Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.
The Final Circle of Paradise
("Hischnye Veschi Veka", "Century's Ravenous Pleasures")
There is but one problem --
the only one in the world --
to restore to men a spiritual
content, spiritual concerns....
-- A de St. Exupery
The customs inspector had a round smooth face which
registered the most benevolent of attitudes. He was
respectfully cordial and solicitous.
"Welcome," he murmured. "How do you like our sunshine?" He
glanced at the passport in my hand. "Beautiful morning, isn't
I proffered him my passport and stood the suitcase on the
white counter. The inspector rapidly leafed through it with his
long careful fingers. He was dressed in a white uniform with
silver buttons and silver braid on the shoulders. He laid the
passport aside and touched the suitcase with the tips of his
"Curious," he said. "The case has not yet dried. It is
difficult to imagine that somewhere the weather can be bad."
"Yes," I said with a sigh, "we are already well into the
autumn," and opened the suitcase.
The inspector smiled sympathetically and glanced at it
absent-mindedly. "It's impossible amid our sunshine to
visualize an autumn. Thank you, that will be quite all
right.... Rain, wet roofs, wind...
"And what if I have something hidden under the linen?" I
asked -- I don't appreciate conversations about the weather. He
"Just an empty formality," he said. "Tradition. A
conditioned reflex of all customs inspectors, if you will." He
handed me a sheet of heavy paper. "And here is another
conditioned reflex. Please read it -- it's rather unusual. And
sign it if you don't mind."
I read. It was a law concerning immigration, printed in
elegant type on heavy paper and in four languages. Immigration
was absolutely forbidden. The customs man regarded me steadily.
"Curious, isn't it?" he asked.
"In any case it's intriguing," I replied, drawing my
fountain pen. "Where do I sign?"
"Where and how you please," said the customs man. "Just
across will do."
I signed under the Russian text over the line "I have been
informed on the immigration laws."
'Thank you," said the customs man, filing the paper away
in his desk, 'Now you know practically all our laws. And during
your entire stay -- How long will you be staying with us?"
I shrugged my shoulders.
"It's difficult to say in advance. Depends on how the work
"Shall we say a month?"
'That would be about it. Let's say a month."
"And during this whole month," he bent over the passport
making some notation, "during this entire month you won't need
any other laws." He handed me my passport. "I shouldn't even
have to mention that you can prolong your stay with us to any
reasonable extent. But in the meantime, let it be thirty days.
If you find it desirable to stay longer, visit the police
station on the 16th of May and pay one dollar... You have
"That's fine. By the way, it is not at all necessary to
have exclusively a dollar. We accept any currency. Rubles,
"I don't have cruzeiros," I said. 'I have only dollars,
rubles, and some English pounds. Will that suit you?"
"Undoubtedly. By the way, so as not to forget, would you
please deposit ninety dollars and seventy-two cents."
"With pleasure," I said, "but why?"
"It's customary. To guarantee the minimum needs. We have
never had anyone with us who did not have some needs."
I counted out ninety-one dollars, and without sitting
down, he proceeded to write out a receipt. His neck grew red
from the awkward position. I looked around. The white counter
stretched along the entire pavilion. On the other side of the
barrier, customs inspectors in white smiled cordially, laughed,
explained things in a confidential manner. On this side,
brightly clad tourists shuffled impatiently, snapped suitcase
locks, and gaped excitedly. While they waited they feverishly
thumbed through advertising brochures, loudly devised all kinds
of plans, secretly and openly anticipated happy days ahead, and
now thirsted to surmount the white counter as quickly as
possible. Sedate London clerks and their athletic-looking
brides, pushy Oklahoma farmers in bright shirts hanging outside
Bermuda shorts and sandals over bare feet, Turin workers with
their well-rouged wives and numerous children, small-time
Catholic bosses from Spain, Finnish lumbermen with their pipes
considerately banked, Hungarian basketball players, Iranian
students, union organizers from Zambia...
The customs man gave me my receipt and counted out
twenty-eight cents change.
"Well -- there is all the formality. I hope I haven't
detained you too long. May I wish you a pleasant stay!"
"Thank you," I said and took my suitcase.
He regarded me with his head slightly bent sideways,
smiling out of his bland, smooth face.
"Through this turnstile, please. Au revoir. May I
once more wish you the best."
I went out on the plaza following an Italian pair with
four kids and two robot redcaps.
The sun stood high over mauve mountains. Everything in the
plaza was bright and shiny and colorful. A bit too bright and
colorful, as it usually is in resort towns. Gleaming
orange-and-red buses surrounded by tourist crowds, shiny and
polished green of the vegetation in the squares with white,
blue, yellow, and gold pavilions, kiosks, and tents. Mirrorlike
surfaces, vertical, horizontal, and inclined, which flared with
sunbursts. Smooth matte hexagons underfoot and under the wheels
-- red, black, and gray, just slightly springy and smothering
the sound of footsteps. I put down the suitcase and donned
Out of all the sunny towns it has been my luck to visit,
this was without a doubt the sunniest. And that was all wrong.
It would have been much easier if the day had been gray, if
there had been dirt and mud, if the pavilion had also been gray
with concrete walls, and if on that wet concrete was scratched
something obscene, tired, and pointless, born of boredom. Then
I would probably feel like working at once. I am positive of
this because such things are irritating and demand action. It's
still hard to get used to the idea that poverty can be wealthy.
And so the urge is lacking and there is no desire to begin
immediately, but rather to take one of these buses, like the
red-and-blue one, and take off to the beach, do a little scuba
diving, get a tan, play some ball, or find Peck, stretch out on
the floor in some cool room and reminisce on all the good stuff
so that he could ask about Bykov, about the Trans-Pluto
expedition, about the new ships on which I too am behind the
times, but still know better than he, and so that he could
recollect the uprising and boast of his scars and his high
social position.... It would be most convenient if Peck did
have a high social position. It would be well if he were, for
example, a mayor....
A small darkish rotund individual in a white suit and a
round white hat set at a rakish angle approached deliberately,
wiping his lips with a dainty handkerchief. The hat was
equipped with a transparent green shade and a green ribbon on
which was stamped "Welcome." On his right earlobe glistened a
"Welcome aboard," said the man.
"Hello," said I.
"A pleasure to have you with us. My name is Ahmad."
"And my name is Ivan," said I. "Pleased to make your
We nodded to each other and regarded the tourists entering
the buses. They were happily noisy and the warm wind rolled
their discarded butts and crumpled candy wrappers along the
square. Ahmad's face bore a green tint from the light filtering
through his cap visor.
"Vacationers," he said. "Carefree and loud. Now they will
be taken to their hotels and will immediately rush off to the
"I wouldn't mind a run on water skis," I observed.
"Really? I never would have guessed. There's nothing you
look less like than a vacationer."
"So be it," I said. "In fact I did come to work"
"To work? Well, that happens too, some do come to work
here. Two years back Jonathan Kreis came here to paint a
picture." He laughed. "Later there was an assault-and-battery
case in Rome, some papal nuncio was involved, can't remember
"Because of the picture?"
"No, hardly. He didn't paint a thing here. The casino was
where you could find him day or night. Shall we go have a
"Let's. You can give me a few pointers."
"It's my pleasurable duty -- to give advice," said Ahmad.
We bent down simultaneously and both of us took hold of
the suitcase handle.
"It's okay -- I'll manage."
"No," countered Ahmad, "you are the guest and I the host.
Let's go to yonder bar. It's quiet there at this time."
We went in under a blue awning. Ahmad seated me at a
table, put my suitcase on a vacant chair, and went to the
counter. It was cool and an air conditioner sighed in the
background. Ahmad returned with a tray. There were tall glasses
and flat plates with butter-gold tidbits.
"Not very strong," said Ahmad, "but really cold to make up
"I don't like it strong in the morning either," I said.
I quaffed the glass. The stuff was good.
"A swallow -- a bite," counseled Ahmad, "Like this: a
swallow, a bite."
The tidbits crunched and melted in the mouth. In my view,
they were unnecessary. We were silent for some time, watching
the square from under the marquee. gently purring, the buses
pulled out one after another into their respective tree-lined
avenues. They looked ponderous yet strangely elegant in their
"It would be too noisy there," said Ahmad. "Fine cottages,
lots of women -- to suit any taste -- and right on the water,
but no privacy. I don't think it's for you."
"Yes," I agreed. "The noise would bother me. Anyway, I
don't like vacationers, Ahmad. Can't stand it when people work
at having fun."
Ahmad nodded and carefully placed the next tidbit in his
mouth. I watched him chew. There was something professional and
concentrated in the movement of his lower jaw. Having
swallowed, he said, "No, the synthetic will never compare with
the natural product. Not the same bouquet." He flexed his lips,
smacked them gently, and continued, "There are two excellent
hotels in the center of town, but, in my view..."
"Yes, that won't do either," I said. "A hotel places
certain obligations on you. I never heard that anything
worthwhile has ever been written in a hotel."
"Well, that's not quite true," retorted Ahmad, critically
studying the last tidbit. "I read one book and in it they said
that it was in fact written in a hotel -- the Hotel Florida."
"Aah," I said, "you are correct. But then your city is not
being shelled by cannons."
"Cannons? Of course not. Not as a rule, anyway."
"Just as I thought. But, as a matter of fact, it has been
noted that something worthwhile can be written only in a hotel
which is under bombardment."
Ahmad took the last tidbit after all.
'That would be difficult to arrange," he said. "In our
times it's hard to obtain a cannon. Besides, it's very
expensive; the hotel could lose its clientele."
"Hotel Florida also lost its clients in its time.
Hemingway lived in it alone."
"Ah... but that was so long ago, in the fascist times. But
times have changed, Ivan."
"Yes," said I, "and therefore in our times there is no
point in writing in hotels."
"To blazes with hotels then," said Ahmad. "I know what you
need. You need a boarding house." He took out a notebook.
"State your requirements and we'll try to match them up."
"Boarding house," I said. "I don't know. I don't think so,
Ahmad. Do understand that I don't want to meet people whom I
don't want to know. That's to begin with. And in the second
place, who lives in private boarding houses? These same
vacationers who don't have enough money for a cottage. They too
work hard at having fun. They concoct picnics, meets, and song
fests. At night they play the banjo. On top of which they grab
anyone they can get hold of and make them participate in
contests for the longest uninterrupted kiss. Most important of
all, they are all transients. But I am interested in your
country, Ahmad. In your townspeople. I'll tell you what I need:
I need a quiet house with a garden. Not too far from downtown.
