no, thanks." He looked at his watch and got up. "I'm off now. Get my
dress-up outfit ready. First class. A shirt and tie."
     Enjoying  the sensation of the  cool Boor under his clean bare feet, he
went  into  the  storeroom and barred the door. He put on a rubber apron and
rubber gloves up to his elbows  and started unloading the swag on the table.
Two empties.  A box of pins. Nine batteries.  Three bracelets. Some  kind of
hoop, sort of like the bracelets, but of white metal, lighter, and bigger in
diameter by an  inch.  Sixteen  black  sprays  in  a  polyethylene case. Two
marvelously preserved sponges the  size of  a fist. Three itchers. A jar  of
carbonated  clay. There was still  a  heavy  porcelain  container  carefully
wrapped in Fiberglass in the bag, but Redrick didn't touch it. He smoked and
examined the wealth spread out on the table.
     Then he opened a drawer and took  out a piece of paper, a pencil stump,
and a calculator. He kept the  cigarette in the  corner  of his  mouth,  and
squinting in the  smoke, he wrote number after number,  making three columns
in all. He added up the first  two.  The numbers were impressive. He put out
the butt in an ashtray and carefully opened the box and spilled out the pins
on  the  paper. In the  electric light the pins  looked  slightly  blue  and
occasionally sputtered with other colors--yellow, red, and green.  He picked
up  a  pin and  carefully squeezed  it between  his thumb and index  finger,
avoiding being pricked. Then he put out the  light and waited a bit, getting
accustomed  to the dark. But the pin was silent. He put it aside  and  found
another one, which he also  squeezed. Nothing. He squeezed harder, risking a
pinprick, and  the  pin spoke: weak  red Bashes ran  along the  pin and were
suddenly replaced by slower green pulses. Redrick enjoyed this strange light
play for a few seconds. He had learned from the Reports that the lights were
supposed to mean something, maybe something  very  important. He put the pin
in a different spot from the first and picked up another.
     He ended up with seventy-three pins,  twelve  of  which spoke. The rest
were silent. Actually  they  too could speak, but fingers were not enough to
get them started.  You needed a special  machine  the  size  of  the  table.
Redrick put  on  the light and  added two more numbers to his list. And only
then did he decide to do it.
     He stuck both hands into  the bag and holding his breath brought out  a
soft package  and  placed  it  on  the  table. He stared at it for  a while,
thoughtfully rubbing  his chin  with the back of his hand. Then he picked up
the pencil,  played  with  it  with his  clumsy rubbery fingers, and  put it
aside. He took another  cigarette and smoked the entire thing without taking
his eyes off the package.
     "What the hell!"  he said out loud and decisively stuffed the pack- age
back into the bag "That's it. Enough."
     He  quickly gathered all the pins  into the box and got up. It was time
to go. He probably  could get a half hour's sleep  to clear his head, but on
the  other  hand, it was probably a much better idea to get there  early and
check out the situation. He took off the gloves, hung up the apron, and left
the storeroom without turning out the light.
     His suit was ready and laid out on the bed. Redrick got dressed. He was
doing his tie in front of  the mirror when the floor creaked behind him, and
he heard heavy breathing, and he made a face to keep from laughing.
     "Ha!" a tiny voice shouted next to him and someone grabbed his leg.
     "Oh-oh!" Redrick exclaimed, falling back onto the bed.
     Monkey, laughing  and squealing, immediately clambered up on  him.  She
trampled  him, pulled his hair, and inundated him with  an endless stream of
news. The neighbor's boy Willy tore off dolly's leg.  There was a new kitten
on the third Boor--all white and with red eyes, he probably didn't listen to
his mama and went into the Zone. She had porridge and  jam for dinner. Uncle
Gutalin was  smashed again and was sick. He even cried. Why don't fish drown
if they  live in water? Why didn't mama sleep at night? Why  are there  five
fingers, and and only two hands, and only one nose? Redrick carefully hugged
the warm creature that was  crawling  all over him and looked into the  huge
dark eyes that had no whites at all, and cuddled his cheek against the plump
little cheek covered with silky golden fleece.
     "Monkey.  My little Monkey. You sweet  little  Monkey, you."  The phone
rang by his ear. He picked up the receiver.
     "I'm listening."
     Silence.
     "Hello! Hello!"
     No answer. There was a click and then short repeated tones. Redrick got
up, put Monkey on  the  floor, and put on his trousers and jacket, no longer
listening to her. Monkey  chattered on nonstop, but he only smiled with  his
lips in a distracted way.  Finally she announced that daddy had bit off  his
tongue and swallowed it and left him in peace.
     He went back into the  storeroom, put everything  from the table into a
briefcase, got  his  brass knuckles  from  the  bathroom, came back  to  the
storeroom, took the briefcase in one hand and the basket with the bag in the
other, went out, carefully locked the door, and called out to Guta.
     "I'm leaving."
     "When will you be back?" Guta came out of the kitchen. She had done her
hair and put on makeup. She  was no longer wearing her  robe, either,  but a
house dress, his favorite one, bright blue and low-cut.
     "I'll call," he said, looking at  her. He walked  over and  kissed  her
cleavage.
     "You'd better go," Guta said softly.
     "What about me? Kiss me?" Monkey whined, pushing between them.
     He had to bend down even lower. Guta watched him steadily.
     "Nonsense," he said. "Don't worry. I'll call."
     On the landing below theirs, Redrick saw a fat man  in striped  pajamas
fussing with the lock  to his door.  A warm sour smell was  coming  from the
depths of his apartment. Redrick stopped.
     "Good day."
     The fat man looked at him cautiously over his fat shoulder and muttered
something.
     "Your wife dropped by  last night," Redrick  said. "Something about  us
sawing. It's some kind of misunderstanding."
     "What do I care?" the man in the pajamas said.
     "My wife was doing the laundry last night," Redrick continued.
     "If we disturbed you, I apologize."
     "I didn't say anything. Be my guest."
     "Well, I'm glad to hear it."
     Redrick went outside, dropped into the  garage, put the basket with the
bag into the  corner, covered it with an old seat, looked over his work, and
went out into the street.
     It  wasn't a long walk--two blocks to the square, then through the park
and  one  more block to Central Boulevard.  In  front  of the  Metropole, as
usual,  there  was a shiny array  of cars gleaming chrome  and lacquer.  The
porters in raspberry red uniforms were lugging suitcases into the hotel, and
some foreign-looking people were standing around in groups of two and three,
smoking and talking on the marble steps.  Redrick  decided not to go in yet.
He made  himself  comfortable under  the awning of a  small  cafe across the
street, ordered coffee, and lit up a cigarette. Not two  feet from his table
were three  undercover men from the international police force, silently and
quickly  eating grilled  hot dogs Harmont style and drinking  beer from tall
glass steins. On the other side, some ten feet away, a sergeant was gloomily
devouring French fries, his fork in his fist. His blue helmet was set upside
down on the  Boor by his chair and  his shoulder holster draped on the chair
back.  There  were  no  other customers. The waitress, an  elderly woman  he
didn't  know,  stood behind the counter and  yawned, genteelly  covering her
painted mouth with her hand. It was twenty to nine.
     Redrick saw  Richard Noonan leave  the  hotel,  chewing  something, and
arranging his  soft hat on his head. He boldly strode down the steps--short,
plump, and  pink, still lucky,  well-off, freshly washed, and confident that
the day would bring him no unpleasantness. He  waved to  someone,  flung his
raincoat over  his right shoulder, and  walked over  to his Peugeot.  Dick's
Peugeot was also plump, short, freshly  washed, and seemingly confident that
no unpleasantness threatened it.
     Covering his face  with his hand,  Redrick watched  Noonan  bustle, get
comfortable in  the front  seat, move something from  the front seat  to the
back,  bend down  to pick  something up, and adjust the rearview mirror. The
Peugeot expelled  a puff of blue smoke, beeped  at an African in a burnoose,
and jauntily drove out into the street. It looked like Noonan was headed for
the institute, in which case he had to go around the fountain and drive past
the cafe. It  was too late to get up and leave, so Redrick covered his  face
completely and hunched over  his cup. It didn't help.  The Peugeot beeped in
his ear, the brakes squealed, and Noonan's hearty voice called:
     "Hey! Schuhart! Red!"
     Redrick swore under his breath and looked up. Noonan was walking toward
him, hand outstretched. Noonan was beaming.
     "What  are  you doing here  at  the  crack  of dawn?"  he asked  as  he
approached. "Thank you, ma'am," he said to the waitress. "Nothing for  me. I
haven't seen you in a hundred years. Where've you been? What are you up to?"
     "Nothing special," Redrick said unwillingly. "just unimportant things."
     He  watched Noonan bustle and  establish himself  in the chair opposite
and move the glass with the napkins in  one direction with  his  plump hands
and the plate with sandwiches in another. And he listened to Noonan gab.
     "You look kind of  peaked. Not  sleeping enough? You know, lately, I've
been very busy with this  new  automation stuff,  but I never miss my sleep,
that's  for sure. 7'he  automation can go hang."  He suddenly looked around.
"I'm sorry, maybe you're expecting someone. Have  I interrupted? Am I in the
way?"
     "No, no,"  Redrick said lamely. "I just had some  time and  thought I'd
have a cup of coffee, that's all."
     "Well, I won't keep you long," Dick said, looking at his watch.
     "Listen, Red, why don't you drop your unimportant things and  come back
to the institute. You know they'll take you back whenever you want. You want
to work with another Russian? There's a new one."
     Red shook his head.
     "Nope, a second Kirill hasn't been born. Anyway, there's nothing for me
to do in your institute. It's all automated now, you  have robots going into
the  Zone and that  means  that  the robots  get all the  bonuses.  The  lab
assistants are paid peanuts. It wouldn't even keep me in cigarettes."
     "All that could be arranged."
     "I don't like having things arranged for me," Redrick said. "I've taken
care of myself all my life, and I intend to keep on doing it."
     "You've become very proud," Noonan said with condemnation.
     "No, I'm not. I just don't like pinching pennies."
     "I  guess  you're  right,"  Noonan  said  distractedly.  He  looked  at
Redrick's briefcase on  the chair next to him and  rubbed  the  silver plate
with the engraved cyrillic letters. "You're right, a man needs money so that
he  doesn't have to always be counting it. A present from Kirill?" he asked,
nodding at the briefcase.
     "I inherited it. How come never see you at the Borscht any- more?"
     "You're  the  one who's never there," Noonan countered.  "I  have lunch
there almost every day. At the  Metropole they charge an arm and a leg for a
hamburger. Listen," he said suddenly, "how's your money situation now?"
     "Want a loan?"
     "Just the opposite."
     "You want to lend me money?"
     "I have work...."
     "Oh God!" Redrick said. "Not you too!"
     "Who else, then?" Noonan demanded.
     "There's lots of you ... hirers."
     Noonan, seeming to finally get his point, laughed.
     "No, no, this isn't along the lines of your primary specialty."
     "Along what lines then?" Noonan looked at his watch again.
     "Here's the deal," he said, getting up. "Come to the Borscht for lunch,
around two. We'll talk."
     "I may not be able to make it by two."
     "Then this evening around six. All right?"
     "We'll see." Redrick looked at his watch. It was five to nine.
     Noonan waved and  rolled out to his Peugeot. Redrick followed him  with
his  eyes,  called the  waitress,  paid  the  bill, bought a  pack  of Lucky
Strikes, and slowly headed over to the hotel with his briefcase. The sun was
baking hot already and the street had quickly become muggy, and Redrick felt
a  burning  sensation under his eyelids.  He  squinted hard,  sorry  that he
hadn't time for an hour's nap before his important business. And then it hit
him.
     He had never experienced anything  like this  before outside the  Zone.
And it had happened in the Zone only two or three times. It was as though he
were  in  a  different  world.  A  million  odors  cascaded  in  on  him  at
once--sharp,  sweet,   metallic,  gentle,  dangerous   ones,  as  crude   as
cobblestones,  as  delicate and complex as  watch  mechanisms, as huge as  a
house  and as tiny as  a  dust particle. The air became  hard,  it developed
edges,  surfaces,  and  corners,  like  space  was  filled  with huge, stiff
balloons, slippery  pyramids, gigantic  prickly crystals, and he had to push
his way  through  it all,  making  his way in a dream through a  junk  store
stuffed with  ancient  ugly furniture.... It lasted a  second. He opened his
eyes, and everything was gone. It hadn't been a different world--it was this
world turning a new, unknown side to him. This side was revealed to  him for
a second and then disappeared, before he had time to figure it out.
     An angry horn beeped,  and Redrick walked faster, faster,  and then ran
all  the way to the wall of the Metropole. His heart was  beating wildly. He
put the  briefcase on the  pavement and  impatiently tore open  the  pack of
cigarettes.  He lit one, inhaled deeply, and rested,  as if after a fight. A
cop stopped near him and asked:
     "Need help, mister?"
     "N-no," Redrick squeezed the word out and coughed. "It's stuffy."
     "Can I take you where you're going?"
     Redrick picked up his briefcase.
     "Everything, everything is fine, pal. Thanks."
     He walked quickly toward the  entrance, walked up the  steps  and  went
into the  lobby.  It was cool,  dusky, and echoey. He should have  sat for a
while in one of those voluminous leather chairs  and caught his breath,  but
he was  late already.  He allowed  himself  time to  finish  the  cigarette,
checking out the crowd through half-shut eyes. Bones was  there, irritatedly
riffling through the magazines at the newsstand. Redrick threw the butt into
the ashtray and went into the elevator.
     He didn't manage to close the door in time and others crowded in: a fat
man breathing asthmatically, a  heavily perfumed  lady with  a grumpy little
boy  eating chocolate, and a heavyset  old woman with a poorly  shaved chin.
Redrick was pushed into the corner. He closed his  eyes, trying to shut  out
the boy with chocolate  saliva dripping down his  chin, whose face was fresh
and pure, without a single  hair. And to shut out his mother, whose  scrawny
bosom was embellished with a necklace made of  large  black  sprays  set  in
silver. And  to shut out the bulging sclerotic whites of the eyes of the fat
man, and the hideous warts on the swollen face of the old woman. The fat man
tried to  light a  cigarette, but the  old woman attacked him and kept after
him until she got out on five. As soon as she did, the fat man lit up with a
look  that proclaimed that he was defending his civil rights, and broke  out
coughing and  hacking  as soon as  he inhaled, sticking out his  lips like a
camel and jabbing Redrick in the ribs with his elbow.
     Redrick got out on the eighth floor and walked down the thick carpet on
the corridor,  cozily illuminated  by hidden  lamps. It smelled of expensive
tobacco, French  perfumes,  the soft  natural  leather  of stuffed  wallets,
expensive ladies of the night, and  solid gold cigarette cases. It reeked of
everything,  of the lousy fungus that was  growing on the Zone, drinking  on
the  Zone, eating, exploiting, and growing fat  on the Zone  and that didn't
give a damn about any of it, especially about what  would happen later, when
it had eaten its full and gotten power, and when everything that was once in
the Zone was outside the Zone.  Redrick  pushed open the door to 874 without
knocking.
     Throaty, sitting on a table by the window, was performing a ritual over
a cigar. He  was still in his pajamas and his thinning hair, though wet, was
carefully parted. His unhealthy puffy face was smoothly shaved.
     "Aha," he  said  without looking up. "Punctuality  is the politeness of
kings. Good day, young man!"
     He  finished clipping  the end  of  the cigar,  took it in  both hands,
brought it up to his nose, and passed it back and forth under it.
     "Where is good  old Burbridge?"  he asked and looked up. His eyes  were
clear, blue, angelic.
     Redrick put the  briefcase  on  the sofa,  sat down, and  took  out his
cigarettes.
     "Burbridge isn't coming."
     "Good old Burbridge," Throaty repeated. He took the  cigar between  two
fingers  and carefully  brought it to his mouth. "Old Burbridge's nerves are
acting up."
     He kept looking at Redrick with his clear blue eyes, never blinking. He
never blinked. The door opened slightly and Bones slipped into the room.
     "Who were you talking to?" he asked from the doorway.
     "Ah, hello," Redrick  said cheerily, flipping ashes on the floor. Bones
shoved his hands in his pockets and came closer, taking broad steps with his
huge pigeon-toed feet. He stopped in front of Redrick.
     "We've  told  you a  hundred times,"  he reproached  him.  "No contacts
before a meeting. And what do you do?"
     "I say hello," Redrick replied. "And you?"
     Throaty laughed. Bones was irritated.
     "Hello, hello, hello." He removed his reproachful gaze from Redrick and
flung himself down on the couch next to him. "You cannot behave that way. Do
you understand me? You cannot!"
     "Then arrange meetings in places where I don't know anybody."
     "The boy  is right," Throaty interjected. "Our mistake. So who was that
man?"
     "Richard   Noonan.  He  represents  some  companies   that  supply  the
institute. He lives here in the hotel."
     "You  see  how simple it  is!"  Throaty  said  to Bones. He picked up a
colossal lighter shaped like the Statue of Liberty, looked at it doubtfully,
and replaced it on the table.
     "Where's Burbridge," Throaty asked in a friendly tone.
     "Burbridge blew it."
     The two men exchanged a quick glance.
     "Rest in  peace,"  Throaty  said  tensely. "Or has  he  been arrested?"
Redrick didn't answer right away,  taking slow long drags on  his cigarette.
He threw the butt on the floor.
     "Don't worry, everything's safe. He's in the hospital."
     "That's some safe!" Bones said nervously. He jumped up and went over to
the window. "Which hospital?"
     "Don't worry,  everything is taken care of. Let's get down to business.
I'm sleepy."
     "What hospital specifically?" Bones asked in irritation.
     "I've  told  you,"  Redrick picked  up  the briefcase.  "Are  we  doing
business today or not?"
     "We are, we are, son," Throaty said heartily.
     With  unexpected  agility  he  leaped  to  the  Boor, knocked  all  the
magazines  and newspapers from the coffee table, and  sat  in front  of  it,
resting his hairy pink hands on his knees.
     "Show your stuff."
     Redrick opened the briefcase, took out the list with prices, and put it
on  the table before  Throaty. Throaty glanced at it  and flicked it to  the
side. Bones stood behind him and started reading the list over his shoulder.
     "That's the bill," Redrick said.
     "I see. Let's see the stuff," Throaty said.
     "The money," Redrick said.
     "What's this 'hoop'?"  Bones  asked suspiciously,  pointing at the list
over Throaty's shoulder.
     Redrick said nothing. He was holding the  open briefcase on his lap and
staring into the blue angelic eyes. Throaty finally chuckled.
     "And  why do I love you so much,  my son?" he  muttered.  "And they say
love at first sight doesn't exist!" He sighed dramatically.
     "Phil, buddy, how do  they say it  here? Dole out the cabbage, lay some
greenbacks on  him ... and give me  a match. You see...." He waved his cigar
at him.
     Phil the Bones muttered something under his breath, tossed him  a  book
of matches,  and  went  through  a curtain into the next room. Redrick could
hear him talking to someone there, irritated and indistinct, something about
the cat being in the  bag, and Throaty, his cigar finally lit, kept  staring
at  Redrick with  a  frozen smile on his thin pale  lips.  Redrick, chin  on
briefcase, was looking at him and also trying not to blink, even  though his
lids were  burning  and  his eyes were tearing. Bones  came back, threw  two
packs of  money on the table,  and sat next to  Redrick in  a huff.  Redrick
lazily reached for the money, but Throaty motioned  him to  stop,  tore  the
wrappers from the money, and put them in his pajama pocket.
     "Now let's see it."
     Redrick took the money  and  stuffed it  into  his inner  jacket pocket
without counting  it. Then he presented his wares. He did it slowly, letting
both of them examine the swag and check items off the  list. It was quiet in
the room, the only sound was Throaty's heavy breathing and the jingle coming
from the other room--a spoon against the side of a glass, perhaps.
     When Redrick shut the briefcase and clicked the lock, Throaty looked up
at him.
     "What about the most important thing?"
     "No way," Redrick replied. He thought and added: "So far."
     "I like that 'so far,"' Throaty said gently. "How about you, Phil?"
     "You're throwing dust in our eyes, Schuhart," Bones said suspiciously.
     "Why the mystery, I ask you?"
     "That comes with the territory: shady dealings," Redrick said.
     "We're in a demanding profession.
     "All right, all right," Throaty said. "Where's the camera?"
     "Hell!" Redrick  scratched  his cheek, feeling the  color rise  in  his
face. "I'm sorry, I forgot all about it.
     "There?" Throaty asked making a vague gesture with the cigar.
     "I  don't remember. Probably there." Redrick shut  his eyes and  leaned
back on the couch. "Nope. I clean forgot."
     "Too bad," Throaty said. "But you at least saw the thing?"
     "Not even that," Redrick said sadly. "That's the whole point. We didn't
get as far as the blast furnaces. Burbridge fell into the jelly and I had to
head back immediately.  You can be sure that if I'd seen it  I wouldn't have
forgotten it."
     "Hey, Hugh, look at this!" Bones whispered in fright. "What's this?"
     He stuck out his right index finger. The white  metal hoop was twirling
around his finger and Bones was staring pop-eyed at the hoop.
     "It's not stopping!" he said aloud, moving his eyes  from the  hoop  to
Throaty and back again.
     "What do you mean it's not stopping?" Throaty asked carefully and moved
away.
     "I put it on my finger and gave it a spin, just for the hell of it, and
it  hasn't stopped for  a  whole minute!" Bones  lumped up and,  holding his
finger extended before him, ran behind the curtain. The silvery hoop twirled
smoothly in front of him like a propeller.
     "What the hell did you bring us?" Throaty asked.
     "God knows! I had no idea--if I had, I'd have asked more for it."
     Throaty stared at him, then got up  and went behind the curtain. Voices
started  babbling  immediately.  Redrick picked up a magazine from the floor
and  flipped  through it. It  was  chock-full of beauties, but  somehow they
nauseated him just  then.  Redrick's eyes roved around the room, looking for
something to drink. Then  he took  a pack from his inside pocket and counted
the  bills.  Everything was in order, but to  keep from  falling asleep,  he
counted  the other one.  Just  as he  was putting it  back into his  pocket,
Throaty came back.
     "You're lucky, son," he announced, sitting opposite  Redrick once more.
"Do you know what a perpetuum mobile is?"
