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Actions & Adventure
History & Fiction
Thrillers & Crime
Romance & Love
Mystery & Detective
Time News Roman
Monday Starts on Saturday
Monday Starts on Saturday 12
“Briareos has broken a finger,” said Alfred.
“How did he manage that?”
“Some way or other. On his eighteenth right hand. He was picking his nose and he turned awkwardly—they’re clumsy, those hecatoncheires—and he broke it.”
“Then we need a vet,” I said.
“He’ll manage without! It’s not the first time.”
“No, that’s not right,” I said. “Let’s go and take a look.”
We walked through into the depths of the vivarium, past the Little Humpbacked Horse, dozing with its nose stuck in a feed bag of oats, past the cage of harpies who watched us go by with eyes dull and heavy from sleep, past the cage of the Hydra of Lerna, morose and incommunicative at that time of year . . . The three hecatoncheir brothers, triplets with a hundred hands and fifty heads each, the firstborn of Heaven and Earth, were housed in a vast concrete cave, closed off by thick iron bars. Gyges and Kottos were asleep, curled up into huge, shapeless bundles from which their blue shaved heads with closed eyes and their relaxed hairy hands protruded. Briareos was suffering. He was squatting on his haunches, huddled up against the bars, sticking the hand with the damaged finger out into the passage and holding it with another seven hands. With his remaining ninety-two hands he was holding on to the bars and propping up his heads. Some of the heads were asleep.
“Well?” I asked. “Does it hurt?”
The heads that were awake started jabbering in ancient Hellenic and woke up a head that knew Russian.
“It hurts really badly,” said the head. The other heads fell silent and gaped at me with their mouths open.
I inspected the finger. It was dirty and swollen, but it wasn’t broken at all. It was simply dislocated. In our sports hall, injuries like that are cured without any doctor. I grabbed hold of the finger and tugged it toward me as hard as I could. Briareos roared with all of his fifty throats and fell over on his back.
“There, there,” I said, wiping my hands on my handkerchief. “It’s all over now.”
Sniveling with all his noses, Briareos began inspecting the finger. The heads at the back craned their necks avidly and in their impatience bit the ears of the heads in front to make them get out of the way. Alfred chuckled.
“It would do him good to have some blood let,” he said with a long-forgotten expression on his face, then he sighed and added, “But what sort of blood has he got in him? It’s just pretend. Nonlife, isn’t he?”
Briareos stood up. All of his fifty heads were smiling blissfully. I waved to him and began walking back. I paused beside Koschei the Deathless. The great villain lived in his own comfortable cage with carpets, air conditioning, and bookshelves. The walls of the cage were hung with portraits of Genghis Khan, Himmler, Catherine de Médicis, one of the Borgias, and either Goldwater or McCarthy. Koschei himself, wearing a shimmering dressing gown, was standing in front of an immense lectern with one leg crossed over the other, reading an offset-printed copy of the Malleus Maleficarum; at the same time he was making unpleasant movements with his fingers—screwing or thrusting something in or ripping something off. He was detained in eternal confinement awaiting trial while a never-ending investigation was conducted into his infinite number of crimes. He was well taken care of in the Institute, since he was used in certain unique experiments and as an interpreter for communicating with Wyrm Gorynych. Gorynych himself was locked away in an old boiler room, where he could be heard snoring metallically and roaring as he dozed.
I stood there, thinking that if at some point in time infinitely removed from us Koschei should ever be convicted, then the judges, whoever they might be, would find themselves in a very strange position: the death penalty can’t be applied to an immortal, and if you included detention while awaiting trial, he would already have served an infinite sentence . . .
Then someone grabbed me by the trouser leg and a hoarse drunk’s voice asked, “Right, then, guys, who fancies sharing a drink?”
I had to pull myself free. The three vampires in the next cage were staring at me greedily, pressing their grayish-purple faces against the metal mesh that carried two hundred volts of electricity.
“You crushed my hand, you four-eyed beanpole!” said one of them.
“You shouldn’t go grabbing hold of people,” I said. “Fancy a nice little poplar stake?”
Alfred came running up, cracking a whip, and the vampires withdrew into a dark corner, where they immediately started swearing obscenely and slapping down homemade cards on the floor in a frenzied game.
