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Monday Starts on Saturday

Monday Starts on Saturday

Monday Starts on Saturday 21


  I closed the door and carefully pulled the bolt shut.

  Then I went back to my machine and got into the saddle. I wanted to fly on another million years and take a look at the Earth as it was dying, the way Wells had described it. But just then for the first time something in the machine jammed: I couldn’t get the clutch to separate. I pressed it once, twice, then kicked the pedal with all my might. Something snapped and jangled, the swaying fields of grain stood erect, and I seemed to wake up. I was sitting on a demonstration stand in a small lecture hall in our Institute, and everyone was looking at me in awe.

  “What’s wrong with the clutch?” I asked, gazing around to find the machine. The machine wasn’t there. I’d come back alone.

  “Never mind that!” cried Louis Sedlovoi. “Thank you very, very much! You really bailed me out there . . . And it was very interesting, wasn’t it, comrades?”

  The audience buzzed its agreement that yes, it was interesting.

  “But I’ve read all of it somewhere,” one of the masters sitting in the front row said doubtfully.

  “But of course you have! Of course!” exclaimed Sedlovoi. “After all, he was in the described future!”

  “There weren’t very many adventures,” said the battleships players in the back rows. “Nothing but talk and more talk.”

  “Well, I’m not to blame for that,” Sedlovoi said firmly.

  “Pretty serious talk, though,” I said, climbing down off the stand. I remembered my swarthy conversation partner getting hacked to pieces and suddenly felt unwell.

  “But I suppose there are a few interesting bits,” said one of the bachelors. “That machine . . . Remember it? With the trigenic quator feedback . . . You know, I like that.”

  “Well, gentlemen,” said Pupkov-Zadny, “we seem to have already commenced our discussion. But does anyone have a question for the speaker?”

  The fastidious bachelor immediately asked a question about the multiple temporal transmission (he was interested in the coefficient of volumetric expansion) and I slipped out of the room.

  I felt very strange. Everything seemed so material, so solid and substantial. When people walked by I could hear their shoes squeaking and feel the draft from their movements. Everyone was very taciturn, everyone was working, everyone was thinking—no one was chatting or reading poetry or declaiming passionate speeches. Everyone knew that a lab is one thing and a trade union meeting is another thing altogether, and a public rally is something else again. And when I saw Vybegallo coming toward me, shuffling his leather-soled felt boots along the floor, I even felt a surge of something like sympathy for him, because he had the usual grains of boiled millet stuck in his beard, because he was picking his teeth with a long, thin nail, and he walked past without saying hello. He was a living, material, visible boor; he didn’t brandish his hands in the air or strike academic poses.

  I dropped in on Roman, because I was dying to tell someone about my adventure. He was standing over his lab table clutching his beard in his hand and looking at a small green parrot lying in a petri dish. The parrot was dead, its eyes glazed over with a dull, lifeless white film.

  “What happened to it?” I asked.

  “I don’t know,” said Roman. “It’s expired, as you can see.”

  “How did a parrot end up in here?”

  “I find that rather remarkable myself,” said Roman.

  “Maybe it’s artificial?” I suggested.

  “No, it’s a genuine, honest-to-goodness parrot.”

  “Vitka must have sat on the plywitsum again.”

  We leaned down over the parrot and began inspecting it carefully. There was a ring on one of the black legs tucked in close to its body.

  “‘Photon,’” Roman read. “And then some figures . . . One nine zero five seven three.”

  “I see,” said a familiar voice behind us.

  We turned around and drew ourselves erect.

  “Hello,” said S-Janus, coming across to the table. As he emerged from the door of his lab at the back of the room he looked somehow tired and very sad.

  “Hello, Janus Polyeuctovich,” we chorused with all the deference we could muster.

  Janus caught sight of the parrot and said “I see” again. He picked the small bird up very carefully and gently, stroked its bright red crest, and said quietly: “What happened then, my little Photon?”

  He was about to say something else, but he glanced at us and stopped. We stood there watching as he walked slowly across to the far corner of the lab like an old man, opened the door of the electric furnace, and lowered the little green corpse into it.

