translated by Simon Geoghegan / Gai Sever

“Get up!” Zott kicked the bedstead.

Meyrig jumped out and rushed to get dressed. Klinsa peeled his head from his pillow and looked at his watch.

“Klinsa! Will you ever wake up?” Zott ran out.

“So, what’s up?” Klinsa asked three minutes later in the control room. “I’m awake now, and all ears.”

“Skip?” Meyrig looked at the monitor. “You’re shutting everything down. Why?”

“What the hell?” Klinsa also looked at the monitor. “Is that really what’s happening?”

“Quick, to the hangar.”

Zott shoved both men out of the door. Twenty seconds later they had burst into the hangar. Under the airlock boundary markers, the polished surface of the shuttle gleamed. Its aft ramp was open, and a feeder line had been stuffed through the gap between the doors.

“What’s going on, Corporal?” Zott froze.

“The element... Is being charged...”

“I can see. The element is being charged. In situ.”

“How was I to know Skip? This is crazy! It would have been charged just in time for the morning... Everyone does it this way!”

“Corporal Klinsa, I’m putting you on three duty details in a row. If we ever get out of this alive. Follow me!”

Zott ran to the ramp and stuck his finger in the sensor. The doors opened all the way, revealing that the charge indicator on the front end of the element was on orange.

“By morning... Meyrig!”

Meyrig was already bringing up a service car with a reserve element. Zott pulled out the feeder cable and pushed it away. The service car approached the shuttle; the latches fired off, and the element that was still on charge emerged from its chamber. The drum revolved, and the new element moved into the place of the old one. Zott closed the ramp. Klinsa burst into the capsule and got into his seat. Meyrig got in behind him; Zott took the helm.

“Now, courtesy of Klinsa...” Zott returned his gaze to the monitor, where the charge initialization column was rising. “Nought point two five... Nought point two six... Another twelve minutes.”

“Skip! What a load of rubbish! Is it really them? Where have they come from? How did they get here?”

“Skip, is it really them?” Meyrig repeated. “Has it actually... Happened, then?”

“Klinsa, have you forgotten where you are? How can you seriously ask questions like — ‘where have they come from’?”

“After all, they’re three Steps away! Three whole points... And we are here, almost in the centre...”

“And that means, you’re right, — they are three points away. And that means — war is war, Corporal Klinsa. To lose three points is madness, of course, yes. But as you can see, that’s what’s happened. Now the war is here.”

“But what is there to fight for here? There’s nothing here, ha-ha.”

“We have a standard garrison at the Entrance. A standard garrison at the Exit. Although, as a matter of fact, clearly, at the Entrance there isn’t really much left, by now. Still, it doesn’t matter where you spit, you’re bound to hit a corporal. One of whom was basically too lazy to carry out his basic duties. And that’s why there’s nothing left here, ha-ha. Corporal Klinsa,” Zott turned to him, “next time, assuming we get out of this alive... I would ask you not to forget. The element should be charged outside the element chamber. The element should be charged in the drum of the service car. I would request that you, as a Corporal in the Technical Corps, do not forget that a backup element should be in the chamber of the shuttle throughout the eight hours of that charging procedure. In stand-by mode. Frankly, that should be clear without you needing me to explain it. You use toilet paper when you visit the heads. You don’t need me to explain that, as well, do you? Do you use toilet paper, Corporal Klinsa? You’re going to need some, today. We could have got going three minutes ago... People get demoted over things like this. If they live to tell the tale.”

Finally, the airlock panels opened. The frozen half-light of the polar morning sank down into the gloom of the hangar. Zott launched the shuttle at a steep angle into the expanse of the frost-bound sky. The snowy dome of the station quickly retreated behind them. The square opening of the airlock, steaming with melted snow, gaped on the snowy surface like a wound from a huge four-edged blade. A snowy suspension hung in the air like a shroud; in half a minute more, the orange lights of the station had dissolved into a lilac haze.

“Our visitors are already quite near... There they are.”

“We’ll make it,” said Meyrig, staring at the monitor. “Skip, what exactly do we know about their ships?”

“Over the last four years, we’ve captured four of them.”

“Oh, well, everyone knows that. I was asking more specifically.”

