Isaac Asimov



(Petrovitch, Russia: 1920 – New-York: April 1992)


Malenkigrad (4)


The dinning room, which they reached by an elevator and a rather long walk along a deserted corridor, was not very large. It contained a dozen tables, each one seating six, and it was not crowded.


Boranova and Morrison were alone at their table and no one offered to join them. The two soldiers were at a table near the door, and though they ate largely, they faced Morrison, and their eyes never left him for more than a second or two.


There was no menu. Food was simply brought to them and Morrison found he had no quarrel over the quantity. There were hard-boiled eggs, boiled potatoes, cabbage soup, and caviar, along with thick slices of dark bread. They were not given out in individual portions, but were placed in the centre of the table where each person could help himself.


Perhaps, thought Morrison, they bring enough food to feed six and, since we two are the only ones here, we should only consume a third. And after a while, he had to admit that with a full stomach, he felt a little mollified. He said:


- Madame Boranova


- Why not call me Natalya, Dr Morrison? We are very informal here and we will be colleagues for perhaps an extended period of time. The repeated madams will give me a headache. My friends even call me Natasha. It could come to that.


She smiled, but Morrison felt stubbornly indisposed to be ingratiated. He said:


- Madam, when I feel friendly, I will certainly act friendly, but as a victim and an involuntary presence here, I prefer a certain formality.


Boranova sighed. She bit off a sizeable chunk of bread and chewed moodily. Then, swallowing, she said:


- Let it be as you wish, but please spare me the madams. Let me have my professional title, and I don’t mean Academician. Too many syllables. – But I interrupted you.


- Dr Boranova, – said Morrison, more coldly than before -, you haven’t told me what it is you want of me. You mentioned miniaturization, but you know and I know that this is impossible. I think that you spoke of it merely to mislead, to mislead me, and to mislead anyone overhearing us. Let us drop that, then. Surely, here we have no need to play games. Tell me why I am really here. After all, eventually you must, since you apparently expect me to be of some use to you, and I can’t be that if I am left completely ignorant of what it is that you wish.


Boranova shook her head:


You are a hard man to convince, Dr Morrison. I have been truthful with you from the start. The project is one of miniaturization.


- I cannot believe that.


- Why, then, are you in the city of Malenkigrad?


- Small city? Little town? Tiny burg? – said Morrison, feeling a pleasure in hearing his own voice sound the phrases in English -. Perhaps because it is a small city.


- As I have periodic occasion to say, Dr Morrison, you are not a serious man.  Still, you will not be in doubt long.  There are a few people you should meet. One of them should, in fact, be here by now. - She looked about with an annoyed frown -. So where is he?


Morrison said:


- I noticed that no one approaches us. Every one in a while, the people at the other tables look at me, but then they look away if they catch my eye.


They have been warned – said Boranova absently -. We will not waste your time with irrelevancies and almost everyone here is an irrelevancy as far as you are concerned. But some are not. Where is he? – She rose -. Dr Morrison, excuse me. I must find him. I will not be gone long.


- Is it safe to leave me? – said Morrison, sardonically.


- The soldiers will remain, Dr Morrison. Please do not give them cause to react. Intellect is not their forte and they are trained to follow orders without the painful necessity of thinking, so they might easily hurt you.


- Don’t worry. I’ll be careful.


She left, moving hurriedly out of the door, and exchanging a few words with the soldiers as she passed.


Morrison watched her go, then glanced over the dining room morosely. Having found nothing of interest, he bent his eyes upon his clasped hands on the table, and then stared at the still-sizeable portions of unconsumed food before him.


Isaac Asimov



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