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Monday Starts on Saturday

Monday Starts on Saturday

Monday Starts on Saturday 17


  I’m not a very fussy person. All I wanted was a piece of bread with a slice of “doctor’s” sausage and a cup of black coffee. I don’t understand how it happened, but what first appeared on the table was a doctor’s white coat thickly spread with butter. When the first shock of natural amazement had passed, I took a close look at the white coat. The greasy substance wasn’t actually butter and it wasn’t vegetable oil either. At this point I ought to have destroyed the white coat and started all over again. But in my heinous conceit I imagined I was God the Creator and chose the route of sequential transformations. A bottle of black liquid appeared beside the white coat, and after a brief pause the coat itself began charring at the edges. I hastily refined my conceptual formulations, laying special emphasis on the images of the mug and the meat. The bottle changed into a mug but the liquid remained unchanged; one of the coat’s sleeves bent up, extended, turned reddish, and began twitching. I broke into a sweat when I saw it was a cow’s tail. I got up out of the armchair and moved away into the corner. The change didn’t go any further than the tail, but even so it was a pretty horrendous sight. I tried again, and the tail sprouted ears of grain. I got a grip on myself, squeezed my eyes shut, and tried to picture as clearly as possible a slice of ordinary rye bread being sliced off the loaf and spread with butter from a crystal butter dish, and a round slice of sausage being set on it. Never mind the “doctor’s” sausage, it could be ordinary Poltava sausage, semismoked. I decided to wait for a while with the coffee. When I cautiously half-opened my eyes, there was large piece of rock crystal lying on the white coat, with something dark inside it. I picked up the crystal and the coat came with it, having become attached to it in some mysterious way, and inside the crystal I could make out my much-coveted sandwich, looking very much like the real thing. I groaned and mentally attempted to shatter the crystal. It became covered with a dense network of cracks, so that the sandwich was almost hidden from view. “You dunce,” I said to myself, “you’ve eaten thousands of sandwiches and you can’t even manage a half-decent visualization of one. Don’t worry, there’s no one here—no one can see you. It’s not a test or a piece of course work or an exam. Try it again.” So I did.

  It would have been better if I hadn’t. My imagination somehow began running riot, and the most unexpected associations flared up and faded away in my brain. As I continued my efforts, the reception room filled up with the most peculiar objects. Many of them had clearly emerged from my subconscious, out of the teeming jungles of hereditary memory, from behind the primordial terrors long ago suppressed by higher education. They had limbs on which they moved about restlessly; they made repulsive sounds; they were obscene; they were aggressive and kept fighting all the time. I gazed around me, worn out. The scene reminded me very vividly of old engravings showing the temptations of Saint Anthony. One especially unpleasant item was an oval plate on spider’s legs with thin, coarse fur around its edge. I don’t know what it wanted from me, but it kept retreating into the far corner of the room, taking a run at me, and smashing into me full steam below the knees, until I finally trapped it against the wall with my armchair. Eventually I managed to eliminate some of the items and the rest wandered off into the corners and hid. I was left with the plate, the white coat with the crystal, and the mug with the black liquid, which had expanded to the size of a jug. I picked it up with both hands and took a sniff. I believe it was black ink for fountain pens. The dish wriggled behind my armchair, scratching at the patterned linoleum with its feet and hissing loathsomely. Things were looking very bleak.

  I heard footsteps and voices in the corridor, and the door opened. Janus Polyeuctovich appeared in the doorway and, as always, said, “I see.” I was thrown into confusion. Janus Polyeuctovich walked through into his office, having liquidated my entire cabinet of curiosities on the way with a single multifunction movement of one eyebrow. He was followed by Fyodor Simeonovich, Cristóbal Junta with a thick black cigar in the corner of his mouth, a sullen, scowling Vybegallo, and a determined-looking Roman Oira-Oira. They were all greatly preoccupied and in a great hurry, so they paid no attention at all to me. The office door was left open. With a sigh of relief, I settled back into my former position, only to discover a large porcelain mug of steaming hot coffee and a plate of sandwiches waiting for me. One of the titans at least must have felt some concern for me, but I don’t know which. I tucked into my breakfast, listening to the voices coming out of the office.