     "Nope, we never studied that.
     "And  you  don't  need to," Throaty  said. He pulled  out another pack.
"That's  the  price  for the  first  specimen,"  he  said,  pulling  off the
wrapping. "For each new one you'll get two packs like this. Got it, son? Two
apiece.  But only on the condition  that no  one except you and I  ever know
about  it. Are we  agreed?" Redrick put the money in his pocket silently and
stood up.
     "I'm going," he said. "When and where for the next time?"
     Throaty also rose.
     "You'll  be called.  Wait  for  a call  every Friday between  nine  and
nine-thirty  in the  morning.  You'll get regards from  Phil and Hugh  and a
meeting will be set up
     Redrick nodded and  headed  for the door. Throaty followed, and put his
hand on his shoulder.
     "I want you to  understand one thing," he continued. "All this  is very
nice, charming, and so  on, and the hoop is simply marvelous,  but above all
we need  two  things: the  photos and  the container filled  up. Return  our
camera to  us, but with exposed film,  and our porcelain  container, but not
empty. Filled. And you'll never have to go into the Zone again.
     Redrick shook Throaty's  hand from his shoulder, unlocked the door, and
went out. Without turning he  walked down the  thickly  carpeted hallway and
sensed the  unwavering blue angelic  gaze  fixed on the back of his neck. He
didn't wait for the elevator but walked down from the eighth floor.
     Outside the Metropole  he  called a cab  and went to  the other side of
town. The driver was  a new one, someone Redrick didn't know, a  beak-nosed,
pimply fellow. One of the  hundreds that had poured into Harmont in the last
few  years to look  for exciting  adventures, untold riches, world fame,  or
some  special  religion.  They  poured   in  and  ended  up  as  chauffeurs,
construction  workers,  or  thugs--thirsting,  wretched,  tortured  by vague
desires, profoundly  disillusioned, and certain that  they  had been tricked
once again. Half of them,  after hanging around for a month or two, returned
to their homes, cursing,  and spreading the word of their disillusionment to
all the  countries  of  the  world. A  very few  became stalkers and quickly
perished before they had  caught onto the  tricks of the trade. Some managed
to  get  a job at the institute, but only  the best-educated and smartest of
them,  who  could at least work  as lab assistants. The rest  wasted evening
after evening in  bars, brawled over some  difference of opinion, girls,  or
just because they were drunk, and drove the municipal  police, the army, and
the guards out of their minds.
     The  pimply driver  reeked  of liquor a mile away,  and  his eyes  were
rabbit  red, but  he  was  very excited and told Redrick how that  morning a
stiff from the  cemetery  showed up  on  their block. "He  came  back to his
house,  and  the  house  had  been locked  up  for years,  and everyone  had
moved--his  widow,  an old lady now, and his daughter and her  husband,  and
their children. He had died, the neighbors said, some thirty years ago, that
is, before the Visitation, and now there he was. He walked around the house,
sniffed  and scratched, and then  sat by  the fence  and waited. People came
round from the whole neighborhood. They stared and  stared but were  afraid,
of course,  to  come  close.  Finally somebody got a bright idea--they broke
open the  door to  his  house, making an entrance for him.  And what do  you
think? He  got up,  went  in, and shut the door  behind him. I was  late for
work, so I  don't  know  how it  turned  out, but  I do know  that they were
planning to call the institute and have someone come  over  and  get him the
hell out of there.
     "Stop," Redrick said. "Let me off right here.''
     He rummaged  in  his pocket. He had no  change and  had to  break a new
bill. Then he stood in the  doorway  and waited for the  cab to drive  away.
Buzzard's  cottage wasn't too bad: two stories,  a glassed-in veranda with a
pool table, a well-tended garden, a greenhouse, and a white gazebo under the
apple trees. A  filigree iron fence painted  light green  surrounded it ail.
Redrick pushed the bell several times, the gate swung open with a creak, and
Redrick slowly moved up  the shady path, with  rose bushes planted along the
edges. Hamster was already standing on the porch. He was gnarled, black, and
trembling with the desire to be of service. Impatiently  he turned sideways,
lowered  one trembling  leg  in  search  of support,  steadied  himself, and
dragged the other foot to meet its mate. His right arm shook convulsively in
Redrick's direction, as if to say, coming, coming, any minute.
     "Hey, Red!" a woman's voice called from the garden.
     Redrick turned  his head and saw  bare  tanned shoulders, a  bright red
mouth, and a waving hand among  the greenery next to the lacy  white roof of
the gazebo. He nodded to Hamster, turned from the path, and breaking through
the rose bushes, headed for the gazebo along the soft green grass.
     A large red mat was  spread on the lawn, and Dina Burbridge was sitting
regally on  it with a glass in her hand and a miniscule  bathing suit on her
body; a book  with a bright cover  lay on the mat and an  ice bucket with  a
slender bottle neck peering over the edge sat in the shade nearby.
     "Hi, Red!" Dina Burbridge said, greeting him with a wave  of the glass.
"Where's the old man? Don't tell me he's messed up again?"
     Redrick stood over her with the briefcase in his hands behind his back.
Yes, Buzzard  sure managed to  wish  himself  up some marvelous children out
there  in  the  Zone.  She was all  silk and satin, firm and full, flawless,
without a single unnecessary wrinkle - hundred- twenty pounds of sugar-candy
flesh, and emerald eyes that had an inner  glow, a large wet mouth  and even
white  teeth, and raven hair, shining in the  sun and carelessly tossed over
one shoulder. The sun  was caressing her, pouring from her  shoulders to her
belly and hips, leaving deep  shadows between  her almost  naked breasts. He
stood above  her and looked her over  openly,  and  she  looked up  at  him,
laughing understandingly, and then  raised  the  glass to her lips  and took
several sips.
     "You  want?" she asked, licking her  lips. She waited just  long enough
for him to get the double entendre and then handed him the glass.
     He turned and looked  until he  found a chaise longue in the  shade. He
sat down and stretched his legs.
     "Burbridge is in the hospital," he said. "They're going to amputate his
legs."
     Still smiling, she looked at him with one eye. The other was covered by
the  heavy hair that fell over  her shoulder. But her  smile  had  frozen--a
sugary  grin on  a tan face. Then  she swirled the glass, listening  to  the
tinkle of the ice cubes.
     "Both legs?"
     "Both. Maybe below the knees, maybe above."
     She  put down  the  glass and pushed  back her  hair. She was no longer
smiling.
     "Too bad," she said. "And that means you...."
     Dina Burbridge was the one person he could have told how it happened in
all the details. He could have even told her how they drove back,  his brass
knuckles ready, and how Burbridge had begged --not for himself even, but for
the children, for her and for Archie, and  promised him the Golden Ball. But
he didn't tell her. He pulled out a pack of money from his breast pocket and
tossed  it onto the red mat right  at her long naked  legs. The notes fanned
out in a rainbow.  Dina absentmindedly picked up several  and examined them,
as though she had never seen one before but wasn't that interested.
     "This is the last earnings, then," she said.
     Redrick leaned over  from the chaise longue  and pulled the bottle from
the ice  bucket. He looked  at the  label. Water was dripping along the dark
glass and Redrick held the bottle  away from  himself, so as not  to drip on
his pants. He did not  like expensive whiskey, but he could force himself to
have  a slug at a time like this. He was just about to put the bottle to his
mouth  when he was stopped  by indistinct sounds of protestation behind him.
He looked around and saw that Hamster was painfully dragging his feet across
the lawn, holding  a glass of clear liquid in both hands.  The exertion  was
making  the sweat pour off his  dark wooly head, and his  bloodshot eyes had
practically  popped  out of their  sockets.  When he saw  that  Redrick  was
looking at him  he extended the  glass  in  despair  and sort of  mooed  and
howled, opening his toothless mouth ineffectually.
     "I'll wait, I'll  wait," Redrick said and shoved the bottle back in the
bucket.
     Hamster  finally limped over, gave  Redrick the glass, and  patted  his
shoulder shyly with his arthritic hand.
     "Thanks, Dixon," Redrick said seriously. "That's just what I need right
now. As usual, you're right on top of things."
     And  while  Hamster  shook his  head in embarrassment  and  rapture and
convulsively slapped  himself on  the  hip with his good arm, Redrick raised
the glass, nodded to him, and gulped down half. Then he looked at Dina.
     "You want?" he asked meaning the glass.
     She  did not reply. She was  folding  a  bill in half and  in half once
again, and then again.
     "Cut it out," he said. "You won't be lost. Your old man...."
     She interrupted him.
     "And  so  you  dragged him out,"  she said. She wasn't asking, she  was
stating  a  fact. "You  carried him, you jerk, through the  whole  Zone, you
redheaded cretin, you dragged that bastard  on your back- bone, you ass. You
blew an opportunity like that."
     He was watching her, his glass forgotten. She got up and stood in front
of  him,  walking over the scattered money, and stopped, her  clenched fists
jammed into her smooth hip, blocking out the  entire  world for him with her
marvelous body smelling of perfume and sweet sweat.
     "He's got all  of you idiots wrapped around his finger.  He'll walk all
over  your  bones.  rust wait and see, he'll walk  on your  thick skulls  on
crutches.  He'll show you the meaning of  brotherly love and mercy!" She was
screaming.  "I'll bet  he promised you the  Golden Ball, right? The map, the
traps, right?  Jerk!  I can see by your dumb  face  that he  did! Just wait,
he'll give you  a map. Lord have  mercy on the soul  of  the redheaded  fool
Redrick Schuhart."
     Redrick  got up slowly and slapped her face hard. She shut up,  sank to
the grass, and buried her face in her hands.
     "You fool ... Red," she muttered. "To blow an opportunity like that."
     Redrick  looked down at her and  finished the  vodka. He  thrust it  at
Hamster without looking  at him. There was  nothing to talk about. Some fine
kids Burbridge conjured up in the Zone. Loving and respectful.
     He went  into the street  and hailed a cab. He told the driver to go to
the  Borscht. He  had to  finish  up  his affairs. He was  dying for  sleep,
everything was swimming before his eyes, and  he fell asleep in the cab, his
body slumped over the briefcase, and awoke only when the driver shook him.
     "We're here, mister.
     "Where are we?" he looked around. "I told you the bank.
     "No way, buddy. You said the Borscht. Here's the Borscht."
     "OK," Redrick grumbled "I must have dreamed it."
     He paid up and got out, barely able to move his heavy legs. The asphalt
was steaming in the sun,  and it was very  hot. Redrick realized that he was
soaked, that there was  a  bad taste  in  his mouth, and that his eyes  were
tearing. He  looked around before going in. As usual at this time of day the
street was  deserted.  Businesses weren't  open  yet,  and  the Borscht  was
supposed to  be  closed  too, but Ernest was at  his  post  already,  wiping
glasses and giving dirty  looks to the trio  sopping up beer at  the  corner
table. The chairs had not been  removed from the other tables. An unfamiliar
porter in a white  jacket was mopping  the floor and  another was struggling
with  a  case  of  beer behind Ernest. Redrick  went up to the  bar, put the
briefcase on the bar, and said hello. Ernest muttered something that was not
exactly welcoming.
     "Give me a beer," Redrick said and yawned convulsively.
     Ernest  slammed an empty  mug on the table, grabbed  a  bottle from the
refrigerator, opened  it, and upended it over the mug. Redrick, covering his
mouth with his hand, stared at Ernest's  hand. It was  trembling. The bottle
hit  the edge  of the mug several times. Redrick looked up at Ernest's face.
His heavy eyelids were  lowered, his puffy mouth twisted, and his fat cheeks
drooping. The porter was mopping right under Redrick's feet, the guys in the
corner were arguing loudly over  the races, and  the other porter  with  the
crates  backed into  Ernest  so  hard that  he reeled.  The  man  mumbled an
apology. Ernest spoke in a cramped voice.
     "Did you bring it?"
     "Bring what?" Redrick looked over his  shoulder. One of  the guys stood
up  lazily and went  to the  door. He stopped  in  the  doorway  to  light a
cigarette.
     "Let's go  talk,"  Ernest  said. The porter with the  mop was  now also
between Redrick and  the door. A big black man, along the lines  of Gutalin,
but twice as broad.
     "Let's  go," Redrick said and  picked up the briefcase. He didn't  feel
sleepy anymore, in either eye.
     He went behind the bar and squeezed past the  porter with the cases  of
beer.  The  porter  had apparently caught  his finger.  He  was sucking  his
fingertip and  watching Redrick. He was a big fellow, with a broken nose and
cauliflower ears. Ernest went  into the back room, and Redrick followed him,
because  now the three guys from the corner table were blocking the door and
the  porter  with  the mop was  standing near the  curtains  that led to the
storeroom.
     In the  back room Ernest stepped  aside and sat on a chair by the wall.
Captain  Quarterblad,  yellow  and angry, stood  up  from  the  table.  From
somewhere on  the left a huge UN trooper appeared,  his helmet  pulled  down
over his eyes, and quickly frisked him with his large  hands. He slowed down
at his right pocket and extracted the brass knuckles. He prodded Redrick  in
the captain s direction. Redrick approached the  table and set the briefcase
in front of Captain Quarterblad.
     "You bloodsucker," he said to Ernest.
     Ernest raised his eyebrows and shrugged one shoulder. It was all clear.
The two porters in the doorway were smirking, and there  were no other doors
and the window was barred from the outside.
     Captain  Quarterblad, his face contorted by disgust, was digging around
with both hands in the briefcase, and  taking out the swag and Putting in on
the table: two small empties; nine batteries; various sizes of black sprays,
sixteen pieces in a polyethylene  package; two  perfectly preserved sponges;
and one jar of carbonated clay....
     "Anything in your pockets?" Captain Quarterblad asked softly.
     "Empty them.
     "Snakes," Redrick said. "Skunks."
     He  pulled  out  a pack  of  bills  and flung  it  on  the table.  They
scattered.
     "Aha!" the captain said. "Any more?"
     "Lousy  toads!" Redrick shouted and threw the second pack on the floor.
"There you go. I hope you choke on it!"
     "Very interesting," the captain said calmly. "Now pick it up."
     "The hell I will," Redrick said, putting his hands behind his back.
     "Your  slaves will pick it  up. You can  pick it up yourself, for all I
care."
     "Pick  up the money, stalker," Captain Quarterblad said without raising
his voice, leaning his fist on the table and straining toward Redrick.
     They  stared  at  each other for  a  few  seconds,  and  then  Redrick,
muttering curses under his breath, crouched down,  and reluctantly set about
picking up the money. The porters were snickering behind his back and the UN
trooper snorted gleefully
     "Don't snort at me!" Redrick said. "You'll lose your snot."
     He was crawling around on his hands and knees, picking up the notes one
by one, moving closer and closer to the dark brass  ring lying peacefully on
the  dusty parquet floor. He turned to  get better  access. He kept shouting
obscenities, all the ones he could  remember and ones he was making up along
the  way. When the moment was right, he  shut up,  tensed, grabbed the ring,
pulled it up with all his strength, and before the opened trapdoor landed on
the floor he  had jumped head first  into  the gray  cold prison of the wine
cellar.
     He fell  on his hands,  somersaulted,  jumped up, and ran hunched over,
seeing  nothing, counting on his memory and luck, into the narrow passageway
between cases of  bottles, knocking them over as he went past, hearing  them
fall  and  shatter  in the  passage behind  him.  Slipping, he  ran  up some
invisible steps, threw his body against the  door with its rusty hinges, and
found himself  in Ernest's garage. He  was shaking and  panting,  there were
bloody spots swimming before his eyes and his heart was beating heavily with
strong jolts right in his throat, but  he did not stop  for a second. He ran
to the far corner, and scraping his hands, tore into the mountain of garbage
that hid the place  where the boards had been removed  from the wall. He lay
down on his stomach and  crawled through, hearing his jacket tear,  and when
he was out in the narrow courtyard he crouched down behind the garbage cans,
pulled off his jacket, threw away  his tie, gave  himself a quick once-over,
brushed  off his pants, straightened up, and ran into the yard. He dove into
a low  smelly tunnel that led  to the  next  courtyard. He  listened for the
whine of the police sirens as he ran, but there weren't any yet,  and he ran
faster, scaring playing children, dodging  hanging laundry, crawling through
holes in rotten  fences-trying to get  out  of the neighborhood as  fast  as
possible, before  Captain  Quarterblad could cordon it off. He knew the area
very  well.  He  had played  in all  the  yards and cellars,  the  abandoned
laundries, and the  coal cellars. He  had plenty  of acquaintances and  even
friends here, and under different circumstances he would have had no trouble
in hiding out,  even  for a week, in the neighborhood. But  he hadn't made a
daring escape from arrest under Captain Quarterblad's  very  nose, adding an
easy twelve months to his sentence, for that.
     He was very lucky. On Seventh Street a  parade  of some brother hood or
other was making raucous progress down the street. Two hundred of them, just
as disheveled and  filthy as he was. Some  looked  worse, as though they had
spent the evening crawling through holes in fences, spilling the contents of
garbage cans on themselves, maybe after having spent the night rowdily  in a
coal bin.  He ducked out  of  a doorway into the crowd,  cutting  across it,
pushing and shoving, stepping  on feet,  getting  an occasional  fist in his
face, and returning the  favor, until he broke out on the other  side of the
street and ducked into another  doorway.  Just then  the familiar disgusting
wail of the  patrol cars resounded, and the  parade came to a grinding halt,
folding up like  an accordion. But he was in  a different neighborhood  now,
and Captain Quarterblad had no way of knowing which one.
     He approached his own garage from the side of the radio and electronics
store, and he had to  wait  while the workmen  loaded a van  with television
sets. He  made  himself  comfortable in  the  ragged  lilac  bushes  by  the
windowless side  of the  neighboring  houses,  caught his  breath and  had a
cigarette. He smoked greedily, crouching down and leaning against tile rough
fireproof wall, touching his cheek from time to time,  trying to  still  the
nervous tie. He  thought and  thought  and  thought. When the  van  with the
workers  pulled away honking into  the driveway,  he laughed and said softly
after them: "Thanks,  boys, you held up this fool ... and let me  think." He
started  moving quickly, but without  rushing, cleverly and  premeditatedly,
like he worked in the Zone.
     He  entered  his garage through the hidden  passage, noiselessly lifted
the old seat, carefully pulled the roll of paper from the bag in the basket,
and slipped it  inside his shirt. He took an old worn leather jacket from  a
hook, found a greasy cap in the corner,  and pulled it down  over  his eyes.
The cracks in the door  let narrow rays of light with  dancing dust into the
gloomy garage, and kids were yelling and playing outside. As he was leaving,
he heard his daughter's voice. He  put his eye against the widest  crack and
watched Monkey wave two balloons and  run around the swings. Three old women
with knitting  in  their laps were  sitting  on a nearby bench, watching her
with  pursed lips. Exchanging  their lousy opinions, the dried-up  hags. The
kids were  fine, playing with her as though she were just like them.  It was
worth all the bribery--he  bull;  them a slide, and  a doll house,  and  the
swings--and  the bench  that  the old biddies were on. "All right, he  said,
tore himself away  from the crack,  looked around the garage one  more time,
and crawled into the hole.
     In the  southwest part of town, near the abandoned gas  station  at the
end  of  Miner Street, there was a  phone  booth. God only knew who used  it
nowadays--all the houses around it were  bearded up  and beyond  it  was the
seemingly endless empty lot that used  to be the town dump. Redrick sat down
in the  shade  of the booth and stuck  his hand  into the crack below it. He
felt the dusty wax paper  and the  handle of the gun wrapped in it; the lead
box of bullets was there, too, as well as the bag with the bracelets and the
old wallet with fake  documents. His hiding place was in order. Then he took
off his jacket and cap  and felt inside his shirt.  He sat  for a minute  or
more, hefting  in  his hand the porcelain container and the  invincible  and
inevitable death it contained. And he felt the nervous tic come back.
     "Schuhart," he  muttered, not hearing  his  own  voice,  "what are  you
doing, you snake? You scum, they can kill us all with  this thing."  He held
his  twitching  cheek,  but  it didn't help. "Bastards,"  he said about  the
workers who had been loading the TV sets. "You got  in my way. I  would have
thrown it back into the Zone, the bitch, and it would have been all over.
     He  looked  around sadly. The hot air was shimmering over  the  cracked
cement, the hoarded-up windows looked at him gloomily, and tumbleweed rolled
around the lot. He was alone.
     "All right," he said decisively. "Every man for himself, only God takes
care of everybody. I've had it."
     Hurrying, so as not to change his  mind,  he stuffed the container into
the cap, and wrapped  the cap  in the jacket. Then he got On his knees,  and
leaned against the booth. It moved. The bulky package fit  in the  bottom of
the pit under the  booth, with  room  to  spare.  He carefully  replaced the
booth, shook it to  see  how steady  it  was, and got up,  brushing off  his
hands.
     "That's it. It's settled."
     He got into the heat of the phone booth, deposited a coin, and dialed.
     "Guta," he said. "Please, don't worry. They caught  me again." He could
hear  her shuddering sigh. He quickly added:  "It's  a minor offense, six to
eight months, with  visiting  rights.  We'll manage. And  you'll have money,
they'll send it  to you." She was still silent. "To-  morrow morning they'll
call you down to the command post, we'll see each other then. Bring Monkey."
     "Will there be a search?" she asked.
     "Let them.  The house is clean. Don't  worry, keep  your tail  up-- you
know,  bright-eyed  and  bushy-tailed.  You  married  a  stalker,  so  don't
complain. See you tomorrow. And  remember, I didn't call. I kiss your little
nose."
     He hung up  abruptly and stood  for a few seconds, eyes shut and  teeth
clenched so  tightly there  was  a tingling  in his  ears. Then he deposited
another coin and dialed another number.
     "Listening," said Throaty.
     "It's Schuhart. Listen carefully and don't interrupt."
     "Schuhart? What Schuhart?" asked Throaty in a natural manner.
     "Don't interrupt, I said! They caught me, I  ran, and I'm going to turn
myself in now. I'm going to get  two and a half or three years. My wife will
be penniless. You take care  of her. So that  she needs nothing, understand?
Understand, I said?"
     "Go on," said Throaty.
     "Not far from the place where we first met, there's a phone booth. It's
the only one, you won't mistake it. The  porcelain is under it.  If you want
it,  take it, if you  don't, don't. But my wife must be  taken  care of.  We
still have many years of  playing together. If I come back and find out  you
double-crossed me ... I don't suggest that you do. Understand?"
