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“Hold on, old chap,” said Peters. “As you see, even healthy people need espers. Healthy but suffering—”

“Who is healthy here?” exclaimed Sieverson. “These physicists, or should I say alchemists? Why do you think I haven’t left up to now? I can’t very well disappoint them, damn them all! No, young man—” He broke off and turned to Kochin. “There are few people like me. Espers so old and so experienced! And you can stop muttering your abracadabra—I can hear perfectly well what you are sending. Peters, don’t defend the young whipper-snapper, I know what I’m saying! I’m older than all of you put together!”

Sixty-two times twenty-one, Kochin, red and damp from spite, thought stubbornly. Is… is… Six times two… You’re lying, old man, you couldn’t be that old. And anyhow… “Through the heavens at midnight an angel did fly…” Who wrote that? Lermontov.

The harsh voice of the loudspeaker rang out over the town: “Attention, comrades! We are relaying a warning from the local microweather station. From nine-twenty to ten-oh-five there will be an average-sized rainfall over the western end of Kotlin Island. The western boundary of the rain zone is the extreme edge of the park.”

“You’re foresighted, Sieverson,” said Peters. “You wore your overcoat.”

“I’m not foresighted,” muttered Sieverson. “I simply picked up the decision from the weathermen this morning at six o’clock, when they were talking it over.”

Wow! Kochin thought excitedly.

“You’re a very strong esper,” Peters said with great respect.

“Nonsense!” Sieverson retorted. “Twenty kilometers. You would have caught that thought too, but you were sleeping. I, on the other hand, am afflicted with insomnia on this fogbound island.”

When they came out to the edge of the town, a third esper caught up to them. A young one, of very presentable appearance, with a cold, self-assured face. He was draped out picturesquely in a modish gold toga. Petya Bystrov was with him.

While the espers exchanged silent greetings, Petya Bystrov, after glancing furtively at them, ran a hand over his throat and said with his lips only, “Eh, I’m having a rough time.”

Kochin spread his hands.

At first the espers walked silently.

Kochin and Bystrov, their heads hanging, followed several paces behind. Suddenly Sieverson yelled in a cracked falsetto, “Please speak aloud, McCullough! Please speak with words in the presence of young people who are non-espers!”

“Sieverson, old chap!” said Peters, looking at him reproachfully.

McCullough waved the skirt of his toga ostentatiously and said in a haughty tone, “Well, I can repeat it in words too! I have nothing to hide. I can’t pick up anything in those stupid chambers. There’s nothing to be picked up there. I’m telling you, there’s simply nothing to be picked up there.”

“That’s no concern of yours, young man!” screamed Sieverson. “I’m older than you and nonetheless I sit there without one murmur of complaint, and will continue to sit there as long as the scientists require! And if the scientists ask us to sit there, they have a reason for it.”

“Sieverson, old chap!” said Peters.

“Yes, of course it’s more boring than hanging around on street corners wrapped up in a hideous gold bathrobe and eavesdropping on other people’s thoughts! And then doing party tricks for the girls! Don’t argue with me, McCullough, you do do that!”

McCullough wilted, and for some time they all walked silently.

Then Peters said, “Unfortunately, McCullough is right. Not in eavesdropping on others’ thoughts, of course—but I can’t pick anything up in the chamber either. Neither can you, Sieverson old chap. I’m afraid that the experiment will end up a failure.” Sieverson muttered something inaudible.

The heavy slab of titanium steel covered on two sides with a shiny layer of mesomatter slowly descended; and Peters was left alone. He sat down in an armchair in front of a small, empty table, and prepared to be bored for ten straight hours. In accordance with the conditions of the experiment, neither reading nor writing was permitted. You had to sit and “listen” to the silence. The silence was total. The mesoshield did not let a single thought in from outside, and here, in this chamber, for the first time in his life Peters experienced a surprisingly unpleasant feeling of deafness. Probably the designers of this chamber had not suspected how favorable for the experiment this silence was. A “deaf” esper strained to listen, trying to catch even a whisper of a signal, whether he wanted to or not. Moreover, the designers had not known what suffering it cost an esper used to the constant clamor of human thoughts to spend ten hours in the deaf chamber. Peters called it the torture chamber, and many espers had picked up the term.

I have already sat here for one hundred ten hours, thought Peters. At the end of today it will be a hundred twenty. And nothing. No trace of the notorious “linkage field” which our poor physicists think about so much. And a hundred-some hours is a good many. Just what are they expecting? A hundred espers, each of whom has sat in one of these things for about a hundred hours—that’s ten thousand hours. Ten thousand hours down the drain. The poor, poor physicists! And the poor, poor espers! And my poor, poor beavers! Pete Ballantine is a greenhorn, a kid, out of school for only a few days, I know in my bones that he’s late with the feedings. Probably a week and a half late, I’ll have to send another radiogram this evening. But he’s stubborn as a mule, he doesn’t want to hear anything about the special conditions of the Yukon, And Winter is a greenhorn too, and wishy-washy.

Peters turned nasty. And Eugene is a green, self satisfied fool. You have to love the beavers! They need love! You have to love them with your whole heart! So that they themselves will climb up onto the bank for you and poke their noses into your hand. They have such nice cute faces. And these “fur breeders” have only got problems on their minds. Fur breeding! How to get two pelts from one beaver! And then make it grow a third! Oh, if only I had my Harry with me… Harry, my boy, how hard it is without you! If you only knew!

I remember how he came up to me… when was it? In January—no, February—of one nineteen. He came up and said that he had volunteered for Venus. He said, “I’m sorry, Pa, but that’s where they need us now.” After that he came back twice—in one twenty-one and in one twenty-five. The old beavers remembered him, and he remembered every last one of them. He always told me that he came back because he had gotten homesick, but I knew that he had come back for medical treatment. Ah, Harry, Harry, we could get all our good beavers together and set up a fine farm now, on Venus. That’s possible today. They’re taking many different animals there now… But you didn’t live to see it, my boy.

Peters got out his handkerchief, wiped his eyes, stood up, and started pacing the room. This damned nonsensical cage… Are they going to keep us here much longer? He thought that by now all hundred espers must be stirring in their individual cages. Old loud Sieverson, who contrived to be peevish and kindly at the same time. And that self-satisfied fool McCullough. Where did people like McCullough come from? Probably you found them only among the espers. And all because telepathy, whatever you thought of it, was an abnormality. At least for now. Fortunately, people like McCullough were rare even among espers. Among professional espers they were nonexistent. Take, for example, that Yura Rusakov, the long-distance esper. On the long-distance stations there were many professional espers, but they said that Yura Rusakov was the strongest of them all, the strongest esper in the world. He could even pick up direction. That was a very rare talent. He had been an esper since earliest childhood and from earliest childhood he had known it. And still he was a jolly, good boy. He had been well brought up—he hadn’t been treated from infancy like a genius and prodigy. The most frightful thing for a child was loving parents. But this one had been brought up in school, and he was a really nice kid. They said he had cried when he received the last message from the Explorer. After the accident there had been only one person left alive on the Explorer, the young midshipman Walter Saronian. A very, very talented young man, evidently. And one with a will of iron. Wounded, dying, he had started searching for the cause of the accident—and had found it!