August 1997, Pamir Plateau, Tajikistan.
Across a broad windswept valley, a small caravan of two heavily loaded donkeys and three men with large backpacks was moving, quiet except when somebody shouted at an animal lured by a tussock of fresh grass. The grass, short but dense and soft, looked like a sea as it was caressed by afternoon breeze.
"This valley was first described by Marco Polo," said a tall, skinny, broad-shouldered man to his friend, a young lad with heavily sunburned face. Both tried to protect themselves from fierce sunlight by wearing green military-style Panama hats, but nothing can help you at 14,000 feet above sea level. "Marco wrote that these pastures were the best in the world," he continued, "and that is true..."
"What's this, Peter?" The third man in the group, a small Tajik wearing large goggles and expensive American-made camouflage anorak, interrupted him suddenly. A hissing sound came from nowhere, then changed to rattling.
"A helicopter," the tall man said, "seems to be coming from the South."
"Should be Rashid's guys," the Tajik suggested."They often fly their stuff this way. It's always better to sell opium in a big city..."
"How is Rashid doing?" Peter asked. "I haven't seen him this year. We are still on his territory, aren't we?"
"Rashid is fine, and he will always be fine. Let's go, or we'll not get to the second place by sunset."
They turned away from the South and started moving towards a lone mountain a few miles ahead, a giant pile of black rocks, rising on top of a talus-covered cone.
"We did pretty well at the first place," the young guy said. "Let's hope it will be the same here."
Behind them, a black dot appeared above blue-and-silver glacier fields of a remote mountain ridge, and started growing in size. In a few seconds it turned into a large military helicopter, clearly visible in cold air.
"Well, the catch was not bad," the tall man answered, "but the season is almost over, and we have only a few days left, no more than..."
Suddenly, the roaring of the helicopter became unbearably loud, and clouds of dust made the travelers cover their faces with their hands. Both donkeys broke loose and ran in opposite directions in panic. The helicopter passed low above their heads, then slowly turned around. All three men shouted something, but they couldn't hear their own voices.
Now the helicopter was facing them, and a new sound was added to the noise - a rapid, dry staccato followed with short high-pitched whistles. The young man fell on his face, the back of his green foam coat torn apart by machine-gun bullets. The small Tajik kneeled, a tiny Uzi gun in his hand, but before he could take aim his entire cranium lid was shot off. Peter, holding both hands up, tried to see through the windshield of the helicopter, but the last thing he could see before a diagonal chain of holes appeared on his chest, was the reflection of dark-blue sky with no clouds in it.
The helicopter made a wide circle, trying to chase the donkeys back to where the dead bodies were, then shot them both and landed. Two men with Mongolian-looking faces jumped out, quickly collected all backpacks and bags, cut them open with large Uzbek knives, and triumphantly pulled out two small flat boxes.
A European, a fat guy with short hair and a heavy golden ring on his finger, came out, looking strange in his pale-gray business suit. He carefully took the boxes and opened one of them, marked with a red label: Toxic substances. Do not open!
Inside were two dozen small white envelopes, each marked with a short handwritten inscription. He ran through the inscriptions, then pulled a thick pack of $100 bills from his inside pocket and gave it to one of the Mongolian-looking men.
"Tell Rashid that I add spice of gratitude to pilaff of our friendship," he said.
As they were approaching the helicopter, its engine already running, these two guys suddenly sized him from behind and picked up high above the ground. He hardly had time to scream before a propeller blade cut off his head, and blood instantly soaked his suit.
The two men threw away his trembling body with disgust and kneeled by the boxes he had dropped. One box was open, and some envelopes were in the grass, so they hurried to collect them before they would be blown away by propeller wind.
"Rashid has better customers for this," one of them laughed. He picked up the last envelope and looked inside.
On a flat layer of white cotton were two tiny butterflies with black and red dots on their semitransparent white wings.
October 1997, Moscow, Russia.
"Try to add one percent more acid," Professor said, looking at the screen of a weird-looking digital thermometer. "Otherwise it will never crystallize."
"But it will start forming longer chains," his assistant, a young slim girl with long hair packed carefully under a small white hat, told him, "and if the molecules will be more than five carbon atoms long, it won't work at all."
He turned away from the screen and smiled.
"You're right, Natasha," he said softly, "but we have to try anyway. May be it will work. We have no time to look for a catalyst, and no money."
She got up from her desk and added few drops of liquid from a separating funnel to a substance in a small retort, then put it into a microwave oven.
"It's a shame we have to use this kitchen stuff," he said. "Let's get out of here for a while. The ventilation doesn't work. Set the oven on 3 minutes."
He turned to the window and opened a heavy old-style wooden frame. Outside it was raining heavily, and the street below looked like a stream of dirty water. Occasional cars hurried by, splashing mud on grim-looking pedestrians.
They left the room and stood together near another window, looking at the gray city landscape.