I said to Alfred, “All right, then. I think everything’s in order. I’ll get going.”
“Safe journey,” Alfred replied eagerly.
As I walked upstairs I could hear the rattling and glugging of his teapot.
I glanced into the electrical room to see how the generator was working. The Institute was not dependent on the municipal energy supply. After the principle of determinism had been defined, it had been decided to use the well-known Wheel of Fortune as a source of free mechanical energy. There was only a minute section of the gigantic wheel’s gleaming, polished rim rising up above the concrete floor, and since the axis of rotation lay an infinite distance away, the rim looked like a conveyor belt emerging from one wall and disappearing into the other. At one time it was fashionable to present doctoral dissertations on calculating the Wheel of Fortune’s radius of curvature, but since all these dissertations produced results with an extremely low degree of accuracy, plus or minus 10 megaparsecs, the Institute’s Academic Council had decided not to consider any more dissertations on this topic until such time as intergalactic transportation should make it reasonable to expect a substantial improvement in precision.
Several maintenance imps were playing by the Wheel, leaping onto the rim, riding as far as the wall, leaping off, and running back to the start. I called them to order firmly. “That’s enough of that,” I said. “You’re not at the fairground now.” They hid behind the housings of the transformers and began pelting me with spitballs. I decided not to get involved with the little babies and set off along the line of control panels. Once I was certain everything was in order, I went up to the second floor.
Here it was quiet, dark, and dusty. A decrepit old soldier wearing the uniform of the Preobrazhensky Regiment and a three-cornered hat was dozing by a low, half-open door, leaning on a long flintlock rifle. This was the Department of Defensive Magic, where for a long time now the staff had not included a single living person. In their day all of our old-timers, with the possible exception of Fyodor Simeonovich, had shown some enthusiasm for this division of magic. Ben Bezalel had made successful use of the Golem in palace coups; the clay monster, indifferent to bribes and impervious to poisons, had guarded the laboratories and with them the imperial treasure house. Giuseppe Balsamo had created the first flying broom squadron, which had given a good account of itself in the battlefields of the Hundred Years’ War. But the squadron had fallen apart fairly quickly: some of the witches had married and the others had tagged along with the German cavalry regiments as camp followers. King Solomon had captured and enchanted a dozen times a dozen ifrits and hammered them into a special flame-throwing anti-elephant pursuit battalion. The young Cristóbal Junta had brought the forces of Charlemagne a Chinese dragon trained to fight Moors; on learning, however, that it was not the Moors that the emperor intended to fight but his fellow tribesmen the Basques, he had flown into a fury and deserted.
Throughout many centuries of history various magicians have suggested the use in battle of vampires (for night reconnaissance raids), basilisks (to terrify the enemy into a state of total petrification), flying carpets (for dropping sewage on enemy towns), magic swords of various calibers (to compensate for lack of numbers), and many other things. However, after the First World War, after Big Bertha, tanks, mustard gas, and chlorine gas, defensive magic had gone into decline. Staff began abandoning the department in droves.
The one who stayed longer than all the others was a certain Pitirim Sch
warz, a former monk and the inventor of a musket stand, who had labored with selfless devotion on a project for genie bombardments. The essential idea of the project was to bomb the enemy’s cities with bottles containing genies who had been held in solitary confinement for at least three thousand years. It is a well-known fact that in a state of freedom, genies are only capable of either destroying cities or building palaces. A fully mature genie, so Pitirim Schwarz reasoned, would not start building palaces when he was freed from his bottle, and the enemy would find himself with a serious problem. A certain obstacle to the realization of this plan was presented by the small number of bottles containing genies, but Schwarz was counting on augmenting the reserves by deep trawling of the Red and Mediterranean Seas. They say that when he learned about the hydrogen bomb and bacteriological warfare, old Pitirim became mentally unbalanced, gave away the genies he had to various departments, and moved over to Cristóbal Junta’s team to investigate the meaning of life. No one had ever seen him again.
