In the sky above my city the stars are few. Going out for a smoke in the evening, I see Ursa Major and her son Boötes. On a moonless night, with some twist – the curl of Coma Berenices. The twelve-stories building opposite me obscures Polaris, but not the tail of Draco guarding it. Gazing upon this mantle of Nyx dotted with drops of milk once spilled from the divine breasts of Hera, I think of how far away are these stars, so easily taking shapes on two-dimensional heavens. And so alien to each other in reality. Even the light has to fly to us for many years to bring a humble hope that they are still alive and the worlds orbiting these boiling drops still exist. It makes me feel lonely, and I and the Immortal together yearn for a faraway planet, of which he tries to tell, and I – to understand. I want to believe this'll happen someday. I lie to him and myself with hope, and so the Immortal falls to sleep, imagining that tomorrow it will be different.
I found him two years ago in a closed library. A large chemical company decided to repair the building and reassign it for current needs, so the books were being given away to anyone interested. Walking with a pile of handbooks, I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a ball of yellow notebook paper on the shelf. Inside – an ellipsoid, ninety-three millimeters in the bigger axis and thirty-one in the smaller. Solid cast, polished to a shine, it had a shifted center of gravity, so was always standing upright like a roly-poly doll. I often collect junk – on a separate shelf I have the first threaded part lathed in the university, and also the ball bearing gifted by a friend. So, is it any wonder that I took this thing home too? And the same evening, pointlessly whiling away the time with this wobbly toy, started dreaming.
I was imagining a shack smelling of resin. The hubbub of people back from the shift. A silly moth was banging against the bulb under the ceiling, which lighted the walls pasted over with newspapers. The air didn't have time to cool down after the day's heat, it was stuffy. I was sitting at the nightstand replacing me a table, leafing through a chemical handbook with one hand, though the action was useless, if only because I didn't remember what for. And no matter how I tried, my attention was distracted by an odd cast billet swinging from my fingers' hits. The sound of it rolling back and forth on the white painted tabletop was hypnotizing. Measured at first, deep, with the decrease of amplitude it hastened until growing into an abruptly ending pattering. And every time that moment it seemed like something was ought to happen. Just need to look closer. To take your eyes off the tables and formulas and move them on the reflection on smooth metal.
Did I want to? Not sure. Even without the inexplicable I had enough problems. I felt them, although couldn't name, for the memory turned out to be fragmentary. Singular. I was sick with something, but had neither enough time nor money to heal, and the very nature of the disease was related to my work. After all, I was a chemist. I had a family, but couldn't remember the names and faces. And troubles, the ever-present troubles filling a human's life in the distant 50s of the XX century. Especially here, in Siberian backwoods. By some sixth sense I knew that I won't find the answers to my questions in the reflections of this ellipsoid, much like he will not find what he wants in my head. Should've just let him fall to sleep. Not dredged up the past. But still… he begged. Begged desperately. So, I looked.
Gloomy log house is heated be a massive stove. The night outside is wintery – freezing and clear. Parents went to bed, sleeping are brothers and sisters, snoring's all around the house. Lying under three blankets near the wall, I'm trying to make something out in the darkness on the surface of an outlandish thing brought by father. It's smooth and warm, even though iron, and never have I met a thing so strange. Except maybe this autumn I saw the Moscow fellow riding through our village have this beautiful knife, polished to a shine. All odd himself, dressed up in a foreign kaftan, he was treating the village head with vodka, asking where is the rock nearby atop which there's burning stone. But this wasn't left by him, I felt it. The shutters are closed, it's pitch-black around, but I, the fool, have set my heart on getting outdoors. Don't know why – want. And I edge through a bunch of sleepers, trying not to wake, answering to Tishka stirring under the blanket that I'm gonna go pee. But instead, I throw on my zipun, pull on felt boots and, pressing the warm piece to the chest, sneak out the door. No problem if it's dark – I'm so used to I can walk with my eyes closed.
