Actions & Adventure
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Romance & Love
Mystery & Detective
Actions & Adventure
History & Fiction
Thrillers & Crime
Romance & Love
Mystery & Detective
Time News Roman
Monday Starts on Saturday
Monday Starts on Saturday 11
The Institute possessed seven devices that once belonged to ben Bezalel. Redkin had stripped six of them down to the last bolt and not discovered anything special. The seventh device was the sofa-translator. But Vitka Korneev had appropriated the sofa, and Redkin’s simple soul had been filled with the very blackest of suspicions. He began following Vitka around. Vitka had immediately flown into a rage. They had argued and become sworn enemies, and still were to that very day. Magnus Fyodorovich was well disposed toward me as a representative of the precise sciences, but he disapproved of my friendship with “that plagiarist.”
Redkin was basically not a bad person, very hardworking, very tenacious, entirely devoid of self-interest and avarice. He had done a huge amount of work, assembling a gigantic collection of the most varied definitions of happiness. There were extremely simple negative definitions (“Happiness is not to be found in money”), extremely simple positive definitions (“Supreme satisfaction, total gratification, success, and good luck”), casuistic definitions (“Happiness is the absence of unhappiness”), and paradoxical definitions (“The happiest of all men are jesters, fools, idiots, and the unaware, for they know not the pangs of conscience, have no fear of ghosts and other ghouls and goblins, and are not tormented by fear of future calamities, nor are they deluded by hopes of boons to come”).
Magnus Fyodorovich put down his key on the table and, glancing distrustfully at us from under his brows, said, “I’ve found another definition.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“It’s like a poem. Only without any rhyme. Would you like to hear it?”
“Of course we would,” said Roman.
Magnus Fyodorovich opened his notebook and read it out, stammering and stuttering:
You ask me:
What is the greatest happiness on earth?
changing my mind
as I’d change a penny for a shilling;
listening to the sound
of a young girl
singing down the road
after she has asked me the way.
“I didn’t understand a thing,” said Roman. “Let me read it for myself.”
Redkin gave him the notebook and explained: “It’s Christopher Logue. From the English.”
“Great poetry,” said Roman.
Magnus Fyodorovich sighed. “Some say one thing, others say something else.”
“It’s tough,” I said sympathetically.
“It really is, isn’t it? How can you link it all together? Hear a girl singing . . . And not just any old singing either—the girl has to be young and be off his path, and it must be after someone asks him the way . . . How on Earth can it be done? Is it really possible to reduce things like that to algorithms?”
“Hardly,” I said. “I wouldn’t like to try.”
“You see!” Magnus Fyodorovich exclaimed. “And you’re the head of our computer center! So who can do it?”
“Maybe it just doesn’t exist at all?” Roman suggested in the voice of a movie villain.
Magnus Fyodorovich immediately took offense at that. “How can it not exist,” he said with a dignified air, “when I myself have experienced it on repeated occasions?”
“By changing pennies for a shilling?” asked Roman.
Magnus Fyodorovich took even greater offense at that and grabbed his notebook out of Roman’s hands. “You’re still too young—” he began.
But at that moment there was a sudden rumbling and crashing, a flash of flame, and a smell of sulfur, and Merlin appeared in the center of the room. Magnus Fyodorovich recoiled all the way to the window in surprise, exclaimed, “Oh, you!” and went running out.
“Good God!” Oira-Oira said in English, wiping the dust out of his eyes. “Canst thou not enter by the usual route as decent people do?” Then he added, “Sir.”
“I do beg thy pardon,” Merlin said smugly, casting a satisfied glance in my direction. I must have looked pale, because I’d suddenly been terrified by the thought of spontaneous combustion.
Merlin straightened his moth-eaten robe, tossed a bunch of keys onto the desk, and said, “Have you noticed, kind sirs, what the weather is like?”
“As predicted,” said Roman.
“Precisely, Sir Oira-Oira! Precisely as predicted!”
“A very handy thing, the radio,” said Roman.