“Over the last four years, we’ve captured four of their ships. That’s all I know more specifically.”

“But you see, Skip, you yourself... Okay, we are three Steps from the front line. But they know over there, don’t they? And you’ve been there, Skip.”

“I really don’t know any more than you do. And the fact that I served out there for a year and a half — that means nothing. Out there, they don’t know any more than we do here. Despite being three Zones closer. I do know that they can be taken out. And that’s all we need to know.”

“But is it true that nobody’s seen? What they look like, under their helmets.”

“Why do you need to know?” Klinsa snorted. “What they look like, under their helmets? You’ve been told loud and clear. They can be taken out. Assuming that’s true, of course.”

“Corporal Meyrig doesn’t believe it.” Zott snorted in return. “I killed one of them myself... Here, on this whole point, there are only three people who have been there. That is, three people who really know what’s up.”

“And for all that it just so happens they won’t say anything,” Klinsa sneered.

The alarm went off.

“We are almost in the zone... Don’t panic, at least we have a new element.” He looked at Klinsa.

A different alarm sounded. The shuttle was enveloped in a cloud of glittering plasma.

“One-nil to him. The shields will withstand two more strikes. I hope that’ll give us enough time to make it. Four minutes to the zone.”

“Why isn’t he firing?”

“Meyrig, the pulsation principle is the same for everyone in the Universe. They need to recharge before they can shoot again. He’ll hit us again, and don’t you doubt it...”

The alarm went off once more. Once again the surface of the ship was spattered with plasma.

“Two-nil to him. We’ve left it too late... We’re not going to make it.”

* * *

The fog disappeared. The ship slipped out into the vast expanse under the polar sky. The covering of snow was speckled with black dots — groups of stones, islets and thickets of walls and ramparts, small enigmatic labyrinths. From the direction of the pole, the sky gleamed a transparent blue topaz. The sun was about to breach the horizon, and the long cold day was rousing itself, and the shadows of the stone labyrinths were already taking shape and spreading out over the snow like long blue fingers. The wind lifted the snow skywards in blue-grey flurries, sprinkling it across the stones, and then tossing it aside, only to lift it up into the air once more, and hurl it back into the black stone teeth. Zott directed the ship down towards one of the stone island labyrinths.

“Any moment now, it’s going to be three-nil. And there won’t be any four-nil.”

Cracks in the rock licked clean by the wind could already be made out when the alarm sounded for the third and final time. The shuttle was enveloped in plasma. It was already so low that Zott was barely able to compensate for its speed — a protruding tooth of rock almost broke right through the hull. The shuttle plunged into a gap between the stone fangs. There was not enough room for a proper landing, and the shuttle collided with the cliff face.

“Out!” Zott’s voice rose through the ringing sound. “And that’s three-nil.”

Zott flung open the small-arms locker, threw a carbine to Meyrig, then Klinsa, and then grabbed his own. Klinsa unfastened his seat and jumped into the blue cold gloom. Meyrig followed him; Zott jumped out after him.

“Alas, we’ve got nothing but this iron.”

He activated the generator. A click crackled against the stone walls. The charge integrator lit up with a hot ruby.

“I don’t know what we’re going to see... But he’ll be here any second, and that’ll be that. Klinsa, over there!” Zott pointed towards a fissure in the black rock. “Meyrig, over there!”

He motioned in the opposite direction, turned around, and, breaking the snow crust with his boot grips, rushed towards a crevice forty metres from the landing point.

“Keep your backs to the rock. Don’t move a muscle!” Zott shouted as he concealed himself in his crevice.

The wind froze, and the small flurries of snow skittered across the blue mirror of the snow’s crust. The sky hung over the stone fangs, as if it had tripped over the sharp black teeth and frozen there. A pale calm light crept in from the direction of the pole, where the sun was rousing itself from under the horizon. The silence that descended was so complete that it seemed you could hear the shadows crawling over the blue crust.

Then suddenly, the glassy silence was shattered by a hammer blow. The blue gloom was cut open by a blue arc of fire — where once the stricken shuttle had lain, there was now only a crater, smoking in the ice. A mixture of smoke and steam spread in all directions. The echo swept along the walls and dispersed down the labyrinth. The silence returned, interrupted only by the fizzle of the melting snow.