"I hate autumn in Moscow," he said. "All this rain, and mud, and gray sky, and the knowledge that there is winter to come. I always wanted to move to Tajikistan, but then the war started, and now it's even worse there..."
"We can move to Berkeley," she answered. "That man said they'd give you a job the day you come, and a good salary."
He touched her cheeks tenderly with his fingertips and smiled.
"We'll do it some day. May be next year. But I must get my research done first. It's too important."
"You'll never be able to finish it," she said. "Our institute will be closed sooner or later. They disconnected the phone already - no money to pay the bills..."
"You just reminded me," he said, "I have a call to make. Could you get it out of the oven and put into the desiccator, please?"
She looked at him.
"A call? Planning a new butterfly-hunting trip already? I thought you'd not go into the mountains again - after what has happened to your friend..."
"Nobody knows what has happened. Peter went to the Pamir with his assistant, and didn't come back, that's all. May be he simply crossed the border, and now he is somewhere in Pakistan, or in China..."
"You are saying it to comfort me. You know they are both dead, and almost surely killed. He was too experienced to get into an avalanche or something..."
"I'm even more experienced. It will be my 15th season there. I know every canyon, and all warlords are my friends. I'll never be killed. And we need money."
"But promise me you'll not try to get to that lake."
"Am I crazy? It was almost impossible even in the Soviet times, and now it's a suicide... That place is damned, damned forever..."
"OK, I promise."
They kissed for a while, then he turned and went away along a long dark corridor, with one light bulb hanging lonely at the far end. Natasha came back into the lab, a small room overfilled with all kinds of old chemical equipment. She moved the retort from the oven to the desiccator, then reached to the window to close it. She saw him crossing the muddy street, his hood already wet on his head, to a rusty phone booth. She watched him, and tried not to cry, but couldn't.
December 1997, Moscow, Russia.
In a large room, all lights were turned off, except for a small slide projector. A beam of light was directed at a white bedsheet, stretched across the wall. Still, the window was not covered, as the day outside was almost dark. Deep blue light was coming in from snow-covered streets, reflecting on large wooden boxes full of butterflies which were hanging in rows on the walls, but failing to interfere with the projector beam, so that pale-pink flowers could be seen embroidered on the sheet when there were no slides.
Two men, both skinny and tanned, were watching the slides shown one by one by Professor. They listened to his comments very attentively, and when they asked questions, they spoke with great respect.
"This is Kara-Tag, Black Mountain, altitude 15,000 feet," he said, as the same black hill with rocky top appeared on the screen, "the only place where Aurora flies. Peter was planning to reach these rocks when I last talked to him in June."
"Did he get there?" asked the younger man, still boyish-looking, with a long scar across his cheek and temple.
"Nobody knows. He never came back." Professor turned to another man, one with a soft chin and nerdish eyeglasses. "Sasha, when you go to Prague Butterfly Fair in February, try to find out what happened to him."
"How can I?" Sasha asked.
"Just look around. If there will be any auroras for sale, it will mean that Peter managed to get there, and then was killed by somebody else. If not, I think he was killed anyway, but probably not for butterflies."
"What for, then?"
"Who knows? It's so easy to get killed there... Remember Martin, the Estonian guy? He was shot for a matchbox and a cigarette. Or Alex? He entered Said's territory without his permission, so they decided he was a spy or something, and stripped his skin off..."
"Are we going to Kara-Tag?" The younger man asked.
"No, Nikolai. Aurora only flies in odd years, and next summer will be even. We'd find nothing but caterpillars. And it takes two weeks to get there - too long. Don't forget we have only two months total, may be even less."
"So, where are we going?"
"That's what we have to discuss. I suggest we visit three places, two in Tajikistan and one in China."
"How are we going to cross the border? There are still Russian border posts there."
"I have friends at one post at the Afghan border. I bring them antibiotics and other stuff every year. From there it's only a two days' walk to Pakistan, and then we'll hitchhike on Karakoram Highway."
He pressed a switch, and a new slide appeared - a dark bottomless gorge among snow-covered peaks.
"This is Mazar-Keek, Ibex' Tomb. The place is not too high, 12,000 feet only, so we can come in early June, if the summer will not be late this year. Meteorologists say it will be late, but I think it will not. We can catch some Clarius there, and sell them in Prague for fifty bucks each. And we can hire horses to get there, because there is a village below."
"Who is the warlord in this area?"
"Will we have his permission?" They all laughed.
"I don't have to ask him. He is my friend since the early 80-s. He was a district Communist Party chief at this time. And he is a nice guy, very honest and smart."
"You said, fifty bucks each. What about real money? All this we'll spend on equipment, trucks and baksheesh!"
Professor changed the slide. Now it was a red plateau with low rocky hills.
"Eastern Pamir!" Sasha exclaimed. "How are we going to get there? The local police blocks all roads in summer, and they know you all too well! We'll go to jail for endangered species smuggling, or spend all our money to pay them off!"
"Akhmad Shah Masud will give as a helicopter."
"You're kidding! Is he also a friend of yours?"
