Translated by James Womack
Sever Feliksovich Gansovsky (1918 – 1990) was a prominent Soviet writer of fiction, including science fiction. He wrote some of the best short stories of his generation, several of them collected in English in Macmillan’s Best of Soviet Science Fiction anthologies in the 1980s. He received the Russian Aelita Award in 1989. There is a fierce intelligence to all of Gansovsky’s fiction, wedded to a spare but effective characterization underpinned by a keen observation of the absurdities and ruthlessness of human nature.
In the classic Gansovsky story “Day of Wrath” (1964), a biological experiment creates human-like creatures with superior intellectual abilities that terrorize the Russian countryside. With echoes of H.G. Wells’ Dr. Moreau, Gansovsky’s story from Soviet Russia easily rivals that of any of his Western counterparts. This new translation by James Womack is part of our Strange Scifi Summer and appears in The Big Book of Science Fiction, out this summer from Vintage. Be sure to also check out our interview with the Womacks about translating science fiction.
Chairman: You read in several languages, you are familiar with higher mathematics
and can perform all manner of work. Do you think that this makes you human?
Otark: Yes, of course. Do humans know how to do anything else?
(From the cross-examination of an otark. State Commission Materials.)
Two riders came out of the thickly overgrown valley and started to climb the mountain. In front, on a roan with a twisted nose, rode the forester, and Donald Betly followed him on a chestnut mare. The mare slipped on the stony path and fell to her knees. Betly, who had been lost in thought, nearly fell off because the saddle — an English racing saddle with a single strap — slid forward down the horse’s neck.
The forester waited for him further up.
‘Don’t let her put her head down, she always slips.’
Betly, swallowing his anger, shot him a frustrated glance. Devil take it, he could have warned me about that earlier. He was cross with himself as well, because the horse had fooled him. When Betly had saddled her up, she had breathed in, so that the strap would be completely loose.
He pulled so hard on the reins that the horse danced about and moved backwards.
The path had levelled out again. They were riding across a mesa, and in front of them the hilltops were visible, covered in fir forests.
The horses took long strides, sometimes breaking into a trot and trying to overtake one another. Whenever the mare nudged ahead, Betly could see the sunburnt, cleanly shaven thin cheeks of the forester and his sullen eyes, fixed on the road ahead. It was as if he didn’t notice the presence of his companion.
‘I’m too direct,’ Betly thought. ‘And that doesn’t help me. I’ve tried to strike up conversation with him a handful of times, and he either answers me in monosyllables or else doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t think I’m worth anything. He thinks that if someone wants to talk, then he’s a chatterbox and doesn’t need any respect. Out here in the wilds they don’t know how to take the measure of things. They think that being a journalist doesn’t mean anything. Even a journalist like… Anyway, I won’t talk to him either. Damn it!’
But step by step his mood improved. Betly was a successful man and thought that everyone else should love life as much as he did. He was surprised at the forester’s aloofness, but didn’t feel any animosity towards him.
The weather, which had been bad in the morning, was starting to clear up. The fog melted away. The dull sheet over the sky had broken up into separate clouds. Huge shadows moved swiftly over the dark forests and valleys, and this emphasised the cruel, wild and somehow liberated character of the place.
Betly slapped the mare on her damp neck that smelt of sweat.
‘They must have hobbled your front legs when they let you out to graze, and that’s why you slip. But we’ll be alright together.’
He stopped pulling back on the reins and caught up with the forester.
‘Excuse me, Mister Meller, were you born around here?’
‘No,’ the forester replied, without turning round.
‘Where were you born then?’
‘A long way away.’
‘And have you been here for a long time?’
‘A while.’ Meller turned to the journalist. ‘You should talk a little more quietly. They might hear you.’
‘Who are they?’
‘The otarks, of course. They’ll hear you and tell the others. Or they could ambush us, jump out from behind and rip us to pieces… And it would be better if they didn’t know why we’re here.’
‘Do they attack people often? It says in the papers that such things almost never happen.’
The forester was silent.
‘And do they attack in person?’ Betly involuntarily looked over his shoulder. ‘Or do they shoot people as well? Do they have weapons? Rifles, machine guns?’
‘They only rarely shoot. Their hands aren’t made for it. Not hands, paws. They’re clumsy with weapons.’
‘Paws,’ Betly repeated. ‘So people here don’t think of them as human?’
‘Yes, you. The people who live here.’
The forester spat.
‘Of course they’re not human. No one here thinks that they are.’
He spoke in bursts. Betly had already forgotten his vow of silence.
‘So, have you ever spoken to them? Is it true that they can speak quite well?’
‘The older ones can speak. The ones who were here when the laboratory was working… The younger ones speak worse. But they are much more dangerous. They are cleverer, their heads are twice the size.’ The forester suddenly reined in his horse. His voice was bitter. ‘Look, there’s no point discussing all this. It’s all useless. I’ve answered these questions a dozen times already.’
‘What’s all useless?’
‘All of it, this trip. You won’t get anything out of it. Everything will stay as it is.’
‘Why does it have to? I’m from an influential paper. We have a lot of influence. They’re gathering material for a Senate Commission. If it is shown that the otarks are really so dangerous, then steps will be taken. You must know that this time they are getting ready to send out the troops against them.’
‘Even so, nothing’s going to happen,’ the forester sighed. ‘You’re not the first person to come here. Every year someone comes, and they’re only interested in the otarks. But not in the people who have to live with them. Everyone asks: “Is it true that they can learn geometry? Are there really otarks who can understand the theory of relativity?” As if that meant anything at all! As if that were a reason not to destroy them!’