When I stopped in the doorway, the soldier looked up at me with one eye and croaked, “Not allowed, on your way . . .” and dozed off again. I glanced around the unoccupied room, cluttered with fragments of bizarre models and scraps of botched drawings, nudged a file lying by the entrance with the toe of my shoe, reading the blurred inscription TOP SECRET. BURN BEFORE READING, and went on. There was nothing here to switch off, and as for spontaneous combustion, everything that could combust spontaneously had done so many years ago.
The book depository was on the same floor. It was a rather gloomy, dusty space a bit like a lobby, but with substantially larger dimensions. They said that well inside, half a kilometer from the entrance, there was a fairly decent highway running along the shelves, complete with posts showing distances in versts. Oira-Oira had gone as far as post number 19, and the persistent Vitka Korneev, in search of technical documentation on the sofa-translator, had gotten hold of some seven-league boots and run as far as post number 124. He would have gone even farther, but his way was blocked by a brigade of Danaids in padded work jackets with jackhammers. Under the supervision of the fat-faced Cain, they were breaking up the asphalt and laying some kind of pipes. The Academic Council had several times raised the question of building a high-voltage power line along the highway to transmit clients of the depository through the wires, but every positive proposal had foundered on a lack of funding.
The depository was crammed full of extremely interesting books in all languages of the history of the world, from the tongue of the ancient Atlanteans to pidgin English inclusive. But what interested me most of all was a multivolume edition of the Book of Fates.
The Book of Fates was printed in brevier type on super-thin rice paper and contained in chronological order more or less complete data on the 73,619,024,511 members of the genus Homo. The first volume began with the pithecanthropus Aiuikh. (“Born 2 Aug. 965543 BC, died 13 Jan. 965522 BC. Parents ramapithecines. Wife a ramapithecus. Children: male Ad-Amm, female E-Ua. Lived nomadically with a tribe of ramapithecines in the valley of Mount Ararat. Ate, drank, and slept to his heart’s content. Drilled the first hole in stone. Eaten by a cave bear during a hunt.”) The last name in this publication’s latest volume, published the year before, was Francisco Caetano Agostinho Lucia e Manuel e Josefa e Miguel Luca Carlos Pedro Trinidad (“Born 16 Jul. 1491 AD, died 17 July 1491 AD. Parents: Pedro Carlos Luca Miguel e Josefa e Manuel e Lucia Agostinho Caetano Francisco Trinidad and Maria Trinidad. Portuguese. Acephaloid. Cavalier of the Order of the Holy Spirit, Colonel of the Guards”).
The publishing data informed me that the Book of Fates was published in an edition of 1 (one) copy and this latest volume had been sent to press at the time of the Montgolfier brothers’ flights. Evidently in order to satisfy the demand of their own contemporaries, the publishers had begun issuing the occasional special edition, which listed only the years of birth and death. In one of these volumes I found my own name. However, hasty work has led to many errors finding their way into these volumes, and I was amazed to learn that I would die in 1611. Eight volumes of misprints have been identified to date, but they still haven’t gotten as far as my name yet.
The Book of Fates used to be consulted by a special group in the Department of Predictions and Prophecies, but now the department was impoverished and deserted. It had never really recovered following the brief reign of sir citizen Merlin. The Institute had repeatedly advertised to fill the vacant position of head of department, and every time the only person to apply had been Merlin. The Academic Council always conscientiously reviewed the application and safely rejected it—43 votes “against” and 1 “for.” (By tradition Merlin was also a member of the Academic Council.)
The Department of Predictions and Prophecies occupied the entire third floor. I walked past the doors with the plaques that read COFFEE GROUNDS GROUP, AUGURS’ GROUP, PYTHIAS’ GROUP, METEOROLOGICAL GROUP, SOLITAIRE GROUP, SOLOVETS ORACLE. I didn’t have to disconnect anything here, since the department worked by candlelight. On the doors of the weather forecasting group a fresh inscription in chalk had already appeared: “Dark waters in the clouds.” Every morning Merlin, cursing the intrigues of the envious, wiped this inscription away with a damp rag, and every night it was renewed.
