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Excerpts from Hard to be a God

“The essence of man,” Budakh was saying as he chewed unhurriedly, “is in the remarkable ability to become accustomed to anything. There is nothing in nature to which man can’t get used to. Neither the horse, nor the dog, nor the mouse have this quality. Probably god, while creating man, had an inkling of the tortures to which he was condemning him, and gave him a tremendous reserve of strength and patience. It is difficult to say whether this is good or bad. If man did not have such patience and endurance, all good people would have long perished and there would remain on earth only the evil and heartless ones. On the other hand, the habit of enduring and adapting turns people into speechless cattle, who in nothing but anatomy differ from the animals, and even surpass them in defenselessness. And each new day brings forth a new horror of evil and violence…”

Rumata looked at Kira. She sat opposite Budakh and listened, without looking away, propping up her cheek with her small fist. Her eyes were sad: obviously she felt great pity for people.

“You are likely right, honorable Budakh,” said Rumata. ”But take me. I—a simple noble don” (Budakh’s forehead wrinkled, his eyes went wide with surprise and mirth), “I love learned folk immensely, they are the nobility of the spirit. And I am at a loss why you, the keepers and sole holders of high knowledge, are so hopelessly passive? Why you, without complaint, let yourselves be despised, thrown into jails, burned on pyres? Why do you divorce the purpose of your lives—the acquisition of knowledge—from the practical needs of life—the struggle against evil?

Budakh pushed away his emptied plate of biscuits.

“You ask strange questions, don Rumata,” said he. “It is amusing that these very questions were put to me by don Gug, our duke’s chamberlain. You are acquainted with him? So I thought… The struggle against evil! But what is evil? Each is free to understand it in his own way. For us, scientists, evil lies in ignorance, but the church teaches that ignorance is a blessing, and all evil comes from knowledge. For a farmer evil is taxes and droughts, but for a bread-seller a drought is good. For slaves, evil is the drunk and cruel master, for the craftsman—the greedy moneylender. So then what is the evil, against which to fight, don Rumata?” He surveyed his listeners sadly. “Evil is ineradicable. No person can reduce its quantity in the world. He can somewhat improve his own fate, but always at the cost of worsening the fates of others. And always there will be kings, more or less cruel, barons, more or less wild, and always there will be an ignorant people, who harbor admiration toward their oppressors and hatred toward their liberators. And all of it because the slave far better understands his master, even the most cruel one, than he does his liberator, for each slave perfectly well imagines himself in the master's place, but there are few who imagine themselves in the place of the selfless liberator. Thus are people, don Rumata, and thus is our world.”

“Our world is always changing, doctor Budakh,” said Rumata. “We know of a time, when there were no kings…”

“The world cannot change eternally,” countered Budakh, “for nothing is eternal, not even change. We do not know the laws of perfection, but sooner or later perfection is reached. Look, for instance, how our society is arranged. How pleasing to the eye this clear, geometrically proper system! On the bottom are the peasants and laborers, above them the nobility, then the clergy, and finally, the king. How thought out it all is, what stability, what a harmonious order! What else can change in this polished crystal, emerged from the hands of the celestial jeweler? There are no buildings sturdier than pyramidal ones, any experienced architect will tell you that.” He raised his finger didactically. “Grain, poured from a sack, does not settle in an even layer, but forms a so-called conic pyramid. Each grain clings to the other, trying not to roll down. So with humanity. If it wants to be a whole, people must cling to one another, inevitably forming a pyramid.”

“Do you seriously consider this world to be perfect?” asked Rumata with surprise. “After meeting don Reba, after the prison…”

“But of course, my young friend! There is much in the world I do not like, much I would like to see otherwise… But what can be done? In the eyes of higher powers, perfection looks otherwise, than in mine. What purpose is there in a tree lamenting that it cannot move, though it would be glad, very likely, to run full tilt from the woodsman’s axe.”

“What if you could change the predestined order?”

“Only the higher powers are capable of that…”

“But still, imagine, that you are a god…”

Budakh laughed.

“If I could imagine myself as a god, I would become him!”

“Well, what if you had the opportunity to advise god?”

