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Actions & Adventure
History & Fiction
Thrillers & Crime
Romance & Love
Mystery & Detective
Time News Roman
Monday Starts on Saturday
Monday Starts on Saturday 7
He wasn’t listening. He sat down on the stool opposite me and continued his lament: “There was a time when I used to levitate like Zeks. But now I can’t even get rid of this growth in my ears. It looks so untidy . . . But what’s to be done if you’ve got no talent? The immense number of temptations there are all around, all sorts of degrees and titles and prizes, but I’ve got no talent. Many of us get rather hirsute as we grow old. Of course, that doesn’t apply to the grand masters. Gian Giacomo, Cristóbal Junta, Giuseppe Balsamo, or comrade Fyodor Simeonovich Kivrin, for instance . . . Not a trace of superfluous hair there!” He gave me a triumphant look. “Not a trace! Such smooth skin, such elegance, such grace . . .”
“I beg your pardon,” I said, “You mentioned Giuseppe Balsamo . . . But he is the same person as Count Cagliostro! And according to Alexei Tolstoy, the count was fat and very unpleasant-looking.”
The Little Man looked at me pityingly and smiled condescendingly. “You’re simply not aware of the facts, Alexander Ivanovich,” he said. “Count Cagliostro is not at all the same as the great Balsamo. He is . . . how can I explain it to you . . . He is a rather unsuccessful copy of him. In his youth Balsamo made a matrix mold of himself. He was quite exceptionally talented, but you know how it is when you’re young . . . Get it done quick, have a laugh, any old way will do . . . Yes indeed . . . So don’t you ever say that Balsamo and Cagliostro are the same. You could end up feeling rather stupid.”
I felt rather stupid. “All right,” I said, “of course, I’m no specialist, but . . . pardon my impertinence, but what’s all this business with the sofa about? Who’s taken it?”
The Little Man shuddered. “Such unpardonable conceit,” he said loudly, getting to his feet. “I made a mistake and I am prepared to admit it without the slightest reservation. When giants like that . . . And there are those impudent boys too . . .” He started bowing and pressing his pale little hands to his heart. “Please forgive my intrusion, Alexander Ivanovich, I have inconvenienced you . . . Allow me to apologize unreservedly once again and take my leave immediately.” He moved closer to the oven and glanced upward apprehensively. “It’s my age, Alexander Ivanovich,” he said with a deep sigh. “My age . . .”
“Perhaps it would be more convenient if you went through the . . . err . . . There was another comrade here just before you and he used it.”
“Ahh, my dear fellow, then that was Cristóbal Junta! Seeping ten leagues through the drains is no problem for him . . .” The Little Man gestured mournfully. “We’re not up to that sort of thing . . . Did he take the sofa with him or transgress it?”
“I-I don’t know,” I said. “Well actually, he got here too late as well.”
The Little Man plucked at the fur in his right ear in stupefaction. “Too late? Him? Incredible! But then, who are you and I to judge? Good-bye, Alexander Ivanovich. Please forgive me.”
With a visible effort he walked through the wall and disappeared. I tossed my cigarette butt into the rubbish lying on the floor. This sofa was big news all right! Not your garden-variety talking cat. This was something more serious altogether . . . There was real drama here. Perhaps even a genuine drama of the intellect. There would probably be others arriving too late as well. There were bound to be. I glanced at the rubbish. Where was it I saw that twig broom?
The twig broom was standing beside the drinking water tub under the telephone. I started sweeping up the rubbish and suddenly something heavy snagged on the broom and rolled out into the center of the room. Glancing at it, I saw an elongated cylinder about the size of my index finger. I touched it with the broom. The cylinder swayed to and fro; there was a dry crackling sound and a sudden smell of ozone. I dropped the broom and picked up the cylinder. It was smooth, highly polished, and warm to the touch. I flicked a fingernail against it and it crackled again. I turned it around to look at its end and immediately felt the floor starting to slip away from under my feet. The world turned upside down before my eyes. I stubbed my toes painfully against something, then banged my shoulder and the top of my head. I dropped the cylinder and fell.
