The Last Watch (Watch 4) - Page 10

'I THINK YOU can guess why I've gathered you all together,' Geser said.

There were five of us in the boss's office. Geser himself, Olga, IIya, Semyon and me.

'What's to guess?' Semyon muttered. 'You've gathered all the Higher and First-Level Others. Svetlana's the only one missing.'

'Svetlana's not here because she's not on the staff of the Night Watch,' Geser said and frowned. 'I've no doubt that Anton will tell her everything. I won't even attempt to forbid it. But I won't connive at breaches of the rules, either... this is a meeting of the Night Watch top management. I have to warn Ilya straight away that some of what he hears will be new to him, and under normal circumstances he would never have heard it. So he must not talk about it. Not to anyone.'

'What exactly is that?' Ilya asked, adjusting his spectacles.

'Probably... probably everything that you are about to hear.'


'A bit more than just "some of it",' Ilya said, with a nod. 'Whatever you say. If you like, I'm willing to accept the mark of the Avenging Fire.'

'We can dispense with the formalities,' said Geser. He took a small metal box out of his desk and began rummaging in it. Meanwhile I carried on looking round with my usual curiosity. What made the boss's office so interesting was the huge number of little items that he kept because he needed them for his work or simply as souvenirs. Something like Pliushkin's bins in Dead Souls, or a child's box in which he keeps his most cherished 'treas ures', or the apartment of some absent-minded collector who's always forgetting what it is that he actually collects. And the most amazing thing was that nothing ever disappeared, even though there was almost no space left in the cabinets: new exhibits were added all the time.

This time my attention was caught by a small terrarium. It didn't have a lid, and there was a piece of paper glued to its side, with the letters OOO (or the numbers 000). Standing inside the terrarium was a stupid little toy made in China ?a small plastic toilet, with a tarantula squatting on it in a regal pose. At first I thought the spider was dead or made of plastic, but then I noticed its eyes glinting and its mandibles moving. There was another spider crawling across the glass walls: fat and round, looking like a hairy ball with legs. Every now and then the spider stopped and spat a drop of green venom onto the glass, clearly aiming at something outside. At the same time something showered down off the spider into the terrarium. There were some other spiders moving around on the bottom, greedily reaching out their legs to catch the treat. The fortun ate ones who managed to grab something began jumping up and down for joy.

'Interested?' Geser asked, without looking up.

'Uh-huh... what is it?'

'A simulation. You know I like to study self-contained social groups.'

'And what does this simulation represent?'

'A very interesting social structure,' Geser said evasively. 'In its basic form it should have become the traditional jar of spiders. But here we have two principal spiders, one of whom has taken up a dominant position by climbing onto a high point, while the other is acting as if he is providing protection against external aggression and caring for the members of the community. As long as the dominant spiders remain active, this simulation can continue to function with minimal internal aggression. I just have to spray the inhabitants with beer every now and then to relax them.'

'But doesn't anyone ever try to climb out?' Ilya asked. 'There's no lid...'

'Only very rarely. And only the ones who get fed up of being a spider in a jar. In the first place, the illusion of conflict is constantly maintained. And in the second place, the experimental subjects regard being in the jar as something out of the ordinary' Geser finally took some object out of his box and said, 'All right, that's enough of the small talk. Here is the first thing for you to think about. What is it?'

We stared in silence at the grey lump of concrete that looked as if it had been chipped out of a wall.

'Don't use magic!' Geser warned us.

'I know,' Semyon said guiltily. 'I remember that incident. A radio microphone. They tried to put it in here in the 1950s... or was it the 1960s? When we were the "Non-Ferrous Mining Equipment Assembly Trust". Some bright guys from the KGB, wasn't it?'

'That's right,' said Geser. 'Back then they were very keen on looking for spies, and on a sudden impulse they decided to check us ... we had provoked certain suspicions in the "organs" ... It was a good thing that we had our own eyes and ears in the KGB. We organised a campaign of misinformation, certain vigilant comrades managed to get others rebuked for the pointless squandering of expensive equipment... And what about this?'

A huge steel screw glinted in Geser's hands. To be quite honest, I didn't even know that they made screws that large.