‘But that’s why I’m here,’ Betly began, ‘to gather material for the Commission. And then the whole country will know that…’
‘And you think that the others weren’t gathering material?’ Meller interrupted. ‘And… and how are you going to understand the situation here? You need to live here to understand it. It’s one thing to pass through, and another to be here the whole time. Oh, what’s the point of talking? Let’s go.’ He nudged his horse. ‘Here’s where their range begins, anyway. From this valley onwards.’
The journalist and the forester had reached the top of a hill. The path headed down in a zigzag from under the horse’s hooves.
A long way beneath them lay the brush-filled valley, cut in two lengthwise by a narrow stony river. The forest rose in a sheer wall straight from the stream, and beyond it in the immeasurable distance the snow-whitened slopes of the Chief mountain range.
You could see for tens of kilometres all around from here, but Betly saw no signs of life: no smoke from a chimney, not a single haystack. It was as if the place had died.
The sun hid behind some clouds, all at once it grew cold, and the journalist suddenly felt that he did not want to go down after the forester. He coldly shrugged his shoulders. He recalled the warm, heated air of his city apartment, the bright warm office at the newspaper. But then he pulled himself together. ‘Rubbish, I been in worse situations than this. What do I have to be afraid of? I’m an excellent shot, and I have very good reactions. Who else could they have sent instead of me?’ He saw Meller unshoulder his rifle, and did the same with his own weapon.
The mare carefully lifted its feet on the narrow path.
When they were at the bottom of the hill, Meller said:
‘We should try to ride abreast. Better not to talk. We need to get to Steglich’s farm by around eight. We’ll spend the night there.’
They spurred their horses on and rode for about two hours in silence. They headed up and rode round Mount Bear, keeping the forest wall to their right at all times, the drop off to their left, covered in bushes, but so small and sparse that no one could hide among them. They went down to the river and went along its rocky bottom until they reached an abandoned asphalted road, the surface cracked with grass growing through it.
As they rode along the asphalt, Meller suddenly stopped his horse and listened. Then he dismounted, got to his knees and put his ear to the ground.
‘Something’s not right,’ he said, standing up. ‘Someone’s galloping after us. Let’s get off the road.’
Betly also dismounted and they led the horses into a ditch in a clump of alders.
About two minutes later, the journalist heard the clattering of hooves. They came closer. You could feel that the rider was going flat out.
Then through the faded leaves they saw a grey horse galloping hard. On it, sitting awkwardly, was a man wearing yellow riding breeches and an anorak. He came so close that Betly got a good look at the man’s face and realised that he had seen him before. He even remembered where. Back in town there had been a group of people standing around outside the bar. Five or six men, dirty, badly dressed. They all had the same eyes. Lazy, half-closed, impertinent. The journalist knew those eyes — gangsters’ eyes.
As soon as the horseman had come past, Meller rushed out into the road.
The man pulled on his horse’s reins and stopped.
The rider looked back, and obviously recognised the forester. For a few moments they looked at one another. Then the man waved, turned his horse round, and rode on.
The forester stared after him as the noise of the hooves dies away in the distance. Then he suddenly hit his head with his fist and groaned.
‘It’s not going to work now, that’s for certain.’
‘What is it?’ Betly asked. He had come out from among the bushes as well.
‘Nothing. It’s just put an end to our plan.’
‘But why?’ The journalist looked at the forester and was surprised to see tears in his eyes.
‘It’s all over now,’ Meller said, as he turned and wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. ‘The bastards! Bastards!’
‘Listen to me.’ Betly had started to lose his patience as well. If you’re going to get so worked up, then there’s really no point carrying on.’
‘Worked up?’ the forester exclaimed. ‘You think I’ve got worked up? Just look at this!’
He waved his hand at a branch of a pine tree with reddish cones on it, hanging over the road about thirty paces away from them.
Betly still had not realised why he was supposed to be looking at it, when a shot thundered out, he got a strong whiff of gunpowder, and the last pinecone, hanging by itself, dropped down onto the asphalt.
‘That’s how worked up I am,’ Meller said, and went into the clump of alders for his horse.
They reached the farm just as night was falling.
Out of the unfinished log house came a tall dark-bearded man with dishevelled hair who stood watching in silence how Betly and the forester unsaddled their horses. Then a woman came out onto the porch, red-haired and with a flat expressionless face, ungroomed as well. And three children came after her. Two boys of eight or nine years old and a girl aged about thirteen, skinny as if drawn with a single crooked line.
The five of them were not at all surprised at Meller and the journalist: they were not happy or sad. They just stood and stared in silence. Betly didn’t like the silence.
Over dinner he tried to start a conversation.
‘Tell me, how do you get on with the otarks? Are they really very troublesome?’
‘What? the dark-bearded farmer put his palm to his ear and bent over the table. ‘What?’ he shouted. ‘Speak up. I don’t hear so good.’
This was how things went on for a few minutes, and the farmer very clearly did not want to understand what was wanted of him. In the end he spread his hands. Yes, there are otarks here. Do they bother him? No, they don’t bother him personally. He doesn’t know about the others. He can’t say anything about them.
In the middle of this conversation the thin girl stood up, threw a shawl round her shoulders and left without saying a word to anyone.
As soon as all the plates were empty the farmer’s wife brought two mattresses out of another room and started to lay them out for the visitors.