“Well, we’re on foot now,” Klinsa tried to crack a joke. “Either that, or we take his crate off him!”

“Take his crate off him? You’re a real piece of work, Corporal. He’ll be here any minute, and then he’ll smoke us out, ha-ha.”

“Skip!” Meyrig called out. “Did you hear that? He’s landed...”

“Meyrig, there are three of us. While his gun can’t shoot around corners.”

“Are you sure? That his gun can’t shoot around corners?”

The air cracked asunder. Evil-looking red sparks flew out from the black rock of the crevice where Klinsa had been hiding. The volley of fire fanned out, mangling the stone. Incandescent splinters of rock bit into the ice crust with a greedy hiss. The unseen marksman continued to pulverise the opening of the crevice.

“Skip, he’ll get me here, for sure... Skip, do something...”

“Klinsa, stick close to the wall! He can’t reach you! Just hold your nerve, damn it!”

The rock got so hot that the ice at the foot of the cliff began to melt. In the short pauses between volleys, the snow hissed, and the incandescent stone cracked.

“Skip, he’ll get me here!”

“Klinsa, you cretin!” Meyrig shouted. “Just sit tight!”

Stone spalls rained down like juicy red sparks. The edges of the crevice turned red. The smoke spread over the snow, mixed with the smoke from the crater, and began to crawl out behind the rock.

“Go on, then, do something!”

“Stay calm, Corporal! Sit tight!”

Klinsa jumped out into the smoke. A shard of rock hit him on the back of the head. A metallic sound rang out from his helmet, a pure tone piercing the dirty crackle like a ray of sunshine through a curtain of rain. Klinsa was knocked off his feet — the next volley hurled him against the wall. The squall of fire fell silent. The smoke gradually dissipated, exposing the disfigured blue of the ice crust. Klinsa’s body lay smoking under a rock. Silence spread through the stone labyrinth.

“Meyrig! He’s going to come towards you through that passage. I’ll take him through this hole. He’ll be coming towards me through... Do you see the hole? Don’t shake so loud.”

“Skip! Why hasn’t he just blown this whole crap-shoot sky-high — at once? Why is he hunting us? Where’s he going to go? Why would he even get out of that tin can of his?”

“We wouldn’t have blown this whole crap-shoot either, at once. Is it so hard for you to imagine that they only look scary? We really don’t know who we are fighting against, yes. As for who they are, how should I know? It’s none of our business. Keep your zone on your arc of fire.”

“But they can’t be taken out!”

“Firstly, they can be. Secondly, whose fault is that? People like Klinsa? You’re an ‘A’ marksman. So, make sure you don’t miss. Keep your zo...”

Again, the silence was burst by a ringing crack. The crevice from which Meyrig was shooting lit up with projector flash. Echoes reverberated around the black pillars, scattered throughout the maze, and subsided. The wind swept across the scarred, blackened ice and blew away the last wisps of smoke.

“Skip... I think... I got him.”

“I see. You got him.”

“Skip! I don’t understand a thing! Did I do it too? I killed him, didn’t I?”

Zott jumped out onto the mutilated snow crust. Opposite him, Meyrig jumped out from his own crevice and ran over to Zott. Zott turned to the crevice along which Meyrig had fired.

“He’s in there,” Meyrig said, catching him up and pointing into the crevice. “I hit him right in... Assuming they have a heart... And if it’s in the same place as ours...”

An open space could be seen in the distance, and there a black figure lay on the snow between the walls like the dot in the sights of a carbine.

“Yes, you’re quite a marksman. Let’s go.”

* * *

“Skip... What’s that? The red stuff?”

“It’s blood. Haven’t you ever seen blood before?”

“That means... They have blood?”

“Interesting you ask. Why shouldn’t they? He’s a living being. Or, more to the point, he was... He’s not a robot — is that what you meant?”

“And a carbine. Or whatever it is that he has down there.”

“And it works almost exactly the same way as ours. As you might have noticed yourself.”

“Skip, let’s... Turn him over. That’s his back up there, isn’t it? Let’s see. What he looks like... Under his helmet.”

