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Mystery & Detective
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Monday Starts on Saturday
Monday Starts on Saturday 18
“Is that enough?” asked Vitka. “Each one of them is a magician. But not one contains a molecule of protein.”
“A poor example,” Edik said regretfully. “First, in principle they are in no way different from a programmable lathe. Second, they are not products of development but of your protein-based skills. It’s hardly worth arguing about whether self-reproducing lathes with programmable controls are capable of generating evolution.”
“You don’t have a clue about evolution,” said the loutish Korneev. “Some Darwin you are! What difference does it make whether it’s a chemical process or conscious activity? Not all of your ancient ancestors are protein-based either. I’m prepared to admit that your great-great-great-great-foremother was pretty complex, but she wasn’t a protein molecule. And maybe our so-called conscious activity is just another variety of evolution. How do we know that the goal of nature is to create comrade Amperian? Maybe the goal of nature is to create nonlife with the hands of comrade Amperian? Maybe—”
“I get it, I get it. First a protovirus, then a protein, then comrade Amperian, and then the entire planet is populated with nonlife.”
“Precisely,” said Vitka.
“And then we’re all extinct because we’ve outlived our usefulness.”
“And why not?” said Vitka.
“There’s a friend of mine,” said Edik, “who claims that man is only an intermediate link required by nature to create the crown of creation: a glass of cognac with a slice of lemon.”
“Well, after all, why not?”
“Because I don’t want it,” said Edik. “Nature has its goals, and I have mine.”
“Anthropocentrist!” Vitka said in disgust.
“Yes,” Edik said proudly.
“I don’t wish to engage in discussion with anthropocentrists,” said the coarse Korneev.
“Then let’s tell jokes instead,” Edik suggested calmly, and stuck another fruit drop in his mouth.
On the table Vitka’s doubles carried on working. The smallest was already only the size of an ant. While I was listening to the dispute between the anthropocentrist and the cosmocentrist, a thought occurred to me.
“Guys,” I said with bogus vivacity, “why didn’t you go to the firing range?”
“What for?” asked Edik.
“Well, surely it’s interesting.”
“I never go to the circus,” said Edik. “Ubi nihil vales, ibi nihil velis.”1
“Do you mean yourself?” asked Vitka.
“No. I meant Vybegallo.”
“Guys,” I said, “I’m just crazy about the circus. And what difference does it make to you where you tell your jokes?”
“Meaning?” said Vitka.
“You cover my shift, and I’ll dash over to the firing range.”
“What do we have to do?”
“Cut the power off, put out any fires, and remind everyone about the labor regulations.”
“It’s cold,” Vitka reminded me. “It’s frosty. It’s Vybegallo.”
“I really want to go,” I said. “It’s all very mysterious.”
“Shall we let the child go out to play?” Vitka asked Edik.
“Off you go then, Privalov,” said Vitka. “It’ll cost you four hours of machine time.”
“Two,” I said quickly. I’d been expecting something of the kind.
“Five,” Vitka said cheekily.
“OK, three,” I said. “I spend all my time working for you anyway.”
“Six,” Vitka said coolly.
“Vitka,” said Edik, “you’ll grow fur in your ears.”
“Ginger,” I said gloatingly. “With a greenish tinge, maybe.”
“OK,” said Vitka, “go on the cheap, then. Two hours will do for me.”
We walked down to the director’s waiting room together. On the way the two masters struck up an incomprehensible argument about “cyclotation” or some such thing, and I had to interrupt to get them to transgress me to the firing range. They were fed up with me by then and in their haste to get rid of me they performed the transgression with such high energy that before I even had time to put on my coat I found myself flying backward into the crowd of onlookers.
At the firing range everything was ready. The audience was sheltering behind the armored shields. Vybegallo’s head protruded from a freshly dug trench, peering rakishly into a large stereoscopic telescope. Fyodor Simeonovich and Cristóbal Junta were conversing quietly in Latin, holding 40x magnification binoculars. Janus Polyeuctovich was standing indifferently at one side in his large fur coat and prodding at the snow with his cane. B. Pitomnik was squatting on his haunches beside the trench with an open notebook and fountain pen at the ready. And G. Pronitsatelny was standing behind him, hung all over with still cameras and movie cameras, rubbing his frozen cheeks, grunting, and knocking his feet together.
