IT'S A COMMON SIGHT AT A RAILROAD STATION¡ªA SMALL GROUP OF people dashing along the platform, trying to figure out where their train's leaving from¡ªif it hasn't already left. For some reason the role of these late passengers is almost always played by women shuttle-traders loaded down with Chinese striped-canvas bags or, by contrast, cultured individuals whose only burden is a Samsonite briefcase and leather purses.
We belonged to an exotic subspecies of the second category¡ª we had absolutely no baggage at all, and our overall appearance was pretty strange, but it inspired respect.
On the platform the pointer started spinning again¡ªwe were already close to the book.
"He's trying to get away," Zabulon declared grandly. "All right... now let's see which trains are leaving..."
The Dark One's gaze clouded over¡ªhe was forecasting the future, looking to see which train would leave the platform first.
I looked up at the information board hanging in the air behind us. "The Moscow-Almaty train is about to leave. In five minutes, from platform two."
Zabulon returned from his prophetic travels and announced, "The train to Kazakhstan from platform two. In five minutes."
He looked very pleased with himself.
Kostya snickered very quietly.
Gesar looked up ostentatiously at the information board and nodded.
"Yes, you're right, Zabulon... And the next one's not for half an hour."
"We'll stop the train and comb all the cars," Edgar suggested quickly. "Right?"
"Will your underlings be able to find the Other?" Gesar asked. "If he's disguised? If he's a magician beyond classification?"
Edgar wilted before our eyes. He shook his head.
"That's the point," Gesar said with a nod. "The Fuaran was in the station. It was in the station, and we couldn't find the book or the criminal. What makes you think it will be any easier on the train?"
"If he's on the train," said Zabulon, "the easiest thing to do is destroy the train. No more problem."
There was silence.
Gesar shook his head.
"I know, I know, it's a disagreeable solution," Zabulon acknowledged. "Even I don't like the idea of a thousand lives simply wasted... But what other choice do we have?"
"What do you suggest, Great One?" asked Edgar.
"If," said Zabulon, emphasizing the word, "the Fuaran really is on the train, we have to wait for a moment when the train reaches an unpopulated area. The Kazakh steppes would suit perfectly. And after that... follow the plans that the Inquisition has for such situations."
Edgar gave a nervous jerk of his head and, as always happened when he was agitated, he started speaking with a slight Baltic accent. "That is not a good solution, Great One. And I cannot approve it on my own¡ªthe sanction of the Tribunal is required."
Zabulon shrugged, his entire manner indicating that all he could do was make suggestions.
"In any case, we have to be certain that the book is on the train," said Gesar. "I suggest..." he looked at me and gave a barely perceptible nod. "I suggest that Anton from the Night Watch, Konstantin from the Day Watch, and someone from the Inquisition should get on the train. To check it out. We don't need a big group for that. We'll arrive in the morning and decide what to do next."
"Off you go, Kostya," Zabulon said affectionately, slapping the young vampire on the shoulder. "Gesar's talking good sense. Good company, a long journey, an interesting job¡ª you'll enjoy it."
The mocking glance in my direction was almost too fast to catch.
"That... buys us time," Edgar agreed. "I'll go myself. And I'll take my colleagues with me. All of them."
"Only one minute left," Olga said quietly. "If you've made up your minds¡ªbetter get moving."
Edgar waved to his team and we ran to the train. Edgar said something to the conductor of the front car¡ªa young Kazakh with a moustache¡ªand the conductor's face suddenly went slack, assuming an expression that was sleepy and happy at the same time. He moved aside to let us in. We crowded into the little lobby at the end of the car. I looked out¡ªZabulon, Gesar, and Olga were standing on the platform, watching us leave. Olga was saying something in a quiet voice.
"In the situation that has arisen, I'll assume overall control," Edgar declared. "Any objections?"
I glanced at the six Inquisitors standing behind his back and said nothing. But Kostya couldn't restrain himself.
"That depends on what kind of orders you give. I only acknowledge the authority of the Day Watch."
"I repeat¡ªI am in charge of the operation," Edgar said coolly. "If you don't agree, then you can get out."
