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  • Аннотация:
    сборник "When questions are asked" Raduga Publishers, Moscow

  The given art product is distributed in the electronic form with consent of the copyright owner on a noncommercial basis under condition of preservation of integrity and invariance of the text, including preservation of this notice. Any commercial use of the following text without the knowledge of and direct consent of the owner of the copyright IS NOT ADMITTED.
  Timour Sviridov
  science-fiction novel
   ... The earth had already warmed up although it was not yet noon. The prickly blades of grass strove towards the rays of the sun. Everything around seemed blindingly beautiful and exuberantly ecstatic. Thousands of appealing aromas floated in the air, and none of them gave cause of alarm.
   I turned over and relaxed, lying directly on the grass.
   My dog made room for himself right next to me. He was sniffing very rapidly and had poked his soft red tongue out between yellowish canine teeth. He wagged his tail at me, and I nodded back in approval, feeling a strange sort of kinship with him.
   I kept turning over in my mind the events which had occurred so long ago when I was still a journalist...
   * * *
   The automobile slowed down jerkily, raising a whole cloud of light, dry dust in its wake. It was an old car, so the process of braking called forth an entire orchestra of squeals, vibrations, and clanks. After that rusty music had died down and the dust been carried away by the wind, the driver turned to me and spat out hoarsely:
   "This is it, mister. This is as far as I'm going into this godforsaken place!"
   "Thank you, Azalberto!" I replied, snaking his strong, steady hand. As I opened the car door, I said, "I don't know how I would have gotten along without you. You've been a great help." With that, I jumped down into the warm dust.
   Before me stretched out a broad hollow cut through by a multitude of low sierras. I could see everything for kilometers around, because there was nothing to block the view. I could see greenery ahead, and it looked odd in the middle of the bare plains. Next to it, rotting gates were hung from solitary gateposts. And nowhere was there any sign of a fence or wall.
   Azalberto revved the motor of his car and pulled off.
   "Farewell!" he shouted, waving his hand through the open window.
   Thank goodness the wind wasn't blowing the dust into my face. I waved back in response with my free hand. The other hand was occupied with a large gym bag. The khaki-colored Volkswagen with chipped paint raced away, carrying the swarthy lad farther and farther from the "godforsaken place" where he had left me.
   The long silence was finally broken by the sound of the rusty old gate creaking on its hinges in the wind. It opened at such an angle that I could see the faded, chipped sign:
   National Ecological Preserve
   and Scientific Research Center
   I walked through the gate and headed for the grove in the distance. It was quite a hike, so to kill time, I pondered what I could throw out of my gym bag to lighten the load. There was a lot of stuff I wouldn't really miss, and the farther I walked, the longer the list got.
   The road wound its way into the bushes and was lost from sight. In the sierra, it had been barely discernible, because it was rarely used. But here, driving was not at all an accepted mode of transportation. Only a footpath had been cut through the undergrowth.
   Gradually, I was surrounded on all sides by succulents: the thorny tentacles of agave and the spines that covered the flat faded leaves of prickly pear grabbed at me. This flora was fully in keeping with the local conditions, which were arid, saline soils with a grave shortage of water.
   "How peculiar," I reflected. "Why should anyone have thought of making an ecological preserve in a place like this?"
   However, I had not gone more than a kilometer when the picture began to change drastically. First moisture-loving monkey-puzzle trees and giant bamboo began to appear, and soon after, fruit-bearing trees and plants of all kinds could be seen. Avocados with lush flowered panicles waving overhead gladdened the eye. This was a real achievement-only a true master could grow such plants in a place with conditions like those prevailing in the preserve.
   But the deeper I went into that strange forest, the more my amazement grew. The customary agaves had been replaced by flowering magnolias and small palmettos with broad, fan-shaped leaves. The air was filled with the fragrant aroma of anise. It was remarkable that plants from such drastically differing climatic zones were growing here all in one spot!
   My trained eye told me at one that they were completely satisfied with the local conditions. Even those strains which had been traditionally pampered with much more fertile soils were content. I wondered how the staff managed to achieve such results.
   "...The brilliant successes of the Lifeboat staff are quite amazing. One wants to exclaim in disbelief: `That can't possibly be!` when one sees before one's very eyes mighty cedars and grapevines standing next to modest ginkgos, or pungent eucalyptuses, graceful Karelian birches and imposing magnolias all growing tranquilly side by side. Perhaps the day will finally come when we can walk out into our gardens to admire simultaneously date palms and buckthorns flowering!.." The words that rang out in my mind were inevitably filled with journalistic clichйs-the bane of my profession.
   I switched my heavy bag to the other hand and trudged on. To my surprise, I noticed that the path was perfectly straight with no deviations; a real forest path would certainly have meandered much more. Additionally, this particular one was overgrown with short, though grass that creaked resiliently as it gave way beneath the sole of my shoes.
   To the right appeared another path of prickly pear-the large variety that gave Australian farmers such a devil of time when it took over in the enormous pastures common there. But here, the cacti grew tamely in a solitary little patch, though each plant was much taller than a man. Covered with large, sharp reverse-pointed spines, those common opuntia looked like wildly alien creatures in the midst of that lush forest. However, to tell the truth, all that a saw began to remind me more and more of a botanical garden than a real forest.
   "...Professor Quastmu has managed to create something more than a tropical hothouse in the midst of the desert. It suffices to take one step out of this garden, and one passes abruptly from a land of beauty and harmony into something resembling a bare lunar landscape. It is difficult to imagine the enormous possibilities for agriculture opened up by the work of Kenneth Quastmu in terms of the utilization of barren soils alone..." Another invasion of snatches of those sterile phrases and stereotypes which I would probably never be able to free myself of for the rest of my life.
   "I wonder why in the world Azalberto was so reticent to come here..." I thought to myself. "There should be guided tours of a place like this-people should have to pay through the nose to come here!"
   It had been quite a task to convince that local fellow, who seemed to be quite normal, to bring me anywhere near the Operation Lifeboard Institute. And he had categorically refused to drive onto the actual territory of the preserve. From the expression on his face. I realized the reason for this reticence was far more than simple disdain. It was rather painstakingly concealed fright. Could it really be that all this unfamiliar flora, these monkey-puzzle trees, eucalyptuses and so forth...
   The thoughts flowing smoothly through my mind broke of abruptly and went no further.
   I continued walking as if nothing had happened, but I sensed a piercing gaze directed at the back of my head. Never before had I been at all aware of such things, but all at once, I was as internally tense as a taut bowstring. I lost the last traces of self-control, stopped dead in my tracks, and turned sharply around.
   I could make out two beady eyes concealed in the shadow of the large pancake-shaped leaves of the closest prickly pear: I was being watched!
   "Hey!" I shouted nervously. "Who's there?"
   The eyes didn't blink-they didn't even twitch.
   "...The criminal cold-bloodedly aimed the gun at his defenseless victim; he gently crooked his finger about the trigger..."
   "Who's that hiding there?" I asked loudly in a vain attempt to raise my spirit. Unfortunately, I achieved exactly the opposite. My voice sounded timing and lonely in the strange forest. So I made a movement as if I were about to walk closer to the prickly pears, and in a flash, a creature I vaguely recognized as a monkey dashed by.
   A monkey?
   My bag thudded to the ground of its own accord: it simply slipped through my fingers. That was impossible! I couldn't believe my own eyes this time, though I was quite accustomed to relying on them. I was even a bit vain when it came to their sharpness and quickness, qualities so necessary to the reporter's profession.
   The monkey was not very large-something on the order of a macaque, but it was impossible to tell for sure. It raced rapidly up the trunk of the nearest oak and concealed itself in the lush verdure of the crown. My mouth had fallen open in amazement: I was thunderstruck.
   I could somehow accept the fact that there, given the conditions of the local continental climate and arid soil, by some unheard-of method of his own invention, Quastmu had managed to get an amazing variety of flora to adapt and survive. But monkeys-that was a bit too much for me! Nothing and no one could convince me that these natives of North Africa could exist normally in such a place as this, except in captivity.
   However, I was not destined to ponder this intriguing matter for long. My ruminations on the appropriateness of monkeys at the preserve were interrupted by barking which wafted my way from the distance. In this cacophony of yelps, howls, and barks, I could make out a dozen or so distinct cries.
