THE BAD THING ABOUT PORTALS IS THAT THERE'S NO WAY TO PREPARE yourself for what's at the other end. In this sense a train is ideal. You go into your compartment, change your trousers for track-suit bottoms and your shoes for rubber sandals, take out your food and drink, and get to know your traveling companions¡ª if you happen to be traveling on your own, that is. The wheels drum on the rails, the platform slips away. And that's it, you're on your way. You're a different person. You share your most intimate experiences with strangers, you argue about politics, although you swore you never would again, you drink the dubious vodka bought at one of the stops. You're neither here nor there. You're on your way. You're on your own little quest, and there's a bit of Frodo Baggins in you, and a bit of Verne's Paganel, and just a tiny drop of Robinson Crusoe, and a smidgeon of Radishchev. Maybe your journey will only last a few hours, or maybe a few days. It's a big country slipping past the windows of your compartment. You're not there. You're not here. You're a traveler.
A plane is a bit different. But you still prepare yourself for the journey. You buy a ticket, you wake up at first light, get into a taxi and drive to the airport. The wheels measure out the miles, but you're already looking up at the sky; in your mind you're already there, in the plane. The nervous hassle of the airport lounge, instant coffee in the buffet, the baggage check, the security check and¡ªif you're leaving the country¡ª the customs and the duty-free shop, all the small joys of travel before the narrow seats in the plane, the roar of the turbines and the optimistic gabble of the air hostess: "The emergency exits are located..." And then the ground has already fallen away, the seatbelt signs have been switched off, the smokers have snuck off guiltily to the restrooms and the hostesses have considerately ignored them, the meal in the plastic tray is handed out¡ªfor some reason on planes everyone stuffs themselves. It's not exactly a journey. It's a relocation. But you still see the cities and rivers drifting past and leaf through a guidebook or check the bookings for your business trip, wondering about the best way to handle the business negotiations, or the best way to enjoy a ten-day tourist trip to hospitable Turkey-Spain-Croatia. And you're on your way.
But a portal is a shock. A portal is a sudden change of scenery, a revolving stage in a theater. You're here, then you're there. No journey.
And no time to think about anything either.
... I tumbled out of the portal. One foot struck a tiled floor, the other went straight into a toilet bowl.
At least it was a perfectly clean toilet bowl. Like in a respectable American film, where the characters waste each other in the John. But anyway, I pulled my foot back out, wincing in pain as I did so.
A tiny cubicle with a little lamp and a grille on the ceiling and a roll of toilet tissue on a holder. A fine portal this was! Somehow I'd been expecting Kostya to run it straight to the launch pad, close to the foot of the rocket.
I opened the door, still wincing in pain, and peeped out cautiously through the crack. The restroom seemed to be empty. Not a sound, apart from a tap running in one of the washbasins...
Just then I was struck hard in the back and thrown out of the cubicle, pushing the door open with my head leading the way. I rolled over onto my back and flung my hand up, ready to strike.
Las was standing in the cubicle with his arms out to the sides, holding onto the walls, and gazing around with a crazy expression on his face.
"What are you doing?" I growled. "Why did you follow me?"
"You told me to follow you," said Las, offended. "Big-shot magician!"
I got up. It was stupid to argue.
"I need to stop a crazed vampire," I said. "The most powerful magician in the world at the present time. It's... it's going to get really hot around here pretty soon..."
"Are we at Baikonur then?" Las asked, not frightened in the least. "Now that's what I call magic¡ªthat's great! But did we really have to teleport through the drains?"
I just waved one hand at him despairingly. Then I focused intently on what I could hear inside me. Yes, Gesar was somewhere close by, and Zabulon... and Svetlana... and hundreds, thousands of Others. They were waiting.
They were counting on me.
"How can I help?" Las asked. "Maybe I could look for some aspen stakes? By the way, they make matches out of genuine aspen, did you know that? I always wondered why it had to be aspen¡ª does it really burn better than anything else? But now I realize it's for fighting vampires. Sharpen a dozen matches..."
I looked at Las.
He spread his arms apologetically. "All right, all right... I'm only trying to be helpful."
I walked across to the door of the restroom and glanced out. A long corridor, daylight lamps, no windows. At the end of the corridor a man in uniform with a pistol on his belt. A guard? Yes, there had to be security guards here. Even these days.
Only why was the guard frozen in such a stiff, awkward pose?
I went out into the corridor and moved toward the soldier. I called quietly: "Excuse me, do you mind if I ask you something?"
The guard didn't mind. He was staring into space¡ªand smiling. A young man, not even thirty yet. Absolutely rigid. And very pale.