Kostya hesitated for a second¡ªand then lowered his head. "My apologies, Inquisitor. It was a poor joke. Of course you are in charge. But if necessary I will contact my superior."
"First you'll jump to attention and then ask permission." Edgar was determined to cross all the t's and dot all the i's.
"Very well," Kostya said and nodded. "My apologies, Inquisitor."
And that put an end to the incipient rebellion. Edgar nodded, stuck his head out of the lobby and called the conductor over.
"When are we starting?"
"Right away!" the conductor replied, gazing at the Inquisitor with all the adoration of a devoted dog. "Right away. I have to get in."
"Well get in, then," said Edgar, moving out of the way.
The conductor climbed into the little lobby, still wearing that expression of joyful submission. The train began slowly pulling away. The conductor stood beside the open door, swaying slightly.
"What's your name?" asked Edgar.
"Askhat. Askhat Kurmangaliev."
"Close the door. Do your job according to your instructions." Edgar frowned. "We are your best friends. We are your guests. You have to find places on the train for us. Do you understand?"
The door clattered shut. The conductor locked it with his key and stood at attention in front of Edgar again.
"I understand. We need to go to the captain of the train. I don't have enough free places. Only four."
"Let's go see the captain," Edgar agreed. "Anton, what's the compass doing?"
I lifted up the note and looked at the Twilight compass.
The pointer was spinning idly.
"Looks like the book's on the train."
"We'll wait a bit to make sure," Edgar decided.
We traveled half a mile or so from the station, but the pointer carried on spinning. Whoever the thief was, he was traveling with us.
"He's on the train, the son of a bitch," said Edgar. "Wait for me here. I'll go see the captain¡ªwe need to get ourselves places somewhere."
He went out into the corridor with the conductor, who was still smiling contentedly. A second conductor spotted his partner and said something very quickly in Kazakh, waving his arms about indignantly¡ªbut then he caught Edgar's glance and fell silent.
"Might as well hang signs around our necks¡ª'We're Others!'" said Kostya. "What's he doing? If there really is a Higher Other on the train¡ªhe'll sense the magic..."
Kostya was right. It would have been far better to make do with money¡ªit has a magic that works just as well with people. But Edgar was probably feeling too nervous...
"Can you sense any magic?" one of the junior Inquisitors asked unexpectedly.
Kostya turned toward him, perplexed. He shook his head.
"And neither will anybody else. Edgar has an amulet of subjection. It only works at close range."
"Inquisitor's tricks..." Kostya muttered, clearly nettled. "Even so, it would be better to keep our heads down. Right, Anton?"
I nodded reluctantly.
Edgar came back after about twenty minutes. I didn't bother to ask how he'd dealt with the captain of the train, by giving him money or¡ªmore likely¡ªusing his mysterious amulet of subjection again. He had a calm, contented expression on his face.
"We'll divide into two groups," he said, moving straight into command mode. "You,"¡ªhe nodded in the direction of the Inquisitors¡ª"are staying in this car. Take the conductors' compartment and compartment one¡ªthat's six places. Askhat will settle you in... ask him for anything you need, don't be shy. And don't take any positive action on your own, don't play the amateur detective. Behave like... like people. Report on the situation to me every three hours... or as necessary. We'll be in car number seven."
The Inquisitors filed silently out of the lobby after the smiling conductor. Edgar turned to Kostya and me. "We'll take compartment four in car number seven. We can regard it as our temporary base. Let's go."
"Have you come up with a plan yet, chief?" Kostya inquired. I couldn't tell if he was being ironic or sincere.
Edgar looked at him for a second, clearly also wondering whether it was a genuine question or just a jibe. But he answered anyway. "If I have a plan, you'll hear about it. In good time. Meanwhile I want to get a cup of coffee and two or three hours' sleep. In that order."
Kostya and I set off after Edgar. The vampire grinned and I couldn't help winking back at him. After all, we were united now by our position as subordinates... despite everything I thought about Kostya.
