SEMYON CAME INTO THE OFFICE, PUSHING LAS IN AHEAD OF HIM, AS IF HE were some low-grade Dark sorcerer caught red-handed in a petty offense. Las was fiddling with a tightly rolled tube of paper, trying to hide it behind his back.
Semyon flopped down into an armchair and growled, "Your protege, Anton? You sort this out."
"What's happened?" I asked cautiously.
Las's expression wasn't guilty at all. Just slightly embarrassed.
"His second day in training," said Semyon. "Absolutely basic, elementary assignments. Not even anything to do with magic..."
"And?" I encouraged him.
"I asked him to meet Mr. Sisuke Sasaki from the Tokyo Watch..."
I chortled. Semyon turned scarlet. "It's an ordinary Japanese name! No funnier than yours¡ªAnton Sergeevich Gorodetsky!"
"I realize that," I agreed. "Is he the same Sasaki who handled the case of the girl werewolves in '94?"
"The very same." Semyon squirmed in his chair. Las carried on standing by the door. "He's flying through on his way to Europe, and he wanted to discuss something with Gesar."
"And what happened?"
Semyon looked at Las indignantly, then cleared his throat and said, "Our trainee here inquired if the highly respected Mr. Sasaki knew Russian. I explained that he didn't. Then our trainee printed out a notice and went off to Sheremetievo to meet the Japanese gentleman... Show him the notice!"
Las sighed and unrolled the tube of paper.
The Japanese name was written in very large hieroglyphs. Las had made an effort and loaded a Japanese font.
But at the top, in slightly smaller Russian characters, it said:
"Second Moscow Congress of Victims of Forcible Infection with Cholera."
It cost me an immense effort to keep a stony face.
"Why did you write that?" I asked.
"I always meet foreigners like that," Las said in an offended tone of voice. "My business partners, and my relatives¡ªI've got family abroad... If they don't know any Russian, I print their names in big letters in their own language and something funny in Russian in smaller letters. For instance: 'Conference of Non-traditionally Oriented Transsexuals,' 'European Festival of Deaf-Mute Musicians and Performers,' 'Forum of Activists of the International Movement for Total Sexual Abstinence'... And I hold the notice up like this... turning in all directions, so that everybody who's waiting for someone can see it.. ."
"I get the idea," I said. "What I want to know is something else¡ªwhat do you do it for?"
"When the person I'm meeting comes out of customs, everyone in the place wants to know who he is," Las explained im-perturbably. "When he appears, everybody smiles, lots of people even applaud and whistle and wave. He doesn't know why they're reacting like that anyway. All he can tell is that everyone's glad to see him, then he spots his name and comes over to me. I promptly roll up the notice and take him to the car. And afterward he tells everyone what wonderful, friendly people the Russians are. Everyone greeted him with a smile."
"Blockhead," I said emphatically. "That's with an ordinary person. But Sasaki's an Other. A Higher Other, as it happens! He doesn't know Russian, but he perceives the meaning of written words on the conceptual level."
Las sighed and lowered his head. "I realize that now... Well, if I've screwed up¡ªchuck me out!"
"Was Mr. Sasaki offended?" I asked.
"When I explained everything, Mr. Sasaki was kind enough to laugh long and loud," Las replied.
"Please," I said. "Don't do it again."
"Never?""At least not with Others!""Of course I won't!" Las promised. "It spoils the whole point of the joke."I shrugged and looked at Semyon."Wait for me in the corridor," Sermyon told Las. "Leave the notice here.""Actually I collect..." Las began, but he put the notice down and went out.When the door closed Semyon laughed, picked up the notice, rolled it back into a tube and said to me, "I'll go around the departments with it and give everyone a laugh... How are you getting on?""Not too bad." I leaned back in my chair. "Settling in.""A Higher One..." Semyon drawled. "Ha... and they used to say everyone has his limits. A Higher Magician... you've made a great career for yourself, Gorodetsky!""Semyon... It was nothing to do with me. It just turned out that way.""I know, I know..." Semyon stood up and started walking around the office. It was a small office, of course, but even so... "Assistant Director for Personnel... Ha. The Dark Ones will start stirring things up now. With you and Svetlana that makes four Higher Magicians we have. And without Saushkin, the Day Watch only has Zabulon...""They can recruit someone from the provinces," I said. "I don't object. Or we can expect another visit from a Mirror.""We're wiser now," Semyon said with a nod. "We always learn from our mistakes."He moved toward the door, scratching his stomach through his linen T-shirt¡ªa wise, benign, tired Light Magician. We all become wise and benign when we get tired. He stopped at the door and looked at me thoughtfully."It's a shame about young Saushkin. He was a decent guy, as far as that's possible for a Dark One. Is it getting to you much?""I had no choice," I said. "He had no choice, and I didn't either."Semyon nodded."And it's a shame about the Fuaran..."Kostya had burned up in the atmosphere twenty-four hours after his leap into space. He hadn't calculated his orbit all that precisely after all.And the briefcase had burned up with him. They'd kept a radar fix on them to the very last moment. The Inquisition had demanded a space shuttle launch to collect the book, but there hadn't been enough time for that.And as far as I'm concerned, it's just great that there wasn't enough time.Maybe he was still alive when the fiery kisses of the atmosphere started burning up his spacesuit hundreds of miles above the earth. After all, he was a vampire, and lack of oxygen might not have affected him as badly as an ordinary Other¡ªlike the overheating and overcooling and other delights of outer space lying in wait for a cosmonaut in a light flight suit. I don't know, and I'm not going to go rummaging through the reference books to find out. If only because nobody can tell which is the more terrible¡ªdeath by suffocation or death by fire. After all, nobody dies twice¡ªnot even vampires."Look, I'm a terrible immortal vampire! I can turn into a wolf and a bat! I can fly!"Semyon went out without saying another word, and I sat there for a long time, looking out the window.The sky's not for us.We weren't meant to fly.All we can do is try not to fall.July 2002¡ªJuly 2003 Moscow