Settings
Monday Starts on Saturday

Monday Starts on Saturday

Monday Starts on Saturday 14


  “Clear out of here, I told you,” I roared in desperation.

  Vitka shot me a rapid glance and I bit my tongue. The joking was over. Vitka was in that state of mind in which magicians obsessed with their work turn the people around them into spiders, wood lice, lizards, and other quiet animals. I squatted down beside the genie and watched.

  Vitka froze in the classical pose for a material incantation. A pink vapor rose up from the table, shadows that looked like bats began flitting up and down, the calculator disappeared, the paper disappeared, and suddenly the entire surface of the table was covered with vessels full of transparent liquids. Vitka dumped the plywitsum on a chair without looking, grabbed one of the vessels, and started examining it closely. He was obviously never going to leave the place now. He grabbed the bathtub off the sofa, then leaped across to the shelves in a single bound and lugged a cumbersome copper aquavitometer back to the table. I was about to make myself more comfortable and clean off a little observation window for the genie when I suddenly heard voices, the clattering of feet, and doors slamming in the corridor. I leaped up and dashed out of the lab.

  The huge building’s aura of nocturnal emptiness and tranquil darkness had disappeared without a trace. There were lamps blazing brightly in the corridor. Someone was dashing crazily up the stairs; someone else was shouting, “Valka! The voltage has dropped! Run to the electrical room!”; someone was shaking off a fur coat on the landing, sending wet snow flying in all directions. Walking toward me with a thoughtful expression on his face was Gian Giacomo, and trotting along behind him with his huge portfolio under its arm and his cane in its mouth was a gnome. We exchanged bows. The great prestidigitator smelled of good wine and French fragrances. I didn’t dare try to stop him, and he walked straight through the locked door into his office. The gnome stuck his briefcase and cane through the closed door and then dived into the radiator.

  “What the hell?” I shouted, and ran toward the stairs.

  The Institute was overflowing with members of staff. There seemed to be even more of them than on an ordinary working day. In the offices and laboratories lights were blazing; doors were standing wide open. The usual buzz of work filled the air: crackling electrical discharges, monotonous voices dictating figures and intoning spells, the sharp chatter of typewriters. And above it all Fyodor Simeonovich’s booming, triumphant growl: “’At’s good, ’at’s just grand! Well done there, good boy! But what fool turned off the generator?”

  Somebody poked me in the back with the hard corner of something and I grabbed hold of the banister, feeling really furious now. It was Volodya Pochkin and Edik Amperian, carrying a coordinate-measuring machine that weighed half a ton.

  “Ah, Sasha,” Edik said pleasantly. “Hi there, Sasha.”

  “Sashka, get out of the way!” yelled Volodya Pochkin, edging along backward. “Higher, higher!”

  I grabbed him by the collar. “Why are you in the Institute? How did you get in?”

  “Through the door, through the door, let go . . .” said Volodya. “Edka, more to the right! Can’t you see it’s not fitting through?”

  I let go of him and dashed down to the entrance hall, seething with administrative indignation. “I’ll teach you,” I muttered, jumping four steps at a time. “I’ll teach you, you idle loafers, I’ll teach you to go just letting in all and sundry!”

  Instead of doing their job, the macrodemons Entrance and Exit were playing roulette, trembling with excitement and phosphorescing feverishly. In front of my very eyes Entrance, totally oblivious to his duties, broke the bank to win about seventy billion molecules from the equally oblivious Exit. I recognized the roulette wheel immediately. It was mine; I had made it myself for a party and kept it behind a cupboard in the computer room, and the only person who knew about it was Vitka Korneev. A conspiracy, I thought. I’ll sling the whole lot of you out now. But the red-cheeked, jolly, snow-covered members of staff just kept on pouring in through the vestibule.

  “It’s really blowing out there! My ears are all clogged up . . .”

  “So you left too, then?”

  “Well, it’s so boring . . . Everyone got drunk. So I thought, why don’t I go in and do a bit of work instead. I left them a double and took off . . .”

