The ability to pull the trigger
The ceiling above the chair was mirrored; that is why throwing my head back I could see myself fastened by belts, enmeshed by sensors with undulatory emitter cones aimed at my temporal lobe. The cones looked very unpleasant. They were lengthy with folded input cables, like antique dueling pistols – pistols that, strangely enough were used not for defense but for the sole purpose of murder, legitimate or not.
I looked down, and, behind the safety glass of the reading machine, I saw rainbow information disks start whirling, indicators on computer screen blink, and power-consumption pointers go up.
Generators started whirring behind the wall, and the “pistols” at my temples let out a subtle and sharp sound. Trembling lights threw red glowing points on my face. I closed my eyes and felt how with the pungent powder dust, sticky with bloody sand, jagged steel of blades and poisoned sweetness of phosgene a forbidden skill ran to my brain.
The killing skill.
“We cannot yield to their demands” said the captain. “If only the ship lands on the planet, it will doubtlessly be captured and we will share the fate of our fellows. That’s why we have only two options. Either we leave Max and Elise, or…”
The captain surveyed all seven of us who remained on the ship and nodded with satisfaction.
“I thought so. We’ll need the help of an expert.”
We started. Even Boris stopped smiling, and Tanaki involuntary looked at the devices with a side glance, thinking the captain wouldn’t be able to do much without him, as he was a cyberneticist…
“Is there a volunteer to take the matrix?”
I compressed my lips in order not to utter a sound. Well, they need an expert. Let it be Boris, he’s a doctor, and then… or Ditmar, he and Max…
Seven pairs of eyes stared at me. All seven, the captain included, were waiting for my response. Two others were also waiting for it not even knowing the question existed, far away from the ship, from its safe walls and powerful machines, somewhere in the stone dungeons of the capital of the planet Tayk.
Why me? I looked around and saw… no, vice versa. I didn’t see a shadow of doubt. Why me?
“Let me, captain.”
This was my voice. And my words.
“Of course, Victor.”
Rainbow patterns on a transparent surface of disc, mosquito singing of radiators. Right there, behind the glass, being pressed into plastic and transformed into sub molecular modification substances, the storage of all wars on Earth can be found. Right there, Cro-Magnon men fight near the fire and their stone axes flush above their shaggy heads. Right there, Suvorov marches through the Alps and Nelson leads the ships toward Trafalgar. Right there, American paratroopers throw Samurai into the sea and Leningrad raises the blockade.
The storage of all weapons on Earth is in those transparent disks. Right here, Chinese chucks break bones and battle lasers cut tank armors. And here an AK-47, covered with dust, thunders as the trigger clicks, and it emits a blue ray that paralyzes pistols.
With a drop of sulfur poison, the bleeding wound and hot fiery spit of a flame-thrower, millenniums of Earth’s history started to flow into my brain. Millenniums of wars, millenniums of people capable only of responding an eye for an eye, a blow for a blow.
But we are different. We’ve lost this need and possibility, this curse and blessing, this strange and dreadful ability. But when a starship leaves for other worlds, the storage matrixes of Special Expert are kept as the biggest jewel and the most terrible danger in a captain’s safe.
Tanaki checked the devices, while Boris was examining my body. On the cyberneticist’s panel green lights flashed one by one, all my organs, every muscle, every square millimeter of my skin, everything’s in order. Then the captain brought the soldered in control film information disks in and put them into the slots of the reading machine; they began to customize the system of hypnotransmission. Boris shot a glance at me and, to my surprise, I felt something unusual.
The rainbow disks stopped one by one. I watched those still round objects with a calm and unwinking stare. The first disk to stop was the one containing the general strategy and tactics of attack. Then the one with the full course of hand-to-hand fighting. Then the basics of mass psychology…
I knew what information was on each disc and knew how to use the devices of hypnotransmission. The Matrix of Special Expert ensured the working knowledge of any equipment in the ship. And when the door opened in front of the captain I automatically remembered that the door’s movement was controlled by a servomotor with an autonomous power source that could have been disabled by a bullet shot or a hard blow in the right corner of the coaming.
“How are you feeling, Victor?”
There was no fear in his eyes, he held the post for a reason. But from now on I noticed not only his cautious movements but also that he did not hurry to unfasten the bands that tied me down.
“I’m alright,” I smiled pulling my hands out of nylon bands. “I don’t have canines and have not turned into a monster.”
The rest of the bands burst free. Stripping the scab of sensors off my body I rose to my feet. The captain shook his head when he noticed the flocks of nylon. Then he asked:
“The matrix is on for twelve hours. Will it be enough for you?”
I grinned thinking of Tayk’s level of military development. Artillery, jets, rockets, primitive nuclear weapons…
“Sure. Prepare the boat and the outfit.”
