I managed to find a callous frank in the freezer's depths. From canned stuff only the tin of sprats have left, I bought it either in times of dire straits or for nostalgic reasons.
I was sleepy to numbness but warmed up the poor frank anyway, took a tin opener and installed two bottles of Pilsen Urquell on the table before me. The supper in the candlelight – candles were quivering on the monitor: a screensaver. The fire scratching coming from the helmet was very much in place.
Let this Deep go to hell, together with this Unfortunate! Now, in the real world, everything that happened seemed nothing more than some absurd play. If Unfortunate doesn't confess tomorrow in the morning, me and Vika will exit the mountain space. Forever. Let him tell his tales to the cliffs and pine trees – they'll appreciate that.
I took a mouthful of beer and moaned in pleasure, then started opening the tin, cut off the cover accurately, hooked it with a fork…
And almost fell from the chair.
A hundred of fish heads was gazing at me with reproachfully.
Somewhere in virtuality I wouldn't be surprised with such joke, but in the real world…
I rummaged through heads soaked in tomato sauce trying to find at least one whole fish. Nothing. Very diligently done. I imagined a fish-factory… a kind of a floating giant… or the sprats are tinned on the shore? A conveyor with this low-grade stuff. Girls, crazed of fish stench and monotonous work… Now one of then takes an empty tin from the transporter and starts stuffing the fish heads into it. A joke.
I really laughed, shuddering and closing the tin back. I had nothing to eat but wasn't mad at the anonymous worker, on the contrary, everything suddenly have seemed perfectly in place.
Stuck to the bottle, I finished the first Urquell.
You wanted miracles, diver? The computer mind and people entering virtuality directly?
Come back to senses, diver! Here they are, miracles available to our world! Stolen beer, sprats' heads stuffed with eyes, stuffiness and foul of old lady's apartment, teenage punks in the stairways, annoying drip of water from the faucet in the kitchen.
This is – life. Whatever stupid and boring it might be, and there inside a helmet is just a tale created by machines and our own subconsciousness. Our electronic escapism.
I opened the second beer, picked up the tin, came out to the balcony and dumped out tin's contents into the wilted front garden. A feast is awaiting stray cats this night.
– Not ethical! – I reproached myself. As strongly as in Vika's program it is stuck into my mind that one shouldn't throw garbage out of the window.
But, unlike the machines we are able to ignore the bans. From balconies.
As I was, with the beer, I entered the bathroom, unbuttoned the suit glancing at the bottle. I didn't want to drink anymore.
– What is this long and cumbersome process for? – I asked rhetorically and poured the rest of the beer down into the toilet.
I lagged to the sofa and turned off the light. For how much longer is it possible to sleep huddled up by the table, with an electronic saucepan on the head? It was quiet, very quiet, and even the teens on the staircase stopped torturing their guitar.
Only the computer hummed smoothly and the candles were blinking on the screen.
I turned over forcing my face into the pillow but the sleep was retreating. There, in the Deep, the motionless dead Gunslinger's body is lying. Does he miss me? Something, just a little from betrayal is in it.
– For the last time! – I moaned, rising. I put on the helmet, plugged the suit into the port, laid my hands on the keyboard.
I snuggle close to Vika in my sleep and she mumbles something, turning to the other side. As quiet as her voice is, but I wake up. Looks like she sleeps in the Deep too.
The fire is off. Maybe the morning is close but the darkness haven't yet retreated, only red sheen from the dying fire can be seen. Unfortunate lies a bit away like a motionless mat– bag. What if I reach you and nudge you a good deal, huh? Just to see, are you here with us of exited the deep and sleep in the warm soft bed?
I look up at the sky, into the black sparkling crystal. How did I say that to Vika? "They've stolen the sky from us"?
Yes, they have, and the more people leave here, the further the stars will become.
It's not only the stars though. There always will be somebody for whom this world will stay out of reach: the restless teens who can't find work, the girls from fish packing plants… Fish heads, accurately arranged in rows in tins will come first. Is it just a joke or a silent cry, a protest? Fish heads will come first. And only then human heads will start to roll.
