The sinewy Leonid Gorbovsky nodded, smiling. “You’re frozen,” he said. “Up here it’s very nice-the sun, the grass…”
“He’ll be all right in a minute,” said Mashka, drying me with all her might. “He’s usually quite a merry old soul—he’s just chilled through.”
It was clear that she had just been talking a lot about me, and was now using all her power to save face for me. Well, let her save it. I didn’t have enough time to bother with that myself—my teeth were chattering.
“Mashka and I have been very worried about you,” Gorbovsky said. “We even wanted to dive after you, but I don’t know how. You probably can’t imagine a man who hasn’t had occasion to go diving even once in his work.” He lay down on his back, turned over onto his side, and leaned on one arm. “Tomorrow I’m shipping out,” he said confidingly. “I don’t know when I’ll have another chance to lie down on the grass by a lake and have the opportunity to go diving with an aquastat.”
“Please, go ahead,” I suggested.
He looked carefully at the aquastat, then touched it. “Certainly,” he said, and lay down on his back. He put his hands behind his head and looked at me, slowly blinking his sparse lashes. There was something unfailingly winning about him. I couldn’t even say what exactly. Perhaps the eyes—trusting and a little sad. Or the fact that the way one of his ears stuck out from under the headband was somehow very amusing. After he had inspected me to his satisfaction, he turned his eyes and stared at a blue dragonfly swaying on a blade of grass. His lips gently puckered out in a whistle. “A dragonfly!” he said. “A little dragonfly. Blue… like the lake… a beauty. It sits so primly and looks around to see who to gobble up.” He stretched out his arm, but the dragonfly let go of the blade of grass and flew off in an arc into the reeds. He followed it with his eyes, and then lay down again. “How complicated it all is, people,” he said. Mashka immediately sat down and fastened her round eyes upon him. “I mean, this dragonfly—perfect, elegant, pleased with everything! It’s eaten a fly, it’s reproduced, and then it’s time to die. Simple, elegant, rational. And you don’t have spiritual turmoil, pangs of love, self-awareness, or bother about the meaning of life.”
“A machine,” Mashka said suddenly. “A boring old robot!” That was my Mashka! I almost laughed, but held myself back; but I must have snorted, for she looked at me with displeasure. “Boring,” Gorbovsky agreed. “Precisely. And now imagine, comrades, a dragonfly colored a venomous yellow-green, with red crossbars, a wingspan of seven meters, and a vile black slime on its mandibles. Can you imagine?” He raised his brows and looked at us. “I see you can’t. Well, I ran from them in panic, even though I had a gun. So you ask yourself, what have they got in common, these two boring robots?”
“This green one,” I said, “it must have been on another planet?”
‘Precisely. Pandora,” he said.
‘What do they have in common?”
‘That is the question. What?”
“Well, that’s clear enough,” I said. “An identical level of information processing. Reactions on the level of instinct.”
He sighed. “Words,” he said. “Now, don’t get angry, but it’s just words. That doesn’t help me. I have to search for evidence of intelligence in the universe, and I don’t even know what intelligence is. And they tell me about various levels of information processing. I know that the level is different in me and in the dragonfly, but that’s all intuition. You tell me: say I’ve found a termite mound. Is that evidence of intelligence, or not? On Mars and Vladislava we’ve found buildings with no windows, with no doors. Is that evidence of intelligence? What am I looking for? Ruins? Inscriptions? A rusty nail? A heptagonal nut? How do I know what sort of traces they leave? Suppose their aim in life is to annihilate atmosphere everywhere they find it. Or to build rings around planets. Or to hybridize life. Or to create life. Maybe this dragonfly itself is a self-replicating cybernetic apparatus released since time immemorial. To say nothing of the bearers of intelligence themselves. I mean, you can walk past a slimy monster grunting in a puddle twenty times and only turn your nose away. And the monster looks at you with its fine yellow eyes and thinks, ‘Curious. Undoubtedly a new species. I’ll have to come back here with an expedition and catch a specimen or two.’” He shaded his eyes with his hand and started humming a song. Mashka devoured him with her eyes and waited. I waited too, and thought sympathetically that it’s no fun working when the problem hasn’t been stated clearly. No fun at all. You stumble around in the dark and you have no joy or even satisfaction in your work. I’d heard about these astroarchaeologists. I could never take them seriously. No one takes them seriously.
“But there is intelligent life in the universe,” Gorbovsky said suddenly. “That’s beyond doubt. But it isn’t the way we think. It’s not what we’re expecting. And we’re looking in the wrong places. Or in the wrong way. And we simply don’t know what we’re looking for.”
There you are, I thought. The wrong thing, in the wrong place, in the wrong way— That’s simply frivolous, comrades. Pure childishness.
“Take for example the Voice of the Void,” he continued. “Have you heard of it? Probably not. Fifty years ago it was written up, but no one mentions it any more. Because, you see, there has been no progress, and if there’s no progress, then of course there can’t be any Voice either. After all, we have a whole flock of these birds—they don’t know much about science, out of laziness or a poor education, but they know by hearsay that man is almighty. Almighty. But he can’t decode the Voice of the Void. Good heavens, for shame, that can’t be, we won’t permit it! This cheap anthropocentrism…”
“And what is the Voice of the Void?” Mashka asked quietly.
“There’s a certain curious phenomenon. In certain directions in space. If you turn the shipboard receiver to autotuning, sooner or later it tunes in on a strange broadcast. You hear a cool, calm voice repeating the same words over and over in an unknown language. They’ve been picking it up for years, and for years it’s repeated the same thing. I’ve heard it, and lots of other people have heard it, but only a few will talk about it. It’s not very pleasant to recall. I mean, here you are, and the distance to Earth is unimaginable. The ether is empty—not even any real static, just weak whispers. And suddenly you hear this voice. And you’re on watch, alone. Everyone is asleep, it’s quiet, scary, and here comes this voice. Believe me, it’s not pleasant at all. There are recordings of the voice. A lot of people have racked their brains trying to decipher them and many are still racking them, but if you ask me it’s hopeless. There are other mysteries too.
Spacers could tell a good deal, but they don’t like to…” He was silent for a bit, then added with a certain sad insistency, “You’ve got to understand that. It’s not a simple matter. We don’t even know what to expect. They could meet us at any minute. Face to face. And, you understand, they could turn out to be immeasurably superior to us. Completely unlike us, and immeasurably superior to boot. You hear talk of collisions and conflicts, about all sorts of different understandings of humaneness and good, but that’s not what I’m afraid of. What I’m afraid of is the unparalleled humiliation of the human race, of a gigantic psychological shock. We’re so proud, after all. We’ve created such a wonderful world, we know so much, we’ve fought our way out into the wide universe, and there we discover and study and explore—what? For them, the universe is simply home. They’ve lived in it for millions of years, as we’ve lived on Earth, and they’re just surprised at us: where did these things out among the stars come from?”