A full moon was sinking toward the west in a clear sky. The nebulous streaks of the northern lights appeared, glimmering between the stars, and then disappeared again. The snow gleamed white on the level land, and the large, rounded cylinder of the autoclave was clearly visible a hundred meters away from us.
Vybegallo tore himself away from the stereoscopic telescope, cleared his throat, and said, “Comrades! Comrades! What do we observe in this stereoscopic telescope? In this stereoscopic telescope, comrades, we, overwhelmed by an entire complex of feelings, rooted to the spot in anticipation, observe the protective hood beginning automatically to unscrew itself . . . Write, write,” he said to B. Pitomnik. “And get it right . . . Automatically, you know, unscrew itself. In a few minutes the ideal man will make his appearance among us—a chevalier, you know, sans peur et sans reproche. We shall have here with us our model, our symbol, our most exalted dream! And we, comrades, must greet this giant of needs and capacities in an appropriate manner, with no polemics, petty wrangling, or other outbursts. Let our dear giant see us as we really are, drawn up in closed ranks in tight formation. Let us conceal our capitalist birthmarks, comrades, those of us who still have them, and reach out our arms to our dream!”
Even with my unaided eye I saw the hood of the autoclave unscrew itself and fall soundlessly into the snow. A long jet of steam shot up out of the autoclave, all the way to the stars.
“Allow me to elucidate for the press—” Vybegallo began, when suddenly there was a hideous bellow.
The ground shifted and began to tremble. An immense cloud of snow flew up into the air. Everyone fell on top of everyone else and I was thrown over and sent rolling. The bellowing kept growing louder, and when I managed to clamber to my feet by clutching at the caterpillar tracks of the truck, I saw the edge of the horizon creeping toward me horrifyingly, like the rim of a gigantic chalice in the dead light of the moon, folding over and in on itself, the armored shields swaying menacingly, onlookers scattering and running, falling and jumping up again, covered in snow. I saw Fyodor Simeonovich and Cristóbal Junta, standing under the rainbow hoods of a defensive field, stagger back under the impact of the hurricane as they raised their hands, struggling to extend the protection over all the others, but the whirlwind ripped their defenses to shreds, and the shreds went hurtling off across the plain, like huge soap bubbles, and then burst in the starry sky. I saw the raised collar of Janus Polyeuctovich, who was standing with his back to the wind and his cane firmly braced against the denuded earth, looking at his watch. And now where the autoclave had been there was a dense, swirling cloud of steam lit with a red light from within, and the horizon was curling back in on itself tighter and tighter, and we all seemed to be on the bottom of a colossal jug.
And then suddenly, right beside the epicenter of this cosmic outrage, there was Roman with his green coat almost torn off his shoulders by the wind. He swung his arm out wide and tossed something large that glinted like a bottle into the steam, then immediately fell flat on his face, covering his head with his hands. The ugly features of a genie, contorted in frenzied rage, appeared out of the
cloud, his eyes rolling in silent fury. Opening his jaws in soundless laughter, he flapped his massive, hairy ears, there was a smell of burning, the transparent walls of a magnificent palace flashed above the blizzard, quivered, and collapsed, and the genie, transformed into a long tongue of orange flame, disappeared into the sky. For a few seconds it was quiet, and then the horizon settled back down with a heavy rumbling. I was thrown high into the air, and when I came to I found I was sitting not far from the truck with my hands braced against the ground.
The snow had disappeared. All around us the ground was black. Where the autoclave had stood only a minute ago there was a large gaping crater with white smoke rising out of it. The air was filled with the smell of burning.