I was falling on the capital of Tayk, almost sheer, against all laws of cosmic navigation. Only the uninterrupted working engine and the gravity compensation box turning deadly overloads into regular gravity made it possible for me to hide my boat from the planetary radars. Naturally I was getting visible with the naked eye; a scorching emery of air turned the boat into a fireball. But I had to deal with it…
The city was beautiful. To be accurate I remembered when the last flames of fire slipped off the dome of the boat and the green parks, mirror chains of canals and snow-white buildings of the capital spread under. My memory is the memory of an engineer and builder who has seen many cities on many planets. I stood still imbibing the wonderful view. My consciousness being captured by the matrix of Special Expert was tracking a three-edged pyramid of Ministry of Peace. When I found it, my hands ran over the control keys forcing the boat to rack. The vehicle rushed past the multi-colored summer clothes of Taykens Square. Too many people, that’s no good. I pressed the button, and the floor started vibrating. The infrasound generators had been bringing panic and animal horror down over the maddened square for twenty seconds. When it emptied I started lowering the boat and turning the record in the loudspeakers on.
“Citizens of Tayk! We’ve never harbored resentment against you, nor do we harbor it now. We are ready to forget the past…”
The legs of the boat touched the trampled concrete of the square.
“You must show discretion and free our men. Otherwise there will be victims on your conscience…”
The hatch opened and let me out. The power defense on my belt clicked and my body was covered with the blue film of reflective field. Several steps later I turned around. On the back of the blue-ish metal hull the defense field was almost transparent. And it could have defended the vehicle better than a concrete wall…
“We’re addressing the leaders of the planet directly…”
In one of the windows of the ministry I noticed a fiery fountain gleaming and a burst of machine-gun fire hit my chest with casual dotted lines. A heavy large-caliber machine gun with shell bullets. I shrugged my shoulders as I pointed the ribbed barrel of a disinter at the building. I took aim at the machine gun and pulled the trigger.
A shell exploded in front of me with a crash that echoed through the whole square. A five-meter ragged black hole appeared on the wall. I had to lower the power, since our men are still here… I swiftly headed for the building. Something was caught on my legs, and I had to turn around.
Just like a terrestrial one. God, what a jam that was ten minutes ago… I picked the doll up, stepped to a babbling fountain and put it on parapet. Involuntarily I was reeled with splashing water, as a new burst hit the fountain. Now I was targeted from two or even three windows.
I picked up my weapon and looked around. And then I turned into a submachine gun methodically burning out every more-or-less suspicious window. When I stopped shooting the ministry pyramid lost its last remains of whiteness. With the last shot I broke in the huge wooden doors. There was metal under the wood, it melted on the granite steps with smoking black puddles.
I could not find my way in those countless corridors and rooms of the ministry even if I had a week. But the Special Expert needed only half an hour.
The electronic analyzer had calculated the point where all the fibers piercing the building signals crossed. And logic based on the experience of thousands of terrestrial saboteurs has made me go directly toward my aim. The room was packed with guards but no one dared to shoot. Soldiers in bright orange uniforms fell on the floor silently with their hands pushed back on their heads. I made a round also in silence trying not to tread on someone with my power armor covered feet. Silently I entered the hall of control headquarters after breaking the door with one stroke of a gravitational discharger. Several men whose heads were inclined over the maps on a huge round table turned to me at the same time.
“I’m already here,” I said taking a seat in the nearest chair. “Where are the hostages?”
My voice, distorted by the machine translation, could be heard from the lingversor. This must have frightened more than the same phrases learnt by heart.
“I must…,” the only man in civilian dress stumbled. “Give a command…”
I nodded and he very carefully, as if he were made of glass, took the loudspeaker of a telephone. I peered at his face as it whispered into the phone and nodded with satisfaction. I called the ship.
“Send a capsule for the guys.”
“Ok. Victor… we’re watching you. Have you… lost control?”
“I did what I had to do,” I replied firmly.
“Good… The capsule has been sent.”
“Over and out,” I looked at the civilian and he smiled in haste.
“They’ll be here in a moment… Do not call them hostages, we just wanted…”
“Calm down, we are not taking revenge. No one punishes a child who has been scratching by beating him till he bleeds.”
Their stretched faces showed me that I’ve scored a hit. They didn’t expect that. Let this day be remembered as a lost battle rather than a day of surrender. Let them feel themselves like naughty kids and remember my jeer under the obscure armor of mine forever.
“You’ve told us you do not fight and are not even capable of murder,” one of the soldiers decided to ask. “Was it a lie?”
“It was a truth.”
