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Monday Starts on Saturday

Monday Starts on Saturday

Monday Starts on Saturday 20


  Looking around, I realized that the machine and I were standing on the belt of a moving sidewalk. Swarming all around me were people of the most varied possible kinds. For the most part, though, these people were somehow unreal—far less real than the powerful, complex, almost soundless machines. So when one of the machines accidentally ran into a person, there wasn’t any actual collision. The machines didn’t interest me much, no doubt because each of them had an inventor inspired to a state of semitransparency sitting on its frontal casing and expounding the structure and function of his creation at great length. Nobody was listening to the inventors, and they themselves didn’t seem to be addressing anyone in particular.

  It was more interesting to watch the people. I saw great hulking fellows in overalls walking along arm in arm, swearing and roaring out tuneless songs with badly written verse for words. Now and then I saw people only partially dressed, perhaps with nothing but a green hat and a red jacket on their naked bodies, or with elegant shoes but bare legs and ankles. The other people there didn’t seem concerned, and I stopped feeling embarrassed when I recalled that some authors are in the habit of writing things like “The door opened and on the threshold appeared a slim, sinewy man in a shaggy cap and dark glasses.” There were also some people dressed normally, although their clothes were cut in an odd fashion, and here and there, elbowing their way through the crowd, there were suntanned men with beards in long, spotless white robes with a rough hoe or some kind of yoke in one hand and an easel or pencil case in the other. The robe-wearers looked bewildered, and they shied away from the multilegged machines and gazed around them with a hunted expression.

  Apart from the muttering of the inventors, it was fairly quiet. Most of the people weren’t saying anything, but on the corner two youths were fiddling with some mechanical device. One was saying firmly, “Design concepts can’t just stand still. That is a law of social development. We shall invent it. We shall definitely invent it. Despite the bureaucrats like Chinushin and the reactionaries like Tverdolobov.” The other youth was saying, “I’ve figured out how to make use of the wear-resistant tires of polystructural fiber with degenerate amine bonds and incomplete oxygen groups. But I still don’t know how to use the subthermal neutron regeneration reactor. Misha! Misha! What are we going to do about the reactor?” Glancing at their device, I had no difficulty in recognizing it as a bicycle.

  The sidewalk brought me out into an immense square crammed with spaceships of the most varied designs with people packed tightly around them. I got off the moving sidewalk and lifted the machine off after me. At first I couldn’t understand what was going on. Music was playing, speeches were being made, and here and there, towering up above the crowd, curly-haired, rosy-cheeked youths struggled to restrain the long locks of hair that kept falling across their foreheads as they declaimed poetry with deep feeling. The poetry was either familiar or quite awful, but as they listened the eyes of the multitude overflowed with the grudging tears of men, the bitter tears of women, and the lucid tears of children. Rugged men embraced each other tightly, twitching the taut muscles on their temples and slapping each other on the back. Since many of them were not dressed, the slapping sounded like clapping. Two smart-looking lieutenants with tired, kind-looking eyes dragged a nattily dressed man past me with his arms twisted behind his back. The man was squirming and shouting something in broken English. He seemed to be betraying everybody he could think of and explaining who had paid them to plant a bomb in the engine of a starship and how they did it. A few boys clutching little volumes of Shakespeare glanced around stealthily as they stole across to the thruster nozzles of the nearest astroplane. The crowd didn’t notice them.

  I soon realized that one half of the crowd was saying good-bye to the other half. It was a bit like a general mobilization. From the speeches and conversations I gathered that the men were setting out into space, some for Venus, some for Mars—and some, with expressions of detached resignation on their faces, were even going to other stars or as far as the center of the galaxy. The women were staying behind to wait for them. Many of them were standing in a line to a massive, ugly building that some called the Pantheon and others called the Refrigerator. I realized I had arrived just in time. If I had been just an hour late, there would have been no one left in the city but women frozen for a thousand years. Then my attention was caught by a tall, gray wall bounding the square on its western side. There were swirling clouds of black smoke rising up from behind it.