   I was not thrilled in the least by the prospect of meeting up with a pack of wild dogs, so I hurried on in hopes of making it to the research center. In my rush, I didn't paused to contemplate the species of plants I was passing, although there were some truly remarkable specimens.
   The barking grew louder. Unfortunately, it was impossible to determine the direction from which it was coming, but in any case it was getting closer and closer.
   The pack of dogs finally became visible among the trees after I could already see a long low building beckoning to me. I run for all I was worth, tightly clutching my ten-ton gym bag. Still the dogs managed to catch up with me easily. Since I was well aware that the canine tribe had a malevolent custom of attacking anything that was running, I froze in my tracks. I could feel my heart pounding against my ribs.
   "...The death of the young journalist in Professor Kenneth Quastmu unusual ecological garden at the Botanical Research Center was undoubtedly the result of an impermissible laxness on the part of the staff, which was firmly convinced that there could be no strangers on the territory of the eco-garden..." Again, snatches of journalese flashes through my head.
   "Hey, wait a minute!" I exclaimed mentally, getting a hold on my crazed emotions. "I have no intention of dying just yet! After all, these are only dogs, and as far as I know, dogs never go completely wild to the end of their days, even if they wind up living in a wolf pack. That means they won't attack a human being unless they've been specially trained to do so!"
   The motley pack of mutts surrounded me, and I was struck at once by the noble appearance of a laconic muscular black schnauzer and gloomy, barrel-chested Alsatian. The mutts continued to race around me at a respectful distance of about four meters, glancing fearfully at the stick which had unexpectedly appeared in my hand. But the schnauzer and Alsatian remained silent, as before, and walked up to me with great concentration. They nudged me dumbly forward, in the direction of the low building.
   "Hey, you, people!" I wanted to shout in despair. "Where are you when I need you? Don't let a young journalist come to an untimely end before he writes his most sensational article!"
   I made my way to the center's research building under the supervisory nudges in the back of the two enormous gloomy watchdogs. The pack quieted down a bit as the other dogs cast searching, eager glances at their leaders.
   I mentally cursed my boss with all my heart for giving me this particular assignment. Our boss was tall and gray-haired. This almost elderly man's nickname among the staff was Bunny Rabbit, for his eyes were eternally red, and his upper lip always twitched when he was lost in thought.
   "What does the name Kenneth Quastmu mean for you?" he had asked. "Professor Kenneth Quastmu..."
   "What is his field?" I asked inquisitively.
   "That's what you have to find out," said the Bunny Rabbit, taking off his thick hornrimmed glasses and staring at me myopically. "Listen to this, Bernie. That venerable professor left a major research institute in Florida for some nature preserve way out in the boondocks. About ten years ago, we received some material about his achievements-he had managed to get yew saplings to acclimatize themselves to saline soils. The very idea sounded so insane, no one took him seriously. And there you have it," he concluded, his upper lip trembling slightly. "Then yesterdays, I came across a description of how he did it in my old notes. I think it would be worth taking a trip out there to have a look at what he's doing."
   "What could possibly be interesting about such a place?" I asked, baiting him to see how serious he was.
   "According to the material Quastmu was obsessed with the idea of creating some sort of `specific ecological garden` which would be a model in a miniature of the interrelationships of all the links in the biosphere. You can figure out exactly what he's done once you get there..."
   A cold rubbery nose pressed into my palm, so I continued walking. After a bit, the dog gently took my hand in it's mouth. I understood this gesture to mean, "Stop, you have gone far enough!" Not wishing to irritate my four-legged convoy in any way, I froze to the spot. The dogs immediately sat down around me, casting frightened glances at the nearby building. The schnauzer softly barked twice, and all the dogs turned to face the long structure. I also set about examining it.
   "...The temple of the Operation Lifeboat Ecological preserve resembled a fortress more than anything. The long, squat, rectangular building with rare windows cut in to the pale gray walls looked somewhat like a hospital. The impression created by the center was quite gloomy on the whole, although perhaps this was due stark contrast between the dull building and the remarkable forest surrounding it..."
   My bag was weighting me down, and I wanted to set it on the ground at my feet, but I decided not to take the risk-those darling dogs probably didn't like strangers to make any unnecessary movements. I knew enough about schnauzers to treat them with utmost respect, for I found their disgusting habit of rather than biting ripping things to shreds utterly revolting.
   All was quiet. Two storks flew low overhead, and a solitary vulture soared much higher in the bright sunlight. By then I was beyond being surprised at anything I saw. I was just waiting patiently for one of the center's staff members to appear.
   "The devil take it all!" I thought. "Azalberto is right in some ways in trying to give this place a wide berth. I can just imagine how frightened the local inhabitants must be."
   The building of ecological center was comparatively small-about fifty meters long. Its foundation of red brick, laid in the old-fashioned way, was concealed by the tall grass. Two high connected by a lone wire could be seen on the roof. No other features caught the eye, save a row of identical windows with grating running along the gray walls. Actually, the rear entrance was rather interesting: the wide owning and platform meant it was undoubtedly intended for unloading tractor-trailers. They were never around when you needed them! And why weren't there any people to be found-not a single one? After all, it was broad daylight, and it wasn't lunch break.
   I looked cautiously around, trying not to irritate the schnauzer. In all probability, somewhere nearby were the living quarters, warehouses, and garages. All those essential structures couldn't possibly be contained within the small building before me!
   Soon my eyes hit upon the path that led away from building. It stretched out to the right of the entrance and soon disappeared into a thicket of ash and aspen profusely overgrown with lianas. So the living quarters and others buildings were surely at the end of that path.
   Finally, the door of the long, low building swung open, and a man appeared on the threshold. Spry and sixtyish, with quicksilver eyes and a face that was not at all flabby, he kept his hand on the doorknob as if he were planning to slam the door shut right away and go back inside. This stranger was obviously holding something in the hand that remained concealed behind the door. He was dressed simply in a canvas field jacket and black trousers tucked into the legs of his high boots. A nature preserve was no place for white lab coats! None of this surprised me in the least, by the way. Moreover, the peculiar manner in which he gazed at me revealed with absolute certainty that he was a scientist. It was as if he had not been awake very long.
   "Who are you?" he called out in a firm hoarse tenor without any particular intonation.
   I was so glad to see another human being at long last that I totally forgot myself and took a step forward.
   The schnauzer grabbed my ankle by way of warning. It hurt.
   "Not so fast, you!" the stranger shouted menacingly and moved as if he were about to retreat into the building once more.
   I was amazed: one of his dogs had just attacked me as if I were some kind of a thief, and this man was about to leave me alone with my assailants.
   "Listen," I shouted. "Don't leave. Tell your dogs to let me go."
   The schnauzer still had its teeth clamped down on my leg, and it hurt.
   "Who are you, and why have you come here?"
   "I'm a journalist for the illustrated weekly Current Events. Tell this miserable fleabag to let go of me!"
   The old man paid no attention whatsoever to my words.
   "Do you have any kind of ID with you?"
   I nodded.
   "Toss it here."
   I was speechless, for it had become perfectly obvious that the unexpected surprises which had begun with the exotic forest had by no means ended. Quastmu was obviously afraid of someone. I thought it best to do as he said, so a pulled out my press card and tossed it to the stranger. The ID described a short arc as it flew through the air and fell into the grass about three meters short of the steps that led to the entrance. I had done this intentionally, so the old man would be forced to come out and pick it up. This would allow me to glance inside the building and to find out what was concealed in his other hand at the same time.
   "Fetch, Dick!" shouted the stranger.
   A medium-sized spotted dog left the pack and raced to fetch my ID. The canine deftly grabbed my press card in its teeth and ran up to the old man.
   "What if the dog destroys my ID?" I thought with horror, but the spotted beast had already brought the card to its master.
   "Thanks, Dick" he said, he said, dismissing the dog with a wave of his hand. He hungrily trained his gaze on my ID.
   "So you are Francis Bernie?"
   "Yes." I snapped. "Perhaps now you will come to my assistance..."
   The old man gazed at me long and hard as if he were a mine sweeper, then he glanced at the dogs and growled:
   "Let go him. Let him pass."
   With that, the old man turned abruptly and disappeared into the building.