“I listen not to the radio,” said Merlin. “I have my own methods.” He shook the hem of his robe and floated up a meter above the floor.
“The chandelier!” I said. “Careful!”
Merlin glanced briefly at the chandelier and began speaking, apropos of nothing at all: “Oh ye imbued with the spirit of Western materialism, base mercantilism, and utilitarianism, whose spiritual poverty is incapable of rising above the gloom and chaos of petty, cheerless cares . . . I cannot help but recall, dear sirs, how last year I and Sir Chairman of the district soviet, comrade Pereyaslavsky . . .”
Oira-Oira gave a heart-rending yawn, and I suddenly felt depressed too. Merlin would probably have been even worse than Vybegallo, if he weren’t so archaic and conceited. Through an oversight on someone’s part he had once managed to rise to be head of the Department of Predictions and Prophecies, because he had written in all his questionnaires about his implacable struggle against Yankee imperialism even back in the Middle Ages, attaching to the questionnaires notarized typed copies of the relevant pages from Mark Twain. Later, in connection with the changed internal situation and the improved international climate, he had been moved back to his position as head of the weather office and now worked, just as he had a thousand years earlier, at forecasting atmospheric phenomena, relying on magical means as well as the behavior of tarantulas, twinges of rheumatism, and the propensity of the pigs of Solovets to lie down and wallow in the mud or to clamber out of the aforesaid substance. However, the main source of his forecasts was the crude interception of radio signals, performed with the assistance of a crystal receiver that was widely believed to have been stolen in the 1920s from a Young Scientist Exhibition in Solovets. The Institute kept him on out of respect for his age. He was a great friend of Naina Kievna Gorynych, and the two of them collected and disseminated rumors about a gigantic woman covered in hair appearing in the forest and a female student being taken prisoner by a yeti from Mount Elbrus. It was also said that from time to time he took part in the nocturnal vigils on Bald Mountain with C. M. Viy, Khoma Brut, and other hooligans.
Roman and I said nothing and waited for him to disappear. But he wrapped his robe around himself, settled in comfortably under the chandelier, and launched into the long, boring story that everyone already knew by heart about how he, Merlin, and the chairman of the Solovets district soviet, Pereyaslavsky, had undertaken a journey of inspection around the local district. The whole story was nothing but a pack of lies, a talentless and opportunistic transposition of Mark Twain. He talked about himself in the third person, sometimes losing the thread and calling the chairman King Arthur.
“Right so the chairman of the district soviet and Merlin departed, and went until a keeper of bees, the Hero of Labor Sir Eremitenko, who was a good knight and a renowned gatherer of honey. So Sir Eremitenko related to them his successes in labor and did cure Sir Arthur of his radiculitis with bee venom. And Sir Chairman was there three days, and his radiculitis was soothed that he might ride and go, and so departed. And as they rode, Ar—Chairman said, I have no sword. No force, said Merlin, hereby is a sword that shall be yours and I may. So they rode till they came to a lake, the which was a fair water and broad, and in the midst of the lake Arthur was ware of a hand hardened by toil, that held a hammer and sickle. Lo, said Merlin, yonder is that sword that I spake of . . .”
Then the phone rang and I grabbed it in delight. “Hello,” I said. “Hello, who is it?”
There was a low mumbling in the receiver and Merlin droned on through his nose: ??
?. . . So they rode into Lezhnev, and by the way they met with Sir Pellinor; but Merlin had done such a craft that Pellinore saw not the Chairman . . .”
“Sir citizen Merlin,” I said, “could you speak more quietly please? I can’t hear.”
Merlin stopped speaking, but with the expression of a man ready to continue at any moment.
“Hello,” I said into the receiver again. “Who’s speaking? Who are you looking for?” I said out of old habit.
“That’s enough of that from you. You’re not in the circus now, Privalov.”
“I’m sorry, Modest Matveevich. Duty staff member Privalov here.”
“That’s better. Now report.”
