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History & Fiction
Thrillers & Crime
Romance & Love
Mystery & Detective
Time News Roman
Monday Starts on Saturday
Monday Starts on Saturday 26
And one awful day somewhere in the depths of time he would be met on the waxed floor of the Saint Petersburg Academy of Sciences by a colleague in a powdered wig—a colleague who had already been looking at him rather strangely for a week—who would gasp, throw his hands up in the air, and mumble with eyes full of terror, “Herr Nefstrueff! How can it be, ven only yesterday ze Gazette definitely wrote zat you had passed avay from a stroke . . .” And he would have to make excuses about a twin brother or false rumors, all the time knowing perfectly well what this conversation meant . . .
“Stop that,” said Korneev. “Sloppy sentimentalists. He knows the future, doesn’t he? He’s already been in places we won’t reach for ages and ages. And perhaps he knows exactly when we’re all going to die.”
“That’s completely different,” Edik said sadly.
“It’s tough on the old man,” said Roman. “Let’s try to be a bit more gentle and kind with him. Especially you, Vitka. You’re always so rude to him.”
“Well, why does he have to keep pestering me?” Vitka growled. “What were we talking about, where did we see each other . . .”
“Now you know why he pesters you, so behave yourself.”
Vitka scowled and began demonstratively perusing the list of questions.
“We have to explain everything to him in more detail,” I said. “Everything that we know. We have to predict his immediate future for him.”
“Yes, damn it!” said Roman. “This winter he broke his leg. On the black ice.”
“We have to prevent it,” I said firmly.
“What?” said Roman. “Do you realize what you’re saying? His leg had mended ages before then.”
“But he hasn’t broken it yet,” Edik objected.
We sat there for a few minutes trying to work it all out. Then Vitka suddenly said, “Hang on! What about this, guys? There’s still one question we haven’t crossed out.”
“What happened to the feather?”
“What happened to it?” said Roman. “It skipped to the eighth. And on the eighth I turned the furnace on and smelled something . . .”
“But I threw it in the wastepaper basket. On the eighth, the seventh, and the sixth I didn’t see it . . . Hmm . . . Where did it get to?”
“The cleaning woman threw it out,” I suggested.
“It’s a very interesting problem though,” said Edik. “Let’s assume no one burned it. What’s it going to look like in ages past?”
“There are even more interesting problems than that,” said Vitka. “For instance, what happens to Janus’s shoes when he wears them back to the day they were made at the Footman Factory? And what happens to the food he eats for supper? And in general . . .”
But we were already exhausted. We carried on arguing for a while, then Sasha Drozd arrived and shoved us, still arguing, off the sofa, switched on his Spidola, and started trying to borrow two rubles. “Oh, come on,” he whined.
“We haven’t got it,” we told him.
“Come on, you must have a couple left . . . Let me have it!”
We couldn’t carry on arguing like that, and we decided to go to lunch.
“In the final analysis,” said Edik, “our hypothesis isn’t really all that fantastic. Maybe S-Janus’s true story is far more amazing.”
Maybe it is, we thought, and went to the cafeteria.
I stopped by the computer room for a moment to let them know I was going to lunch. In the corridor I ran into S-Janus, who looked at me closely, smiled, and for some reason asked if we’d seen each other yesterday.
“No, Janus Polyeuctivich,” I said. “We didn’t see each other yesterday. You weren’t in the Institute yesterday. Early yesterday morning you flew to Moscow.”
“Ah yes,” he said. “I’d forgotten.”
He gave me such a kindly smile that I decided to do it. It was rather impertinent, of course, but I knew Janus Polyeuctovich had been well disposed toward me just recently, and that meant there couldn’t be any serious kind of incident between us now. I asked in a low voice, looking around cautiously, “Janus Polyeuctovich, would it be all right if I asked you a question?”
He raised his eyebrows and looked at me intently for a while, then, evidently recalling something, he said, “By all means. Just one?”
I realized he was right. There was no way I could fit everything into a single question. Was there going to be a war? Would I turn out all right? Would they find the recipe for universal happiness? Would the last fool ever die?
I said, “May I stop in to see you tomorrow morning?”
He shook his head, and I thought I detected a slight note of mockery in his answer. “No, that’s quite impossible. Tomorrow morning, Alexander Ivanovich, you will be summoned to the Kitezhgrad Plant, and I shall have to grant you a temporary reassignment.”
I felt stupid. There was something humiliating about this determinism that condemned me, an independent human being with freedom of will, to absolutely fixed actions that no longer depended on me. It had nothing to do with whether I wanted to go to Kitezhgrad or not. The point was that now I couldn’t die or fall ill or even turn testy and threaten to resign. I was foredoomed, and for the first time I understood the terrible meaning of that word. I had always known that it was bad to be foredoomed to be executed, for instance, or to go blind. But now it turned out that even to be foredoomed to the love of the most wonderful girl in all the world, or an absolutely fascinating voyage around the world, or a trip to Kitezhgrad (which I’d been wanting to visit for the last three months), could be extremely unpleasant too. I suddenly saw knowledge of the future in an entirely new light . . .