“You have a rich imagination,” said Budakh with delight. “That is good. Are you literate? Wonderful! I would gladly tutor you…”

“You flatter me… Nonetheless, what advice would you give to the almighty? What, in your opinion, ought the almighty to do, for you to say: and now the world is good?”

Budakh, smiling approvingly, leaned back in the chair and crossed his hands on his stomach. Kira was looking at him with yearning.

“Well, now,” said he, “as you wish. I would say to the almighty: ‘Creator, I do not know your plans, perhaps you have no intention to make people good and happy. Wish this! It is so simple to achieve! Give people plenty of bread, meat, and wine, give them shelter and clothing. Let hunger and want disappear, and with them all that divides people.’”

“And that is all?” asked Rumata.

“You think that it's not enough?”

Rumata shook his head.

“God would answer you: ‘That will not do men any good. For the strong of your world will take away from the weak that which I gave them, and the weak will, as before, remain poor.’”

“I would ask god to shield the weak. ‘Instill reason in cruel rulers,’ I would say.”

“Cruelty is strength. Having lost their cruelty, the rulers would lose their power, and other cruel ones would replace them.”

Budakh stopped smiling.

“Punish the cruel,” he said firmly, “so that the strong would lose the habit of showing cruelty to the weak.”

“Man is born weak. He becomes strong when around him there are none stronger than he. When those of the strong who are cruel are punished, the strongest of the weak, who will also be cruel, will take their place. So I will be forced to punish everyone, and I do not want this.”

“You see more clearly, almighty one. Then simply make it so that people will receive everything, and will not take from each other that which you have given them.”

“And that will not do people any good,” sighed Rumata, “for when they receive everything for free, without work, from my hands, they will forget work, will lose their taste for life and will turn into my domesticated animals, whom I will need to feed and clothe forever.”

“Don’t give them everything at once!” said Budakh hotly. “Give gradually, a bit at a time!”

“Gradually people can take everything they need for themselves.”

Budakh laughed awkwardly.

“Yes, I see that it's not so simple,” said he. “I somehow never thought of such things before. Although,” he leaned forward, “there is another possibility. Make it so that, more than anything people will love work and knowledge, so that work and knowledge will be the only purpose of their lives!”

Yes, this we also intended to try, thought Rumata. Mass hypnoinduction, positive remoralization. Hypno-emitters on three equatorial satellites…

“I could do this,” said he. “But is it worthwhile to deprive humanity of its history? Worthwhile to replace one humanity with another? Would that not be the same as erasing this humanity from the face of the earth and creating a new one in its place?”

Budakh, wrinkling his brow, thought it over in silence. Rumata waited. Outside the window, the carts again began creaking sadly. Budakh quietly spoke:

“Then, lord, erase us from the face of the earth and create us anew, more perfectly… or, better yet, leave us and let us walk our own path.”

“My heart is filled with pity,” Rumata said slowly. “This I cannot do.”

And then he saw Kira’s eyes. Kira was looking at him with horror and hope.

* * *

Having seen Budakh to sleep, to rest before the long journey, Rumata set off for his study. The sporamin’s effect was wearing off, he again felt tired and broken, again his bruises ached and his wrists, mangled by the rope, began to swell. I need to sleep, he thought, I must sleep and I must contact don Kondor. And I must contact the patrol dirigible, so that they inform the Base. And we must consider what we have to do now, and whether we can do anything, and what to do if we can do nothing anymore.

At the table in the study sat, hunched in the armchair, arms laid on the high armrests, a black monk with a hood pulled low. Clever, thought Rumata.

“Who are you?” he asked tiredly. “Who let you in?”

“Good day, noble don Rumata,” stated the monk, throwing the hood back.

Rumata shook his head.

“Clever!” he said. “Good day, fine Arata. Why are you here? What’s happened?”

“As usual,” said Arata. “The army has dispersed, everyone’s dividing the land, no one wants to go south. The duke is rounding up the survivors and soon will hang my men upside-down along the Estorian tract. As usual,” he repeated.

“Understood,” said Rumata.

He collapsed onto the cot, clasping his hands behind his head, and looked at Arata. Twenty years ago, when Anton was assembling model kits and playing “William Tell’, this man was called Arata the Fair, and he was then, likely, very different from now.