I was badly shaken, and it was a moment before I realized that I was lying in the narrow crevice between the oven and the wall. The lamp above my head was swaying, and looking up I was astonished to see the ribbed tracks of my shoes on the ceiling. Wheezing and groaning, I clambered out of the crevice and inspected my soles. They had whitewash on them.
“Well now,” I thought out loud, “thank goodness I didn’t end up seeping through the drains!”
I looked around to find the cylinder. It was standing with the circumference of its end surface touching the floor, in a position that couldn’t possibly be balanced. I cautiously moved a bit closer and squatted down beside it. The cylinder crackled quietly and rocked to and fro. I looked at it for a long time, then stretched out my neck and blew on it. The cylinder began swaying faster and leaned over, and immediately I heard a hoarse screech and felt a puff of wind on my back. I glanced around and immediately sat down on the floor at the sight of a gigantic vulture with a naked neck and a menacingly curving beak sitting on the oven, carefully folding away its wings.
“Hello,” I said. I was certain that the vulture could talk.
The vulture inclined its head and peered at me with one eye, which made it look like a chicken. I waved my hand in greeting. The vulture opened its beak slightly, but it didn’t talk to me. It raised one wing and started searching for lice underneath it, clicking its beak. The cylinder carried on swaying and crackling. The vulture stopped, pulled its head back into its shoulders, and veiled its eyes with a yellow film. Trying not to turn my back to it, I finished cleaning up and tossed the rubbish outside into the rainy darkness. Then I went back into the room.
The vulture was sleeping and there was a smell of ozone in the air. I looked at the clock: it was twenty minutes past twelve. I stood looking down at the cylinder for a while, pondering the law of conservation of energy and matter. Vultures were unlikely to condense out of nothing. If this vulture had appeared here in Solovets, then a vulture (not necessarily this one) had disappeared in the Caucasus or wherever it was they lived. I made a rough estimate of the energy of translocation and cast a wary glance at the cylinder. Better not touch it, I thought. Better cover it with something and let it stand there. I brought the dipper in from the hallway, lined it up carefully, and, holding my breath, put it over the cylinder. Then I sat down on the stool, lit a cigarette, and started waiting for what would happen next. The vulture was sniffling audibly. In the light of the lamp its feathers glinted with a copper sheen and its massive claws were dug deep into the whitewash. It gave off a smell of decay that was gradually filling the room.
“You shouldn’t have done that, Alexander Ivanovich,” said a pleasant male voice.
“What exactly?” I asked, glancing around at the mirror.
“I meant the plywitsum . . .”
It wasn’t the mirror talking. It was someone else. “I don’t understand what you mean,” I said. There was no one in the room, and that made me feel annoyed.
“I’m talking about the plywitsum,” said the voice. “You really shouldn’t have covered it with the iron dipper. A plywitsum, or as you call it, a magic wand, should be treated with extreme caution.”
“That’s why I covered it up . . . But do come in, comrade. This is a very inconvenient way to talk.”
“Thank you,” said the voice. A man unhurriedly condensed out of the air in front of me—pale, very respectable looking, wearing a supremely well-fitting gray suit. Inclining his head to one side, he inquired with quite exquisite politeness, “May I make bold to hope that I am not inconveniencing you too greatly?”
“Not in the slightest,” I said, getting to my feet, “Please take a seat and make yourself at home. Would you like some tea?”
“Thank you,” said the stranger, and sat down facing me, pulling up his trouser legs with an elegant gesture. “But as for tea, please excuse me, Alexander Ivanovich, I hav
e only just finished supper.”
He looked into my eyes for a while, smiling urbanely. I smiled back. “I suppose you are here about the sofa,” I said. “I’m afraid the sofa is gone. I’m very sorry, I don’t even know—”
The stranger fluttered his hands in the air. “Such petty trifles!” he said. “All that fuss over some nonsense—I beg your pardon—that nobody actually believes in anyway . . . Judge for yourself, Alexander Ivanovich, these petty squabbles and wild goose chases, like some movie, upsetting people over some mythical—I am not afraid to use the word—some mythical White Thesis . . . Every sober-minded individual regards the sofa as a universal translator, somewhat bulky, but extremely durable and reliable. The old ignoramuses with their idle talk about the White Thesis are just making fools of themselves . . . No, I do not wish to talk about the sofa.”
