Settings
Monday Starts on Saturday

Monday Starts on Saturday

Monday Starts on Saturday 23


  “But he is a strange person, isn’t he?” asked Edik.

  “Yes, no doubt about it. Starting with the fact that there are two of them but only one of him. We’ve gotten so used to the idea we don’t even bother to think about it.”

  “That’s what I was trying to say. We hardly ever talk about Janus—we respect him too much. But I’m sure every one of us must have noticed at least one strange thing about him.”

  “Strange thing number one,” I said, “a love of dying parrots.”

  “OK,” said Edik. “Next?”

  “You petty gossips,” said Drozd with dignity. “I asked him to lend me some money once.”

  “And?” said Edik.

  “He gave it to me,” said Drozd, “But I forgot how much he gave me and now I don’t know what to do.”

  He stopped. Edik waited for a while for him to continue, then said, “Do you know, for instance, that every time I’ve worked with him at night he’s gone off somewhere at exactly midnight and come back five minutes later, and every time I’ve had the impression he was trying to get me to tell him what we’d been doing before he left?”

  “That’s exactly right,” said Roman. “I know all about that. I noticed a long time ago that at precisely midnight his memory is simply wiped clean. And he’s perfectly aware of this defect of his. He’s apologized to me several times and told me it’s a reflex reaction caused by a serious concussion.”

  “His memory’s absolutely useless,” said Volodya Pochkin, crumpling up the piece of paper with his calculations and tossing it under the table. “He’s always asking if he saw you yesterday or not.”

  “And what you spoke about if he did see you,” I added.

  “Memory, memory,” Korneev muttered impatiently. “What’s his memory got to do with it? That’s not the problem. What’s this work he’s doing on parallel spatial dimensions?”

  “First we have to collect the facts,” said Edik.

  “Parrots, parrots, parrots,” Vitka continued. “Could they really be doubles after all?”

  “No,” said Volodya Pochkin. “I did all the calculations. They don’t match any of the criteria for doubles.”

  “Every night at midnight,” said Roman, “he goes into that laboratory of his and locks himself in for literally just a few minutes. One time he was in such a hurry to get in there, he didn’t even close the door.”

  “And what happened?” asked Stella in a hushed voice.

  “Nothing. He sat down in an armchair for a while and came back out. And he immediately asked if we’d been talking about anything important.”

  “I’m off,” said Korneev, getting up.

  “Me too,” said Edik. “We’ve got a seminar.”

  “Me too,” said Volodya Pochkin.

  “No,” said Roman. “You sit there and type. I’m leaving you in charge. Stella, you take Sasha and write your poems. I’m going out. I’ll be back in the evening, and the newspaper had better be ready.”

  They went out, leaving us there to work on the newspaper. At first we tried to think up ideas, but pretty soon we wore ourselves out and realized we couldn’t do it. So we wrote a short poem about a dying parrot.

  When Roman got back the newspaper was ready. Drozd was lying on the table scarfing down sandwiches and Pochkin was explaining to Stella and me why what had happened with the parrot was absolutely impossible.

  “Well done, all of you,” said Roman. “An excellent wall newspaper. And what a masthead! Such a fathomless starry sky! And so few typing errors! Where’s the parrot?”

  The parrot was lying in a petri dish, the very same dish in the very same place where Roman and I had seen it the day before. I even gasped in surprise.

  “Who put it here?” asked Roman.

  “I did,” said Drozd. “Why?”

  “Never mind,” said Roman. “It can stay there. OK, Sasha?”

  I nodded.

  “Let’s see what happens to it tomorrow,” said Roman.

  4

  Here’s this poor old innocent bird o’ mine swearing blue fire, and none the wiser, you may lay to that.