A relaxed family, with a respectable housewife. An attractive
young daughter. You get the picture, Ahmad?"
Ahmad took the empty glasses, went over to the counter,
and returned with full ones. Now they contained a colorless
transparent liquid and the small plates were stacked with tiny
"I know of such a cozy house," declared Ahmad. "The widow
is forty-five and the daughter twenty. The son is eleven. Let's
finish the drinks and we'll be on our way. I think you'll like
it. The rent is standard, but of course it's more than in a
hoarding house. You have come to stay for a long time?"
"For a month."
"Good Lord! Just a month?"
"I don't know how my affairs will go. Perhaps I may tarry
"By all means, you will," said Ahmad. "I can see that you
have totally failed to grasp just where you have arrived. You
simply don't understand what a good time you can have here and
how you don't have to think about a thing."
We finished our drinks, got up, and went across the square
under the hot sun to the parking area. Ahmad walked with a
rapid, slightly rolling gait, with the green visor of his cap
set low over his eyes, swinging the suitcase in a debonair
manner. The next batch of tourists was being discharged
broadcast from the customs house.
"Would you like me to... Frankly?" said Ahmad suddenly.
"Yes, I would like you to," said I. What else could I say?
Forty years I have lived in this world and have yet to learn to
deflect this unpleasant question.
"You won't write a thing here," said Ahmad. "It's mighty
hard to write in our town."
"It's always hard to write anything. However, fortunately
I am not a writer."
"I accept this gladly. But in that case, it is slightly
impossible here. At least for a transient."
"You frighten me."
"It's not a case of being frightened. You simply won't
want to work. You won't be able to stay at the typewriter.
You'll feel annoyed by the typewriter. Do you know what the joy
of living is?"
"How shall I say?"
"You don't know anything, Ivan. So far you still don't
know anything about it. You are bound to traverse the twelve
circles of paradise. It's funny, of course, but I envy you."
We stopped by a long open car. Ahmad threw the suitcase
into the back seat and flung the door open for me.
"Please," he said.
"Presumably you have already passed through them?" I
asked, sliding into the seat.
He got in behind the wheel and started the engine.
"What exactly do you mean?"
"The twelve circles of paradise."
"As for me, Ivan, a long time ago I selected my favorite
circle," said Ahmad. The car began to roll noiselessly through
the square. "The others haven't existed for me for quite a
while. Unfortunately. It's like old age, with all its
privileges and deficiencies."
The car rushed through a park and sped along a shaded,
straight thoroughfare. I kept looking around with great
interest but couldn't recognize a thing. It was stupid to
expect to. We had been landed at night, in a torrential rain;
seven thousand exhausted tourists stood on the pier looking at
the burning liner. We hadn't seen the city -- in its place was
a black, wet emptiness dotted with red flashes. It had rattled,
boomed, and screeched as though being rent asunder. "We'll be
slaughtered in the dark, like rabbits," Robert had said, and I
immediately had sent him back to the barge to unload the
armored car. The gangway had collapsed and the car had fallen
into the water, and when Peck had pulled Robert out, all blue
from the cold, he had come over to me and said through
chattering teeth, "Didn't I tell you it was dark?"
Ahmad said suddenly, "When I was a boy, we lived near the
port and we used to come out here to beat up the factory kids.
Many of them had brass knuckles, and that got me a broken nose.
Half of my life I put up with a crooked nose until I had it
fixed last year. I sure loved to scrap when I was young. I used
to have a hunk of lead pipe, and once I had to sit in jail for
six months, but that didn't help."
He stopped, grinning. I waited awhile, then said, "You
can't find a good lead pipe these days. Now rubber truncheons
are in fashion: you buy them used from the police."
"Exactly," said Ahmad. "Or else you buy a dumbbell, cut
off one ball and there you are, ready to go. But the guys are
not what they used to be. Now you get deported for such stuff."
"Yes. And what else did you occupy yourself with in your
"I planned on joining the interplanetary force and trained
to withstand overstress. We also played at who could dive the
"We too," said Ahmad. "We went down ten meters for
automatics and whiskey. Over by the piers they lay on the
seabed by the case. I used to get nosebleeds. But when the fire
fights started, we began to find corpses with weights around
their necks, so we quit that game."
"It's a very unpleasant sight, a corpse under water --
especially if there is a current," said I.
Ahmad chuckled "I've seen worse. I had occasion to work
with the police."
"This was after the fracas?"
"Much later. When the anti-gangster laws were passed."
'They were called gangsters here too?"
"What else would you call them? Not brigands, certainly.
'A group of brigands, armed with flame throwers and gas bombs,
have laid siege to the municipal buildings,' " he pronounced
expressively. "It doesn't sound right, you can feel that. A
brigand is an ax, a bludgeon, a mustache up to the ears, a
"A lead pipe," I offered.
"What are you doing tonight?" he asked.
"Going for a walk."
"You have friends here?"
"Well... then it's different."
"Well, I was going to suggest something to you, but since
you have friends..."
"By the way, " I said, "who is your mayor?"
"Mayor? The devil knows, I don't remember. Somebody was
"Not Peck Xenai, by any chance?"
"I don't know." He sounded regretful. "I wouldn't want to
"Would you know the man anyway?"
"Xenai... Peck Xenai... No, I don't knew him; haven't
heard of him. What is he to you -- a friend?"
"Yes, an old friend. I have some others here, but they are
"Well," said Ahmad, "if you should get bored and all kinds
of thoughts begin to enter your head, come on over for a visit.
Every single day from seven o'clock on I am at the Chez
Gourmet. Do you like good eating?"
"Quite," said I.
"Stomach in good shape?"
"Like an ostrich's."
"Well, then, why don't you come by? We'll have a fine
time, and it won't be necessary to think about a thing."
Ahmad braked and turned cautiously into a driveway with an
iron gate, which silently swung open before us. The car rolled
into the yard.
"We have arrived," announced Ahmad. "Here is your home."
The house was two-storied, white with blue trim. The
windows were draped on the inside. A clean, deserted patio with
multi-colored flagstones was surrounded by a fruit-tree garden,
with apple branches touching the walls.
"And where is the widow?" I said.
"Let's go inside," said Ahmad.
He went up the steps, leafing through his notebook I was
following him while looking around. I liked the mini-orchard.
Ahmad found the right page and set up the combination on the
small disc by the doorbell. The door opened. Cool, fresh air
flowed out of the house. It was dark inside, but as soon as we
stepped into the hall, it lit up with concealed illumination.
Putting away his notebook, Ahmad said, "To the right is the
landlord's half, to the left is yours. Please come in. Here is
the living room, and there is the bar. In a minute we'll have a
drink. And now here is your study. Do you have a phonor?"
"It's just as well. You have everything you need right
here. Come on over here. This is the bedroom. There is the
control board for acoustic defense. You know how to use it?"
"I'll figure it out."
"Good. The defense is triple, you can have it quiet as a
tomb or turn the place into a bordello, whatever you like...
Here's the air-conditioning control, which, incidentally, is
not too convenient, as you can only operate it from the
"I'll manage," I said.
"What? Well, okay. Here is the bathroom and powder room."
"I am interested in the widow," I said, "and the
"All in good time. Shall I open the drapes?"
"Right you are, for no reason. Let's go have a drink."
We returned to the living room and Ahmad disappeared up to
his waist in the bar.
"You want it on the strong side?" he asked.
"You have it backwards."
"Would you like an omelette? Sandwiches?"
"How about nothing?"
"No," said Ahmad, "an omelette it shall be -- with
tomatoes." He rummaged in the bar. "I don't know what does it,
but this autocooker makes an altogether astonishingly good
omelette with tomatoes. While we are at it, I will also have a
He extracted a tray from the bar and placed it on a low
table by a semicircular couch. We sat down.
"Now about the widow," I reminded him. "I would like to .
"You like the rooms?"
"Well, the widow is quite all right, too. And the daughter
is not bad either."
He extracted a flat case from an inside pocket. Like a
cartridge clip it was stacked with a row of ampoules filled
with colored liquids. Ahmad ran his index finger over them,
smelled the omelette, hesitated, and finally selected one with
a green fluid, broke it carefully, and dripped a few drops on
the tomatoes. An aroma pervaded the room. The smell was not
unpleasant, but, to my taste, bore no particular relation to
"Right now," continued Ahmad, "they are still asleep." His
gaze turned abstracted. "They sleep and see dreams."
I looked at my watch.
Ahmad was enjoying his food.
"Ten-thirty!" I said.
Ahmad was enjoying his food. His cap was pushed back on
his head, and the green visor stuck up vertically like the
crest of an aroused mimicrodon. His eyes were half-closed. I
regarded him with interest.
Having swallowed the last bit of tomato, he broke off a
piece of the crust of white bread and carefully wiped the pan
with it. His gaze cleared.
"What were you saying?" he asked. "Ten-thirty? Tomorrow
you too will get up at ten-thirty or maybe even at twelve. I,
for one, will get up at twelve."
He got up and stretched luxuriously, cracking his joints.
"Well," he said, "it's time to go home, finally. Here's my
card, Ivan. Put it in your desk, and don't throw it out until
your very last day here." He went over to the flat box and
inserted another card into its slot. There was a loud click.
"Now this one," he said, examining the card against the
light. "Please pass on to the widow with my very best
"And then what will happen?" said I.
"Money will happen. I trust you are not a devotee of
haggling, Ivan? The widow will name a figure, Ivan, and you
shouldn't haggle over it. It's not done."
"I will try not to haggle," I said, "although it would be
amusing to try it."
Ahmad raised his eyebrows.
"Well, if you really want to so much, then why not try it?
Always do what you want to do. Then you will have excellent
digestion. I will get your suitcase now."
"I need prospects," I said. "I need guidebooks. I am a
writer, Ahmad. I will require brochures on the economic
situation of the masses, statistical references. Where can I
get all that? And when?"
"I will give you a guidebook," said Ahmad. "It has
statistics, addresses, telephone numbers, and so on. As far as
the masses are concerned, I don't think we publish any such
nonsense. Of course, you can send an inquiry to UNESCO, but
what would you want with it? You'll see everything for
yourself. Just hold on a minute. I'll get the suitcase and the
He went out and quickly returned with my suitcase in one
hand and a fat bluish-looking little tome in the other.
I stood up.
"Judging by the look on your face," he announced, smiling,
"you are debating whether it's proper to tip me or not."