     "I understand  everything," said Throaty. "Thanks." After  a  pause, he
asked: "Maybe you want a lawyer?"
     "No," said Redrick. "Every last cent goes to my wife. My regards."
     He  hung up, looked  around, dug his hands into his pants pockets,  and
slowly went up Miner Street between the empty, bearded-up houses.



 SUPERVISOR  OF  ELECTRONIC EQUIPMENT
SUPPLIES FOR THE HARMONT BRANCH OF THE IIEC

     Richard  H. Noonan was sitting at the desk in his study doodling on the
legal size pad. He was  also smiling sympathetically, nodding his bald head,
and not listening to  his visitor.  He was simply  waiting  for  a telephone
call, and his visitor, Dr. Pilman, was lazily  lecturing him.  Or  imagining
that  he  was  lecturing  him. Or trying  to  convince  himself that  he was
lecturing him.
     "We'll keep  all that  in  mind,"  Noonan  finally said,  crossing  out
another group of five lines and flipping down the pad's cover. "It really is
shocking."
     Valentine's slender  hand neatly flicked the  ashes  from his cigarette
into the ashtray.
     "And what precisely will you keep in mind?" he inquired politely.
     "Why, everything that  you  said," Noonan answered  cheerfully, leaning
back in his armchair. "To the very last word."
     "And what did I say?"
     "That  doesn't  matter," Noonan  said. "We'll keep  whatever you say in
mind."
     Valentine (Dr. Valentine Pilman, Nobel  Prize winner)  was  sitting  in
front  of him  in a deep armchair. He was small, delicate,  and neat.  There
wasn't  a  stain on  his  suede  jacket  or  a  wrinkle in his  trousers.  A
blindingly  white  shirt,  a  severe  solid-colored  tie,  shining shoes.  A
malicious smile on  his thin pale lips and enormous  dark glasses  over  his
eyes. His low broad forehead was topped with a bristly crewcut.
     "In  my opinion, you're being paid  a fantastic salary for nothing," he
said. "And on top of that, in my opinion, you're a saboteur as well, Dick."
     "Shhhhhh!" Noonan whispered. "For God's sake, not so loud."
     "Actually,"  Valentine  continued, "I've been  watching you for  a long
time. In my opinion, you don't work at all."
     "Just a minute here!"  Noonan interrupted  and waved his pink finger at
him.  "What  do you  mean I don't work? Is there  even one replacement order
that hasn't been handled?"
     "I don't know," Valentine said and flicked his ash again. '.We get good
equipment  and we get bad equipment.  We get the good  stuff more often, but
what you have to do with it I'm sure I don't know."
     "Well, if it weren't for me," Noonan countered,  "the  good stuff would
be  much rarer.  And besides, you scientists  are always breaking  the  good
equipment, and then calling  for a replacement, and who covers for you then?
For example...."
     The phone rang and Noonan broke off and grabbed the receiver.
     "Mr. Noonan?" the secretary asked "Mr. Lemchen again."
     "Put him on."
     Valentine got up,  brought two  fingers  to  his  forehead as a sign of
farewell, and went out. Small, straight, and well-proportioned.
     "Mr. Noonan?" the familiar drawling voice spoke in the phone.
     "I'm listening."
     "You're not easy to reach at work, Mr. Noonan."
     "A new shipment has arrived."
     "Yes, know  about it  already. Mr.  Noonan, I'm  here only for  a short
time. There are a  few  questions that  must  be  discussed  in person.  I'm
referring to the latest contracts with Mitsubishi Denshi. The legal side."
     "At your service."
     "Then,  if you have no objection, be  at our offices in a half hour. Is
that convenient?"
     "Perfect. In a half hour."
     Richard  Noonan  hung up,  stood, and rubbing his  plump hands,  walked
around the office.  He even began singing some pop ditty, but broke off on a
particularly sour  note and  jovially laughed at  himself. He picked up  his
hat, tossed his raincoat over his arm, and went out into the reception area.
     "Honey,"  he  said to the secretary, "I'm off to see  some clients. You
stay here, hold the fort, as they say, and I'll  bring  you 3 present when I
get back."
     She blossomed. Noonan blew her a kiss and rolled out into the corridors
of the institute. Attempts were made to stop him  a few times  -- he wangled
out of conversations, joking, asking people to hold the fort without him, to
keep  their cool,  and finally  emerged unscathed and  uncaught, waving  his
unopened pass under the nose of the sergeant on duty.
     Heavy  clouds  hung  low  over the city.  It  was  muggy and the  first
hesitant drops  of rain were scattering  on  the sidewalk like little  black
stars.  Spreading his coat over his head and shoulders, Noonan  trotted past
the  long  row of cars to  his Peugeot, dove in, and tossed the coat  in the
back seat. He took out  the round  black stick  of  the so-so from his  suit
pocket, put  it in the jack in the dashboard, and pushed it in  to the  hilt
with his  thumb.  He wriggled  around, getting  more  comfortable behind the
wheel, and  pressed the accelerator pedal. The  Peugeot  silently  drove out
into the middle  of  the street and raced toward the  exit from the Pre-Zone
Area.
     The rain  came  pouring down  suddenly, as  though  a bucket  had  been
overturned in the sky. The road got slippery and the car swerved at corners.
Noonan turned  on the wipers  and  slowed down. So, he thought, they got the
report.  Now  they'll  be praising me. Well, I'm  all for that. I like being
praised.  Especially  by  Mr. Lemchen himself. In spite of  himself. Strange
isn't it? Why do we like  being praised? It doesn't get you any more  money.
Glory? What kind of glory can we have? "He's famous: three people know about
him now." Well, let's say four, counting Bayliss. What a funny creature  man
is!  It seems  we  enjoy praise just  for itself. The way  children like ice
cream. And  it's so  stupid.  How  can I  be  better in my own eyes? As if I
didn't  know myself? Good old fat Richard H. Noonan? By  the way,  what does
that "H" stand for? What do you know  about that? And there's nobody to ask,
either.  I can't ask  Mr. Lemchen about  it. Oh,  remember! Herbert! Richard
Herbert Noonan. Boy, it's pouring.
     He turned onto Central and suddenly thought how the city had grown over
the past  few  years.  Huge skyscrapers. They're  building another  one over
there. What will it be? Oh, the Luna Complex-- the world's best jazz,  and a
variety show, and so on. Everything for  our  glorious  troops and our brave
tourists, especially the elderly ones, and for the noble knights of science.
And the suburbs are being emptied.
     Yes, I'd like to know how this will all end. Well, ten years ago, I was
sure  I  knew. Impenetrable police lines. DMZ  twenty miles wide. Scientists
and soldiers, and no one else.  The horrible sore on the  face of  the earth
blocked off. And I wasn't the only one who thought that way, either. All the
speechifying,  all the legislation they introduced! And  now  you can't even
remember how the universal steely  resolve melted  into a quivering pool  of
jelly. "On the one hand, you can't not acknowledge it, and on the other, you
can't disagree." It all began, I think, when  the stalkers first brought out
the so-so's from the  Zone. Little batteries.  Yes, I  think that's when  it
happened.
     Particularly, when it was discovered that the batteries multiplied. The
sore didn't  seem like such a sore any more.  More  like  a treasure  trove,
Hell's temptation, Pandora's box, or the devil. They found  ways  to use it.
Twenty years  they've been  puffing and huffing, wasting  billions, and they
still  haven't been able  to organize their thievery. Everyone  has  his own
little  business, and  the scientists furrow their  brows significantly  and
portentously:  on the  one  hand, you  can't not acknowledge it, and  on the
other, you  can't disagree. Since such and such object,  when X-rayed at  an
angle of 18 degrees emits quasithermal electrons at an angle  of 22 degrees.
The hell with it! I won't live to see the end of it anyway.
     The car  was  passing Buzzard  Burbridge's  townhouse. Because  of  the
pouring rain,  all  the  lights in  the  house were on. He could see dancing
couples in the second-floor rooms of  the  beautiful  Dina.  Either they had
started very early, or they were still  going  strong from last night.  That
was the new fad in  the city-to have parties  that went on for several days.
We  sure  are growing  hardy kids, full of endurance  and steadfast  in  the
pursuit of their desires.
     Noonan  stopped  the  car  in front  of an  unsightly building  with  a
discreet sign:  "Legal offices of Korsh, Korsh, and Simak." He  took out the
so-so and put it in his pocket,  pulled on his raincoat again, took his hat,
and ran for the entrance. He ran past the doorman, buried in a newspaper, up
the stairs  covered  with a worn carpet. His shoes  clattered along the dark
corridor of the  second floor, which reeked of an  odor that he had long ago
given up trying to identify,  and he threw open  the door at the end  of the
corridor  and  went  in.  Instead of  the secretary there  was  a  very tan,
unfamiliar young man  at the  desk. He  was  in shirtsleeves. He was digging
around in the  guts of some electronic device that was  set up  on  the desk
instead of the typewriter. Richard Noonan hung up his coat and hat, smoothed
what  was  left of his hair with both hands,  and looked inquiringly at  the
young man. He nodded. Noonan opened the door to the office.
     Mr. Lemchen rose heavily from the big leather  armchair in front of the
draped window. His angular general's face was wrinkled either in a welcoming
smile  or in displeasure with the weather or,  perhaps, in a struggle with a
sneeze.
     "Here you are. Come in, make yourself comfortable."
     Noonan looked around for a  place to make himself comfortable and could
find nothing except for a hard, straight-backed chair tucked away behind the
desk. He  sat  on the edge of the desk. His jovial mood  was dissipating for
some reason--he himself did not understand why. Suddenly  he understood that
he was not going to  be praised today On  the contrary. The day of wrath, he
thought philosophically and steeled himself for the worst.
     "Please smoke,"  Mr. Lemchen offered,  lowering  himself back into  the
armchair.
     "No thank you, I don't smoke."
     Mr. Lemchen nodded  as though his worst suspicions had been  confirmed,
pressed  his  fingertips together  in  a steeple in  front of his face,  and
carefully examined them for a while.
     "I  suppose  that  we  won't be discussing the  legal  affairs  of  the
Mitsubishi Denshi Company," he finally said.
     That was a joke. Richard Noonan smiled readily.
     "As you like!"
     It was devilishly uncomfortable on the desk, and his feet did not reach
the floor.
     "I'm  sorry to tell you, Richard, that your report created an extremely
favorable impression upstairs."
     "Hmm," Noonan mumbled. Here it comes, he thought.
     "They were even going to  recommend you for a  decoration," Mr. Lemchen
continued. "However, I talked them into waiting  on it. And I was right." He
tore himself  away  from  contemplating the pattern of the  ten  fingers and
looked up at Noonan. "You ask why I behaved in such a cautious manner?"
     "You probably had some justification," Noonan said in a dull tone.
     "Yes, I  had.  What  are  the  results  of  your  report, Richard?  The
Metropole  gang is liquidated. Through  your efforts.  The Green Flower gang
was  apprehended  red-handed.  Brilliant  work. Also  yours. Quasimodo,  the
Wandering Musicians,  and all the other gangs,  I don't remember  the names,
disbanded because they knew the jig was up and  they would be taken any day.
All this  really did  happen, it's all been verified by  other  sources. The
battlefield  was cleared.  Your  victory,  Richard.  The enemy retreated  in
disarray, suffering heavy losses. Have I given an accurate account?"
     "In any case," Noonan said carefully, "during the last three months the
Bow of materials  from  the  Zone  through  Harmont  has  stopped. At  least
according to my information."
     "The enemy has retreated, is that not so?"
     "Well, if you insist on the metaphor, yes."
     "No! The point is that this enemy never retreats. I know that for sure.
In rushing a  victory  report, Richard, you have  demonstrated your  lack of
maturity. That is why I suggested they hold off rewarding you immediately."
     Go  blow, you and  your  awards,  thought Noonan, swinging his foot and
glumly  watching his shiny toe.  Stick  your awards  in  the  cobwebs in the
attic!  And all  I need is  a little  didacticism  from you. I know who  I'm
dealing with without your lectures. Don't tell me about the enemy. Just tell
me straight  out--when, where,  and how  I  messed up, what  those  bastards
managed to steal, where and how they found cracks  and without the bullshit,
I'm no raw recruit, I'm over half a century old and I'm not sitting here for
the sake of your stupid decorations and orders.
     "What  have  you  heard  about  the Golden Ball?" Mr. Lemchen  suddenly
asked.
     God, what does the Golden Ball have to do with all this, Noonan thought
in irritation. I wish you and your indirect manner would go to hell.
     "The Golden Ball is a legend," he reported in a dull voice. "A mythical
artifact located  in  the  Zone in  the  shape and form of  a gold ball that
grants human wishes."
     "Any wishes?"
     "According to the  canonic  version of the legend, any wish. There are,
however, variant versions."
     "All right. What have you heard about death lamps?"
     "Eight years ago  a  stalker by the name  of Stefan Norman, nick- named
Four-Eyes, brought out  an apparatus from  the  Zone that, as far  as can be
judged, was some kind of ray-emitting system  fatal to earth organisms. This
Four-eyes offered  the apparatus  to  the institute.  They did not agree  on
price.  Four-eyes  reentered  the  Zone  and never  came back.  The  present
whereabouts of  the apparatus  is unknown. People at the institute are still
tearing  their hair  out over  it. Hugh  from the Metropole, whom  you know,
offered any sum that could be written on a check."
     "Is that all?" Mr. Lemchen asked.
     "That's all." Noonan  was  blatantly looking around the room.  The room
was boring, there was nothing to look at.
     "All right. And what have you heard about lobster eyes?"
     "What kind of eyes?"
     "Lobster eyes. Lobsters. You know? With claws."  Lemchen  made clawlike
movements with his fingers.
     "I've never heard of them," Noonan said frowning.
     "And what about rattling napkins?"
     Noonan  climbed down from the desk and  stood before Lemchen,  hands in
pockets.
     "I don't know a thing about them. How about you?"
     "Unfortunately, neither  do  I.  Nor  about the  lobster  eyes  or  the
rattling napkins. Nevertheless, they exist."
     "In my Zone?" Noonan asked.
     "Sit  down,  sit down," Mr. Lemchen said  waving his  hand. "Our little
talk is just starting. Sit down."
     Noonan  walked around  the  desk and  sat on the  hard  chair with  the
straight back.
     What's he aiming at? he thought feverishly. What is all this new stuff?
They probably found it in the other Zones and he's trying to make a fool out
of  me,  the ass. He  never liked me,  the old  devil, he can't  forget  the
limerick.
     "Let's continue our little examination," Lemchen announced  as  he drew
aside an edge of the drape and peered  out the window. "It's pouring. I like
it."  He released  the  curtain, sat back in  his  chair, and looking at the
ceiling, asked: "How's old Burbridge getting along?"
     "Burbridge?  Buzzard Burbridge is under  surveillance. He's  a cripple,
well-to-do.  No connection with  the  Zone. He owns  four bars and  a  dance
school, and  he organizes  picnics  for  officers from  the garrison and for
tourists.  His daughter Dina leads  a dissolute life.  His son  Arthur  just
graduated from law school."
     Mr.  Lemchen nodded in  satisfaction.  "And what is  Creon the  Maltese
doing?"
     "He  is  one  of  the few active  stalkers.  He was mixed  up with  the
Quasimodo gang, and now he peddles his swag to the institute through me. I'm
giving him a free  rein:  somebody  will pick him off sooner or later.  He's
been drinking a lot lately, and I'm afraid he won't last too long."
     "Contact with Burbridge?"
     "He's courting Dina. No success."
     "Very good," Mr. Lemchen said. "What do you hear about Red Schuhart?"
     "He got  out of  prison last month. No financial difficulties. He tried
to emigrate,  but he  has. .  .  ."  Noonan was silent. "Well, he has family
problems. He has no time for the Zone."
     "Is that all?"
     "That's all."
     "Not much," Mr. Lemchen said. "How are things with Lucky Carter?"
     "He hasn't been a stalker for many years. He sells used cars and he has
a  shop that converts cars to run on so-so's.  Four kids, his wife died last
year. Has a mother-in-law."
     Lemchen nodded.
     "Well,  who  have I forgotten of the  oldsters?" he  asked in  a kindly
tone.
     "You  forgot  Jonathan Miles,  known  as Cactus.  He's in the hospital,
dying of cancer. And you forgot Gutalin."
     "Yes, yes, what about Gutalin?"
     "He's still the same. He has a gang of three men. They go into the Zone
for  days  at a  time,  destroying everything  they  come  across.  His  old
organization, the Fighting Angels, broke up."
     "Why?"
     "Well, as you recall,  they used to buy up swag and  Gutalin would take
it back into the Zone. The devil's  things to the devil. Now there's nothing
to  buy, and besides, the new  director of  the institute  got the  cops  on
them."
     "I understand," Mr. Lemchen said. "What about the young ones?"
     "Well,  the  young ones, they  come  and go. There are five or six with
some  experience, but lately there's  been  no one  to fence  the  swag  and
they're lost. I'm training them little by little.  I think that stalking has
almost disappeared  in my Zone, chief. The old  ones are retired,  the young
ones don't know how, and  the  prestige of the trade is slipping. Technology
is taking over. Now there are robot stalkers."
     "Yes, yes,  I've  heard about that.  But the machines  use up too  much
energy. Or am I mistaken?"
     "It's just a question of time. They'll be worth it soon."
     "How soon?"
     "Five or six years."
     Mr. Lemchen nodded again.
     "By  the  way you  probably  don't  know  that  the enemy  has  started
employing the automated stalkers?"
     "In my Zone?" Noonan asked, on guard.
     "In  yours,  too.  They  base themselves  in  Rexopolis,  transfer  the
equipment by helicopter  over the mountains  to Snake Canyon, to Black Lake,
and the foothills of Mount Boulder."
     "But that's the periphery of the Zone," Noonan said suspiciously.
     "It's empty there. What could they find?"
     "Little,  very  little. But they find it. Anyway, I was  just informing
you, it  doesn't  concern  you.  Let's recapitulate.  There  are  almost  no
professional  stalkers left  in  Harmont. The ones  who have  stayed have no
relationship to the Zone  any more. The young ones are lost and undergoing a
process  of being  tamed.  The enemy is shattered, scattered,  and lying low
somewhere licking his  wounds. There is no  swag,  and when it does  appear,
there's nobody to  sell it to.  The  illegal removal of  material  from  the
Harmont Zone ceased three months ago. Correct?"
     Noonan  was silent. Now, he  thought. Now he's going  to give it to me.
But where was the gap? It must have been a really big one, too. Well, do it,
you old fart! Don't drag it out.
     "I  don't hear  your reply," Mr. Lemchen said cupping  his hand to  his
wrinkled hairy ear.
     "All right, chief,"  Noonan said  somberly. "Enough.  You've boiled and
fried me, now serve me at the table."
     Mr. Lemchen harrumphed vaguely.
     "You  have  absolutely  nothing  to  say for  yourself,"  he said  with
unexpected bitterness. "You stand there flapping your ears before authority,
how do you think I  felt day before yesterday?" He interrupted himself,  got
up,  and started  for  the  safe.  "In short, during  the  last two  months,
according to the information  we have, the enemy has  received more than six
thousand items  from the  various Zones." He stopped before the safe, patted
its painted side, and turned  sharply toward Noonan. "Don't comfort yourself
with  illusions!"  he   shouted.  "The   fingerprints   of   Burbridge!  The
fingerprints of the Maltese!  The fingerprints of Ben  Halevy the Nose, whom
you  did not  even  bother to mention! The fingerprints of Hindus Heresh and
Pygmy Zmyg! So  that's how you're training your youths!  Bracelets! Needles!
White  whirligigs! And  on top of  that--these lobsters' eyes, and  bitches'
rattles, and rattling  napkins, whatever they  are! The hell with them all!"
He interrupted  himself again,  returned to his  arm- chair, made a  steeple
with  his fingers, and  asked politely: "What do you think about  all  this,
Richard?"
     Noonan mopped his neck with his handkerchief.
     "I don't think anything about  it," he honestly  answered. "Forgive me,
chief, I'm a little ... let me catch my breath ... Burbridge! Burbridge  has
nothing to do with  the  Zone any more!  I know  his every step! He arranges
picnics and  drinking  parties at lakesides. He's  hauling it  in,  he  just
doesn't need the money. Excuse me, I  know I'm blabbing  nonsense, but I can
assure  you  that  I haven't lost sight of Burbridge since he got out of the
hospital."
     "I won't keep you any  longer,"  Mr. Lemchen said.  "I'm  giving  you a
week. Come up with some ideas as to how the material from the Zone gets into
the hands of Burbridge--and all the others. Good- bye."
     Noonan rose, nodded to Lemchen's profile, and still wiping his sweating
neck,  went  out into the  reception area. The  tan  young man  was smoking,
thoughtfully gazing into the  bowels of  the mangled  electronic  device. He
glanced over at Noonan---his eyes were empty and seemed to gaze inward.
     Richard Noonan shoved his  hat on his head, grabbed his rain- coat, and
went outside. Nothing like this has ever happened to me before. His thoughts
were confused and  rambling. I must--Ben  Halevy the Nose! He's even  gotten
himself  a  nickname!  When? He's just a little punk, a snotty-nosed  little
punk.  No, there's some- thing else going on! You legless  shmuck.  Buzzard,
you really got me this time. Caught me with my pants down. How could it have
happened?  just  like that time in  Singapore-face flat on  the  table, then
slammed against the wall....
     He got in the car and for some time looked around the dashboard for the
ignition key, forgetting everything. Rain was dripping from his hat onto his
lap.  He took it off and tossed  it into the back without  looking. Rain was
streaming across the windshield,  and  Richard  Noonan  thought that  it was
keeping him from  understanding  what  his next step should be.  He  punched
himself in  the  head. He felt  better. He immediately remembered that there
was  no  key and couldn't  be any because the so-so  was in his  pocket. The
permanent battery. And  you have to take  it out  of your pocket, dummy, and
stick  it  into  the  jack,  and  then  at  least  you'll be  able  to drive
somewhere-somewhere  far away from this building where the  old bastard  was
probably watching from a window.