  “Roman Petrovich,” he said. “Would you please be so kind as to throw the switch?”

  Roman did as he was asked. He looked as though he had been struck by an unusual idea.

  S-Janus stood over the furnace for a moment, hanging his head, then he carefully scraped out the hot ashes, opened the window, and scattered them to the wind. He looked at the window for a while, then told Roman he would be expecting him in his office in half an hour and went out.

  “Strange,” said Roman, staring at the door.

  “What’s strange?”

  “Everything’s strange,” said Roman.

  The appearance of this dead green parrot that Janus Polyeuctovich clearly knew very well seemed strange to me too, and so did the rather too unusual ceremony of cremation and scattering the ashes to the wind, but I was impatient to tell Roman about my journey into the described future, so I started. Roman listened very absentmindedly, gazing at me with a blank expression and nodding in all the wrong places, then suddenly he said, “Carry on, carry on, I’m listening,” and dived under the table. He dragged out the wastepaper basket and started rummaging through the crumpled sheets of paper and scraps of recording tape.

  When I finished telling my story, he asked, “Hasn’t this Sedlovoi ever tried traveling into the described present? I think that would be much more amusing.”

  While I was pondering this suggestion and admiring Roman’s quick wit, he turned the basket over and tipped its contents out onto the floor.

  “What’s wrong?” I asked. “Lost a dissertation?”

  “You know, Sashka,” he said, gazing at me with unseeing eyes, “this is a remarkable business. Yesterday I was cleaning the furnace and I found a singed green feather. I threw it in the wastepaper basket, but today it’s not there.”

  “Whose feather?” I asked.

  “You know, green birds’ feathers are extremely rare items in this part of the world. But the parrot that was just cremated was green.”

  “That’s nonsense,” I said. “You found the feather yesterday.”

  “That’s just the point,” said Roman, putting the rubbish back in the basket.

  3

  Poetry’s unnat’ral; no man ever talked poetry ’cept a beadle on boxin’-day, or Warren’s blackin’, or Rowland’s oil, or some of them low fellows; never you let yourself down to talk poetry, my boy.

  —Charles Dickens

  They worked on the Aldan all night. When I turned up in the computer room the next morning the engineers were sitting around on the floor in a sleepy fury, monotonously reviling Cristóbal Joséevich. They called him a Scythian, a barbarian, and a Hun who had invaded the field of cybernetics. They were so desperate that for a while they even listened to my advice and tried to follow it. But then their boss, Sabaoth Baalovich Odin, turned up and they immediately dragged me away from the machine. I walked over to my desk, sat down, and began observing Sabaoth Baalovich’s efforts to assess the nature of the damage.

  He was very old but sturdy and sinewy, with a suntan, a shiny bald patch, and smoothly shaved cheeks, dressed in a blindingly white suit of raw silk. He was a man everyone regarded with profound respect. I myself had once seen him reprimand Modest Matveevich for something or other in a low voice, and the fearsome Modest had stood there in front of him, leaning forward ingratiatingly and intoning, “Very well . . . I’m sorry. It wo
n’t happen again . . .”

  Sabaoth Baalovich radiated a monstrously powerful energy. It had been observed that in his presence clocks began running fast and the tracks of elementary particles curved by a magnetic field straightened out again. And yet he wasn’t a magician. Or at least not a practicing magician. He didn’t walk through walls, he never transgressed anyone, and he never created doubles of himself, although he did a quite exceptional amount of work. He was the head of the Technical Service Department, he knew all of the Institute’s equipment inside and out, and he was one of the consultants at the Kitezhgrad Magotechnical Plant. He was also involved with the most unexpected matters of all kinds that were far removed from his immediate professional area.