But Meller stopped her.
‘I think it would be better if we slept in the barn.’
The woman stood up without saying a word. The farmer jumped up from the table.
‘Why? Sleep here.’
But the forester had already picked up the mattresses.
The farmer led them into the high barn with a lamp. He watched for a minute as they got themselves ready, and for a moment there was an expression on his face as though he wished to say something. But he only raised his hand and rubbed his head. Then he left.
‘What’s all this about?’ Betly asked. ‘The otarks won’t get into the house, surely?’
Meller picked up a thick plank from the floor and forced it up against the heavy solid door, checking that it didn’t slip away.
‘Go to bed,’ he said. ‘Anything can happen. They get into houses as well.’
The journalist sat on the mattress and started to unlace his boots.
‘Tell me, are there any real bears left here? Not otarks, but real wild bears. Didn’t there used to be a lot of bears wandering around here, in the forest?
‘There aren’t any more,’ Meller replied. ‘The first thing that the otarks did when they broke out of the laboratory and got off the island was to destroy all the real bears. And the wolves. And there used to be raccoons and foxes — all the normal animals. They took poison from the ruined laboratory and poisoned the smaller animals. There were dead wolves lying around all over the place — for some reason they didn’t eat the wolves. But they ate the bears. They sometimes even eat each other.’
‘They eat each other?’
‘Of course, they’re not people. You don’t know what to expect from them.’
‘Do you think they’re just animals?’
‘No.’ The forester shook his head. ‘We don’t think they’re wild animals. That’s the kind of thing they argue about in the cities, if they’re people or animals. Out here we know that they’re neither one thing nor the other. Don’t you see, it used to be like this: there were people and there were animals. And now there’s something else: the otarks. This is the first time such a thing has happened in the whole history of the world. Otarks aren’t animals — it would be great if they were just animals. But they’re not people either, of course.’
‘Tell me,’ Betly felt that he couldn’t stop himself asking the question, even though he knew it was banal, ‘is it true that they find it very easy to learn higher mathematics?’
The forester turned sharply towards him.
‘Listen, shut up about mathematics for once! Just shut up! I don’t give a toss if they know higher mathematics! Yeah, the otarks can do complicated maths standing on their heads! So what? You need to be a person, that’s what the question really is.’
He turned away and bit his lip.
‘He’s worked up,’ Betly thought. ‘He’s still really worked up. He’s not a healthy man.’
But the forester had already calmed down. He was uncomfortable to have flown off the handle. After a short silence, he asked:
‘Sorry, but have you seen him?’
‘You know, the genius. Fidler.’
‘Fidler? Yes, I’ve seen him. I spoke to him just before I came out here. The newspaper sent me.’
‘I guess they keep him wrapped up in plastic over there? So he doesn’t get a single drop of rain on him.’
‘Yes, they look after him.’ Betly remembered how they had checked his pass and frisked him for the first time by the walls of the Science Centre. Then they had searched him again and checked his pass again at the entrance to the Institute. And the third search just before they let him into the garden where Fidler came out to meet him. ‘They look after him. But he is a truly gifted mathematician. He was only thirteen when he wrote his Corrections to the General Theory of Relativity. Of course, he’s an unusual man, you’d have to be.’
‘But what does he look like?’
‘What does he look like?’
The journalist hesitated. He remembered Fidler coming out into the garden in his baggy white suit. There was something odd about his figure. His hips were wide, his shoulders narrow. A short neck… It had been a strange interview, because Betly felt that it was rather he who was being interviewed. Fidler had answered his questions. But somehow frivolously. As if he were laughing at the journalist and at the whole world of normal people out there, behind the walls of the Science Centre. And he asked questions as well. Strange, almost foolish questions. Rubbish, like whether Betly liked carrot juice. As if the conversation were an experiment and he, Fidler, was carrying out research into a normal person.
‘Averagely tall,’ Betly said. ‘Small eyes… Have you really never seen him? He’s been here, out at the lake and in the laboratory.’
‘He came twice,’ Meller replied. ‘But he had so much security with him that they wouldn’t even let dead people get within a mile of him. That was back when they still kept the otarks behind fences, when Reichhardt and Klein were working with them. They ate Klein. And when the otarks escaped, Fidler never showed his face here again… What does he say about the otarks now?’
‘About the otarks? He said that they were a very interesting scientific experiment. Very challenging. But he’s not involved with them at the moment. He’s doing something to do with cosmic rays… He said that he was sorry for the victims.’
‘And why did they do all this? What for?’
‘How can I put it?’ Betly thought for a moment. ‘Something that happens a lot in science is what if. It’s led to a lot of discoveries.’
‘What do you mean, what if?’
‘Well, for example, What if we put an electrified wire into a magnetic field? And then you get the electric motor… I suppose what if just means experimentation.’
‘Experimentation.’ Meller ground his teeth. ‘They did an experiment: they let man-eaters out among people. And now no one thinks about us. You’ll get by as best you can. Fidler’s given up on the otarks and on us as well. And they’ve bred and there are hundreds of them now, and no one knows what they’re plotting against us people.’ He stopped talking and sighed. ‘The things these scientists think up! Making wild animals cleverer than people. They’ve gone crazy, the people who live in cities. Atom bombs and now this. They must really want to bring the human race to an end.’
He stood up, took his loaded rifle and laid it beside him on the floor.