"Yes, I provided him with Soviet-made maps during the Soviet-Afghan war."
"But you were a Soviet citizen, and he was our enemy!"
"I always supported Akhmad. I like him. There are no superpowers in the mountains, only small powers. You have to be their friend or die. And there are no enemies, only misunderstood friends."
"You see," said Sasha to Nikolai quietly, "This is why he is still alive, the only one from his generation."
Professor managed to overhear him.
"Not the only one. Eugene is alive, too. But he doesn't go to Central Asia any more. Too dangerous, he says. Hunts butterflies in Colombia and New Guinea. Ten bucks each!"
And they laughed again.
"So, at this place, altitude 18,000 feet, we gonna look for Simo. There is a local subspecies of this butterfly on this hill. It was discovered a few years ago, but not many were caught, so it should be still expensive. May be up to a hundred bucks each, in Prague, or two hundred if we'll sell directly to German collectors. We'll have to climb 3,000 feet every morning from our camp to the rocks, but the catch will be worth it."
"Sounds nice," Nikolai said.
"Yes. Simo will always be expensive. It flies so high, well above snow line, feeding on plants you can't even see between rocks without a magnifying glass. And flying season is only a week long."
"Which week will it be?"
"I guess it gonna be mid-July, but we'll need some spare time, say, till July 31."
"It's almost the end of season! What about the main part?"
A new slide appeared, a large rounded peak with huge glaciers coming down from its summit.
"Muztagata," Professor said, "one of the highest peaks of Pamir. Last time butterfly hunters visited it in 1881, and it was an odd year. On even years, there should be a local form of Loxius, I suppose..."
"And if we find a new subspecies of Loxius..."
"The first catch will sell for about two thousand per butterfly. If we'll keep this place a secret, and avoid being followed, we can also make good money in the next even year, in the year 2000."
"Why do they appear only once in two years, by the way?" Nikolai asked.
"They are large butterflies, but they live at very high altitudes, so their caterpillars need a whole summer to grow up."
He changed the slide again, and a stunningly beautiful landscape appeared: large dark-blue lake surrounded by vertical walls of steep golden slopes, with ice-capped peaks high above.
"What's this? " both his friends asked.
"Oh, sorry," Professor said, turning on the light in the room and getting up, "it's just the next slide. We are not going there."
"But what was it?"
"Just a lake. We still have to discuss the truck problem..."
On his window glass, a tiny red dot trembled as he spoke. The laser beam came from
a window across the street and reflected back.
"Got it!" cried a man in a small empty room, taking off his earphones and pointing to his tape recorder.
"Got what?" another man asked, closing the lid of an oscillograph he tried to fix and looking out to see Professor's shadow in the window of the opposite house. He was dark-eyed, with black mustache and thin fingers.
"Their schedule! We've been paying rent for this fucking flat for two months already, and now it finally worked! We know where they are going! We'll tell my friend from the local police, so they'll get caught on their way back! Caught and sent to the zindan! To that local jail, where ticks will bite them to death! And all their catch will be ours! Go, get some vodka!"
"First make sure you got it taped."
The first man gave him the earphones.
"So," said Professor, pulling a small box from his pocket, "This is
this year's catch. You'll take it to Prague. Don't forget baksheesh money for
Russian and Ukrainian customs, and always have your handgun ready. Good
He hugged his friends, and let them out of his apartment.
In the room across the street, the man with black mustache took off his earphones.
"Sounds great," he said, smiling.
"Go buy vodka, and some food!"
He walked out, turned to the next street, looked around, and went into a phone booth. All around him, heavy snow was falling on the city, as if trying to bury it alive.
February 1998, Prague, Czech Republic
"I need to make a call to Moscow, Russia," Sasha said to the hotel clerk.
"Are you Russian? Yes, you are. You must pay in advance."
"OK," Sasha sighed.
"And it is very difficult to get connected," the clerk said, taking the money."They have awful cables..."
"Professor Krutov," Professor's voice came from the telephone.
"Hi, it's me, Sasha!"
"Oh, Sasha, where are you? What's going on?"
"Still here. Sold everything. Good deals. I have a message for you."
"Yes, from Kurt Zonderstammer."
"The old fox is still around? What does he want?"
"He wants you to get Autocrator for him."
"I told him. But he said he had all Central Asian species already in his collection, except for this one. He is ready to pay..."
"Stop! " Professor interrupted him. "Not on the telephone."
"Now, get out of there. Be careful, very careful."
"I'll try to."
"Good luck. See you here."
"See you," Sasha hanged up and left the hotel lobby. The man with black mustache closed the book he was reading, got up from his chair and followed him, smiling as if he had prepared some funny joke.
The train conductor looked into the compartment and gave Sasha a long
"Put it on the door from the inside," he said, "so that I'll not be able to open it from the outside."
"We gonna cross Poland and Ukraine. Trains often get robbed there. If Father Angel's guys will tell me to open all locked compartments with my passkey, I'll have to do as they say."
