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Vyacheslav Rybakov. The trial sphere

Vyacheslav Rybakov. The trial sphere


Вячеслав Рыбаков. Пробный шар


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

Copyright © Vyacheslav Rybakov


Copyright © Translation Ilia Avroutine. 1997


1


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

2


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

3


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

4


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

5


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

6


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

7


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

8


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

9


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

10


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

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