  The dogs begun to stir. The schnauzer relaxed his jaws, released me, and disappeared. The rest of the mutts followed after their leader. I shifted my gym bag to my other hand, exercised my stiff wrist, and rubbed my calf that was giving me a bit of pain. At that moment, I was overcome not by pain but with amazement that the motley pack of dogs understood their master so well. They were remarkably well-trained. I was filled with wonder at this phenomenon as I walked toward the entrance.
  Semi-darkness reigned inside, and the lock shut automatically behind me. I passed through a small vestibule and found myself in a spacious hall with a multitude of large comfortable armchairs. On a raised platform stood a color television. Human figures flashed across the screen, but the sound was turned off.
  The stranger was sitting with his back to me. His scull was narrow and elongated, and his delicately moulded ears were pressed to it. His hair was cut short-almost in a crew-cut-and there was a lot of gray.
   "Are you Kenneth Quastmu?" I asked in a semi-affirmative tone.
   "Have a seat, young man," he said somehow unpleasantly.
   I was far from pleased at being referred to as a "young man", but I decided it was better not to comment on this, so I sat down slightly to the professor's rear.
   "Why are you here?" he demanded impatiently.
   "Don't you think that's a strange question to ask a journalist? Especially after such an odd welcome which could in no way be considered hospitable..."
   "Bernie," he cut me off sharply, "not long ago, several dangerous men escaped from the local prison, so I have to be on the alert."
   "Excuse me, but no one told me about that."
   "Of course not! Why should anyone go around frightening the local people-especially when the men who escaped will be captured shortly... Who brought you here?"
   "Azalberto," I replied, dumbfounded. "But why should that make any difference to you?"
   "Now I see. That means the lad still isn't afraid to go poking his nose about these parts..." mumbled the professor. He drummed his fingers on the arm of the chair. I noticed his wrists at once. They were thin and delicate, like those of a concert pianist. His fingers were white , but there were Band-Aids on two of the five.
   "Professor, where are the staff and the other scientific research workers?" I inquired. "I didn't see anyone as I was coming along the path."
   "Today's their day off. They have probably gone to town. They all left together in the car."
   "But how could it be their day off? It's Wednesday."
   "So what!?" Quastmu finally shouted, still not turning to face me. "So what if it's Wednesday! If you haven't been able to take a single day of for months on the end or allow yourself even a moment's rest, then when your work is finally finished, you'll settle for any day off-be it a Wednesday, a Friday, or even a Monday!"
   Even as he was shouting at me, I recalled that there had been no tracks or signs of any kind that a motor vehicle had recently been driven down the deserted road we came on. So someone had to be lying-either the professor or Azalberto, who had assured me that the road we were taking to the Lifeboat Ecological preserve was in fact the only one. For some reason I was more inclined to believe the young man. Moreover, I was absolutely certain that the entire staff of such an enormous nature preserve could not possibly be taking the same day off. They couldn't just disappear into thin air all at once.
   This trip was turning into something which resembled more and more a detective story, and that confused me a bit. Some disaster had probably befallen the center, something quite serious. And what Quastmu probably wanted was to conceal the details of this event from me. But I would never go along with that! I sensed that I was on the right track. I was about to make a really big catch in those murky waters! I could feel the fish nibbling at the bait.
   "Has the cat got your tongue, or what?" the scientist inquired tensely.
   "Well," I thought, "perhaps I should return his rudeness in spades, particularly since there are no dogs in here..."
   "May I have my ID back now?"
   "Of course. It's in the vestibule on the shelf. I hope you'll find it with no trouble."
   Cursing silent, I rose and went to fetch my press card. I finally returned after searching for about five minutes, seething with righteous anger at such child's play.
  "Professor," I shouted from across the hall, "such behavior is hardly worthy of a man of your position! Give me back my document at once!.."
   There was no one in the room. The chair Quastmu was sitting in a few moments before was empty. I couldn't believe my eyes, so I looked all around, but there was no one to be found-and my gym bag had disappeared along with the professor. This discovery shocked me so severely I sank into a chair and froze.
   "...The run-away convicts who made their way to the ecological preserve exploited the fact that it was located far from any populated areas to make short work of the staff and scientist. Their new hideout served them well and for an extended period of time..." the phrases flowed through my mind. It seemed they were composed by someone else and projected onto my consciousness.
   "So that wasn't Quastmu at all," I thought. "Why didn't I realize it at once! He had a good reason for concealing himself in the shadows when he was standing by the opened door. And after that, he had kept his back to me intentionally when he was sitting in the chair! And that crew-cut was very suspicious, somehow..."
   What an unpleasant situation. It didn't take much imagination to realize that there was no way out of the trap I had walked into so unwittingly. If there were indeed escaped convicts about, then there were probably several of them. So why the masquerade?
   I rose form the armchair with the firm intention of leaving through the same door by which I had entered. At that instant, all my fears dissolved into thin air.
   I had forgotten about the dogs! The dogs couldn't possibly have recognized the criminals as their masters. They were so flawlessly obedient, after all.
   I sank back into the chair and sighed loudly. It was amazing what crazy ideas had popped into my head as soon as things started getting a bit unusual.
   But why had the professor run off with my gym bag, and what was he so afraid of? Who did he take me for?
   I heard hurried shuffling behind me.
   "Bernie! Where the devil are you?" asked the professor, appearing in the doorway at last and staring at me.
   "Where are my gym bag and ID?" I asked in a low voice.
   "Didn't you find it? Come with me, and I'll show you where it is. I took the liberty of putting your bag in the room I have decided to give you for the night. I thought you would realize that you should follow me."
   He walked past me into the vestibule, and I went with him. My ID was indeed on the shelf in the most visible place, but I could have sworn it wasn't there a few minutes before.
   "Here you go, young man."
   I picked up the card and shoved it into my pocket without even glancing at it.
   "And now, if you like, I will show you to your room. Please excuse me, but I'm terribly busy tomorrow, so you will have to set out for town on your own in the morning."
   He turned sharply and strode across the room with the armchairs. He did not glance back, and it was as if he were sure of my total agreement. He did not worry a great deal about elegance of his stride as he shuffled across the linoleum. I had no choice but to follow him. I had to save the situation somehow and make contact with this strange man, because my story had to be written in any case-especially since the material promised to be sensational.
   After walking down two more darkened corridors with rows of doors on either side, the professor turned to the right and came to a staircase. We went up to the second floor. The third door down was mine. He stopped and pushed it open. Suddenly, the air was flooded with sunbeams in which a multitude of tiny dust particles were floating.
   "Here you are!" announced Quastmu, indicating with a wave of his hand that I should enter. "You can unpack your things, and I'll be downstairs for the time being. I'll be able to answer your questions in about twenty minutes when I finish what I'm doing. So come and see me then..."
   "Where will you be?"
   "In the big hall were we were sitting," the professor replied, staring sternly into my eyes. There was something demanding in his gaze-demanding and searching at the same time. Something unpleasant and insinuating.
   "Fine," I said. "I'll see you in twenty minutes."
   With that, he left.
   In the room were a closet and a narrow single bed with a night table by the headboard. Next to a night table stood a desk. The windows were opened wide, and the curtains rippled in the fresh breeze.
   After making certain that the door was closed all the way, I hoisted my bag onto the desk. The locks opened with a click.
   My things were just as I had packed them: underwear in the center, camera and film to the right, razor and other toiletries to the left. But my sharp eyes noticed a slight difference in the order and position. There was no doubt that Quastmu had searched my bag, though he had done so carefully in hopes that I would not realize anything had been touched. However this did not escape my attention any more than the fact that there was another door in the vestibule in addition to the one that led from the hall.
   It was simple enough to reconstruct what had happened: the professor had tricked me into searching for my ID, and while I was looking for it, he had come upstairs to examine my bag. Then he had come down another way, ascertained that I was not in the vestibule, and put my press card on the shelf. It was impossible to reproach him in any way, for I had simply failed to notice my ID and subsequently had not realized that I should have followed my host upstairs. That could be so-called official version. But there was another alternative which was much more appropriate and much more closer to the truth. The professor had indeed feared me in some reason, or more precisely, he had been a bit wary. So he was not telling the whole truth and had decided to check me out. But who could he possibly be afraid of, and what was he expecting to happen? It couldn't possibly be the escaped convicts he had mentioned... No, prisoners didn't go running around with press cards and gym bags full of unnecessary junk.