"Where is seat number eight?" Two men, one of them with the black mustache, appeared behind the conductor.
"Here," Sasha said.
"Great, here we are!" They entered his compartment. "Also to Moscow?"
"Great!" And, again, smiling and happy. "Great!"
"Rozhnyava Station, Lvov the next!" Conductor's voice came from outside
the locked door.
"The border! Let's drink for coming back to our motherland!" And the man with the black mustache produced a bottle of red vine.
"Ukraine is no longer a part of our motherland," Sasha said, smiling. But the vine was already in glasses.
"Hail our motherland!" The man shouted.
Sasha swallowed the cheap vine, than looked up. "You do not drink?"
Suddenly everything started spinning around him, and he realized he was falling on the floor.
"Take his money, and let's get out of here!" He heard the man say. The other reached for Sasha's inside pocket. In his last instance of consciousness, Sasha stuck his fingers into the man's eyes, and then the lights went off for him.
"Stop screaming, you idiot!" The man with the mustache cried to his blinded companion, removing the iron bar from the door and grabbing the money from Sasha's pocket.
"Hey, what's going on there?" The conductor asked from outside.
The man with the mustache pulled out an old handgun with a silencer, shot Sasha twice, opened the door, shot the conductor between the eyes, looked closely at his crying companion, shot him, too, and ran away, laughing.
March 1998, Ivanovka, Russia
Sasha in his hospital robes and Professor walked around an ugly gray hospital building, finding their way between pools of muddy water. Around them, dirty snow was melting in wet pine forest.
"What do doctors say?" Professor asked. "When you'll be out of here?"
"May be next week. It doesn't matter now. I lost all our money, and I'll never be able to go to the mountains again..."
"How can you tell? Next year..."
"No. I had my backbone broken. I can't carry a backpack."
"Next year you'll not have to. We'll rent a Jeep and go to Northern Tibet."
"Well, may be. I try not to give up. I have a message for you."
"From Kurt? I'm not interested. I can't get Autocrator. Nobody can."
"He said, nobody but you."
"He was wrong. Don't you remember? The place from which the only specimen had been taken is gone. It is under the lake now."
"He said, there could be butterflies around the lake."
"May be yes, may be no. I can't get there anyway. It's impossible, and too dangerous."
"He said, he will pay you fifty thousand for each Autocrator."
"He is crazy. I am not. Forget it. Look, the spring is coming early this year."
"Here, yes. What's going on up there? Is the spring late in Tajikistan?"
"No. I've heard it is early. Just as I predicted. It's less interesting every year."
"What do you mean?"
"I know Pamir too well. Every hill, every glacier, every rock. I can point out all sites where new butterflies are likely to be discovered. It is not an adventure any more, just stupid dangerous job. I think this summer will be the last one. I'll start exploring Tibet next year, or may be quit this hunt at all. I'm too old. And I never really liked killing butterflies. Now it's getting worse. Every time you discover something, others keep coming to that place until the butterfly is extinct. Your butterfly. If only my chemistry was paid for, I'd quit years ago. But I have to make living."
"Yes, and I lost all our money..."
"It was not your fault."
"It was my fault."
"Forget it. Look, there is some young grass under the snow..."
April 1998, Moscow, Russia
"I understand how important it is," the old man said, "but it's too late. The Institute will be closed this year."
Professor looked at him.
"You are my teacher," he said, "you know better than I do that it is the only thing that can make everything worth it..."
"What do you mean?"
"Look, for all these years we were developing chemical weapons - evil stuff, and useless since the Cold War was over. Now, finally, we are on the verge of making something useful. The substance I'm working on is the only chance to restore the ozone layer. It's our duty to make it, you know. Wasn't it you who taught me about scientific ethics?"
"I know it all too well. I even know you are likely to get a Nobel Prize for it. But..."
Suddenly the light went off. After a moment of silence, the old man got up to light a candle.
"You see," he said, "we only have electricity for two hours a day. We need money to pay the bills, and we haven't paid salary to our people since December. Except for you and Natasha, only five people still work here. The Institute is done. Starting next September, this building will belong to a private company."
"I only need half a year to have it completed!"
"There is only one thing I can do for you: I can force that company to let you use the laboratory for a few more months. But you'll have to pay rent."
"I have no money."
"Try to get some. You still have time."
Professor and Natasha stood in his cabinet, with three walls covered
with boxes full of butterflies. The remaining wall was decorated by Pamir
landscapes - four large photos in thin wooden frames.
Natasha was looking at a few white butterflies in one of the boxes. The smallest ones were only one inch in size, the largest were about four inches, with small black, red and blue spots.
"They are so small," she said, "and so expensive. For my taste, tropical butterflies are much more beautiful."
"Yes," Professor answered, "but these are from the World's highest mountains, and they are so difficult to find and catch! Still, those people who pay us for them are crazy."
"You are crazy, because you risk your life for them, not those people."
"I risk my life for money."
"Are you going to that lake?" She asked quietly. He looked at her, saying nothing.