The car that the captain rides in is the top spot in the whole train. The air conditioners always work there. The boiler is always full of hot water, and the conductor always has a fresh brew of tea ready. Finally, it's clean, even in the Central Asian trains, and they give out the sheets in sealed packs¡ªthey really have been laundered after the previous run. The toilets work in both washrooms, and you can boldly go in there without rubber boots.
And to complete the passengers' simple happiness, the restaurant car is hitched on at one side of the captain's car. And the sleeper car¡ªif there is one in the train¡ªis on the other side.
The Moscow-Almaty train did have a sleeper car. We walked through it, glancing curiously at the passengers. They were mostly solemn, well-fed Kazakhs, almost all with briefcases that they kept with them even in the corridor. Some of them were already drinking tea from bright-colored bowls, others were setting out sliced meat and bottles on the little table and breaking boiled chickens into pieces. But most of them were still standing in the corridor, watching the Moscow suburbs slide past.
I wondered what they were feeling, these citizens of a newly independent country, as they gazed at their former capital. Were they really content with their independence? Or could they possibly be feeling nostalgic?
I didn't know. You couldn't ask them, and if you did, you couldn't be sure they'd answer honestly. And breaking into their minds to make them answer honestly wasn't our style.
It would be better anyway if they were happy and proud¡ªof their own independence, their own statehood, their own corruption. Especially since not so long before at the three hundredth anniversary of St. Petersburg, happy people had been saying, "Let them steal everything. At least it's our own thieves doing it, not the ones from Moscow"¡ªso why shouldn't the Kazakhs and Uzbekis, Ukrainians and Tadjiks feel the same way? If our single country was demarcated along republican and municipal lines, then how could we complain about the neighbors from the old communal apartment? The little rooms with the view of the Baltic had seceded, as had the proud Georgians, and the Kirghizians, with the world's only high-mountain navy¡ª everyone had been happy to secede. The only room left was the big kitchen¡ªRussia, where the different nations all used to stew in the imperial pot. So okay. No problem. Our kitchen's got gas. How about yours?
Let them be happy. Let everyone feel good. The Petersbur-gians, delighted with their anniversary celebrations¡ªeveryone knows you can dine off one good anniversary for a century. And the Kazakhs and Kirghizians, who had founded their very first states... although they, of course, could put forward heaps of evidence to prove their ancient statehood. And our brother Slavs who had felt so oppressed by coexistence with their big brother. And we Russians, who despised Moscow so passionately from the provinces, and despised the provinces from Moscow.
Just for a moment, quite unexpectedly, I felt disgusted. Not with the Kazakh passengers, and not with my fellow Russians. Just with people. With all the people in the world. What did we in the Night Watch think we were doing? Divide and protect? Nonsense! Not a single Dark One, not a single Day Watch, caused people as much harm as they caused themselves. What was one hungry vampire compared to the average maniac who raped and murdered little girls in elevators? What was one hardhearted witch who put a hex on someone for money, compared with a humane president who launched his high-accuracy rockets for the sake of oil?
A plague on both your houses...
I stopped in the lobby and let Kostya go ahead. Then I froze, staring at the filthy floor, already littered with the first dozen stinking cigarette butts.
What was wrong with me?
Were these my thoughts?
I couldn't pretend they weren't. They were mine, not anyone else's. No one had snuck into my mind, not even a Higher Other could have done that without my noticing.
It was me, the way I really was.
A former human being.
A Light Other who was burned out, disillusioned with everything in the world.
This was how you wound up in the Inquisition. When you stopped being able to see any difference between Light Ones and Dark Ones. When for you, people weren't even a flock of sheep, but just a handful of spiders in a glass jar. When you stopped believing in the future, and all you wanted to do was preserve the status quo. For yourself. For those few individuals who were still dear to you.
"No, I refuse," I said, as if I were pronouncing an oath, as if I were holding up a shield against the invisible enemy¡ªagainst myself. "I refuse! You have... no power... over me... Anton Gorodetsky!"
On the other side of two doors and four thick panes of glass, Kostya turned and gave me a puzzled look. Had he heard? Or was he simply wondering why I'd stopped?