‘Listen, Mister Betly. If there is an alarm, if someone starts knocking or trying to break the door down, you just lie there. Or else we’ll shoot each other in the dark. You lie there; I know what to do. I’m so well trained I’m like a dog, I’ll wake up just from instinct.’
In the morning, when Betly left the barn, the sun was shining so brightly and the rain-washed greenery was so fresh that the conversation they had last night seemed no more than a scary story.
The black-bearded farmer was already out in his field — the white patch of his shirt showed on the other side of the river. For a moment the journalist thought that this might be happiness — to get up at sunrise, not to know the worry and bustle of a difficult city life, to do business only with the handle of your spade, with the clods of dark brown earth.
But the forester quickly brought him back to reality. He appeared from behind the barn with his rifle in his hand.
‘Come on, I want to show you something.’
They walked round the barn and came out into the kitchen garden that backed up against the house. Here Meller behaved strangely. Bent double, he rushed past the bushes and stopped in a ditch next to the potato beds. Then he made a sign for the journalist to do the same.
They started to follow the ditch round the kitchen garden. At one point a woman’s voice could be heard in the house, but it was impossible to hear what she said.
‘What is it?’
‘You said you were a hunter. Look!’
On a patch of bare earth among the tangled grass was a clear five-toed footprint.
‘A bear?’ Betly said hopefully.
‘What bear? There haven’t been bears here for a long time.’
‘So is it an otark?’
The forester nodded.
‘It’s fresh,’ the journalist whispered.
‘From last night,’ Meller said. ‘You see it’s damp. They were in the house before it rained.’
‘In the house?’ Betly felt a cold shiver down his spine, as if something metal had pressed against it. ‘Right in the house?’
The forester did not answer, he jerked his head in the direction of the ditch, and both of them went back the way they had come.
When they got to the barn, Meller waited while Betly got his breath back.
‘I thought as much last night. When we got here last night and Steglich started to pretend that he couldn’t hear. He just wanted us to speak more loudly so that the otark could hear everything. The otark was in the other room.’
The journalist’s voice was hoarse.
‘What are you saying? People are taking sides with the otarks? Against real people?’
‘Keep your voice down,’ the forester said. ‘What do you mean, “taking sides”? Steglich couldn’t do anything else. The otark came and it stayed. That happens a lot. An otark comes and lies down, for example, in the bedroom. Or else they just throw people out of their houses and live there for a day or two.’
‘And what about the people? Do they just put up with it? Why don’t they shoot them?’
‘How are they going to shoot them, if the woods are filled with other otarks? The farmer has children, and cattle that he wants to pasture in the fields, and a house that could burn down… But the children are the most important. The otarks can take them. Can you really keep an eye on your children? And they’ve taken all the rifles anyway. That happened right at the start. In the first year.’
‘And people just gave them up?’
‘What could they do? The ones who didn’t surrender their weapons were sorry…’
He did not finish his sentence and suddenly stared at the willow coppice about fifteen paces away from them.
What happened next took only two or three seconds.
Meller lifted up his rifle and cocked it. At the same time a dark brown mass rose from the bushes, its large eyes sparkling, wicked and frightened, and said:
‘Hey, don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!’
Instinctively the journalist grabbed Meller’s shoulder. A shot rang out but the bullet just nicked a tree. The brown mass bent double and rolled like a ball into the forest and disappeared between the trees. For a few moments all that could be heard was the cracking of twigs, then everything fell silent.
‘What the hell!’ The forester turned round in a fury. ‘Why did you do that?’
The journalist, turning pale, whispered:
‘He spoke just like a human… He asked you not to shoot.’
For a second the forester looked at him, then his anger turned into a tired indifference. He lowered his rifle.
‘Alright… The first time it causes quite an impression.’
There was a rustle behind them. They both turned.
The farmer’s wife said:
‘Come and eat. I’ve already laid the table.’
While they ate they all pretended that nothing had happened.
After breakfast the farmer helped them saddle their horses. They left without saying anything.
When they had ridden off, Meller asked:
‘What’s your plan, then? I didn’t catch it. All they said was that I should ride you round the mountains, and that was it.’
‘What’s my plan? Well, I want to go around in the mountains, yes. To see people, the more the better. To get to know the otarks, if the opportunity presents itself. In a word, to get a sense of the atmosphere.’
‘Were you getting it back on the farm?’
The forester suddenly reined in his horse.
‘Someone’s running after us… Something’s happened on the farm.’
Betly had no time to wonder at the forester’s hearing, when a shout came from behind them:
‘Hey, Meller! Hey!’
They turned their horses and the farmer, panting, came up to them. He almost fell over, and grabbed the pommel of Meller’s saddle.
‘The otark took Tina. He’s dragged her off to Moose Canyon.’
He gulped at the air; drops of sweat fell from his forehead.
With a single movement, the forester pulled the farmer up onto his saddle. His stallion rushed forward, throwing up mud high from beneath his hooves.
Betly had never thought that he could travel so fast on a horse. Potholes, the trunks of fallen trees, bushes and ditches all slid by under him, forming some kind of patchy mosaic. At some point a branch whipped off his cap, and he didn’t even notice.
This speed largely did not depend on him. In the heat of the competition, his mare tried her hardest not to be left behind by the stallion. Betly grabbed onto her neck. Every second he thought that he would be killed.
They galloped through the forest, across a wide meadow, down a slope, passed the farmer’s wife and headed down into a big ravine.
The forester leapt down from his horse and, with the farmer following him, rushed down the narrow path into a grove of sparsely planted pine trees.