"I confess," I said.
"Well then, would you like to do it or not?"
"No, I must admit."
"You have a healthy, strong character," Ahmad approved.
"Don't do it. Don't tip anybody. You could collect one in the
face, especially from the girls. But, on the other hand, don't
haggle either. You could walk into one that way too. Anyway,
that's all a lot of rot. For all I know you may like to have
your face slapped, like that Jonathan Kreis. Farewell, Ivan,
have fun, and come to Chez Gourmet. Any evening at seven. But
most important of all, don't think about a thing."
He waved his hand and left. I picked up the mixture in the
dewy glass and sat down with the guidebook.
The guidebook was printed on bond paper with a gilt edge.
Interspersed with gorgeous photographs, it contained some
curious information. In the city there were fifty thousand
people, fifteen hundred cats, twenty thousand pigeons, and two
thousand dogs (including seven hundred winners of medals). The
city had fifteen thousand passenger cars, five thousand helis,
a thousand taxis (with and without chauffeurs), nine hundred
automatic garbage collectors, four hundred permanent bars,
cafes, and snack bars, eleven restaurants, and four first-class
hotels, and was a tourist establishment which served over one
hundred thousand visitors every year. The city had sixty
thousand TV sets, fifty movie theaters, eight amusement parks,
two Happy Mood salons, sixteen beauty parlors, forty libraries,
and one hundred and eighty automated barber shops. Eighty
percent of the population were engaged in services, and the
rest worked in two syntho-bakeries and one government shipyard.
There were six schools and one university housed in an old
castle once the home of crusader Ulrich da Casa. In the city
there were also eight active civilian societies, among them the
Society of Diligent Tasters, the Society of Connoisseurs and
Appraisers, and the Society for the Good Old Country Against
Evil Influences. In addition, fifteen hundred citizens were
members of seven hundred and one groups where they sang,
learned to act, to arrange furniture, to breast-feed, and to
medicate cats. As to per-capita consumption of alcoholic
beverages, natural meat, and liquid oxygen, the city was sixth,
twelfth, and thirteenth highest in Europe respectively. The
city had seven men's clubs and five women's clubs, as well as
sport clubs named the Bulls and Rhinos. By a majority of
forty-six votes, someone by the name of Flim Gao had been
elected mayor. Peck was not among the municipal officials.
I put the guidebook aside, took off my jacket, and made a
thorough examination of my domain. I approved of the living
room. It was done in blue, and I like that color. The bar was
full of bottled and refrigerated victuals so that I could at a
moment's notice entertain a dozen starving guests.
I went into the study. There was a large table in front of
the window and a comfortable chair. The walls were lined with
shelves tightly filled with collected works. The clean bright
bindings were arranged with great skill so that they formed a
colorful and appealing layout. The top shelf was occupied by
the fifty-volume encyclopedia of UNESCO. Lower shelves were
kaleidoscopic with the shiny wrappers of detective novels.
As soon as I saw the telephone on the table, I dialed
Rimeyer's number, perching on the chair arm. The receiver
sounded with prolonged honkings and I waited, twirling a small
dictaphone which someone had left on the table. Rimeyer did not
answer. I hung up and inspected the dictaphone. The tape was
half-used-up, and after rewinding, I punched the playback
"Greetings and more greetings," said a merry male voice.
"I clasp your hand heartily or kiss you on the cheek, depending
on your sex and age. I have lived here two months and bear
witness that it was most enjoyable. Allow me a few points of
advice. The best institution in town is the Hoity Toity in the
Park of Dreams. The best girl in town is Basi in the House of
Models. The best guy in town is me, but I have already left. On
television just watch Program Nine; everything else is chaff.
Don't get involved with Intels, and give the Rhinos a wide
berth. Don't buy anything on credit -- there'll be no end to
the runaround. The widow is a good woman but loves to talk and
in general... As for Vousi, I didn't get to meet her, as she
had left the country to visit her grandmother. In my opinion
she is sweet, and there was a photograph of her in the widow's
album, but I took it. There's more: I expect to come back next
March, so be a pal, if you decide to return, pick another time.
Have a --"
Music followed abruptly. I listened awhile and turned off
There wasn't a single tome I could extract from the
shelves, so well were they stuck in, or maybe even glued on,
and as there was nothing else of interest in the study, I went
into the bedroom.
Here it was especially cool and cozy. I have always wanted
just such a bedroom, but somehow never had the time to get
around to setting one up. The bed was big and low. On the night
table stood an elegant phonor and a tiny remote-control box for
the TV. The screen stood at the foot of the bed, while at the
head the widow had hung a very natural-looking picture of field
flowers in a crystal vase. The picture was painted with
luminous paints and the dewdrops glistened in the darkened
I punched the TV control at random and stretched out on
the bed. It was soft yet somehow firm. The TV roared loudly. An
inebriated-looking man launched himself out of the screen,
crashed through some sort of railing, and fell from a great
height into a colossal fuming vat. There was a loud splash and
the phonor exuded a smell. The man disappeared in the bubbling
liquid and then reappeared, holding in his teeth something
reminiscent of a well-boiled boot. The unseen audience broke
out in a storm of horse laughs. Fade out... soft lyrical music.
A white horse pulling a phaeton appeared out of green woods and
advanced toward me. A pretty girl in a bathing suit sat in the
carriage. I turned off the TV, got up, and went to look at the
There was a piny smell and flickering of germicidal lamps.
I undressed, threw the underwear into the hopper, and climbed
into the shower. Taking my time, I dressed in front of the
mirror, combed my hair, and shaved. The shelves were loaded
with rows of vials, hygienic devices, antiseptics, and tubes
with pastes and greases. At the edge of one shelf there was a
pile of flat colorful boxes with the logo "Devon." I switched
off the razor and took one of the boxes. A germicidal lamp
flickered in the mirror, just as it did that day in Vienna,
when I stood just like this studiously regarding just such a
little box, because I did not want to go out to the bedroom,
where Raffy Reisman loudly argued about something with the
doctor; while the green oily liquid still oscillated in the
bath, over which hung the steamy vapor and a screeching radio
receiver, attached to a porcelain hook for towels, howled,
hooted, and snorted until Raffy turned it off in irritation.
That was in Vienna, and just as here, it was very strange to
see in a bathroom a box of Devon -- a popular repellent which
did an excellent job of chasing mosquitoes, chiggers, gnats,
and other bloodsucking insects which were long forgotten in
Vienna and here in a seaside resort town. Only in Vienna there
had been an overlay of fear.
The box which I held in my hand was almost empty, with
only one tablet remaining. The rest of the boxes were still
scaled. I finished shaving and returned to the bedroom. I felt
like calling Rimeyer again, but abruptly the house came to
life. The pleated drapes flew open with a soft whine, the
windowpanes slid away in their frames, and the bedroom was
flooded with warm air, laden with the scent of apples. Someone
was talking somewhere, light footsteps sounded overhead, and a
severe-sounding female voice said, "Vousi -- at least eat some
cake, do you hear?"
Thereupon I imparted a certain air of disorder to my
clothes (in accordance with the current style), smoothed my
temples, and went into the hall, taking one of Ahmad's cards
from the living room.
The widow turned out to be a youthful plump woman,
somewhat languid, with a pleasant fresh face.
"How nice!" she said, seeing me. "You are up already?
Hello, my name is Vaina Tuur, but you can call me Vaina."
"My pleasure," I said, shuddering fashionably. "My name is
"How nice," said Aunt Vaina. "What an original
soft-sounding name! Have you had breakfast, Ivan?"
"With your permission, I intended to have breakfast in
town," I said, and proffered her the card.
"Ah," said Aunt Vaina, looking through the card at the
light. "That nice Ahmad, if you only knew what a nice
responsible fellow he is. But I see you did not have breakfast.
Lunch you can have in town, but now I will treat you to some of
my croutons. The major general always said that nowhere else in
the world could you have such wonderful croutons."
"With pleasure," said I, shuddering for the second time.
The door behind Aunt Vaina was flung open and a very
pretty young girl in a short blue skirt and an open white
blouse flew in on clicking high heels. In her hand she held a
piece of cake, which she munched while humming a currently
popular song. Seeing me, she stopped, flung her pocketbook on
its long strap over her shoulder with a show of abandon, and
swallowed, bending down her head.
"Vousi!" said Aunt Vaina, compressing her lips. "Vousi,
this is Ivan."
"Not bad!" said Vousi. "Greetings."
"Vousi," reproached Aunt Vaina.
"You came with your wife?" said Vousi, extending her hand.
"No," said I. Her fingers were soft and cool. "I am
In that case, I'll show you all there is to see," she
said. "Till tonight. I must run now, but we'll go out this
"Vousi!" reproached Aunt Vaina.
Vousi pushed the rest of the cake into her mouth, bussed
her mother on the cheek, and ran toward the door. She had
smooth sunburned legs, long and slender, and a close-cropped
back of the head.
"Ach, Ivan," said Aunt Vaina, who was also looking at the
retreating girl, "in our times it is so difficult to deal with
young girls. They develop so early and leave us so soon. Ever
since she started working in that salon..."
"She is a dressmaker?" I inquired.
"Oh no! She works in the Happy Mood Salon, in the old
ladies' department. And do you know, they value her highly. But
last year she was late once and now she has to be very careful.
As you can see she could not even have a decent conversation
with you, but it's possible that a client is even now waiting
for her. You might not believe this, but she already has a
permanent clientele. Anyway, why are we standing here? The
croutons will get cold."
We entered the landlord's side. I tried with all my might
to conduct myself correctly, although I was a bit foggy as to
what exactly was correct. Aunt Vaina sat me down at a table,
excused herself, and left. I looked around. The room was an
exact copy of mine, except that the walls were rose instead of
blue, and beyond the window, in place of the sea was a small
yard with a low fence dividing it from the street. Aunt Vaina
came back with a tray bearing boiled cream and a plate of
"You know," she said, "I think I will have some breakfast
too. My doctor does not recommend breakfast, especially with
boiled cream. But we became so accustomed... it was the
general's favorite breakfast. Do you know, I try to have only
men boarders. That nice Ahmad understands me very well. He
understands how much I need to sit just like this, now and
then, just as we are sitting, and have a cup of boiled cream."
"Your cream is wonderfully good," said I, not insincerely.
"Ach, Ivan." Aunt Vaina put down her cup and fluttered her
hands. "But you said that almost exactly like the major
general... Strange, you even look like him. Except that his
face was a bit narrower and he always had breakfast in his
"Yes," I said with regret, "I don't have a uniform."