I simply couldn’t understand what the authority of this department rested on. From time to time its members gave papers on strange subjects such as “Concerning the Expression of the Augur’s Eye” or “The Predictive Qualities of Mocha Coffee from the Harvest of 1926.” Sometimes the group of Pythias managed to predict something correctly, but every time it happened the Pythias themselves seemed so astonished and frightened by their success that the whole effect was totally ruined. S-Janus, an individual of supreme tact, was remarked on numerous occasions to be unable to restrain an ambiguous smile whenever he attended the augurs’ and Pythias’ seminars.
On the fourth floor I eventually found something to do: I switched off the light in the cells of the Department of Eternal Youth. There were no young people in this department, and these old men suffering from a thousand years of arteriosclerotic dementia were always forgetting to turn the lights off after themselves. I suspected that in fact it wasn’t just a matter of forgetfulness. Many of them were afraid of getting an electric shock. They still called the suburban electric trains iron horses. In the sublimation lab a dejected model of an eternally youthful young man was wandering around between the desks, yawning with his hands stuck in his pockets. His six-foot-long gray beard dragged along the floor and snagged on the legs of the chairs. Just to be on the safe side I put the demijohn of hydrochloric acid that was standing on a stool away in a cupboard before setting off for my own workplace in the computer room.
This was where my Aldan stood. I admired it for a moment—so compact and handsome, gleaming mysteriously. The attitudes taken toward us by people in the Institute had varied. The Accounts Department, for instance, had greeted me with wide-open arms, and the senior accountant, smiling stingily, had immediately lumbered me with his tedious expense and profitability calculations. Gian Giacomo, the head of the Department of Universal Transformations, was also happy to see me at first, but when he realized the Aldan was not even capable of calculating the elementary transformation of a cubic centimeter of lead into a cubic centimeter of gold, he became less enthusiastic about my electronics and favored us only with occasional, incidental tasks. But his subordinate and favorite pupil, Vitka Korneev, snowed me under. And Oira-Oira was always putting the pressure on with his mind-bending problems from the field of irrational metamathematics. Cristóbal Junta, who liked to be the leader in all things, made it a rule to connect the machine to his central nervous system at night, so that all next day there was something constantly buzzing and clicking away in his head, and the confused Aldan, instead of calculating in the binary system, would shift in some way I couldn’t understand into the ancient sexagesimal system and also change its logic, totally rejecting the law of the excluded middle. Fyodor Simeonovich
Kivrin amused himself playing with the machine as if it were a toy. He could spend hours playing it at odds and evens; he taught it to play Japanese chess, and to make things more interesting he installed someone’s immortal soul in the machine—quite a cheerful and industrious soul, in fact. Janus Polyeuctovich (I can’t remember if it was A or S) only used the machine once. He brought in a small, translucent box and connected it to the Aldan. After about ten seconds of working with this peripheral, every fuse in the machine blew, following which Janus Polyeuctovich apologized, took his little box, and went away. But despite all the little obstacles and unpleasantnesses, despite the fact that the newly animated Aldan sometimes printed out “I’m thinking. Please do not disturb,” despite the shortage of spare units and the feeling of helplessness that overwhelmed me when I was required to perform a logical analysis of “noncongruent transgression in the psifield of incubotransformation”—despite all of that, the work here was exceptionally interesting, and I was proud to feel that I was obviously needed.
I carried out all the calculations in Oira-Oira’s work on the mechanism of heredity in bipolar homunculi. For Vitka Korneev I drew up the stress tables for the M-field of the sofa-translator in nine-dimensional magospace. I performed the operational calculations for the Institute’s fish processing plant. I calculated the flowchart for the most economical mode of transportation of the Children’s Laughter elixir. I even calculated the probability of winning games in the different versions of solitaire—“big elephant,” “State Duma,” and “Napoleon’s tomb”—for the jokers from the solitaire group and performed all the quadratures for Cristóbal Junta’s numerical method, for which he taught me how to enter Nirvana. I was contented, the days were all too short, and my life was full of meaning.
It was still early, not yet seven o’clock. I switched on the Aldan and did a little bit of work. At nine o’clock in the evening I pulled myself together, regretfully closed down the computer room, and set off toward the fifth floor. The blizzard had still not abated. It was a genuine New Year’s blizzard. It howled and screeched in the old disused chimneys, piled up snowdrifts under the windows, and tugged furiously at the old street lamps, swaying them to and fro.