Arata the Fair’s magnificent high forehead did not have this ugly purple brand—it appeared after the revolt of the Soanian shipmen, when three thousand naked craftsmen-slaves, herded into Soan’s docks from all corners of the Empire and brutalized to the point of losing their instinct of self-preservation, on one squalid night tore out of the port, rolled across Soan, leaving corpses and fires behind them, and were met at the city's edge by the plate-armored Imperial infantry…

And, of course, both of Arata the Fair’s eyes were intact. The right eye burst from its socket from the mighty blow of a baron’s mace, when a twenty-thousand-strong peasant army, chasing the barons’ retinues across the principality, met the five-thousand-strong emperor’s guard on an open battlefield, and with lightning speed was divided, surrounded, and trampled beneath the spiked horseshoes of the war camels…

And Arata the Fair was, likely, straight as a poplar. The hump and his new nickname he received in the Villanian War in the Duchy of Uban, two seas away, when after seven years of famine and drought four hundred thousand living skeletons slaughtered the nobles with bills and pitchforks and besieged the Duke of Uban in his residence; and the duke, whose frail mind had sharpened from the unbearable terror, announced amnesty for his subjects, lowered the price of ale fivefold and promised liberties; and Arata, already seeing that all was lost, begged, demanded, exhorted not to give in to the lies, was siezed by the atamans, who figured that one doesn't look a gift horse in the mouth, beaten with iron rods and thrown to die in a cesspit…

But this massive iron ring on the right wrist he probably already had, even when he was called the Fair. It had been attached by a chain to the oar of a pirate galley, and Arata split the chain, struck with this ring at the temple of Captain Agu the Gracious, captured the ship, and then the whole pirate armada, and tried to create a free republic on the water… And the whole scheme ended in drunken, bloody mayhem, because back then Arata was young, did not know how to hate and thought that freedom alone is enough to make a slave like unto a god…

This was a professional insurgent, a bringer of god’s vengeance, in the Middle Ages quite a rare figure. Such pikes are birthed sometimes by historical evolution and released into the social waters, to keep awake the fat carps that feed on the bottom-dwelling plankton… Arata was, here, the only person for whom Rumata felt neither hatred, nor pity, and in his own, delirious, dreams of an Earther who’d spent five years in blood and filth, he often saw himself as just such an Arata, who had passed through all the hells of the Universe and had been granted for this the high right to kill murderers, torture executioners and betray traitors…

“I sometimes think,” said Arata, “that we are all powerless. I am the eternal insurgent leader, and I know that all my power lies in an extraordinary vitality. But this power does not help my powerlessness. My victories magically turn into defeats. My comrades in arms become enemies, the bravest flee, the most loyal betray or die. And I have nothing, except bare hands, and with bare hands one cannot reach the gilded idols, sitting behind castle walls…”

“How did you come to be in Arkanar?” asked Rumata.

“I sailed here with the monks.”

“You’ve gone mad. You're so easy to identify…”

“Not in a crowd of monks. Among the officers of the Order, half are holy fools and cripples, as I am. Cripples are pleasing to God.” He sneered, looking Rumata in the face.

“And what do you intend to do?” asked Rumata, lowering his eyes.

“The usual. I know what the Holy Order is; not a year will pass before the people of Arkanar will crawl out from their holes with axes—to fight in the streets. And I will lead them, so that they kill the right people, instead of each other and everyone around them.”

“You will need money?” asked Rumata.

“Yes, as usual. And weapons…” He was silent, then said insinuatingly:

“Don Rumata, do you remember how disappointed I was, when I found out who you are? I hate priests, and it galls me that their deceitful tales have turned out to be true. But a poor rebel must extract a benefit from any circumstance. The priests say that the gods wield bolts of lightning… Don Rumata, I am in great need of lightning bolts, to smash the walls of the castles.”

Rumata sighed deeply. After his miraculous helicopter rescue, Arata had insistently demanded answers. Rumata attempted to explain, he even pointed out Sol in the night sky—a distant, barely visible star. But the rebel understood only one thing: the cursed priests are right, beyond the heavenly firmanent indeed live gods, benevolent and all-powerful. And from then on every conversation with Rumata he reduced to one thing: god, since you do exist, give me your power, as that is the best that you can do.

And each time Rumata kept silent, or shifted the conversation to another topic.