I forced a smile, opened the door, and stepped into the rumbling concertina of the short bridge connecting the two cars.
The captain's car really was a classy place. Clean rugs on the floor; a carpet runner in the corridor; white curtains on the windows; soft mattresses that didn't remind you of the mattress stuffed with corncobs in a cabin.
"Who's sleeping up top, and who's down below?" Edgar asked briskly.
"It's all the same to me," Kostya replied.
"I'd rather be up top," I said.
"Me too," said Edgar with a nod. "That's agreed, then."
There was a polite knock at the door.
"Yes!" The Inquisitor didn't even turn his head.
It was the captain of the train, carrying a tray with a nickel-plated kettle full of hot water, a teapot with strong brew, cups, some wafer biscuits, and even a carton of cream. A big, strapping, serious-looking man, with a bushy moustache and a uniform that was a perfect fit.
But the expression on his face was as dull and stupid as a newborn puppy's.
"Enjoy your tea, dear guests."
Clear enough. He was under the influence of the amulet as well. The fact that Edgar was a Dark One did have some effect on his methods, after all.
"Thank you. Inform us of everyone who got on in Moscow and gets off along the way, my dear man," said Edgar, taking the tray. "Especially those who get off before they reach their stop."
"It will be done, your honor," the captain of the train nodded.
I waited until the poor man had gone out, and asked, "Why 'your honor'?"
"How should I know?" Edgar said with a shrug. "The amulet induces people to accept instructions. But who they see me as¡ª an auditor, the girl they love, a well-known actor, or Generalis-simus Stalin¡ªthat's their problem. This guy must have been reading too much Akunin. Or watching old movies."
Kostya chortled again.
"There's nothing funny about it," Edgar said angrily. "And nothing terrible either. It's the least harmful way of manipulating the human psyche. Half the stories about how someone gave Yakubovich a lift in his car or let Gorbachev through to the front of the line are the result of suggestions just like this."
"That's not what I was laughing at," Kostya explained. "I imagined you in a white army officer's uniform... chief. You look impressive."
"Go on, laugh..." said Edgar, pouring himself some coffee. "How's the compass doing?"
I put the note on the table without speaking. A Twilight image appeared in the air above it¡ªthe round casing of a compass, a lazily spinning pointer.
I poured myself some tea and took a sip. It tasted good. Brewed to perfection, just as it should be for "his honor."
"He's on the train, the scum..." Edgar sighed. "Gentlemen, I'm not going to conceal the alternatives from you. Either we catch the perpetrator, or the train will be destroyed. Together with all the passengers."
"How?" Kostya asked laconically.
"There are various possibilities. A gas main explodes beside the train, a fighter plane accidentally launches an air-to-ground missile... if absolutely necessary, the rocket will have a nuclear warhead."
"Edgar!" I really wanted to believe he was over-dramatizing the situation. "There are at least five hundred passengers on this train!"
"Rather more than that," the Inquisitor corrected me.
"We can't do that."
"We can't let the book go. We can't allow an unprincipled Other to create his own private guard and start restyling the world to suit himself."
"But we don't know what he wants."
"We know he killed an Inquisitor without hesitation. We know he is very powerful and is pursuing some goal unknown to us. What's he after in Central Asia, Gorodetsky?"
"There are several ancient centers of power there," Edgar muttered. "A certain number of artifacts that disappeared without trace, a certain number of regions with weak political control... And what else?"
"A billion Chinese," Kostya suddenly put in.
The Dark Ones stared at each other.
"You're out of your mind..." Edgar said hesitantly.
"More than a billion," Kostya said derisively. "What if he's planning to make a dash through Kazakhstan to China? Now that would be an army! A billion Others! And then there's India..."
"Don't be crazy," Edgar said dismissively. "Not even an idiot would try that. Where are we going to get Power from, when a third of the population is turned into Others?"
"But maybe he is an idiot?" Kostya persisted.
"That's why we're prepared to take extreme measures," Edgar snapped.