Does the second advent of machine destroyers await us? The rebel against machines, more and more incomprehensible and scary ones for average citizens, or the way out will be found finally?
I turn over and look at Unfortunate. If you are the mind of the Net, if you are the human who have conquered virtuality, then you might be that very way out, the break through the barrier, the exit from this deadlock. Surely Dibenko understands that if Man Without Face is really him.
Should I play noble hiding Unfortunate? If he is salvation, a merge of two worlds?
I don't know. I'm just an ordinary man, accidentally having this stupid resistance against the deep-program. This helps me to earn my piece of bread, and sometimes – it even comes with a thick layer of butter and caviar. But it's not me who should save the world or decide what is good and what is evil for it.
I don't have anything except that funny shabby moral for which Vika was grieving, but moral is a strange thing, it never gives answers but on the contrary, it hinders from finding them.
It's much easier to be a just person or a scum than just a human.
I start feeling myself extremely bitter and lousy. A provincial sportsman might feel so, included in the Olympic team and ordered to compete with the champions. Not my destiny it is…
And at this moment a sound is born above.
I turn onto my back looking up into the blackish crystal again, and see a crack in it – a blue stripe across the whole sky, a dazzling straight arrow rushing down.
– What is it, Lenia?
Vika is already sitting, casting strands of hair from her face. When have she woke?
Or when have I fallen asleep?
What is it around us, a dream or reality?
– A meteor, – I reply to Vika.
The blue arrow is lower and lower, a thin ringing trill is its train, a clot of fire at the end – its spike.
– This is a star falling, – says Vika very seriously and I understand that I'm sleeping after all.
Unfortunate doesn't move.
The crack draws across the sky to the end and plunges into the ground. The blue strip dims – the sky knows how to cure its wounds. Only where the star have touched the ground, a pale light is glowing.
– You promised me that we'll find a fallen star, – says Vika.
Everything is simple in the dream. I rise and give her my hand, we step over Unfortunate and start descending the slope. It's wrong, one is supposed to go up to reach the star, but one shouldn't argue with dreams.
The blue flame sparkles in the grass, neither burning nor casting shadows. The star have fallen into the gully between two hills. A bit further is a conglomeration of cliffs, absolutely out of place here, as if torn from another world. This is important for some reason but now we only look at the star.
A clean flame, a fuzzy fiery ball, very small one, one can hide it in the hands.
I stretch my hand, touch the star and feel warmth, as tender as if I've set my hands under the spring sun.
– Now I know what the stars are, – says Vika, – These are the splinters of the daylight sky.
I'm about to pick the star up but Vika stops me.
– Don't. It is tired already.
– From what?
– From the solitude, from the silence…
– But now we are near.
– Not yet. We've passed our path but it's only half of the way. Let the star believe in us.
I just shrug, I can't argue with Vika. I want to smile to her but she's not by my side anymore, only the voice have left.
– Lenia, wake up!
What the hell, why…
– Lenia, Unfortunate is gone!
I open my eyes.
Morning, the pink light from the East, scared Vika's face.
Unfortunate is not by the fire. The sleep is great deceiver.
– Damned! – I swear jumping up, – When have he disappeared?
Vika fixes her hair, in the same gesture as in my dream.
– I don't know, Lenia. I've just woke, and he was gone.
– So here's the answer, – I whisper, looking around, – Here's the answer…
Unfortunate's gone. Fled from the Deep. So everything was in vain?
No, not everything, I've met Vika because of him.
– He had made us to know each other, – she repeats my thoughts, – Thanks for that at least.
I hug her, nudging my face into her hair. We stand like this for long, the dawn brightens around, the snow crest of the huge mountain sparkles, ripping the sky. It's no birds here, maybe Vika forgot to make them but the mountains become alive even without them, filling with rustles of wind, of leaves and grasses.
– I'll make birds for these mountains, – I whisper, – If we ever restore your hut…
– I don't want to change the mountains, they are free! – objects Vika immediately.
– The birds are free too. I'll just set them out through the window and will say: "breed and multiply"!
Vika laughs quietly.