“Don Rumata,” said the rebel, “why do you not want to help us?”

“One minute,” said Rumata. “Forgive me, but I would like to know how you got into my house?”

“It doesn’t matter. No one but me knows the way. Don’t change the subject, Don Rumata. Why don’t you want to give us your power?”

“Let’s not speak of this.”

“No, we will speak of it. I didn’t call you here. I never prayed to anyone. You came to me on your own. Or did you merely wish to amuse yourself?”

It’s hard to be a god, thought Rumata. He said patiently:

“You won’t understand. I’ve tried twenty times to explain to you that I am not a god; still you don’t believe me. And you will not understand why I can’t help you with weapons…”

“You have lightning bolts?”

“I can’t give you lightning.”

“I have heard this twenty times already,” said Arata. “Now I want to know: why?”

“I say again: you won’t understand.”

“Try.”

“What will you do with lightning bolts?”

“I will incinerate the gilded scum, like bugs, every one of them, their entire cursed bloodlines to the twelfth scion. I will wipe their castles from the face of the earth. I will burn their armies and all those who defend and support them. You need not worry—your lightning bolts will serve only good, and when there remain on earth only liberated slaves and peace reigns, I will return your lightning to you and will never ask for it again.”

Arata fell silent, breathing heavily. His face had darkened from a rush of blood. Likely he was already seeing the duchies and kingdoms in flames, and piles of scorched bodies among the ruins, and huge armies of the victors, feverishly howling: ‘Freedom! Freedom!’

“No,” said Rumata. “I will not give you lightning. That would be a mistake. Try to believe me, I see further than you do…” Arata listened, his head dropped to his chest. Rumata clenched his fingers. “I will give you only one argument. It is nothing compared to the main one, but at least you will understand it. You are a survivor, dear Arata, but you are also mortal; and if you perish, if the lightning bolts pass into other hands, ones not so clean as yours, then I fear even to think how it may end…”

They were both silent for a long while. Then Rumata brought a jug of Estorian wine and some food from the cellar and put it before his guest. Arata, not raising his eyes, began breaking off bread and washing it down with wine. Rumata had the strange feeling of a painful duality. He knew that he was right, and nonetheless this rightness in a strange way diminished him before Arata. Arata clearly exceeded him in something, and not only him, but all those who, unbidden, came to this planet, and full of powerless pity watched the terrible churning of its life from the rarefied heights of passionless hypotheses and an alien, here, morality. And for the first time Rumata thought: nothing can be gained with losing; we are infinitely stronger than Arata in our kingdom of good, and infinitely weaker than Arata in his kingdom of evil…

“You should not have come down from the sky,” Arata said suddenly. “Return to your own realm. You only do us harm.”

“That’s not so,” said Rumata gently. “In any case, we harm no one.”

“No, you do harm. You instill baseless hope…”

“In whom?”

“In me. You have weakened my will, Don Rumata. Before, I depended only on myself, but now you have made it so that I feel your strength behind me. Before, I fought every battle as if it were my last battle. But now I have noticed that I save myself for other battles, which will be decisive, because you will take part in them… Leave here, Don Rumata, go back to your heaven and never come here again. Or else give us your lightning bolts, or your iron bird, or at least simply bare your swords and stand at our head.”

Arata fell silent and again reached for the bread. Rumata looked at the other’s fingers, devoid of nails. His fingernails had been torn out, with a special device for that purpose, two years ago, by Don Reba personally. You don’t yet know, thought Rumata. You still console yourself with the thought that only you yourself are destined for defeat. You don’t yet know how hopeless are your efforts. You don’t yet know that the enemy is not so much around your soldiers, as within them. You might, perhaps, topple the Order, and a wave of peasant revolts will carry you onto the throne of Arkanar; you will raze the nobles’ castles, drown the barons in the Strait, and the rebellious people will grant you every honor as a great liberator, and you will be kind and wise—the only kind and wise person in your kingdom. And in your kindness you will start giving out lands to your comrades, and what use are lands to them without serfs? And the wheel will begin to turn the other way. And it will be a good thing if you manage to die in your own time, and do not live to see the rise of new dukes and barons from the ranks of your former loyal fighters. So it has already happened, my dear Arata, on Earth and on your own planet.