  I had learned Sabaoth Baalovich’s story only recently. In ancient times S. B. Odin had been the foremost magician in the entire world. Cristóbal Junta and Gian Giacomo were pupils of his pupils. His name was used for exorcising evil spirits and sealing genies into bottles. King Solomon wrote him rapturously enthusiastic letters and built shrines in his honor. He seemed omnipotent. And then somewhere in the middle of the sixteenth century he really did become omnipotent. By implementing a numerical solution to an integral-differential equation of supreme perfection that had been derived by some Titan before the Ice Age began, he acquired the ability to perform any miracle. Every magician has his limitations. Some are incapable of ridding themselves of the growth in their ears. Others have completely mastered the unified Lomonosov-Lavoisier law but are powerless in the face of the second law of thermodynamics. Still others—there are not very many of these—can, for instance, stop time, but only in Riemannian space and not for long. Sabaoth Baalovich was all powerful. He could do anything at all. And yet he was unable to do anything at all. Because the limiting condition of the equation of perfection was that no miracle may cause any harm to anyone. To any rational being. Not here on Earth nor in any other part of the universe. And no one, not even Sabaoth Baalovich, could even imagine a miracle like that. So S. B. Odin abandoned magic forever and became the head of the Technical Service Department at NITWiT.

  Once he arrived in the room the engineers soon got their act together. They started moving with greater purpose and cut out the malicious witticisms. I took out my current business file and was just getting down to work when Stella, the pretty young witch with the snub nose and gray eyes who was Vybegallo’s trainee, turned up to collect me to work on the Institute’s wall newspaper. Stella and I were on the editorial board and wrote the satirical poems, the moral fables, and the captions for the drawings. And in addition to that, I did the clever drawing of a mailbox requesting comments, with winged letters flying toward it from every direction.

  The actual artistic designer of the wall newspaper was my namesake, another Alexander Ivanovich, with the surname of Drozd, a film technician who had somehow ended up at the Institute. He was a specialist in headlines. The newspaper’s senior editor was Roman Oira-Oira, and his deputy was Volodya Pochkin.

  “Sasha,” said Stella, gazing at me with her honest gray eyes. “Let’s go.”

  “Where?” I asked, although I already knew where.

  “To do the newspaper.”

  “What for?”

  “Roman asked us specially, because Cerberus is getting nasty about it. He says there’s only two days left and nothing’s ready yet.” Cerberus Psoevich Demin, comrade head of the Personnel Department, was the managerial supervisor of our newspaper, our head slave driver and censor.

  “Listen,” I said, “why don’t we do it tomorrow?”

  “I can’t tomorrow,” said Stella. “I’ll be on a plane to Sukhumi. To record baboons. Vybegallo says I have to record the group leader, because he’s the most important . . . He’s afraid to go near him himself, because the leader’s very jealous. Come on, Sasha, let’s go.”

  I sighed, put away my work, and followed Stella, because I can’t write poems on my own; she always provides the first line and the basic idea, and I think that’s the most important thing in poetry. “Where shall we do it?” I asked as we walked along. “In the trade union committee room?”

  “The committee room’s occupied—they’re busy reprimanding Alfred. For his tea. But Roman said we could use his place.”

  “What do we have to write about? Is it the bathhouse again?”

  “Yes, and a few other things. The bathhouse, Bald Mountain. We have to hold Khoma Brut up to public shame.”

  “Our Khoma Brut is not too cute,” I said.

  “Et tu, Brute,” said Stella.

  “That’s an idea,” I said. “We should develop that.”

  The newspaper was laid out on the table in Roman’s lab—an immense sheet of virginally white Whatman paper. Lying beside it, surrounded by jars of gouache, airbrushes, and copy for the newspaper, was our artist and film technician Alexander Drozd, with a cigarette glued to his lower lip. His shirt, as always, was unbuttoned, and we could see the little bulge of his hairy belly.

  “Hey,” I said.

  “Hi,” said Sasha. There was a burst of music. He was fiddling with a portable radio.

  “All right, what have we got here?” I asked, raking up the copy.