  “You know, there I am dancing with her and I can just feel myself turning hairy all over. I took a shot of vodka, but it didn’t do any good . . .”

  “What about an electron beam? A large mass? Try photons, then . . .”

  “Alexei, have you got a laser you’re not using? Even a gas one would do . . .”

  “Galka, how come you left your husband?”

  “I left an hour ago, if you must know. I fell into a snowdrift, you know, almost got buried in it . . .”

  I realized I’d failed in my duty. There was no point now in taking the roulette wheel away from the demons. The only thing I could do was go and have a blazing fight with that agent provocateur Vitka; the rest was out of my hands. I waved my fist at the demons and set off back upstairs, trying to imagine what would happen if Modest Matveevich happened to drop into the Institute just then.

  On my way to the director’s waiting room I stopped in the test lab, where they were pacifying a genie released from a bottle. The huge genie, blue with rage, was dashing around inside a cage walled off with shields of Jan ben Jan and closed off above by a powerful magnetic field. They were zapping the genie with high-voltage shocks. He howled, cursed in several dead languages, bounded about, and belched tongues of flame. In his vehement fury he began building palaces and then immediately destroying them, until finally he gave up, sat down on the floor, shuddering from the electrical discharges, and howled plaintively. “That’s enough, no more, I’ll behave myself . . . Hey, hey, hey . . . Look, see how calm I am . . .”

  The imperturbable, unblinking young men standing at the control panel of the discharge generator were all doubles. The originals were crowded around the vibration table, glancing at their watches and opening bottles.

  I went over to them. “Ah, Sashka!” “Sashentsiya, they tell me you’re on watch today . . . I’ll drop by your room a bit later.” “Hey, someone create him a glass, my hands are full here . . .”

  I was so dumbfounded I didn’t even notice the glass appear in my hand. The corks clattered against the shields of Jan ben Jan; the ice cold champagne hissed as it flowed. The discharges stopped crackling, the genie stopped wailing and began sniffing, and at that very second the Kremlin clock started chiming twelve.

  “Right, guys! Long live Monday!”

  Glasses clinked together. Then someone cast an eye over the bottles and said, “Who created the wine?”

  “I did.”

  “Don’t forget to pay tomorrow.”

  “Well, how about another bottle?”

  “No, that’s enough, we’ll catch a chill.”

  “Some genie we’ve got here . . . Seems a bit high strung.”

  “Never look a gift horse . . .”

  “Never mind, he’ll fly like a good’un. Forty turns and his nerves will soon be in order.”

  “Guys,” I said timidly, “it’s night outside, and a holiday. Why don’t you all just go home?”

  They looked at me, slapped me on the shoulder, and told me, “Don’t worry about it, it’ll pass”—and the whole gang moved across to the cage. The doubles rolled aside one of the shields and the originals surrounded the genie, took a firm grasp of his arms and legs, and carried him across to the vibration table. The genie muttered timidly and uncertainly, promising everyone the treasures of the kings of the Earth.

  I stood alone at one side and watched as they strapped him down and attached microsensors to various parts of his body. Then I touched the shield. It was immense and heavy, pitted with dents from the impact of ball lightning, and some spots were carbonized. The shields of Jan ben Jan were made of seven dragon skins, glued together with the bile of a patricide, and were designed to resist a direct lightning strike. All the shields in the Instit
ute had originally been taken from the treasure house of the Queen of Sheba by either Cristóbal Junta or Merlin. Junta never spoke about it, but Merlin boasted about it at every opportunity, always citing the dubious authority of King Arthur. There were tin-plate inventory-number tags attached to each shield with upholstery nails. In theory there ought to have been images of all the famous battles of the past on the fronts of the shields and images of all the great battles of the future on the reverse. In practice, what I could see on the front side of the shield I was looking at was something like a jet plane strafing a refueling station, and its inside was covered with strange swirls and streaks reminiscent of an abstract painting. They started shaking up the genie on the vibration table. He giggled and squealed: “Hey, that tickles! Hey, stop it!”