   I put my camera and other toiletries on the night table by the bed. I had a feeling the camera would come in handy at some point, for after all, I needed a snapshot of the mad professor. It would look great on the cover of Current Events against a background of botanical and zoological wonders.
   I glanced at my watch. A couple of minutes remained before the appointed time for my meeting with the professor, so I looked out the window. Right in front of me was the mighty crown of cedar tree which appeared to be absolutely ancient. It could not possibly have grown to such a height during the relatively short period of time the Lifeboat Ecological Preserve had been in existence. So that meant unusual trees had taken root and managed to survive here some how long before the appearance of Quastmu and his staff. Or perhaps the tree had been transplanted after it was already rather large-say, three meters in height.
   I was still curios as to the whereabouts of the other residents of the ecological preserve.
   It was time to go.
   I concealed my Dictaphone in the breast pocked of my jacket, hung the camera from my neck, and left the room.
   I was quite hungry by then, for I had had nothing to eat since breakfast. First, I had been rushing to meet Azalberto, and then, I had been reluctant to go fishing around in my bag for the sandwiches I had packed. On the way to the center and especially after my encounter with the dogs, I hadn't felt much like eating. I wondered if Quastmu would offer my any victuals or if the noble tradition of hospitality were totally alien to him.
   The professor was sitting in the same chair. An odd light shone from the television screen where figures continued to move noiselessly about, for the sound was still off. Despite the fact that I entered quietly as a mouse, the professor sensed that I was approaching.
   "Have a seat, journalist," he said dispassionately.
   This time, I sat practically next to him and placed my camera on the chair beside me. I didn't want to be the one to start the conversation, for I was curios to hear what Quastmu would begin with.
   "Young man," he intoned, "I hope you don't mind if I address you in such a fashion, for after all , I'm old enough to be your father..." Then he continued without waiting for my assent: "I would like to invite you to watch a bit of television with me. After all, we live in such a remote and isolated spot that television is one of the few threads which connect us to civilization..."
   Thank goodness I managed to turn the dictaphone on sufficiently surreptitiously that Quastmu did not notice. I savored the thought of hoe best to present this whimsical scene of an old man who preferred to watch a silent television.
   On a screen tinged with green, blue and pink surged crowd of people. For some reason, all their faces and clothing seemed gray. The camera swam through the seas of people, catching scenes of car speeding off as the light turned green. There were shots of the enormous geometrical frames of steel and concrete buildings. Without any sound, at all seemed utterly pointless. There was an occasional close-up of a face with moist lips moving. But the eyes were inevitably blank and lifeless, so it was impossible to guess what the people were talking about. Everywhere there were people, people, and more people.
   "Professor," I began cautiously, "why don't you turn on the sound?"
   "The sound ruins everything, young man. When the audio is turned off, the images on the screen are a song. Unified, burning, and piercing. But the sound ruins that impression. It provides misinformation for the consciousness by sublimating human attention-substituting what is possible or desired for what is perfectly obvious," replied the professor without taking his eyes of the screen.
   "But wait a minute," I interjected "Without the sound, the pictures are pointless. They are utterly meaningless."
   "Precisely," Quastmu said, a note of interest finally creeping into his voice. He turned to me and added: "You are absolutely correct and totally off-base at once."
   This was the first time I had had such a close look at his face, and a character portrait immediately formed in my mind, for I was well aware of truthfulness and preciseness of first impression in general.
   "...The face of Professor Kenneth Quastmu reveals the strict principles he holds sacred. The features seem chased in bronze and deep lines are carved into his high forehead. His straight brows rise slightly, and his lips are tightly pursed. All these features merge to create the immediate impression of a man of great will, combined with enormous scientific talent and industriousness. However, his gray temples indicate that for him, life has not been a bed of roses. His wild, clear-blue eyes state more plainly that anything that for him, the past is but the prologue. There is nothing on earth which can keep him from attaining the goal he has set for himself!.."
   "The word 'pointless' when applied to our civilization is more than a bit equivocal,' explained the professor. "As far as I'm concerned, for example, everything you see on that screen has long been absolutely void of meaning for me. But the pointless you are referring to is the other side of the coin-the fact that the information necessary to make everything clear is lacking. In the present case, the sound is missing. Do you see what I mean?"
   Quastmu's voice had grown softer than before, and I was amazed at the virtuoso command he displayed of a whole gamut of nuances of sound. I even wondered if perhaps he had not been a professional singer or orator before he had devoted his life to science.
   "I understand, of course," I said with a nod, "but your comment forces me to ask a counter-question at once: What do you mean by the word 'pointless'? And is that definition connected in any way with your retreat from the world-with your intentional withdrawal to this remote and practically inaccessible ecological preserve?"
   Another face with dumbly moving lips had appeared on the screen. The close-up was of an attractive woman of thirty five whose eyes sparkled in a semi-coquettish fashion.
   I looked at the professor who had fallen silent in order to reflect upon his reply. He stared at the young woman on the screen, and I suddenly realized, that he had withdrawn not only from the world in which he lived but from something larger, indeed. The very thought made me feel a bit peculiar, and I averted my eyes so the professor would not realize I had made such a discovery.
   "In other words, you want to know whether I retreated to this hermitage because I considered our world insane..."
   "Yes, I suppose so."
   Flashed a piercing gaze at me, knitted his brows so hard they merged into a single line, and frowned fiercely.
   "Well, I guess that's the logical conclusion this discussion has led us to!" he said with a chuckle, rising. "Listen here, if you're a journalist, then why aren't you taking any notes?"
   "I have an excellent memory," I replied, intrigued by his words. "And I'm more accustomed to depending on it than a pen and paper."
   "All the better. So, if you have no objections, I'll start questions myself to save you the trouble. And if I should err along the way, you'll inform me, of course. Do you agree?"
   "Yes, why not?"
   Quastmu rose and shuffled past me on his way to the wall. Only at that point did I notice that it was covered with delicate engravings which was no obvious from a distance. The subject-matter had something to do with animals. I had evidently been quite shaken up, since I had not even examined the premises in which I found myself the first time I entered the hall.
   "To start with, I'll tell you about the ecological preserve, since an interest in that is most probably what brought you here. I will tell you straight off that its creation was not the most fundamental goal I set myself when I came here. The appearance of such a forest can actually be considered a side-effect of my basic discovery... Do you know anything about botany?"
   I nodded in affirmation.
   "Then you will understand me more easily when I tell you that the idea of creating a community in which almost all the known species of flora were represented was quite intriguing."
   "Almost all?" I queried. "But that's impossible, because every type of plant requires..."
   "Of course it's possible. Affirmed Quastmu with a wry smile. "Of course it's possible. Everything is possible on this planet of ours. And if you have any doubts about it, a ten-minute walk in my garden should be more that sufficient to convince you otherwise."
   "I've already had a look," I replied gloomily, insinuating that I was recalling my unpleasant experience with the dogs.
   But either Quastmu failed to pick up on my hint or he didn't want to. He continued his talk dispassionately as if he were giving a lecture to an audience which was totally incapable of comprehending anything he had to say:
   "I won't bore you with the complicated theoretical details or even the philosophical foundations of my discovery. But I'll try to explain a few things so you'll be better able to understand the sources of everything which is taking place here at the ecological preserve. So, young man, you probably know quite well what a virus is..."
   I nodded again.
   "In any case, I will remind you that a virus, according to contemporary concepts, Is the very smallest division of comprehensible encoded information which is intended by nature to pass on to living things, be they animals or plants. Viruses provide information concerning adaptation."
   "Wait a minute," I objected skeptically. "Aren't viruses simply miniscule creatures which are carriers of illness or disease?"
   "By no means. Viruses are not creatures. Nor they are bearers of any illnesses. Even the most terrible viral illness-poliomyelitis and encephalitis-are remarkable, and take careful note of this, in that they do not kill, but only cripple, and then, only one person in a hundred thousand. Those are the official statistics. So we can quite calmly relegate all viral illnesses to disturbances in the immunological system of the organism. Viruses are an organic and essential element of the environment without which adaptation and immunological systems-evolution even-are absolutely impossible."