The sky is starry, not like my city's. Different sky, littered with twinkling dots which I haven't paid attention to before. What for? What use are they? But now they seem very important and, looking upwards, having forgotten about the frost, I want to jump and fly away there. And know that these are not just drops on a black canvas above the ground, but distant spheres around which worlds orbit. I don't understand, but the Immortal doesn't demand me to, anymore. The moment I raised my head and jumped, trying to fly, everything became clear to him, and now we are both sad. I can give him nothing, if only because I don't understand the language. Because I am, to be honest, scared by the thoughts about distances you can't walk in a human's lifetime. And about a ball hanging in the darkness more dense than in the log house, but very similar to another one. The one I am standing on. He is disappointed, although not angry. I don't have answers to his pleas. Again, he will have to wait.
It's so cold. Furtively I open the door and step over a high threshold, and close it instantly so as to not let out the heat. Everyone's asleep, that's good. Maybe won't give me a scolding. Sneaking into the bed and wrapping myself in a blanket, I want to fall asleep, but a sense of guilt haunts me. He is so lonely, though he, it seems, got used to. But maybe there is at least something I can help? Maybe. He offers me to take a look.
A bearded shaman is beating out a rhythm with a leather tambourine. It's gloom and coolness in the hut, but both the old man and the boy are dressed in warm hides, and the fire, rising to the hole at the top, scatters the shadows, and heats. I am young, I am scared and curious – the great Ülgen has chosen me to become a shaman. And tonight, as old Tolai before, I will receive a mentor spirit. I'll understand what my tunur should be like, and whether the old man has correctly interpreted the omens of the nine heavens of Ülgen cher. I'll know if I'm chosen by God. Tolai is singing his heart out. High and far, following the hot air, spreads the song about the creation of the word, vibrating and whistling so loud it plugs the ears. About the earth, about the sky, about the sun, the moon and fire. About the reed and the clay human is sculpted of. About the wicked Erlik, doing evil to men, having created, in revenge to Ülgen, the mole, the badger and the bear. About kams, the shamans, who must fight him.
The voice falls silent, the tunur dies down. Only a bird's cry and the crackling of branches break the quiet, until the old man beckons to give me a brew from a birch bark jar – a tues. Drunk on the juice, I don't right away notice that he also hands me a bundle with something heavy.
"Karakush Khagan," says wise Tolai, escorting me out the door. "Ask him to tell!"
Staggering slightly, I get out, taking the tues with me, for it belongs to the seven black birds of Ülgen. And become amazed with the majesty of the sky. With a strange weight in hand, I suddenly understand – not nine. Not nine are the heavens Ülgen had made, it's a lie, for humans cannot know more. Thousands upon thousands they are, all above each other, but from below it seems as if one. And in each – its own realm, with or without humans, with fire and water, and all the colors one can see in the world. Overwhelmed, I get down on my knees, put the vessel on the ground and bow my head before the iron stone, asking to show me the way. To guide. To reward with a spirit that'll help me battle the khan of the underworld. And I feel anger.
Karakush Khagan is stubborn, that I've heard of, but here – precisely anger. He is angered, and shouts in unknown language, and wants to leap upwards. Somewhere beyond the darkness, beyond all the layers of sky, where, on the highest one, his father Ülgen lives in a golden palace with a golden gate. But why, instead of gold and a huge house, do I see a ball covered in white haze? Why do I feel regret seeing on the dark side sparks without number, as if all the people in the world have gathered in the great steppe, lighting fires? Krakush Khagan doesn't tell. Only gets angry at something. Gets angry with me, with himself and because I didn't understand something important. And so the fear rolls over me, empowered by brew – have I turned out to be unworthy of Ülgen's grace? Then, as if having felt my horror, the anger goes away, replaced with sadness. Fatality. It suddenly seems to me that he doesn't want to help us at all, but can't refuse. Everyone in the world has a role. Maydere – to rule over the humans. Mangdyshire – to fight Erlik and all beasts of his. Karakush Khagan – to help shamans and guide them. But why does it seem stupid now? Why, talking with the son of Ülgen, do I feel myself a fool?
He has already calmed down. And is disappointed, I know it. I lacked something, something important and desirable that he looked for in others before me, but found in none. He will try again, though he doesn't understand what for. Furthermore – he doesn't know what he needs…
Yet I ask, "Tell me, Karakush Khagan!"