He was being serious. Without the slightest doubt about whether we really could kill these spellbound conductors, chubby-cheeked businessmen, and poor people traveling in the cars with open seating. If we had to, we had to. Farmers who destroyed animals with foot-and-mouth disease suffered too.
I didn't feel like drinking tea any more. I got up and walked out of the compartment. Edgar watched me go with an understanding, but by no means sympathetic, glance.
The car was settling down as it prepared for sleep. The doors of some compartments were still open. There were people still loitering in the corridor, waiting for the washroom to be free. I heard glasses clinking somewhere, but most of the passengers were too exhausted after Moscow.
I thought languidly that what the laws of melodrama required now was for little children with the innocent faces of angels to come dashing along the corridor¡ªjust to drive home the true monstrosity of Edgar's plan...There weren't any little children. Instead a fat man in faded tracksuit bottoms and a baggy T-shirt stuck his face out of one of the compartments. A red, steaming face that was already comfortably bloated by strong drink. The man looked listlessly straight through me, hiccupped, and disappeared again.My hands automatically reached for my disk player. I stuck the little headphones in my ears, put in a disk at random and pressed my face against the window. I see nothing, I hear nothing. And obviously I'm not going to say anything.I heard a gentle, lyrical melody, and a voice started singing delicately:You'll have no time to dash for the bushes When the sawn-off mows you down There is no beauty more beautiful Than the visions of morphine withdrawal...Yes, it was Las, my acquaintance from the Assol complex. The disc he'd given me as a present. I laughed and turned the volume up. It was just what I needed right then.The devil-kids will return to the stars, And they'll smelt our blood into iron, There is no beauty more beautiful Than the visions of morphine withdrawal...Godammit!... It was more punk than any of the punks. Not even Shnur and his jolly obscenities... A hand slapped me on the shoulder."Edgar, everyone has his own way of relaxing," I muttered. Someone poked me lightly under the ribs. I turned around. And froze. There, standing in front of me, was Las. Smiling happily, jigging in time to the music¡ªI must have turned the volume up too high."Gee, but that's great!" he exclaimed enthusiastically the moment I pulled out the earphones. "You're walking through the car, not bothering anyone, and there's someone listening to your songs! What are you doing here, Anton?""Traveling..." It was the only word I could get out as I switched off the player."Oh, really?" Las exclaimed in delight. "I'd never have guessed! Where are you traveling to?""Alma-Ata.""You ought to call it 'Almaty!'" Las admonished me. "Okay, let's continue the conversation. Why aren't you flying?""Why aren't you?" I asked, finally realizing that all this was like an interrogation."Because I'm aerophobic," Las said proudly. "Well, if I really have to, a quart of whisky gives me some faith in the laws of aerodynamics. But that's for emergencies only, for getting to Japan, or the States... the trains don't go there, you know.""You traveling on business?""On vacation," Las said with a grin. "Couldn't go to Turkey or the Canaries, now, could I? Are you on a business trip?""Uh huh." I nodded. "I'm planning to start selling kumis and shubat in Moscow.""What's shubat?" Las enquired."You know... kefir made from camel's milk.""Neat," Las said approvingly. "You traveling alone?""With friends.""Let's go to my place. The compartment's empty. I haven't got any shubat, but I can offer you kumis."Was it a trap?I looked at Las through the Twilight. Stared as hard as I could.Not the slightest indication of an Other.He was either a human being... or an Other of absolutely unimaginable power. Capable of disguising himself at every level of the Twilight.Or could this be a stroke of luck? Was this really him, standing there in front of me, the mysterious thief of the Fuaran?"Okay, I'll just go and get something," I said and smiled."I've got everything we need!" Las protested. "Bring your friends along too. I'm in the next car down, compartment two.""They've already gone to bed," I lied clumsily. "Hang on, just a moment..."It was a good thing Las was standing on one side and couldn't see who was in the compartment. I opened the door slightly and slipped inside¡ªno doubt giving Las the idea that there was a half-naked girl in the compartment."What's happened?" Edgar asked, looking