   "Yes, but I'll tell you about that aspect of the problem later. For the moment, it's sufficient to realize that in nature, viruses are simply a multitude of various genetic codes which any organism can use fully or partially in any combinations and to any ends whatsoever."
   "In short," I interrupted him, elaborating his theme, "a virus can be considered additional information dissolved into the environment."
   "Yes, information which any living organism can use without exception."
   "But then the question arises, where do these viruses come from?"
   "What do you mean," Quastmu asked in utter shock, 'Where do they come from?' We create them ourselves and set them free Surely you know that any virus is able to restructure a living cell in such a way that it will begin to produce thousands of analogous viruses, just like a tiny factory."
  "Yes, but what do we have in the first place? There are different kind of viruses, so that means they are subject to mutation."
   The professor was passing about the hall, and at the moment of his next statement, he was directly behind me.
   "Young man," he said in a different voice, calmer that a moment before, "you wouldn't happen to be hungry, would you?" His tone was sympathetic and cordial, but I was already on guard, so it all seemed suspicious to me.
   "To tell the truth, I didn't have time for breakfast even today..."
   "Well, it's already supper time now. Perhaps you'd like a bit to eat."
   I found it strange that he should change the subject at the most heated moment of our discussion, but I had to submit to the professor's will. Perhaps a meat would provide the opportunity I had been looking for to win him over.
   Unfortunately, I live in a bachelor's fare here," Quastmu informed me with a smile. "I have only fruit juice and sandwiches, but if you'd like some soup, you're perfectly welcome to make it yourself. I have plenty of packets of instant soup in the cupboard."
   "I'm used to eating that way. I do it myself most of the time."
   "Then let's go."
   The professor left the room first, and I noticed he was shuffling considerably less. Could it be that our conversation had improved his muscle tone? Of course! How foolish of me not to realize that any scholar gets exited when topic under discussion is the very one to which he devoted the best years of his life, if not his entire existence.
   Oddly enough, no particular objections were raised in my mind concerning what had been said about viruses. Viruses were viruses, and that was that. In my particular line of work, I had run into all sorts of people and ideas, so my capacity for surprise had been diminished considerably if not eliminated altogether.
   We passed by the opposite side of the stairwell, walked through a big wide door, and found ourselves in the cafeteria, though to be sure, there was no way such a nondescript title could fully characterize that room. Here, in addition to the usual accouterments of a kitchen, such a refrigerator and electric stove, stood a table from a chemistry lab with a multitude of stands with test tubes large and small, retorts, and similar glassware. In every single vessel were traced of dried-up leftovers. Although there was a large sink next to this table, it had apparently never occurred to anyone to use it.
   Quastmu opened wide the snow-white door of the refrigerator in a business-like fashion and pulled out some utterly prosaic sausage and hunk of cheese. He placed them on the table and put out two bottles of Pepsi, one for each of us. He rummaged about in the cupboard and fished out half a loaf of bread. He squeezed it and shook his head: apparently it was hard and dry.
   "That's OK," he said as to attempting to justify himself. "We'll make toast."
   So professor sprinkled a little water on the slices and popped them into a toaster. By the time he completed that operation, I have already sliced the cheese and sausage, neither of which was terribly fresh. The cheese was hard as a brick, in fact, and the knife kept slipping. The sausage was dried out and a bit grayish, but smell OK and was perfectly edible. In general, that improvised kitchen made quite an impression on me: if the entire staff really dined in such a fashion, then the living conditions at the center could hardly by considered decent. But perhaps these discomforts were more than compensated for by the burning enthusiasm of the youthful research workers...
   "My, what a fine smell!" said the professor sweetly. "The aroma of toast is one of the mankind's finest inventions!" He inhaled noisily, his nostrils expanding and trembling as if in his particular case, the sense of smell was connected directly to the muscles in his nose.
   Surely the staff has a decent cafeteria and kitchen somewhere around here, I thought. This is probably where they snack wile they're working, so they won't have so far to go for lunch.
   Quastmu opened both Pepsis with a flourish and finally took the lightly-browned pieces of bread from the toaster. I agilely covered each of them with cheese and sausage simultaneously, and we both took one gingerly, for they were still hot and burned our fingers. Squinting and smiling at each other, wincing from the Pepsi as it bubbles seared our throats, blowing on the piping-hot sandwiches, we began our repast. There were enough so that each of us got three. I wouldn't say we were totally sated at the end of our meal, but our stomachs were no longer empty, and they stopped growling.
   "Usually," Quastmu mumbled with his mouth full, "we eat in the cafeteria by our living quarters. This is just for today," he broke of with a vague wave of his arm.
   I could only grunt in reply, for the hot bits of sandwich prevented me from talking properly.
   When we had finished, the professor firmly moved the empty Pepsi bottle to one side and rose, giving me to understand that our dinner break was over, and we were not required to wash the dishes. I rose and followed in his wake.
   Quastmu frowned slightly and stared down at his feet as we returned to the hall. Through the stubble of his crew-cut hair, I could see the rink skin glowing. He stuffed his hands deep into the pockets of his black trousers. He was still wearing heavy boots like a farmer or lumberjack. Suddenly the feeling that I was totally out of my element returned, and I grew unsure of myself once more. I shrugged slightly and waited.
   "What do you write about?" Quastmu asked softly.
   "I myself?"
   "No, not you. Your magazine."
   "About everything, including ecology and nature conservation. Haven't you ever read it?"
   "No," he replied, suddenly raising his head and staring at me with small pupils so hard they bored into my face. "I've never had time. So," he continued, chewing on his lips, "You write about nature conservation."
   "Among other things."
   "Then tell me what you think of the present situation with respect to conservation."
   "I think," I intoned with a frown, "that where there is a will, there is always a way to do something in the area of conservation..."
   "Don't give me any of that unadulterated school-boy optimism of yours! Be honest for a change! Honest and a bit bolder!"
   I thought for a moment:
   "Wild and untrammeled nature must be concentrated in preserves and zoos."
   "Forget about the zoos. That's not nature," the professor snapped almost viciously. "And what else-what follows from what you think?"
   "In my opinion, if it is to survive, wild nature must do a great deal of adapting..."
   "That's more like it..."
   "Nature must become much more human..."
   "Don't hold back!" exclaimed the professor with a note of approval in his voice.
   "The only forms which will survive are those which are necessary to us, directly or indirectly, or which can adapt themselves."
   "Excellent," interjected the professor and smiled with a certain amount of reserve. "And the next question is, how long do you think all of that will take?"
   "I think," I began, somewhat encouraged, "that we have a hundred and fifty or two hundred year at our disposal for such processes to occur. I don't make..."
   "There you have it!" he exclaimed. "The most common error of all! Terribly common, I assure you. No young man. If you're in how much longer wild nature can survive in its present state-as a real nature, that is-I can tell you quite precisely."
   With that, he fell silent and stared at me inquiringly as if waiting for me to ask the inevitable.
   "How long?' I asked eagerly.
   "A maximum of fifty years."
   I raised my eyebrows in surprise and chuckled to myself, thinking, "This old man has really gone overboard. Even if we examine the last fifty or hundred-and-fifty years in retrospective, it's evident that no major, fundamental changes have occurred in that period."
   But I asked aloud: "And what is the minimum, in your opinion?"
   "Whatever you say it will be!" venomously spat out Quastmu, having sensed my incredulity.
   "That is..."
   "It's impossible to predict. No one knows when the button will be pushed."
   "What button?"
   "How the hell should I know! Maybe it's a red one, or maybe it's black. A purely human button, and once it's pushed, that will be the end. The end of nature and everything else!" The old man grew perceptible gloomy and lowered his eyes.
   "He's gone of his rocker! The old coot really believes in the possibility of nuclear war," the thought flashed through my mind.
   "You probably think I'm a bit cracked," Quastmu remarked unctuously. But in point of fact, from where I am, way out here in the bush, at such a great and inaccessible distance from it all, I see everything much more clearly."
   I nodded sympathetically.
   "There's only one way out," he whispered fervently. "Only one."