"Yes, you are," she said, "and what should I do if you don't come back?"
"You will," she echoed, as if casting a magic spell, crying but still forcing him to fall with her on a huge bearskin which covered the floor, "You must come back, you will come back..."
He started kissing her, but she kept repeating: "You will come back..."
Professor and Nikolai were watching the slides - views of the lake,
impossibly beautiful, but wild and desolated.
"So," Nikolai said, "this is the infamous lake."
"Why do you say it is damned?"
"It's a long story. The lake appeared in 1907, after an earthquake. An entire mountain fell into the gorge of Bartang, The Rabid River. The river flooded its canyon, forming the lake. There are few villages under the water, with all their residents. The largest village was Sarez, and this became the lake's name. It is the most beautiful lake in the World, and the least accessible."
"Bartang Gorge is too narrow to pass. The mountains around the lake are more than 20,000 feet high. And there is no place to land a helicopter. Also, nobody will go there, because there are all kinds of bad beliefs about this lake, and some strange scientific reports, too."
Professor drank some tea from an Uzbek cup.
"They say," he continued, "that one day the dam will break under pressure, and all the water from the lake will rush down, destroying a few cities and more than a hundred villages outside Pamir."
He changed the slide. Now it was a white butterfly with bright-yellow bands on its rear wings, mounted in a box.
"This is the Autocrator. The only known specimen was taken by Avinov in 1880 from a rock face above Sarez village. It was then stolen from a museum in Saint Petersburg, and after some adventures, most of them criminal, ended up in the British Museum."
"You think it's not extinct?"
"Honestly, I don't know. We'll try."
"But how can we get there?"
"We don't have to. I studied all available maps of the area - botanical, geological, and military. And all pictures. Below the lake, there is a tiny terrace in Bartang gorge, thousand feet above the bottom. The altitude is right. We'll have a helicopter drop us on that terrace, to search through the rocks around."
"And pick us up then?"
"No. We have money for one flight only. We'll have to cross over the ridge."
July 1998, Dushanbe, Tajikistan
Professor and Nikolai were loading their backpacks into an old yellow helicopter. The sunlit airfield was empty, except for a few teenagers squatting in a distance.
A pilot looked down from the cabin.
"Hurry up," he said, "It's a long flight, and we have Rashid's permission for daylight hours only."
"That's it. Let's go."
"Rashid told me to ask you when you are planning to get back?"
"May be in two weeks."
"OK, let's go".
July 1998, Pamir, Tajikistan
The helicopter looked like a mosquito as it carefully made its way inside a narrow gorge, with black-and-purple walls and dark shadows below. The echo of its engine filled the canyon, jumping from one side to another. A tiny patch of green grass appeared ahead, hanging a few thousand feet above the invisible bottom. All around the ledge, rock faces seemed smooth and vertical.
The helicopter stopped in the air a few feet above the patch, but the "terrace" was so small that the chopper couldn't stay directly above - it would hit the rock with its blades. A rope fell out from its bottom, then Professor slid down to its end, and started swinging. Finally, he let the rope go and fell on the edge of the patch. He took off his backpack and shouted:
Nikolai made the same dangerous jump, and the helicopter left immediately.
"Here we are," Professor said, looking around. The patch was only ten feet wide.
"How are we going to move around?"
"We've got a lot of ropes. We'll fix them on the rocks, and make them our highways."
"How long can we stay here?" They started unpacking.
"We have food for three days. Then we'll have to go. It's one week from here to the place where Jafar will wait for us with the horses."
"We have food for this week too, don't we?"
"No. There was no space in our backpacks. We have two thousand feet of rope instead. We'll have to fast till we meet with Jafar."
"Can we trust him?"
"He'd give his life for me. I saved him from a mud flood during the Gazli earthquake."
A thousand feet below the green patch, now decorated with a tiny brown
tent, Nikolai was hanging on a rope, looking around in bright sunlight.
The rope was the last piece of a complicated system of ropes, pitons and
slings, fixed on the rock face. A large butterfly net on a telescopic pole
was attached across his back.
"It is probably too early for the butterflies to fly," Professor told him. He was staying in a niche a hundred feet to the right, but his quiet voice was clearly heard. "Look for Corydalis, the plant caterpillars feed on. If we'll not find it here, we'll move our ropes to the rocks down there."
"Today is the third day," Nikolai said, "what if they don't appear?"
"We'll try tomorrow morning, then leave. Make sure you fix the second rope properly. Once I was hanging like this, and a herd of ibex was walking far above. A small stone fell from under their feet, and cut my rope. I fell on a glacier ninety feet below. If not for the deep snow, I'd lie there frozen in the ice now."
"Nothing here," Nikolai said, "Let's move up."
He climbed about a hundred feet up, then stopped to untie the rope.
"Look!" - Professor said suddenly.
A tiny white dot appeared below, slid fast along the wall, staying close to the rock, and disappeared in the sunlight.