“It’s a bad idea to start reading a good book from the end, don’t you think?” said Janus Polyeuctovich, scrutinizing me quite openly. “And as far as your questions are concerned, Alexander Ivanovich, well . . . Try to understand, Alexander Ivanovich, that there’s not just one single future for everybody. There are many futures, and every action you take creates one or another of them . . . But you’ll come to understand that,” he said earnestly. “You’ll definitely come to understand it.”
And later I really did come to understand it.
But, then, that’s an entirely different story altogether.
Postscript and Commentary
A brief postscript and commentary by the acting head of the NITWiT computing laboratory, Research Assistant A. I. Privalov.
The preceding sketches from the life of the National Institute for the Technology of Witchcraft and Thaumaturgy are not, in my opinion, entirely realistic in the strict sense of the word. They do, however, possess certain virtues that distinguish them advantageously from the works on similar subjects by G. Pronitsatelny and B. Pitomnik and make it possible to recommend them to the general reader.
It should be noted first of all that the authors have achieved a clear understanding of the general situation and succeeded in distinguishing between the progressive and conservative aspects of the Institute’s activities. These sketches certainly do not provoke the same irritation that one feels when reading admiring articles about the opportunistic conjuring tricks of Vybegallo or rapturous paraphrases of the irresponsible predictions made by members of the Department of Absolute Knowledge. Furthermore, it is pleasant to note the authors’ correct attitude toward the magician as human being. For them the magician is not an object of fearful admiration and veneration, but neither is he the irritating fool of the popular cinema, an otherworldly individual who constantly misplaces his spectacles, who is incapable of punching a hooligan in the face and regales a girl in love with extracts from A Course in Differential and Integral Calculus. All of this indicates that the authors have assumed the correct general tone.
Among the virtues of these sketches one must also include the fact that the authors have described the topography of the Institute from the viewpoint of a novice, and they have also not overlooked the truly profound correlations
that exist between the laws of administration and the laws of magic. As far as the shortcomings of these sketches are concerned, by far the greater part of them derive from the authors’ original specialization in the humanities. As professional writers of literature, the authors over and over again give preference to so-called artistic truth over the truth of fact. And being professional writers of literature, the authors are, like most other writers, incorrigibly emotional and woefully ignorant in matters of contemporary magic. While I have no objection whatever to the publication of these sketches, I nonetheless feel it necessary to draw attention to certain specific flaws and errors that they contain.
The title of these essays, it seems to me, does not entirely correspond to their content. In employing this genuinely popular saying from our daily speech, the authors evidently wish to indicate that magicians work incessantly, even when they are relaxing. This is, indeed, very nearly the simple truth. But that is not clear from these sketches.
In their excessive infatuation with the exotic nature of our field, the authors have surrendered to the temptation to regale the reader with as many fascinating adventures and dramatic episodes as possible. The adventures of the intellect—which constitute the essence of any magician’s life—are barely even touched on in these sketches. Here, of course, I must make exception for the final chapter of the third part, in which the authors have made an attempt to illustrate the workings of thought, although they have based their efforts on the unrewarding material of a rather elementary and amateurish problem in logic (in expounding which they have also managed to commit a rather primitive logical blunder and then unashamedly ascribe this blunder to the characters of their story, which is only typical). I have, by the way, informed the authors of my view on this matter, but they merely shrugged and declared rather sulkily that I was taking the sketches too seriously.
The above-mentioned ignorance in matters of magic as a science repeatedly plays the authors false throughout the book. Thus, in formulating the subject of M. F. Redkin’s dissertation they have made fourteen(!) errors of fact. They have obviously taken a great liking to the perfectly respectable term “hyperfield” and frequently insert it into the text at inappropriate points. They are clearly unaware that the sofa-translator is a source not of an M-field but of a mu-field; that the term “living water” went out of use in the eighteenth century; that the mysterious instrument referred to as an “aquavitometer” and the electronic device referred to as an “Aldan” do not actually exist; that the head of a computing laboratory only very rarely checks programs—there are mathematical programmers to do that, and in our laboratory we have two of them, whom the authors insist on calling “girls.” The description of exercises in materialization in the first chapter of the second part is appallingly bad: the authors’ own consciences must bear responsibility for the preposterous terms “magistatum vector” and “Auers’s incantation,” Stokes’s equation has absolutely nothing to do with materialization, and at the moment described Saturn could not possibly have been in the constellation of Libra. (This last blunder is all the more unforgivable since, as I have learned, one of the authors is a professional astronomer.)
The list of inaccuracies and absurdities of this kind could easily have been extended, but I am not doing so here, because the authors have refused point-blank to make any corrections. They have also refused to remove terminology that they do not understand; one declared that the terminology was necessary to convey the ambience and the other said it created local color. In any case, I have been obliged to concur with their idea that the vast majority of readers will hardly be capable of distinguishing correct terminology from the erroneous variety and that no matter which kind of terminology is present, no sensible reader will ever believe it.