The onlookers began getting to their feet, everyone with grimy and contorted faces. Many had lost their voices. They were coughing, spitting, and groaning quietly. They began cleaning themselves off and discovered that some had been left in nothing but their underwear. First there was murmuring, and then shouts: “Where are my pants? Why don’t I have any pants? I was wearing pants!”; “Comrades, has anyone seen my watch?”; “And mine?”; “And mine’s missing too!”; “My platinum tooth’s gone, I only had it put in last summer . . .”; “Hey, and my ring’s disappeared . . . And my bracelet!”; “Where’s Vybegallo? This is an outrage! What does it all mean?”; “To hell with the watches and the teeth! Is everybody all right? How many of us were there?”; “But what was it that happened? Some kind of explosion . . . A genie . . . And where’s the titan of the mental world?”; “Where’s the consumer?”; “Where’s Vybegallo, come to think of it?”; “Did you see the horizon? Do you know what it was like?”; “A folding of the spatial continuum, I know about these things . . .”; “I’m cold in this vest, give me something . . .”; “Where’s that Vybegallo? Where has that fool gone to?”
The earth stirred and Vybegallo climbed out of his trench. His felt boots were gone.
“Allow me to elucidate for the press,” he said hoarsely.
But he wasn’t allowed to elucidate. Magnus Fyodorovich Redkin, who had come especially to find out at last what genuine happiness was, bounded up to him, waving his clenched fists, and howled, “You charlatan! You’ll answer for this! This circus! Where’s my cap? Where’s my fur coat? I’m going to make an official complaint about you! Where’s my cap, I said!”
“In complete conformity with the program of the project,” Vybegallo muttered, gazing around, “our dear titan—”
Fyodor Simeonovich advanced on him: “You, my dear chap, have been hiding your talent in the ground. You ought to reinforce the ranks of the Department of Defensive Magic. Your ideal people should be dropped on enemy bases. To strike terror into the aggressor.”
Vybegallo staggered back, shielding himself with the sleeve of his rough coat. Cristóbal Joséevich approached him, looked him over from head to toe, tossed a pair of soiled gloves at his feet, and walked away. Gian Giacomo, who was hastily creating the appearance of an elegant suit for himself, shouted from a distance, “This is absolutely phenomenal, signore! I have always felt a certain antipathy toward him, but I could never even imagine anything like this . . .”
At this point G. Pronitsatelny and B. Pitomnik finally grasped the situation. So far they had been smiling uncertainly and gaping at everyone in the hope of understanding something. But now they realized that things were not proceeding “in complete conformity” after all. G. Pronitsatelny walked up to Vybegallo with a firm stride, tapped him on the shoulder, and said in a voice of iron, “Comrade Professor, where can I get my cameras back? Three still cameras and one movie camera.”
“And my wedding ring,” added B. Pitomnik.
“Pardon,” said Vybegallo pompously. “On vous demandera quand on aura besoin de vous.2 Wait for the explanations.”
The journalists’ courage failed them. Vybegallo turned and walked toward the crater. Roman was already standing at the top of it. “There’s everything you could possibly imagine in here,” he said from afar.
The titanic consumer was not in the crater. But everything else was, and a great deal more besides. There were cameras and movie cameras, wallets, fur coats, rings, necklaces, trousers, and a platinum tooth. Vybegallo’s felt boots were there, and so was Magnus Fyodorovich’s cap. My platinum whistle for summoning the emergency brigade was in there too. And in addition we found two Moskvich automobiles, three Volga automobiles, an iron safe with seals from the local savings bank, a large piece of roasted meat, two crates of vodka, a crate of Zhigulevskoye beer, and an iron bed frame with nickel-plated knobs.
Vybegallo pulled on his felt boots and declared with a condescending smile that now they could proceed with the discussion. “I’ll take questions,” he said. But the discussion never got going. The infuriated Magnus Fyodorovich had called the militia, and young Sergeant Kovalyov came racing up in a little jeep. We all had to give our names as witnesses. Sergeant Kovalyov walked around the crater, trying to discover any traces of the criminal. He found an immense set of false teeth that set him pondering deeply.
Their equipment having been restored to them, the journalists had suddenly begun to see things in a different light and were listening attentively to Vybegallo, who was once again spouting his demagogic trash about unlimited and diversified needs. Things were getting boring and I was freezing.
“Let’s go home,” said Roman.
“Yes, let’s,” I said. “Where did you get the genie from?”
“I signed him out of the store yesterday. For entirely different purposes.”