'I doubt if you know about this,' Geser told us. 'It's the only attempt ?at least, I hope it is ?ever made by the Dark Ones to spy on us using human means. In 1979 I had a very difficult conversation with Zabulon, and afterwards we signed an appendix to the agreement on prohibited methods of conflict.'

The screw was put back in the box. In its place two tiny brown 'tablets' were taken out.

'That was when they wanted to take our building away!' Ilya said brightly. 'In 1996, wasn't it?'

Geser nodded.

'Absolutely right. A certain ambitious young oligarch got the idea that the former state enterprise which had become the "Non-Ferrous Metal Mining Company" looked like a very tasty and absolutely defenceless little morsel of property. However, when their listening devices and external observation revealed the kind of people who simply dropped in for tea and a chat with the old director, the oligarch cut his ambitions back sharply'

'That was misinformation as well, of course?' Olga asked curiously. It seemed that the boss's unusually complicated introduction was intended for her, because she had missed all these old events.

Semyon giggled and drawled in a voice like Yeltsin's:

'You un-der-stand, my friend, you decide important matters at the city level, and you don't ask for any help... Call round if anything happens.'

Geser smiled and replied:

'"Call round if anything happens", is putting it a bit strongly.

But never mind, no one judges the victors... Right, those were cases from the past. But here is today's catch...'

He took something that looked like a Band-Aid out of the box. A thin white square, slightly sticky on one side - it was not easy for Geser to pull it off his finger.

'Technology is always developing,' I said, impressed. 'A microphone and transmitter?'

'You'll be surprised to know that there's a recorder here too,' Geser told me. 'Everything is recorded and then shot off in a three-second coded burst once a day. A fine little toy. Expensive. And you can't buy it just anywhere.'

'Get to the point, Boris,' Olga said.

Geser tossed the 'toy' back into the box, and glanced round keenly at all of us.

'A week ago Anton and Semyon spent some time in the city of Edinburgh. Something rather unpleasant happened there: without going into too much detail, a group of Others, including at least one Light One, one Dark One and an Inquisitor, tried to steal one of the most ancient magical artefacts in existence, with the help of paid human assistants who were equipped with magical amulets. The artefact is the so-called "Crown of All Things", created by the Great Merlin shortly before he withdrew into the Twilight.'

Ilya whistled. Olga said nothing ?either she had already heard about this from Geser, or she didn't think any display of emotion was required.

'I should add that the three Others were all Higher Ones,' Geser continued. 'Well... perhaps not all of them. Perhaps two of them. Together they could have taken the third one down to the sixth level of the Twilight.'

To my surprise, Ilya didn't say anything. He must have been stunned. I didn't think he had ever gone any deeper than the third level.

'This is already unpleasant,' said Geser.'None of us knows what kind of artefact Merlin hid on the seventh level of the Twilight, but there are serious grounds for believing that this artefact is capable of destroying all civilisation on Earth.'

'Another "Fuaran"?' Semyon asked.

'No, Merlin didn't have the knowledge to transform people into Others,' said Geser, shaking his head. 'But it is something very powerful indeed. Security measures to keep the artefact safe have been tightened up: the Inquisition is guarding it now, as well as the Night Watch of Scotland. But the situation is too serious. I have learned that attempts have been made to spy on Watches in Moscow, New York, London, Tokyo, Paris, Beijing ... in short, at all the key points on the planet. Everywhere the people involved have no idea who hired them. So far all attempts to find the insti gators have produced nothing.'

'Geser, what's down there, on the seventh level of the Twilight?' Ilya asked. 'I know it's not done to talk about the deeper levels to anyone who hasn't been there, but?

'Semyon will tell you what he saw,' Geser replied. 'He's been to the fifth level. And ask Anton if you like ?he'll tell you about the sixth level. I give my permission. But as for the seventh level... '

Everybody gazed curiously at Geser.

'I haven't been there. And I can't answer your question,' Geser concluded firmly.

'Ha,' said Olga. 'I was certain you had been there, Boris.'

'No. And before you ask ?Zabulon hasn't been there either. Nor have any of the Others I know. I believe that only a zero-point magician is capable of it. Someone who possesses absolute Power. Merlin was such a magician. Nadya Gorodetskaya will become such an enchantress...'