In a cold cave, wrapping themselves up in rough hides, people sit. Bearded, dirty, they look in scare at a small vertically standing stone. I am one of them. Children are clinging to women, men are menacingly holding spears and bows. But we tried to kill it, for we know that shiny stones melt like snow if thrown into fire. No use. This one is not yellow and not green, it doesn't fear the bonfire, doesn't become soft no matter how much you heat; doesn't crack if hit with stones. However, that's not why we fear, no – he's angered. This anger is like the rage of ten men, and the spite boiling in a warm heavy oval resembles the gaze of a tiger. We fear, because this gaze means death. What does he want? A fisher found him in the lake on the bank of which we stayed, having made a long way from the old camp. Such a stone was handy for splitting others, it didn't crumple, didn't crack, and would've done a lot of good, if not for the wail. I'd already seen an evil stone five winters ago, but that one was hot, it was smoking and spitting fire, and came from the sky when the thunder struck the top of a bald mountain. But this – never.
Now, screaming, the strongest of us rushes to it. That is good, that is brave. And wise, for, happens, even a tiger hesitates if you growl at him like a beast. The stone, it seems, doesn't fear. I don't feel fear – only doubts and brooding, but the same way a predator doesn't fear a man baring his teeth. The hunter is not a fool, he was only buying himself a moment. And now, when the wailing ceased, with a big sweep he kicks the evil stone out of the cave. We feel calm that he is gone. It's so good without the wail and the anger so resembling the days when the sky screams and rumbles, and the fire falls eating the forests. And yet… why do I feel sad now?
I am going away from the fire, answering to the hailing that I heard something. Fool. Is that an answer? When you hear something outside, you don't go check, you prepare the bow and sit on guard to strike if a bear or a wolf, or other evil dares to come closer. But I'm not called back, they are still afraid of the wailing of the shiny stone, to follow me. And I, having went out on the slope, raise my head to the sky. Never though of how beautiful it is. Never understood what are those twinkling dots and why there are two discs replacing each other: one that brings heat, and the other that doesn't. But becomes smaller, like a fish being bitten off chunk by chunk, only to be reborn later. Why does the first one become colder in winter? Is that where the sky-fire, lighting stone and trees, comes from? Looking around, I see a glint in the grass and realize that it's him. Stuck in the damp ground, silent. I come closer, clutch the warm stone in my fingers and again sense the anger, but now I rather feel sorry for him. It's the anger of a child who wasn't given his toy. The anger of a hunter, whose snares are torn, and the spear and bow are broken. Anger, heavily mixed with despair and, it seems, directed at us only because there is no one else.
Pressing the Immortal against my chest, I look at the sky again. He doesn't anger anymore – tired out, embraced his fate. This happens to me too when the day's unlucky and no game to be shot, but there is no more strength to go on. Unrest and sadness are all that is. They are familiar too. Like this I long for the old camp when everyone's asleep. Those were good places, huts, many fatty animals with warm fur. A river full of fish. Why did we have to go… is it me asking or him? For I know – another tribe. Hostile, evil, driven by hunger. We left much there, and that makes me feel bad. Now we are sad together – sad about different things, but for one reason. And although I don't understand what he's muttering about, and he'll never understand my guttural speech, the feelings speak better than anything: we yearn for home. Only mine is in a week's journey towards the rise of the hot disk, and his – high in the sky. But I don't have the answers to his questions. That I feel too. He has searched but didn't find, and, maybe, that's why he was angry. For no man can tell this stone the things he wants. Why?.. I don't know if I what to find out. I don't understand him at all, apart from the big things. However, the shiny stone is lonely, and I know how scary it is to be alone.
So I catch the white-disc-that-eats-itself in the mirror of his crust and ask, "Tell me…"
This world is shackled in ice, and I - it's prisoner. A lifeless tundra covering everything in visible expanse presses against my eyes. No, not eyes – the mind. The spacesuit reliably protects the body. The inability to follow the rules of hygiene had stopped evoking dull rage many hundreds of rotations ago. This world has a big moon. Waking up, I don't see familiar constellations. The rage from that is much harder to extinguish. Perhaps it would be easier if I knew what exactly did happen, but I remember only panic and haste. And a globe, half-white, which should have been much farther away when we awake from the chemical-induced slumber. Thoughts in an unknown language flash, but by images and feelings I well understand the fury from hopelessness. The guilt. If I were an engineer, a mechanic, woodworker, whoever, save a simple geologist, I might've done something. Understood what went wrong. Might've stayed with the ship and given my life to save the mission.