  I went back into the corridor. It smelled of fireworks. There were firecrackers zooming around in circles under the ceiling, and rockets darting about, banging against the walls and leaving trails of colored smoke behind them. I ran into a double of Volodya Pochkin lugging along a gigantic incunabulum with brass clasps, two doubles of Roman Oira-Oira struggling under the weight of a massively heavy metal C beam, then Roman himself with a heap of bright blue files from the archives of the Department of Unsolvable Problems, and then a fierce-looking lab assistant from the Department of the Meaning of Life, herding a flock of cursing ghosts in crusaders’ cloaks to an interrogation with Junta . . . Everybody was working hard.

  The labor regulations were being deliberately and ubiquitously flouted, but I no longer felt the slightest desire to combat these infringements, since these people had fought their way here through a blizzard at midnight on New Year’s Eve because they were more interested in finishing up some useful job of work or starting up a completely new one than in dissolving their wits in vodka, jerking their legs about moronically, playing forfeits, and flirting with varying degrees of frivolity.

  These people had come here because they preferred being together to being apart and because they couldn’t stand Sundays of any kind, because on Sunday they felt bored. These were Magicians, People with a capital P, and their motto was “Monday starts on Saturday.” Yes, they knew a few spells, they could turn water into wine, and it would have been no problem for any one of them to feed a thousand people with five loaves. But that wasn’t why they were magicians. That was just the shell, the exterior. They were magicians because they knew a great deal, so much indeed that this huge quantity of theirs had made the leap of conversion into quality, and their relationship with the world had become different from that of ordinary people. They worked in an institute that was concerned first and foremost with the problems of human happiness and the meaning of human life, but even in their ranks there was no one who knew for certain what happiness is and what exactly is the meaning of life. And they had accepted as a working hypothesis that happiness lies in the constant cognition of the unknown, which is also the meaning of life. Every man is a magician in his heart, but he only becomes a magician when he starts thinking less about himself and more about others, when his work becomes more interesting to him than simply amusing himself according to the old meaning of that word. And their working hypothesis must have been close to the truth, because just as labor transformed ape into man, so the absence of labor transforms man into ape or something even worse, only far more rapidly.

  We don’t always notice this in life. The idler and sponger, the debauchee and careerist, continue to walk on their hind extremities and articulate speech quite clearly (although their range of subjects becomes extremely narrow), and as for the drainpipe trousers and passion for jazz that used to be cited as a measure of the extent of an individual’s anthropoidicity, it became clear fairly quickly that these are to be found even among the very finest magicians. But in the Institute it was impossible to disguise retrogression.

  The Institute offered unlimited opportunities for the transformation of man into magician. However, it was ruthless with apostates and marked them out unfailingly. A member of staff only had to indulge for an hour in egotistical and instinct-driven activity (or sometimes merely thoughts) and he would be horrified to notice that the fluff in his ears was growing thicker. It was a warning. Just as the militiaman’s whistle warns of a possible fine and pain warns of a possible injury. It was all left up to you.

  A man is frequently incapable of resisting his embittered thoughts, for as a man he embodies the transitional stage between Neanderthal and Magician. But he can act despite these thoughts, and then he still has a chance. Or he can give way, give up on everything (“You only live once,” “You have to take what life has to offer,” “Nihil humanum mihi alienum est”) and then there’s only one thing left for him to do: leave the Institute as soon as possible. Outside it, he can at least still be a respectable philistine, earning his wages honestly, if somewhat listlessly. But it’s hard to bring yourself to leave. The Institute’s a warm, cozy place, the work’s clean and it’s respectable, the pay’s not bad, and the people are wonderful, so you can put up with the shame—after all, it won’t kill you. They slouch along the corridors and through the laboratories, followed by sympathetic or disapproving glances, their ears covered with coarse gray fur, confused and incoherent, gradually losing the power of articulate speech, growing stupider. And these are the ones you can still pity and still try to help; you can still hope to restore their humanity . . .