Everybody turned to look at me.

'I won't let her into the Twilight before she's grown up,' I said firmly.

'Nobody's asking you to,' Geser assured me. 'And... don't start objecting before I finish. I want to put your Nadya under guard. Continuous guard, round the clock. At least two battle magicians. Second or third level of Power. They won't hold out long against Higher Ones, but if we provide them with good artefacts, they'll be able to drag things out long enough to call help.'

Ilya held his head in his hands.

'Boris Ignatievich! Where will I get that many second- and third-level Others from? Are we going to take our entire fighting force off the street?'

'No, not all of it,' Geser replied. 'We have four second-level Others, after all. And nine third-level. Alisher and Alexander can be raised to third level.

'Which Alexander? Korostilyov?' Ilkya asked in amazement.

'No, Malenkov.'

'Sasha can be raised,' Olga put in. 'I'm prepared to do it in three days. Even two.'

'Wait!' I exclaimed. 'Wait! Would you like to hear my opinion?'

Geser looked at me curiously.

'Yes, I would. Only bear in mind that sooner or later the individuals who failed to obtain the artefact will come to the con clusion that they need an absolute magician. And there is only one in the whole world. One. Your daughter. So will you agree to her being guarded?'

'But what will Svetlana say?'

'Svetlana is a mother,' Olga said in a gentle voice. 'I think she remembers how her daughter was kidnapped once already. And she understands that she herself cannot guard her daughter twenty-four hours a day'

'Sveta will agree, Anton,' Semyon said, with a nod. 'No need for any crystal ball there.'

'But Boris Ignatievich, what am I supposed to do with the streets?' Ilya objected. 'I protest officially as your deputy for the patrol service! Am I supposed to send out fourth- and fifth-level magi cians to work on their own? The Dark Ones will walk all over us!'

'They won't,' Geser said, frowning. 'Zabulon is also allocating his second- and third-level magicians to guard Nadya Gorodetskaya.'

It was my turn to clutch my head in my hands. But Ilya imme diately calmed down.

'Then we only need to supply half of the bodyguards? In that case, I?

'No, not half. It's two of ours and two Dark Ones.'

'Geser!' I protested.

'Anton, this is being done for the sake of your daughter's safety,' Geser replied in a firm voice. 'That's all ?the matter's closed! Let's get on with other business. Ilya, you stay behind after the meeting, we'll discuss who to use as bodyguards and how to equip them.'

I said nothing. I was seething inside, but I said nothing.

'So far we have only spoken about defence,' Geser continued. 'I charge Olga with developing the measures for protecting the Watch against spy technology and a possible attack by human mercenaries. Involve Tolik from the computer service. And Las from the operations side.'

'But he's a weak magician,' Olga snorted.

'But he has a non-standard way of thinking,' said Geser. 'And you know pretty much all there is to know about battles between Others and human beings. You've certainly had plenty of experience.'

I gave Olga a curious glance. So she had a interesting back ground, then...

'What I need from all of you now is something else,' Geser went on. 'How are we going to attack?'

'Attack whom?' I protested. 'If only we knew who it is that's muddying the water

'To attack doesn't necessarily mean to go rushing into battle,' Olga stated didactically. 'To attack also means to take actions that the enemy isn't expecting, to disrupt his plans.'

Geser nodded in approval.

'Then there's only one thing we can do,' I said. 'That is, apart from trying to find the traitors... but I expect the Inquisition is breaking its back on that one already. We have to break through to the seventh level. But if we can't... the chain of Power?'

'Zabulon suggested a Circle of Power,' Geser said, with a nod. 'But it won't help, not even if we try, by accumulating each other's power, or the Dark Ones try, by sucking each other dry ?not even with a human sacrifice... The strength of barriers between the levels of the Twilight increases exponentially. We have calcu lated it.'

'Not even a human sacrifice?' Semyon asked in amazement.

'Not even,' Geser said drily.

'That little poem ... on the sixth level... ' I said, looking at Geser. 'Remember, I told you about it?'

'Recite it,' Geser said, nodding.