I pressed my fingers against his carotid artery¡ªI could just barely feel the pulse. The bite marks were almost invisible. There were just a few small drops of blood on the collar. Yes, Kostya must have been very tired after that exit he'd made. He'd been in need of refreshment, and there hadn't been any cats around...
But if the soldier was still alive, there was a chance he would make it.
I took his pistol out of the holster¡ªit looked like he must have been reaching for it when the vampire's command made him freeze¡ªand carefully laid him out on the floor. Let him rest. Then I turned around.
Of course, Las had followed me. And now he was gazing at the motionless soldier.
"Can you use a gun?" I asked.
"I'll give it a try."
"If you have to, aim for the head and the heart. If you hit him, it might just slow him down."
Naturally, I was under no illusions. Even if Las emptied the entire clip into Kostya, which was already a dubious proposition, the bullets wouldn't stop a Higher Vampire. But at least it gave Las something to do.
I just hoped he wouldn't get the jitters and shoot me in the back.
Finding Kostya wasn't hard, even without using magic. We came across another three men¡ªa guard and two civilians¡ª who were in a trance and had been bitten. Kostya must have been moving in that vampire style when all movements become too fast for the eye to follow and the process of feeding takes no more than ten seconds.
"Will they become vampires now?" Las asked me.
"Only if he wanted them to. And only if they agreed."
"I didn't think there was any choice about that."
"There's always a choice," I said, opening yet another door.
And I realized we'd arrived.
It was a spacious, brightly lit hall, full of people. At least twenty men. The cosmonauts were here: our captain, the American, and the space tourist¡ªa German chocolate manufacturer.
Naturally, they were all in a state of blissful trance. Apart, that is, from two technicians in white coats, whose eyes were vacant, but whose hands were moving with their customary skill as they helped Kostya put on a spacesuit. It wasn't an easy job¡ª flight suits are made to fit the figure, and Kostya was a bit taller than the German.
The unfortunate tourist, stripped naked¡ªKostya hadn't even shrunk from putting on his underwear¡ªwas sitting at one side, sucking on his index finger.
"I've only got two or three minutes," Kostya said cheerfully. "So don't delay me, Anton. Try to get in my way and I'll kill you."
Naturally, my appearance was no surprise to him.
"They won't let the rocket take off," I said. "What are you expecting? The Higher Ones know what you're planning."
"They'll let it go, they have no choice," Kostya replied calmly. "The air defense cover here is pretty good, you can take my word for it. And the cosmodrome's head of security has just given all the necessary instructions. Are you trying to tell me they'll launch a massive ballistic missile strike?"
"You're bluffing," Kostya replied coolly. "A strike by the Chinese or the Americans is out of the question. That would start a world war. Our rockets aren't targeted on Baikonur. They won't let planes with tactical warheads get close. You've no way out. Lie back, relax, and enjoy."
Maybe he was right.
Or maybe the Great Ones did have a plan to incinerate Baikonur with a nuclear strike and not start a world war.
That wasn't important.
The important thing was that Kostya had made up his own mind that he wouldn't be stopped. That now they would take him out and put him in the rocket... and what then?
What would he be able to do, sitting in a metal barrel, when the portals of a dozen Higher Magicians opened on the launch pad? When they instantly purged the brains of the head of security and those who had to press the "start" button and they zapped him with a portable missile with a nuclear warhead or activated some secret satellite with an X-ray laser?
He wouldn't be able to do a thing.
A space ship isn't an automobile¡ªyou can't just steal it and drive it away. A space launch is a coordinated effort by a thousand people, and at every stage all it needs is for one little button to be pressed to make sure that the ship never reaches orbit.
And even if Kostya were a stupid fool, he was still a Higher One now¡ªhe ought to read the reality lines and foresee what would happen and realize that he'd be stopped.
That meant all of it¡ªthe cosmodrome, the rocket, the people whose minds he'd taken over or put to sleep¡ªall of it was a bluff. Saratov airport all over again.
He didn't need any rocket. Just as he hadn't needed any plane.
He was going to open a portal straight into space.
Then why had he come dashing to Baikonur? For the space-suit? Nonsense. Zvyozdny would have been much nearer, and somehow or other he could have found a functional spacesuit the right size there.
So it wasn't just for the spacesuit...
"I need to read the incantations," Kostya said. "To smear the blood on the page. You can't do that in a vacuum."
He got up and pushed the technicians aside. They obediently stood to attention.
"I'll have to open a portal to the station. And for that I need to know its precise position. And even so, mistakes are possible... maybe even inevitable."
I couldn't sense him reading my thoughts, but he was.