"That's it!" Professor said. "It will come back in a few minutes. We have to be there by than, waiting in its path. Let's go down, quickly!"
"We are out of ropes!"
"OK, wait for me!" Professor untied the rope from his belt and started crawling down the rock.
He was still moving, when Nikolai cried a warning, and he had only a few seconds to react as the butterfly appeared again. He instantly dragged out his net, as if it was a sword, waited for the butterfly to come close and with a powerful, rapid blow caught it in flight. Then he turned the net, so that the butterfly couldn't escape, sized it with his teeth and started climbing up. As soon as he reached a place where he could use both hands, he got the insect out of the net, put it in a small envelope, then in a box and in his pocket. A minute later, he was back in his niche, tied to the rope that was stretched between him and a piton high above, between him and Peter.
"One more!" - Nikolai cried. The butterfly was flying with the wind, so it moved very fast below them. Professor jumped off from the niche, and the rope made him make a broad curve, so that he crossed the butterfly's path and captured it in the air.
"Here!" Nikolai said, after a while. The third butterfly approached him, but suddenly changed direction and passed too far to reach.
"It will come back," Professor said from below, "Just wait."
But, as he climbed to the place where Nikolai was hanging, a small cloud blocked the sunlight, casting a shadow on the part of rock face they were waiting on.
"Will it ever go away?" Nikolai said after a while. But the cloud kept spinning around itself, caught up between air currents.
"Let's go up a little," Professor said, finally.
Just as they climbed out of the shadow, one more butterfly appeared. It was moving far from the rock, so Nikolai had to stretch his hand all the way in an attempt to reach it. At this moment, his other hand slid from a tiny stone he was holding to, and he fell down. With sharp clicking, pitons above him jumped out of the rock one by one, and only the last one was fixed well enough to hold.
"Are you OK?" Professor asked.
"Yes," an answer came from far below.
"I'll pull you up". But, as Professor reached for the rope, the last piton gave up, and now they were both swinging on Professor's rope, with all Nikolai's weight on a loop wrapped around Professor's arm. Professor's net fell and disappeared in the black shadows down below.
"Can you reach the rock?" He asked, his face white with pain.
"I'll try to." After a couple of broad swings, Nikolai managed to get hold of the rock and started climbing. When he reached a safe place, he pulled up Professor and they sat on a narrow ledge, gasping.
"Don't be upset that you missed it," Professor said, as if nothing had happened, "We have two anyway."
"I didn't miss it," smiled Nikolai, "it's still in my net."
He got out the butterfly and gave it to Professor.
"You better keep it," Professor said, giving him the insect back, "We shouldn't put them all in one place. Let's collect the ropes, we'll need them to climb the ridge. We must climb six thousand feet to get out of here."
Two men were striding fast along the smooth surface of a large glacier.
The broad river of ice was all blue, shining in fierce sunlight. Sometimes
there were cracks in it, but narrow enough to jump across.
"We'll probably get to Jafar today at dusk," Professor said, "and then you'll get the canned meat you keep talking about."
"What do you mean? I hate talking about food when I am hungry."
"Yes, but you talk about it all the time when you are asleep."
"Do I, really?"
They both laughed.
"What's that, a helicopter?" Nikolai asked.
A sound appeared, then a black dot moving low above the glacier.
"Should be Rashid's chopper," Nikolai guessed, "he probably sent it to pick us up."
"I don't like it," Professor said, still walking, then stopped as they reached a large crevasse in the ice.
The helicopter slowed down and stopped in the air, facing them. Black barrels of machine-guns moved slightly, taking aim. Next moment Professor seized Nikolai's hand and jumped into the crevasse. Bullets shot fountains of ice from the place they had just been standing at.
The helicopter landed, and two people with Mongolian-looking faces appeared. They looked down into the crevasse, but could see nothing but deep-blue darkness.
"Go down and get them," - one of them said.
"Rashid will kill us."
"Everything is in Allah's hands."
They moved up the blue ice walls, cutting steps with their knives. They
were both bleeding, their clothes torn to pieces, fingers failing to move
in cold air of the crevasse. It was almost dark when they crawled out of
the crevasse and fell on the ice, too tired to move.
"We must put up the tent," Professor said, "or night frost will kill us."
Nikolai didn't answer. Professor opened his backpack and pulled out a sleeping bag, then a tent. The backpack was empty now. He got the second sleeping bag and two mats from Nikolai's backpack, put a bag on a mat, then dragged his friend's body on it and closed the bag. Then he crawled into his own sleeping bad and covered them both with the tent.
"We must get out of here before sunrise," he said, "because they'll come again."
Then he was asleep.
On a main, and only, street of a small mountain village, Professor and
Nikolai were laying on their backs in a trunk of an old truck with military-green
cabin. Empty backpacks were under their heads. Their hands were bandaged,
and a large purple bruise decorated Nikolai's forehead.