'The Crown of All Things is here concealed. Only one step is left.

But this is a legacy for the strong or the wise ?

You shall receive all and nothing, when you are able to take it.

Proceed, if you are as strong as I;

Or go back, if you are as wise as I;

Beginning and end, head and tail, all is fused in one,

In the Crown of All Things. Thus are life and death inseparable.'

I recited the poem from memory.

'And what does that give us?' Geser asked almost jovially.

'Go back, if you are as wise as I,' I repeated. 'There is some kind of detour, an alternative route to the seventh level. You don't have to go head-on at the barrier.'

Geser nodded again.

'That's right. And I wanted you to say that.'

Semyon gave me a look of sympathy. It was clear enough. In the Watch, things work like in the army: you suggested it, now you do it.

'Just don't overestimate my intellectual capabilities,' I muttered. 'I'll think about it, of course. And I'll ask Svetlana to think about it too. But so far nothing comes to mind. Maybe we should delve into the archives?'

'We will,' Geser promised. 'But there is another way to go.'

'And I'm the one who has to go there,' I said. 'Am I right?'

'Anton, your daughter's in danger,' Geser said simply.

I shrugged.

'I surrender. Okay, I'm ready. Where do I go? Into the mouth of a volcano? Under the Arctic ice? Out into space?'

'You know very well that there's nothing we can do out in space,' Geser said, frowning. 'There is one hope ?not a very big one. Perhaps one of Merlin's associates might guess what he had in mind.'

'We'd have to find a living contemporary...' I began.

'I'm his contemporary, more or less,' Geser said in a bored voice. 'But unfortunately I was not acquainted with Merlin. Neither when he was a Light One, nor when he was a Dark One. Why are you looking at me like that? Yes, it is possible. Sometimes. For Higher Ones. That's not the point... I hope none of you are planning to change colour?'

'Boris Ignatievich, don't drag it out,' I said.

'Merlin was friendly ?insofar as that was possible ?with an Other whom I knew by the name of Rustam.'

I exchanged glances with Semyon. He shrugged. Olga looked puzzled too.

'He had many names,' Geser continued. 'He used to be in the Watch too. A very, very long time ago. He and I were friends once. We helped each other in battle many times... saved each other's lives many times. Then we became enemies. Even though he was and still is a Light One.'

Geser paused. It seemed as if he didn't really want to remember all this.

'He is still alive, and he lives somewhere in Uzbekistan. I don't know exactly where ?his strength is equal to mine and he can camouflage himself. He hasn't served in the Watch for a very long time. He is most probably living as an ordinary human being. You will have to find him, Anton. Find him and persuade him to help us.'

'Uh-huh,' I said. 'Uzbekistan? Easy as ABC. A - comb the whole place. B ?winkle out a magician in hiding who's more powerful than I am...'

'I'm not saying it's simple,' Geser admitted.

'And C ?persuade him to help us.'

'That part's a bit easier. The point is that he saved my life six times. But I saved his seven times.' Geser chuckled. 'He owes me. Even if he still hates me as much as he used to. If you find him, he'll agree...'

There was no confidence in Geser's voice, and everyone could sense that.

'But it's not even certain that he knows anything!' I said 'And is he still alive?'

'He was alive ten years ago,' said Geser. 'My assistant, the devona, recognised him. And he told him about his son.'

'Magnificent,' I said, with a nod. 'Absolutely wonderful. I suppose I have to follow tradition and set out unarmed and completely alone?'

'No. You will set out fully equipped, with a thick wad of money and a bag full of useful artefacts.'

It was several seconds before I realised that the boss was being perfectly serious.

'And not alone,' Geser added. 'Alisher will go with you. In the East, as you know, there are more important things than power and money. It is far more important for someone who is known and trusted to vouch for you.'

'Alisher too...' Ilya sighed.

'I'm sorry,' Geser said, without even the slightest note of apology in his voice. 'We must regard this as a military emergency Especially since that's just what it is.'

I don't often get to go back home in the middle of the day. If you've been out on Watch duty, then you come home early in the morning. If you have an ordinary working day to get through, you won't get back before seven. Even with the ability to foresee traffic jams on the roads ?what good is that if the jams are everywhere?