The journalist left his horse as well, throwing the rein over her neck, and rushed after Meller. He hurried after the forester and his mind automatically noted the surprising transformation that had taken place. There was nothing left of Meller’s former apathy and indecisiveness. He moved with light and collected gestures, never pausing to think, he jumped over pits, slid under low-hanging branches. He moved as if the trail of the otark was sketched out for him in a thick chalk line.
For a while Betly kept up with the pace, then he started to tire. His heart leapt in his chest, he felt tightness and burning in his throat. He slowed down to a walk, and for a few minutes walked alone among the bushes, then heard voices ahead of him.
The forester stood in the narrowest part of the ravine with his gun cocked and pointing at a thick grove of hazel trees. The girl’s father was there as well.
The forester spoke with emphasis:
‘Let her go. Or I will kill you.’
He was talking to what was in the grove.
He was answered by a growl, mingled with the sobs of a child.
The forester repeated what he had said:
‘Or I will kill you. I will give my life to track you and kill you. You know me.’
The growl came again, and then a voice, but not a human voice, somehow like a gramophone record, running all the words together, said:
‘And if I do this, then you won’t kill me?’
‘No,’ Meller said. ‘You will walk out of here alive.’
There was silence in the thicket. The only noise was the child’s crying.
Then there was a cracking noise of branches, and something white appeared among the trees. The thin girl came out into the long grass. One of her hands was covered in blood and she supported it with the other.
Still crying, she walked past the three men, not turning to look at them, and wandered staggering towards her house.
The three men looked as she walked away.
The black-bearded farmer looked at Meller and Betly. There was something so harsh in his wide-open eyes that the journalist could not bear it and bent his head.
‘That’s that,’ the farmer said.
They stopped to spend the night in a little empty watchman’s hut in the forest. They were only a few hours away from the lake with the island where the laboratory had once been, but Meller refused to travel in the dark.
This was the fourth day of their journey, and the journalist thought that his tried and tested optimism was starting to crack. Previously he had had a little saying prepared for every time he met with any unpleasantness: ‘But all the same, life itself is wonderful!’ But now he understood that this was a standby phrase, one that worked perfectly when you were travelling in a comfortable train from one city to the next or when you walk through the glass door that leads into a hotel reception, ready to meet with some famous person — this phrase was entirely inadequate to deal with what had happened to Steglich, for example.
The whole region seemed to be wracked with illness. The people were apathetic, unwilling to talk. Even the children didn’t laugh.
Once he asked Meller why the farmers didn’t leave the place. The forester explained that the only thing that the inhabitants owned was their land. But now there was no way to sell it. The land was worthless now because of the otarks.
‘Why don’t you leave?’
The forester thought. He bit his lips in silence, then replied:
‘I can still be of some use. The otarks are afraid of me. I don’t have anything here. No family, no home. There’s no way they can put pressure on me. They can only fight me. But that is risky.’
‘Do you mean that the otarks respect you?
Meller lifted his head uncertainly.
‘The otarks? How could they? They don’t know respect either. They are not people. They are just afraid. And they’re right. I kill them.’
But the otarks still took a certain amount of risk. The forester and the journalist both recognised it. They had the impression that a ring was gradually tightening around them. They had been shot at three times. Once the shots had come from the windows of an abandoned house, and twice they had come straight out of the forest. After each of the three attacks they had found fresh tracks. And every day they found more and more marks made by the otarks…
In the watchman’s hut, in the little stone fireplace, they lit a fire and prepared their supper. The forester lit his pipe and looked sadly into space.
They had left their horses opposite the open door to the hut.
The journalist looked at the forester. All the time he had been with him, his respect for him had increased every day. Meller was uncultured, he had spent all his life in the forests, he had barely read anything, you couldn’t speak to him for two minutes about art. And even so the journalist felt that he couldn’t ask for a better friend. The forester’s opinions were always healthy and independent: if he didn’t have anything to say, then he didn’t say anything. To begin with the journalist had thought him somehow nervy and irritably weak, but now Betly understood that this was a long-standing bitterness that he felt on behalf of the inhabitants of this large abandoned region, which had been brought low by the mercy of the scientists.
For the last two days Meller had been feeling ill. He had swamp fever. It covered his face with red patches.
The fire was dying in the grate, and the forester unexpectedly said:
‘Tell me, is he young?’
‘The scientist, Fidler.’
‘He is young,’ the journalist replied. ‘About thirty. No more. Why?’
‘It’s not good that he’s young,’ the forester said.
Meller was silent for a while.
‘Well, they take them all, the talented people, and lock them away in a closed space. And they coddle them. And they don’t know anything about life. And that’s why they have no compassion for people.’ He sighed. ‘You need to be a person first of all. And only then a scientist.’
He stood up.
‘It’s time to go to sleep. We’ll take turns. Or else the otarks will kill our horses.’
The journalist ended up taking the first watch.
The horses were chewing hay from a small hayrick left over from the previous year.
He sat in the doorway of the hut, his rifle laid across his knees.
The darkness fell fast, like a cover. Then his eyes gradually became accustomed to the gloom. The moon came out. The night was clear and starry. Calling out to one another, a flock of little birds flew overhead. Unlike the larger birds, they were afraid of predators and so carried out their autumn journey by night.
Betly stood up and walked around the hut. The forest closely surrounded the clearing where the hut stood, and this was where the danger lay. The journalist checked his rifle to see if it was cocked.
