He suddenly fell silent and got up with a jerk, listening intently. I even trembled.
“It’s thunder,” Mashka said quietly. She was staring at him with her mouth half open. “Thunder. There’ll be a storm.”
He was still listening intently, sweeping his eyes across the sky. “No, it’s not thunder,” he said at last, and sat down again. “It’s a liner. There, see?”
Against a background of blue-gray clouds a gleaming streak flashed and fell. And again the sky thundered weakly.
“So sit down now, and wait,” he said incomprehensibly. He looked at me, smiling, and there was sadness and strained expectation in his eyes. Then it all disappeared and his eyes became trusting as before. “And what are you working on, Comrade Stanislav Ivanov?” he asked.
I concluded that he wanted to change the subject, and I started telling him about septipods. That they belonged to the subclass of dibranchiates of the class of cephalopod mollusks, and represented a special, previously unknown tribe of the order of octopods. They were characterized by the reduction of the third left arm (the one symmetrical with the hetocotylized third right arm), by three rows of suckers on the arms, by the complete absence of a coelom, by an unusually powerful development of the venous heart, by a concentration of the central nervous system that was the maximum for all cephalopods, and by certain other less significant characteristics. The first of the septipods had been discovered recently, when individual specimens appeared off the eastern and southeastern coasts of Asia. And after a year they began to be found in the lower courses of major rivers-the Mekong, the Yangtze, the Huang Ho, and the Amur-and also in lakes like this one, fairly distant from the coastline. And that was surprising, because usually cephalopods were stenohalines to the nth degree, and they avoided even Arctic waters with their reduced salinity. And they almost never came out on dry land. But a fact was a fact: the septipods felt fine in fresh water and came out on land. They climbed into boats and onto bridges, and recently two had been discovered in the forest about thirty kilometers from here.
Mashka was not listening to me. I had already told her all this. She went into the tent, brought out a radio, and switched on the autotuning. Evidently she couldn’t wait any longer to catch the Voice of the Void.
But Gorbovsky listened very attentively. “Were those two still alive?” he asked.
“No, they were found dead. There’s an animal preserve here in the forest. Wild boars had trampled the septipods and half eaten them. But they had still been alive thirty kilometers from water! Their mantle cavities were filled with wet algae. Obviously in this way the septipods created a certain reserve of water for journeys over dry land. The algae were from a lake. The septipods had undoubtedly walked from these very lakes farther to the south, into the heart of dry land. It should also be noted that all the specimens caught up to this point have been adult males. Not one female, not one young. Probably females and young can’t live in fresh water or come out on land.
“All this is very interesting,” I continued. “As a rule marine animals change their way of life sharply only during periods of reproduction. Then instinct forces them to go off to some quite unusual places. But reproduction has nothing to do with it here. Here there is some other instinct at work, perhaps one still more ancient and powerful. Right now the important thing for us is to follow the migratory path. So here I spend ten hours a day at this lake, under water. Today I’ve tagged one so far. If I’m lucky, by evening I’ll tag another one or two. At night they become unusually active and grab anything that gets close to them. There have even been instances of attacks on people. But only at night.”
Mashka had turned the volume of the radio all the way up, and was enjoying the powerful sounds.
“A little quieter, Mashka,” I requested.
She turned it down.
“So you tag them,” said Gorbovsky. “Fascinating. With what?”
“Ultrasonic generators.” I pulled a charge from the tag gun and displayed the ampule. “Little bullets like this. Inside is a generator with a range under water of thirty kilometers.”
He cautiously took the ampule and examined it attentively. His face became sad and old. “Clever,” he muttered. “Simple and clever.” He turned the ampule all around in his fingers as if feeling it, then lay it in front of me on the grass and got up. His movements had become slow and uncertain. He stepped over to his clothes and scattered them, found his trousers, and then froze, holding them in front of him.
I watched him, feeling a vague disquiet. Mashka held the tag gun at the ready, in order to explain how it was used, and she watched Gorbovsky too. The corners of her lips sank dolefully. I had noticed long ago that this often happened with her: the expression on her face became the same as that of the person she was observing.
Gorbovsky suddenly started speaking very softly, and with a certain mocking quality in his voice: “Honestly, it’s fascinating. What a precise analogy. They stayed in the depths for ages, and now they’ve risen up and entered an alien, hostile world. And what drives them? An ancient, dark instinct, you say? Or an information-processing capacity which had risen up to the level of unquenchable curiosity? After all, it would be better for it to stay home, in salt water, but something draws it… draws it to the shore.” He roused himself and started pulling on his trousers. These were old-fashioned, long. He hopped on one leg as he put them on. “Really, Stanislav, you have to think that these are very complex cephalopods, eh?”
“In their way, of course,” I agreed.
He was not listening. He turned toward the radio set and was staring at it. Mashka and I stared too. Powerful, discordant signals, like the interference from an X-ray installation, were coming from the set. Mashka put down the tag gun. “On six point oh eight meters,” she said distractedly. “Some sort of service station, or what?”
Gorbovsky listened closely to the signals, with his eyes closed and his head leaning to one side. “No, it’s not a service station,” he said. “It’s me.”
“It’s me. Me—Leonid Andreevich Gorbovsky.”
He gave a mirthless laugh. “How indeed? I would very much like to know how.” He pulled on his shirt. “How can it be that three pilots and their ship, on return from a flight to EN 101 and EN 2657, have become sources of radio waves of wavelength six point oh eight three meters?”
Mashka and I, naturally, remained silent. Gorbovsky fell silent too, while he fastened his sandals.
“Doctors examined us. Physicists examined us.” He got up and brushed sand and grass from his pants. “All of them came to the same conclusion: it’s impossible. You could die laughing, to see the surprise on their faces. But honestly, it was no laughing matter to us. Tolya Obozov refused leave and shipped out for Pandora. He said he preferred to do his broadcasting a little farther from Earth. Falkenstein went off to an underwater station to work. So here I am alone, wandering and broadcasting. And I’m always expecting something. Anticipating it and fearing it. Fearing, but anticipating. Do you understand me?”
“I don’t know,” I said, and glanced sidelong at Mashka.
“You’re right,” he said. He took the receiver and pressed it thoughtfully to his protruding ear. “And no one knows. It’s been a whole month already. It doesn’t weaken, and it never stops. Whee-waa… whee-waa… day and night. Whether we’re happy or sad. Whether we’re full or hungry, working or loafing. Whee-waa… But the emission from the Tariel is falling off. The Tariel is my ship. They laid her up, just in case. Her emissions are jamming the controls of some sort of equipment on Venus, so they keep sending inquiries from there, keep getting annoyed. Tomorrow I’m taking her a little farther out.” He straightened up and slapped his thighs with his long arms. “Well, time I left. Good-by. Good luck. Good-by, little Mashka. Don’t rack your brains over this. It’s a very complicated problem, honestly.”