     Noonan's hand froze as it was reaching for the so-so. Now I know who to
begin with. I'll  begin with  him, oh how I'll begin with him. Nobody's ever
begun with anybody the way I'll begin with him. And it'll be  a pleasure. He
turned on the wipers  and drove down  the  avenue, seeing  almost nothing in
front of him, but slowly  calming down. All right. Let  it be like it was in
Singapore.  After  all, it ended  well in Singapore. So what, I got my  face
slammed down on the table one lousy time! It could have been worse. It could
have been some other part of me and it could  have been something with nails
in  it instead of a table. All right, let's stay  on the  track. Where's  my
little establishment?  Can't see a  damn  thing.  Ah, here it is.  It wasn't
business hours, but the Five Minutes was as lit up as the Metropole. Shaking
himself like a dog  coming  out of  the  water,  Richard Noonan entered  the
brightly  lit room that reeked of tobacco, perfume, and stale champagne. Old
Penny, not in uniform yet, was sitting  at the counter eating something, his
fork in his fist. Spreading out her  huge breasts  on  the counter among the
empty glasses,  Ma- dame watched him eat.  The room had not yet been cleaned
up from last night.  When Noonan walked in, Madame turned her broad, heavily
made-up face toward him.  It was  angry at first, but  immediately dissolved
into a professional smile.
     "Hi!" she  said  in her  deep  voice.  "Mr. Noonan himself! Missed  the
girls?"
     Benny went on eating; he was as deaf as a doornail.
     "Greetings,  old lady! What do I need with the girls when I have a real
woman in front of me?"
     Benny  finally  noticed him. His horrible face, covered  with  blue and
purple scars, contorted into a welcoming smile.
     "Hello, boss! Came in out of the rain?"
     Noonan smiled in return and waved. He did  not like talking with Benny:
he had to shout all the time.
     "Where's my manager, folks?" he asked.
     "in his room," Madame answered. "He has to pay the taxes tomorrow.
     "Oh, those taxes!  All  right. Madame, please fix my favorite. I'll  be
right back."
     Stepping soundlessly on the thick synthetic carpeting, he went down the
hallway past the draped  doorways of the  cubicles--a picture of some flower
painted  on the wall  next to each one--turned  into  a  quiet dead end, and
opened the leather-covered door without knocking.
     Mosul Kitty sat behind  the desk, examining a painful sore  on his nose
in the mirror. He did not give a damn that he had to pay the taxes tomorrow.
The completely bare desk top  held only a jar with mercury salve and a glass
with  a  clear liquid.  Mosul Kitty raised his bloodshot eyes  at Noonan and
lumped up, dropping the mirror. Wordlessly, Noonan settled into the armchair
opposite him and  silently watched, while  he  muttered something about  the
damn rain and his rheumatism. Then he said:
     "Why don't you lock the door, pal."
     Mosul, his flat  feet slapping the  floor, ran Lip to  the door, turned
the key, and returned  to the desk. His hairy  head towered over Noonan, and
he stared loyally into his mouth. Noonan kept watching him through half-shut
eyes.  For  some  reason  he remembered  that Mosul  Kitty's real  name  was
Raphael. Mosul was famous for his huge  bony fists, purplish  and bare, that
stuck out  from the  thick hair that covered his arms  like  sleeves. He had
called himself Kitty because  he was convinced that that was the traditional
name  of the  great  Mongol  kings.  Raphael. Well, Raphael baby, let's  get
started.
     "How are things?" he asked gently.
     "in perfect order, boss," Raphael-Mosul replied rapidly.
     "You smoothed over the problem at headquarters?"
     "It cost 150. Everybody is happy."
     "It comes out of  your pocket. It  was your fault,  pal. It should have
been taken care of."
     Mosul  made  a  pathetic  face  and  spread  his  hands in  a  sign  of
submission.
     "The parquet in the hall should be replaced," Noonan said.
     "It will be done."
     Noonan said nothing, puckered his lips.
     "Swag?" he asked, lowering his voice.
     "There's a little," Mosul replied in a low voice, too.
     "Let's see it."
     Mosul rushed over to the safe, took out a package, and opened it on the
desk  in front of Noonan. Noonan felt around with one finger in the pile  of
black sprays,  picked up a bracelet, examined it  from all sides  and put it
back.
     "This is all?"
     "They don't bring any," Mosul said guiltily.
     "They don't bring any," Noonan repeated.
     He  aimed  carefully  and  jabbed  his  toe with  all his strength into
Mosul's  shin. Mosul grunted  and bent  over  to grab the injured  spot, but
immediately straightened out and stood at attention. Then  Noonan jumped up,
grabbed  Mosul by his collar and came at him, kicking, rolling his eyes, and
whispering obscenities. Mosul, moaning and groaning, rearing his head like a
frightened horse, backed away from him until he fell onto the couch.
     "Working both  sides, eh? You son of a bitch." Noonan was hissing right
into his terrified eyes. "Buzzard Burbridge is swimming in swag and you give
me beads wrapped in paper?" He smacked him  in the face,  trying to hit  the
scab  on his nose. "I'll ship you off to jail. You'll be  living in  manure,
eating dry bread. You'll curse the day  you  were born!" He punched the sore
nose one more time. "Where does Burbridge get the swag? Why do they bring it
to  him,  and  not to you? Who brings it? Why don't I know anything? Who are
you working for, you filthy pig? Talk!"
     Mosul  soundlessly opened  and shut his mouth. Noonan  let go  of  him,
returned to the chair, and put his feet up on the desk.
     "Well?" he said. Mosul sniffled back the blood  from his nose and said:
"Honest, boss, what's the  matter? What  swag can Buzzard  have?  He doesn't
have any. Nobody's got swag."
     "What, are you going to argue with me?" Noonan asked gently, taking his
feet off the desk.
     "No,  no, boss,  honest," Mosul hurried to say. "Me argue  with  you? I
wouldn't dream of it."
     "I'm going  to get  rid of you," Noonan threatened. "You don't know how
to work. What the hell do I need you for, you so-and-so? Guys like you are a
dime a dozen. I need a real man for real work."
     "Hold  on, boss," Mosul  said reasonably,  smearing blood all  over his
face.  "Why  do  you attack  me all  of a  sudden? Let's work  this out." He
touched his  nose  gingerly. "You say Burbridge has a  lot of  swag? I don't
know, somebody's been lying  to  you. Nobody's got  any swag now. After all,
only punks go into the Zone now, and they're the only ones coming out. Nope,
boss, someone's lied to you."
     Noonan was watching him covertly. It  looked as  if Mosul really didn't
know a thing.  It wouldn't have paid him to lie, anyway--  Buzzard Burbridge
didn't pay very well.
     "These picnics, are they profitable?"
     "The  picnics? I don't think  so. You  won't shovel  in  the money. But
there aren't any profitable things left in town."
     "Where are these picnics held?"
     "Where?  You know, in different places.  By  White Mountain, at the Hot
Springs, at Rainbow Lake."
     "Who are the customers?"
     "The customers?" Mosul sniffed, blinked, and spoke confidentially.
     "If you're planning to get into the business yourself, boss, I wouldn't
recommend it. You won't make much up against Buzzard."
     "Why not?"
     "Buzzard's customers are the blue helmets, one." Mosul  was ticking the
points  off on  his fingers.  "Officers from the command post, two. Tourists
from the Metropole, the White Lily, and the Plaza, three. Then he's got good
advertising. Even the locals go to him. Honest, boss, it's not worth getting
mixed up in this  business.  He  doesn't pay us that much for the girls, you
know."
     "The locals go to him, too?"
     "The young people, mostly."
     "Well, what happens on these picnics?"
     "What  happens? We  go  there  on buses, see?  And when  we  get  there
everything  is set up--tables, tents, music.  And  everyone lives it up. The
officers usually go with the girls. The tourists go look at the Zone-if it's
at the Hot Springs, the Zone is just a stone's throw away, on the other side
of the Sulphur Gorge. Buzzard has thrown  a lot of horse bones around  there
and they look at them through binoculars."
     "And the locals?"
     "The  locals?  Well, that doesn't interest the locals,  of course. They
amuse themselves in other ways."
     "And Burbridge?"
     "Burbridge? Burbridge ... is like everybody else."
     "And you?"
     "Me? I'm like everybody else. I watch to see that the girls aren't hurt
... and, well, like everybody else, basically."
     "And how long does all this go on?"
     "Depends. Three days, sometimes, sometimes a whole week."
     "And how much does this  pleasure  trip  cost?" Noonan asked,  thinking
about something else entirely. Mosul answered something,  but  Noonan didn't
hear him.  That's the ticket, Noonan thought. Several days,  several nights.
Under  those conditions, it's simply impossible to keep an eye on Burbridge,
even  if you tried.  But still  he didn't understand. Burbridge was legless,
and there was the gorge. No, there was something else there.
     "Which locals are steady customers?"
     "Locals?  I  told you, mostly  the young ones. You know, Halevy, Rajba,
Chicken  Tsapfa, that Zmyg guy--and the Maltese  often goes.  A cute  little
group. They call it Sunday school. Shall we go to Sunday  school,  they say.
They concentrate on the old ladies, make pretty good money.  Some old  broad
from Europe...."
     "Sunday school," Noonan repeated.
     A strange thought came to him. School. He rose.
     "All right," he said. "The  hell with the  picnics.  That's not for us.
But  get it straight: Buzzard has swag,  and that's our business,  pal. Look
for it, Mosul, look for it, or I'll throw you to the dogs. Where does he get
it, who gives it to him? Find out and we'll give twenty percent more than he
does. Got it?"
     "Got  it, boss." Mosul was standing, too, at attention, loyalty on  his
blood-smeared face.
     "Move it! Use your brains, you animal!" Noonan shouted and left.
     Back at the bar he quickly drank his aperitif, had  a  chat with Madame
about  the  decline  in morality, hinted that he was planning to  expand the
operation, and lowering his voice for emphasis, asked for her advice on what
to do about Benny-the old  guy  was getting  old, he was  deaf, his reaction
time was off, and  he didn't get along like he used to. It  was  six already
and he was hungry. A  thought was drilling through his brain, out of nowhere
but at the same  time explaining a lot. Actually, a lot had become clear  by
now anyway  and  the  mystical aura that irritated  and frightened him about
this business  was gone. All that was left was disappointment in himself be-
cause he had not thought of the possibility  earlier. But the most important
thing was  the thought that kept floating in  his  head  and  giving him  no
peace.
     He said good-bye to Madame and shook  Penny's hand, and headed straight
for  the Borscht. The  whole  trouble  is  that we don't  notice  the  years
slipping  by, Noonan  thought.  The  hell with  the  years,  we don't notice
everything changing. We know  that everything  changes,  we're  taught  from
childhood that everything changes, and we've seen everything change with our
own eyes  many  a time, and  yet we're totally incapable of recognizing  the
moment  when the change comes  or else  we look for  the change in the wrong
place. There  are new stalkers  now, created by cybernetics. The old stalker
was a dirty,  sullen man who  crawled inch by inch through  the  Zone on his
belly with mulish stubbornness, gathering his nest  egg. The new stalker was
a dandy in  a silk tie, an engineer sitting a mile or so away from the Zone,
a cigarette in his mouth, a glass with a pleasant brew at his elbow, and all
he does is  sit and monitor  some  screens.  A salaried  gentleman.  A  very
logical picture. So logical that any alternative just did  not come to mind.
But there were other possibilities--the Sunday school, for one.
     And suddenly, from nowhere,  a wave of despair engulfed him. It was all
useless. Pointless.  My God, he thought, we won't be able  to do a thing! We
won't  have the power  to contain  this blight, he  thought  in  horror. Not
because we don't work  well. And not because they're smarter and more clever
either. It's just that  that's the way the world is.  And that's the way man
is  in this world.  If there had never been the Visitation, there would have
been something else. Pigs always find mud.
     The Borscht was lit up and gave  off a delicious smell. The Borscht had
changed,  too.  No more dancing,  no more  fun. Gutalin didn't go  there any
more, he was turned off  by it, and Redrick Schuhart probably had  stuck his
nose in, made a face, and left. Ernest  was still in  stir and his old  lady
finally got to  run the  place. She built up a  solid  steady clientele; the
entire  institute lunched there, including the  senior officers.  The booths
were cozy, the food good, the prices reasonable, and the beer bubbly. A good
old-fashioned pub.
     Noonan  saw Valentine Pilman  in one  of  the booths.  The laureate was
drinking  coffee and  reading  a  magazine he  had folded  in  half.  Noonan
approached him.
     "May I join you?"
     Valentine turned his dark glasses on him.
     "Ah," he said. "Please do."
     "Just a second, I'll wash up first." He had remembered Mosul's nose.
     He  was well known there. When he  got back to Valentine's booth, there
was a plate of steaming sausages  and a mug of beer--not cold and not  warm,
just the way he liked it--on the table. Valentine put down the  magazine and
took a sip of coffee.
     "Listen, Valentine," Noonan said, cutting the meat. "What do you think,
how will all this end?"
     "What?"
     "The  Visitation.  The  Zones,  the  stalkers, the  military-industrial
complexes--the whole lot. How can it all end'" Valentine looked at him for a
long time with his blind black lenses.
     "For whom? Be specific."
     "Well, say for our part of the planet."
     "That depends on whether we have luck or not.  We now know that in  our
part of the planet the Visitation left no aftereffects, for  the  most part.
That does not rule out, of course, the possibility that in pulling all these
chestnuts out of  the fire, we may pull  out some thing that  will make life
impossible not only for us,  but for the  entire planet. That  would  be bad
luck. But, you  must  admit, such  a  threat always hovers over mankind." He
chuckled. "You see,  I've long lost the  habit  of talking  about mankind in
general. Humanity as a whole is too fixed a system, there's no changing it."
     "You think so? Maybe, you're right, who knows?"
     "Be honest, Richard," Valentine said, obviously enjoying himself.
     "What has the Visitation changed  in your life? You're a business- man.
Now you  know there  is at least one other rational creature in the Universe
besides man. So what?"
     "What can I say?" Noonan was  mumbling. He was  sorry that  he had ever
started the conversation. There was nothing to talk about.
     "What has changed for me? Well, for several years now I've been feeling
uneasy, insecure. All right. So  they came and left right  away. And what if
they come again and  decide to stay? As a businessman,  I have to take these
questions  seriously: who are they, how do  they live, what do they need? On
the most basic level I have to think how to change my  product. I have to be
ready. And what if I turn out to be completely superfluous in their system?"
He livened up. "What if we are superfluous? Listen,  Valentine,  since we're
talking about  it,  are  there any answers to these questions? Who are they,
what did they want, will they return?"
     "There are  answers," Valentine said, smiling. "Lots of them, take your
pick."
     "And what do you think yourself?"
     "To  tell  the truth, I  never permitted myself the luxury  of thinking
about it seriously. For me the Visitation is primarily  a  unique event that
allows us to skip several steps in the  process  of  cognition.  Like a trip
into the future  of  technology. Like a quantum generator ending up in Isaac
Newton's laboratory."
     "Newton wouldn't have understood a thing."
     "You're wrong. Newton was a very perspicacious man."
     "Really? Well, who cares about him anyway. What do you  think about the
Visitation? You can answer unseriously."
     "All right, I'll  tell you.  But I  must warn you that  your  question,
Richard, comes under the heading of xenology. Xenology: an unnatural mixture
of science  fiction and  formal logic. It's based on the false  premise that
human psychology is applicable to extraterrestrial intelligent beings."
     "Why is that false?" Noonan asked.
     "Because  biologists  have  already  been  burned  trying to use  human
psychology on animals. Earth animals, at that."
     "Forgive  me,  but that's an  entirely different matter.  We're talking
about the psychology of rational beings."
     "Yes. And everything would be fine if we only knew what reason was.
     "Don't we know?" Noonan was surprised.
     "Believe it or  not, we  don't. Usually a  trivial definition  is used:
reason is  that  part  of  man's  activity that  distinguishes  him from the
animals. You  know,  an attempt to  distinguish the owner from  the dog  who
understands  everything  but  just  can't  speak.   Actually,  this  trivial
definition  gives  rise  to  rather  more  ingenious  ones.  Based on bitter
observation of the above-mentioned human activities.  For example: reason is
the ability of a living creature to perform unreasonable or unnatural acts."
     "Yes,  that's about  us, about  me, and those  like  me," Noonan agreed
bitterly.
     "Unfortunately. Or how about this hypothetical definition.  Reason is a
complex type of instinct  that  has  not yet formed completely. This implies
that  instinctual behavior is always purposeful and natural. A million years
from now our instinct will have matured and we will stop making the mistakes
that are probably integral to  reason. And then, if  something should change
in the universe, we  will all become extinct--precisely because we will have
forgotten  how  to make  mistakes, that  is,  to try various approaches  not
stipulated by an inflexible program of permitted alternatives."
     "Somehow you make it all sound demeaning."
     "All  right, how about another definition--a  very lofty and noble one.
Reason  is  the  ability  to  use  the  forces  of the  environment  without
destroying that environment." Noonan grimaced and shook his head.
     "No, that's not about us.  How about this: 'man, as opposed to animals,
is  a  creature  with an  undefinable  need  for  knowledge'?  I  read  that
somewhere."
     "So have  I,"  said Valentine. "But the whole problem with that is that
the average man--the one you have in mind  when you talk about 'us' and 'not
us'--very  easily manages to  overcome  this  need  for  knowledge. I  don't
believe that need even exists. There is  a need to understand, and you don't
need  knowledge  for that. The hypothesis  of God, for  instance,  gives  an
incomparably  absolute  opportunity   to  understand  everything  and   know
absolutely nothing. Give man an extremely simplified system of the world and
explain every phenomenon  away on the basis of that system. An approach like
that doesn't  require any  knowledge.  Just a  few  memorized formulas  pins
so-called intuition and so-called common sense."
     "Hold on," Noonan said. He finished his beer and set the mug noisily on
the table. "Don't get off the track. Let's get back to  the subject on hand.
Man meets an extraterrestrial creature. How do they find out  that  they are
both rational creatures?"
     "I haven't the slightest idea," Valentine said with great pleasure.
     "Everything I've read on the subject comes down to a vicious circle. If
they are capable of making contact, then they are rational. And  vice versa;
if  they  are rational, they are  capable  of contact. And in general: if an
extraterrestrial creature has the honor of possessing human psychology, then
it is rational. Like that."
     "There you  go.  And  I thought you boys had it  all  laid  out in neat
cubbyholes."
     "A monkey can put things into cubbyholes," Valentine replied.
     "No,  wait a minute."  For some  reason,  Noonan  felt cheated. "If you
don't  know  simple things  like that....  All right, the hell with  reason.
Obviously, it's a real quagmire. OK. But  what about the Visitation? What do
you think about the Visitation?"
     "My pleasure. Imagine a picnic."
     Noonan shuddered.
     "What did you say?"
     "A picnic. Picture a forest, a country road, a meadow. A car drives off
the country road into the meadow, a group of young people get out of the car
carrying  bottles,  baskets of food,  transistor radios,  and  cameras. They
light Fires, pitch tents, turn on the music. In the morning  they leave. The
animals, birds,  and insects that watched  in  horror through the long night
creep  out  from their hiding places. And  what  do they see?  Gas  and  oil
spilled  on the grass. Old spark  plugs and old filters strewn around. Rags,
burnt-out  bulbs, and a  monkey wrench left behind. Oil slicks on the  pond.
And of  course, the usual mess--apple cores, candy wrappers, charred remains
of  the  campfire,  cans,  bottles,   somebody's  handkerchief,   somebody's
penknife, torn newspapers, coins, faded Bowers picked in another meadow."
     "I see. A roadside picnic."
     "Precisely. A roadside picnic, on some road in the cosmos.  And you ask
if they will come back."
     "Let me have a smoke. Goddamn this pseudoscience! Somehow I imagined it
all differently."
     "That's your right."
     "So does that mean they never even noticed us?"
     "Why?"
     "Well, anyway, didn't pay any attention to us?"
     "You know, I wouldn't be upset if I were you."
     Noonan inhaled, coughed, and threw away the cigarette.
     "I don't care," he said stubbornly. "It can't be. Damn  you scientists!
Where  do you get your contempt  for man?  Why are you always trying  to put
mankind down?"
     "Wait a minute," Valentine said. "Listen: 'You ask  me  what makes  man
great?'"  he quoted.  "'That  he  re-created nature?  That  he has harnessed
cosmic forces?  That  in  a brief time he conquered  the planet and opened a
window  on  the universe? No! That,  despite all  this, he has  survived and
intends to survive in the future.'"
     There was a silence. Noonan was thinking.
     "Don't get  depressed," Valentine  said kindly.  "The picnic is my  own
theory. And not even a theory--just  a  picture. The serious xenologists are
working on much more  solid  and flattering  versions for human vanity.  For
example, that there has been no Visitation yet, that it is to come. A highly
rational culture  threw containers with artifacts  of  its civilization onto
Earth. They expect  us  to study  the artifacts, make  a giant technological
leap, and send a signal in response that will show we are ready for contact.
How do you like that one?"
     "That's much better," Noonan said.  "I see that there are decent people
among scientists after all."
     "Here's another one. The Visitation has taken place, but it is not over
by a long shot. We are in contact even as we speak, but we are riot aware of
it.  The  visitors are  living in  the  Zones and carefully observing us and
simultaneously preparing us for the 'cruel wonders of the future.' "
     "Now  that I  can understand!  At least  that  explains  the mysterious
activity in the  ruins  of  the factory.  By the  way, your  picnic  doesn't
explain it."
     "Why doesn't  it? One of the  girls could have forgotten  her  favorite
wind-up teddy bear on the meadow."
     "Just skip  it. That's some teddy bear. The earth around it is shaking!
On the other hand, maybe it is somebody's teddy. How  about a beer? Rosalie!
Two  beers for  the xenologists! You know, it really is  nice chatting  with
you," he said to Valentine. "Cleaning out the old brains, like pouring Epsom
salts under my  skull. You know, you work and work,  and lose sight of  why,
and what will happen, and how you'll soothe your savage breast."
     The beer came. Noonan took  a  sip, watching over the head  of foam  as
Valentine examined his mug with a look of distaste.
     "You don't like it?"
     "I usually don't drink," Valentine said hesitantly.
     "Really?"
     "The hell with it!" Valentine moved the mug of beer away from him. "Why
don't you order me a cognac in that case."