“Listen here, Privalov, there you go again behaving like I don’t know what. Who’s that you’re talking with there? Why are there outsiders at your post? Why, in contravention of the labor regulations, are there still people in the Institute after the end of the working day?”
“It’s Merlin,” I said.
“Throw him out on his ear!”
“Gladly,” I said. (Merlin, who had no doubt been listening, broke out in red blotches, exclaimed, “Boorish churl!” and dissolved into thin air.)
“Gladly or otherwise, it makes no difference to me. And I’ve received a warning here that you’re piling up the keys entrusted to you in a heap on the desk, instead of locking them in the box.”
Vybegallo ratted on me, I thought.
“Haven’t you got anything to say?”
“I’ll put that right.”
“That’s the way of things,” said Modest Matveevich. “Unflagging vigilance is absolutely essential. Is that clear?”
“That’s all from me, then,” Modest Matveevich said, and hung up.
“All right, then,” said Oira-Oira, “I’ll go and start opening cans and uncorking bottles. Cheers for now—I’ll drop by again later.”
I walked on, descending dark passages, in order to ascend again to the floors above. I was alone, I called out, nobody answered, I was alone; there was no one in that house—a house as vast and tortuous as a labyrinth.
—Guy de Maupassant
I dropped the keys into my jacket pocket and set off on my first round. I went down the formal staircase, which I could only ever remember being used on one occasion, when the Institute was visited by a most august personage from Africa, into the vast entrance hall decorated with centuries-old strata of architectural extravagance, and glanced in the window of the doorman’s chamber, where I could vaguely make out the two Maxwell’s macrodemons through the phosphorescent mist. The demons were playing that most stochastic of games—heads or tails, which was what they did whenever they weren’t on duty. Huge, sluggish, and indescribably grotesque, resembling more than anything else colonies of the polio virus under an electron microscope, dressed in worn-out livery, they spent all their lives, as Maxwell’s demons are supposed to do, opening and closing doors. These were experienced, well-trained specimens, but one of them—the one in charge of the exits—had already reached retirement age, commensurate with the age of the galaxy, and every now and then he lapsed into senile dementia and started malfunctioning. Then someone from the Technical Service Department had to put on a diving suit, clamber into the chamber, which was filled with compressed argon, and restore the old guy to his senses.
Following instructions, I put a spell on them both—that is, I shut off the information channels and linked the input-output devices to myself. The demons didn’t react; they had other things on their mind. One was winning and the other, accordingly, was losing, and that bothered them, because it violated the statistical equilibrium. I closed the cover over the little window and walked around the entrance hall. It was damp and gloomy, with a hollow echo. The Institute building was pretty ancient, but they had obviously started building it from this entrance hall. The bones of chained skeletons gleamed in the mildewed corners, there was a steady drip-drip of water from somewhere, in the niches between the columns statues in rusty suits of armor stood in unnatural poses, fragments of ancient idols were heaped up by the wall to the right of the door, and there was a pair of plaster legs in boots jutting out of the top of the heap. Venerable elders gazed down severely from blackened portraits up under the ceiling, with the familiar features of Fyodor Simeonovich, comrade Gian Giacomo, and other grand masters discernible in their faces. They should have thrown out all this archaic garbage ages ago, set windows in the walls and installed daylight fluorescent lighting, but everything was registered and inventoried and Modest Matveevich had personally forbidden its improper exploitation or disposal.
On the capitals of the columns and in the labyrinths of the gigantic chandelier hanging from the blackened ceiling, bats of several varieties, large and small, rustled their wings. Modest Matveevich waged war against them. He doused them with turpentine and creosote, sprinkled them with insecticide, sprayed them with hexachlorophene, and they died in the thousands—but regenerated in the tens of thousands, and mutated. Singing and talking strains appeared, and the descendants of the most ancient species now fed exclusively on a mixture of pyrethrum and chlorophene. The Institute’s film technician, Sasha Drozd, swore that one day he’d seen a bat here that was a dead ringer for our comrade head of the Personnel Department.