And naturally, even without the help of magic, any wife knows that a husband doesn't come back early from work without good reason.

'Daddy,' Nadya announced. Naturally, she was standing by the door. She can tell I'm coming just as soon as I approach the entrance to the building ?that's if she happens to be busy with some important childish business of her own. If she's feeling bored, she knows from the moment I leave the office.

I tried to pick my daughter up. But she was clearly far more interested in the cartoons on TV: I could hear a squeaky 'La-la-la, la-la, la-la-la' coming from the sitting room. She had done her duty as a daughter: Daddy had been met when he came back from work and nothing interesting had been discovered in his hands or his pockets.

So little Nadya deftly slipped out of my arms and made a dash for the TV.

I took off my shoes, tossed the Autopilot magazine that I had bought on the way home onto the shoe stand and walked through into the sitting room, patting my daughter on the head along the way. Nadya waved her arms about ?I was blocking her view of the screen, on which a blue moose with only one antler was hurtling downhill on skis.

Svetlana glanced out of the kitchen and looked at me intently. She said, 'Hmm!' and disappeared again.

Abandoning any attempts to fulfil my paternal functions until better times, I walked into the kitchen. Svetlana was making soup. I've never been able to understand why women spend so much time at the cooker. What does it take so long to do there? Toss the meat or the chicken into the water, switch on the hotplate, and it boils itself. An hour later drop in the macaroni or potatoes, and a few vegetables - and your food's ready. Well, you mustn't forget to salt it - that's the most difficult part.

'Will you pack your own suitcase?' Svetlana asked, without turning round.

'Did Geser call?'


'Did you look into the future?'

'I promised you I wouldn't do that without permission...' Svetlana paused for a moment, because I had gone up to her from behind and kissed her on the neck. 'Or unless it's absolutely necessary...'

'Then why did you ask about the suitcase?'

'Anton, if you come home from work during the day, then I go to bed alone in the evening. They're either sending you out on watch or away somewhere on an assignment. But you were on watch two days ago, and the city's calm at the moment...'

In the sitting room Nadya laughed. I glanced in through the door ?the moose on skis was hurtling wide-eyed straight towards a line of small and obviously young animals, who were walking along the edge of a precipice. Oh, this was going to be a real disaster...

'Sveta, are you sure Nadya should be watching cartoons like that?'

'She watches the news,' Svetlana replied calmly. 'Don't avoid the issue. What's happened?'

'I'm going to Samarkand.'

'Your assignments do take you to some interesting places,' Svetlana said. She scooped up a spoonful of soup, blew on it and tasted it. 'Not enough salt... What's happened out there?'

'Nothing. Nothing yet.'

'The poor Uzbeks. Once you get there, something's bound to happen.'

'Geser held a meeting today. With the Higher Ones and the first level

I told Svetlana briefly about everything we had discussed. To my surprise, there was no reaction to the idea that from now on Nadya would be guarded in secret by two Light and two Dark magicians. Or rather, the reaction was exactly what Olga had fore cast it would be.

'Well, good for Geser! I was thinking about ringing him myself... to ask for protection.'

'You're serious? You'll allow it?'

Svetlana looked at me and nodded. Then she added:

'While I'm with her, Nadya's in no danger. Believe me, I'll make mincemeat of any three Higher Ones. But it's best to take precau tions. When's your flight?'

'In five hours. From Sheremetievo.'

'Semyon will get you there in an hour. So you still have two hours left. You can have something to eat, then we'll pack your things. How long are you going to be there?'

'I don't know'

'Then how much underwear and how many pairs of socks shall I put in?' Svetlana asked reasonably. 'I can't imagine you washing anything while you're away'

'I'll buy new ones and throw the old ones away. Geser promised to give me heaps of money'

'I wonder how much "heaps" is for him,' Svetlana replied doubt fully. 'I'll pack five sets of underwear. Sit down at the table ?I'm serving the soup.'

'Daddy!' Nadya called from the sitting room.

'What, my little daughter?' I answered.

'Daddy, will Uncle Afandi give me the beads for a present?'