     "Rosalie!" Noonan called out, finally cheering up.
     The cognac arrived. Noonan spoke.
     "But you really shouldn't go on like that.  I'm  not talking about your
picnic--that's  too much--but even if we accept  the version that this  is a
prelude to contact,  I  still don't  like it. I can understand the bracelets
and the empties. But why  the witches'  jelly? The mosquito mange spots  and
that disgusting fluff?"
     "Excuse me," Valentine said, taking a slice  of lemon. "I  don't  quite
understand your terminology. What mange?"
     Noonan laughed.
     "That's folklore. Stalkers' slang. Shop talk. The mosquito  mange spots
are areas of heightened gravitation."
     "Ah. Graviconcentrates. Directed gravity. That's something  would enjoy
talking about for a couple of hours, but you wouldn't understand a thing."
     "Why wouldn't I? I'm an engineer, you know.'
     "Because I don't understand it myself. I have systems of equations, but
no way to interpret them. Witches' jelly, is that colloidal gas?"
     "The  very same. Did  you hear about the  catastrophe  at the  Currigan
labs?"
     "I heard something about it."
     "Those idiots put a porcelain container with the  jelly into  a special
room, highly insulated and isolated. That is, they  thought it was isolated.
And  when they opened the container with manipulators the jelly went through
metal  and plastic, like water through a sieve, and outside. And  everything
it touched also turned into jelly. Thirty-five people were killed, more than
a hundred were crippled, and the entire building was destroyed. Did you ever
go there? Marvelously equipped place! And now the jelly has seeped down into
the basement and the lower Boors. Some prelude to contact."
     Valentine made a face.
     "Yes, I know all  that. But you must agree, Richard, that  the visitors
had nothing to do with it. How  could they have known about the existence of
our military-industrial complexes?"
     "They should have known," Noonan insisted.
     "Their answer to  that would  be that the military-industrial complexes
should have been done away with a long time ago."
     "That's  for  sure. That's  what they  should  have taken  care  of, if
they're so powerful."
     "You mean you're suggesting interference in the internal affairs of the
human race?"
     "Hmmm,"  Noonan said.  "I guess  we're  going too  far. Let's drop  it.
Instead, let's go back to the beginning of our discussion. How will  it  all
end? Well, look at you, for instance, you're a scientist. Are you hoping for
something fundamental  to come out of  the Zone, some- thing that will alter
science, technology, our way of life?"
     Valentine shrugged.
     "You're barking up the wrong tree,  Richard. I don't like to indulge in
empty fantasizing. When the subject is something serious, I prefer to revert
to healthy careful skepticism. Based on what we've already received, a whole
range of possibilities is raised, and I can say nothing specific about it."
     "All  right, let's  try  another  approach.  What  do you  think you've
already received?''
     "You'll find this amusing--very little.  We've unearthed many miracles.
In a few  cases, we've  even learned  how to use these  miracles for our own
needs. A monkey pushes a red button and gets a banana, pushes a white button
and  gets an orange, but  it  doesn't  know  how  to get bananas and oranges
without the buttons. And it doesn't understand what relationship the buttons
have to the fruit. Take the so-so's, for example. We've  learned  how to use
them. We've even learned the circumstances under which they multiply through
a process similar to cell division. But we still haven't been able to make a
single so-so.  We don't know how they work, and judging by present evidence,
it will be a long time before we will."
     "I  would  put it this way. There are  objects for which we have  found
uses. We use them, but almost certainly not the way the visitors use them. I
am positive that in the vast majority of cases  we are hammering  nails with
microscopes.  But at  least  we're using some  things--the  so-so's, and the
bracelets   to   stimulate   life  processes.  And  the  various   types  of
quasibiological masses, which have created a revolution in medicine. We have
received new tranquilizers,  new types of mineral fertilizers, a  revolution
in agriculture. But why am I giving you  a list! You  know this  at ]east as
well as I--I notice  you  wear a bracelet.  Let's call this group of objects
beneficial.  It can be  said that  mankind has  benefited from  them in some
degree, even though it should never be forgotten that in our Euclidean world
every stick has two ends."
     "Undesirable applications?"
     "Precisely. Say the use of so-so's  in the defense industry. But that's
not  what  I'm talking about. The action of every beneficial object has been
more or less studied  and  more or less explained. Our technology is holding
us up In fifty years or so we'll know how to make them ourselves and then we
can crack nuts to our hearts' content. It's  more complicated with the other
group of objects--more complicated because  we have found no application for
them, and their qualities within  the  framework of our present concepts are
definitely  not  understandable. For instance, the  magnetic traps. We  know
that they're magnetic  traps, Panov has proven it very wittily. But we don't
know the source of  such a powerful  magnetic Field  and what  causes  their
superstability. We  don't understand a thing about  them. We can only  weave
fantastic theories about properties of space that we never suspected before.
Or the K-23. What  do you call it? The pretty black beads that are  used for
jewelry?"
     "Black sprays."
     "That's it, the black  sprays. That's a good name. Well, you know their
properties.  If  you shine  a  ray  of light  into one  of  those beads, the
transmission of  the light is delayed  and the delay  depends on  the bead's
weight, size, and several other parameters. And the unit of light coming out
is always smaller than the  one entering. What is this? Why? There is a wild
theory that the black sprays are gigantic expanses of  space with properties
different from  those of our space  and that they became curled up under the
influence  of our space." Valentine sighed deeply. "In short, the objects in
this group have absolutely  no applications to human life today. Even though
from a purely scientific point  of view  they are of fundamental importance.
They are answers  that have fallen  from  heaven to questions  that we still
can't pose. Perhaps Sir Isaac wouldn't have figured out lasers, but he would
at least have understood that such a thing is possible, and that  would have
influenced his  scientific outlook  greatly. I won't go into detail, but the
existence of such objects as  the  magnetic  traps, the K-23, and the  white
ring has invalidated most of our recently developed theories and has brought
forth completely new ideas. And there is still a third group."
     "Yes," Noonan said. "The witches' jelly and other goodies."
     "No, no.  Those fall either  into  the first  or second  category.  I'm
talking about  objects that we  know nothing  about  or  have  only  hearsay
information.  The things that the stalkers stole  from  under  our noses and
sold  to  God knows  who,  or have hidden.  The  things that they don't talk
about.  The  things that have  become  legends or  semi-  legends.  The wish
machine, Dick the Tramp, and the jolly ghosts."
     "Wait  a minute!  What are  those things?  I can figure  out  the  wish
machine, but. . . ."
     Valentine laughed.
     "You see, we have our own shop talk, too. Dick  the  Tramp--that's  the
hypothetical  wind-up  teddy bear wreaking havoc in  the old  plant. And the
jolly ghost  is a type of dangerous  turbulence that occurs in some parts of
the Zone."
     "First I've heard of it."
     "You understand,  Richard,  that we've been digging around in  the Zone
for twenty  years but we don't even  know a thousandth of what it  contains.
And  if  you want to talk  of the Zone's effect on man. ...  By the way,  it
looks as though we'll have to add another category, the fourth group. Not of
objects, but  of effects.  This group  has  been shamefully  neglected, even
though  as far  as  I'm  concerned, there  are  more than  enough  facts for
research.  And you  know, sometimes my  skin  crawls, Richard,  when I think
about those facts." Zombies," Noonan said.
     "What? Oh,  no, that's merely puzzling. How  can  I  put it--at  ]east,
that's  imaginable. I mean when  suddenly for no reason  at all things start
happening, nonphysical, nonbiological phenomena."
     "Oh, you mean the emigrants."
     "Exactly. Statistics is a  very precise science, you know, even  though
it  deals  with  random  occurrences.  And  besides,  it's  an eloquent  and
beautiful science."
     Valentine seemed to be  tipsy. His  voice was louder,  his cheeks  were
red, and his eyebrows had crept up high over his dark glasses, wrinkling his
forehead into a washboard.
     "I really like nondrinkers," Noonan said.
     "Don't get off the subject!" Valentine said. "Listen, what  can I  tell
you?  It's  very strange." He raised his glass, drank half in one gulp,  and
went on.  "We don't  know what  happened to the poor Harmonites at  the very
moment of the Visitation. But now one of them decides to emigrate. Your most
typical man in the street. A barber. The son of a barber and the grandson of
a barber. He moves, say,  to Detroit. He opens  up a barbershop and all hell
breaks loose. Over ninety percent of his clients die during a year: they die
in car crashes, fall out of windows, are cut down by gangsters  or  muggers,
drown in  shallow  waters,  and  so  on and  so  forth. A number  of natural
disasters hit  Detroit  and  its  suburbs. Typhoons and tornadoes, not  seen
since eighteen-oh-something,  suddenly appear in the area. And all that kind
of stuff. And such cataclysmic events take place in any city, any area where
an emigrant from a Zone area settles. The number of catastrophes is directly
proportional to the number of emigrants who have moved to the city. And note
that this  reaction  is caused  only by emigrants who actually lived through
the Visitation.  Those  born after  the  Visitation  have no  effect on  the
disaster and accident statistics. You've lived  here for  ten years, but you
moved in  after the Visitation and  it would be safe to relocate you even in
the  Vatican.  How  can  this  be explained?  What  should  we  reject?  The
statistics?  Or common sense?" Valentine grabbed the glass  and finished his
drink in a gulp.
     Richard Noonan scratched his head.
     "Hmmm, yes. Of course,  I'd heard  all that before, but I,  uh, assumed
that it was all, to put it  mildly, exaggerated. Really, from the  point  of
view of our highly developed science...."
     "Or,  for  instance,  the  mutagen  effect  of   the  Zone,"  Valentine
interrupted. He  removed his glasses  and  stared at  Noonan  with his dark,
myopic eyes.  "Everyone  who  spends  enough  time with the  Zone  undergoes
changes,  both of phenotype and  genotype.  You know  what kind  of children
stalkers can have and you know what happens to the stalkers themselves. Why?
Where is the mutation factor? There is no radiation  in  the Zone. While the
air and soil  in the Zone have their own  specific chemical  structure, they
pose no mutation dangers at all. What  should I  do under  the circumstances
--believe in sorcery? In the evil eye?"
     "I sympathize.  But, frankly, I am much more upset by  corpses come  to
life  than  by  your  statistics.  Especially  since  I've  never  seen  the
statistics, but I have seen the zombies--and smelled them."
     Valentine waved away the statement.
     "Bah, your zombies. Richard, you should be ashamed of yourself. You are
an  educated man, after  all. First of all, they are not corpses.  They  are
moulages - reconstructions on the skeletons, dummies. And I assure you, from
the point of  view  of fundamental  principles,  your  moulages  are no more
amazing than the eternal batteries. It's just  that the so-so's violate  the
first law of thermodynamics, and the moulages violate the second.  We're all
cave men in one  sense or  another. We can't imagine anything scarier than a
ghost.  But  the violation of the law of  causality is much more  terrifying
than a  stampede  of ghosts. And all the  monsters  of  Rubenstein, or is it
Wallenstein?"
     "Frankenstein."
     "Of  course. Frankenstein. Mrs. Shelley. The poet's wife. Or daughter."
He suddenly laughed. "Our  moulages have  a curious property--autonomic life
capability. For example, if you cut off  some part of their bodies, the part
will live on. Separately. Without any physiological solutions to nourish it.
They brought one like that to the  institute  recently. A lab assistant from
Boyd told me about it."
     Valentine laughed uproariously.
     "Isn't  it time we headed  for home, Valentine?" Noonan asked, glancing
at his watch. "I still have some important business."
     "Let's go." Valentine  tried hard to insert  his face  into the glasses
and finally had to take the frame with both hands to put  them on his  nose.
"Do you have a car?"
     "Yes. I'll drive you."  They paid the  check  and headed for the  door.
Valentine kept making mock salutes,  greeting lab workers who were curiously
watching  one of the  great men of world physics. At the door, greeting  the
broadly smiling doorman, he  knocked off  his glasses, and all three of them
scrambled to catch them.
     "Tomorrow  I'm running  an  experiment.  You know,  it's an interesting
thing...." Valentine was muttering as he climbed into the Peugeot.
     He went on to describe the experiment.  Noonan drove him to the science
complex.
     They're  afraid,  too,  he  thought,  getting back  into the  car.  The
highbrows are also scared. And  that's the way it should be.  They should be
more  afraid  than all us regular folk  put together.  We don't understand a
thing,  and  they  understand  how  much  they  don't.  They  look  into the
bottomless pit and know that it's  inevitable, they  must  go  down into it.
Their hearts catch, but they must go down, and descend they do, but how, and
what will they find at the bottom, and most important, will  they be able to
climb  out? Meanwhile,  we mere mortals look  the other  way,  so  to speak.
Listen, maybe  that's how it should be. Let it all run its course, and we'll
just get  by  on  our  own. He was right: humanity's  most  heroic  deed was
surviving and intending to survive. But  he'd still tell  the visitors to go
to  hell, if  he could. Why couldn't they have  had their  picnic  somewhere
else. Like the Moon. Or Mars. You heartless trash, he thought, just like all
the rest, even if you do know how to curl up space. So they had themselves a
picnic. A picnic.
     What's the best  way  to deal with my  picnickers? he thought,  driving
slowly down the brightly lit wet streets. What would be the cleverest way to
handle  it? Following the law of least action,  like in mechanics.  What the
hell use is my blankety-blank engineering degree if I can't  even figure out
the best way to trap that legless son of a bitch?
     He parked in front of the house in which Redrick Schuhart lived and sat
in the car, planning his  opening gambit. Then he removed the so-so, got out
of  the car, and only then noticed that the house looked uninhabited. Almost
all the windows were dark, there was nobody in the park, and even the lights
in  the park were out. It reminded  him of what he was about to see,  and he
shivered. He even considered the possibility of phoning Schuhart and talking
with  him in the  car or in some quiet bar, but  he rejected the idea. For a
whole lot of reasons. And besides, he said to himself, let's not behave like
all those characters who ran out like rats deserting a sinking ship.
     He went into the main entrance and slowly up the unswept stairs. It was
quiet and many  of the doors leading  from the landings  were  ajar  or wide
open.  It  smelled  damp  and  dusty in  the  apartments. He stopped  before
Redrick's  door, smoothed his hair, sighed deeply, and rang the bell. It was
still behind the door for a while,  then the floor creaked, the lock turned,
and the door opened quietly. He hadn't heard the footsteps.
     Monkey, Schuhart's daughter, stood in the doorway. A  bright light fell
from the foyer  onto  the landing,  and at first  Noonan could only see  the
girl's dark silhouette. He thought how much she  had grown  in the last  few
months. Then she stepped back into the foyer and he saw her face. His throat
went dry for a second.
     "Hello, Maria," he said, trying  to be  as gentle as possible. "How are
you, Monkey?"
     She  did not reply. Silently and soundlessly  she  backed away from the
door into the  living  room, looking  at him  from under her eye-  brews. It
looked as  though she did not recognize him. To tell the truth, he  couldn't
recognize her either. It's the Zone, he thought. Damn.
     "Who's there?" Guta asked, looking out of the kitchen. "God, it's Dick!
Where did you disappear to? You know, Redrick is back!"
     She hurried over to him drying her hands with the  towel slung over her
shoulder.  Still  as beautiful, energetic,  strong, but  she looked strained
somehow: her face was thinner, and her eyes looked ... feverish, perhaps?
     He kissed her cheek, gave her his raincoat and hat.
     "I'm  sorry, I'm  sorry.  I just  couldn't get away to come over. Is he
in?"
     "He's in," Guta said.  "There's somebody with him. We should be leaving
soon, they've been talking a long time. Go on, Dick.
     He took several  steps down  the  hall and  stopped ill the door to the
living  room. An old man  was sitting  at the table. A mileage. Motion- less
and listing slightly. The  pink light from the lampshade  fell on  his broad
dark face, his sunken, toothless mouth, and his still, lusterless  eyes. And
Noonan  smelled it immediately.  He knew  that  it was just his imagination,
that  the  odor  lasted  only  the  first  few  days  and  then  disappeared
completely, but Richard Noonan smelled  it with his  memory--the fetid heavy
smell of turned-up earth.
     "We could go to the kitchen," Guta said quickly. "I'm cooking there and
we could chat."
     "Yes,  of course!"  he said  cheerily. "It's been such a long time! You
haven't forgotten that I like a drink before dinner, I hope?"
     They went  to the kitchen.  Guta opened the refrigerator and Noonan sat
at  the table and looked around.  As usual, it was clean and shiny and steam
was  rising  from  the  pots  and  pans on  the  stove. The  oven  was  new,
semiautomatic. That meant they had money.
     "Well, how is he?" Noonan asked.
     "The same. He lost weight in prison, but I'm fattening him up."
     "His hair still red?"
     "You bet!"
     "Hot-tempered?"
     "What else! He'll be that way to the grave."
     Guta gave him a Bloody Mary. The clear layer of Russian vodka seemed to
float on the layer of tomato juice.
     "Too much?"
     "Just right." Noonan poured the drink down. He  realized that  that was
his first real drink all day. "Now that's better."
     "Is  everything  all right  with you?"  Guta asked.  "Why  haven't  you
dropped by for such a long time?"
     "Damn  business.  Every week I intended to come over or at  least call,
but first I had to  go to Rexopolis,  then there was a big to-do, and then I
heard that Redrick was back and I thought I'd let you two  have some time to
yourselves. I'm  really hassled, Guta. Sometimes I ask myself, what the hell
are we all running  around for,  anyway? To make money? But what the hell do
we need money if all we do is run around making it?"
     Guta clattered  the  pot  covers,  took a pack  of  cigarettes from the
shelf,  and  sat  at  the table across  from  Noonan. Her eyes were lowered.
Noonan  pulled out  his lighter  and  lit  her cigarette. And again, for the
second time  in his  life, he saw  her hands  trembling, like the  time when
Redrick  had just  been sentenced  and  Noonan came over  to  give  her some
money--she was in a lot of trouble at first with no money at all, and no one
in  the building would lend her any. Then there  was  suddenly money in  the
house, and quite  a bit of it, judging by  everything, and Noonan had a good
guess as to its source, but he continued  coming over, bringing Monkey candy
and  toys, spending  whole evenings over  coffee with  Guta, planning a new,
happy life  for Redrick.  And then, having heard her stories, he would go to
the neighbors and try to reason with them, explaining, coaxing, and finally,
at the end of his patience, threatening  them: "You know  Red will be coming
back, and he'll break you all in half." But nothing helped.
     "How's your girlfriend?" Guta asked.
     "What girlfriend?"
     "The one you came over with that time, the blonde."
     "That's  no  girlfriend! That  was  my  secretary.  She got married and
quit."
     "You ought to get married, Dick. You want me to find a girl for you?"
     Noonan  was about to give  the standard reply: "Well, I'm just  waiting
for Monkey to  grow up." But he stopped himself. It just  wouldn't have come
off any more.
     "I need a secretary, not a wife," he bumbled. "Why don't you leave your
red  devil and  come be my secretary. You  used to  be an excellent one. Old
Harris still reminisces about you."
     "I'll bet. My hand was always black and blue from beating him off."
     "Oh,  so it  was  like that?" Noonan  tried to  look  surprised.  "That
Harris!"
     "God!" Guta said. "I could never get  past him. My  only worry was that
Red would find out."
     Monkey  walked in silently,  hovering near the  door. She looked at the
pots,  at Richard,  then came  up  to her  mother  and leaned  against  her,
averting her face.
     "Well, Monkey," Richard Noonan said heartily. "Like some chocolate?"
     He  took  a  chocolate  bar  out of his  vest  pocket  and extended the
plastic-wrapped package  to  the girl.  She  did not  stir.  Guta  took  the
chocolate from him and put it on the table. Her lips were white.
     "Well, Guta, you know I've decided to move." He  spoke on  in a  hearty
tone. "I'm tired of hotel living. And it's too far from the institute."
     "She  understands  less and  less--almost nothing any more,"  Guta said
softly.  He  stopped  talking,  picked up  the  glass with both  hands,  and
absently twirled it.
     "You're not asking how we're doing,"  she continued. "And you're right.
Except that you're an old friend, Dick, and we have no secrets from you. And
there's no way to keep it a secret anyway."
     "Have you seen a doctor?" he asked without looking up.
     "Yes.  They can't do  a thing.  And  one  of them said...." She stopped
talking.
     He was silent too. There was nothing to say about it and he didn't want
to  think  about it either. Suddenly  he  had  a horrible thought: it was an
invasion.  Not a  roadside picnic,  not  a  prelude to  contact.  It was  an
invasion. They can't change us, so they get into the bodies of our  children
and change them in their own image.  He felt a chill, but then he remembered
that he had read something like that  in a paperback with a lurid cover, and
he felt better. You can imagine anything at all. And real life is never what
you imagine.
     "And one of them said that she's no longer human."
     "Nonsense," Noonan said hollowly. "You should go to a  real specialist.
Go see James  Cutterfield. Do  you want me to talk  to  him? I'll arrange an
appointment."
     "You mean  the Butcher?" She laughed nervously.  "Don't bother. Thanks,
Dick, but he's the one who said so. I guess it's fate."
     When  Noonan dared to  look  up  again,  Monkey was gone  and Guta  was
sitting motionless, her mouth half-open, her eyes empty, and a long gray ash
on her cigarette. He pushed his glass over to her.
     "Make me another, please, and one for yourself. We'll have a drink."
     The  ash fell and she looked around for a place for the butt. She threw
it into the garbage can.
     "Why? That's what I can't understand! We're not the worst people in the
city."
     Noonan thought  that she was going to cry,  but she didn't.  She opened
the refrigerator, got the vodka and juice, and took  another glass down from
the cabinet.
     "Don't give  up hope. There's nothing in the world that can't be fixed.
And believe me, Guta, I  have very important connections. I'll do everything
that I can."
     He believed what he was saying and  he was mentally going over the list
of his  connections ill various  cities, and it seemed  to him  that he  had
heard about similar cases, and that they  had seemed  to have ended happily.
He just had to remember where it was and who the  physician was. But then he
remembered Mr. Lemchen, and  he remembered why he had befriended  Guta,  and
then he didn't want  to think about anything at all.  He  scattered all  his
thoughts of connections, got  comfortable  in his chair, relaxed, and waited
for his drink.
     There were shuffling steps and a thumping in the hall and he could hear
the more-than-ever repulsive voice of Buzzard Burbridge.