“Just as you please,” I said, concentrating all my urbanity in this one phrase. “Do let us talk about something else.”
“Superstition . . . Prejudice . . .” the stranger said absentmindedly. “Mental sloth and envy, hirsute envy . . .” He interrupted himself. “Forgive me, Alexander Ivanovich, but I will after all be so bold as to request your permission to remove that dipper. Unfortunately iron is effectively opaque to the hyperfield, and a buildup of hyperfield tension in a confined space . . .”
I raised my arms in assent. “By all means, just as you wish! Remove the dipper . . . You may even remove that . . . erm . . . erm . . . that magic wand.” At this point I stopped, amazed to see that the dipper was no longer there. The cylinder was standing in a puddle of liquid that looked like colored mercury. The liquid was rapidly evaporating.
“It is for the best, I assure you,” said the stranger. “But as for your magnanimous suggestion that I remove the plywitsum, unfortunately I am unable to avail myself of it. It is a matter of morality and ethics—a question of honor, if you wish . . . Convention is such a powerful force. Permit me to suggest that you do not touch the plywitsum again! I see that you have hurt yourself, and as for this eagle . . . I think you can sense . . . eh-eh . . . a certain fragrance . . .”
“Yes,” I said with passionate feeling. “The stench is vile, as bad as a monkey house.”
We looked at the eagle. The vulture was dozing, its feathers ruffled up.
“The art of controlling the plywitsum,” said the stranger, “is both complex and subtle. You must under no circumstances feel distressed or reproach yourself. The course in plywitsum control lasts seven semesters and requires a thorough knowledge of quantum alchemy. As a programmer, you would probably have no difficulty in mastering the electronic-level plywitsum, the so-called PEP-17 . . . but the quantum plywitsum—the hyperfields . . . transgressive materialization . . . the unified Lomonosov-Lavoisier law . . .” He gestured apologetically.
“Why, naturally!” I said hastily. “I would never claim . . . Of course I am entirely unprepared.” At this point I suddenly remembered I hadn’t offered him a cigarette.
“Thank you,” said the stranger. “But I very much regret that I don’t.”
Then, with a polite shuffling of my fingers, I inquired—I didn’t ask, but precisely inquired—“Might I perhaps be permitted to know to what I owe the pleasure of our meeting?”
The stranger lowered his eyes. “I am afraid that I may appear indiscreet,” he said, “but I am, alas, obliged to confess that I have been here for quite a long time. I would not wish to name names, but I believe it is clear even to you, Alexander Ivanovich, far removed as you are from this entire business, that a rather unedifying commotion has developed over the sofa: a scandal is in the offing, the atmosphere is growing heated, and the tension is mounting. In such a situation mistakes and highly undesirable accidents are inevitable . . . We need not look too far for examples. A certain person—I repeat, I would not wish to name names, especially as this person is an associate deserving of the highest respect, and in speaking of respect, I have in mind if not perhaps his manners then his great talent and selfless dedication—well then, in his nervous haste, a certain person leaves the plywitsum here by mistake, and the plywitsum becomes the center of a sphere of events, in which there becomes implicated a certain individual having no connection with them whatsoever . . .” He bowed in my direction. “And in such cases it is absolutely essential to take action which will neutralize the harmful effects . . .” He cast a meaningful glance at the prints of my shoes on the ceiling. Then he smiled at me and said, “But I would not wish to appear to be an abstract altruist. Of course, as both a specialist and an administrator I find all these events extremely interesting . . . However, I have no intention of inconveniencing you any further, and since you have given me your assurance that you will not experiment with the plywitsum any further, I shall ask you please to allow me to take my leave.” He stood up.
“No, please!” I cried out. “Do not go! It is such a pleasure for me to talk with you, and I have a thousand questions to ask!”
“I am most truly appreciative of your tact, Alexander Ivanovich, but you are exhausted, you are in need of rest . . .”
“Not in the least!” I retorted heatedly. “Quite the contrary!”