  “Let us begin,” said Cristóbal Junta, speaking with icy disdain, “with the fact that your ‘Nursery’—begging your pardon—is located directly below my laboratory. You have already succeeded in producing one explosion, with the result that I was obliged to wait for ten minutes while the shattered windows in my office were replaced. I strongly suspect that you will not pay any attention to arguments of a more general nature, and I am therefore basing my comments on purely egotistical considerations—”

  “My dear fellow, what I do in my own lab is my own business,” Vybegallo replied in a thin falsetto. “I don’t interfere with your floor, although just recently living water’s been leaking through continuously. It’s soaked my entire ceiling, and it encourages bedbugs. But I don’t interfere with your floor, so don’t you interfere with mine.”

  “Dear fellow,” rumbled Fyodor Simeonovich, “Ambrosius Ambroisovich! You must take into account the possible complications . . . After all, no one works with the dragon, for instance, in the building, even though we have heatproof materials, and—”

  “I don’t have a dragon, I have a happy human being! A giant of the mental life! Your reasoning is rather strange, comrade Kivrin: you draw rather strange comparisons, not our kind at all! A model of an ideal man—and some déclassé fire-breathing dragon!”

  “Dear fellow, the point is not that he has no social class, it’s that he could cause a fire—”

  “There you go again! An ideal man could cause a fire! You haven’t bothered to think it through, Fyodor Simeonovich!”

  “I was talking about the dragon.”

  “And I’m talking about your incorrect orientation! You’re blurring boundaries, Fyodor Simeonovich! Doing everything possible to plaster over differences! Of course, we do eliminate contradictions between . . . the mental and the physical . . . between town and country . . . between man and woman, even . . . But we won’t allow you to plaster over an abyss, Fyodor Simeonovich!”

  “What abyss? What sort of idiocy is this, Roman, tell me? I was there when you explained it to him! I am saying, Ambrosius Ambroisovich, that your experiment is dangerous, do you understand? It could do damage to the town, do you understand?”

  “I understand everything, all right. And I won’t allow the ideal man to hatch out in a bare, windswept field!”

  “Ambrosius Ambroisovich,” said Roman, “I can run through my arguments again. The experiment is dangerous because—”

  “There you are, Roman Petrovich. I’ve been watching you for a long time and I just can’t understand how you can use expressions like that about the ideal man. Hah, he thinks the ideal man is dangerous!”

  At this point Roman ran out of patience, no doubt due to his youth. “It’s not the ideal man!” he yelled. “It’s just your ultimate consumer genius!”

  There was an ominous silence.

  “What did you say?” Vybegallo inquired in a terrible voice. “Repeat that. What did you call my ideal man?”

  “Janus Polyeuctovich,” said Fyodor Simeonovich, “this really won’t do, my friend—”

  “It certainly won’t!” exclaimed Vybegallo. “Quite right, comrade Kivrin, it won’t do! We have an experiment of global scientific significance! This titan of the mental world must make his appearance here, within the walls of our Institute! It is symbolic! Comrade Oira-Oira with his pragmatic deviation from the party line is taking a narrow, utilitarian view, comrades! And comrade Junta is also adopting a lowbrow approach! Don’t you look at me like that, comrade Junta, the czar’s gendarmes didn’t f
righten me, and you won’t frighten me either! Is it really in the spirit of our work, comrades, to be afraid of an experiment? Of course it is excusable for comrade Junta, as a former foreigner and employee of the Church, to go astray at times, but you, comrade Oira-Oira, and you, Fyodor Simeonovich, you are simple Russian folk!”

  “Enough of your demagogy!” Fyodor Simeonovich finally exploded. “Aren’t you ashamed to spout such gibberish? What kind of simple man of the people am I? And what kind of word is that—simple? It’s your doubles that are simple!”