Svetlana and I looked at each other, then walked quickly into the sitting room. Our daughter was still watching the cartoons. The screen showed a group of different-coloured animals gath ered round a campfire.

'What uncle's that, Nadya?'

'Uncle Afandi,' said our daughter, without looking away from the screen.

'What Afandi?' Svetlana asked patiently.

'What beads?' I asked.

'The man Daddy's going to see,' Nadya told us, with that 'How stupid you grown-ups are!' intonation. 'And the beads are blue. They're beautiful.'

'How do you know who Daddy's going to see?' asked Svetlana, continuing the interrogation.

'You were just talking about it,' Nadya replied calmly.

'No, we weren't,' I objected. 'We were talking about me going on an assignment to Uzbekistan. That's a beautiful country in the East - Geser used to live there once. Do you remember Uncle Geser? But we didn't say anything about Afandi.'

'I must have misheard, then,' Nadya replied. 'There isn't any uncle.'

Svetlana shook her head and looked at me reproachfully. I shrugged ?okay, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have butted in. Mummy would have got a lot more out of her...

'But the beads are real anyway,' Nadya suddenly added inconsist ently. 'You bring them, all right?'

There was no point in asking any more about Uncle Afandi. Nadya had had 'fits' of clairvoyance ever since she was three, if not two. But she was absolutely unaware that she was prophesying, and as soon as you started asking 'How do you know that?' she clammed up.

'My fault,' I confessed. 'Sorry, Sveta.'

We went back to the kitchen. Svetlana poured me some soup without saying a word, sliced the bread and handed me a spoon. It sometimes seems to me that she plays the role of a perfectly ordinary housewife with emphatic irony. But after all, it was her choice. Geser would be absolutely delighted if Svetlana came back to the Watch.

'Rustam has had a lot of names ... is that what Geser said?' Svetlana asked thoughtfully.

'Uh-huh,' I said, slurping my soup.

'We can assume that now he's called Afandi.'

'Anything's possible.' I wasn't exactly counting on it, but in my situation I couldn't afford to ignore even the slimmest lead. 'I'll ask around.'

'It's good that Alisher will be with you,' Svetlana observed. 'You let him do the asking as often as possible. The East is a subtle business.'

'Now there's an original thought... ' I said sourly. 'Sorry, I've been hearing wise thoughts about the East all day long today. The rivers of eloquence have already flooded the lake of my aware ness, oh Turkish delight of my heart!'

'Daddy, bring back some Turks and some delight!' my daughter responded immediately.

I didn't meet Alisher often at work. He preferred working 'in the field' - he was always out on patrol and usually only appeared in the office in the morning, with his eyes red from lack of sleep. I once heard that he was having an affair with some girl from the accounts department, and I knew he was a seventh-level Other, but apart from that I knew very little about him. He was natur ally reserved, and I don't like to force my friendship on anyone.

However, Semyon seemed to be on friendlier terms with him. When I went down and got into the car, Semyon was just finishing telling a joke. As I sat beside him, he was leaning back over his seat and saying:

'All right, Daddy, let's go the long way round. Bring me a little scarlet flower, please!'

Alisher laughed first and then held his hand out to me.

'Hi, Anton.'

'Hi, Alisher.' I shook his hand and passed my bag back to him. 'Dump it on the back seat, I don't want to bother with the trunk.'

'How's Sveta? Did she scold you?' Semyon asked as he drove off.

'No, of course not. She wished me luck, fed me a delicious dinner and gave me heaps of useful advice.'

'A good wife even keeps her husband happy,' Semyon declared cheerfully.

'You're in a good mood today,' I remarked. 'Is Geser sending you to Samarkand too?'

'As if he would,' Semyon said, with a histrionic sigh. 'Listen, been hearing wise thoughts about the East all day long today. The rivers of eloquence have already flooded the lake of my aware ness, oh Turkish delight of my heart!'

'Daddy, bring back some Turks and some delight!' my daughter responded immediately.

lads, why are you going to Samarkand? The capital's Binkent, I remember that for certain!'

'Tashkent,' I corrected him.

'Nah, Binkent,' said Semyon. 'Or isn't it? Ah, I remember! The town's called Shash!'

