It was three thirty in the morning when Ladethe reached the laboratory. The old man was still or already awake. Without a moment’s hesitation he told him about his encounter, but he caused no wonder at all.
‘So you came across Hross, my carrier-horse,’ he explained, slightly amused.
‘Do you mean he conveys things for you?’
‘Yes, in very small quantities, but precious enough to allow me to make a living out of it. I’m a smuggler, so to speak. Besides, I produce the goods to be smuggled.’
The combination of a laboratory and illicit production readily yielded two possible answers to his not yet worded question: ‘Heroin or LSD?’
‘The latter, of course, heroin would be immoral.’
‘Isn’t LSD just as immoral? Doesn’t that permanently damage people’s brains, and cause them to do hazardous things?’ Ladethe reacted angrily.
‘Well, that depends. Ordinary food, to name just one example, is addictive and dangerous. Most people feel feeble after a day without it, and anyone who uses it over a longer period eventually dies. Likewise producing alcoholic drinks is not considered immoral by many, because people should have their own responsibility, but when it’s heroin it is. Yet there are far more victims of alcoholism than there are of heroinism. But all this won’t convince you of course, not until you’ll come to understand what I am doing it all for. Before I am going to make that clear to you, let me tell you how I got acquainted with Hross.
I was walking in the woods not far from here, perhaps in the vicinity of that pond you were just talking about. The wood began to bore me. Always the same trees, at equal distances, in any direction, on a soil of almost identical leaves and twigs. The only distinction between leaves seemed to be their degree of decay. But the dreariness was abruptly interrupted by an open area. It was not at all like what you would expect in a wood. There was a faint whitish-green glimmer, like that from watches made before the digital era. The light sprang from four metal beams lying flat on the ground, forming a rectangle. The sides were about thirty and sixty yartres in length, the section of the beams measured one by five inches.
I sat down on a beam, looking into the rectangle. The weird thing about it was that there was almost no contrast between the wood and this cold, radiative glow, between nature and technics. I stayed there for a long time, and I felt unspeakably happy. It was like watching a sunset with a lover, but of still greater intensity.
Then, in the center of the rectangle emerged Hross, as if to stress the presence of nature. After the brief shock caused by seeing his deformity, we became friends, and have been ever since.
‘You hadn’t by any chance taken drugs yourself that night, had you?’
‘I could ask the same of you. You think I believe your ears-story, but how can you know I haven’t just pretended? Your story is just as unlikely as is mine. But back to your question, though it may seem strange, I can assure you I have never taken drugs in my life, that is none of any known kind. I do take the substances that I produce myself for experimental purposes, because there’s no-one else to test them on. But these could hardly be called drugs, if you consider the motive behind them, which is far from pursuit of profit. The same applies to the normal acid I manufacture and sell, I do that solely to finance my other activities. But what about your experiences?’
‘Well, I used to smoke cigarettes, and I like wine, but irregularly and in small quantities,’ answered Ladethe. ‘I’ve never taken psychedelics, but I fancy I know what it must be like essentially. Dreams for example are probably very different, less spectacular, but there’s that shimmer area between sleeping and waking in which things seem relevant and obvious, which are incomprehensible or unimportant in the light of day. So there’s a shift in one’s perception of reality there, and what I know about that from dreams, alcohol and from vague distorted memories is enough for me, I don’t seek new varieties of that experience just for the sake of it.’
‘That’s an interesting point you bring up there!’ reacted the old man. ‘Some recent physicists, like Heisenberg and Bohr, theorized about that shift you were talking about. I may misinterpret or exaggerate it, and honestly speaking I haven’t read their books, but it seems to all come down to it that if you look at something, you will not see it as it was before, because the world changes through your looking at it. So there is no world as it is, even no world as it was before you looked, for that world is inherently invisible. If you travel along that line, you come to wonder if anything exists at all? An alternative explanation is that anything you think is real is the mere product of your imagination. The question remains then, did I make you up, or did you make me up? For we are both convinced of our own existence. That really is a very lonesome thought, if you let it flow through your mind for a while.’
They let it flow, and then Ladethe tried to escape the spell by saying: ‘Maybe neither of us is real, but we’re both only some God’s imagination?’
Neither of them spoke for some ten minutes. It seemed a natural pause at first, but gradually their perception of the situation began to diverge. Uneasiness on the part of Ladethe grew, and it vexed him, that so often, when two people managed for a while to chase away one another’s uselessness and aimlessness, this wouldn’t be persistent, but again and again it would skid into discouragement, into the hard-to-discuss assumption or suspicion of having caused some sort of disappointment to the other person, and still being causing it, yet without feeling able to act otherwise.
