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Peters came to alertness. Some extraneous, barely noticable, inaudible nuance had, it seemed, crept into his consciousness. No. It was only the echo off the walls. He wondered what it would be like if it existed. Georgie-boy had affirmed that theoretically it should be received as noise. But naturally he couldn’t explain what kind of noise, and when he tried, he either quickly slipped into mathematics or else put forward uncertain analogies to broken radio sets. The physicists knew theoretically what kind of noise, but they had no sensory notion of it, while the espers, not understanding the theory, perhaps were hearing this noise twenty times a day without suspecting it. What a pity there’s not one single esper physicist! Perhaps that Yura Rusakov will become the first. He or one of the kids at the long-distance stations. It’s a good thing we instinctively distinguish our thoughts from those of others and can only accidentally take an echo for an outside signal.

Peters sat down and stretched out his legs. Still, the physicists had thought up a funny business—catching spirits from another world. It was natural science in the spirit world. He looked at his watch. Only thirty minutes had passed. Well, spirits are spirits. Let’s listen.

At precisely seventeen hundred hours, Peters went up to the door. The heavy slab of titanium steel lifted, and into his consciousness rushed a whirlwind of excited alien thoughts. As always, he saw the strained, expectant faces of the physicists, and as always, he shook his head No. He was unbearably sorry for these young, bright fellows-many times he had imagined how wonderful it would be if right from the threshold he could smile and say, “Linkage fields do exist—I picked up your linkage field for you.” But what were you going to do if the linkage field either did not exist or was beyond the ability of espers? “Nothing,” he said aloud, and stepped into the corridor.

“Too bad,” one of the physicists said disappointedly. He always said “too bad.”

Peters went up to him and laid his hand on his shoulder.

“Listen,” he said, “perhaps this is enough? Perhaps you’ve made some sort of mistake?”

The physicist forced a smile. “Come now, Comrade Peters!” he said. “The experiments have hardly begun. We didn’t expect anything else at first. We’ll strengthen the stimulator… yes, the stimulator. If only you would agree to continue…”

“We must gather a large statistical sample,” said the other physicist. “Only then can we draw any conclusions. We’re very much counting on you, Comrade Peters, on you personally and on your colleagues.”

“All right,” said Peters. “Of course.” He saw very well that they were no longer counting on anything. They were just hoping for a miracle. But the miracle could happen. Anything could happen.

16. Pilgrims and Wayfarers

The water deep down wasn’t all that cold, but still I was frozen. I sat on the bottom just under the precipice and for a whole hour I kept cautiously turning my head, peering into the turbid greenish twilight. I had to sit motionless, for septipods are alert and suspicious creatures. The slightest sound, any quick movement, can frighten them, and then they hie off and return only at night; and it’s not a good idea to tangle with them at night.

An eel would stir under my feet and swim back and forth a dozen times or so, and then a pompous striped perch would come back once again. And every time, it stopped and goggled at me with its empty round eyes. It had only to swim off, and a school of silvery minnows would appear and start grazing over my head. My knees and shoulders were thoroughly stiff with cold, and I was worried that Mashka might get tired of just waiting for me, and instead come into the water to find me and rescue me. Finally I had so vividly imagined her sitting alone at the edge of the water, and waiting, and being afraid, and wanting to dive in and look for me, that I was about ready to come out. But just then, the septipod finally emerged from a thicket of seaweed twenty paces to the right.

It was a fairly large specimen. It had appeared instantly and noiselessly, like a ghost, with its round gray torso out in front. A whitish mantle pulsed softly, weakly, and automatically, taking in water and pushing it out, and the septipod rocked lightly from side to side as it moved. The tips of its tucked-up tentacles, like long strips of old rags, trailed after it, and the slit of its barely opened eyes gleamed dimly in the twilight. It swam slowly, as they all did during the daytime, in a strange eerie torpor, going who knew where or why. Probably the darkest, most primitive instincts moved them, perhaps the same instincts that direct the motion of amoebas.

Very slowly and steadily I raised the tag gun and pointed the barrel, aiming for the swollen back. A silvery minnow suddenly darted forth and disappeared, and I thought that the eyelid over the enormous glazed eye trembled. I pulled the trigger and immediately pushed up from the bottom, getting away from the caustic ink. When I looked around again, the septipod was no longer in sight. There was just a thick blue-black cloud that was spreading through the water, obscuring the bottom. I darted toward the surface and started swimming toward shore.

The day was hot and clear, and a bluish steamy haze hung over the water. The sky was empty and white, except for motionless blue-gray piles of clouds that rose up over the forest like castle towers.

A strange man in brightly colored swimming trunks, was sitting in the grass in front of our tent, a headband stretched across his forehead. He was tanned and though not muscular, somehow improbably sinewy, as if he were tied together with rope under his skin. It was immediately apparent that this was an impossibly strong man. My Mashka, long-legged, dark, with a shock of sun-bleached hair falling over sharp vertebrae, wearing a navy blue bathing suit, was standing in front of him. No, she wasn’t sitting by the water pining for her daddy—she was energetically telling something to this wiry stranger, gesturing at full blast. I was a bit miffed that she hadn’t even noticed my arrival. But the stranger noticed. He quickly turned his head, took a good look, and, with a smile, brandished an open hand. Mashka turned around and yelled happily, “Ah, there you are, Daddy!”

I climbed onto the grass, took off my mask, and wiped my face. The stranger was examining me smilingly.

“How many did you tag?” Mashka asked in a businesslike voice.

“One.” I had a cramp in my jaw.

“Oh, Daddy,” Mashka said. She helped me take off the aqua-stat, and then I stretched out in the grass. “Yesterday he tagged two,” Mashka explained, “and four the day before that. If it’s going to go this way, we’d better move right on to another lake.” She took a towel and started drying my back. “You’re like a fresh-frozen goose,” she declared. “This is Leonid Andreevich Gorbovsky. He’s an astroarchaeologist. And this, Leonid, is my daddy. His name is Stanislav Ivanov.”