In a deep niche that gave off an icy stench, someone was moaning and rattling chains. “Now that’s enough of that,” I said sternly. “None of that mysticism! You ought to be ashamed of yourself!” The niche went quiet. I restored order by adjusting a carpet that was out of position and went back up the stairs.
As you already know, from the outside the Institute looked like a two-story building, but in actual fact it had at least twelve floors. I never went any higher up than the twelfth floor, because they were always repairing the elevator, and I didn’t know how to fly yet. Like most facades, the frontage with ten windows was an optical illusion. To the right and left of the entrance hall the Institute extended for at least a kilometer, and yet absolutely all of the windows looked out onto the same crooked street and the same “emporium.” I was absolutely astounded by this. At first I used to pester Oira-Oira to explain to me how it could be reconciled with classical or even relativistic concepts of the properties of space. I didn’t understand a word of his explanations, but I gradually got used to it and stopped being amazed. I am quite convinced that in ten or fifteen years’ time every schoolboy will have a better grasp of the general theory of relativity than our present-day specialists. This by no means requires any understanding of how the deformation of space and time occurs; all that’s needed is for the concept to be made familiar in childhood so that it seems normal.
The entire ground floor was occupied by the Department of Linear Happiness. This was Fyodor Simeonovich’s kingdom, which smelled of apples and pine forests; this was where the prettiest girls and the grandest boys worked. Here there were no gloomy zealots and adepts of black magic; here no one plucked out his own hair, hissing and grimacing at the pain; no one muttered incantations that sounded like indecent tongue twisters or boiled toads and ravens alive at midnight, for Halloween or on unlucky days of the year. They worked on optimism here. Here they did everything that was possible within the limits of white, submolecular, and infraneuron magic to enhance the spiritual vigor of every individual and entire collectives of individuals. Here they condensed happy, good-natured laughter and disseminated it right around the world; they developed, tested, and applied models of behavior and relationships that reinforced friendship and subverted discord; they sublimated and distilled extracts of sorrow-soothers that didn’t contain a single molecule of alcohol or other drugs. At that time they were preparing for the field trials of a portable universal evil-crusher and were developing new grades of the rarest alloys of intellect and kindness.
I unlocked the door of the central hall and stood in the doorway, admiring the operation of the gigantic Children’s Laughter Dist
illation Unit, which looked something like a Van de Graaf generator, except that unlike a generator it worked quite silently and gave off a pleasant smell. According to my instructions, I was supposed to turn two large white switches on the control panel to switch off the golden glow that filled the hall and leave it dark, cold, and still—in other words, my instructions required me to cut off the power to the production premises in question. But without even the slightest hesitation, I backed out into the corridor and locked the door behind me. Shutting down anything at all in Fyodor Simeonovich’s laboratories seemed like sacrilege to me.
I set off slowly along the corridor, examining the amusing pictures on the doors of the laboratories, and at the corner I met the brownie Tikhon, who drew the pictures and changed them every night. We shook hands. Tikhon was a lovely little gray brownie from the Ryazan region, whom Viy had exiled to Solovets for some offense or other: he’d either failed to greet someone correctly or refused to eat up his boiled viper . . . Fyodor Simeonovich had taken him in, cleaned him up, and cured him of chronic alcoholism, and he’d settled in here on the ground floor. He drew extremely well, in the manner of Bidstrup, and he was famous among the local brownies for his sensible and sober behavior.
I was about to go up to the second floor when I remembered about the vivarium and set out for the basement instead. The vivarium supervisor, an elderly rehabilitated vampire named Alfred, was drinking tea. When he caught sight of me he tried to hide the teapot under the table and broke his glass. He blushed and lowered his eyes. I felt sorry for him.
“Happy New Year, when it arrives,” I said, pretending I hadn’t noticed anything.
He cleared his throat, put his hand over his mouth, and replied hoarsely, “Thank you. And the same to you.”
“Is everything in order?” I asked, looking around at the rows of cages and stalls.