After you read this story, check out our interview with translator Erik Simon for some background on it and Alfred Leman.
Translated by Erik Simon
From Der unsichtbare Dispatcher (Berlin, 1980).
Kioshi Tokito and Anatol Bykov are plodding over the black sintered tuff. They are silent. There are some things to be discussed, but right now they prefer just to think. Everywhere here is that black tuff, except for a few snowflakes of real water, mixed with a good deal of ammonia. The two men’s chrome-yellow parkas are glittering pink now. Also the little clouds along the steps behind the men look pink in the horizontal rays of the sun. Bykov carries an extraordinary thing on his shoulder, something like a dented metal sheet, shapeless, with large and small holes, covered with a black crust. He is reflecting on his find. Tokito, too, has a trophy. He walks, holding it in the palm of his clumsy glove in front of himself like a host, a little disc, brownish, smooth and covered with frozen metal pearls. And Tokito, too, is considering certain circumstances. “Stop!” says Bykov after several hundred steps. Tokito stops. Bykov walkes ten or twelve steps sideways, bends down, lifts something from the ground and then freezes in a position that seems strange to Tokito. Therefore he goes to Bykov who stares at another piece of metal sheet he has found. It is almost a big as his paw, the edges are corroded, it looks very old and, in that light, pink as well. “Aluminium”, says Bykov unwaveringly, turns the piece over and adds: “Gold. Vapor-deposited gold.” On this side, shining like new, a drawing can be seen. Lines, crossing each other starwise, and a few scrolls near the edge, remainders of some larger picture that has been beaten or melted off. “Those are pulsar frequencies”, says Bykov laconically, Tokito sees that the lines are cut into very precise patterns. After a while he nods agreement. Bykov’s black eyes are radiant like a child’s. “And this they say is a sterile lump?” he asks and stamps his boot mightily upon the tuff, and the other man understands he means the whole planet. “I don’t know,” answers Tokito the rhetoric question. “Has this developed all by itself?” Bykov waves the metal. “No. Surely not,” answers Tokito. Then they march on, Bykov carrying the piece in his hand like a monstrance. After two hundred paces in silence he stops and looks at Tokito in triumph. “But I know something. I know now what these scrolls mean. It’s three feet and a hand.” Both men bend over the piece of metal. “Well?” Bykov tries to hasten Tokito’s understanding. “It’s true,” confirms Tokito seriously, “three feet and a hand.” Bykov views the drawing mit delight, and his imagination completes the picture. “I’ve always hoped they would exist somewhere around here. Such as … well, such as us … Or similar.” Once again, head crooked, he eyes the image of the three feet, then he turns to move on. “I don’t know”, remarks Tokito after some time, and then he hears Bykov say: “We are experiencing something really great.” Bykov murmurs something, moved by the majesty of his insight. This time Tokito is silent. For the time of many steps his face has an absent-minded look. Now Bykov laughs like a boy and marches on so spaciously that Tokito must double the number of his steps. After a quarter of an hour Tokito starts takling. “I remember now,”, he says. “So? What, Kioshi?” Bykov asks lightheartedly, and Tokito answers a bit teachingly, trying to hide compassion: “In the nineteen-seventies a space probe of the Pioneer type launched from Earth was the first space missile to leave the Solar system. It carried with it a gilded aluminium plate with data of some pulsars known at that time and with a picture of a pair of humans. It was an attempt to give word of our existence to the universe.” Tokito falls silent, and now Bykov stands frozen. “This is true?”, he asks an eternity later, though he knows it is, for it was Tokito who said it. “Two hundred years ago,” he aches. “And there is nobody to find the thing. Nobody but us, us dudes.” Then he starts walking on. Tokito goes behind him. Now he can reduce the number of his steps to normal, and it seems to him that Bykov’s arms have become a bit longer.
Those thoughts. Now, right now in the last, irretrievable Moment. What silly ideas: People invent beings, raise them out of the inexhaustible dark of inexistence. Morgenstern’s nasobēms making music. Lem’s Tichy in Tentotam, beyond the Milky Way, hunting after the mysterious sepulkes and finding nothing but the bashful blush of the Ardrites. Vonnegut’s hand-eyed little green men who close their raised hands to fists when they don’t want to see what makes them uneasy. Are all those characters really nothing but invention? Last of the crew, Jiri swings into the airlock, and from now on it’s scarcely twenty minutes to takeoff. What brutal cut! Beyond, only bloodless conserves and memories are waiting, bound to fade away. But there is still an image coming through the hatch before it closes. Still it is possible to look outside into the fragrant, gentle air that can caress and sound like the echo of happy laughter. And down there they are standing! Hundreds. They are not green. They are not little. They are kind, and their palms are smooth and blind. But … We asked them about their songs, and they simply snapped themselves shut. All the time they were singing. Whatever they did lead into songs. For three entire years we have asked them about their songs. And for three years they have snapped themselves shut. As soon as the question was there, they hid it behind the shield of a strange smile, snapped shut, and through their nostrils we heard the song humming inside them. They did not stop singing, not even after a thousand questions. But they preserved their secret. They are singing even now. Suddenly I hear a single voice above the soft undulation of sounds, high-pitched as usual. Jiri stands by the translator, pressing the membranes to his ears. Slowly his mouth opens. “Record!”, he shouts, then, whispering with excitement: “He’s speaking about their songs.” The high-pitched voice is muted by the rumble of the lock hatch. The crack is closing. Jiri tears the amplifier from his ears, for there it is, the cut, the takeoff program has no receptor for revelations. Later we ask Gobar why they answered only when it was too late. Gobar used to understand them best. He laughs soundlessly, and we think it’s their way to smile that has wandered upon his face. “If you interrupt a good story you want your listeners to come back to hear the end”, he says. “For three years they have taken care to make their story good enough.” Gobar is looking straight through us in a strange way. What is on his mind now?