"You got everything right, Anton. I'm ready to depart for the station any second. Before all of you can do anything about it. And even if Gesar and Zabulon turn themselves inside out, you won't have enough Power. I'm as powerful as it's possible to be¡ªdo you understand? I have achieved absolute Power! There is nowhere higher to go! Gesar dreamed that your daughter would be the first enchantress to do that..." Kostya laughed. "But look¡ªI'm the first!"
"Enchantress?" I asked, allowing myself a smile.
"Absolute magician," Kostya snapped. "And that's why you can't beat me. You can't gather enough Power¡ªdo you understand? I am absolute!"
"You're an absolute zero," I said. "You're an absolute vampire."
"Vampire, magician... what's the difference? I'm an absolute Other."
"You're right, there is no difference. We all live off human Power. And you're not the most Powerful of all¡ªyou're the weakest. You're an absolute vacuum, sucking in Power that isn't yours."
"So be it." Kostya wasn't going to argue. "That doesn't change a thing, Anton. You can't stop me, and I'm going to carry my plan through."
He paused for a second, then said, "But you still won't join me... What's going on in your head?"
I didn't answer. I drew in Power.From Gesar and Zabulon, from Dark Ones and Light Ones, from the good and the evil. Somewhere far away those I loved and those I hated were all giving me their Power. And right then it made no difference to me if that Power was Light or Dark. We were all in the same boat now¡ªin the same small boat out in space, adrift in the absolute void..."Go on, strike," Kostya said contemptuously. "You won't take me by surprise again.""Strike," Gesar whispered. "Strike with the White Mist."The knowledge of what the White Mist was came creeping into me together with the Light Power. The knowledge was terrible, frightening¡ªbecause even Gesar himself had only ever used that spell once, and afterward he'd sworn never to use it again..."Strike," Zabulon advised me. "Better use Shades of the Rulers."The knowledge of what Shade of the Rulers was slid into me together with the Dark Power. The knowledge was disgusting and horrifying, because not even Zabulon had ever dared raise those shades from the fifth level of the Twilight..."Strike," said Edgar. "Use the Sarcophagus of the Ages. Only the Sarcophagus of the Ages!"The knowledge of what the Sarcophagus of the Ages was flooded into me with the Power of the Inquisitors. The knowledge was spine-chilling¡ªbecause the one who used the spell remained in the sarcophagus with his victim forever, until the universe came to an end."What if I put a hole in his spacesuit?" asked Las, standing in the doorway with his pistol.An absolute Other.An absolute zero.The most powerful of all, the weakest of all...I gathered together all the Power I had been given and put it into a seventh-level spell¡ªone of the very simplest, one every Other can manage.The Magician's Shield.So much Power had probably never been wasted so senselessly.And now probably not a single magician in the world was so reliably protected.Against everything.A white reticulated cocoon appeared around me. The threads of the cocoon crackled with the energy streaming through them. It was rooted way down in the deepest depths of the universe,beyond the countless levels of the Twilight, where there is no matter, or space, or time¡ªnothing that a human being or Other can comprehend."What are you doing?" Kostya asked, with an expression of childish resentment on his face. "What are you doing, Anton?"I didn't answer. Just stood there, looking at him. I didn't want even the shadow of a thought to show on my face. I wanted him to think whatever he wanted to think.Let him."Are you frightened?" Kostya asked. "You... why you... you're a coward, Anton!"I didn't answer.And the Higher Ones were silent too. No, probably they weren't. They were shouting, swearing, cursing me¡ªbecause I'd squandered all the Power they'd collected on absolute protection for myself.If they hit Baikonur with a thermonuclear warhead now I'd be left safe and unharmed. Floating in a cloud of plasma, encased in boiling stone¡ªbut absolutely safe."I don't even know what to say..." Kostya shrugged. "And I wasn't going to kill you anyway. I haven't forgotten that you were my friend."I didn't answer.Forgive me, but I can't call you my friend any more. And that's why you must not realize what I have realized. You must not read my thoughts."Goodbye Anton," Kostya said.The technicians came over to him and lowered the glass shield of his helmet. He cast a final glance at me through the glass¡ªa glance of incomprehension and resentment. And turned away.I was expecting him to open the portal into space there and then. But Kostya had made his preparations for the leap thoroughly. What would I know¡ªI'd never even heard of anyone attempting to transport themselves on board an airplane in flight, let alone a space station in orbit.Abandoning the cosmonauts and the personnel in their state of trance, Kostya walked out of the hall. Las moved aside and squinted at me, holding up the pistol.I shook my head, and he didn't shoot.We simply followed him.Into the space flight control hall, where the technicians and programmers were all sitting at their computers like sleep walkers.When had he found the time to subject them all to his will?Could he