I didn’t want to say anything else. Alas, on this level of development confessions are dangerous not only for us, but for them in particular. We’ve arrived in Tayk too early, although they build very beautiful cities…
Overstepping the broken door, my fellows entered the room. Seemed like Elise was alright. But Max was leaning on her arm. Our eyes met and we understood unsaid questions. “Are you holding on?” “I am, Vitya. You?” “Me too…”
“Did they hurt you, Elise?” I asked taking standby defense sets from my belt.
The girl hastily started to shake her head. She glanced at the disintegrator in my hands, at the blinking lights on the monitoring and protection devices, at the gravity discharger on my belt… Then she turned away.
“The capsule will be waiting for you at the square,” I said helping my friends fix their field generators. “And I… I have to talk to them first…”
People in the room shrinked at my nod and I automatically smiled. I saw how my smile cast a shadow on my face.
“The capsule is at the square” I repeated stubbornly.
The Special Expert who was leaving the ministry building could expect anything. The grey swamp of tank armor swaying at the square, diving jets in the cloudless sky… But the square was empty. It was an evening square of a quiet city paralyzed by fear and deprived of management. Seemed like I caught the ruling upper circles. Well, the four hour lecture I gave should do them good.
The wrist watch began to ring while I was making my way to the boat. The Special Expert matrix time given to my brain was running out. I should return to the ship as myself again.
It took me a long time to settle into my chair. At any moment one could actually faint as the matrix was being removed, so I didn’t want to be dangling in the cabin of the boat. I looked at the lifeless Ministry pyramid once again and closed my eyes. How odd, what will I feel in a moment? Pain? The irrevocable loss of knowledge, acquired if only for a second? Dull anguish for the lost skills?
Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Five minutes later I realized that something unforeseen has happened.
The ship answered in a flash.
“Victor, why don’t you start?”
“How are the guys?” I asked to gain more time.
“They’re fine. Max is in the medical module… Anything happened?”
“I have a problem with the matrix. It won’t come out.”
The captain kept silent for a second.
“Wait. I have to consult Boris.”
“There’s no need to.” I spoke slowly, very carefully choosing my words. “I am… the expert. The theory of hypogenous matrixes concedes these cases. In very rares cases the matrix could be more suitable to a man’s consciousness than his own personality. In those cases rejection does not happen.”
“Ever?” The captain asked with a very confused tone.
“Yes. I will have to live with this thing.”
A silence fell. The dull, cosmic silence as if a kilometer wall of lead has risen between me and the ship.
“It’s not that hard,” I tried to encourage the captain. The consciousness of the Special Expert has analyzed the silence, sorted the amazed faces, squeezed till the whiteness fingers and bitten lips out.
“It does not bother me that much, trust me.”
The silence has stretched and become lead heavy.
“What should I do? Can I return?”
The silence has cracked.
The boat was surrounded by darkness. What are you thinking about, hiding in your apartments, switching off the lights, almost like us, citizens of Tayk? Are you afraid of revenge? For nothing. We do not take revenge. Surely we keep that big and heavy bludgeon somewhere in the back of our clean ships, just in case. But we always throw that awkward weapon away after using it.
Only one time that bludgeon has adhered to a hand…
Dozens of streets were stretched on all sides. Straight, absolutely empty, ideal runways. I touched the keys directing my boat toward the nearest one and speeded up. Gently and with no sounds the vehicle started sliding over the concrete, past the white castles and almost terrestrial trees…
I doubt that they will be able to remove the matrix even on Earth. But I could mingle with the crowd where people have never seen me with the disintegrator against the background of faces distorted by fear and burnt windows. It’s just that it will take me three years to reach the Earth.
I looked at the screen and saw how from an unnoticed street in front of me a huge tank, decorated with green and brown stains of disguise, was coming out. It stopped across the street and Taykens in overalls were jumping out of open hatches. Fear gripped me. You want to stop me? Covered with the defense field, my boat will throw the tank off like an empty carton box. The boat is a very safe vehicle. Even if you try it will not be possible to disable it. If only Special Expert wants it… He can do much indeed. He even understands why I volunteered and why the averted stare of Elise will never allow me to return to the ship.
He also knows how to turn off the power field and uncover the fragile plastic hull of the boat.
When the rammed tank side spread all over the screens I took my hands off the keyboard and closed my eyes.
By Sergey Lukyanenko.
Sergey Lukyanenko is considered to be one of the most famous contemporary Russian sci-fi writers being best known for his Watch pentalogy with the first novel Night Watch published in 1998. Lukyanenko himself said that his work has been heavily influenced by that of Robert A. Heinlein, the Strugatsky brothers, and Vladislav Krapivin, and that he hopes to be remembered as a literary follower of the Strugatsky brothers. Currently Sergey is working on several projects and continuing to write short stories and participate in the life of fandom.