  —Robert Louis Stevenson

  But next morning I had my own responsibilities to attend to. The Aldan was fixed and ready to do battle, and when I arrived in the computer room after breakfast there was already a short line of doubles standing at the door with lists of jobs for it to tackle. I began by vengefully banishing Cristóbal Junta’s double after writing on its sheet of paper that I couldn’t read the writing. (Cristóbal Joséevich’s handwriting really was hard to read, because he wrote in Gothic letters.) Fyodor Simeonovich’s double had brought a program written personally by Fyodor Simeonovich. It was the first one that he had written without any advice, prompting, or instructions from me. I read it through carefully and was pleased to discover that it had been written competently, economically, and even with a certain originality. After correcting a few minor errors I passed the program on to my girls. Then I noticed the pale-faced bookkeeper from the fish processing plant languishing in the line. He looked rather frightened and uncomfortable, so I spotted him straightaway.

  “It doesn’t seem right, though,” he mumbled, squinting warily at the doubles. “The comrades are waiting—they were here before me.”

  “Don’t worry, they’re not comrades,” I reassured him.

  “Well, citizens—”

  “They’re not citizens either.”

  The accountant turned absolutely white and, leaning down toward me, said in a faltering whisper, “You know, I noticed they weren’t blinking . . . And that one in blue—I don’t think he’s breathing either.”

  I’d already dealt with half the line when Roman phoned. “Sasha?”

  “Yes?”

  “The parrot’s gone.”

  “What do you mean, gone?”

  “Just gone.”

  “Maybe the cleaning woman threw it out?”

  “I asked her. She didn’t. She never even saw it.”

  “So maybe the brownies are up to their silly tricks?”

  “Right outside the director’s laboratory? Hardly.”

  “True enough,” I said. “What about Janus himself?”

  “Janus hasn’t come in yet. I don’t think he’s even back from Moscow.”

  “Then what are we supposed to make of all this?” I asked.

  “I don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see.”

  Neither of us said anything.

  “Will you call me?” I asked. “If anything interesting comes up?”

  “Of course. Absolutely. Cheers, old buddy.”

  I forced myself not to think about the parrot, which in the final analysis was none of my business. I dealt with all the doubles, checked all the programs, and started work on a certain lousy job that had been hanging over me for ages. This lousy job had been given to me by the Absolutists. At first I’d told them it didn’t make any sense and it had no solution, like all the rest of their problems. But then I’d consulted Junta, who had a very subtle understanding of these things, and he’d given me a few pieces of encouraging advice. I’d made a start on the job many times already and then set it aside, but this time I saw it through. It came out very elegantly. But at the very moment when I finished it and leaned back in my chair to survey the solution from a distance, Junta arrived in a dark fury. Looking down at my feet, he inquired in a chilly, unpleasant voice exactly when I’d stopped being able to read his handwriting. He informed me that it sounded very much like sabotage to him, and in Madrid in 1936 he used to have people put up against the wall for doing things like that.

  I looked at him fondly. “Cristóbal Joséevich,” I said. “I did solve it after all. You were absolutely right. Incantational space really can be convoluted according to any four variables.”

  He finally raised his eyes and looked at me. I must have looked really pleased, because he relented and growled, “May I please take a look?”

  I gave him the sheets of paper, he sat down beside m
e, and we worked through the problem together from beginning to end, savoring with great delight two extremely elegant transformations, one of which he had suggested to me and the other of which I had found for myself.

  “Our heads seem to work quite well, Alejandro,” Junta said at last. “We possess an artistic quality of thought. What do you think?”

  “I think we did very well,” I said sincerely.

  “I think so too,” he said. “We’ll publish this. No one would be ashamed to publish it. This is not hitchhiking galoshes or pants of darkness.”

  In an excellent mood now, we began analyzing Junta’s new problem, and he soon got around to saying that even before then he sometimes used to think he was pobrecito, and he could tell I was a mathematical ignoramus the very first moment he laid eyes on me. I agreed with him fervently and suggested it was probably time for him to retire and I ought to be thrown out of the Institute on my backside and put to work as a lumberjack, because I was no good for anything else. He protested. He said a pension was out of the question for him, he ought to be made into fertilizer, and I shouldn’t be allowed within a kilometer of a logging camp—where, after all, a certain intellectual ability was required—I ought to be placed as an apprentice to a junior ladler in the sewage brigade of a cholera ward. We were sitting there with our heads propped in our hands, indulging in self-abasement, when Fyodor Simeonovich glanced into the room. As far as I could make out, he was impatient to find out what I thought of the program he’d written.