"But there was one once," said she coyly, shaking a finger
at me. "Of course! I can see it. It's so senseless! People
nowadays have to be ashamed of their military past. Isn't that
silly? But they are always betrayed by their bearing, that very
special manly carriage. You cannot hide it, Ivan!"
I made a very elaborate non-committal gesture, said, "Mm
-- yes," and took another crouton.
"It's all so out of place, isn't that right?" continued
Aunt Vaina with great animation. "How can you confuse such two
opposite concepts -- war and the army? We all detest war. War
is awful. My mother described it to me, she was only a girl,
but she remembers everything. Suddenly, without warning, there
they are -- the soldiers, crude, alien, speaking a foreign
tongue, belching; and the officers, without any manners,
laughing loudly, annoying the chambermaids, and smelling --
forgive me; and that senseless commander's meeting hour... that
is war and it deserves every condemnation! But the army! That's
an altogether different affair! Surely you remember, Ivan, the
troops lined up by battalion, the perfection of the line, the
manliness of the faces under the helmets, shiny arms, sparkling
decorations, and then the commanding officer riding in a
special staff car and addressing the battalions, which respond
willingly and briefly like one man."
"No doubt," said I, "this has impressed many people."
"Yes! Very much indeed. We have always said that it is
necessary to disarm, but did we really need to destroy the
army? It is the last refuge of manhood in our time of
widespread moral collapse. It's weird and ridiculous -- a
government without an army...."
"It is funny," I agreed. "You may not believe it, but I
have been smiling ever since they signed the Pact."
"Yes, I can understand that," said Aunt Vaina. "There was
nothing else for us to do, but to smile sarcastically. The
Major General Tuur" -- she extricated a handkerchief -- "passed
away with just such a sarcastic smile on his face." She applied
the handkerchief to her eyes. "He said to us: 'My friends, I
still hope to live to the day when everything will fall apart.'
A broken man, who has lost the meaning of life... he could not
stand the emptiness in his heart." Suddenly she perked up.
"Here, let me show you, Ivan."
She bustled into the next room and returned with a heavy
old-fashioned photo album.
I looked at my watch at once, but Aunt Vaina did not take
any notice, and sitting herself down at my side, opened the
album at the very first page.
"Here is the major general."
The major general looked quite the eagle. He had a narrow
bony face and translucent eyes. His long body was spangled with
medals. The biggest, a multi-pointed starburst framed in a
laurel wreath, sparkled in the region of the appendix. In his
left hand the general tightly pressed a pair of gloves, and his
right hand rested on the hilt of a ceremonial poniard. A high
collar with gold embroidery propped up his lower jaw.
"And here is the major general on maneuvers."
Here again the general looked the eagle. He was issuing
instructions to his officers, who were bent over a map spread
on the frontal armor of a gigantic tank. By the shape of the
treads and the streamlined appearance of the turret, I
recognized it as one of the Mammoth heavy storm vehicles, which
were designed for pushing through nuclear strike zones and now
are successfully employed by deep-sea exploration teams.
"And here is the general on his fiftieth birthday."
Here too, the general looked the eagle. He stood by a
well-set table with a wineglass in his hand, listening to a
toast in his honor. The lower left corner was occupied by a
halo of light from a shiny pate; and to his side, gazing up at
him with admiration, sat a very young and very pretty Aunt
Vaina. I tried surreptitiously to gauge the thickness of the
album by feel.
"Ah, here is the general on vacation."
Even on vacation, the general remained an eagle. With his
feet planted well apart, he stood an the beach sporting
tiger-stripe trunks, as he scanned the misty horizon through a
pair of binoculars. At his feet a child of three or four was
digging in the sand. The general was wiry and muscular.
Croutons and cream did not spoil his figure. I started to wind
my watch noisily.
"And here..." began Aunt Vaina, turning the page, but at
this point, a short portly man entered the room without
knocking. His face and in particular his dress seemed strangely
"Good morning," he enunciated, bending his smooth smiling
face slightly sideways.
It was my erstwhile customs man, still in the same white
uniform with the silver buttons and the silver braid on the
"Ah! Pete!" said Aunt Vaina. "Here you are already.
Please, let me introduce you. Ivan, this is Pete, a friend of
The customs man turned toward me without recognition,
briefly inclined his head, and clicked his heels. Aunt Vaina
laid the album in my lap and got up.
"Have a seat, Pete," she said. "I will bring some cream."
Pete clicked his heels once more and sat down by me.
"This should interest you," I said, transferring the album
to his lap. "Here is Major General Tuur. In mufti." A strange
expression appeared on the face of the customs man. "And here
is the major general on maneuvers. You see? And here --"
"Thank you," said the customs man raggedly. "Don't exert
yourself, because --"
Aunt Vaina returned with cream and croutons. From as far
back as the doorway, she said, "How nice to see a man in
uniform! Isn't that right, Ivan?"
The cream for Pete was in a special cup with the monogram
"T" surrounded by four stars.
"It rained last night, so it must have been cloudy. I
know, because I woke up, and now there is not a cloud in the
sky. Another cup, Ivan?"
I got up.
'Thank you, I'm quite full. If you'll excuse me, I must
take my leave. I have a business appointment,"
Carefully closing the door behind me, I heard the widow
say, "Don't you find an extraordinary resemblance between him
and Staff Major Polom?"
In the bedroom, I unpacked the suitcase and transferred
the clothing to the wall closet, and again rang Rimeyer. Again
no one answered. So I sat down at the desk and set to exploring
the drawers. One contained a portable typewriter, another a set
of writing paper and an empty bottle of grease for arrhythmic
motors. The rest was empty, if you didn't count bundles of
crumpled receipts, a broken fountain pen, and a carelessly
folded sheet of paper, decorated with doodled faces. I unfolded
the sheet. Apparently it was the draft of a telegram.
"Green died while with the Fishers receive body Sunday
with condolences Hugger Martha boys." I read the writing twice,
turned the sheet over and studied the faces, and read for the
third time. Obviously Hugger and Martha were not informed that
normal people notifying of death first of all tell how and why
a person died and not whom he was with when he died. I would
have written, "Green drowned while fishing." Probably in a
drunken stupor. By the way, what address did I have now?
I returned to the hall. A small boy in short pants
squatted in the doorway to the landlord's half. Clamping a long
silvery tube under an armpit, he was panting and wheezing and
hurriedly unwinding a tangle of string. I went up to him and
My reflexes are not what they used to be, but still I
managed to duck a long black stream which whizzed by my ear and
splashed against the wall. I regarded the boy with astonishment
while he stared at me, lying on his side and holding the tube
in front of him. His face was damp and his mouth twisted and
open. I turned to look at the wall. The stuff was oozing down.
I looked at the boy again. He was getting up slowly, without
lowering the tube.
"Well, well, brother, you are nervous!" said I.
"Stand where you are," said the boy in a hoarse voice." I
did not say your name."
"To say the least," said I. "You did not even mention
yours, and you fire at me like I was a dummy."
"Stand where you are," repeated the boy, "and don't move."
He backed and suddenly blurted in rapid fire, "Hence from my
hair, hence from my bones, hence from my flesh."
"I cannot," I said. I was still trying to understand
whether he was playing or was really afraid of me.
"Why not?" said the boy. "I am saying everything right."
"I can't go without moving," I said. "I am standing where
His mouth fell open again.
"Hugger: I say to you -- Hugger -- begone!" he said
"Why Hugger?" I said. "My name is Ivan; you confuse me
with somebody else."
The boy closed his eyes and advanced upon me, holding the
tube in front of him.
"I surrender," I warned. "Be careful not to fire."
When the tube dented my midriff he stopped and, dropping
it, suddenly went limp, letting his hands fall. I bent over and
looked him in the face. Now he was brick-red. I picked up the
tube. It was something like a toy rifle, with a convenient
checkered grip and a flat rectangular flask which was inserted
from below, like a clip.
"What kind of gadget is this?" I asked.
"A splotcher," he said gloomily. "Give it back."
I gave him back the toy.
"A splotcher," I said, "with which you splotch. And what
if you had hit me?" I looked at the wall. "Fine thing. Now you
won't get it off inside of a year. You'll have to get the wall
The boy looked up at me suspiciously. "But it's Splotchy,"
"Really -- and I thought it was lemonade."
His face finally acquired a normal hue and demonstrated an
obvious resemblance to the manly features of Major General
"No, no, it's Splotchy."
"It will dry up."
"And then it's really hopeless?"
"Of course not. There will simply be nothing left."
"Hmm," said I, with reservation. "However, you know best.
Let us hope so. But I am still glad that there will be nothing
left on the wall instead of on my face. What's your name?"
"And after you give it some thought?"
He gave me a long look.
"Lucifer," said I. "Belial, Ahriman, Beelzebub, and
Azrael. How about something a little shorter? It's very
inconvenient to call for help to someone with a name like
"But the doors are closed," he said and backed one step.
His face paled again.
He did not respond but continued to back until he reached
the wall and began to sidle along it without taking his eyes
off me. It finally dawned on me that he took me for a murderer
or a thief and. that he wanted to escape. But for some reason
he did not call for help and went by his mother's door,
continuing toward the house exit.
"Siegfried," said I, "Siegfried, Lucifer, you are a
terrible coward. Who do you think I am?" I didn't move but only
Turned to keep facing him. "I am your new boarder; your mother
has just fed me croutons and cream and you go and fire at me
and almost splotched me, and now you are afraid of me. It is I
who should be afraid of you."
All this was very much reminiscent of a scene in the
boarding school in Anyudinsk, when they brought me a boy just
like this one, the son of a sect member. Hell's bells, do I
really look so much the gangster?
"You remind me of Chuchundra the Muskrat," I said, "who
spent his life crying because he could not come out into the
middle of the room. Your nose is blue from fear, your ears are
freezing, and your pants are wet so that you are trailing a
In such cases it makes absolutely no difference what is
said. It is important to speak calmly and not to make sudden
movements. The expression on his face did not change, but when
I spoke about the stream, he moved his eyes momentarily to take
a look. But only for a second. Then he jumped toward the door,
fluttering for a second at the latch, and flew outside, dirty
bottoms of his sandals flying. I went out after him.
He stood in the lilac bush, so that all I could see was
his pale face. Like a fleeing cat looking momentarily over its
"Okay, okay," said I. "Would you please explain to me what
I must do? I have to send home my new address. The address of
this house where I am now living." He regarded me in silence.