He started to muse over the last few days, the conversations he had had, the faces he had seen, and he thought about how he would tell the story of the otarks when he got back to the newspaper. Then he thought that it was precisely the idea of his return that constantly appeared in his mind and gave a peculiar colouring to everything that he met with here. Even when they were tracking the otark after it had taken the child, he, Betly, had not forgotten that however bad things got here, he could always turn around and leave it all behind.
‘I’ll go back,’ he said to himself. ‘But Meller? And the others?’
But this was too harsh a thought for him to work out all its ramifications now.
He sat in the shade of the hut and started to think about the otarks. He remembered the headline from some newspaper: ‘Intelligence without compassion.’ It was like what the forester said. For him the otarks could not be human, because they had no ‘compassion’. Intelligence without compassion. Was that possible? Could intelligence even exist without compassion? What came first? Isn’t kindness a result of intelligence? Or is it the other way round? It had already been established that the otarks were more capable than humans of logical thought, that they understood abstractions better, had better memories. The rumours were already flowing that some of the first generation otarks were held in the Ministry of Defence and used to help decide certain particular problems. But electronic ‘reasoning machines’ were also used to solve certain particular problems. What was the difference?
He remembered that one of the farmers had told him and Meller that he had recently seen an almost completely naked otark, and the forester had replied that the otarks had recently started to become ever more like people. Would they conquer the world one day? Could intelligence without compassion be stronger than human intelligence?
‘But that won’t happen any time soon,’ he said to himself. ‘If it ever does happen. In any case, I’ll be long gone by then.’
But then he thought: what about the children? What sort of world would they live in — the world of the otarks or the world of cybernetic robots, also inhuman and also, according to some people, cleverer than humans?
His son appeared in his mind’s eye and said to him:
‘Listen to me, dad. We are who we are, right? And they are who they are. But don’t they think to themselves that they are a “we” too?’
‘You’re growing up too fast,’ Betly thought. ‘When I was seven I wouldn’t have asked such questions.’
Somewhere behind him a twig snapped. The boy disappeared.
The journalist carefully looked around and listened. No, everything was fine.
A bat crossed the clearing in its angular wavering flight.
Betly straightened up. The thought came to him that the forester was hiding something from him. He still hadn’t said who the horseman was who had overtaken them on the broken road that first day.
He leant his back against the wall of the house once more. His son appeared again, with more questions.
‘Dad, where does it all come from? The trees, the houses, the air, the people? Where does it come from?’
He started to tell the boy about the evolution of creation, then something seemed to jab him in the heart and Betly woke up.
The moon had gone. But the sky was still fairly light.
The horses were no longer in the clearing. Or rather, one was gone, and the other was lying on the grass, with three grey shadows crouching over it. One of them stretched up, and the journalist saw a huge otark with a large heavy head, grinning jaws and large eyes that glinted in the half darkness.
Then a whisper came from nearby.
‘No, he’s woken up already.’
‘Go to him.’
‘He’d have shot earlier, if he could. He’s either asleep, or else he’s petrified with fear. Go to him.’
The journalist was petrified. It was like a dream. He understood that there was no way out of this, that the catastrophe had arrived, but he could not move a muscle.
The whisper continued:
‘But what about the other one? He’ll shoot.’
‘He’s ill, he won’t wake up… go, I say!’
With a huge effort Betly managed to move his eyes. An otark appeared from round the corner of the hut. But this one was small, like a pig.
Overcoming his state of shock, the journalist pulled the trigger of his rifle. Two shots boomed out one after the other, two cartridge cases were expelled into the air.
Betly scrambled to his feet, the rifle fell from his hands. He rushed into the hut, shaking, slammed the door behind him and put the latch down.
The forester was waiting with his rifle cocked. His lips moved, and the journalist felt rather than heard the question:
He shook his head.
There was a scratching at the door. The otarks were propping something up against it.
A voice spoke:
‘Hey, Meller! Hey!’
The forester rushed to the window and would have stuck his rifle out. But at that moment a black paw flashed past against the starry background; he scarcely pulled his gun back in time.
There was satisfied laughter outside.
The gramophone voice, stretching out its words, said:
‘Your time is up, Meller.’
Other voices interrupted:
‘Meller, Meller, come and talk to us…’
‘Hey, forester, say something clever. You’re a man, you’re supposed to be clever…’
‘Meller, say something and I’ll tell you it’s wrong…’
‘Speak to me, Meller. Call me by my name. I’m Philip…’
The forester said nothing.
The journalist walked over to the window with uncertain steps. The voice was very close, just past the log wall. There was an animal stench — blood, dung, something else.
The otark who had said his name was Philip spoke right under the window.
‘You’re a journalist, right? You, by the window.’
The journalist cleared his throat. His throat was dry. The same voice continued:
‘Why did you come here?’
There was a silence.
‘Did you come here to destroy us?’
There was another pause, then other voices started to speak:
‘Of course, of course they want to wipe us out… First they made us, now they want to destroy us…’
There was a chorus of growls, then another noise. The journalist had the impression that the otarks were fighting.
Over the top of all this noise came the voice of the one who had said he was called Philip:
‘Hey, forester, why don’t you shoot? You always shoot. Come and speak to me now.’
Somewhere above them a shot suddenly rang out.
Betly turned round.
The forester had climbed on top of the fireplace, had moved aside the thin poles with straw on top that made up the roof, and had opened fire.
He fired twice, paused to reload, and fired again.
The otarks ran away.
Meller jumped down from the fireplace.