But Athib’a didn’t seem to be bothered by such emotions at all, and continued his somewhat deviated explanation of his activities:
‘For many years, I sat by the river, and watched it flow. And every day I decided to jump in on the next, float along, and then want to direct it. But I stayed where I was, and just watched it flow. The river flowed from a bi-nuclear cold war to a uni-nuclear imminently chemical hot winter. Meanwhile I contrived a plan to modify at least two occurrences of the ruling species by chemically manipulating their brains, and so their minds. If their natural state had to lead us into an embrace of threat, then I wanted to replace that by an externally imposed, hallucination-driven repugnance against war.
So I researched a hallucinant drug to that effect. I could not accept the risk of any harmful side-effects, and so tested the prototypes on myself. My fear, that I myself would not be sufficiently bellicose to be a reliable test object, soon proved idle. Trying to achieve peace by fighting a war appeared to worsen things. Most of my prototypes aimed at creating a belief in extraterrestrial powers imposing peace upon the world leaders by force. But it often appeared that this only invoked violent reactions, which could not be directed against the peace powers, because of their untouchability, and instead turned against fellow humans, hurting them unjustly. Opposing to the violence only strengthened it, by giving it attention. Ignoring proved a better strategy. Invisibility is not always caused by absence, sometimes not looking causes not being. Seeing neighbouring objects is often a good way to remove the unseen.
As my doubts grew, my victims-to-be changed their attitude themselves, without manipulation from the outside. Common sense, cold calculation with often less cold results, became the leading principle in at least some parts of the world.’
‘Then why rely on influences from outside the earth? What’s wrong with the existing dominant countries of the earth to develop into less devastating directions? You now see that eventually they do, albeit late and slowly!’
‘Yes, but if they do it on their own account, there’s the risk that they grow too mighty and too self-contented, and will more and more slide towards abusing their power. It’s better if they do what they do, not because they want it themselves, but because they feel that they have to, as a religious mission. It has been suggested that in biblical times too great religious steps were inspired by creatures from the heavens, whom the heathens took for Gods.’
‘Right, but that happened thousands of years ago! You are not going to believe that people will take a follower of some obscure UFO-sect serious as a president. Acceptable leaders have to either adhere to the dominant creed, or be emphatically neutral in religious matters. So to be convincing, their source of inspiration would have to be kept secret. But then it wouldn’t look any different, seen from the outside, than if inspired directly from within themselves. That makes it irrelevant. Inspiration, like faith or political dogmas are of no concern, only the results count, that is my belief.’
‘Oh, yes, yes, you are right, and all this black and white thinking, or red and green or whatever colour to stay far from any unintended racism, won’t hold either. Look at the Second World War: to some the North-Americans and British were liberators, which gained them a life-long sympathy, but in that same war Dresden was bombed to a fire-storm for no good reason, allegedly to kill the maximum amount of refugees, to make way for other Germans, who after the war were expelled from the eastern territories, where their families had lived for hundreds of years, merely because that other war-criminal became their leader, and they didn’t prevent it, and he committed his crimes and he lost his war. Likewise, those biblical cosmonaut Gods weren’t really such friendly lads, considering what they did to Sodom and Gomorrah after things there had gone different from what they had in mind.’
‘And one other objection to your fairly inane and obsolete ideas: To me this belief in flying Gods looks a bit too much like paranoid schizophrenia, where the conscience has unsoundly materialized into avenging human-like creatures. I wouldn’t trust anyone having such an illness of the mind to govern my country.’
Only now they realized they had been talking well into the night. They kneeled, each in a chair by a high window, and gazed dully into the morning shimmer. They could scarcely keep their eyes open any longer, and nothing, not even the hares, moved that might have kept their eyeballs rolling, and soon they tumbled to sleep, lolling as if shot.
There was little time for the mental re-charge they both needed badly, though. After less than an hour they thought they were having a nightmare. But it wasn’t a nightmare, or not literally so.
Ladethe in his dream lay with one ear on a grand piano, which had been equipped with electric pickups, so that all of its strings vibrated ceaselessly through amplifier feedback. No one string gained dominance, as would normally have been almost inevitable, had this been real. He shook his head vigorously to escape from this din, and as his muscles from head to belly to thighs contracted to erect his jaded body, he woke up and regained his normal recognition of sound, and knew it was a jet fighter. He saw Athib’a had woken up also, and they quickly went outside to see what was happening, with that mixture of fear and excitement, for now at last something was really going to happen, that would mark a memorable moment in their dreary lives.
Several more jet-planes flew over their heads, launching rockets targeted to somewhere behind the beeches. It was a beautiful park-like landscape, an intertwinement of meadows, shrubs and tall trees. The rockets did not hit anything they could see, but the amount of broken windows seemed to have increased, since they last took the interest to look at them.
Then the armoured vehicles rolled into sight, modern tanks but also Roman chariots, and in between them like baby-elephants were tasteless blends of twentieth century technology and ancient craftsmanship, carts shaped like the chariots, but constructed from stainless steel, and with lazily rotating radar aerials on top of them.
