(…) Arthur stopped in front of the steep descent into the quarry, stopped and froze in place, staring down into the distance, craning his long neck. Redrick came up to him and stopped nearby. But he didn’t look where Arthur was looking.
Right under their feet was a road stretching into the depths of the quarry, formed many years ago by Caterpillar tracks and the wheels of heavy trucks. The right slope was white and cracked by the heat, while the left slope had been partially excavated, and there, between the boulders and heaps of rubble, stood the excavator, tilted to one side, its lowered bucket jammed impotently into the side of the road. And, as was to be expected, there was nothing else to see on the road, except the twisted black stalactites, resembling thick spiral candles, dangling from the rough ledges right by the bucket, and the large number of black splotches visible in the dust — as if someone had spilled asphalt. That was all that was left of them, you couldn’t even tell how many there’d been. Maybe each splotch had been one person, one of the Vulture’s wishes. This one — that’s the Vulture coming back safe and sound from the basement of the Seventh Complex. That bigger one, over there — that’s the Vulture bringing the moving magnet out of the Zone unscathed. And that one — that’s the luscious Dina Burbridge, the universally desired slut, who didn’t look like either her mom or dad. And that spot — that’s Arthur Burbridge, the pretty boy, who also didn’t look like either his mom or dad, the apple of the Vulture’s eye . . .
“We made it!” Arthur croaked ecstatically. “Mr. Schuhart, we made it after all, huh?”
He laughed a happy laugh, crouched down, and beat the ground with his fists as hard as he could. The tangle of hair on the crown of his head trembled and swayed in an odd and funny way, clumps of dried dirt flew in every direction. And only then did Redrick raise his eyes and look at the Sphere. Carefully. Apprehensively. With a suppressed fear that it would be all wrong — that it’d disappoint, raise doubts, throw him out of the heaven he’d managed to ascend to, choking on shit along the way . . .
It wasn’t golden, it was closer to copper, reddish, completely smooth, and it gleamed dully in the sun. It lay under the far wall of the quarry, cozily nestled between the piles of accumulated ore, and even from this distance you could see how massive it was and how heavily it pressed on the ground beneath it.
There was nothing about it to disappoint or raise doubts, but there was also nothing in it to inspire hope. Somehow, it immediately gave the impression that it was hollow and must be very hot to the touch — the sun had heated it up. It clearly wasn’t radiating light, and it clearly wasn’t capable of floating in the air and dancing around, the way it often happened in the legends about it. It lay where it had fallen. It might have tumbled out of some huge pocket or gotten lost, rolling away, during a game between some giants — it hadn’t been placed here, it was lying around, just like all the empties, bracelets, batteries, and other junk left over from the Visit.
But at the same time, there was something about it, and the longer Redrick looked at it, the clearer it became that looking at it was enjoyable, that he’d like to approach it, that he’d like to touch it or even to stroke it. And for some reason, it suddenly occurred to him that it’d probably be nice to sit next to it and, even better, to lean against it, to throw his head back, close his eyes, and think things over, reminisce, or maybe simply doze, resting . . .
Arthur jumped up, quickly undid all the zippers on his jacket, tore it off, and threw it at his feet with all his might, raising a cloud of white dust. He was yelling something, making faces, and waving his arms, then he put his hands behind his back and skipped down the slope, dancing and performing intricate steps with his feet. He no longer looked at Redrick, he forgot about Redrick, he forgot about everything — he went to make his wishes come true, the little secret wishes of a college boy, who had never in his life seen any money, except for his so-called allowance, a kid who had been mercilessly beaten whenever he’d come home smelling even slightly of alcohol, who was being brought up to be a famous lawyer and, in the future, a senator and, in the most distant future, naturally, the president. Redrick, screwing up his inflamed eyes against the blinding light, kept watching him in silence. He was cold and calm, he knew what was about to happen, and he knew he wasn’t going to look. But for now, it was still all right to watch, and so he looked on, feeling nothing in particular, save that perhaps somewhere deep inside him a little worm had started to wriggle uneasily, spinning its prickly little head.
And the boy kept going down the steep slope, skipping along, tap-dancing to some extraordinary beat, and white dust flew from under his heels, and he yelled something at the top of his voice, very clearly and very joyously and very solemnly — like a song or an incantation — and Redrick thought that this was the first time in the history of this quarry that someone was going down this road in such a way, as if going to a party. And at first he didn’t hear what this talking key was shouting, but then something seemed to switch on inside him, and he heard:
“Happiness for everyone! Free! As much happiness as you want! Everyone gather round! Plenty for everyone! No one will be forgotten! Free! Happiness! Free!”
With that he abruptly went quiet, as if a huge hand had forcefully shoved a gag into his mouth. And Redrick saw the transparent emptiness lurking in the shadow of the excavator bucket grab him, jerk him up into the air, and slowly, with an effort, twist him, the way a housewife wrings out the laundry. Redrick had the time to notice one of the dusty shoes fly off a twitching foot and soar high above the quarry. He turned around and sat down. There wasn’t a single thought in his head, and he somehow stopped being able to sense himself. Silence hung in the air, and it was especially silent behind his back, on the road. Then he remembered the flask — without his usual joy, merely like a medicine it was time to take. He unscrewed the cap and drank in small stingy sips, and for the first time in his life he wished that the flask didn’t contain alcohol but simply cold water.