"I don't feel right going to your mother -- in the first place,
she has guests, and in the second--"
"Seventy-eight, Second Waterway," he said.
Slowly I sat down on the steps. There was a distance of
some ten meters between us.
'That's quite a voice you have," I said confidentially.
"Just like my friend the barman's at Mirza-Charles."
"When did you arrive?" said he.
"Well, let's see." I looked at my watch, "About an hour
and a half ago."
"Before you there was another one," he said, looking
sideways. "He was a rat-fink. He gave me striped swimming
trunks, and when I went in the water, they melted away."
"Ouch!" I said. "That is really a monster of some sort and
not a human -- he should have been drowned in Splotchy."
"Didn't have time -- I was going to, but he went away."
"Was it that same Hugger with Martha and the boys?"
"No -- where did you get that idea? Hugger came later."
"Also a rat-fink?"
He didn't answer. I leaned back against the wall and
contemplated the street. A car jerkily backed out of the
opposite driveway, back and forthed, and roared off.
Immediately it was followed by another just such a car. There
was the pungent smell of gasoline. Then cars followed one after
another, until my eyes blurred. Several helis appeared in the
sky. They were the so-called silent helis, but they flew
relatively low, and while they flew, it was difficult to talk.
In any case, the boy was apparently not going to talk. But he
wasn't going to leave, either. He was doing something with his
splotcher in the bushes and was glancing at me now and then. I
was hoping he wasn't going to splotch me again. The helis kept
going and going, and the cars kept swishing and swishing, as
though all the fifteen thousand cars were speeding by on Second
Waterway, and all the five hundred helis were hung over Number
78. The whole thing lasted about ten minutes, and the boy
seemed to cease paying attention to me while I sat and wondered
what questions I should ask of Rimeyer. Then everything
returned to its previous state, the smell of exhaust was gone,
the sky was cleared.
"Where are they all going -- all at once?" I asked.
"Don't you know?"
"How would I know?"
"I don't know either, but somehow you knew about Hugger."
"About Hugger," I said. "I know about Hugger quite
accidentally. And about you I know nothing at all... how you
live and what you do. For instance, what are you doing now?"
"The safeguard is broken."
"Well then, give it to me, I'll fix it. Why are you afraid
of me? Do I look like a rat-fink?"
"They all drove off to work," he said.
"You sure go to work late. It's practically dinnertime
already. Do you know the Hotel Olympic?"
"Of course I know."
"Would you walk me there?"
"Why not?" I asked.
"School is about to end -- I must be going home."
"Aha! So that's the way of it," said I. "You are playing
hookey, or ditching it, as we used to say. What grade are you
"I used to be in third grade, too," I said.
He came a bit out of the bushes.
"Then I was in the fourth." I got up. "Well, okay. Talk
you won't, go for a walk you won't, and your pants are wet, so
I am going back in. You won't even tell me your name."
He looked at me in silence and breathed heavily through
his mouth. I went back to my quarters. The cream-colored hall
was irreparably disfigured, it seemed to me. The huge black
clot was not drying. Somebody is going to get it today, I
thought. A ball of string was underfoot. I picked it up. The
end of the string was tied to the landlady's half-doorknob. So,
I thought, this too is clear. I untied the string and put the
ball in my pocket.
In the study, I got a clean sheet of paper from the desk
and composed a telegram to Matia. "Arrived safely, 78 Second
Waterway. Kisses. Ivan." I telephoned it to the local PT&T and
again dialed Rimeyer's number. Again there was no answer. I put
on my jacket, looked in the mirror, counted my money, and was
about to set out when I saw that the door to the living room
was open and an eye was visible through the crack. Naturally, I
gave no sign. I carefully completed the inspection of my
clothing, returned to the bathroom, and vacuumed myself for a
while, whistling away merrily. When I returned to the study,
the mouse-eared head sticking through the half-open door
immediately vanished. Only the silvery tube of the splotcher
continued to protrude. Sitting down in the chair, I opened and
closed all the twelve drawers, including the secret one, and
only then looked at the door. The boy stood framed in it.
"My name is Len," he announced.
"Greetings, Len," I said absent-mindedly. "I am called
Ivan. Come on in -- although I was going out to have dinner.
You haven't had dinner yet?"
"That's good. Go ask your mother's permission and we'll be
"It's too early," he said.
"What's too early? To have dinner?"
"No, to go. School doesn't end for another twenty
minutes." He was silent again. "Besides, there's that fat fink
with the braid."
"He's a bad one?' I asked.
"Yeah," said Len. "Are you really leaving now?"
"Yes, I am," I said, and took the ball of string from my
pocket. "Here, take it. And what if Mother comes out first?"
"If you are really leaving," he said, "would it be all
right if I stayed in your place?"
"Go ahead, stay."
"There's nobody else here?"
He still didn't come to me to take the string, but let me
come to him, and even allowed me to take his ear. It was indeed
cold. I ruffled his head lightly and pushed him toward the
"Go sit all you want. I won't be back soon."
"I'll take a snooze," said Len.
The Hotel Olympic was a fifteen-story red-and-black
structure. Half the plaza in front of it was covered with cars,
and in its center stood a monument surrounded by a small
flowerbed. It represented a man with a proudly raised head.
Detouring the monument, I suddenly realized that I knew the
man. In puzzlement I stopped and examined it more thoroughly.
There was no doubt about it. There in front of Hotel Olympic,
in a funny old-fashioned suit with his hand resting on an
incomprehensible apparatus which I almost took for the
extension of the abstract-styled base, and with his eyes
staring at infinity through contemptuously squinting lids, was
none other than Vladimir Sergeyevitch Yurkovsky. Carved in gold
letters on the base was the legend "Vladimir Yurkovsky,
December 5, Year of the Scales."
I couldn't believe it, because they do not raise monuments
to Yurkovskys. While they live, they are appointed to more or
less responsible positions, they are honored at jubilees, they
are elected to membership in academies. They are rewarded with
medals and are honored with international prizes, and when they
die or perish; they are the subjects of books, quotations,
references, but always less and less often as time passes, and
finally they are forgotten altogether. They depart the halls of
memory and linger on only in books. Vladimir Sergeyevitch was a
general of the sciences and a remarkable man. But it is not
possible to erect monuments to all generals and all remarkable
men, especially in countries to which they had no direct
relationship and in cities where if they did visit, it was only
temporarily. In any case, in that Year of the Scales, which is
of significance only to them, he was not even a general. In
March he was, jointly with Dauge, completing the investigation
of the Amorphous Spot on Uranus. That was when the sounding
probe blew up and we all got a dose in the work section -- and
when we got back to the Planet in September, he was all spotted
with lilac blotches, mad at the world, promising himself that
he would take time out to swim and get sunburned and then get
right back to the design of a new probe because the old one was
trash.... I looked at the hotel again to reassure myself. The
only out was to assume that the life of the town was in some
mysterious and potent manner highly dependent on the Amorphous
Spot on Uranus. Yurkovsky continued to smile with snobbish
superiority. Generally, the sculpture was quite good, but I
could not figure out what it was he was leaning on. The
apparatus didn't look like the probe.
Something hissed by my ear. I turned and involuntarily
sprang back. Beside me, staring dully at the monument base, was
a tall gaunt individual closely encased from head to foot in
some sort of gray scaly material and with a bulky cubical
helmet around his head. The face was obscured behind a glass
plate with holes, from which smoke issued in synchronism with
his breathing. The wasted visage behind the plate was covered
with perspiration and the cheeks twitched in frantic tempo. At
first I took him for a Wanderer, then I thought that he was a
tourist executing a curative routine, and only finally did I
realize that I was looking at an Arter.
"Excuse me," I said "Could you please tell me what sort of
monument this is?"
The damp face contorted more desperately. "What?" came the
dull response from inside the helmet.
I bent down.
"I am inquiring: what is this monument?"
The man glared at the statue. The smoke came thicker out
of the holes. There was more powerful hissing.
"Vladimir Yurkovsky," he read, "Fifth of December, Year of
the Scales... aha... December... so -- it must be some German."
"And who put up the monument?"
"I don't know," said the man. "But it's written down right
there. What's it to you?"
"I was an acquaintance of his," I explained.
"Well then, why do you ask? Ask the man himself."
"He is dead."
"Aah... Maybe they buried him here?"
"No," I said, "he is buried far away."
"Far away. What's that thing he is holding?"
"What thing? It's an eroula."
"I said, an eroula. An electronic roulette."-
My eyes popped.
"What's a roulette doing here?"
"Here, on the statue."
"I don't know," said the man after some thought. "Maybe
your friend invented it?"
"Hardly," said I. "He worked in a different field."
"What was that?"
"He was a planetologist and an interplanetary pilot."
"Aah... well, if he invented it, that was bully for him.
It's a useful thing. I should remember it: Yurkovsky, Vladimir.
He must have been a brainy German."
"I doubt he invented it," I said. "I repeat -- he was an
The man stared at me.
"Well, if he didn't invent it, then why is he standing
"That's the point," I said. "I am amazed myself."
"You are a damn liar," said the man suddenly. "You lie and
you don't even know why you are lying. It's early morning, and
he is stoned already.... Alcoholic!"
He turned away and shuffled off, dragging his thin legs
and hissing loudly. I shrugged my shoulders, took a last look
at Vladimir Sergeyevitch, and set off toward the hotel, across
the huge plaza.
The gigantic doorman swung the door open for me and
sounded an energetic welcome.
"Would you be so kind," said I. "Do you know what that
The doorman looked toward the plaza over my head. His face
"Isn't that written on it?"
"There is a legend," I said. "But who put it up and why?"
The doorman shuffled his feet.
"I beg your pardon," he said guiltily, "I just can't
your question. The monument has been there a long time,
while I came here very recently. I don't wish to misinform you.
Maybe the porter..."
"Well, don't worry about it. Where is a telephone?"
"To your right, if you please," he said looking delighted.
A porter started out in my direction, but I shook my head
and picked up the receiver and dialed Rimeyer's number. This
time I got a busy signal. I went to the elevator and up to the
Rimeyer, looking untypically fleshy, met me in a dressing
gown, out of which stuck legs in pants and with shoes on. The
room stank of cigarette smoke and the ashtray was full of
butts. There was a general air of chaos in the whole suite. One
of the armchairs was knocked over, a woman's slip was lying
crumpled on the couch, and a whole battery of empty bottles
glinted under the table.