  “What’s that over there?” I asked a beautiful woman in a head scarf who was wandering dejectedly toward the Pantheon-Refrigerator.

  “The Iron Wall,” she answered without stopping.

  I grew more and more bored with every minute that passed. Everyone was crying and the orators had all gone hoarse. Beside me a youth in sky-blue overalls was saying good-bye to a girl in a rose-pink dress. The girl said in a monotonous voice, “I wish I were stardust; I’d form a cosmic cloud and envelop your ship . . .” The youth listened to her words. When the sound of the combined orchestras thundered out above the roar of the crowd, my nerves couldn’t take any more and I jumped into the saddle and stepped on the accelerator. I just had time to see the starships, planet cruisers, astroplanes, ion ships, photon ships, and star gliders go roaring up into the sky above the city before everything except the gray wall was enveloped in phosphorescent mist.

  After the year 2000 the gaps in time began, and I flew through time without any matter. It was cold in those places, with only the occasional eruption of an explosion and a bright glow flaring up behind the gray wall. Now and then the city surrounded me again, and every time its buildings became taller, the spherical domes became more transparent, and there were fewer starships on the square. Smoke rose uninterruptedly from behind the wall. I stopped for a second time when the final star glider had disappeared from the square. The sidewalks were moving, but there were no noisy young fellows in overalls. No one was swearing. A few colorless individuals strolled along the streets in twos or threes, dressed either strangely or meagerly.

  As far as I could tell, they were all talking about science. They intended to bring someone back to life, and a professor of medicine, an intellectual with the build of an athlete who looked very unusual dressed in nothing but a waistcoat, was expounding the reanimation procedure to a lanky biophysicist, whom he introduced to everyone they met as the initiator and main executor of this scheme. They were preparing to drill a hole through the Earth somewhere. The project was being discussed right there in the street by a large knot of people, and schemata were sketched out in chalk on walls and on the sidewalk. I tried listening, but it turned out to be so incredibly boring, as well as being interspersed with attacks on some reactionary I’d never heard of, that I hoisted the machine onto my shoulders and left. I wasn’t surprised in the least that discussion of the project immediately halted and everybody started doing something useful. But the moment I stopped, a citizen of indeterminate professional status began spouting verbiage, launching out of the blue into a discourse on music. Listeners came running up immediately, gawping at him and asking questions that revealed their profound ignorance.

  Suddenly a man came running down the street, shouting. Chasing after him was a spiderlike machine. According to the shouts of its quarry, it was “a self-programming cybernetic robot with trigenic quator feedback that has slipped out of sync . . . Oh no, it’s going to tear me limb from limb!” But curiously enough, no one even turned a hair. Apparently no one really believed in the revolt of the machines.

  Two other spiderlike machines, not as big and not as ferocious looking, leaped out of a side street. Before I even had time to gasp, one of them had polished my shoes and the other had washed and ironed my handkerchief. A big white tank with winking lights on caterpillar tracks trundled up to me and sprayed me with perfume. I was just about to get out of there when there was a thunderous roar and a huge rusty rocket tumbled down out of the sky into the square. People in the crowd starte
d talking:

  “It’s Dream Star!”

  “Yes, so it is!”

  “But of course it is! It set out 218 years ago and everyone’s forgotten about it, but thanks to the Einsteinian contraction of time that results from movement at near-light speeds, the crew has only aged two years!”

  “Thanks to what? Ah, Einstein . . . Yes, yes, I remember. We did that in our second year at school.”

  A one-eyed man with his left arm and right leg missing clambered out of the rocket with some difficulty.

  “Is this Earth?” he asked irritably.

  “It is! It is!” the people in the crowd replied, with smiles beginning to blossom on their faces.

  “Thank God for that,” said the man, and everyone glanced at each other. Either they didn’t understand what he meant or they were pretending they didn’t.