‘We need to get some horses. Or it’ll be tough for us.’
They looked at the three dead otarks.
One of them, a youngster, was practically naked, with hair only growing on the back of his neck.
Betly nearly vomited when Meller turned the creature over on the grass. He managed to contain himself, holding his mouth shut.
The forester said:
‘Remember, they are not people. Even though they can speak. They eat people. They eat each other.’
The journalist looked around. It was already dawn. The clearing, the field, the dead otarks — everything seemed at that moment to be unreal.
Could it really be so? Was he, Donald Betly, standing here?
‘This is where the otark ate Klein,’ Meller said. ‘One of the locals told us all about it, a man from round here. He worked as a cleaner, when the laboratory still existed. And that evening he just happened to be in the next room. He heard everything…’
The journalist and the forester were now on the island, in the main building of the Science Centre. That morning they had taken the saddles from the dead horses and had crossed to the island over the dam. They only had one rifle now, because Betly’s had been taken by the otarks as they ran away. Meller’s plan was to get to a nearby farm while it was still light and taking some horses there. But the journalist had talked him into allowing half an hour to look over the abandoned laboratory.
‘He heard everything,’ the forester continued. ‘It was in the evening, round about ten o’clock. Klein had some kind of contraption that he was taking apart, connecting to electric wires, and the otark was sitting on the floor, and they were chatting. They were talking about physics. This was one of the first otarks they had bred and he was considered the most intelligent. He could even speak foreign languages… This guy was cleaning the floor and could hear them chatting. Then there was a silence, then a thud. And suddenly the cleaner heard a voice saying ‘Oh God!’ It was Klein, and there was so much terror in his voice that his knees bent under him. Then there was a gut-wrenching scream of ‘Help me!’ The cleaner looked into the room and saw Klein lying on the floor and writhing, with the otark chewing at him. This guy was so frightened that he couldn’t do anything and just stood there. And it was only when the otark came for him that he shut the door.’
‘Then they killed two other laboratory workers and ran away. And five or six stayed on as though nothing had happened. And when the commission from the city came, they talked to the otarks. Then they took them away. We found out later that they’d eaten another person on the train.’
Everything had been left untouched in the large laboratory. The flasks and dishes were on the long benches, covered with a layer of dust, and spiders had spun their webs through the cables of the X‑ray machine. The glass in the windows was broken, and the branches of wild, uncropped acacias came through the empty frames.
Meller and the journalist left the main building.
Betly wanted very much to look at the radiation apparatus, and he asked the forester for five more minutes.
The asphalt on the main road of the abandoned village had been broken through by grass and young strong shoots. It was autumnal and you could see a long way. It smelt of rotting leaves and damp trees.
On the village square Meller stopped unexpectedly.
‘Did you hear something?’
‘No,’ Betly replied.
‘I was thinking about how they came as a group to besiege us in the watchman’s hut,’ the forester said. ‘They never used to do anything like that. They always acted alone.’
He listened again.
‘It’s as if they were planning a surprise for us. Let’s get out of here as fast as we can.’
They went over to the low-slung round building with its narrow barred windows. The massive door was half open, the concrete floor by the doorway was covered with a thick layer of forest debris — reddish pine needles, dust, the wings of midges.
They went carefully into the first room with its hanging ceiling. Another massive door led into a low-roofed room.
They peered in. A squirrel with a fluffy tail like a flame rushed across the wooden table and leapt through the wooden slats covering the window.
The forester looked around quickly. He listened, holding his rifle tight, then said.
‘No, this is no good.’
And he hurried back the way they had come.
But it was too late.
There was a rustling noise and the outside door clanged shut. Then there was a noise as if something heavy were being placed against it.
For a second Meller and the journalist looked at one another, then they rushed to the window.
Betly took one glance then stepped back.
The square and the wide dry pool, which had been built there for no obvious reason, were filled with otarks. There were dozens and dozens of them, and new ones kept appearing as if they were coming out of the ground. A noise rose from this crowd of non-humans and non-beasts, a mixture of cries and growling.
In shock, the forester and Betly stood silently.
A young otark near to them stood up on its back paws. There was something round in its front paws.
‘A stone,’ the journalist said, still unable to believe what was happening. ‘He wants to throw a stone…’
But it was not a stone.
The round object flew through the air, by the window it burst with a blinding light, and a bitter smoke came into the room.
The forester stepped back from the window. He looked confused. His rifle fell from his hands and he grasped at his chest.
‘Damn it!’ he said and lifted up a hand, looking at his bloody fingers. ‘The bastards! They’ve got me.’
Turning pale, he took two uncertain steps then sank to his heels, then sat against the wall.
‘They got me.’
‘No!’ Betly cried. ‘No!’ He shook as though with fever.
Meller, biting his lips, turned his pale face to him.
The journalist ran to the exit. There was already something heavy propped against it from the outside.
He went back to the forester.
Meller was lying down now against the wall, holding his hands to his chest. A damp patch spread over his shirt. He wouldn’t let the journalist bind the wound.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ he said. ‘I can feel that this is the end. There’s no point causing any more pain. Don’t touch me.’
‘But I can get help!’ Betly cried.
The question was so bitter, so open and so hopeless, that the journalist grew cold.
They were quiet for a while, then the forester said:
‘Do you remember the rider we saw the first day?’
‘He was most likely running to tell the otarks that you were here. They work together, the city bandits and the otarks. That’s why the otarks were able to band together. You shouldn’t be surprised. I’m sure that if octopuses came here from Mars, they’d find people willing to side with them.’