"We'll have to pass six customs checkpoints," Professor said, "four police checkpoints, Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan border, and probably some private checkpoints. At each place, we'll have to pay federal baksheesh, provincial baksheesh, district baksheesh and private baksheesh, so it's good that we have train tickets to Moscow already. Just try to save some money for the bazaar in Osh... Look, Jafar is coming back!"
Jafar's head appeared above the trunk side.
"Driver say, five minutes," he said.
"That means, an hour. Are you coming with us?"
"No, thank you. Got business. Hate Osh. Osh police, bad guys. Bad city. Too hot for me. Mountains, my country. Beautiful." He smiled.
The driver looked inside.
"Osh?" - he asked.
"American dollars? Old bills or new bills?
"Let's go. Thank you, Jafar," Professor said.
Narrow dirt road was winding across an endless plateau with a few yurtas and
black yaks here and there. The truck kept crawling as a tiny beetle, leaving
behind an enormous tail of gray dust. Every time it jumped on a pothole, Professor
and Nikolai had to hold to the trunk sides, and they hardly could stand the pain
in their wounded hands.
"Will we ever arrive anywhere?" Nikolai asked.
"Should be a small place behind these hills ahead. All trucks stop there because there are three high passes soon after."
Half an hour later, they were sitting by a wooden table in a small roadside cafe. A cloud of flies tried to get into a pile of pilaff on a large plate in front of them. They drank green tea and were absolutely happy.
The door opened, and a big fat Uzbek stepped in, followed by two men in camouflage, carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles.
"Are you professor Krutov?" he asked.
"Yes, he is," the cook said from his corner.
"I am the chef of local police forces of Murgab village. You are arrested for entering our village without a permit. Follow me!"
"What's that?" Nikolai asked quietly.
"Something's wrong. Looks like they gonna shoot us as soon as we step outside. Someone has hired them."
The two men with assault rifles stood in front of their table.
"You must go with us!" The Uzbek said.
"May we finish our dinner? We are guests here!" Professor touched the plate.
"Take them!" The Uzbek ordered.
At this moment Professor threw the plate, as if it was a Frisbee, hitting the Uzbek into his face. With his left hand, he turned over the table, so that it's wooden desk fell on the men's feet. Getting up, he reached for the machine-gun of the one close to him, and moved it up sharply, hitting the man's chin. Then he opened fire, and didn't stop until all three were dead.
"Where's the fucking driver?" - he asked Nikolai.
"Let's get out of here!"
Outside, they saw the truck speeding away in a cloud of dusk.
"Take the horses," Professor pointed to a couple of mares tied behind the corner, "we can catch the truck if we cut all switchbacks!"
They rushed along the road, kicking the animals and shouting in all local languages. After a few minutes of galloping across the slope, they stopped on the road. The truck was still one turn below them. As soon as it appeared, they made it stop by shooting one shot from Nikolai's handgun into the air, got back into the trunk, and continued their journey, as if nothing had happened.
Late in the afternoon, they reached a large village.
"You can stay here," Professor said, "and I'll go buy some food."
He jumped down from the truck and went away. Nikolai opened his knife and tried to change bandage on his hand. Two local boys, ten years old or so, watched him from the doors of a house across the street.
"Good knife," one of them said.
"Yes, why not."
The first boy disappeared, then came back with an old rifle. He took aim and shot Nikolai in the back.
They ran to the truck, searched Nikolai's body, took his wallet, knife, both backpacks and a small metal box. Then they ran out of the village and stopped on a pasture outside. One of them started looking through the items in the backpacks. The other opened the small box, looked into the white envelope, and threw it away.
July 1998, Osh, Kyrgyzstan
Professor looked old, grim and exhausted when he entered the post office. A young pretty girl behind the desk looked at him with fear and curiosity.
"I need to make a phone call to Drezden, Germany," he told her.
Within a few minutes she said "Please go to cabin one".
He entered a wooden phone booth and said "Hello?"
"Kurt Zonderstammer," was the answer.
"Professor Krutov speaking. I've got what you asked for."
"Wonderful! How many?"
"Where are you now?"
"Still in Asia. I'll be in Moscow by August 2, if the train will not be late."
"OK. I'll be there. See you in Moscow."
Professor thanked the girl and walked out. The street was quiet and peaceful, shadowed by large Lombardy poplars.
"I will never come here again," he said to himself.
August 1998, Moscow, Russia
"What happened to Nikolai?" Natasha asked.
"I don't know. I left him alone for a few minutes, and when I was back he was dead. May be just a robbery. But the one Autocrator he'd had was gone. I must sell the remaining two as soon as possible, in case this third one will show up somewhere. It can bring down the price. We must get good money for them, and give some to Marina."
"I didn't know he was married."
"He had no time, actually. They were planning to get married next month." He said nothing for a while, then looked at her.
"I have to tell you something."
"Nothing. It's just that I'll never go there again."
"You mean, to Pamir?" she asked in disbelieve.
"I mean, to the mountains."
"And nothing will happen to you? And you will always stay with me?" She jumped to her feet.