  There are others. With empty eyes. Who know for certain which side their bread is buttered on. In their own way very far from stupid. In their own way accomplished connoisseurs of human nature. Calculating and unprincipled, acquainted with the full power of human weaknesses, able to turn any evil to their own advantage and indefatigable in so doing. They shave their ears thoroughly and frequently invent wonderful potions for eliminating body hair. They wear corsets made of dragons’ whiskers to disguise the curvature of their spines; they envelop themselves in immense medieval robes and boyars’ fur coats, proclaiming their devotion to national tradition. They complain loudly in public of chronic rheumatic pains and wear tall felt boots soled with leather in both winter and summer. They are undiscriminating as to their means and as patient as spiders in achieving their ends. And very often they achieve truly significant results and major successes in their basic goal—the construction of a bright future in a single apartment and on a single village plot, fenced off from the rest of humanity by electrified barbed wire . . .

  I went back to my post in the director’s waiting room, dumped the useless keys in the box, and read a few pages of J. P. Nevstruev’s classic work Equations of Mathematical Magic. This book read like an adventure novel, because it was absolutely chock-full of unsolved problems. I felt a burning desire to do some work, and I had just decided to say nuts to the management and go back to my Aldan when Modest Matveevich phoned.

  Munching and crunching down the line, he inquired angrily, “Where have you been wandering about, Privalov? This is the third time I’ve called. It’s outrageous!”

  “Happy New Year, Modest Matveevich,” I said.

  He chewed without saying anything for a while, then answered in a voice one tone lower: “Likewise. How’s the shift going?”

  “I’ve just completed a round of the premises,” I said. “Everything’s fine.”

  “There weren’t any cases of spontaneous combustion?”

  “None at all.”

  “Is the power off everywhere?”

  “Briareos has broken a finger,” I said.

  He was alarmed. “Briareos? Hold on just a moment . . . Aha, inventory number 1489 . . . Why?”

  I explained.

  “What measures did you take?”

  I told him.

  “A correct decision,” said Modest Matveevich. “Continue with your watch. That’s all.”

  Immediately after Modest Matveevich, Edik Amperian called from the Department of Linear Happiness and politely asked me to calculate the optimal coefficient of frivolity for managerial staff. I agreed, and we arranged to m
eet in the computer room in two hours’ time. Then a double of Oira-Oira came in and asked in a colorless voice for the keys to Janus Polyeuctovich’s safe. I refused. It tried to insist. I refused and threw it out.

  A minute later Roman himself came dashing in. “Give me the keys.”

  I shook my head. “I won’t.”

  “Give me the keys!”

  “You can go soak your head. I’m the individual with material responsibility.”

  “Sashka, I’ll take the safe away!”

  I chuckled and said, “Be my guest.”

  Roman glared at the safe and strained hard, but the safe was either under a spell or bolted to the floor.

  “What is it you want in there?” I asked.

  “The documentation on the RU-16,” said Roman. “Come on, give me the key!”

  I laughed and reached out a hand toward the box of keys. But at that very instant there was a blood-curdling howl from somewhere upstairs. I leaped to my feet.

  4

  Woe is me, I am not a strong fellow

  And the upyr will gobble me right up . . .

  —A. S. Pushkin

  “He’s hatched,” Roman said calmly, looking up at the ceiling.

  “Who?” I was really on edge: it was a woman who had screamed.

  “Vybegallo’s upyr,” said Roman. “Or rather, cadaver.”

  “But why did that woman scream?”

  “You’ll see soon enough,” said Roman.

  He took hold of my arm and jumped into the air, and we went soaring up through the stories of the Institute building, piercing the ceilings and slicing through the floors like a hot knife through frozen butter, bursting out into the air with a plopping sound and tearing into the next ceiling. In the darkness between the floors little gnomes and mice shied away from us with startled squeaks, and as we flew through laboratories and offices Institute staff looked up with puzzled faces.