Chapter One

From this height, the forest was like foam, luxuriant and blotchy, a gigantic world--encompassing porous sponge, like an animal waiting in concealment, now fallen asleep and overgrown with rough moss. A formless mask hiding a face, as yet revealed to none.

Pepper shook off his sandals and sat down with his bare legs dangling over the precipice. It seemed to him that his heels at once became damp, as if he had actually immersed them in the warm lilac fog that lay banked up in the shadows under the cliff. He fished out the pebbles he had collected from his pocket and laid them out neatly beside him. He then selected the smallest and gently tossed it down into the living and silent, slumbering, all-enveloping indifference, and the white spark was extinguished, and nothing happened--no branch trembled, no eye half-opened to glance up.

If he were to throw a pebble every one and a half minutes, and if what the one-legged cook, nicknamed Pansy, said was true and what Madame Bardot, head of the Assistance to the Local Population Group, reckoned, if what driver Acey whispered to the unknown man from the Engineering Penetration Group was untrue, and if human intuition was worth anything at all, and if wishes came true once in a lifetime, then at the seventh stone, the bushes behind him would part with a crash, and the director would step out onto the soft crushed grass of the dew-gray clearing. He would be stripped to the waist in his gray garbardines with the lilac braid, breathing heavily, sleek and glossy, yellow-pink and shaggy, looking nowhere in particular, neither at the forest beneath him nor at the sky above him, bending down to bury his arms in the grass, then unbending to raise a breeze with his broad palms, each time the mighty fold on his belly bulging out over his trousers, while air, saturated with carbon dioxide and nicotine, would burst out of his open mouth with a whistling gurgle.

The bushes behind parted with a crash. Pepper looked around cautiously, but it wasn't the director, it was someone he knew, Claudius-Octavian Haus-botcher from the Eradication Group. He approached without haste and halted two paces away, looking Pepper up and down with his piercing dark eyes. He knew something or suspected something, something very important, and this knowledge or suspicion had frozen his long face, the stony face of a man who had brought here to the precipice a strange, alarming piece of news. No one in the whole world knew what this news was, but it was already clear that everything had altered decisively; what had gone before was no longer significant and now, at last, everyone would be required to contribute all he was capable of.