   If even a part of my capacity for curiosity or amazement had remained, I would have taken an interest in the professor's remarks, but the day had been so filled with surprises that I had lost all initiative. Now I was thinking only about how best to construct my story. Suddenly, the recent conversation about viruses which had been interrupted by Quastmu's suggestion that we have a bit to eat flashed into my mind.
   "Professor," I asked politely, "I don't quite understand the connection between viruses and what I saw in your ecological garden."
   He walked over to the wall and stopped with his back to me. This was not the first time during the course of our conversation that he had executed such a maneuver. So it was probably his habit to behave in such a fashion with interlocutors.
   Quastmu stood silently before the monotone vertical wall and seemed to be lost in the act of studying the unvarying pattern of it's rough surface.
   "Let's set aside the question of illness for a moment," he begun tiredly, "and examine only viral persistence."
   "What?" I asked, not comprehending at all.
   "Persistence is the length of time a virus is located within an organism. It has been proven that the presence of one virus or another over a period of time results in immunity to the given illness. But that in not absolutely precise. The virus can no longer call forth the particular illness associated with it. It would be more precise to say that falling ill with a virus is not exactly being ill, but if I may express it in such a fashion, adaptation to alternations in environmental conditions. Viruses fulfill the function of "fine-tuning" the organism, if you will. By uniting with the genetic apparatus of the cell, the gene of the virus acts as a type of genetic pool, providing information for all biological systems." This said the professor fell silent and wiped his face with his hand in a state of exhaustion. About then, he started pacing about the room again, which gave me a fine view of his profile.
   The sun was low above the horizon, and its rays no longer fell into the room through the barred windows. Still, it was far from dark outside, and the hall was filled with a relaxing twilight, emphasized by the long shadows of the armchairs. Kenneth Quastmu faced me in three-quarter profile, shrouded in dusk; his eye sockets and the hollows of his cheeks appeared to be spots of black.
   "Now if I tell you that I helped all the flora here adapt to the local conditions, will you be less surprised?"
   "With the aid of viruses?"
   "Professor," I begun softly, "perhaps I'm still pretty young, but even I know that this is not the age of the lone selectionist working without assistance from or interreaction with his colleagues. How could it be that your discovery was lying out in the open, right on the surface, unrecognized by thousands of other researchers?"
   Quastmu turned sharply to me, his eyes gleaming wildly. But his face was lost in the shadows, so I couldn't determine his expression.
   "Why 'out in the open'? Why 'right on the surface'?" he asked almost gently. "You are accusing me of having no intellect whatsoever when in fact, I am a genius!"
   I froze, rooted to the spot, my mouth hanging open. This was not the first time I had ever met a scholar who had voiced with such assurance that he was talented or even exceptional-but a genius-why, that was a bit too much! No one had the right to claim such a title for himself...
   "You seem surprised..."
   I didn't say a word.
   "Well, you must be surprised. I really am a genius-in all seriousness, and in the fullest meaning of this word."
   I thought to myself that he was probably not feeling quite himself and that that had more then likely been the reason for the incident with my press card and my gym bag. Why hadn't I noticed right from the start that he was not quite normal? Perhaps he was kept locked by himself in this building with barred windows, and an ambulance with dozens of burly male attendants was speeding to my assistance, to rescue me from the clutches of this madman
   However, Quastmu continued to stand there before me. He glanced at me, waiting for some reaction. Therefore, it would be better if I gave no indication of the idea which had just occurred to me.
   "Why are you silent?"
   "I'm thinking," I said to gain the time and give myself a chance to concentrate.
   "About what?"
   "About whether or not it is possible for a person working all alone, even if he is a genius, to make such a discovery..."
   "But I'm not alone," Quastmu spat out, almost obnoxiously.
   "That's true. You've only been at Operation Lifeboat for the last ten years."
   "Precisely. And before that I was one of the leading researchers at a major scientific institute. And it doesn't really matter what kind. That is not where my genius lies. It lies in something else entirely."
   "So, when you were working with your team of specialists, you used the research of dozens or even hundreds of other scientist to make your discovery. Then after you had made it, you disappeared into the bush to develop your ecological garden and make a name for yourself."
   "Nonsense (NEGATIVE!). I could care less about fame!"
   "Then why..."
   "Because," he cut me short abruptly, "my most brilliant stroke of genius lay far ahead at that point. That bit of genius consisted not in the actual discovery itself but in its application. Its practical and rational application!" he concluded, trying to drive the idea home.
   "Wait a minute. I've lost you here. Let's go back to the ecological garden. What was it that you succeeded in inventing, in thinking up, as it were?'
   "Just before our improvised supper, you noted," said Quastmu in a slightly contemptuous tone, "that viruses must be capable of mutation. And you were absolutely correct. You are a genuine journalist, for you got right to the heart of the matter immediately, although you did not realize it then. So now, listen to me. Until recently, it was thought that viral mutations occurred quite by chance. However, I have proven that this is far from the case. Viral mutations can be regulated and predicted at will. Moreover, when these mutations are forced to occur in such a desirable and predictable fashion, they are subject to the same laws which determine the course of evolution on planet-wide basis. Do you see what I mean? From this, it follows that the very course of evolution on Earth has always been brought about by viruses-those miniscule, semi-living entities. It was thanks to viruses that everything on Earth gradually grew legs in a place of fins and adapted to new conditions on dry land. Viruses made possible the appearance of reptiles, then eliminated them, clearing the way for mammals. It was viruses that modified the internal and external appearance of everything living until, finally, the form we are accustomed to thinking of as 'rational' or 'self-conscious' appeared."
   He fell silent, and before my eyes swam cartoon-like images of microscopic organisms invisibly deciding the fates of whole generations of gigantic earthly creatures.
   Outside, darkness began to fall.
   "As far as the ecological garden is concerned, that was quite simple. As soon as a plant realize that it could not possibly survive under these conditions and was ready to wilt and die, I gave it a virus which could enable it to restructure some of its organs in a specific manner that would allow it to survive. As a rule, the plants made use of these viruses. He ended his explanation in a tired tone. "Let's watch a bit of television, shall we?"
   I bit my lower lip, tried to digest all that I had heard, and attempted to hear whether the dictaphone had stopped or not. As a rule, it was impossible to reconstruct such conversations from memory.
   The armchair Quastmu chose was again slightly in front of me. He unconsciously tried to maintain a certain distance between us.
   The television glowed dumbly in the thickening darkness.
   "If the silence bothers you, I can turn on some music."
   The professor rose and walked to the front of the wall. Then he went back to his place and sat down. When he took his seat, the music began to play.
   "Bach," he said in a new, pensive tone. "Are you familiar with Bach?"
   "Oddly enough, Bach was sure he had a specific mission here on Earth, and that he had to carry it out."
   "And what was this mission?" I inquired, my curiosity piqued at long last.
   "He thought that he had been sent to Earth to tell the people in the universally comprehensible language of music about nature-the environment they lived on-about all its complexities and subtle interconnections, about universal resonance and harmony. Precisely for that reason, much of his polyphonic music remains a mystery to us to this day. And he wrote quite a lot, by the way. He worked constantly, never allowing himself to rest. He worked till his last days and died at sixty-five."
   "Is that so?"
   "During his lifetime, he gained renown as a performer only. His compositions were considered too intellectual and mathematically precise... But time has put everything on its proper place."
   The first austere chords died out, and the slow prelude was followed by fast passages: the intricately interwoven melodic voices of a fugue.
   "Quastmu is right," I thought, turning my mind from all previous subjects of reflection. "Bach is perfectly compatible with contemporary modes of thought."
   "But all the same," I began new attack, "when speaking of genius, you were referring to nothing more than the simple adaptation of plants to a new environment, even if the method of achieving this adaptation was rather amazing..."
   "Of course," replied the professor, speaking slow to emphasize each word. "The genius of it all consist in that I must now transform our world. And I have already begun my great and noble mission of creating harmony where none existed before!"
   His words rang out with the solemnity reminiscent of an attack of megalomania. This strange professor was a complex individual indeed: he had a bit of everything-psychological disorders, enormous talent, and vast inner strength tied into an amazing Gordian knot. I studied his face with curiosity in the dim light of the television screen.