The attempt made to achieve the aforementioned artistic truth (according to one of the authors) and to create rounded characters (in the words of the other) has resulted in significant distortion of the images of real people involved in the narrative. The authors are in general inclined to oversimplify their characters, with the result that the only one who is more or less authentic is Vybegallo, and to some extent Cristóbal Joséevich Junta. (I do not include here the episodic image of the vampire Alfred, which has turned out better than any other.) For instance, the authors assert that Korneev is a coarse individual and imagine that the reader is capable of constructing for himself a correct impression of that coarseness. Yes, Korneev is indeed coarse. But for that very reason the Korneev described here appears like a “semitransparent inventor” (in the authors’ own terminology) in comparison with the real Korneev. The same applies to the much vaunted politeness of E. Amperian. The R. P. Oira-Oira of these sketches appears entirely bloodless, although during the very period described he was in the process of divorcing his second wife and preparing to marry for the third time. The examples already adduced are probably sufficient to convince the reader not to place too much faith in the way that I myself am depicted in the sketches.
A few words concerning the illustrations. The artwork is extremely accurate and produces a highly convincing impression. (I might even have thought that the artist had some close connection with our sister institution, the National Institute for Cabalistics, Enchantment, Occultism, and Necromancy.) This serves to confirm yet again that even when genuine talent has been misinformed, it will still never completely lose sight of the genuine reality. Yet at the same time it is impossible not to note that the artist has had the misfortune of observing the world through the eyes of the authors, whose competence I have already discussed. However, I hope that the sense of humor typical of the team at NICEONe will restrain any urge they might feel to subject the authors to literary-critical persecution for libel, defamation of character, misinformation, and distortion of fact.
The authors have requested that I explain certain obscure terms and unfamiliar names that occur in the book. I have encountered some difficulty in my efforts to fulfill this request. Naturally, I have no intention of explaining terminology invented by the authors (“aquavitometer,” “temporal transmission,” and so forth). But I think that even an explanation of terms that are employed correctly will not be of any great benefit, if it requires fundamental, specialized knowledge to be understood. It is impossible, for instance, to explain the term “hyperfield” to a person who has a poor understanding of the theory of physical vacuum. The term “transgression” is even more expansive, and furthermore, different schools of thought employ it with different meanings. In short, I have limited my commentary to certain names, terms, and concepts that are, on the one hand, in sufficiently common usage and, on the other, employed in a specific context in our work. In addition, I have included commentaries on several words that have no direct connection with magic but which, it seems to me, the reader may find perplexing.
Acephaloid: A freak with no brain or cranium. Acephaloids normally die at birth or a few hours afterward.
Augurs: In ancient Rome, priests who foretold the future from the flight of birds and their behavior. The great majority of them were deliberate swindlers. To a large extent this also applies to the Institute’s augurs, although now they have developed new methods.
Basilisk: In folktales, a monster with the head of a cock and the tail of a serpent that can kill with a glance. In actual fact a now almost extinct ancient lizard, covered with feathers, the precursor of the primordial bird Archaeopteryx. Capable of hypnotizing people. There are two specimens in the Institute’s vivarium.
Bezalel, Loew ben: A famous medieval magician, the court alchemist of Emperor Rudolf II.
Brownie: As conceived by superstitious people, a supernatural being who lives in every inhabited house. There is nothing supernatural about brownies. They are either magicians who have gone completely to seed and are incapable of being reformed, or mongrel hybrids of gnomes and certain domestic animals. In the Institute they work under the supervision of M. M. Kamnoedov, carrying out work that requires no qualifications.
aver: In general terms, an inanimate object brought to life: a portrait, statue, idol, dummy. (See, for instance, A. N. Tolstoy’s story “Count Cagliostro.”) One of the first cadavers in history was the well-known Galatea, made by the sculptor Pygmalion. Cadavers are not employed in modern magic. As a rule they are phenomenally stupid, capricious, hysterical, and almost impossible to train. In the Institute failed doubles and double-like employees are sometimes referred to ironically as cadavers.
Cirugue, Richard: The eponymous hero of the fantasy novel Le Singe. He invented a method of three-dimensional photography.
Danaids: In Greek mythology, the criminal daughters of King Danaus, whom they killed on the orders of their husbands. At first they were condemned to fill a bottomless barrel with water. Later, when their case was reviewed, the court took into account the fact that they had been forced into marriage. Due to this mitigating circumstance they were transferred to work that was not quite so meaningless: in our institute they are employed in breaking up asphalt in places where they have only recently laid it.
Dracula, Count: A famous Hungarian vampire of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. Not actually a count, he committed countless crimes against humanity. He was captured by hussars and solemnly stabbed with a stake of poplar wood before a large assembly of people. Distinguished by exceptional powers of survival: the postmortem discovered one and a half kilograms of silver bullets in his body.
Genie: An evil spirit in Arabian and Persian myths. Almost all genies are doubles of King Solomon and magicians of his time. They were used for military purposes and political banditry. They are distinguished by their obnoxious personalities, insolence, and total lack of any sense of gratitude. Their ignorance and aggression are so great that almost all of them are held in solitary confinement. In contemporary magic they are widely used for experimental purposes. In particular, E. Amperian has used thirteen genies to determine the amount of damage that can be inflicted on society by a single malicious and ignorant fool.