‘Yes,’ whispered the journalist.
The time until evening passed without anything happening. Meller grew weaker quickly. He stopped bleeding. Even so he wouldn’t let anyone touch him. The journalist sat next to him on the stone floor.
The otarks left them alone. They made no attempt to break through the door, or to throw another grenade. The chattering outside the building grew faint, then rose again.
When the sun went down and it started to get colder, the forester asked for something to drink. The journalist gave him water from his flask and wiped his face as well.
The forester said:
‘Maybe it’s a good thing that the otarks have appeared. Now it will become clear what it means to be a man. Now we will all know that to be a man it is not enough to be able to count and to study geometry. There’s something else. And the scientists are proud of their work. But that’s not everything.’
Meller died that night, and the journalist lived another three days.
The first day he only thought about saving himself, moving from despair to hope, shooting a few times through the window with the idea that someone would hear the shots and come to help him.
Towards night-time he realised that all his hopes were illusory. His life seemed to be divided into two halves that were impossible to reconcile in any way. He was mostly agitated by the fact that there was no logical connection or continuity between them. One life was the happy intellectual life of a highly-successful journalist, and that life had finished when he and Meller had ridden down from the mountainside into the thick forests of the Main Range. This first life had given him no indication that he was destined to die here on this island, in an abandoned laboratory.
In the second life everything was possible and impossible. It was entirely made up of coincidence. And really, it could not be happening. He had been free not to come here, to have refused this call from his editor and take another job. Instead of studying the otarks, he could have flown to Nubia to write about the protection of the ancient monuments of Egyptian art.
An unlucky chance had brought him here. That was the cruellest blow. A couple of times he had almost stopped believing in what had happened to him, and had walked round the room touching the sunlit walls and the dusty tables.
For some reason or other the otarks had lost all interest in him. There were only a few of them left in the pool and on the square. Sometimes they would fight among themselves, and once Betly saw with heart-stopping horror how they threw themselves on one of their own, tore him to pieces, and settled down to eat.
At night he suddenly decided that Meller was guilty of his death. He felt disgusted by the dead forester and dragged his body into the next room and put it by the door.
For a couple of hours he sat on the floor, hopelessly repeating:
‘Lord, why me? Why me?’
On the second day his water ran out and he started to be tormented by thirst. But he had already understood that there was no way he would be saved, and he remained calm and started to think about his life again — it already seemed like someone else’s. He remembered how, right at the beginning of the journey, he had argued with the forester. Meller had told him that the farmers wouldn’t talk to him.
‘Why?’ Betly had asked.
‘Because you live in the warm, with all your comforts,’ Meller replied. ‘Because you are one of the people at the top. One of the ones who betrayed them.’
‘What do you mean, I’m at the top?’ Betly said, refusing to accept what he was told. ‘I only earn a little bit more than they do.’
‘So what?’ the forester said. ‘Your work is light, fun almost. They have been dying here for years, and you’ve written your little articles, you’ve gone to restaurants, you’ve had your intellectual conversations…’
He realised that all this was true. His optimism, which he had been so proud of, was in the final analysis the optimism of an ostrich. He had just buried his head when it came to the bad news. He read about executions in Paraguay in the newspapers, or about famine in India, but spent his time thinking about how to get money to buy new furniture for his large five-room apartment, or how he might be able to win the good opinion of some important person or other. The otarks — the otark-people — shot crowds of protestors, speculated on the price of bread, prepared wars in secret, and he turned away from it all, pretending that nothing of the kind ever happened.
From this point of view, all of his past life suddenly seemed strongly connected with what was now happening to him. He had never spoken out against evil, and now the time had come for pay-back.
On the second day the otarks came and spoke with him by the windows a couple of times. He didn’t reply.
One of the otarks said:
‘Hey, come on out, journalist! We won’t hurt you.’
And another one, standing next to him, laughed.
Betly thought about the forester once again. But his opinion had changed. He thought that the forester had been a hero. To tell the truth, the only real hero that Betly had ever encountered. Alone, without any kind of assistance, he had fought against the otarks, had struggled with them and died undefeated.
On the third day the journalist started to fall into delirium. He imagined that he had returned to his newspaper and was dictating an article to the stenographer.
The article was called ‘What is a Man?’
He dictated out loud.
‘On our century of astounding developments in science one might be forgiven for concluding that science is all-powerful. But let us imagine for a moment that an artificial brain has been created, twice as powerful as the human brain and possessing twice the capacity for work. Would a creature with a brain of this type really be allowed to call itself a man? What is it that makes us what we are? The capacity to perform sums, to analyse, to make logical deductions; or is it something else, which arises with the development of society, which is to do with on individual’s relation to others and with the relation of the individual to the collective? If we take the otarks as an example…’
And here his mind started to wander.
On the third day there was an explosion in the morning. Betly woke up. He thought that he had stood up and was holding his rifle at the ready. In fact he was lying helpless by the wall.
The muzzle of a wild animal appeared before his eyes. With an agonising effort of thought, he remembered what Fidler had looked like. Like an otark!
Then his thoughts lost their focus again. He could not feel how his flesh was being torn at, and for a tenth of a second Betly was able to think that the otarks were not really so terrible, that there were only a couple of hundred of them in this abandoned region. They could be dealt with. But the people… The people!
He did not know that the news of Meller’s disappearance had already spread across the whole area, and that the desperate farmers were digging up the rifles they had hidden.