A certain amount of time passed, and relatively coherent thoughts started forming in his head. Well, that’s done, he thought unwillingly. The road is open. He could even go right now, but it’d be better, of course, to wait a little longer. Grinders can be tricky. In any case, I need to think. I’m not used to thinking — that’s the thing. What does it mean — ”to think”? “To think” means to outwit, dupe, pull a con, but none of these are any use here . . .
All right. The Monkey, Father . . . Let them pay for everything, may those bastards suffer, let them eat shit like I did . . . No, that’s all wrong, Red. That is, it’s right, of course, but what does it actually mean? What do I need? These are curses, not thoughts. He was chilled by some terrible premonition and, instantly skipping the many different arguments still lying ahead, ordered himself ferociously: Look here, you redheaded asshole, you aren’t going to leave this place until you figure it out, you’ll keel over next to this ball, you’ll burn, you’ll rot, bastard, but you aren’t going anywhere.
My Lord, where are my words, where are my thoughts? He hit himself hard in the face with a half-open fist. My whole life I haven’t had a single thought! Wait, Kirill used to say something like . . . Kirill! He feverishly dug through his memories, and some words did float to the surface, more or less familiar, but none of them were right, because words were not what Kirill had left behind him — he’d left some vague pictures, very kind, but utterly improbable . . .
Treachery, treachery. Here, too, they’ve cheated me, left me voiceless, the bastards . . . Riffraff. I was born as riffraff, and I’ve grown old as riffraff. That’s what shouldn’t be allowed! You hear me? Let that be forbidden in the future, once and for all! Man is born in order to think (there he is, Kirill, finally!). Except that I don’t believe that. I’ve never believed it, and I still don’t believe it, and what man is born for — I have no idea. He’s born, that’s all. Scrapes by as best he can. Let us all be healthy, and let them all go to hell. Who’s us? Who’s them? I don’t understand a thing. If I’m happy, Burbridge is unhappy; if Burbridge is happy, Four-Eyes is unhappy; if Raspy is happy, everyone else is unhappy, and Raspy himself is unhappy, except he, the idiot, imagines that he’ll be able to wriggle out of it somehow. My Lord, it’s a mess, a mess! My entire life I’ve been at war with Captain Quarterblad, and his whole life he’s been at war with Raspy, and all he’s ever wanted from me, the blockhead, was one thing — that I stop being a stalker. But how do I stop being a stalker when I have a family to feed? Get a job? And I don’t want to work for you, your work makes me want to puke, you understand? If a man has a job, then he’s always working for someone else, he’s a slave, nothing more — and I’ve always wanted to be my own boss, my own man, so that I don’t have to give a damn about anyone else, about their gloom and their boredom . . .
He finished the rest of the cognac and hurled the empty flask at the ground with all his strength. The flask jumped up, gleamed in the sun, and rolled away somewhere — he immediately forgot about it. He was now sitting down, covering his eyes with his hands, no longer trying to think or understand but to at least envision something, how things ought to be, but again he only saw mugs, mugs, mugs . . . money, bottles, piles of rags that used to be people, columns of numbers . . . He knew that it all had to be destroyed, and he longed to destroy it, but he could guess that if it were all gone, then there’d be nothing left — only flat, bare earth. The helplessness and despair again made him want to lean against the Sphere and throw his head back—so he got up, mechanically dusted off his pants, and began descending into the quarry.
The sun was baking, red spots were swimming in front of his eyes, the hot air rippled at the bottom of the quarry, and because of this, the Sphere seemed to dance in place, like a buoy in the waves. He walked past the excavator bucket, superstitiously raising his feet high and taking care not to step on the black splotches, and then, sinking into the crumbly rubble, he dragged himself across the quarry to the dancing and winking Sphere. He was covered in sweat and suffocating from the heat, but at the same time he was chilled to the bone, trembling hard all over, as if hungover, and the flavorless chalk dust was crunching between his teeth. And he was no longer trying to think. He just kept repeating to himself in despair, like a prayer, “I’m an animal, you can see that I’m an animal. I have no words, they haven’t taught me the words; I don’t know how to think, those bastards didn’t let me learn how to think. But if you really are — all powerful, all knowing, all understanding — figure it out! Look into my soul, I know — everything you need is in there. It has to be. Because I’ve never sold my soul to anyone! It’s mine, it’s human! Figure out yourself what I want — because I know it can’t be bad! The hell with it all, I just can’t think of a thing other than those words of his – HAPPINESS, FREE, FOR EVERYONE, AND LET NO ONE BE FORGOTTEN!”
“Roadside Picnic” by Arkady & Boris N. Strugatzki / An Imprint of the Orion Publishing Group London / Copyright © McMillan Publishing Co., Inc. 1977 / All rights reserved