“But what actually happened? Did this one overeat as well?”
“No, Vybegallo’s just an idiot,” said Roman.
“Well that’s obvious,” I said. “But what caused the cataclysm?”
“The same reason,” said Roman. “I told him a thousand times: ‘You’re programming a standard super egocentric. He’ll just grab all the material valuables he can lay his hands on, then he’ll roll up space, wrap himself up like a pupa, and halt time.’ But Vybegallo just can’t grasp that a genuine mental giant is less interested in consuming than in thinking and feeling.”
“That’s all simple stuff,” he continued after we’d flown to the Institute. “It’s quite clear enough to everyone. But can you tell me how S-Janus knew that everything would turn out exactly that way, and not any other? He foresaw it all. The massive destruction, and me suddenly realizing how to put an end to the giant in the cradle.”
“That’s right,” I said. “He even expressed his gratitude to you. In advance.”
“That is strange, isn’t it?” said Roman. “It all needs thinking through very carefully.”
So we started thinking it through very carefully. It took us a long time. In fact it wasn’t until spring—and then only by chance—that we managed to figure everything out.
But that’s an entirely different story.
STORY No. 3
All Kinds of
“When God made time,” the Irish say, “He made plenty of it.”
Eighty-three percent of all the days in the year start the same way: the alarm clock rings. The ringing insinuates itself into my final dreams as the frenetic clattering of an automatic card punch or Fyodor Simeonovich’s booming, thunderous bass, or the rasping of a basilisk playing in the constant temperature cabinet.
That morning I was dreaming about Modest Matveevich Kamnoedov. He’d been made head of the computer center and was training me to work on the Aldan. “Modest Matveevich,” I was telling him, “all this advice you’re trying to give me is nothing but crazy gibberish.”
And he kept yelling, “Thaaat’s quite eeenough of that frrrom you! Everything you’ve got here iiis absolute nonsense, toootal rubbish!”
Then I realized it wasn’t Modest Matveevich but my “Friendship” alarm clock with its eleven stones and picture of a little elephant with its trunk raised. “I hear you, I hear
you,” I muttered, and started slapping away at the tabletop, trying to hit the clock.
The window was wide open: I caught a glimpse of clear blue spring sky and felt the sharp breath of a cool spring breeze. There were pigeons clattering along the sheet metal of the cornice. Three flies were fluttering exhaustedly around the glass dome of the ceiling light—they must have been the first flies of the year. Every now and then they suddenly began dashing frenziedly from side to side, and in my half-awake state the brilliant idea occurred to me that the flies were probably trying to break free of a plane that transected them. I sympathized with their hopeless struggle. Two flies settled on the light cover and the third disappeared, and then I finally woke up completely.
First of all I threw off the blanket and attempted to rise into the air above the bed. As always, without my morning exercises, shower, and breakfast, the only result I achieved was that the moment of reaction drove me back down hard into the sofa bed, unhooking the springs and setting them jangling plaintively somewhere beneath me. Then I remembered the previous evening and felt really upset, because I knew I’d be left without any work to do all day long. Yesterday at eleven o’clock in the evening Cristóbal Junta had come into the computer room and, as always, connected himself to the Aldan so that the two of them together could tackle the latest problem of the meaning of life. Five minutes later the Aldan had burst into flames. I don’t know what there was inside it that could have burned, but the Aldan was going to be out of action for a long time, which meant that instead of working I would be doing the same thing that all the hairy-eared parasites did: wandering aimlessly from one department to another, complaining about life and telling jokes.
I frowned, sat on the edge of the bed, and began by filling my lungs up to the top with prāṇa mingled with the cold spring air. I waited a while for the prāṇa to be absorbed and followed the standard recommendations by thinking bright and happy thoughts. Then I breathed out the cold spring air and began performing a sequence of morning exercises. I’d been told that the old school used to prescribe yoga exercises, but the yoga sequence, like the now almost forgotten maya sequence, used to take from fifteen to twenty hours a day, and when a new president of the USSR Academy of Sciences was appointed, the old school had been forced to give way. NITWiT’s young generation had been only too glad to break with the old traditions.