     "Hey, Red! Looks like your Guta is entertaining  someone. I see  a hat.
If I were  you, I wouldn't leave them alone." Red's voice: "Watch your false
leg, Buzzard. Shut your mouth. There's the door, don't forget to leave. It's
time for my dinner."
     "Damn it, can't even make a little joke."
     "We've had all the jokes we'll ever have. Period. Now get going!"
     The lock clicked  and the voices were  quieter. Obviously they had gone
out  on  the landing. Burbridge said something in an undertone, and  Redrick
replied: "That's all, we've had our talk!" More grumbling from Burbridge and
Redrick's harsh:  "I said that's it!" The door slammed, there were loud fast
steps in  the hall,  and Redrick Schuhart appeared in  the  kitchen doorway.
Noonan rose to greet him, and they warmly shook hands.
     "I  was sure  it was  you," Redrick said, looking Noonan over  with his
quick greenish eyes. "Putting on weight,  fatso! Keep putting it away, eh? I
see you're passing the  time of day pleasantly enough. Guta,  old love, make
one for me, too. I've got to catch up."
     "We haven't even started yet. How can anyone get ahead of you?" Redrick
laughed harshly and punched Noonan in the shoulder.
     "Now we'll see who  catches up and who  gets ahead! Come on, let's  go,
what are we doing out here in the kitchen? Guta, bring on the dinner."
     He  reached  into  the refrigerator and  came out with  a bottle with a
bright label.
     "We'll have ourselves a  feast!"  he announced. "We  have to  treat our
best friend Richard Noonan royally, for he does not desert his pals in their
moment of need! Even though he is of no help whatever. Too bad Gutalin's not
here."
     "Why don't you call him?" Noonan suggested.
     Redrick shook his bright red head.
     "They haven't laid the phone lines to where he is tonight. Let's go.
     He went into the living room and slammed the bottle on the table.
     "We're going to celebrate,  pops!" he said  to the motionless old  man.
"This  here is Richard Noonan,  our friend!  Dick, this is  my pop, Schuhart
Senior."
     Richard  Noonan, his mind rolled up  into an impenetrable ball, grinned
from ear to ear, waved, and said in the direction of the moulage:
     "Glad to  meet  you, Mr. Schuhart. How  are  you? You  know,  we've met
before, Red," he said to Schuhart, Jr.,  who  was puttering at  the bar. "We
saw each other once, but very briefly, of course."
     "Sit down," Redrick said to  him, indicating the chair opposite the old
man. "If you're going to talk to him, speak up. He can't hear a thing."
     He set up the glasses, quickly opened the bottle, and turned to Noonan.
     "You pour. Just a little for pops, just cover the bottom."
     Noonan  took his time pouring. The  old man sat in the  same  position,
staring at the wall. And he did not react when Noonan moved his glass closer
to him.  Noonan  had already adjusted to the new  situation.  It was a game,
terrible and pathetic. Red was playing the game, and he joined in, as he had
always joined  other peoples' games  all his  life-terrifying ones, pathetic
ones, shameful ones, and ones much more  dangerous than this. Redrick raised
his glass and said: "Well, I guess we're off?" Noonan looked over at the old
man in a  completely natural manner. Redrick impatiently clinked  his  glass
against  Noonan's  and  said:  "We're  off, we're off."  Then Noonan nodded,
completely naturally, and they drank.
     Redrick, eyes  shining,  began  to  talk in his  excited  and  slightly
artificial tone.
     "That's it, brother! jail will never see me again. If you only knew how
good  it is to be home; I have the dough and  I've  picked out a new  little
cottage  for myself, with a garden--as good as Buzzard's place. You know,  I
had wanted to emigrate,  I had  decided when was still in jail. I mean, what
was I sitting in this lousy two-bit town for? I thought, let the whole place
drop dead. So I get back, and there's a surprise for me--emigration has been
forbidden! Have we suddenly become plague-ridden during the last two years?"
     He  talked  and  talked,  and  Noonan nodded,  sipped  his whiskey, and
interjected  sympathetic  noises  and rhetorical questions. Then  he started
asking  about  the cottage--what  kind was it,  where was it,  what  did  it
cost?--and  then they argued. Noonan insisted that the cottage was expensive
and inconveniently located. He took out  his  address book, flipped  through
it, and named the locations of abandoned cottages that were being sold for a
song. And  the repairs would be  almost free,  because he  could  apply  for
emigration, be turned down,  and sue  for compensation, which would pay  for
the repairs.
     "I see that you're involved in nonemigration, too."
     "I'm involved in everything a little," Noonan replied with a wink.
     "I know, I know, I've heard all about your affairs."
     Noonan put  on a  wide-eyed look of surprise,  raised his finger to his
pursed lips, and nodded in the direction of the kitchen.
     "All right, don't worry, everybody knows about it," Redrick said.
     "Money never stinks.  I know that for sure now. But getting Mosul to be
your manager. I almost fell  on the floor laughing  when I heard! Letting  a
bull into  the china  shop. He's a psyche, you know. I've known him since we
were kids."
     He  fell silent and looked at the old man. A shudder  crossed his face,
and  Noonan was amazed to see the look of real, sincere love and  tenderness
on that tough freckled mug of his.
     Watching  him,  Noonan remembered  what  had happened  when Boyd's  lab
workers showed up here for  the moulage. There were two lab assistants, both
strong young men, athletes and all that, and a doctor from the city hospital
with  two  orderlies, tough  and  rough  burly  guys  used to  lugging heavy
stretchers and overpowering hysterical patients.  One  of the lab assistants
later told him  that "that redhead" at first didn't  seem to understand what
was going on, because he let them into the  apartment to examine his father.
They probably would  have  gotten the old man away, because it looked as  if
Redrick  thought that they  were putting  his old  man in the  hospital  for
observation. But the stupid orderlies, who had spent  their time  during the
preliminary  negotiations  gawking  at  Guta  washing the  kitchen  windows,
grabbed the old man like a log when they were called in--and  dropped him on
the floor. Redrick went  crazy.  Then  the jerk of a doctor  volunteered  an
explanation of what was going on. Redrick listened  for a minute or two  and
suddenly exploded without any warning like a hydrogen bomb The assistant who
told the story did not remember how he ended up on the street. The red devil
got them  all down the stairs, all five of them, and not one left under  his
own  power. They all  shot out of the foyer like cannonballs. Two  ended  up
unconscious  on the  sidewalk and  Redrick  chased the  other three for four
blocks.  Then he returned and bashed  in  all  the windows on the  institute
car--the driver had made a run for it when he saw what was happening.
     "I learned how to make a  new cocktail at this bar," Redrick was saying
as  he poured more whiskey. "It's called  Witches'  Jelly, I'll make you one
later, after we've eaten. Brother, it's not  something you should have on an
empty stomach--it's dangerous to the health: one  drink makes  your arms and
legs  numb. I don't care what you say, Dick, I'm going to treat you  royally
today. We'll remember the good  old days and  the Borscht. Poor old Ernie is
still in the cooler, you know that?" He drank, wiped his mouth with the back
of his hand  and casually asked: "What's new at  the  institute?  Have  they
tackled witches' jelly yet? You know, sort of fell behind science a bit."
     Noonan understood why  Redrick was bringing up the  topic. He threw  up
his hands in dismay.
     "Are you kidding? Did  you know what happened with that jelly? Have you
heard of the Currigan Labs? There's this little private supplier.. . So they
got themselves some jelly...."
     He  told  him  about the catastrophe. And about the shocking  fact that
they never tied up the loose ends, never found  out where the lab had gotten
it. Redrick listened, Feigning distraction, clucking his tongue, and shaking
his head. He decisively splashed more whiskey into their glasses.
     "That's what they deserve, the bloodsuckers. I hope they all choke."
     They drank. Redrick looked over at his father and a shudder crossed his
face once more.
     "Guta!" he  shouted. "Are you going  to  starve  us much  longer? She's
knocking herself out for you, you know," he told  Noonan. "She wants to make
your favorite salad, with crabmeat. She bought a  supply a while ago just in
case you  turned up. Well, how are things at the institute in general? Found
anything new? I hear  you have robots working full force but not getting too
much out of it."
     Noonan  started in on institute business,  and  while he  was  talking,
Monkey appeared noiselessly at  the table  by the old man.  She  stood there
with her hairy paws on the table and then  in a perfectly childlike way, she
leaned against the moulage and put her head  on his shoulder. Noonan went on
chatting but thought, as he looked at those two horrors born of the Zone: My
God,  what else? What else has to be done to us  before we understand? Isn't
this enough? But he knew that it wasn't. He knew that millions upon millions
of people knew nothing and wanted  to know nothing, and  even  if they found
out  would ooh and  aah  for five minutes  and then go  back  to  their  own
routines. It was time to go,  he thought  wildly. The hell with Bur- bridge,
the hell with Lemchen, and the hell with this goddamned family!
     "What are you staring at them for?" Redrick asked softly. "Don't worry,
it won't harm her. They even say that they generate good health."
     "Yes, I know," Noonan said and drained his glass.
     Guta came in, ordered  Redrick to set the table, and set a large silver
bowl with Noonan's favorite salad on the table.
     "Well, friends," Redrick announced. "Now we're going  to have ourselves
a feast!"




     The valley had cooled overnight, and by dawn it was actually cold. They
were walking along the embankment, stepping over the rotten ties between the
rusty  rails,  and  Redrick  watched the drops of condensed fog  glisten  on
Arthur  Burbridge's leather jacket. The  boy  was striding along lightly and
merrily, as though the exhausting night, the nervous tension that still made
every vein  in his body ache, and the two horrible hours they  spent huddled
back to back for warmth in a tortured half-sleep on top of the hill, waiting
for the flood  of the  green stuff  to drip past them and disappear into the
ravine--as though all that had not happened.
     A thick  fog lay along the  sides of the embankment. Once in a while it
crawled up on the rails with its  heavy  gray feet and in  those places they
walked knee-deep in the swirling mists.  The  air  smelled of rust, and  the
swamp  to  the right of  the embankment  reeked of  decay. The  fog made  it
impossible to see anything, but Redrick knew that a hilly  plain with rubble
heaps  surrounded them,  and that mountains  hid in the gloom beyond. And he
knew also that when the sun came up  and the fog settled  into dew, he would
see  the  downed helicopter some where on his  left  and the ore flatcars up
ahead. And then the real work would begin.
     Redrick slipped his hand up under the backpack to  lift  it so that the
edge of the helium  tank would not dig into his  spine. It's a heavy bugger,
he thought. How am I going to crawl with it? A mile on all fours. All right,
stalker, no grumbling now, you knew what you were getting into. Five hundred
thousand  at  the  end of the  road. I  can work  up a sweat  for that. Five
hundred thousand sure is a sweet bundle. I'll be damned if I give it to them
for less. Or if I give Buzzard more than thirty. And the punk? The punk gets
nothing. If the old  bugger had  told even  half  the  truth,  the punk gets
nothing.
     He looked at Arthur's  back again and watched through squinted eyes  as
the  boy stepped over two  ties at a  time, broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped.
His dark raven hair,  like his sister's, bounced rhythmically.  He asked for
it,  Redrick  thought  grimly.  Himself. Why did he  beg  to come  along  so
persistently!  So desperately! He trembled and  had tears in his eyes. "Take
me, Mr. Schuhart! Lots of people have offered to take me  along, but they're
all no good! My father ... but he can't take me now!" Redrick forced himself
to drop the memory. He was repelled by the thought  and maybe that's  why he
started  thinking about  Arthur's sister. He just  could not  fathom it: how
such a fantastic-looking woman could actually be a plastic fake, a dummy. It
was like the buttons on his mother's blouse--they were amber, he remembered,
semitransparent, and golden. He just wanted to shove them  in his mouth  and
suck on them, and every time he was disappointed terribly, and every time he
forgot  about  the disappointment --not forgot, just refused  to accept what
his memory told him.
     Maybe it was his pop who sent him over  to me, he thought about Arthur.
Look at the piece he's carrying in his back pocket. Nah, I doubt it. Buzzard
knows  me. Buzzard knows that I don't go for jokes. And  he  knows what  I'm
like in the Zone. No, that's all nonsense. He's not the first to have begged
me, and  not  the first  to have  shed tears; others even got  down on their
knees. And as  for the piece, they all bring guns on their first time in the
Zone. The first and last time. Is it  really the last? It's  your last, bud.
Here's how it works out, Buzzard: his last. Yes, if you knew what your sonny
boy  was planning --you  would have beaten him to a pulp with your crutches.
He  suddenly  felt  that there was something ahead  of  them--not far,  some
thirty or forty yards away.
     "Stop," he told Arthur.
     The boy obediently froze in his tracks. His reflexes were good-- he had
stopped  with one foot in  the air, and he lowered it slowly and  carefully.
Redrick  stopped  next   to  him.  The  track  dipped  noticeably  here  and
disappeared  completely  in the fog.  And  there  was something in  the fog.
Something big and motionless. Harmless. Redrick care fully sniffed the  air.
Yes. Harmless.
     "Forward,"  he said quietly. He waited for Arthur to take a step and he
followed. Out of  the  corner  of his  eye  he could see Arthur's  face, his
chiseled profile, the clear skin of his cheek, and the determined set of his
lips under the thin mustache.
     They were up to their waists in fog,  and then up to their necks. A few
seconds later the great hulk of the ore cars loomed ahead of them.
     "That's it,"  Redrick said  and  took off his backpack. "Sit down right
where you are. Smoke break."
     Arthur  helped him  with the backpack, and  they sat down next  to each
other on the rusty rails.  Redrick unbuttoned  a flap and took out a package
with  sandwiches and a thermos of coffee. While Arthur set up the sandwiches
on top of the backpack, Redrick took out  his flask,  opened it,  closed his
eyes, and took several slow sips.
     "Want some?" he offered, wiping the neck of the flask. "For courage?"
     Arthur shook his head, hurt.
     "I don't need that for courage, Mr. Schuhart.  I'd rather have  coffee,
if I may. It's awfully damp here, isn't it?"
     "It's  damp."  He  put away  the  flask, chose  a sandwich,  and set to
chewing.  "When  the fog lifts, you'll see that we're  surrounded by nothing
but swamps. In the old days the mosquitoes were something fierce."
     He shut up and poured himself some coffee It was hot, thick, and sweet,
and it  was even  nicer to drink  now  than alcohol. It smelled of home.  Of
Guta. And not just of Guta, but of  Guta in her robe, fresh from sleep, with
pillow marks still on her cheek. Why did I get mixed up in this, he thought?
Five hundred thousand. And what do I need it for? Planning to buy a bar with
it or something?  You need money so you  don't  have  to think about  money.
That's the truth. Dick was right  about  that. You have a  house, you have a
yard, you won't he without a  job  in Harmont.  Buzzard trapped me, lured me
like a tenderfoot.
     "Mr.  Schuhart,"  Arthur  suddenly  said,  looking away "Do you  really
believe this thing grants wishes?"
     "Nonsense!"  Redrick muttered distractedly and froze over the cup  near
his lips. "How do you know what we're after here?"
     Arthur  smiled  in  embarrassment,  ran his fingers  through  his hair,
tugged at it, and spoke.
     "Well, I guessed! I don't remember exactly what gave me the clue. Well,
first  of all, Father was always going on and on about the Golden Ball,  and
lately he's stopped. And he has been talking about you. And
     know better  than  to  believe  Father  about you  being  friends.  And
secondly, he's been  kind of strange lately."  Arthur laughed  and shook his
head, remembering something. "And finally, I figured it out, when you and he
tried out the little dirigible  over  in the lot." He  smacked the  backpack
that contained the  tightly rolled balloon. "I followed  you and when  I saw
you lift the bag  with rocks and guide it over the ground, it was all  clear
to me. As far as I know, the Golden Ball is the only heavy thing left in the
Zone." He took a bite  out of his sandwich and spoke dreamily with his mouth
full. "I just don't Understand how you plan  to hook  onto it, it's probably
smooth."
     Redrick watched him over the rim of the cup and thought how unlike each
other they were, father and son. They had absolutely  nothing in common. Not
face, or voice, or soul. Buzzard had a hoarse, whiny, sneaky kind  of voice.
But  when he  talked  about this, his voice  was hearty. You couldn't ignore
him. "Red," he had said then, leaning over the table. "There are only two of
us left, and only  two legs for both, and they're yours.  Who  else but you?
It's probably the most valuable thing in  the Zone! And who  should have it?
Should those wise guys with their machinery get it? Hah? I found it. Me! How
many of our boys fell there? But I found it! I was saving it for myself. And
I wouldn't be giving it to  anyone now, but as you  see, my arms have gotten
too short.  There's nobody left  but  you. I  dragged lots  of young ones in
there, a  school full. I opened a school for them, you see ...  they  can't.
They don't have  the guts for it, or something. All right, you don't believe
me, I don't care. You want the money. You get it. You give me as much as you
want. I know you won't gyp me. And  maybe I'll be able  to get my legs back.
My legs, do  you  understand? The Zone took them away, and maybe  it'll give
them back?"
     "What?" Redrick asked, coming out of his reverie.
     "I asked, do you mind if I smoke, Mr. Schuhart?"
     "Sure. Go ahead and smoke. I'll have one too."
     He gulped  the rest of  the  coffee, pulled out  a cigarette, and as he
squeezed it, he gazed into the thinning fog. A psyche, he thought He's nuts.
He wants his legs back, the bastard.
     All this talk had left a  residue, he was not  sure of what. And it was
not dissolving with time, but  on the contrary, it was accumulating. And  he
could not understand what it was, but it was bothering him. It was as though
he had  caught something from  Buzzard, not some disgusting  disease, but on
the contrary .. .  his strength, perhaps?  No, not strength. But what  then?
All  right,  he told himself. Let's look at it this way: let's assume that I
didn't get  this far.  I was all ready to  go,  packed,  and then  something
happened, they arrested me, say.  Would that  be  bad?  Definitely. Why bad?
Because I would lose  money? No, it has nothing to  do with the  money. That
this  treasure  will fall into  the  hands  of  Throaty and  Bones?  There's
something in that. It would hurt. But what  do I care?  In  the end, they'll
get it all anyway.
     "Brrrrrr."  Arthur shivered. "It gets into  your bones.  Mr.  Schuhart,
maybe now you'll give me a sip?"
     Redrick got the flask silently. I didn't agree right  away, he thought.
Twenty times  I told Buzzard to get lost, and on the  twenty-first I agreed,
after all. I couldn't take it any more.  Our last conversation turned out to
be brief and businesslike. "Hi, Red. I brought the  map. Maybe you'll take a
look  at  it,  after  all?" And I looked into his eyes,  and they were  like
sores--yellow with black dots--and I said "Let me have it." And that was it.
I remember that I was  drunk then,  I had  been  drinking all week,  I  felt
really low. Ah, the hell with it. Does it matter?  I went. So here I am. Why
am I worrying about it? What am I, afraid?
     He shuddered. He could hear a long sad sound through the fog. He jumped
up and Arthur jumped up too. But it was quiet  again, and the only sound was
the gravel tumbling down the incline under their feet.
     "Must be the ore settling," Arthur whispered  unsurely,  barely able to
get the words out.  "The ore  cars have a  history--they've been here a long
time."
     Redrick looked straight ahead and saw nothing. He remembered. It was at
night.  He  woke up from the same sound, sad and long,  his  heart stopping,
like in a dream. Only it hadn't been a dream. It was Monkey screaming in her
bed by the window. Guta woke up, too, and took Redrick's hand. He could feel
the  sweat  break out  on  her  shoulder against his.  They  lay  there  and
listened, and when Monkey stopped crying and went back to sleep, he waited a
little longer, then got up,  went down to the kitchen, and greedily drank  a
half-bottle of cognac, That was the night he started drinking.
     "It's  the  ore,"  Arthur  said.  "You know, it  settled with time. The
dampness, erosion, all kinds of things like that."
     Redrick looked at his pale face and  sat down again.  His cigarette had
disappeared somewhere from his fingers, and he lit another one. Arthur stood
a little longer, looking around anxiously, then he also sat down.
     "I've heard  that there's life in  the Zone. People. Not  visitors, but
people. It seems  the Visitation  caught  them  here,  and they mutated ....
they've acclimated  to  the new conditions.  Have  you heard  that, too, Mr.
Schuhart?"
     "Yes," Redrick said. "But not here. In  the mountains in the northwest.
Some shepherds.
     That's what he's infected me  with, he thought. His madness. That's why
I've come here.  That's what I  want  here. A  strange  and very new feeling
overwhelmed him. He  was aware that the feeling was  really not  new at all,
that it  had  been  hidden  in  him  for  a  long  time,  but  that  he  was
acknowledging  it  only now,  and  everything  was  falling  into place. And
everything that  had seemed  like nonsense  and the delirious  ravings  of a
crazy  old man turned out to be his only hope, the only meaning of his life.
Because he finally understood:  the only thing he had left in the world, the
only  thing he lived for in the last few months  was  the hope of a miracle.
Fool that  he was, he  kept  pushing hope away, trampling on it, mocking it,
trying to drink it away,  because that  was the way he  was used to  living.
Since  childhood he had relied  on nothing but himself. And since  childhood
this self-reliance had been measured in the amount of money he could snatch,
grab, or  bite away from the indifferent  chaos that  surrounded him. It had
always been that way, and it would have continued, if he had not ended up in
a  hole that no  amount of money could  get him  out of and in  which it was
absolutely useless to rely on himself. And now this hope--no longer a  hope,
but  confidence in a miracle --filled him to the brim,  and he was amazed at
how he could have lived for so long in the impenetrable,  exitless gloom. He
laughed and gave Arthur a poke in the shoulder.
     "Well, stalker, think we'll live through this, eh?"
     Arthur  looked  at him  in  surprise and  smiled  uncertainly.  Redrick
crumpled  up the waxed paper from  the sandwiches, tossed it under  the  ore
car, and lay down, his elbow on the backpack.
     "All  right," he said.  "Let's  say  that  the Golden Ball really--what
would you wish?"
     "You mean, you do believe?" Arthur asked quickly.
     "That's  not  important  whether  or  not  I  believe.  You  answer  my
question."
     He really was interested  in what  such  a young boy, a  schoolboy just
yesterday, could ask  of the Golden  Ball, He enjoyed watching Arthur frown,
tug at his mustache, and look up at him and look away.