   "My ecological garden is but a modest beginning," continued Quastmu with inspiration. "The main idea here is much more profound. More global, I would say. I decided to call my project Operation Lifeboat for good reason. In the beginning, so very long ago, just like you, young man, I thought that every living thing on the planet could survive only if it learned to adapt itself to man and his needs. But later, I realized how wrong that idea was. Up till now, man has always been the focal point of evil. At least in his present form. He can do nothing but destroy, adapt everything around him to his own needs, and rule over it."
   "Wait a minute," I objected. "Aren't you forgetting that man is the greatest creator of all..."
   "The greatest creator of all is nature!" Quastmu retorted sharply. "Not man. What has man ever created? He only destroys whatever lies on his path. He grinds up anything he needs to build his anthills: he burns forests, coal, oil, or peat-whatever he can get his hands on. And his greatest invention is the exploitation of atomic energy. Just think what he does for that-atomic fission! Even here destruction reigns supreme. The time is long past when man was fit to live hand in hand with nature, when the warmth of the sun, when a natural dam or wind energy were sufficient for his needs. No, now he has to burn, explode, or dissemble the entire world in his pursuit of expedient advantage. And to hell with what happens later as a consequence of his present insane actions!" With this, Quastmu half-turned toward me and gesticulated wildly with one hand.
   I assumed he had expressed his innermost ideas to me and had revealed himself in his true form-open and angry.
   "And if aggressiveness should take control of his unstable consciousness," the professor piped up unexpectedly, "then he will turn this planet into a marvelous torch. Why should everything perish due to some human whim? Even the insects, of which there are more known varieties than the visible stars in the sky?" With that, Quastmu turned away from me in his chair and fell silent.
   Neither did I make a sound.
   The program ended, and a cartoon began. The darkness that engulfed the room was particularly this and billowed about near the ceiling. The music grew calmer and simpler like a slight, lazy breeze that caressed the ear.
   It gave me gooseflesh. Even taking into account the megalomania, Quastmu had managed to create such a state of consciousness in me that I considered even monumental questions without my usual irony.
   The music faded away.
   A low bark sounded in the yard.
   The professor rose and walked over to the window.
   "Is that you, George?"
   The bark was replaced with whining.
   "Go on, fellow. Let Reuger feed you. I'm busy right now."
   The imploring bark was repeated, but in a lower tone.
   "No," said Quastmu , raising his voice, "that's not necessary, now go on."
   It fell quiet outside, and Quastmu walked away from the window. He drew closer to me and seemed transformed into a dark blotch which loomed above me.
   I instinctively grew tense and began to tremble from an attack of nerves.
   "Listen to me, journalist!" he said. "I have learned how to control the mutation of viruses, and I have gone one step farther than nature. In addition to ordinary viruses which the organism uses for its own purposes, I have created special viruses which work independently of the desire of the organism to make use of them or nor." This said, he gave a crooked smile. I realized he was smiling only from the gleam of his teeth which I could barely make out in the gloom.
   "In only two months' time," he whispered heatedly right into my face, "a man is transformed into a dog, or a monkey. Or whatever. Do you understand? I infect people-anyone at all-with my virus, and after a couple of months of 'adaptation', I have a fine, extremely intelligent hound!"
   I drew back sharply, opening my eyes wide. He really was a maniac!
   "The only problem is that these viruses don't multiply. Unfortunately, thus far I have been unable to evoke a chain of infections, but that is only a technical problem there are many ways of solving."
   The tape in my dictaphone ran out, and it hissed softly to inform me of this fact.
   "Your tape has ran out, journalist," Quastmu announced, moving away from my chair.
   I sighed more freely and tugged at my shirt collar to loosen it. Then I unhurriedly pulled out the dictaphone and changed the tape.
   "A short time passes, and they all sing a different tune. They all realized that Mother Nature's power is boundless."
   I remained silent, wondering to what extent I could trust Quastmu's words. If what he said was true, it was simply nightmarish. Could it really be that this madman was bent on destroying civilization by biological means? I attempted to imagine what it would be like when, after that unusual epidemic, all the people on Earth woke up dogs. The only result would be the death of millions, while the colossal structure of our human world would be utterly destroyed. Everything that had been created in the course of many thousand of years would vanish .
   "Now tell me honestly, journalist--what do you think of this idea? But no hypocrisy, please. It's hopeless."
   "That's ridiculous, Professor," I said, not recognizing my own voice. It was filled with some previously untapped reserves of inner strength and staunchness--it was as if countless generation of human beings struggling for their future had risen up within me. "It's terrifying to hear such things from you."
   "Why is it so terrifying for you to think about such a thing as 'oh, how horrible--civilization will die out, and people will perish'?! he said, mimiking my thoughts at the end. "So what?" he pressed on in a more severe and demanding tone. The professor walked back to the window, and his figure appeared black against the background of the sky, which was not completely dark yet.
   "Our civilization is pointless, and all that is pointless is doomed to extinction. Yes, to extinction! But I offer everyone without exception a chance. After all, there can't be a nuclear war without soldiers, and animals are not soldiers. But maybe I'll turn a few people into something other that dogs! After all, my dogs are only the first step on the road to saving the Earth's biosphere. I am certain I can transform any creature into any other one. Just imagine--we can eliminate the problem of endangered and rare species. A dose of a certain virus, a short incubation period, and we can produce some kind of practically extinct tortoise or Przhevalsky's horse. A fascinating prospect, you must admit!" Quastmu was clearly getting carried away, for he started talking louder and louder. His words rang out in the hall and carried far beyond its walls, for he was standing, as before, by the open window.
   "My discovery will allow complete ecological balance and rational, truly human relations among all groups and types of animals. And as for the plant kingdom, I shall transform the biggest idiots of all into trees so they won't bother anyone or anything else. I can just imagine what thick bark and opaque leaves such trees will have!"
   "Professor Quastmu!" I screamed almost hysterically, "the implementation of your plan will condemn millions to death, because dogs can't feed themselves, and animals are much more aggressive on the whole than man. They will become uncontrollable. And you are forgetting completely that the numbers of such vicious carnivores as lions, tigers, and panthers will go up sharply as soon as the potential food supply increases. How will your dog-people be able to defend themselves against these wild beasts? And what about civilization? Your plan will mean the end to centuries of progress and development!"
   "They have led us to the brink of nuclear war. You say that millions will perish? So what? Have not millions of wild animals died as a result of passing and senseless human fancies? I am not going to provide you with any examples, because you are already aware of hundreds of them. And people can always resist beasts of prey with that which allowed them to become rational beings--joint, collective action. So what if a few people get eaten? Some will always survive. Even if a half or two-thirds of them are destroyed, that will be all right. If even one-tenth of what is in existence now survives, that will be more than enough."
   "Enough for what?" filled with horror, I was grasping at straws, and I knew it. Suddenly I realized quite clearly that Quastmu was not joking in the least.
   "Enough to create a new world that is purer and more honest than the present one. A world where man's relationship with the plant and animal kingdom will be transformed, since people's attitudes toward the environment will be quite different than at present. Perhaps man will stop desiring death for everything around him, including his fellow men. The world needs a good shaking up. This metalized, nickel-plated civilization, this mechanized humanity must be offered the alternative of maximum biologization. I am sure that this latter process will bear the necessary fruits."
   "But don't you see that civilization will perish. It will perish inevitably, because not a single animal on Earth except for man has the ability to create culture."
   "Civilization in its present form will perish, yes. But I am speaking of another type which can arise only from the ruins of the old. And then who ever told you that I planned to turn absolutely all the human beings on Earth into animals? That is a misconception, after all. A small group of men who agree with my ideas will remain, and they will be in a position to control the massive restructuring of the planet's ecology."
   "Now I see--the bosses will remain! And they'll probably have all the machine guns as well..."
   Quastmu walked away from the window and shuffled toward the door.
   "I see that you hold an opinion," he hissed in an unpleasant tone of voice, "which is counter to mine, and that is truly a pity!"
   Suddenly I was struck by the fact that I was in mortal danger--that my desire to press this mad old man for answers could lead to my becoming a very high-class pooch. I understood why the professor had checked my documents and rummaged my bag. He had plenty to be wary of and was probably expecting visitors from another branch of the network of nature preserves that dotted the country. But fortunately for him, no one suspected a thing as yet. I also realized why the dogs here were so intelligent and why the local residents referred to this place as "the Devil's garden."