at me intently."There's a guy from Assol here on the train," I said quickly. "You remember, the musician, we had him under suspicion, but he didn't seem like an Other... He's inviting us to his compartment for a drink."An excited expression appeared on Edgar's face. Kostya even jumped to his feet and exclaimed: "Let's take him now. While he's here...""Wait." Edgar shook his head. "Let's not be in such a hurry... you never know, it might not be him. Anton, take this."I took the small glass flask that was bound with copper or bronze wire. It looked terribly old. There was a dark-brown liquid splashing around inside it."What's that?""Perfectly ordinary twenty-year-old armagnac. But the flask is trickier. Only an Other can open it." Edgar laughed. "It's just a trinket really. Some ancient magician put the same spell on all his bottles, so the servants couldn't steal anything. If your friend can open it, then he's an Other.""I can't sense any magic..." I said, turning the flask over in my hands."That's the point," Edgar said smugly. "A simple and reliable test."I nodded."And here's a simple snack to go with it." Edgar reached into the inside pocket of his raincoat and took out a triangular bar of Toblerone. "Right, get on with it! Wait! Which compartment is it?""The sleeper car, compartment two.""We'll keep an eye on it," Edgar promised. He got halfway to his feet and switched off the light in the compartment. "Kostya, get under the blanket, we're already asleep."So a couple of seconds later, when I went out into the corridor with the flask and the chocolate, my companions really were lying peacefully under their blankets.But in any case, Las was considerate enough not to try to peep in through the open door¡ªhe must really have gotten the wrong idea about the sex of my friends."Cognac?" Las asked, with a glance at the flask I was holding."Better. Twenty-year-old armagnac.""Good stuff," Las agreed. "There are lots of folks who don't even know that word.""Maybe," I agreed, following Las into the next car."Uh huh. Serious types, wheeler-dealers¡ªthey handle millions¡ªbut apart from White Horse whisky and Napoleon brandy they haven't got a clue about civilized drinking. I've always found the narrow cultural outlook of the political and economic elite astonishing. Tell me, why did the Mercedes 600 become our symbol of affluence? You're talking to this serious, intelligent guy and he suddenly comes out with, 'They dented my Merc¡ªI had to drive a 500 for a week!' And he has this expression in his eyes, the submission of the ascetic who's been reduced to a 500, and the pride of the big shot who owns a 600! I used to think that the country would never come to anything until the New Russians switched to the Bentleys and Jaguars that they ought to drive. But then they did change, and it made no difference! You can still see the red club jackets under the Versace shirts... And that's another thing... Hah, a fine designer they chose to turn into a cult..."I followed Las into the cozy compartment. There were only two bunk beds here, plus a little corner table with its top covering a triangular washbasin, and a little fold-down seat."There's actually less space than in a normal compartment," I observed."Uh huh, but then the air conditioner works. And there's a washbasin... a thing that comes in handy in many circumstances..."Las pulled an aluminum suitcase out from under one bunk and started rummaging in it. A moment later a one-liter plastic bottle appeared on the table. I picked it up and looked at the label. It really was kumis."Did you think I was joking?" my "neighbor" chuckled. "It's a really neat drink. Is that the kind you were thinking of selling?""Yes, that's the stuff," I blurted out without thinking."Then you won't be able to, that's from Kirghizia. The place you ought to have gone to is Ufa. It's nearer, and there's less trouble with the customs. They make kumis there, and Buza. Have you ever tried Buza? It's a mixture of kumis and oat jelly. It's disgusting garbage but it reanimates you instantly if you've got a hangover."Meanwhile, other items had appeared on the table: salami, braised meat, sliced bread, and a liter bottle of Polignac French cognac¡ªa brand I didn't know.I gulped and added my modest offering to the provisions, then I said, "Let's try the armagnac first.""Okay," Las agreed, taking out two plastic cups for water and two cupronickel shot-glasses for the armagnac."Open it.""It's your armagnac, you open it," Las countered casually.There was definitely something fishy here, all right!"No, you do it," I blurted out. "I can never pour the drinks