     "Well,  dad's legs, of course. And  for  everything to  be all right at
home."
     "You're lying," Redrick said pleasantly. "Keep  this in mind,  brother.
The Golden Ball only grants your deepest, innermost wishes, the kind that if
they're not granted, it's all over for you!"
     Arthur Burbridge blushed,  looked up at Redrick  once more, and  became
even redder. His eyes filled with tears. Redrick grinned.
     "I understand,"  he said  almost  gently. "All right, it's none  of  my
business. Keep your secrets to yourself." He suddenly remembered the gun and
thought that while he had the time he  should take care of whatever could be
taken care of. "What's that in your back pocket?" he asked casually.
     "A gun."
     "What do you need it for?"
     "To shoot!" Arthur said challengingly.
     "Forget  it," Redrick  said firmly  and sat up. "Give it here.  There's
nobody to shoot at in the Zone. Give it to me.
     Arthur  wanted to say  something, but  kept silent,  took the Army Colt
from his pocket and handed it to Redrick by the barrel. Redrick took the gun
by its warm textured handle, tossed it up in the air, and caught it.
     "Do you have a handkerchief or something? I want to wrap it up."
     He  took Arthur's handkerchief,  clean and smelling of cologne, wrapped
the gun in it, and put it on the railroad tie.
     "We'll leave it here  for now. God willing, we'll come back and pick it
up.  Maybe  we'll have to  shoot it  out  with  the patrol  guards. However,
shooting it out with them.... Arthur decisively shook his head.
     "That's not  what I wanted it for," he  said sadly.  "There's only  one
bullet. In case of an accident like Father's."
     "So, that's it."  Redrick stared at him. "Well, you don't have to worry
about that. If that should happen, I'll drag you back here. I promise. Look,
it's getting light!"
     The fog was disappearing before their eyes. It was completely gone from
the embankment and in the distance it was thinning, melting away and showing
the  rounded  bristly peaks  of the hills. Here and there between  the hills
could  be  seen  the mottled  surface  of the stagnant swamps, covered  with
sparse  thickets of willows, and the horizon, beyond  the hills, was  filled
with bright yellow explosions of mountain peaks, and the  sky above them was
clear and blue. Arthur looked  back and gasped with awe. Redrick looked too.
In the  east the  mountains looked  black, and over them  the familiar green
wash of color billowed and shone iridescently--the Zone's green dawn.
     Redrick  got up, went  behind the ore car,  sat  on the embankment, and
watched as the  green  wash  dimmed and quickly  turned to  pink. The  sun's
orange rim came up over  the  ridge, and purple  shadows  stretched from the
hills. Everything became harsh  and in  high  relief, he could see things as
clearly as if they were in the palm of his hand. Right in front, two hundred
yards away, Redrick  saw the helicopter. It had fallen, apparently, into the
middle of a mosquito mange spot, and its  fuselage had been  squashed into a
metal pancake.  Its  tail  had  remained  intact, only slightly bent, and it
stuck out  over the glade like a black hook. The stabilizer was also  whole,
and it squeaked distinctly, turning in the light breeze. The mange must have
been  very powerful, for there hadn't even  been a real fire,  and the Royal
Air  Force  insignia was very clear on the flattened  metal. Redrick had not
seen one in many years  and had almost  forgotten  what the  insignia looked
like.
     Redrick went back to his  pack for the map,  which he spread out on the
hot mound of  ore in the car. You couldn't see the quarry from  here--it was
blocked  by the  hill  with the burned-out tree on its rise.  He had  to  go
around the hill from the right, along the depression between it and the next
hill, which he could also see, completely bare, its slope covered with brown
rocks.
     All  the  reference   points   corresponded,   but   Redrick  felt   no
satisfaction.  His instinct of many years as a stalker protested against the
very thought, which was  irrational and unnatural, of  laying a path between
two nearby elevations. All  right, Redrick  thought,  we'll  see  about that
later. It will be clearer when we get there. The path before the  depression
led through the swamp, along open flat ground, which seemed safe enough from
here. But looking closer, Redrick noted a dark gray spot between the two dry
hills. He looked at the  map. There was an X  there, and it said "Whip" next
to it in clumsy letters.  The red dotted line of the  path went to the right
of the )i. The name was sort of familiar, but who Whip was exactly, and what
he  looked like, and what  he did,  Redrick  could  not  remember.  For some
reason, Redrick could only remember the smoky room of the Borscht, huge  red
paws  holding glasses, thundering laughter, and open jaws filled with yellow
teeth--a fantastic  herd of titans and giants gathered at the watering hole,
one of his most striking childhood memories--his first visit to the Borscht.
What  had I brought that time? An empty, I  think. Straight  from the  Zone,
wet, hungry, crazy, with a  sack over my shoulder, I burst into  the bar and
clattered the  sack  on the  counter  in  front of  Ernest,  looking  around
angrily, listening to the wisecracks, waiting for Ernest--young  then and in
a bow tie, as usual --to count the right amount  of greenbacks. No, wait, it
wasn't  green  back then,  we still had  the  square royal  bills  with some
half-naked dame wearing  a cape and a wreath. I waited, put away the  money,
and unexpectedly,  even  for myself, took  a heavy  mug from the counter and
slammed  it into  the  closest laughing  face. Redrick smirked and  thought:
maybe that was Whip himself?
     "Is it  all right  to  go between  the two hills, Mr. Schuhart?" Arthur
asked in a low voice near  his  ear.  He was next to him looking at the map,
too.
     "We'll see when we  get there." Redrick kept looking at  the map. There
were two other X's, one on the slope of the hill with the tree, the other on
the rocks.  Poodle and Four-eyes. The  path was  marked  below them.  "We'll
see," he repeated, folding up the map and putting it in his pocket.
     He looked Arthur over.
     "Put the backpack on my back. We'll go  like before," he said, shifting
under the weight of the pack and arranging the straps more comfortably. "You
go ahead,  so that call see  you every second. Don't look back and keep your
ears open. My order is law. Keep in mind  that we'll have a  lot of crawling
to do, don't  suddenly be afraid of the  dirt. If I tell  you  to, drop your
face into the mud without any backtalk. And button your jacket. Ready?"
     "Ready."  Arthur  was  very nervous;  the  rosiness of  his cheeks  had
disappeared.
     First we go  this way." Redrick  waved sharply in the direction of  the
nearest hill a hundred steps from the rocks. "Got it? Let's go."
     Arthur heaved a sigh, stepped over the rails, and started down sideways
from the embankment. The pebbles rained after him noisily
     "Easy, easy," Redrick said. "There's no hurry."
     He  started  down slowly after  him,  automatically adjusting  his  leg
muscles  to the weight  of the heavy backpack. He  watched Arthur out of the
corner of his eye. He's  scared, he thought. He must sense  it. If his sense
is like his father's, he does. If you only knew how things were turning out,
Buzzard. If you only knew, Buzzard, that I took your advice this time. "This
is one place,  Red, that you can't go to alone. Like it or not,  you'll have
to  take  somebody  with  you.  I  can  give you  one  of  my  people  who's
expendable."  You talked me  into it. It's the first  time in my life that I
agreed to something like this. Well,  maybe it will  turn  out all right, he
thought. Maybe,  somehow,  it  will  work out.  After all,  I'm not  Buzzard
Burbridge, maybe I'll figure something out.
     "Stop!" he told Arthur.
     The boy stopped ankle-deep in rusty water. By the time Redrick got down
to him, the quagmire had sucked him in up to his knees.
     "Do you see that rock?" Redrick asked. "There, under the hill? Head for
it."
     Arthur moved on. Redrick let him get ten paces ahead and then followed.
The mud slurped underfoot. It was a dead swamp--no bugs, no frogs,  even the
willows were dry and  rotten. Redrick looked around, but for  now everything
seemed to be  in order. The hill slowly got closer, covering the sun,  which
was still  low in the sky, and finally  blocking the entire  eastern sky. At
the rock, Redrick looked back at the embankment.  It was brightly lit by the
sun. A train of ten  ore cars stood oil it.  Some of the cars had fallen off
the tracks and were lying on their sides, and the embankment above  them was
covered with the rusty red piles of the ore. Further on, in the direction of
the  quarry,  north of  the  train,  the air over  the  track  shimmered and
undulated, and tiny rainbows exploded and died in the air. Redrick looked at
the shimmer, spat, and turned away.
     "Let's go,"  he  said. Arthur turned his tense  face to him. "See those
rags over there? You're looking the wrong way! Over there, to the right."
     "Yes," said Arthur.
     "Well, that was a guy called Whip. A long time ago. He didn't listen to
his elders and now he lies there in  order to  show  smart people the  right
way. Look just  to the right of Whip. Got it? See the spot? Right where  the
willows are a little thicker. That's the way. You're off!"
     Now they  were  moving parallel to  the  embankment. Every step brought
them to  shallower  water,  and  soon  they  were walking  on  dry,  springy
hillocks. The map still  showed this as solid swamp. The  map's old, thought
Redrick, Burbridge hasn't been  here in a long time, and it's gotten out  of
date. That's bad. Of course, it's easier to walk on dry  land,  but it would
have  been better for that swamp to be  here. Look at Arthur go, he thought.
He's walking like he's strolling down Central Avenue.
     Arthur seemed to have perked up and was  walking full speed. He had one
hand in his pocket and he  was  swinging the other  as if out  on  a stroll.
Redrick rummaged in his pocket, took out a bolt weighing an ounce or so, and
threw it  at his head. The bolt hit Arthur in the back of the  head. The boy
gasped, grabbed  his  head, crouched,  and fell  into the dry grass. Redrick
stood over him.
     "That's how it comes  out here, Artie," he pontificated. "This isn't an
avenue, we're not on a  promenade here, you  know. Arthur got up slowly. His
face was drained white.
     "Everything clear?" Redrick asked. Arthur gulped and nodded.
     "Fine. And next time I'll let you have it in the teeth. If you're still
alive. Go ahead!"
     The boy could  have made a stalker,  after  all, thought  Redrick. They
probably would have  called him Pretty Boy Artie.  We used to  have  another
Pretty  Boy, his  name was Dixon, but now they called him  Hamster. The only
stalker to fall into the  meatgrinder and live. He was lucky. The fool still
thinks that  it was Burbridge who pulled him out of it. The hell he did! You
don't  get pulled out of the meatgrinder.  He did pull him out of the  Zone,
that's true enough Burbridge performed a heroic deed like that. If he hadn't
... !  Everybody  was getting fed  up with his tricks, and the guys had told
him: you  better  not come back if you come back alone.  That  was when they
began calling him Buzzard, before they used to call him Winner.
     Redrick felt a barely perceptible current of air on  his left cheek and
immediately, without thinking, he shouted: "Halt!"  He extended his  hand to
the  left.  The  current  was  stronger. Some  where  between  them and  the
embankment there was  a  mosquito  mange,  or  maybe it  extended  along the
embankment itself: there was a reason  why the cars had tilted  over. Arthur
stood as though he had been planted, he did not even turn around.
     "To the right. Let's go."
     Yes, he would have made a good stalker. What the hell, do I feel  sorry
for him or something? That's all  I need. Did anyone ever feel sorry for me?
I guess they did. Kirill felt  sorry for me. Dick Noonan feels sorry for me.
Of course, he might be more interested in Guta than in feeling sorry for me,
but one  doesn't necessarily rule out  the  other. Only  I don't get to feel
pity.  My choice  is always either/or.  He  finally  understood  the choice:
either this boy, or  my Monkey. There was no real choice, it  was clear.  If
only miracles did happen, some voice said inside, and he repressed the voice
with horror
     They  went around  the  mound  of gray  rags. There was nothing left of
Whip.  Some  distance  away in the dry grass lay  a  long, completely rusted
stick--a minesweeper. In those days many stalkers used mine sweepers, buying
them  up on the quiet from army suppliers, and depended on them like on  the
Lord  God himself, and  then two  stalkers  were killed  within  a few days,
killed  by underground  explosions. And that put an  end to it. Who had this
Whip been? Did Buzzard bring  him here  or had he come on his own? Why  were
they  all  drawn to this quarry?  Why hadn't I heard anything about it? Damn
it,  it's hot! And this is  so early in the morning, I can  imagine what  it
will be like later.
     Arthur,  walking five paces  ahead,  wiped  the sweat  from  his  brow.
Redrick squinted up at the sun;  it was  still low. And suddenly he realized
that the dry grass was not rustling underfoot but squeaking like cornstarch,
and it was no longer stiff and bristly, but soft and crumbly--it was falling
apart under  their shoes, like  flakes  of soot. And  he  saw Arthur's clear
footprints, and  he  threw himself  down  on the ground, shouting:  "Hit the
dirt!"
     He  fell face  down into the  grass, and it  turned into dust under his
cheek.  He gnashed his  teeth in anger over  their bad  luck.  He  lay there
trying  not to move, still hoping that it  would  blow over, even though  he
realized that they were trapped. The  heat  was increasing,  over-  whelming
him, enveloping his body like  a sheet soaked in boiling water. Sweat poured
into his eyes, and Redrick shouted  belatedly to  Arthur: "Don't move!  Bear
it!" And he started bearing it himself.
     He would  have withstood it, and everything would  have  passed quietly
and well, they would have gotten by with a lot of sweat, but Arthur couldn't
take it. Either he had not heard Redrick's shout, or he became scared out of
his wits, or maybe, he had been baked more strongly than Redrick--anyway  he
lost  control  and ran  off  blindly,  with  a scream  deep  in his  throat,
following his instinct--backward,  The  very direction  they  couldn't take.
Redrick  barely managed to rise and grab his  ankle with  both hands. Arthur
fell  down with  the full weight of-his body,  raising  a  cloud  of  ashes,
squealed  in  an unnatural voice, kicked Redrick in the face with his  other
foot, and struggled  wildly. Redrick, not thinking clearly  any more through
the pain, crawled on top of him, touching the leather jacket with his burned
face, trying  to press  the boy into the ground, holding his long hair  with
both hands and  desperately kicking his feet  and knees at Arthur's legs and
his rear end and  at the dirt. He could barely hear the muffled moans coming
from beneath him and his own hoarse shouts:
     "Lie there,  you toad, lie still, or I'll  kill you."  Tons and tons of
hot coals  were pouring  over him,  and  his clothing was in flames and  the
leather of  his shoes and jacket was blistering and  cracking, and  Redrick,
his head mashed into  the gray  ash, his chest trying to keep the damn boy's
head down, could not stand it. He yelled his lungs out.
     He did not remember when it all ended. He understood only that he could
breathe again, that  the air was air again,  and not  steam  that burned his
throat, and  he realized  that they had to hurry and get out  from under the
devilish heat before it came crashing down on them again. He got off Arthur,
who was lying perfectly still, tucked both his legs under one arm, and using
his free  arm, crawled forward, never taking his eyes off the line where the
grass  started again. It was  dead,  prickly,  dry, but  it  was real and it
seemed like the greatest source of life in the world. The ashes felt  gritty
in his teeth, his burnt face gave off heat, and the sweat  poured right into
his eyes, probably because  he no longer had eyebrows or  eyelashes.  Arthur
was stretched out behind, his jacket seeming  to catch on to  every possible
place. Redrick's  parboiled hands ached, and the backpack  kept bumping into
his burned neck.  The pain and lack  of air made  Redrick think that he  was
completely burned  and  that  he would not make  it.  The fear made him work
harder  with his elbow and his knees. just get  there,  just a  little more,
come on, Red, come on, you can make it, like that, just a little more....
     Then he  lay for a long  time, his face and  hands in  the  cold, rusty
water, luxuriating in the smelly, rotten coolness. He could have  lain  like
that  forever, but  he forced himself to get up on  his knees, throw off the
backpack, crawl over to  Arthur, who was  still lying motionless some thirty
feet from the  swamp, and turn  him over  on his back. Well, he used to be a
pretty boy.  And  now that  handsome face was a dark gray  mask of  baked-on
blood and ash. For a  few  seconds Redrick examined  with dull  interest the
ruts and furrows made in the mask--the tracks of stones and  sticks. Then he
got up  on his feet, picked up Arthur by the armpits, and dragged him to the
water. Arthur was breathing hoarsely, moaning once in a while. Redrick threw
him  face down into the  deepest puddle  and fell down next to him, reliving
the pleasure of  the  wet, icy  caress. Arthur  gurgled, moved about, braced
himself on his hands,  and raised  his head. He was bug-eyed, he  understood
nothing and was greedily gulping air, coughing and spitting. Then he came to
his senses. His gaze settled on Redrick.
     "Phoo-oo-ey." He shook his head, scattering dirty drops of water.
     "What was that, Mr. Schuhart?"
     "That was death," Redrick murmured and coughed. He  felt his  face.  It
hurt. His nose was swollen, but his brews and lashes, strangely enough, were
in place. And the skin on his hands remained intact, but red.
     Arthur was also gingerly  touching his face. Now that the horrible mask
had been washed away, his face--also contrary to expectation --turned out to
be all right. There  were a few  scratches,  a bump on his forehead, and his
lower lip was split. But all in all, okay.
     "I've never heard of anything like that," Arthur said looking back.
     Redrick looked back too. There were many tracks on the gray ashy grass,
and Redrick was amazed to see how short his terrible, endless path had been,
when he crawled to save them from doom. It was only  twenty or  thirty yards
from one edge of the burnt-out grass to the other, but in his  blindness and
fear he had crawled in  some wild zigzag, like a roach on a hot skillet, and
thank  God  he had  at  least crawled in the right  direction. He could have
gotten into the mosquito mange on the left, or he could have  gotten  turned
around  completely.  No, that  would  not  have happened  to  him, he was no
greenhorn. And  if it had not been for  that fool, then nothing at all would
have happened,  he would have  gotten blisters on  his  feet--and that would
have been it as far as injuries.
     He looked  at Arthur. Arthur  was washing up, moaning as he touched the
sore spots. Redrick stood  up, and wincing  from the pain of his clothes  on
his burnt skin, walked to a dry spot and examined the backpack. The pack had
really  taken  a beating. The top buckles  had melted  and the  vials in the
first-aid  kit  had burst  to hell, and  a damp  spot reeked of  antiseptic.
Redrick opened the pack and started  picking out  the  slivers of glass  and
plastic, when he heard Arthur's voice.
     "Thank you, Mr. Schuhart! You saved my life!"
     Redrick said nothing. Thanks! You fell apart, and I had to rescue you.
     "It was my own fault. I heard your order to lie there, but I was really
scared,  and  when  it got so hot--I  lost my head. I'm very much afraid  of
pain, Mr. Schuhart."
     "Why don't you get up?" Redrick said without turning around toward him.
"That was just a sample. Get up, what are you loafing around for?"
     Wincing  from the pain  of the pack on his burned shoulders, he put his
arms through the straps. It felt as though the skin on the burned places had
wrinkled up. He was afraid of pain,  was  he?  Shove you and your  pain!  He
looked around. It was all  right,  they  hadn't  left  the path. Now for the
hills with the corpses. The damn hills, just stood there, the lousy mothers,
sticking out like the devil's horns,  and that damn depression between them.
He  sniffed the air. You damn depression, that's the really  lousy part. The
toad.
     "See that depression between the hills?" he asked.
     "I see it.
     "Head straight for it. March!"
     Arthur wiped his face with the back of his hand and moved on, splashing
through  the  puddles.  He was  limping and did  not  look  as straight  and
well-proportioned as he had  before. He was bent  over and  was walking very
carefully. There's another one I pulled out, thought Redrick. What does that
make? Five? Six? And now I wonder why? He's no relation. I'm not responsible
for him. Listen,  Red, why did you  save  him? You  almost got  it  yourself
because of him. Now that my head is clear, I know why. It was right to  save
him, I can't manage without him, he's my hostage for Monkey. I didn't save a
human being, I saved my  minesweeper. My master key. Back there in the heat,
I never  gave it a second thought. I Pulled him out like he was my flesh and
blood,  and didn't  even  think about  abandoning  him  Even  though  I  had
forgotten everything -- the master key and  Monkey. What does  that mean? It
means that  I really am a good guy, after all. That's what Guta insists, and
Kirill used to say, and what Richard is always babbling about. Some good guy
they found! Drop it, he told himself. You  have to think first, and then use
your arms and legs. Got that straight? Mr. Nice  Guy. I have to save him for
the  meatgrinder, he thought coldly and clearly. We can get past  everything
except the grinder.
     "Stop!"
     The depression lay before them, and Arthur was already  standing there,
looking at Redrick for orders. The  floor of the depression was covered with
a  rotten  green  slime that glinted oilily in the sun. A  light  steam rose
above it, getting  thicker between the hills, and nothing was visible beyond
thirty  feet.  And it  stank. "It'll really stink  in  there, but  don't you
chicken out. Arthur made a noise in the back of his throat  and backed away.
Redrick shook himself back to action, pulled from his pocket a wad of cotton
soaked in deodorant, stuffed up his nostrils, and offered some to Arthur.
     "Thanks,  Mr. Schuhart. Isn't there a land route we could take?" Arthur
asked in a weak voice.
     Redrick  silently  took  him by  the  hair  and turned  his head in the
direction of the bundle of rags on the stony hillside.
     "That was  Four-eyes," he said. "And on the left  hill,  you  can't see
from here, lies Poodle. In the same condition. Do you understand? Forward."
     The slime  was warm and sticky. At first they walked erect, waist- deep
in the slime. Luckily the bottom was rocky and rather even. But soon Redrick
heard  the familiar rumble from both  sides. There was nothing  on  the left
hill except the intense sunlight, but on the right slope, in the shade, pale
purple lights were fluttering
     "Bend low!" he  whispered  and  bent over  himself.  ''Lower, stupid!''
Arthur bent over in  fright, and a clap of thunder shattered the air.  Right
over  their  heads an  intricate  lightning bolt  danced  furiously,  barely
visible against the bright sky. Arthur sat down, shoulder deep in the slime.
Redrick, ears clogged by the noise, turned and saw a bright red spot quickly
melting in  the shade among  the  pebbles  and rocks, and there was  another
thunderclap.
     "Forward! Forward!" he shouted, unable to hear himself.