– Okay, try.
– What's so hard? – I summon up my courage – A simple program… I'll study Bram, will make a behavior algorithm. I'll draw various chaffinches and sparrows in the beginning, then hawks. Biogeocenosis… right? I've forgotten, I think we studied this in the fifth form, at the lessons of the nature study…
– Biologist you. Maybe you'll set free Zuko's slippers as well? Lenia, let's surface now and go to some restaurant. Have you ever been to "Pink atoll"?
– A beautiful place, Shultz and Brandt drew it. I invite you.
– Okay. Let's search before we go though…
Vika steps back from me and asks sharply:
– Search for whom?
– For Unfortunate.
– He exited the deep, why don't you understand?
– I do. But let's look for him anyway, okay? Maybe he wanted to go to do pee-pee and fell into the canyon?
– So he deserves it… – mumbles Vika, agreed already.
Firstly we pass the edge of the nearest slope, looking down. Then Vika searches the valley to the left from the stream, and I – to the right. Involuntarily my gaze is attracted down into the gully where I found the star in my dream: some cliffs can really be seen there.
But the business first. I must make sure that Unfortunate is not with us anymore.
I even climb up a little, following our path, it's just for the sake of it, to clear up my conscience.
And there, in the small crevice which we easily jumped over in the light of the dimming day I find Unfortunate.
I stand above the crevice silently, looking at Unfortunate from a ledge 3 meters above him. A couple of minutes passes until he makes sure that I've noticed him and raises his head.
– Good morning, Gunslinger.
I stay silent, I don't have strength even for the anger anymore.
– It's too hard to see in the dark, – utters Unfortunate an amazingly fresh and genius idea.
It wasn't that much to fall but he was unlucky. Even from above I can see that his right leg is swollen and Unfortunate is sitting trying not to touch it. I get the slippers from behind my belt, put them on and descend.
– I'm sorry, – says Unfortunate when I pick him up and scramble out of the crevice.
– Why? – I just ask.
– So that you wouldn't hesitate. I can't explain anything anyway.
– You're fool. Only suicidal ones are wandering in the mountains at night… or the Black Alpinist.
– I never was in the mountains before. And who is the Black Alpinist?
It's quite a long way down to the camp and I have time to tell him the tale of the Black Alpinist and that company that was dragging ball dresses and tuxedos to the mountains, then several real stories. We approach Vika when my store of the mountain legends runs out. I put Unfortunate on fir branches scattered by the fire under Vika's icy glare and say:
– What can be better than the mountain walk without any gear? Only the mountain walk with an injured one on the back.
I wonder, what will she do now.
– Give me the belt, – commands Vika.
I couldn't expect that much of aggressiveness.
– Vika, using 'Warlock'…
– Shit. You unfinished diver! I need a tourniquet!
I never was curious whether virtual clothes can tear or not, and don't want to try – the mountain sun is cruel. So I abandon the idea of tearing the shirt for tourniquets and give Vika my bandana.
She mingles with Unfortunate's leg for a long time, shaking her head gloomily when he moans in reply to her careful touches.
– The shin is broken, – she sets the diagnosis, – Without a shift I think, as strange as it might be.
– You're a doctor too?
– No, just a nurse, but an experienced one. I need more tourniquets.
I have to sacrifice my shirt after all and the jacket put on the naked body looks as a complete mauve tone. We put Unfortunate's leg in a self-constructed cast.
– Not even a single idiot, – now Vika allows herself to vent out her anger, – not a single cretin in this world have ever managed to break a leg in virtuality! What do you have in reality, huh? Do you have a broken leg?
– No… – mumbles Unfortunate.
– Thanks God for this at least.
We look at each other, our previous evening's battle mood have vanished. One thing is to abandon a deceiver in the virtual world, and a different one is to abandon a wounded person in the mountains, and the fact that the mountains is a fake changes nothing.
– Let's go to those cliffs, – I suggest.
– Okay. I saw them in my dream.
One glance is enough and we don't say anything else. There's no laws for unreality. Whatever it is, a dream or reality – we descended to the fallen star together.