  The maimed astropilot struck a pose and launched into a speech in which he appealed to every last member of the human race to fly to the planet of Willee-Nillee in the Eoella star system of the Small Magellanic Cloud to liberate their brothers in reason, who were groaning under the tyrannical yoke of a bloodthirsty cybernetic dictator. The roar of thruster nozzles drowned out his words as two more rockets, also rusty, landed in the square. Women covered in hoarfrost came running out of the Pantheon-Refrigerator. The crowd began pressing together. I realized I’d arrived in the age of returns, and hastily stepped on the accelerator.

  The city disappeared and didn’t reappear for a long time. The wall was still there, with fires blazing and lightning flashing behind it with depressing monotony. It was a strange sight: absolute emptiness with just a wall in the west. But at long last a bright light dawned again and I immediately halted.

  On every side the land stretched out, deserted but flourishing. Fields of grain swayed and plump herds roamed, but there was no sign of any educated shepherds. I could see the familiar transparent-silver domes on the horizon, the viaducts and spiral slipways. To the west the wall towered up as before.

  Someone touched my knee and I started. Standing beside me was a small boy with deep-set, blazing eyes. “What do you want, kid?” I asked.

  “Is your device defective?” he inquired in a melodic voice.

  “You should speak more politely to grown-ups,” I replied in a didactic tone.

  He looked very surprised, then his face lit up. “Ah yes, now I remember. If my memory does not deceive me, that was the way things used to be in the Era of Compulsory Courtesy. Insofar as direct forms of address disharmonize with your emotional rhythms, I am willing to adopt any rhythmic formulae to address you.”

  I couldn’t think of anything to say to that. He squatted down in front of the machine, touched it in various places, and spoke several words that I didn’t understand at all. He was a really great kid, very clean and healthy and well groomed, but he seemed far too serious for his age to me.

  There was a deafening explosion behind the wall and we both turned toward it. I saw a terrible scaly hand with eight fingers clutch at the crest of the wall, strain, release its grip, and disappear.

  “Tell me, kid,” I said, “what’s that wall for?”

  He gave me a serious, bashful look. “It’s called the Iron Wall,” he said. “Unfortunately, I am not familiar with the etymology of those two words, but I know that it separates two worlds—the World of the Humane Imagination and the World of Fear of the Future.” He paused and then added, “I am not familiar with the etymology of the word fear either.”

  “Interesting,” I said. “Can’t we take a look? What’s the World of Fear like?”

  “Of course you can. There’s the communications port. Satisfy your curiosity.”

  The communications port looked like a low archway closed off by an armor-plated door. I walked up to it and laid a hesitant hand on the bolt.

  The boy called after me: “I am obliged to warn you that if anything happens to you in there, you will have to appear before the United Council of the Hundred and Forty Worlds.”

  I opened the door a little way. Zap! Boom! Ke-rang! Wheeeee! Da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da! All five of my senses were traumatized simultaneously. I saw a beautiful, long-legged, naked blonde with an obscene tattoo between her shoulder blades, blasting away with two automatic pistols at an ugly man with dark hair. Splashes of red spurted out of him every time he was hit. I heard the thunder of explosions and the bloodcurdling roar of monsters. I smelled the indescribable stench of rotten, burning nonproteinaceous flesh. The incandescent blast of a nearby nuclear explosion scorched my face, and my tongue caught the repulsive taste of protoplasm dispersed through the air. I staggered back and frantically slammed the door shut, almost trapping my head in it. The air here tasted sweet and the world looked beautiful. The boy had disappeared. I took a little while to recover my wits, then suddenly felt frightened in case that lousy little sneak might have gone running to complain to his United Council. I made a dash for the machine.

  Again the twilight of time without space closed in around me, but I kept my eyes fixed on the Iron Wall. I was burning up with curiosity. In order not to waste any time, I jumped forward a million years. Thickets of atomic mushrooms sprouted up behind the wall, and I was glad when the light dawned once again on my side of it. I braked and then groaned in disappointment. The massive Pantheon-Refrigerator still towered up close by. A rusty spherical starship was descending from the sky. There was no one to be seen. The fields of grain were swaying to and fro. The sphere landed, the pilot in sky blue I’d seen only recently got out of it, and the girl in rose pink appeared on the threshold of the Pantheon, covered in red bedsores. They dashed toward each other and clasped hands. I looked away—I was beginning to feel rather awkward. Standing close by was a slightly embarrassed-looking old man, indifferently fishing goldfish out of an aquarium. The sky-blue pilot and the rose-pink girl launched into a long joint disquisition.