  “Program!” said Junta with a bilious laugh. “I haven’t seen your program, Teodoro, but I’m sure it’s brilliant in comparison to this.” He handed Fyodor Simeonovich the sheet of paper with his problem, grasping it squeamishly between his finger and thumb. “Feast your eyes on that squalid specimen of wretched mediocrity.”

  “My dear fellows,” said Fyodor Simeonovich, perplexed, once he’d puzzled out the handwriting. “This is one of Bezalel’s problems. Cagliostro proved that it has no solution.”

  “We know it doesn’t have a solution,” said Junta, instantly bristling. “What we want to know is how to go about solving it.”

  “Your reasoning is rather strange, Cristó . . . How can you look for a solution when there isn’t one? It doesn’t make much sense.”

  “I beg your pardon, Teodoro, but it is your reasoning that’s rather strange. What does not make sense is searching for a solution when there already is one. What we’re talking about here is how to deal with a problem that has no solution. This is a matter of fundamental principle, which I can see is unfortunately beyond your grasp as a mere practitioner without theoretical grounding. I believe I was mistaken to enter into discussion of this subject with you.”

  Cristóbal Joséevich’s tone was highly insulting, and Fyodor Simeonovich got very angry. “I tell you what, my dear fellow,” he said. “I can’t discuss the matter with you in this tone in front of this young man. You surprise me, it’s pedagogically incorrect. If you wish to continue, please step out into the corridor with me.”

  “At your service,” replied Junta, straightening up like a spring and snatching at a nonexistent sword hilt on his hip.

  They walked out ceremoniously, proudly holding their heads up high and not looking at each other. The girls started giggling. I wasn’t particularly frightened either. I sat down in front of the sheet of paper that had been left with me, taking my head in my hands, and for a while I was vaguely aware of Fyodor Simeonovich’s deep bass rumbling in the corridor, punctuated by Cristóbal Joséevich’s chilly but furious interjections.

  Then Fyodor Simeonovich roared, “Be so good as to step into my office!”

  “By all means,” rasped Junta. They were speaking very formally by this time. The voices faded into the distance.

  “A duel! A duel!” the girls twittered. Junta had the dashing reputation of a swashbuckling duelist and quarrel-monger. They said he used to take his opponent to his laboratory, offer him a choice of rapiers, swords, or battle-axes, and then start jumping around on the tables like Jean Marais, overturning all the cupboards. But there was no reason to be afraid for Fyodor Simeonovich. It was perfectly obvious that they would spend half an hour in his office staring at each other across the desk in gloomy silence, then Fyodor Simeonovich would heave a sigh, open up his traveling chest, and fill two glasses with the Elixir of Bliss. Junta would flare his nostrils, twirl his metaphorical mustache, and drink it. Fyodor Simeonovich would promptly fill the glasses again and shout for some fresh cucumbers from the laboratory.

  Just then Roman called and asked me in a strange voice to come up to his lab straightaway. I ran up the stairs.

  Roman, Vitka, and Edik were already in the lab. And there was a green parrot there too. Alive. He was sitting on the beam of the balance, as he had the day before, surveying everyone in turn, first with one eye and then with the other, rummaging in his feathers with his beak and evidently feeling just fine. By contrast, the scientists weren’t looking too good. Roman was stooped dejectedly over the parrot, sighing fitfully every now and then. Pale-faced Edik was gently massaging his temples with an expression of acute distress on his face, as if he were racked by migraine. And Vitka was sitting backward on a chair, swaying to and fro like a little boy playing at horses and muttering something unintelligible with his eyes rolling insanely.

  “The same one?” I asked in a low voice.

  “The very same,” said Roman.

  “Photon?” Suddenly I wasn’t feeling too good either.

  “Yep.”

  “And the number matches?”

  Roman didn’t answer.

  Edik said in a pained voice, “If we knew how many feathers the parrot has in its tail, we could have counted them again and taken into account the feather that was lost the day before yesterday.”

  “Maybe I should send for Brehm?” I suggested.

  “Where’s the corpse?” asked Roman. “That’s what we have to start with! Tell me, detectives, where’s the corpse?”