"What can I do for you?" asked Rimeyer with a touch of
hostility, looking at my chin. Apparently he was recently out
of his bathroom, and his sparse colorless hair was wet against
his long skull. I handed him my card in silence. Rimeyer read
it slowly and attentively, shoved it in his pocket, and
continuing to look at my chin, said, "Sit down."
"It is most unfortunate. I am devilishly busy and don't
have a minute's time."
"I called you several times today," said I.
"I just got back. What's your name?"
"And your last name?"
"You see, Zhilin, to make it short, I have to get dressed
and leave again." He was silent awhile, rubbing his flabby
cheeks. "Anyway there's not much to talk about.... However, if
you wish, you can sit here and wait for me. If I don't return
in an hour, come back tomorrow at twelve. And leave your
telephone number and address, write it down right on the table
He threw off the bathrobe, and dragging it along, walked
off into the adjoining room.
"In the meantime," he continued, "you can see the town,
and a miserable little town it is.... But you'll have to do it
in any case. As for me, I am sick to my stomach of it."
He returned adjusting his tie. His hands were trembling,
and the skin on his face looked gray and wilted. Suddenly I
felt that I did not trust him -- the sight of him was
repellent, like that of a neglected sick man.
"You look poorly," I said. "You have changed a great
For the first time he looked me in the eyes.
"And how would you know what I was like before?"
"I saw you at Matia's. You smoke a lot, Rimeyer, and
tobacco is saturated regularly with all kinds of trash
"Tobacco -- that's a lot of nonsense," he said with sudden
irritation. "Here everything is saturated with all kinds of
tripe.... But perhaps you may be right, probably I should
quit." He pulled on his jacket slowly; "Time to quit, and in
any case, I shouldn't have started."
"How is the work coming along?"
"It could be worse. And unusually absorbing work it is."
He smiled in a peculiar unpleasant way. "I am going now, as
they are waiting for me and I am late. So, till an hour from
now, or until tomorrow at twelve."
He nodded to me and left.
I wrote my address and telephone number on the table, and
as my foot plowed into the mass of bottles underneath, I
couldn't help but think that the work was indeed absorbing. I
called room service and requested a chambermaid to clean up the
room. The most polite of voices replied that the occupant of
the suite categorically forbade service personnel to enter his
room during his absence and had repeated the prohibition just
now on leaving the hotel. "Aha," I said, and hung up. This
didn't sit well with me. For myself, I never issue such
directions and have never hidden even my notebooks, not from
anyone. It's stupid to work at deception and much better to
drink less. I picked up the overturned armchair, sat down, and
prepared for a long wait, trying to overcome a sense of
displeasure and disappointment.
I didn't have to wait for long. After some ten minutes,
the door opened a crack and a pretty face protruded into the
"Hey there," it pronounced huskily. "Is Rimeyer in?"
"Rimeyer is not in, but you can come in anyway."
She hesitated, examining me. Apparently she had no
intention of coming in, but was just saying hello, in passing.
"Come in, come in," said I. "I have nothing to do."
She entered with a light dancing gait, and putting her
arms akimbo, stood in front of me. She had a short turned-up
nose and a disheveled boyish hairdo. The hair was red, the
shorts crimson, and the blouse a bright yolk yellow. A colorful
woman and quite attractive. She must have been about
"You wait -- right?"
Her eyes were unnaturally bright and she smelled of wine,
tobacco, and perfume.
She collapsed on the hassock and flung her legs up on the
"Throw a cigarette to a working girl," she said. "It's
five hours since I had one."
"I don't smoke. Shall I ring for some?"
"Good Lord, another sad sack! Never mind the phone .. or
that dame will show up again. Rummage around in the ashtray and
find me a good long butt."
The ashtray did have a lot of long butts.
'They all have lipstick on them," said I.
"That's all right; it's my lipstick. What's your name?"
She snapped a lighter and lit up.
"And mine is Ilina. Are you a foreigner, too? All you
foreigners seem so wide. What are you doing here?"'
"Waiting for Rimeyer."
"I don't mean that! What brought you here, are you
escaping from your wife?"
"I am not married," I said quietly. "I came to write a
"A book? Some friends this Rimeyer has. He came to write a
book. Sex Problems of Impotent Sportsmen. How's your
situation with the sex problem?"
"It is not a problem to me," I said mildly. "And how about
She lowered her legs from the table.
"That's a no-no. Take it slow. This isn't Paris, you know.
All in good time. Anyway, you should have your locks cut --
sitting there like a perch."
"Like a who?" I was very patient as I had another
forty-five minutes to wait.
"Like a perch. You know the type." She made vague motions
around her ears.
"I don't know about that," I said. "I don't know anything
yet as I have just arrived. Tell me about it, it sounds
"Oh no! Not I! We don't chatter. Our bit is a small one --
serve, clean up, flash your teeth, and keep quiet. Professional
secret. Have you heard of such an animal?"
"I've heard," I said. "But who's 'we' -- an association of
For some reason, she thought this was hilarious.
"Doctors! Imagine that." She laughed. "Well, wise guy,
you're all right -- quite a tongue. We have one in the once
like you. One word, and we're all rolling in the aisles.
Whenever we cater to the Fishers, he always gets the job, they
like a good laugh."
"Who doesn't?" said I.
"Well, you are wrong. The Intels, for instance, chased him
out. 'Take the fool away,' they said. Or also recently those
"The sad ones. Well, I can see you don't understand a
thing. Where in heaven's name did you come from?"
"So -- don't you have the sad ones in Vienna?"
"You couldn't imagine what we don't have in Vienna."
"Could be you don't even have irregular meetings?"
"No, we don't have them. All our meetings are regular,
like a bus schedule."
She was having a good time.
"Perhaps you don't have waitresses either?"
"Waitresses we do have, and you can find some excellent
examples. Are you a waitress then?"
She jumped up abruptly.
"That won't do at all," she cried. "I've had enough sad
ones for today. Now you're going to have a loving cup with me
like a good fellow...." She began to search furiously among the
bottles by the window. "Damn him, they're all empty! Could be
you're a teetotaler? Aha, here's a little vermouth. You drink
that, or shall we order whiskey?"
"Let's begin with the vermouth," said I.
She banged the bottle on the table and took two glasses
from the window sill.
"Have to wash them. Hold on a minute, everything's full of
garbage." She went into the bathroom and continued to speak
from there. "If you turned out to be a teetotaler on top of
everything else. I don't know what I would do with you.... What
a pigsty he's got in his bathroom -- I love it! Where are you
staying? Here too?"
"No, in town," I replied. "On Second Waterway."
She came back with the glasses.
"Straight or with water?"
"Straight, I guess."
"All foreigners take it straight. But we have it with
water for some reason." She sat on my armchair and put her arms
around my shoulders. We drank and kissed without any feeling.
Her lips were heavily lipsticked, and her eyelids were heavy
from lack of sleep and fatigue. She put down her glass,
searched out another butt in the ashtray, and returned to the
"Where is that Rimeyer?" she said. "After all, how long
can you wait for him? Have you known him a long time?"
"No, not very."
"I think maybe he is a louse," she said with sudden ire.
"He's dug everything out of me, and now he plays hard to get.
He doesn't open his door, the animal, and you can't get through
to him by phone. Say, he wouldn't be a spy, would he?"
"What do you mean, a spy?"
"Oh, there's loads of them.... From the Association for
Sobriety and Morality.... The Connoisseurs and Appraisers are
also a bad lot...."
"No, Rimeyer is a decent sort," I said with some effort.
"Decent... you are all decent. In the beginning, Rimeyer
too was decent, so good-natured and full of fun... and now he
looks at you like a croc."
"Poor fellow," I said. "He must have remembered his family
and become ashamed of himself."
"He doesn't have a family. Anyway, the heck with him! Have
We had another drink. She lay down and put her hands over
her head. Finally she spoke.
"Don't let it get to you. Spit on it! Wine we have enough
of, we'll dance, go to the shivers. Tomorrow there's a football
game, we'll bet on the Bulls."
"I am not letting it get to me. If you want to bet on the
Bulls, we'd bet on the Bulls."
"Oh those Bulls! They are some boys! I could watch them
forever, arms like iron, snuggling up against them is just like
snuggling against a tree trunk, really!"
There was a knock on the door.
"Come in!" yelled Ilina.
A man entered and stopped at once. He was tall and bony,
of middle age, with a brush mustache and light protruding eyes.
"I beg your pardon, I was looking for Rimeyer," he said.
"Everyone here wants to see Rimeyer," said Ilina. "Have a
chair and we'll all wait together."
The stranger bowed his head and sat down by the table,
crossing his legs.
Apparently he had been here before. He did not look
around, but stared at the wall directly in front of him.
However, perhaps he just was not a curious type. In any case,
it was clear that neither I nor Ilina was of any interest to
him. This seemed unnatural to me, since I felt that such a pair
as myself and Ilina should arouse interest in any normal
person. Ilina raised up on her elbow and scrutinized him in
"I have seen you somewhere," she said.
"Really?" said the stranger coldly.
"What's your name?"
"Oscar. I am Rimeyer's friend."
"That's fine," said Ilina. She was obviously irritated by
the stranger's indifference, but she kept herself in check.
"He's also a friend of Rimeyer." She stuck her finger at me.
"You know each other?"
"No," said. Oscar, continuing to look at the wall.
"My name is Ivan," said I. "And this is Rimeyer's friend,
Ilina. We just drank to our fraternal friendship."
Oscar glanced indifferently in Ilina's direction and
nodded his head politely. Ilina picked up the bottle without
taking her eyes off him.
"There's still a little left here," she said. "Would you
like a drink, Oscar?"
"No, thank you," he said, coldly.
"To fraternal friendship!" said Ilina. "No? You don't want
to? Too bad!"
She splashed some wine in my glass, poured the rest in
hers, and downed it at once.
"Never in my life would I have thought that Rimeyer could
have friends who refuse a drink. Still, I have seen you
Oscar shrugged his shoulders.
"I doubt it," he said.
Ilina was visibly becoming enraged.
"Some sort of a fink," she said to me loudly. "Say there,
Oscar, you wouldn't be an Intel?"
"What do you mean, no?" said Ilina. "You're the one who
had a set-to with that baldy Leiz at the Weasel, broke a
mirror, and had your face slapped by Mody."
The stone visage of Oscar grew a shade pinker.
"I assure you," he said courteously, "I am not an Intel
and have never in my life been in the Weasel."