“No, Meyrig. Don’t. Is it not enough for you that you killed him? Is it not enough for you that his blood is red? Now you’ve found out for yourself. They can be taken out. And you did it too... And now — about-face, quick march. His friends are going to be arriving any moment. And we need to work out how to fly that crate of his.”

“Skip... Do you think they have children?”

“How would I know, Corporal? They can be taken out, and that’s all you need to know. We haven’t got time for this!”

Zott headed back. Meyrig stood where he was, looking at the freezing patch of darkening blood. He turned away, started to run, stopped, and turned around. The black figure lay on the blue ice, and the wind powdering it with a dusting of snow.

* * *

They ran out of the labyrinth. Not far away, a black hulk was sticking up out of the snow.

“Look at that, Corporal. Very similar to the ‘T-thirty’. Look at the angle of the flight surfaces. Look at the offset of the deflector plates. As far as I can tell, these are what they use for deflectors... Well, what else could they be if not deflectors?”

“It’s as if they’d copied one of ours! But how can that be? Everything is the same as ours! It can’t be! They’re not people, are they, Skip?”

“You saw — they’ve got red blood.” Zott approached the side of the ship. “And they might have children. As you rightly put the question. Otherwise, where would they come from? After all, even if they only had one sex, where would they come from?”

“And do they only have one sex?”

“How should I know?”

“Then, who have we been at war with? I don’t understand a thing!”

“But what about the textbooks?”

“They’ve nothing to say about where they come from. They say that they are able to Step, and therefore they are expending the resources of our Zones. That they are also a protein-based life form, and that means that basically they can be killed.”

“As a matter of fact, Meyrig... Maybe we’re the ones who are able to Step, and who are expending the resources of their Zones? Maybe we’re the protein-based life form? Has that idea ever occurred to you?” Zott approached the outstretched ramp. “Take a look at that! It really is the spitting image of one of ours... You know, sometimes I think to myself, who’s copied who? Four whole ships over the last four years, and they haven’t even let us touch a fragment of a stabiliser.”

Zott jumped up onto the ship. Meyrig jumped in after him and began to take a look around the interior.

“What do they use to control it?”

Zott stuck his arms out. A pair of armrests shot out from under his seat and arranged themselves under his elbows.

“Well, what’s this we’ve got there, Corporal? Ergonomic elbow controls. Have you come across them before?”

“Yes, but... We only have them on bigger kites.”

“So what? Why can’t you have them on a ‘T-thirty’? It would simply be a little bit over the top... But then maybe this counts as a bigger kite for them? However small... Now, the ramp should close.”

He curled his fingers around the triggers on the elbow controllers, which caused green lights to flash out on them. A spider’s web of lines, groups of symbols, dots, and dashes began to flicker in the blackness of the monitor. The ramp closed.

“Skip! But they’ll shoot us down! Blue on blue!”

“We’ll think of something. Don’t you believe me?”

He began to draw his elbows to his sides. Shrouded in a maelstrom of snow, the ship gently began to move upwards. Lines began to move, and the symbols began to change position as though in some incomprehensible game.

“It’s lifting off!”

“Are you surprised that a machine is responsive to its driver? Levelling out,” Zott reported to the ceiling, where strange symbols were shining on the control panel. He held up his elbows, and the ship hovered gently in the air. “Cruising speed plus one,” Zott squeezed the triggers.

The ship moved forward. As Zott gained altitude, the horizon moved to the sides, and the ship rose into the sky.

“What a great bit of kit... Do you want to have a go, Corporal?”

“Skip!” Meyrig pointed to a corner in the overhead panel. “What’s that?!”

“Meyrig, have you lost all power of comprehension, by now? You have one of those, too. And you even let me see. And I even liked what I saw. And I even said that you suited each other. At least, as far as you can tell from a photograph... You asked that very question, didn’t you? Where do they come from?”

“But they aren’t human beings!”

“Of course they aren’t. But that’s where they come from. Where else could they come from? Have you got any better suggestions?”

“Skip! Just who is it that we are fighting?!”

“Meyrig, look, they can be taken out. The rest is none of our business.”

* * *