Its very idea now calls forth hatred. And to think how much inspiration and pride did we experience leaving homeland. Its name cannot be pronounced by human vocal apparatus due to inability of reproducing the necessary sound frequencies. The first expedition to such a long distance. The first flight to a habitable planet, on which we should have stepped on as researchers, as pioneers. As conquerors – in the name of science and the prosperity of our species. What is left of it all? I found the ship's wreckage on the tenth day using equipment from the capsule that had delivered me to the surface. What did I expect to see? A crater. Lots of them are now scattered over the surface of this inhospitable world – an autograph of our fiasco. A monument to genius failing to meet expectations. My attempts to establish contact with survivors have ended in failure, even though we don't need communicators for that. Mental silence surrounding this frozen clod is even worse than the cauldron of panic I had woken in.
I also didn't manage to extract anything from the crash sites, although the rescue apparatus is equipped with medicine to strengthen the immune system – in case local microflora turns out to be pathogenic. It is pleasing that unintelligent organics here easily obey mental commands. Influenceable. Having studied their emotional specter, I can evoke the needed conditions at any moment. That means I won't end up without food. Just have to do something about the cold… It won't end. Though it seemed at the time that we had gathered enough data to conclude that the planet has change of seasons. A polar winter? No. Before the fall I saw the planet covered with a crust of frozen water. An ice age. Wouldn't have been so critical if the ship had survived. But, probably, doesn't play any role for a sole surviving crewmember anyways.
I shall never be found. The very fact the expedition had met its end will become clear only when an emergency signal reaches, after hundreds of years, my world. Or never reaches, and it'll become clear that we had failed. A thought won't leave me whether there will by someone to receive this signal after the lengths of time far exceeding the lifespan of one sentient being? Will they remember us, those decided to fight eternity so that one lucky fool could die in the snow of an alien planet? Only one thing provides a faint hope, and I will harbour it until I die – this morning, dragging myself through the stupefying monotony of the desert, I found a broken footlocker. Its contents didn't live through the crash, save one I've happened to hear about in secret, but never to touch: a small ellipsoid with a shifter center of gravity. Despite the lack of knowledge in thought-recording, I know its purpose. This – the closest my people have come to achieving immortality.
When my body dies, part of me will live on in this thing. Don't know why. Perhaps I just want to hope that, if you wait for eternity, a miracle will happen.
I don't want to tell him that all this is – just an illusion. He died back then, leaving behind a set of memories driven by a desire to return home, no matter how much time has passed. And, millennium after millennium, each one finding the Immortal tried to answer the same silent questions. Lifted his head up to the stars, tried to jump there drawn by an aspiration the source of which had died long before the advent of humanity.
He was asking a lot and at once, "Can you? Do you know where it is? Is someone looking for me?", merging everything into a single idea of yearning, and hoping that enough years have passed. That the strange bipedal creatures, the language of which he doesn't know, will finally understand. And every time he despaired having not received the answer. All what was left – to share loneliness, telling his story century after century.
A new hope has risen lately. For the first time, having asked about the stars, he didn't face the lack of understanding. Of course, I know nothing of them - but so does he. A fraction a geologist's mind, believing that someone would find the image of a globe in a cover of clouds sufficient to point out which way it is. That a strong but vague desire to take flight is enough for a listener to understand where to head to. For he remembers almost nothing. An emotion within a context, forever imprisoned into an ellipsoid. I am sure if this alien could, he would've got long ago that I lie to him. That me smoking on the balcony won't bring him closer to home. But for now, the Immortal just relishes in being understood. Sure seems like a big step after thousands of years. In the sky above my city the stars are few, but, unlike my predecessors, I know what he wants. Just can't give.
But at least I know, and understanding begets hope.
A hope that, after another thousand years, this incoherent wailing and images, in which there is more romance than fact, will show a daring traveler the way to one inhabited planet.