evenly."Las looked at me as if I were a total idiot. He said, "I can see you must be a serious drinker. Do you often split a bottle three ways out on the street?"But he picked up the flask and started twisting the top.I waited.Las huffed and puffed, then frowned. He stopped trying to unscrew the top and took a close look at it."Looks like it's stuck..." he muttered.He had to be a disguised Other...He lifted up the edge of his T-shirt, took a tight grip on the top and turned it sharply with all his strength. He exclaimed excitedly: "It's moving, it's moving!There was a crunching sound."That's got it..." Las said tentatively. "Oh..."He held his hands out to me, embarrassed. One was holding the glass flask, the other was holding its broken-off neck, with the lid still firmly screwed onto it."Sorry... oh shit..."But a moment later a glint of pride appeared in Las's eyes. "That's some strength I've got! I'd never have thought..."I didn't say a word, just pictured Edgar's face when he realized he'd lost his useful artifact."Valuable, was it?" Las asked guiltily. "An antique flask, right?""It's nothing," I muttered. "It's the armagnac I'm upset about. Some glass got into it.""That's no problem," Las said cheerfully. He dove back into the suitcase, leaving the mutilated flask on the table. He took out a handkerchief and demonstratively stripped the label off it: "Clean. Never even washed. And not Chinese, but Czech, so you don't need to worry about pneumonia."He folded the handkerchief in two, wound it around the broken neck of the flask and calmly poured the armagnac through it into the two glasses. He raised his own."To our journey!""To our journey," I repeated.The armagnac was soft, fragrant, and sweetish, like warm grape juice. It went down easily, without even inspiring the idea of some kind of snack to go with it, and then somewhere deep inside it exploded¡ªhumanely and precisely enough to make any American missile jealous."Wonderful stuff," Las commented, breathing out. "But it's got a high sugar content, I tell you! That's why I like the Armenian cognacs¡ªthe sugar's taken right down to the minimum, but the full flavor's all still there... Let's have another."The glasses were filled a second time. Las looked at me expectantly."Here's to health?" I suggested uncertainly."To health," Las agreed. He drank and then sniffed at the handkerchief. He looked out the window, shuddered, and muttered: "That's some stuff... it doesn't mess around.""What's wrong?""You'll never believe it, but I thought I just saw a bat fly past the train!" Las exclaimed. "Huge, the size of a sheepdog. Br-rr-rr..."I realized I'd have to give Kostya a couple of words of friendly advice. But out loud I just joked, "It probably wasn't a bat, more likely a squirrel.""A flying squirrel," Las said mournfully. "God help us all... No, honestly, a huge bat!""Maybe it was just flying very close to the glass?" I suggested. "And you only caught a glimpse of it, so you couldn't judge how far away it was¡ªso you thought it was bigger than it really was.""Maybe so..." Las said thoughtfully. "But what was it doing here? Why would it want to fly alongside the train?""That's elementary," I said, taking the broken flask and pouring us a third glass each. "A locomotive moves at such great speed that it creates a shield of air in front of it. The shield stuns mosquitoes and butterflies and all sorts of other flying creatures and tosses them into turbulent streams of air running along both sides of the train. And so at night bats like to fly along a moving train and eat the stunned flies."Las thought about it. He asked, "Then why don't birds fly around moving trains in the daytime?""That's elementary too!" I said, handing him his glass. "Birds are much more stupid animals than mammals. Bats have already guessed how to use trains to get food, but birds haven't figured it out yet. In a hundred or two hundred years the birds will realize how to exploit trains too.""How come I didn't realize all that for myself?" Las asked in amazement. "It's really all so very simple! Okay, then... here's to common sense!"We drank."Animals are amazing," Las said profoundly. "Cleverer than Darwin thought. I used to have..."I never got to hear what it was Las used to have¡ªa dog, a hamster, or a fish in an aquarium. He glanced out the window again and turned green."It's there again... the bat!""Catching the mosquitoes," I reminded him."What mosquitoes? It swerved around a lamppost like it wasn't even there! The size of a sheepdog, I tell you!"Las stood up and resolutely pulled the blind down. He said in a determined voice:"To hell with it... I