"Are you saying that I'm a liar?" said Ilina
At this point I took the bottle off the table and put it
under my armchair, just in case.
"I am a visitor," said Oscar. "A tourist."
"When did you arrive?" I said to discharge the tension.
"Very recently," replied Oscar. He continued to gaze at
the wall. Obviously here was a man with iron discipline.
"Oh, oh!" said Ilina suddenly. "Now I remember! I got it
all mixed up."
She burst out laughing, "Of course you're no Intel! You
were at our office the day before last. You're the salesman who
offered our manager some junk like... 'Dugong' or 'Dupont..."
"Devon," I prompted. "There is a repellent called Devon."
Oscar smiled for the first time.
"You are quite right, of course," he said. "But I am not a
salesman. I was only doing a favor for a relative."
"That's different," said Ilina and jumped up. "You should
have said so. Ivan, we all need to drink to a pledge of
friendship. I'll call... no, I'll go get it myself. You two can
have a talk, I'll be right back."
She ran out of the room, banging the door.
"A fun girl," said I.
"Yes, extremely. You live here?"
"No, I'm a traveler, too.... What a strange idea your
"What do you have in mind?"
"Who needs Devon in a resort town?"
"It's hard for me to judge; I'm no chemist. But you will
agree that it's hard for us to comprehend the actions of our
fellow men, much less their fancies.... So Devon turns out to
be - What did you call it, a res...?"
"Repellent," I said.
"That would be for mosquitoes?"
"Not so much for as against."
"I can see you are quite well up on it," said Oscar.
"I had occasion to use it."
What the devil, thought I. What is he getting at? He was
no longer staring at the wall He was looking me straight in the
eyes and smiling. But if he was going to say something, it was
He got up.
"I don't think I'll wait any longer," he pronounced. "It
looks like I'll have to drink another pledge. But I didn't come
here to drink, I came here to get well. Please tell Rimeyer
that I will call him again tonight. You won't forget?"
"No," I said, "I won't forget. If I tell him that Oscar
was in to see him, he will know whom I am talking about?"
"Yes, of course. It's my real name."
He bowed, and walked out at a deliberate pace,
ramrod-straight and somehow unnatural-looking. I dipped my hand
in the ashtray, found a butt without lipstick, and inhaled
several times. I didn't like the taste and put out the stub. I
didn't like Oscar, either. Nor Ilina. And especially Rimeyer --
I didn't like him at all. I pawed through the bottles, but they
were all empty.
In the end I didn't wait long enough to see Rimeyer. Ilina
never came back. Finally I got tired of sitting in the smoky,
stale atmosphere of the room and went down to the lobby. I
intended to have dinner and stopped to look around for a
restaurant. A porter immediately materialized at my side.
"At your service," he murmured discreetly. "An auto? Bar?
"What kind of salon?" I asked, my curiosity piqued.
"A hair-styling salon." He looked at my hairdo with
delicate concern. "Master Gaoway is receiving today. I
recommend him most strenuously."
I recollected that Ilina had called me a disheveled perch
and said, "Well, all right."
"Please follow me," said the porter.
Crossing the lobby, he opened a wide low door and said
into the spacious interior, "Excuse me, Master, you have a
"Come in," replied a quiet voice.
I entered. The salon was light and airy and smelled
pleasantly. Everything in it shone -- the chrome, the mirrors,
the antique parquet floor. Shiny half-domes hung from the
ceiling on glistening rods. In the center stood a huge white
barber chair. The Master was advancing to meet me. He had
penetrating immobile eyes, a hooked nose, and a gray Van Dyke.
More than anything else he reminded me of a mature, experienced
surgeon. I greeted him with some timidity, He nodded and,
surveying me from head to foot, began to circle around me. I
began to feel uncomfortable.
"I would like you to bring me up to the current fashion,"
said I, trying not to let him out of my field of view.
But he restrained me gently by my sleeve and. stood
breathing softly behind my back for a few seconds. "No doubt!
No doubt at all", he murmured, then touched me lightly on my
shoulder. "Please," he said sternly, "take a few steps forward
-- five or six -- then turn abruptly to face me."
I obeyed. He regarded me pensively, pulling on his beard.
I thought he was hesitating.
"On the other hand," he said, "sit down."
"Where?" I said.
"In the chair, in the chair."
I lowered myself into its softness and watched him
approach me slowly. His intelligent face was suddenly suffused
with a look of profound chagrin.
"But how is such a thing possible?" he said. "It's
I couldn't find anything to say.
"Gross disharmony," he muttered. "Repulsive... repulsive."
"Is it really that bad?" I asked.
"I don't understand why you came to me," he said, "since
you obviously don't place any value at all on your appearance."
"I am beginning to, from this day on," I said.
He waved his hand.
"Never mind... I will work on you, but..." He shook his
head, turned impulsively, and went to a high table covered with
shiny devices. The back of the chair depressed smoothly, and I
found myself in a half-reclining position. A big hemisphere
descended toward me from above, radiating warmth, while
hundreds of tiny needles seemed to sink into the nape of my
neck, eliciting a strange combination of simultaneous pain and
"Is it gone yet?" he asked.
The sensation abated.
"It's gone," I said.
"Your skin is good," growled the Master with a certain
He returned with an assortment of the most unlikely
instruments and proceeded to palpate my cheeks.
"And still Mirosa married him," he said suddenly. "I
expected anything and everything, except that. After all that
Levant had done for her. Do you remember that moment when they
were both weeping over the dying Pina? You could have bet
anything that they would be together forever. And now, imagine,
she is being wed to that literary fellow."
I have a rule: to pick up and sustain any conversation
that comes along. When you don't know what it's all about, this
can even be interesting.
"Not for long," I said with assurance. "Literary types are
very inconstant, I can assure you, being one myself."
For a moment his hands paused on my temples.
"That didn't enter my head," he admitted. "Still, it's
wedlock, even though only a civil one.... I must remember to
call my wife. She was very upset."
"I can sympathize with her," I said. "But it did always
seem to me that Levant was in love with that... Pina."
"In love?" exclaimed the Master, coming around from my
other side. "Of course he loved her! Madly! As only a lonely,
rejected-by-all man can love."
"And so it was quite natural that after the death of Pina,
he sought consolation with her best friend."
"Her bosom friend, yes," said the Master approvingly,
while tickling me behind the ear. "Mirosa adored Pina! It's a
very accurate term -- bosom friend! One senses a literary man
in you at once! And Pina, too, adored Mirosa."
"But, you notice," I picked up, "that. right from the
beginning Pina suspected that Mirosa was infatuated with
"Well, of course! They are extremely sensitive about such
things. This was clear to everyone -- my wife noticed it at
once. I recollect that she would nudge me with her elbow each
time Pina alighted on Mirosa's tousled head, and so coyly and
expectantly looked at Levant."
This time I kept my peace.
"In general, I am profoundly convinced," he continued,
"that birds feel no less sensitively than people."
Aha, thought I, and said, "I don't know about birds in
general, but Pina was a lot more sensitive than let's say even
you or I."
Something bummed briefly over my head, and there was a
soft clink of metal.
"You speak like my wife, word for word," observed the
Master, "so you most probably must like Dan. I was overcome
when he was able to construct a bunkin for that Japanese
noblewoman... can't think of her name. After all, not one
person believed Dan. The Japanese king, himself..."
"I beg your pardon," I said. "A bunkin?"
"Yes, of course, you are not a specialist.... You remember
that moment when the Japanese noblewoman comes out of prison.
Her hair, in a high roller of blond hair, is ornamented with
"Aah," I guessed. "It's a coiffure."
"Yes, it even became fashionable for a time last year.
Although a true bunkin could be made by a very few... even as a
real chignon, by the way. And, of course, no one could believe
that Dan, with his burned hands and half-blind .. Do you
remember how he was blinded?"
"It was overpowering," I said.
"Oh yes, Dan was a true Master. To make a bunkin without
electro-preparation, without biodevelopment... You know, I just
had a thought," he continued, and there was a note of
excitement in his voice. "It just struck me that Mirosa, after
she parts with that literary guy, should marry Dan and not
Levant. She will be wheeling him out on the veranda in his
chair, and they will be listening to the singing nightingales
in the moonlight -- the two of them together."
"And crying quietly out of sheer happiness," I said.
"Yes," the voice of the Master broke, "that would be only
right. Otherwise I just don't know, I just don't understand,
what all our struggles are for. No... we must insist. I'll go
to the union this very day...."
I kept quiet, again. The Master was breathing uneasily by
"Let them go and shave at the automates," he said suddenly
in a vengeful tone, "let them look like plucked geese. We let
them have a taste once before of what it's like; now we'll see
how they appreciate it."
"I am afraid it won't be simple," I said cautiously, not
-- having the vaguest idea of what this was about.
"We Masters are used to the complicated. It's not all that
simple -- when a fat and sweaty stuffed shirt comes to you, and
you have to make a human being out of him, or at the very best,
something which under normal circumstances does not differ too
much from a human being... is that simple? Remember what Dan
said: 'Woman gives birth to a human being once in nine months,
but we Masters have to do it every day.' Aren't those
"Dan was talking about barbers?" I said, just in case.
"Dan was talking about Masters. 'The beauty of the world
rests on our shoulders,' he would say. And again, do you
remember: 'In order to make a man out of an ape, Darwin had to
be an excellent Master.'"
I decided to capitulate and confess.
"This I don't remember."
"How long have you been watching 'Rose of the Salon'?"
"Well, I have arrived just recently."
"Aah, then you have missed a lot. My wife and I have been
watching the program for seven years, every Tuesday. We missed
only one show; I had an attack and lost consciousness. But in
the whole town there is only one man who hasn't missed even one
show -- Master Mille at the Central Salon."
He moved off a few paces, turned various colored lights on
and off, and resumed his work.
"The seventh year," he repeated. "And now -- can you
imagine -- the year before last they kill off Mirosa and throw
Levant into a Japanese prison for life, while Dan is burned at
the stake. Can you visualize that?"
"It's impossible," I said. "Dan? At the stake? Although
it's true that they burned Bruno at the stake, too."
"It's possible," he said with impatience. "In any case, it
became clear to us that they want to fold up the program fast.
But we didn't put up with that. We declared a strike and
struggled for three weeks. Mille and I picketed the barber
automates. And let me tell you that quite a lot of the
townspeople sympathized with us."