'Semyon, you're not old enough to remember Binkent,'Alisher scoffed. 'Binkent and Shash were ages ago - only Geser remem bers that. But we're flying to Samarkand because that's where the oldest Light Other who works in a Watch lives. The Watch in Tashkent is bigger, they have all the swank of a capital city, but most of them are young. Even their boss is younger than you are.'

'Would you ever...' said Semyon, shaking his head. 'Incredible. The East - and everyone in the Watches is young?'

'In the East the old men don't like to fight. The old men like to watch beautiful girls, eat pilaf and play backgammon,' Alisher replied seriously.

'Do you often go home?' Semyon asked. 'To see your family and friends?'

'I haven't been there even once in eight years.'

'Why's that?' Semyon asked in surprise. 'Don't you miss your home at all?'

'I haven't got a home, Semyon. Or any family. And a devona's son doesn't have any friends.'

There was an awkward silence. Semyon drove without speaking. Eventually I just had to ask:

'Alisher, if this isn't too personal a question... Your father, was he a man? Or an Other?'

'A devona is a servant whom a powerful magician creates for himself Alisher's voice was as steady as if he were giving a lecture. 'The magician finds some halfwit who has no family and fills him with Power from the Twilight. He pumps him full of pure energy... and the result is a stupid but very healthy man who possesses magical abilities... No, he's not quite a man any more. But he's not an Other, all of his power is borrowed, inserted into him by the magician at some time. A devona serves his master faithfully, he can work miracles... but his head still doesn't work any better than it did before. Usually the magician chooses people who are mentally retarded, or have Down's syndrome ?they're not aggres sive and they're very devoted. The power inserted into them gives them good health and a long life.'

We didn't say anything. We hadn't expected such a frank answer from Alisher.

'The common people think a devona is possessed by spirits. And that's almost true... it's like taking an empty, cracked vessel and giving it new content. Only instead of intelligence it is usually filled with devotion. But Geser's not like all the others. Not even like other Light Ones. He cured my father. Not completely - even he can't do absolutely anything. At one time my father was a total idiot. I think he suffered from imbecility ?obviously owing to some kind of organic damage to the brain. Geser healed my father's body, and in time he acquired normal human reason. He remem bered that he had once been a complete imbecile. He knew that if Geser didn't fill him with fresh Power in time, his body would reject his reason again. But he didn't serve Geser out of fear. He said he would give his life for Geser because he had helped him to become aware. To become a man. And also, of course, because a mindless fool like him now had a family and a son. He was very afraid that I would grow up an idiot. But it was all right. Only... only the people remember everything. That my father was a devona, that he had lived too long in this world, that once he was an imbecile who couldn't even wipe his own nose ?they remem bered all that. My mothers family rejected her when she left to join my father. And they didn't acknowledge me, either. They forbade their children to play with me. I am the son of a devona.

The son of a man who should have lived the life of an animal. I have nowhere to go back to. My home is here now. My job is to do what Geser tells me to do.'

'Well, well... ' Semyon said quietly. 'That's a tough deal ?really tough. I remember how we drove back those counter-revolutionary bandits, the basmaches. You don't mind me saying that, do you?'

'What's wrong with it?'

'Well, maybe now they're not bandits any longer, but national heroes...'

'When Geser was a commissar in Turkestan my father fought in his detachment,' Alisher said with pride.

'He fought there?' Semyon asked excitedly. 'What year was that in?'

'The early 1920s.'

'No, I was there later ... In Garm, in 1929, when the basmaches broke through from abroad.'

They launched into a lively discussion of events from days of long ago. From what I understood, it seemed that Alisher's father and Semyon had almost crossed paths ?they had both fought alongside Geser when he'd been on active military service in the Red Army. To be quite honest, I didn't really understand how Geser could have taken part in the events of the Civil War. The Great Light One couldn't possibly have bombarded the White Guards and the basmaches with fireballs! Apparently not all Others had been indifferent to that revolution. Some of them had taken one side or other in the struggle. And the great Geser and his comrades had gone dashing about the steppes of Asia to fight the other side.

And I also thought that now I could probably guess why Geser and Rustam had quarrelled.

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