really have done it all the moment he reached Baikonur?An ordinary vampire can easily keep one or two people under his control. A Higher Vampire can manage about twenty.But Kostya really had become an absolute Other¡ªhe had the entire fine-tuned mechanism of the huge cosmodrome dancing to his tune.They brought Kostya some kind of printouts. They pointed out something to him on the screens. He listened and nodded¡ª and never even looked in our direction once.A clever boy. Well-educated. He studied in the physics faculty, then moved to biology, but it looked like he'd maintained his enthusiasm for physics and math. Those diagrams and graphs wouldn't have meant a thing to me, but he was preparing to put up a magical portal directly into orbit. To go out into space using magical means¡ªone small step for an Other, one giant leap for all mankind...Just don't let him drag it out too long.Just don't let Gesar panic.Just don't let them make that nuclear strike¡ªit won't do any good, and there's no need¡ªthere's no need!Kostya didn't look at me until after he'd opened the prism of the portal. He stared at me with that contemptuous resentment in his eyes. The lips behind the glass moved and I realized what they'd said: "Goodbye.""Goodbye," I agreed.With his life-support pack in one hand and the briefcase containing the Fuaran in the other, Kostya stepped into the portal.Then I allowed myself to remove the shield¡ªand all that Power that wasn't mine zoomed away from me, spreading out in all directions."Just how do you propose to explain all that?" Gesar asked."What exactly?" I sat down in the nearest chair. I was shaking. How long would the air supply last in a light spacesuit that was never intended for spacewalking? A couple of hours? It was unlikely to be more.Kostya Saushkin didn't have very long left to live."What makes you so sure..." Gesar began. Then he stopped. I even thought I heard him exchange a few remarks with Zabu-lon. Something about orders that had to be rescinded, about bombers that had to be returned to base. About the team of magicians that would start covering up the traces left by the outrageous events that had taken place at Baikonur. About the official cover story for the failed launch."What happened?" Las asked, sitting down beside me. The technician he had unceremoniously shoved off the chair gazed around, perplexed. People were gradually recovering their wits."That's it," I said. "It's all over. Or almost all over."But I knew it wasn't really over yet. Because somewhere high in the sky, up above the clouds, in the cold starlight, the absolute Other was tumbling over and over in his stolen space-suit. Kostya Saushkin. He was trying to open a portal¡ªbut he couldn't. He was trying to get to the space station drifting past him¡ªhe couldn't. He was trying to get back to Earth¡ªbut he couldn't.Because he was an absolute zero.Because we were all vampires.And up there, beyond the bounds of the warm, living Earth, far from the people and animals, the plants and microbes, far from everything that breathes and moves and hastens to live¡ª we all become absolute zeroes. Without the free supply of Power that allows us to fling a bright ball of lightning at each other so elegantly and heal sicknesses and cast hexes and turn a maple leaf into a banknote or sour milk into vintage whisky.All our Power was not ours.All our Power was weakness.And that was what the fine young man Kostya Saushkin had failed to understand and refused to accept.I heard Zabulon laugh¡ªfar, far away in the city of Saratov, standing under an awning in an open-air cafe with a glass of beer in his hand. Zabulon was gazing up at the darkening sky of evening¡ªsearching for a swift new star whose flight would be brilliant but brief."You look like you're crying," said Las. "Only there aren't any tears.""You're right," I said. "No tears, and no strength either. I won't be able to open a portal to get us back. We'll have to take a plane. Or wait for the clean-up team, maybe they'll help.""Who are you?" a technician asked. "Eh? What's going on?""We're inspectors from the Ministry of Health," said Las. "So why don't you tell us what you thought you were doing, burning cut cannabis plants by the air intake of the ventilation system?""What cannabis?" the technician asked, starting to stammer."Arboraceous!" I snapped. "Come on, Las, I still have to give you the necessary explanations."As we walked out of the hall, several technical personnel and soldiers with automatic weapons came running toward us. The chaos was so total that no one took any notice of us¡ªor perhaps we were still protected by the remains of the magical shield. At the end of the corridor I caught a glimpse of the German tourist's rosy backside¡ªhe was hopping and skipping along, with his finger still stuck in his mouth. There were two men in white coats chasing after him."Okay, listen to this," I told Las. "Apart from the ordinary human world that is visible to the eye, there is also a Twilight world. The Twilight can only be entered by those..."I gulped and faltered¡ªI'd had another vision of Kostya. Kostya as he had been ages ago, the boy-vampire who had no powers yet... "Look, I'm transforming! I'm a terrible bat! I can fly! I can fly!" Goodbye, Kostya. You made it.You're flying now.I continued: "The Twilight can only be entered by those who possess..."