The vehicles, approaching now from various directions, huddled together on the meadow. Crew began to emerge, and jovially gathered in the ring formed by the vehicles. Ladethe and Athib’a, while observing them, felt a growing sympathy for these men, strange because normally they both distrusted anything that had to do with armies. There was an urge to join them, like they would miss a unique occasion if they did not. There were the people to be with, now or never. Not joining them now would utterly disqualify them, in the eyes of all those nimble enough to know whom to follow. Those happy disciples would from now on always rank them low, if they failed to recognise the opportunity.
So they progressed towards them, eagerly but drenched with hesitation. Ladethe looked down to the ground as he walked, and noticed one of those details that are utterly irrelevant in the situation, but become perceivable through the disordering effect of strain on awareness: the blades of the grass were rather long, and placed awkwardly wide apart, with lots of brown mould visible between them. When they entered the gap between two tanks, merrily tapping the muddy tracks with their hands, like when soothing a horse, the soldiers hardly seemed to notice them, and the ones that did showed no signs of hostility.
The soldiers were sitting in circles around spots carefully marked with charcoal, to indicate in advance the colour they would have after their departure. The team that was to kindle the fires took their materials from a specialised truck, the first man carrying the charcoal, the second a bundle of firewood, each of which had a code on an attached label, that a third man standing on the truck put on a list, so that afterwards they would be able to tell exactly which bundles were burnt and which were not. The fourth man then kindled the bundles, not using matches, but a huge flame-thrower, that he had to hold at quite some distance because the flames were much too intense for these small camp-fires. Once the fires were burning, the spoils were placed above them: pigs with fresh gashes half around the neck, poached deer, and an occasional beaver or otter. The guests too were offered their share in the meal.
Ladethe had been on the run for some time now, so might have missed some of the latest, but Athib’a thought he had kept himself up to date with the world’s affairs rather well, yet he didn’t know anything about a war or exercises or whatever, and in the years he had lived here, he had never seen any military activity before. So he decided to ask for an explanation. And these young heroes were willing to clarify this point.
‘We are trying to find them. They must be hiding in the woods somewhere, or in underground shelters maybe. We have instructions to oust them, or else to kill them all. And if they dare to run, we will have to pursue them.’
‘But who are THEY,’ he insisted, ‘are they from another land, or mutineers?’ ‘We don’t know yet, we will know when we see them, if we have enough time to look at their faces, or hear what language they speak, before we carve them up and cut their tongues out. They’ll have to bleed for what they are!!’
And he burst into boisterous laughter, the others joining in with similar bluster. They all started romping, while continuing to eat. When they had calmed down a bit, one of them, who seemed to be in charge, although no one wore any visible signs as to their rank, approached Athib’a, until he was unpleasantly near, and emphasized: ‘We must of course search every building we find, we have orders to do so, and that includes that ruin we saw you two come creeping out from. As soon as we’re not too hungry any more, we’ll get in.’
Athib’a, thinking that if they went in at all, it wouldn’t be soon, mumbled something vague that wouldn’t be taken as a protest. But clearly he was wrong. Within seconds a group of four men got on their feet and started to walk firmly towards the building. They beckoned him to follow. This alerted him, it wasn’t all that secret what he kept inside there, but it was an appalling idea that soldiers would see it, question him about it, and probably search the place and thereby damage things. So he ran past them and tried to stop them.
But they were determined to go through with what they had in mind. They could easily have pushed him aside and walked on, and indeed they pushed him, but they stayed where they were. They began to make fun of him, enjoying his weakness in comparison with themselves. Two of the men had an even better idea, and ran towards their tank, while the other two kept Athib’a busy defending his castle. The tank’s engine was running, and the tank crept towards them. The two men climbed onto it, grabbing sticks from the ground, to prick him with.
The tank repeatedly came very close, with considerable speed, then suddenly braked with a jolt, swaying on its tracks. It danced around him through the mud, the right and left track running in opposite directions, and then forced Athib’a to run for his life, away from the building, towards the trees. It kept accelerating until Athib’a was at top speed, staying only an arm-length away from him. At last, when they reached a pool of mud, and Athib’a could hardly keep running any more, the tank stopped, and for some seconds stood there, as if thinking about what to do next. Then came the final blow: the tank leapt into the mud, and crushed Athib’a under its track. It stayed on him for a minute, the two soldiers, joined by one of the other two, dancing for joy on top of the tank. The audience around the pool applauded. Then the fourth man, still in the tank, moved it aside, unveiling Athib’a, who was lying in the mud with his head down, but the back of his head and his back were clearly seen.
He had no wounds. He had not been in long enough to choke. They could easily have saved him, had anyone tried. But no one did. No one wanted to, and Ladethe wanted but didn’t. Ladethe ran. The soldiers laughed at him, and nobody followed him. They laughed and let him run, until he was out of sight. They left the body in the mud, forgot about the incident and resumed their meal.