“Alexander Ivanovich,” said the stranger, smiling kindly and staring hard into my eyes. “You really are feeling tired, and you really do want to take a rest.”
And then I realized that I actually was falling asleep. I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I didn’t want to talk anymore. I didn’t want to do anything at all. I just felt terribly sleepy.
“It has been a quite exceptional pleasure to make your acquaintance,” the stranger said in a soft voice.
I saw him start to fade, gradually becoming fainter until he dissolved into the air, leaving behind a faint odor of expensive eau de cologne. I spread the bedding out clumsily on the floor, stuck my face into the pillow, and instantly fell asleep.
I was woken by a flapping of wings and an unpleasant screeching. The room was filled with a strange, bluish half-light. The vulture on the brick oven was rustling its feathers, screaming repulsively, and banging its wings against the ceiling. I sat up and looked around. Floating in the air at the center of the room was a big, tough-looking bozo in tracksuit pants and a striped Hawaiian shirt. He was hovering above the cylinder and making passes over it with his massive, bony hands without touching it.
“What’s the problem?” I asked.
The bozo glanced briefly at me over his shoulder and then turned away.
“I didn’t hear your answer,” I said angrily. I was still feeling very sleepy.
“Quiet, mortal,” the bozo said in a hoarse voice. He stopped making passes and picked the cylinder up off the floor. I thought his voice sounded familiar.
“Hey, buddy!” I said threateningly. “Put that thing back and clear out.”
The bozo looked at me, thrusting out his jaw. I threw the blanket off and stood up.
“All right, put the plywitsum down,” I yelled at the top of my voice. The bozo descended to the floor, planted his feet firmly, and assumed a combat stance. The room became a lot lighter, although the lamp was not switched on.
“Sonny boy,” said the bozo, “it’s nighttime—you ought to be asleep. Why don’t you lay yourself down, before I help you do it?”
This guy was obviously no pushover in a fight. But then neither was I. “Shall we go outside, perhaps?” I suggested briskly, pulling up my underpants.
Someone declared with feeling, “With your thoughts directed to the higher Self, free from craving and self-love, cured of spiritual fever, fight, Arjuna!”
I started. So did the young guy.
“Bhagavad Gita!” said the voice. “Chapter 3, verse 30.”
“It’s the mirror,” I said automatically.
“I know that,” the bozo growled.
“Put the plywitsum down,” I demanded.
“Why are you yelling like an elephant with a sick head?” the guy asked. “As if it was yours!”
“You mean it’s yours
“Yes, it’s mine.”
I had a sudden flash of inspiration. “So it was you who took the sofa too!”
“Mind your own business,” the young guy advised me.
“Give the sofa back,” I said. “I signed a receipt for it.”
“Go to hell!” said the bozo, looking around.
At this point another two men appeared in the room, a skinny one and a fat one, both wearing striped pajamas, like inmates of Sing Sing.
“Korneev!” the fat one howled. “So you’re the sofa thief! You ought to be ashamed of yourself!”
“You can all go—” said the bozo.
“You lout!” the fat man shouted. “You ought to be thrown out. I’ll send in a report on you!”
“Go ahead,” Korneev said morosely. “Do what you enjoy doing most.”
“How dare you talk to me in that tone of voice! You insolent urchin! You left the plywitsum here! This young man could have suffered as a result!”
“I already have,” I interjected. “The sofa’s gone, I’m sleeping on the floor like a dog . . . these conversations all night every night . . . That stinking eagle . . .”
The fat man immediately turned toward me. “A quite unprecedented breach of discipline,” he declared. “You must complain . . . And you ought to be ashamed of yourself!” he said, turning back to Korneev.
Korneev was gloomily stuffing the plywitsum into his cheek.
The skinny man asked in a low, threatening voice: “Have you extracted the Thesis, Korneev?”
The bozo laughed morosely. “There isn’t any Thesis in it,” he said. “Why do you keep going on about it? If you don’t want us to steal the sofa, then give us another translator.”
“Have you read the order about not removing items from the storeroom?” the skinny man asked threateningly.
Korneev stuck his hands in his pockets and gazed up at the ceiling.
“Are you aware of the decision of the Academic Council?” the skinny man asked.