  “I have just one thing to say,” Cristóbal Joséevich stated indifferently. “I am a simple former grand inquisitor, and I shall block all access to your autoclave until such time as I receive a guarantee that the experiment will take place on the firing range.”

  “And at least five kilometers away from the town,” added Fyodor Simeonovich. “Or even ten.”

  Evidently the last thing Vybegallo wanted to do was to drag all his equipment and himself all the way out to the firing range, while there was a blizzard raging and the light was too poor to film the event. “I see,” he said. “I understand. You’re fencing our science off from the people. In that case, why ten kilometers, why not ten thousand kilometers, Fyodor Simeonovich? Somewhere on the other side? Somewhere in Alaska, Cristóbal Joséevich, or wherever it is you’re from? Just tell us straight out. And we’ll note it down!” Silence fell again, and I could hear Fyodor Simeonovich, deprived of the gift of speech, breathing loudly and menacingly through his nose.

  “Three hundred years ago,” Junta said in a chill voice, “for those words I would have invited you to take a walk in the country, where I would have shaken the dust off your ears and run you through.”

  “Oh no, oh no,” said Vybegallo. “You’re not in Portugual now. You don’t like criticism. Three hundred years ago I wouldn’t have wasted any more time on you than all the rest of the Catholics.” The feeling of hate was choking me. Why didn’t Janus say anything? How long could this go on?

  I heard footsteps in the silence, then Roman came out into the reception room, pale and scowling. With a click of his fingers, he created a double of Vybegallo. Then with obvious pleasure he grabbed the double by the chest, shook it rapidly, then grabbed its beard and yanked it passionately several times before annihilating the double and going back into the office.

  “You should be thrown out, Vybegallo,” said Fyodor Simeonovich in an unexpectedly calm voice. “It turns out you are a most unpleasant character.”

  “Criticism—you can’t stand criticism,” answered Vybegallo, puffing himself up.

  And then at last Janus Polyeuctovich spoke. His voice was as powerful and steady as the voices of Jack London’s sea captains. “As Ambrosius has requested, the experiment will be held today at ten hundred hours. In view of the fact that the experiment will be accompanied by extensive destruction, which will come close to causing human casualties, I set the site of the experiment as a point fifteen kilometers from the town boundary, in the farthest sector of the firing range. I wish to take this opportunity to thank Roman Petrovich in advance for his resourcefulness and courage.”

  For some time they were evidently all digesting this decision. There was certainly no doubt that Janus Polyeuctovich expressed his thoughts in a strange manner. But everyone willingly accepted that he knew best. There had been precedents.

  “I’ll go and call for a truck,” Roman said suddenly, and he must have gone out through the wall, because he didn’t appear in the reception room again.

  Fyodor Simeonovich and Junta no doubt nodded in agreement, and Vybegallo recovered his wits and cried, “A correct decision, Janus Polyeuctovich! You have given us a very timely reminder of the need to restore vigilance. As far away as possible from prying eyes. Only I shall need porters. My autoclave is heavy, you know—five tons, after all . . .”

  “Of course,” said Janus. “Issue instructions.”

  The armchairs in the office began moving, and I hurriedly finished off my coffee.

  For the next hour I hung around the entrance with the other people still left in the Institute and watched the autoclave and the stereoscopic telescopes being loaded up, with the armored shields and some warm old coats just in case. The blizzard had died down and it was a clear, frosty morning.

  Roman drove up a truck on caterpillar treads. The vampire Alfred brought the loaders, who were the hekatonheirs. Kottos and Gyges came willingly, chattering excitedly with all their hundred throats and rolling up their numerous sleeves on the way, but Briareos lagged behind, thrusting out his gnarled finger ahead of him and whining that it hurt, that several of his heads were feeling dizzy and he hadn’t gotten any sleep last night. Kottos took the autoclave and Gyges took all the rest. When Briareos saw that there was nothing left for him, he started giving instructions and helpful advice. He ran ahead and opened doors, now and then squatting on his haunches and glancing underneath, shouting, “That’s got it! That’s got it!” or “Farther to the right! You’re getting snagged!” Eventually his hand got trodden on and he himself got jammed between the autoclave and the wall. He burst into sobs, and Alfred led him back down to the vivarium.