knew I shouldn't read Stephen King just before bed... The size of that bat! Like a pterodactyl. It could catch owls and eagles, not mosquitoes!"That freak Kostya! I realized that in his animal form a vampire, like a werewolf, became dumber than dumb and had little control over his own actions. He was probably getting a kick out of hurtling along beside the train in the night, glancing into the windows, taking a breather on the lampposts. But he ought at least to take elementary precautions."It's a mutation," Las mused. "Nuclear tests, leaks from reactors, electromagnetic waves, cell phones... and we just carry on laughing at it all, think it's all science fiction. And the gutter press keeps feeding us lies. So who can I tell¡ªthey'll just think I was drunk or I'm lying."He opened his bottle of cognac with a determined expression."What do you think of mysticism?" he asked."I respect it," I said with dignity."Me too," Las admitted. "Now I do. I never even thought about it before..." He cast a wary glance at the blind over the window. "You live all those years, and then somewhere out in the Pskov peat bogs you suddenly meet a live yeti¡ªand you go right off your rocker. Or you see a rat a meter long. Or..." he waved his hand and poured brandy into the glasses. "What if it turns out there really are witches and vampires and werewolves living right here alongside us? After all, what better disguise could there be than to get your image enshrined in the culture of the mass media? Anything that's described in artistic terms and shown in the movies stops being frightening and mysterious. For real horror you need the spoken word, you need an old grandpa sitting on a bench, scaring his grandkids in the evening: 'And then the Master of the house came to him and said: "I won't let you go, I'll tie you up and bind you tight and you'll rot under the fallen branches!"' That's the way to make people wary of anomalous phenomena! Kids sense that, you know¡ªit's no wonder they love telling stories about the Black Hand and the Coffin on Wheels. But modern literature, and especially the movies, it all just dilutes that instinctive horror. How can you feel afraid of Dracula, if he's been killed a hundred times? How can you be afraid of aliens, if our guys always squelch them? Yes, Hollywood is the great luller of human vigilance. A toast¡ªto the death of Hollywood, for depriving us of a healthy fear of the unknown!""I'll always drink to that," I said warmly. "Tell me, Las, what made you decide to go to Kazakhstan? Is it really a good place for a vacation?"Las shrugged and said, "I don't even know. I suddenly got a yen for something exotic¡ªkumis in milking pails, camel races, ram fights, mutton and sliced dough in a copper basin, beautiful girls with unfamiliar kinds of faces, arboraceous cannabis in the town squares..."What kind of cannabis?" I asked, puzzled."Arboraceous. It's a tree, only it never gets a chance to grow," Las explained, with the same kind of serious expression I'd used for my stories about bats and swallows. "But what do I care? I'm ruining my health with tobacco; I just fancy something exotic..."He took out a pack of Belomor and lit up."The conductor will be here in a minute," I remarked."No, he won't. I put a condom over the smoke detector." Las nodded upward. There was a half-inflated condom stretched over the smoke-detector projecting from the wall. Delicate pink, with plastic studs."I think you probably have the wrong idea about the exotic fun Kazakhstan has to offer," I said."Too late to worry about that¡ªI'm on my way now," Las muttered. "The idea just came to me out of nowhere this morning: Why don't I go to Kazakhstan? I just dropped everything, gave my assistant his instructions, and went to catch the train."I pricked my ears up at that. "Just upped and left? Tell me, are you always so footloose and fancy-free?"Las thought about it and shook his head. "Not really. But this was like something just clicked... Okay, it's no big deal. Let's just have one more for the road..."He started pouring¡ªand I took another look at him through the Twilight.Even though I knew what to look for, I could barely even sense the vestigial trace¡ªthe unknown Other's touch had been so light and elegant. It was already fading, almost cold already.Simple suggestion, the kind that even the weakest Other could manage. But how neatly it had been done!"One more for the road," I agreed. "I can't keep my eyes open either... we'll have plenty of time to talk."But I wasn't going to get any sleep in the next hour. I had a conversation with Edgar coming up¡ªand possibly one with Gesar too.