  There wasn’t very much of it. There was a lead article, “The Forthcoming Holiday.” There was a brief piece from Cerberus Psoevich, “The Results of an Investigation into the Implementation of the Directors’ Instructions Concerning Labor Discipline During the Second Half of the First Quarter and the First Half of the Second Quarter.” There was an article by Professor Vybegallo, “Our Duty Is a Duty to Our Sponsored Enterprises and Farms in the Town and the District.” There was one by Volodya Pochkin, “On the All-Union Electronic Magic Conference.” There was a contribution from some brownie, “When Will They Scavenge the Steam Heating on the Fourth Floor?” There was an article from the chairman of the cafeteria committee, “Neither Flesh nor Fowl”—six single-spaced typed pages. It began with the words “Man needs phosphorous like the air he breathes.” There was a piece by Roman about the work of the Department of Unsolvable Problems. There was an article from Cristóbal Junta for the section Our Veterans. It was called “From Seville to Granada, 1547.” There were a few more short texts criticizing the following: the lack of proper order in the mutual-help fund; ineptitude in the work of the volunteer fire brigade; the toleration of gambling in the vivarium (written by the Little Humpbacked Horse, who’d lost a week’s ration of oats playing chemin de fer with Koschei the Deathless). There were a few caricatures. One of them showed Khoma Brut in a state of sartorial disarray with a bright purple nose. Another took a dig at the bathhouse—a blue naked man freezing solid under an icy shower.

  “This is all dead boring,” I said. “Maybe we don’t need any poems?”

  “Yes we do.” Stella said with a sigh. “I’ve already tried laying out the copy this way and that way, but there’s always some empty space left.”

  “Sasha here can draw something. A few ears of wheat, or some pansies . . . How about it, Sasha?”

  “You do some work,” said Drozd. “I’ve got the masthead to do.”

  “Big deal,” I said. “Three words to write.”

  “Against the background of a starry sky,” said Drozd impressively. “And a rocket. And all the headlines for the articles. And I haven’t had any lunch yet. Or breakfast.”

  “Then go and get something to eat,” I said.

  “I can’t afford to,” he said irritably. “I bought a tape recorder. Secondhand. Instead of wasting time on this nonsense, why don’t you conjure me up a couple of sandwiches? With butter and jam. Better still, create me a ten-spot.”

  I pulled out a ruble and showed it to him from a distance. “When you’ve done the masthead, you can have it.”

  “For keeps?” Drozd asked keenly.

  “No. As a loan.”

  “Makes no difference anyway,” he said. “Just bear in mind that I’m at death’s door. I’ve started getting spasms. My hands and feet are turning cold.”
/>  “He’s lying,” said Stella. “Sasha, let’s sit down at that table over there and write our poems.”

  We sat down at a separate little table and set out the caricatures in front of us. We looked at them for a while, hoping for inspiration. Then Stella said, “Watch out for folks like Khoma Brut, they’ll soon relieve you of your loot!”

  “Loot?” I asked. “Did he snatch some money, then?”

  “No,” said Stella. “He created a disturbance and got into a fight. I was just rhyming.”

  We waited for a while again, but I still couldn’t come up with anything but “Khoma Brut will filch your loot.”

  “Let’s think about this logically,” I said. “We have Khoma Brut. He got drunk. Got into a fight. What else did he do?”

  “Pestered some girls,” said Stella. “Broke a window.”

  “OK,” I said. “What else?”

  “Used bad language.”

  “That’s odd,” Sasha Drozd piped up. “I used to work with this guy Brut in the cinema club. Just an ordinary guy. Perfectly normal.”

  “And?” I said.

  “That’s it.”

  “Can you give us a rhyme for Brut?” I asked.

  “Loot.”

  “We’ve got that already,” I said.

  “OK, then try boot.”

  Stella declaimed, “Comrades, you see before you Khoma Brut. Let’s flog him hard and then put in the boot.”

  “That’s no good,” said Drozd. “That’s incitement to physical violence.”

  “Hoot,” I said.

  “Comrades, you see before you Khoma Brut,” said Stella. “His pranks would make a jackass honk and hoot.”

  “Your words are enough to make anyone hoot,” said Drozd.