   "Quastmu," I shouted hoarsely, "are your dogs..."
   "You guessed it. My colleagues who did not share my opinion, and that was extremely dangerous to my mission. Too bad--I had such high hopes that..." He paused right by the door, "I spent almost fifteen years preparing the soil in an attempt to raise their consciousness so they would accept my ideas. Actually, during that period, they changed quite a lot. Each became what he was in actuality. Two remarkable people worked here, and now I miss them more than anyone. Unlike the rest of the mutts you saw running around here, they became large pure-bred dogs."
   "The schnauzer and Alsatian?"
   "Precisely. Good night!" He stepped through the door and closed it behind him.
   The television was still on, and as before, the silent, senseless scenes continued.
   The Bach ended long before.
   I wondered if he had infected me or not. My heart pounded as wild thoughts raced through my head. How had he done it? Had he put the virus in the Pepsi or the toast?
   I could almost hear my heart beating.
   Perhaps he hadn't yet managed to infect me. Or maybe he had just decided to frighten me into agreeing to his conditions so I would cooperate with him.
   I cursed the day and the hour I had decided to come to this preserve to do research for my story.
  He probably hadn't managed to infect me yet. There was at least that one dim ray of hope. Perhaps he had only taken the initial steps today--but tomorrow...
   I had to get out of there!
   I was no longer afraid of the dogs or the other delights of his horrible ecological garden. Surely I could reach some agreement with the dogs, since they had once been people. They might not be as unquestioningly obedient to him as he thought. At most, they had probably hoped that eventually, he would free them from his spell and release them from their sufferings.
   I rose cautiously and took several steps which seemed noiseless enough to me. This filled me with hope.
   Kenneth Quastmu had dissolved in the quiet. After the sound of his shuffling steps died out in the distance, only the chirping of cicadas could be heard in the yard. My head was spinning from the thousands of thoughts which engulfed my brain.
   The corridor and vestibule were infinitely long and dark. However, my memory served me well, and I could recall down to the minutest detail were the simple furniture was located. I managed to creep past it without making a single sound.
   Finally I reached the exit.
   I located several locks and a sturdy, wide metal bolt which gave way easily, without any noise at all. Two of the locks barely squeaked as I opened them. But I froze when I suddenly heard my heart pounding with terror.
   I could hear footsteps far in the distance--probably on the stairs.
   I began fiddling with the third and final lock, but it was most complicated. When I finally figured out how it worked, it gave a hollow click as it slid open. The noise was sufficiently loud to make me freeze once more.
   "Bernie!" a hysterical howl rang out. "Get away from that door this instant! Have you lost your mind!!"
   I instinctively tugged at the door without even thinking. Nothing happened. I remembered that it opened in the other direction and pushed it away from me.
   "Stop!" rang out a horrible scream along with the thudding of approaching footsteps.
   I was about to run away when a huge furry body flew at me and knocked me off my feet. I fell on my back and saw that a second dog was already racing into the darkened rooms.
   "A-a-a-h!" Quastmu screamed in a horrible voice, and shots rang out at once. Cruel, malicious barking, howling, and whining could be heard in reply. Something collapsed with a soft thud, and a tussle ensued. The shooting ceased.
   Though my mind was foggy, I rose to my feet and raced away, not caring a whit about what was taking place in that madhouse. My only desire was to get as far away as possible, and as quickly as I could! But I had barely gotten down the steps when my knees buckled under me. I collapsed into the grass and lost consciousness. When I came to some time later, I felt like I was burning up inside. Convulsions racked my body, and I was sick on my stomach.
   I realized immediately what had happened...
   * * *
   A glaring patch of sunlight was falling through brightly illuminated leaves right in my eyes. I turned a bit and relaxed again.
   Raoul had already recovered. He was lying next to me, his long pink tongue lolling, panting.
   When my period of "adaptation" had ended, and I realized I had become the proud possessor of a big, reddish tale and the long-haired fur of a collie, his wounds were already healing.
   Kenneth Quastmu had managed to shoot the Great Schnauzer, whose name was Raoul, in three places. But thanks goodness, all three bullets grazed only muscles, which did not prevent the dog from lunging at the diabolic professor's throat and slashing it with his vicious teeth.
   Andre--a large gray Alsatian--and all the other mutts look after us. Andre is very skillful and is better than all the others at opening the refrigerators filled with boxes of food from Kenneth Quastmu supplies. Our food intake is strictly rationed, and only Raoul and I receive as much as we want.
   Andre dragged Quastmu's corpse to the farthest corner of the ecological garden where coyotes and carrion-crows occasionally appear. None of us has gone there since.
   Both Raoul and Andre had mastered the art of writing more or less legibly in the sand with their forepaws. I had to learn the same. So now we exchange impressions in a special square behind the long brick building of the Center. This difficult and painstaking task has taught us to be laconic.
   The rest of the mutts also get their fair share of the food, but I don't pay any particular attention to them. They are all increasingly losing their resemblance to human beings. They often quarrel noisily, fight, then choose and re-choose their leaders. Once they even attempted to attack Reuger, the only monkey among us, and the one who had the keys to the storehouse. But he can easily take cover in the high branches of the trees.
   Reuger feeds up and gives us water, since his extremities are infinitely better suited to dealing with human mechanisms such as faucets, handles, and refrigerators...
   Now that Raoul and I were firmly back on our feet, it was high time to carry out the plan we had been working on all this time. Raoul and I would have to go for the simple reason that we did not look at all like wolves, but rather, our fine breeding immediately evident. Moreover, Raoul could write better in the sand than the other dogs. Reuger would be able to explain himself even more easily, but we could not take the monkey along, since he would not be able to withstand the long trek across the open plains-a journey which might take several days.
   My dictophone-or rather the tape of my conversation with Quastmu-would have a major role to play here. Its impassioned confessions would go a long way toward explaining immediately the essence of the matter. Moreover, it would attract attention, for it was not often that one saw a dog trotting down the street with a cassette tape fastened to its neck.
   Andre, who was remaining behind, would have more than enough to keep him busy. It would be far from simple to ride herd on this motley pack of mutts. He would have to keep his eyes peeled for sure. Moreover, Reuger was determined to continue the search for the antidotes which were surely hidden somewhere in Quastmu's arsenals. After all, the professor himself had somehow managed not to become infected with his own viruses! But it would be better for Reuger to refrain from too much meddling as it was uncertain what other monstrosities he would release from the Pandora's box that was Quastmu's laboratory.
   We could not possibly just wait for someone to happen our way. We were in total agreement on this point. I, for example, had been the only visitor in the four months previous. Moreover, it was entirely possible that the next humans who turned up might start rummaging about in the professor's lab and inadvertently find themselves united to our pack.
   Reuger gave us double rations the day before we were to set off. The other mutts put up a racket about it, but they quieted down as soon as Andre barked a couple of times. Fortunately, they were quite cowardly.
   I felt a strange yet pleasant excitement in my soul: I thought it was a sence of kinship with everything around me, a feeling of certainty and hope that everything would end well. After all, there were a lot of us, and we were all people!
   Something of my old reporter's spirit began to awake within me.
   "...The sensations experienced by a man who literally finds himself in a dog's shoes cannot be put across in words. The whole world around is transformed, for the angle of vision is closer to the earth. And my, what smells! At first it seems that you have acquired some new unheard sense as you begin to distinguish the various shades of smell. If I am ever transformed back into a human being, this marvelous heightened sense is what I shall definitely miss the most. But what am I talking about? With the new viruses of the late Professor Kenneth Quastmu, it will probably be possible to acquire any qualities and sensations one should happen to desire..."
   The closer the hour of departure drew, the more often my head was filled with material for my future story. I would do a thorough job, to be sure, and it would be a sensation in all major magazines. I would call it simply "Operation Lifeboat" and make sure that next to it was the color slide of me (author) in the shape of a collie. So we would set off the following day!
   Raoul, who appeared to be no more than a coal black spot as he lay in the prickly emerald grass, smiled at me with just his eyes and nodded.
   I barked once in reply and wagged my tail.
  1984 Iskatel #6 (Russian) 1989 "When Questions Are Asked", Raduga Publishers, Moscow (English)
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