  There were quite a number of people squeezed into the truck. Vybegallo climbed into the driver’s seat. He was feeling very dissatisfied and kept asking everyone what time it was. The truck set off, only to return five minutes later because they realized they’d forgotten the journalists. While they were looking for them, Kottos and Gyges started a snowball fight to keep warm and broke two windows. Then Gyges got into a tussle with an early drunk, who shouted, “All of you against just one of me, eh?” They pulled Gyges off and shoved him back into the truck. He rolled his eyes and swore menacingly in ancient Hellenic. G. Pronitsatelny and B. Pitomnik appeared, still yawning and shivering with sleep, and the truck finally left.

  The Institute was left empty. It was half past nine. The entire town was asleep. I’d really wanted to go off to the firing range with everyone else, but there was nothing to be done about it. I sighed and set off on my second round.

  I walked along the corridors, yawning and turning lights off everywhere until I reached Vitka Korneev’s lab. Vitka took no interest in Vybegallo’s experiments. He said that people like Vybegallo ought to be summarily handed over to Junta for experimental investigation to determine whether they were lethal mutants. So Vitka hadn’t gone anywhere; he was sitting on the sofa-translator, smoking a cigarette and chatting idly with Edik Amperian. Edik was lying beside him, staring pensively at the ceiling and sucking on a fruit drop. On the table the perch was swimming around cheerfully in its bathtub.

  “Happy New Year,” I said.

  “Happy New Year,” Edik replied affably.

  “Let’s ask Sashka, then,” Korneev suggested. “Sasha, is there such a thing as nonprotein life?”

  “I don’t know,” I said. “I haven’t seen it. Why?”

  “What does that mean, you haven’t seen it? You’ve never seen an M-field either, but you calculate its intensity.”

  “So what?” I said. I looked at the perch in the bathtub. The perch was swimming round and round, banking steeply on the tight corners, and then you could see it had been gutted. “Vitka,” I said, “so it worked after all?”

  “Sasha doesn’t want to talk about nonprotein life,” said Edik. “And he’s right.”

  “You can live without protein,” I said, “but how come he’s alive without any insides?”

  “Well, comrade Amperian here says that life isn’t possible without protein,” said Vitka, making a jet of tobacco smoke curl into a tornado and wander around the room, avoiding objects.

  “I say that life is protein,” protested Edik.

  “I don’t see what the difference is,” said Vitka. “You say that if there’s no protein, there’s no life.”

  “Yes.”

  “Right, then what’s this?” asked Vitka. He gestured vaguely with his hand.

  A repulsive creature appeared on the
table beside the bathtub. It looked like a hedgehog and a spider at the same time.

  Edik lifted himself up and glanced toward the table. “Ah,” he said, and lay back down again. “That’s not life. That’s nonlife. Koschei the Deathless isn’t a nonprotein being, surely?”

  “Just what do you want?” asked Korneev. “Can it move? It can. Can it eat? It can. And it can reproduce too. Would you like it to reproduce now?”

  Edik raised himself up again and glanced toward the table. The hedgehog-spider was marking time on the spot. It looked as though it wanted to run off in all four directions at once. “Nonlife is not life,” said Edik. “Nonlife only exists insofar as rational life exists. I can put it even more precisely: insofar as magicians exist. Nonlife is a product of the activity of magicians.”

  “All right,” said Vitka. The hedgehog-spider disappeared. In its place a little Vitka Korneev appeared on the table, a precise copy of the real one, but only the size of his hand. He snapped his little fingers and created a microdouble that was even smaller. The microdouble snapped his fingers and a double the size of a fountain pen appeared, then one the size of a matchbox. Then one the size of a thimble.