  I got off the machine to stretch my legs and only then noticed that the sky above the wall was unusually clear. I couldn’t hear any rumble of explosions or crackle of shots. I took heart and set off toward the communications port.

  On the other side of the wall the land stretched out in an absolutely level plain, divided all the way to the horizon by the deep gash of a trench. On the left of the trench I couldn’t see a single living soul, and the surface was covered with low metal domes that looked like the manhole covers of sewers. On the right of the trench were several horsemen prancing along the line of the horizon. Then I noticed a stocky, dark-faced man in metal armor sitting on the edge of the trench with his legs dangling into it. He had something that looked like a submachine gun with a very thick barrel hanging on a long strap around his neck. The man was chewing slowly and spitting constantly. He looked at me without any particular interest. I looked at him too, holding the door open, unable to bring myself to speak. His appearance was simply too strange. Abnormal, somehow. Wild. Who could tell what sort of man he was?

  After he’d taken a good look at me, he drew a flat bottle out from under his armor, tugged the cork out with his teeth, took a swig, spat into the trench again, and spoke in a hoarse voice, in English: “Hello! You from the other side?”

  “Yes,” I replied, also in English.

  “And how’s it going out there?”

  “So-so,” I said, closing the door just a little. “And how’s it going out here?”

  “It’s OK,” he said phlegmatically, and fell silent.

  I waited for a while and then asked what he was doing there. He answered me reluctantly at first, but then he warmed to his subject. Apparently on the left side of the trench humanity was living out its final days under the oppressive yoke of relentlessly ferocious robots. The robots there had become cleverer than humans and seized power. They enjoyed all the good things of life and had driven people underground and set them to work on assembly lines. On the right of the trench, on the land that he was guarding, people had been subjugated by aliens from a neighboring universe. They had also seized power,
then established a feudal society and made unrestricted use of the right of the first night. The aliens lived it up, but a few crumbs also came the way of those who were in their good graces. Twenty miles farther along the trench there was a region where people had been enslaved by aliens from Altaic, intelligent viruses who infected a person’s body and then made him or her do whatever they wanted. Even farther to the west there was a large Galactic Federation colony. The people there were enslaved too, but their life wasn’t all that bad, because His Excellency the vice regent kept them fed so that he could recruit the personal bodyguards of His Majesty the Galactic Emperor A-u the 3,562nd from among them. There were also areas that had been subjugated by intelligent parasites, intelligent plants, and intelligent minerals, and even Communists. And finally, somewhere far away in the distance, there were regions enslaved by someone else, but no serious person would ever believe the tales that were told about them.

  Our conversation was interrupted at this point by several saucer-shaped devices flying low across the flat plain, raining down bombs that swirled and tumbled through the air. “Here we go again,” the man growled, then he lay back with his legs pointing toward the detonations, raised his gun, and opened fire on the horsemen prancing along the horizon.

  I got out of there fast, slamming the door shut and slumping back against it, then listening for a while to the bombs screeching, roaring, and rumbling. The pilot in sky blue and the girl in rose pink still hadn’t managed to bring their dialogue to a conclusion, and the indifferent old man, having caught all the goldfish, was looking at them and wiping his eyes with a handkerchief. I took another cautious peep through the door. The huge fireballs of explosions were slowly expanding above the plain. The metal covers were being thrown open one by one and pale, ragged people with savage, bearded faces were climbing out of them, holding iron bars at the ready. The horsemen in armor had galloped up and were cutting my recent conversation partner to pieces with their long swords. He was screaming and fending them off with his submachine gun. A gigantic tank was crawling along the trench toward me with its cannon and machine guns firing. The saucer-shaped flying devices came diving back out of the radioactive clouds.