     Now  they  were moving in  a  crouch,  Indian  file,  only  their heads
exposed. At every peal Redrick watched Arthur's long  hair stand on end  and
could feel a thousand needles  puncturing  his face.  "For- ward!"  he  kept
repeating.  "Forward!"  He could  not hear a thing  any  more. Once  he  saw
Arthur's profile, and  he saw  his terror-stricken eyes  bulging out and his
white bouncing lips and  his green-smeared sweaty cheek. Then the  lightning
began  striking so low that they  had to duck their heads.  The green  slime
gummed his mouth, making it  hard to breathe. Gulping for  air, Redrick tore
the cotton out of his nose and discovered  that  the reek was gone, that the
air  was filled with the fresh, piercing odor  of ozone, and that the  steam
was  getting  thicker, or maybe he was blacking out, and he  could no longer
see either  of the two hills. All he could see was Arthur's head sticky with
green slime and the billowing clouds of yellow steam.
     I'll get  through, I'll  get through, Redrick thought;  this is nothing
new. My  whole life is like this. I'm stuck in filth  and  there's lightning
over my head. It's never  been any  other way. Where is all this gunk coming
from? You could go crazy from this much gunk in one place! Buzzard Burbridge
did  this: he  walked through and  left this behind.  Four-eyes  lay on  the
right, Poodle on the left, and all so that Buzzard could  walk  between them
and leave all  his filth  behind. That's what you deserve,  he told himself.
Whoever walks behind Buzzard walks up to  his neck in filth. You didn't know
that? There are  too  many buzzards, that's why there isn't  a  single clean
place left.
     Noonan's a fool: Redrick, Red, you violate the balance, you destroy the
order, you're  unhappy, Red, under any order, any system. You're  not  happy
under a bad one, you're not happy under a good one. It's people like you who
keep us from having the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. What do you know, fatso?
Where have you  seen a good system? When have you ever seen me under  a good
system? He slipped on  a stone  that turned  under his foot, and fell in. He
surfaced and saw Arthur's terrified face right next to his. For a second  he
felt a chill: he thought that he had lost  his way.  But he had  not  gotten
lost. He realized immediately that they had  to go that way, where the black
top of  the rock stuck out of the slime; he realized that even  though there
was nothing else visible in the yellow fog.
     "Stop!" he shouted. "Keep right! To the right of the rock!"
     He could not hear his own voice. He caught up  with Arthur, grabbed his
shoulder, and  pointed: keep  right of  the  rock and keep your  head  down.
You'll pay for  this, he thought. Arthur  dove under at the rock, just as  a
lightning bolt hit it, smashing it to smithereens.  You'll pay for this,  he
repeated, as he ducked under and worked furiously with his arms and legs. He
could hear another  peal of  thunder. I'll shake your souls  out of you  for
this! He had  a  fleeting thought: who do I mean? I don't know. But somebody
has to pay for  this, and somebody will! Just wait, just let  me get  to the
ball, when I get to the ball, I'm no Buzzard, I'll get what I want from you.
     When  they finally  scrambled out onto dry  land  that  was covered  by
sun-heated pebbles, they were  half-deaf, turned inside out,  and staggering
and holding on to each other. Redrick saw the peeling pick-up truck, sagging
on  its axles, and he remembered that  they could  rest  in the shade of the
truck.  They crawled into  the  shade.  Arthur  lay on  his  back  and began
unbuttoning his  jacket with limp  fingers, and Redrick leaned  his backpack
against  the side of the truck, wiped his hands against the small rocks, and
reached inside his jacket.
     "And me, too." Arthur said. "Me too."
     Redrick  was  surprised by the loudness of the  boy's  voice. He took a
sip, shut his  eyes, and handed the  flask  to Arthur. That's it, he thought
weakly. We got through. We got  through even this. And now, accounts payable
upon demand. Do you think that  I forgot? No way, I remember it all.  Do you
think I'll thank you for letting me live and not  drowning me? You get zilch
from me. This  is  the end for all of you, get  it?  I'm not  leaving any of
this. From  now on, I make all the decisions.  I, Redrick Schuhart, being of
sound mind  and body, will  make all the decisions for everybody. And as for
all of you, buzzards, toads, Visitors, Boneses,  Quarterblads, bloodsuckers,
green-  backers, Throaties, in your suits and ties,  clean  and  fresh, with
your briefcases  and speeches and good deeds  and  employment opportunities,
and your eternal batteries and eternal engines and mosquito manges and false
promises--I've  had  enough, you've led me by  the nose long enough.  All my
life you've led me  by the nose, and I thought and bragged that I was living
the  way I  wanted to,  fool,  and all the time  you were egging me  on  and
winking among  yourselves, and leading me by  the nose, dragging me, hauling
me through jails and  bars. I've had it! He unsnapped the straps of the pack
and took the Bask from Arthur.
     "I  never thought...."  Arthur  was saying with  meek disbelief in  his
voice. "I couldn't even imagine. I knew  about death  and  fire and  all, of
course, but something like that! How are we going to get back?"
     Redrick was not listening. What that thing was saying no longer had any
meaning. It  had no meaning before,  either, but before it was  a person  at
least. And now, it was like  a  talking  key, a  key to open the way to  the
Golden Ball. Let it talk.
     "If we get some water," Arthur said. "At least wash our faces.
     Redrick  looked  at  him distractedly,  saw the  disheveled  and glued-
together hair, the face  smeared with drying slime with  finger marks in it,
and all of him covered with a crust of oozing slime, and he felt no pity, no
irritation,  nothing. A talking key. He turned away. A dreary expanse,  like
an  abandoned  construction  site, yawned before them.  It was  covered with
broken brick,  sprinkled  with white dust, and  highlighted by the  blinding
sun,  which was unbearably white, hot, angry, and dead.  The  far end of the
quarry was visible from there --also  blindingly white and at that  distance
seemingly perfectly  smooth  and perpendicular. The near end  was marked  by
large  breaks and  boulders,  and  there  was the path down into the quarry,
where the  excavator's cabin stood out  like a red splotch against the white
rock. That was the only landmark. They had to head for it, depending on dumb
luck to guide them.
     Arthur  propped himself up, stuck his arm under  the truck,  and pulled
out a rusty tin can.
     "Look at that, Mr.  Schuhart,"  he said, livening up. "Father must have
left this. There's more under there.
     Redrick  didn't reply. That's  a mistake, he thought,  dispassionately.
Better  not think  about your father  now, you'd  be  better off not  saying
anything.  On the other hand, it doesn't matter. Getting up,  he winced: his
clothes  had  stuck to his body, to his burned  skin, and now  something was
tearing  inside,  like a dried  bandage  pulling  from  a wound. Arthur also
groaned as he got  up; he gave Redrick a martyred look. It was clear that he
wanted to complain but that he  didn't  dare.  He  only said  in a strangled
voice:
     "Do you think I might have another sip, Mr. Schuhart?"
     Redrick put the flask that he had been holding back under his shirt.
     "Do you see that red between the rocks?"
     "I see it," Arthur said and shuddered.
     "Straight for it. Let's go."
     Arthur  stretched his arms, straightened his  shoulders,  grimaced, and
said looking around:
     "I wish I could wash up. Everything's sticking."
     Redrick waited silently. Arthur looked at  him hopelessly, nodded,  and
was about to start when he stopped suddenly.
     "The backpack. You forgot the backpack, Mr. Schuhart."
     "March!" Redrick ordered.
     He did not want to explain  or  to lie, and there was no need. He would
go anyway. He had nowhere  else to go. He'd go. And Arthur went. He wandered
on, hunched over, dragging his feet, trying to pick off the baked slime from
his face,  looking  small,  scrawny,  and forlorn, like a wet  stray kitten.
Redrick walked  behind him, and as soon  as he stepped out of the shade, the
sun seared  and blinded him, and he shaded his eyes  with  his hand and  was
sorry that he had not taken his sunglasses.
     Every  step raised a cloud of  white dust, and the dust  settled on his
shoes and gave off an unbearable stench. Or rather, it came from  Arthur, it
was impossible  to walk behind  him. It took  him a while to understand that
the stench  was  coming from himself.  The odor was disgusting,  but somehow
familiar--that was the smell that filled the city on the days that the north
wind carried the smoke from the plant. And his father smelled that way, too,
when he came  home, hungry,  gloomy, with red wild eyes. And  Redrick  would
hurry  to hide in some faraway corner and watch in  fear  as his father tore
off  his work clothes and tossed  them to his mother,  pulled off his  huge,
worn  shoes and shoved them on the  floor of the closet, and stalked off  to
the shower in his stocking feet, leaving sticky footprints. He would stay in
the shower, grunting and slapping his body, for a long time, splashing water
and muttering under his breath, until  he shouted so that  the  house shook:
"Maria! Are you  asleep?"  He had to  wait until his  father  had washed and
seated himself  at the table, where  a pint bottle,  a bowl with thick soup,
and bottle  of catsup were  ready  for him. Wait until he had slurped up all
the soup and started on the pork and beans, and then he could creep out into
the  light,  climb  up on his lap,  and  ask which shop  steward  and  which
engineer he had drowned in vitriol that day.
     Everything around him was white hot, and  he  was dizzy from the  cruel
dry heat, the exhaustion,  and the unbearable pain of his skin blistering at
the  joints; it seemed to him, through the hot haze that  was enveloping his
consciousness, that  his skin was  crying out to him, begging him for peace,
for   water,   for   coolness.   The  memories,  worn   to   the  point   of
unrecognizability, were crowding each other in  his swollen  brain, knocking
each other  over, blending, tumbling, mingling with the white hot world that
was flaming before his half-closed eyes, and they  were all bitter, and they
all evoked self-pity or hatred. He tried to fight the  chaos, to summon from
the past  some  sweet mirage,  a feeling  of tenderness  or cheerfulness. He
squeezed out the fresh laughing face of Guta from the depths of his  memory,
when she was still a girl, desired and untouched, and her face appeared, but
was immediately  blanketed  by rust and then  twisted and deformed  into the
sullen  face  of  Monkey, covered  with  coarse brown fur.  He  struggled to
remember Kirill, that sainted man, his swift, sure movements, his laugh, his
voice, which  promised  unheard-of marvelous  places  and times,  and Kirill
appeared; but then a silver cobweb  exploded on  the sun  and  Kirill was no
more, and Throaty's  unblinking angelic eyes stared at Redrick, a  porcelain
container  in his big  white hand....  The  dark thoughts festering  in  his
subconscious  knocked  down  the  barrier  his  will  tried  to  create  and
extinguished the little good that his memory contained,  and it  seemed that
there had never been anything good at all, only ugly, vicious faces.
     And  during all this  time, he never stopped being a  stalker.  Without
realizing it, he  recorded somewhere in  his  nervous system  the  essential
information: that on the left, at a safe distance, there  was a  jolly ghost
over a pile of old planks--it was quiet, exhausted, and so the hell with it;
on the right there was  a  slight  breeze, and  a  few steps  later he saw a
mirror-smooth mosquito mange, with many  arms, like a starfish-far away,  no
danger--and right in its center, a flattened bird, a rare sight, since birds
did not  often fly over  the Zone; and  right  by the  path there  were  two
abandoned empties--apparently Buzzard had dropped them on the way back, fear
is stronger than  greed.  He saw  all of this  and took it into account, and
Arthur had only to stray a single foot from their path  for  Redrick's mouth
to open  and  the hoarse warning  to  fly automatically  from  his throat. A
machine, he thought. You made  a machine out of me. The  broken rocks at the
edge of  the  quarry  were getting  closer,  and  he could  see the fanciful
designs made by rust on the cabin's red roof.
     You fool, you,  Burbridge, Redrick thought. You're clever, but you're a
fool. How could you have trusted me? You've known me for so long, you should
know  me  better than I  know myself. You're getting old, that  must  be it.
Getting  dumber.  But what am I saying,  I've been dealing with fools all my
life. And then he pictured  Buzzard's  face when he  discovered that Arthur,
his sweet Artie, his  one and only son, that his pride and joy had gone into
the  Zone with Red  after  Buzzard's legs,  not  some  expendable  punk.  He
pictured  his  face and laughed. When  Arthur turned  his frightened face to
look at him, Redrick went  on  laughing  and motioned  him on. And then  the
faces  crawled  across his consciousness again like  pictures on  a  screen.
Everything had  to be changed. Not one life or two lives,  not  one  fate or
two--every link in this rotten, stinking world had to be changed.
     Arthur  stopped  at  the steep descent into  the quarry,  froze in  his
steps,  straining  to  look down  and into the distance, extending  his long
neck. Redrick joined him. But he did not look where Arthur was looking.
     Right at their feet the  road into the quarry began, torn up many years
ago  by the treads and wheels of heavy vehicles.  To the right was  a  white
steep slope,  cracked by the heat; the next  slope was half  excavated,  and
among  the rocks  and rubble stood a  bulldozer, its lowered  bucket  jammed
impotently against the side of the  road. And,  as was to be expected, there
was nothing else to be seen  on  the road,  except  for  the  black  twisted
stalactites  that looked like fat candles  hanging from the jagged edges  of
the slope, and a multitude of black splotches in the dust, as though someone
had spilled bitumen.  That was  all that  was  left  of  them,  it was  even
impossible to tell how many there had been. Maybe each splotch represented a
person, or one of Buzzard's wishes.  That one there  was Buzzard coming back
alive and  unharmed  from the basement of Complex #7. That  bigger one  over
there  was Buzzard getting the  wriggling magnet out of the Zone  unscathed.
And that icicle was the luxurious  Dina Burbridge, who resembled neither her
mother nor her father. And that  spot there was Arthur Burbridge, unlike his
father and mother, Artie, the handsome son, their pride and joy.
     "We made it!" Arthur rasped deliriously. "Mr. Schuhart, we did make it,
after all, right?"
     He laughed a happy laugh, crouched down, and beat both fists as hard as
he could on the  ground.  His  matted  hair bounced ridiculously, and  dried
clumps of dirt flew  in all directions. And only then did Redrick look up at
the ball. Carefully. With caution. With a hidden fear that it would turn out
wrong--that it would disappoint him, evoke doubts, throw him  from the cloud
that he had managed to scramble up on, and leave him to wallow in filth.
     It was not golden, it was more  a copper color, reddish, and completely
smooth, and  it shone dully in the sun. It lay at  the foot  of the quarry's
far wall,  cozily ensconced amid  the piles  of  accumulated rocks, and even
from that  distance, he could  see how  heavy  and massive  it was,  and how
solidly it lay in its place.
     There was nothing disappointing or doubt-inspiring about it, but  there
was nothing to inspire hope either. For some reason,  his first thought  was
that it was  probably hollow  and that it  should  be hot to  the touch from
being  in the sun.  It obviously did  not  glow with  its  own light and  it
obviously was incapable of floating up  and dancing in the  air,  the way so
many of the  tales had  it. It lay where it had fallen. Maybe  it had fallen
out of some monstrously huge  pocket or had  gotten lost, rolled away during
some game between some giants. It had not been carefully placed here, it had
been left behind,  littering up  the Zone  like all  the empties, bracelets,
batteries, and other rubbish remaining after the Visitation.
     But  at the same time, there was  something  about  it, and  the longer
Redrick looked at  it, the clearer it became that it was pleasant to look at
it, that he  wanted to go up to  it, to touch it, pat  it, and suddenly  the
thought came to him that it would be good, probably, to sit down next to it,
or  even better,  to lean  back against  it,  close  his  eyes,  and  think,
reminisce, and maybe just  dream  and drowse and rest.... Arthur  jumped up,
tore open all  the zippers on  his  jacket,  took  it off, and threw it down
smack at his feet, raising a cloud of white dust. He was shouting something,
making faces and waving his arms, and then he put his hands behind his back,
and dancing a jig, headed down the slope. He was not looking at  Redrick any
more, he had forgotten Redrick,  he  had forgotten everything. He  was going
down  to make his wishes come true, the little secret wishes of  a  blushing
college student, of a boy who had never seen any money beyond his allowance,
who had been beaten mercilessly  if he had a whiff  of alcohol on his breath
when he came home, and who was being groomed to  be a famous  lawyer, and in
the  future, a  cabinet minister,  and  in  the distant future,  and  as his
greatest prospect--president.  Redrick, squinting  his swollen  eyes against
the blinding light, silently watched him go. He was cool and calm,  he  knew
what was about  to happen, and  he knew that he would not watch, but it  was
still all right to  watch, and he did, feeling nothing in particular, except
that deep inside a little worm  started wriggling  around  and  twisting its
sharp head in his gut.
     And the boy  kept  walking down, dancing a  jig,  shuffling to his  own
beat, and the white dust rose from his heels, and he was shouting at the top
of  his lungs,  clearly,  joyously,  and  festively--either  a  song  or  an
incantation--and Redrick thought that this was the first time in the history
of the quarry that a man went down there as though he were going to a party.
And at first he did not listen to what his talking key was yelling, and then
something clicked inside him and he heard:
     "Happiness for everybody!  ...  Free! ...  As  much as  you want! ..  .
Everybody come here! . . . There's enough  for everybody! Nobody will  leave
unsatisfied! ... Free! ... Happiness! ... Free!"
     And then he was suddenly silent, as though a huge fist  had punched him
in the mouth. And Redrick saw the transparent emptiness that was lurking  in
the  shadow of the excavator's bucket grab him, throw him up in the air, and
slowly slowly twist him,  like a  housewife wringing her  wash.  Redrick had
time  to see one of his dusty shoes fall  off his jerking  leg and fly  high
above  the  quarry.  Then he turned away and sat down. There wasn't a single
thought in his head,  and he  had  somehow  stopped sensing himself. Silence
hung heavy in the air, particularly behind  him, there on the road.  Then he
remembered  the flask, without particular joy, but  just as medicine that it
was time to take. He unscrewed the cap and drank with tiny  stingy sips, and
for the first  time in his life he  wished that instead of liquor, the  Bask
contained cold water.
     Time  passed, and more or  less coherent  thoughts came  to him.  Well,
that's it, he thought unwillingly. The road is open. He could go down  right
now, but it was better, of course,  to wait a while. The meatgrinders can be
tricky.  Anyway,  he  had  some thinking to do.  An  unaccustomed  exercise,
thinking,  that was the trouble.  What was "thinking" anyway? Thinking meant
finding a  loophole,  pulling  a  bluff,  pulling the  wool  over  someone's
eyes--but all that was out of place here.
     All  right.  Monkey, his father.... Make  them pay  for that, steal the
bastards' souls,  let the sons of bitches eat what I've been eating. ... No,
that's not it, Red.... I mean, that is it, but what  does it mean? What do I
need? That's cursing, not thinking. A terrible presentiment chilled him, and
quickly  skipping over the many arguments that were still ahead  of him,  he
told himself angrily: this is how it is, Red, you won't leave here until you
figure it out, you'll  drop  dead  here next to the ball, burn  to death and
rot, but you won't leave.
     God, where are the words, where are my thoughts? He slapped his head. I
have never had a thought in  my entire life! Wait, wait, Kirill  used to say
something like that. Kirill!  He feverishly  dug through  his memories,  and
words  Boated to the surface,  familiar  ones and unfamiliar, but it was all
wrong,  because  Kirill had  not left words  behind.  He  had left pictures,
vague, and very kind, but thoroughly improbable.
     Meanness and  treachery. They let  me  down  in this too, they left  me
speechless, the bastards. A bum--I was always a bum, and now I'm an old bum.
It's  not  right, do you hear me? In  the future, for  once and for  all, it
should be outlawed! Man is born  in order to think (there he is,  old Kirill
at  last!). Only I don't believe it. I  didn't believe it before and I don't
believe it now. And I don't know what man is born for. I was born. So here I
am. People eat whatever they  can. Let all of us  be  healthy and let all of
them drop dead. Who  is us and who are they? I  don't understand a thing. If
I'm  happy,  Burbridge isn't, if  Burbridge's  happy,  Four-eyes  isn't,  if
Throaty is happy, no  one else is, and if things  are bad for Throaty,  he's
the only one fool enough to  think he'll manage somehow. God, it's  just one
long brawl! I fight all my life with Captain Quarterblad,  and he fights all
his life with Throaty, and all he wants from me  is that I give up stalking.
But how can I give up stalking  when I have a family  to  feed? Get a job? I
don't want to work for you, your work makes me puke, do you understand? This
is  the  way I figure it: if a man works  with you, he is always working for
one  of  you,  he is a  slave and  nothing  else. And I always wanted to  be
myself, on  my own,  so that I could  spit  at you all, at your boredom  and
despair.
     He finished the dregs of the brandy  and  threw  the empty flask to the
ground  with all his  might. The  flask bounced, flashing  in  the  sun, and
rolled away. He forgot about it immediately. He sat there, covering his eyes
with  his hands, and  he  was  trying--not to understand,  not to think, but
merely  to see something  of  how things should be, but  all he saw were the
faces,  faces, faces, and more faces ... and greenbacks, bottles, bundles of
rags that were once people, and columns of figures. He knew that  it all had
to be  destroyed, and he wanted to destroy it, but he guessed that if it all
disappeared there  would  be  nothing  left  but  the flat, bare  earth. His
frustration and despair made him want to lean back against the ball. He  got
up, automatically brushed off his pants, and started down into the quarry.
     The sun  was broiling hot,  red  spots floated before his eyes, the air
was quivering on the floor of the quarry, and in the shimmer it seemed  that
the ball  was dancing in  place like a buoy on the waves. He  went past  the
bucket, superstitiously picking up  his  feet higher and making sure not  to
step on the splotches. And then, sinking into the rubble, he dragged himself
across the quarry to the dancing,  winking ball.  He was covered with  sweat
and panting from the heat, and at the same time, a chill was running through
him,  he was shuddering,  as  if he had a bad hangover, and  the sweet chalk
dust  gritted between his  teeth.  He had stopped  trying  to think. He just
repeated his  litany over and  over: "I am an animal, you see  that. I don't
have the words, they didn't teach me the words. I  don't know how  to think,
the  bastards  didn't let me learn how to think.  But if  you really are ...
all-powerful ... all-knowing ... then you figure it out! Look into my heart.
I know that everything you need is  in  there. It has to be. I never sold my
soul to anyone! It's mine,  it's human! You take from me what it is  I  want
... it just can't be that I would  want something bad! Damn it all,  I can't
think of anything, except those words of  his ...'HAPPINESS  FOR  EVERYBODY,
FREE, AND NO ONE WILL GO AWAY UNSATISFIED!' "

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