  “Corrrpse,” screeched the parrot. “Cerrremony! Corrrpse overboarrrd! Rrrubidium!”

  “What the hell is he saying?” Roman asked angrily.

  “‘Corpse overboard’ sounds like a typical pirate expression,” Edik explained.

  “And rubidium?”

  “Rrrubidium! Rrreserves! Verrry grrreat!” said the parrot.

  “There are very great reserves of rubidium,” Edik translated. “I wonder where, though.”

  I leaned down and started studying the ring. “Perhaps it isn’t really the same one?”

  “Then where’s the first one?” asked Roman.

  “That’s a different question,” I said. “That’s a bit easier to explain.”

  “Explain it then,” said Edik.

  “Hang on,” I said. “First let’s decide if it’s the same one or not.”

  “I think it is,” said Edik.

  “I don’t think it is,” I said. “See, there’s a scratch here on the ring, by the number three—”

  “Numberrr thrrree!” said the parrot. “Numberrr thrrree! Harrrd to starrrboard! Vorrrtex! Vorrrtex!”

  Vitka suddenly roused himself. “I’ve got an idea,” he said.

  “What is it?”

  “Associative interrogation.”

  “How do you mean?”

  “Hang on. Everybody sit down, keep quiet, and don’t interrupt. Roman, do you have a tape recorder?”

  “I’ve got a dictaphone.”

  “Give it to me. Only everybody keep quiet. I’ll make him talk, the rotten swine. He’ll tell me everything.”

  Vitka drew up a chair, sat down facing the parrot with the dictaphone in his hand, hunched over, looked at the parrot with one eye, and barked: “Rubidium!”

  The parrot started and almost fell off the beam. It flapped its wings to regain its balance and responded, “Rrreserves! Rrritchey Crrrater!”

  We looked at each other.

  “Rrreserves!” Vitka barked.

  “Verrry
great! Verrry grrreat. Rrritchey’s rrright! Rrritchey’s rrright! Rrrobots! Rrrobots!”

  “Robots!”

  “Crrrash! Burrrning! Atmospherrre’s burrrning! Withdrrraw! Drrramba! Withdrrraw!”

  “Dramba!”

  “Rrrubidium! Rrreserves!”

  “Rubidium!”

  “Rrreserves! Rrritchey Crrrater!”

  “Short circuit,” said Roman. “A closed circle.”

  “Hang on, hang on,” muttered Vitka. “Just a moment . . .”

  “Try something to do with something else,” Edik advised him.

  “Janus!” said Vitka.

  The parrot opened its beak and sneezed.

  “Jaaanus,” Vitka repeated sternly.

  The parrot stared thoughtfully at the ceiling.

  “There’s no letter r,” I said.

  “That’s probably it,” said Vitka. “OK then . . . Nevstrrruev!”

  “Overrr, overrr!” said the parrot. “Sorrrcerrror! Sorrrcerrror! Trrraveler herrre! Trrraveler herrre!”

  “That’s no pirate’s parrot,” said Edik.

  “Ask him about the corpse,” I suggested.

  “Corpse,” Vitka said unwillingly.

  “Burrrial cerrremony! Hurrrry! Hurrrry! Addrrress! Addrrress! Verrrbiage! Worrrk! Worrrk!”

  “He must have had some interesting owners,” said Roman. “What are we going to do?”

  “Vitya,” said Edik, “I think he’s using spaceflight terminology. Try something simple, more commonplace.”

  “Hydrogen bomb,” said Vitka.

  The parrot lowered its head and cleaned its claw with its beak.

  “Railroad! Train!” said Vitka.

  The parrot said nothing.

  “We’re not getting anywhere,” said Roman.

  “Dammit,” said Vitka, “I can’t think of anything else commonplace with a letter r in it. Table, window, ceiling . . . Oh! Trrranslator!”

  The parrot glanced at Vitka with one eye. “Korrrneev, rrreally!”

  “What?” asked Vitka. It was the first time I’d ever seen Vitka disconcerted.

  “Korrrneev’s a boorrr! Rrrude. Superrrb rrresearcher! Rrridiculous jesterrr! Rrremarkable!”