At that moment, the telephone rang.
"Should be Kurt," he said.
"Professor Krutov?" an unfamiliar voice asked him.
"Your house is surrounded, and we are ready to break in. You have five minutes to drop the box with Autocrator from the window. After the time will expire, we'll kill you and your girl. Now, we cut off your phone. Good bye."
"Who are you?"
"Did you hear?" He asked her.
"What should I do?"
"Don't give it to them. We paid too much for it - you, and me too. I'd rather get killed."
"Yes. I am sure."
He kissed her.
"Hurry up," she said firmly, "time is running out."
He pulled away the bearskin, pressed a tiny black dot on the floor, and a metal handle appeared. He picked up the entire piece of the floor. Underneath were his guns - two rifles, a bag of handguns, and one Kalashnikov.
"Now, I will turn off the light," he said, putting on his night vision goggles, "could you lay down on the floor, please? And this is for you." He gave her a small, pretty Beretta.
In the tiny room across the street, five men watched his window turn black.
"Let's go," the man with black mustache said, smiling, "we've got night vision goggles. Kill them, take the box, and go away. Easy job. Now, turn on his phone again - we'll need it. Let's go!" And they rushed out, small Uzi guns in their hands.
They blew up the steel door of his apartment, then three of them broke in, and at the same moment two others jumped inside through the windows. They were all in bulletproof jackets, still they were quiet and careful as they started looking for him in the darkness.
Suddenly, thick smoke started coming from the ceiling, and with it came the first shot, surely not a miss. They could see the flash, but it was reflected by mirrors and by glass lids of butterfly boxes, so they started shooting in all directions, breaking furniture, making his TV explode. They didn't realize that he was also shooting until two more of them were killed. Then the two remaining gunmen fell on the floor. They could see absolutely nothing in the smoke, so they took off their goggles and started firing at every sound. By the time the light was turned on again, they were both dead.
"This gas is transparent only for ultraviolet light," Professor said, "so I made a special set of night vision goggles, just for such an occasion."
Natasha got up and looked around. Five dead bodies were floating in blood on the floor. Almost all butterfly boxes were also on the floor, broken, and bullet holes were everywhere.
"You are the only real man I've met in my life," she said proudly.
"Just a good chemist," he said, smiling.
"Should we call the police?"
"No," he answered plainly.
"But the neighbors? They'll call... They've heard shooting."
"They'll not. They are all nice guys here. Hate the cops."
"What will you do with the corpses?"
"I'll call my friends from the Medical Institute. They'll come and take the bodies tonight. Give them to their students for practice. Don't worry about this."
The telephone rang again, startling them both.
"Hi, this is Kurt, I'm in front of your house, may I come in?"
"We just had a small quarrel here... Well, you are welcome anyway."
"Oh, mein Gott!" Kurt said, entering the apartment a minute later and looking around. "They came for the..."
"How did they know?"
"That's what I'd like to find out. Well, they are dead already. Did you get everything?"
"I'll make something to eat," Natasha said.
"Thank you, I don't think I can eat here," Kurt said, but she was already gone to the kitchen.
"So," Professor said, "do you have everything?"
"Yes. Money," Kurt gave him a small package, "your passports with US visas, and air tickets to San Francisco. You can leave any time."
"I have to finish my research. Now I'll be able to do it. We'll move to the States in November. Well," he counted the money, then pulled a small box from his inside pocket, "here they are. Male and female."
Kurt looked inside and put the box in his pocket.
"Is this all you could get?" He asked.
"What about your friend?"
"He was killed."
"Does anybody else know the place?"
"So," Kurt said, "no one will ever be able to catch more of them, except you?"
"Not even me. I'll never go there again."
"May be," Kurt pulled out a large Parabellum, "but I must be sure. I want these two butterflies to be the only ones in the World."
"There is one in London."
"Yes, but it is in bad condition, and it is a female. At least the male is absolutely unique."
He pointed the gun at Professor's head. Sudden clicking sound made him turn back. Natasha was staying behind him, Beretta gun in her one hand, kitchen fork with some pasta in the other. She tried to shoot again, with the same result.
"You have to pull back the lock first," Professor said. Smiling, Kurt took aim again. At this moment Natasha leaped forward and hit Kurt with the fork, just under his left shoulder blade. Kurt turned around, and next instant Professor picked up an assault rifle from the floor, hit Kurt's face with its butt, and then finished him with a long burst.
"That's it," he said, "It's all over."
Natasha started sobbing quietly, then, still sobbing, she looked up at him and smiled.
"You are the only real woman I've met in my life," he said, holding her close. They started kissing, then he took the huge bearskin and dropped it across the floor, covering dead bodies, pools of blood and empty bullet cases.
"We won," he said, as they started taking off each other's clothes, "we are alive. We'll be together forever now. We climbed to our altitude."
"I love you," she answered plainly, as they fell on the bearskin.
Above them, the last butterfly box was still hanging on the wall, a bullet hole in the middle of its glass lid.