"I should think so," I said. "And what happened? Did you
"As you see. They grasped very well what was involved, and
now the TV center knows with whom they are dealing. We didn't
give one step, and if need be, we won't. Anyway we can rest on
Tuesdays now just like in the old days -- for real."
"And the other days?"
"The other days we wait for Tuesday and try to guess what
is awaiting us and what you literary fellows will do for us. We
guess and make bets -- although we Masters don't have much
"You have a large clientele?"
"No, that's not it. I mean homework. It's not difficult to
become a Master, it's difficult to remain one. There is a mass
of literature, lots of new methods, new applications, and you
have to keep up with it all and constantly experiment,
investigate and keep track of allied fields -- bionics, plastic
medicine, organic medicine. And with time, you accumulate
experience, and you get the urge to share your knowledge. So
Mille and I are writing our second book, and practically every
month, we have to update the manuscript. Everything becomes
obsolete right before your eyes. I am now completing a treatise
on a little-known characteristic of the naturally straight
nonplastic hair; and do you know I have practically no chance
of being the first? In our country alone, I know of three
Masters who are occupied with the same subject. It's only to be
expected -- the naturally straight nonplastic hair is a real
problem. It's considered to be absolutely
nonaestheticizable.... However, this may not be of interest to
you? You are a writer?"
"Yes," I said.
"Well, you know, during the strike, I had a chance to run
through a novel. That would not be yours, by any chance?"
"I don't know," I said, "What was it about?"
"Well, I couldn't say exactly.... Son quarrels with
father. He has a friend, an unpleasant fellow with a strange
name. He occupies himself by cutting up frogs."
"Can't remember," I lied -- poor Ivan Sergeyevitch.
"I can't remember either. It was some sort of nonsense. I
have a son, but he never quarrels with me, and he never
tortures animals -- except perhaps when he was a child"
He backed away again and made a slow circuit around me.
His eyes were burning; he seemed to be very pleased.
"It looks as though we can stop here," he said.
I got out of the chair. "Not bad. Not bad at all,"
murmured the Master. I approached the mirror. He turned on
spotlights, which illuminated me from all sides so that there
were no shadows on my face.
In the first instant I did not notice anything unusual
about myself. It was my usual self. Then I felt that it was not
I at all. That it was something much better than I. A whole lot
better. Better looking than I. More benevolent than I.
Appreciably more significant than I. I experienced a sense of
shame, as though I were deliberately passing myself off as a
man to whom I couldn't hold a candle.
"How did you do this thing?" I said in a strangled tone.
"It's nothing," said the Master, smiling in a very special
way. "You turned out to be a fairly easy client, albeit quite
I stood before the mirror like Narcissus and couldn't tear
myself away. Suddenly, I felt awed. The Master was a magician,
and an evil one at that, although he probably didn't realize it
himself. The mirror reflected an extremely attractive lie. An
intelligent, good-looking, monumental vapidity. Well, perhaps
not a total vacuum, for after all I didn't have that low an
opinion of myself. But the contrast was too great. All of my
inner world, everything I valued in myself -- all that could
just as well have not existed. It was no longer needed. I
looked at the Master. He was smiling.
"You have many clients?" I asked.
He did not grasp my meaning, but after all, I didn't
really want him to understand me.
"Don't worry," he replied, "I'll always work on you with
pleasure. The rawest material is the most intriguing."
"Thank you," said I, lowering my eyes so as not to see his
smile. "Thank you. Goodbye."
"Just don't forget to pay," he said placidly. "We Masters
value our work very highly."
"Yes, of course," I caught myself. "Naturally. How much do
I owe you?"
He stated how much I owed.
'What?" said I regaining my equilibrium.
He repeated with satisfaction.
"Madness", I said forthrightly.
"Such is the price of beauty," he explained. "You came
here as an ordinary tourist, and you are leaving a king of this
"An impersonator is what I am leaving as," I muttered,
extracting the money.
"No, no, not that bad!" he said confidentially. "Even I
don't know that for sure. And even you are not convinced of it
entirely.... Two more dollars, please. Thank you. Here is 50
pfennigs change. You don't mind pfennigs?"
I had nothing against pfennigs. I wanted to leave as fast
I stood in the lobby for a while, becoming myself again,
and gazing at the metallic figure of Vladimir Sergeyevitch.
After all, all this is not new. After all, millions of people
are not what they pass themselves for. But the damnable barber
had made me over into an empiriocritic. Reality was masked with
gorgeous hieroglyphics. I no longer believed what I saw in this
city. The plaza covered with stereo-plastic was probably in
reality not beautiful at all. Under the elegant contours of the
autos lurked ominous and ugly shapes. And that beautiful
charming woman is no doubt in fact a repulsive malodorous
hyena, a promiscuous dull-witted sow. I closed my eyes and
shook my head. The old devil!
Two meticulously groomed oldsters stopped nearby and began
to debate heatedly the relative merits of baked pheasant
compared with pheasant broiled with feathers. They argued,
drooling saliva, smacking their lips and choking, snapping
their bony fingers under each other's noses. No Master could
help these two. They were Masters themselves and they made no
bones about it. At any rate, they restored my materialist
viewpoint. I went to a porter and inquired about a restaurant.
"Right in front of you," said he and smiled at the arguing
oldsters. "Any cuisine in the world."
I could have mistaken the entrance to the restaurant for
the gates to a botanical garden. I entered, parting the
branches of exotic trees, stepping alternately on soft grass
and coral flagstones. Unseen birds twittered in the luxuriant
greenery, and the discreet clatter of utensils was mixed with
the sound of conversation and laughter. A golden bird flew
right in front of my nose, barely able to carry the load of a
caviar tartine in its beak.
"I am at your service," said the deep velvety voice.
An imposing giant of a man with epaulettes stepped toward
me cut of a thicket.
"Dinner," I said curtly. I don't like maitres-d'hotel.
"Dinner," he said significantly. "In company? Separate
"Separate table. On second thought..."
A notebook instantaneously appeared in his hand.
"A man of your age would be welcome at the table of
Mrs. and Miss Hamilton-Rey."
"Go on," I said.
"I would prefer an aborigine."
He turned the page.
"Opir, doctor of philosophy, just now has sat down at his
"That's a possibility," said I.
He put away the book and led me along a path paved with
limestone slabs. Somewhere around us there were people eating,
talking, swishing seltzer. Hummingbirds darted like
multicolored bees in the leaves. The maitre-d'hotel inquired
respectfully, "How would you like to be introduced?"
"Ivan. Tourist and litterateur."
Doctor Opir was about fifty. I liked him at once because
he immediately and without any ceremony sent the maitre-d'hotel
packing after a waiter. He was pink and plump, and moved and
"Don't trouble yourself," he said when I reached. for the
menu. "It's all set already. Vodka, anchovies under egg -- we
call them pacifunties -- potato soup..."
"With sour cream," I interjected.
"Of course!... steamed sturgeon a la Astrakhan... a patty
"I would prefer pheasant baked in feathers."
"No -- don't; it's not the season... a slice of beef, eel
in sweet marinade."
"Coffee," I said.
"Cognac," he retorted.
"Coffee with cognac."
"All right, cognac and coffee with cognac. Some pale wine
with the fish and a good natural cigar."
Dinner with Doctor Opir turned out to be most congenial.
It was possible to eat, drink, and listen. Or not to listen.
Doctor Opir did not need a conversation. He required a
listener. I did not have to participate in the talking, I
didn't even supply any commentaries, while he orated with
enthusiastic delight, almost without interruption, waving his
fork, while plates and dishes nonetheless became empty in front
of him with mystifying speed. Never in my life have I met a man
who was so skilled in conversation while his mouth was so fully
packed and so busy masticating.
"Science! Her Majesty!" he exclaimed. "She matured long
and painfully, but her fruits turned out to be abundant and
sweet. Stop, Moment, you are beautiful! Hundreds of generations
were born, suffered, and died, and not one was impelled to
pronounce this incantation. We are singularly fortunate. We
were born in the greatest of epochs, the Epoch of the
Satisfaction of Desires. It may be that not everybody
understands this as yet, but ninety-nine percent of my fellow
citizens are already living in a world where, for all practical
purposes, a man can have all he can think of. O, Science! You
have finally freed mankind. You have given us and will
henceforth provide for us everything -- food -- wonderful food
-- clothing of the best quality and in any quantity, and to
suit any taste! -- shelter -- magnificent shelter. Love, joy,
satisfaction, and for those desiring it, for those who are
fatigued by happiness -- tears, sweet tears, little saving
sorrows, pleasant consoling worries which lend us significance
in our own eyes.... Yes, we philosophers have maligned science
long and angrily. We called forth Luddites, to break up
machines, we cursed Einstein, who changed our whole universe,
we vilified Wiener, who impugned our godlike essence. Well, so
we really lost that godlike substance. Science robbed us of it.
But in return! In return, it launched men to the feasting
tables of Olympus. Aha! Here is the potato soup, that heavenly
porridge. No, no, do as I do... take this spoon, a touch of
vinegar... a dash of pepper... with the other spoon, this one
here, dip some sour cream and... no, no... gently, gently mix
it.... This too is a science, one of the most ancient, older in
any cue than the ubiquitous synthetic.... By the way, don't
fail to visit our synthesizers, Amalthea's Horn, Inc. You
wouldn't be a chemist? Oh yes, you are a litterateur! You
should write about it, the greatest mystery of our times,
beefsteaks out of thin air, asparagus from clay, truffles from
sawdust.... What a pity that Malthus is dead'! The whole world
would be laughing at him! Of course, he had certain reasons for
his pessimism. I am prepared to agree with those who consider
him a genius. But he was too ill-informed, he completely missed
the possibilities in the natural sciences. He was one of those
unlucky geniuses who discover laws of social development
precisely at that moment when these laws cease to operate. I am
genuinely sorry for him. The whole of humanity was but billions
of hungrily gaping mouths to him. He must have lost sleep from
the sheer horror of it. It is a truly monstrous nightmare -- a
billion gaping maws and not one head. I turned back and see
with bitterness how blind they were, the shakers of souls and
the masters of the minds of the recent past. Their awareness
was dimmed by unbroken horror. Social Darwinists! They saw only
the press of the struggle for survival: mobs of hunger-crazed
people, tearing each other to pieces for a place in the sun, as
though there was only that one single place, as though the sun
wasn't sufficient for all! And Nietzsche... maybe he was
suitable for the hungry slaves of the Pharaohs' times, with his
ominous sermons about the master race, with his supermen beyond
good and evil... who needs to be beyond now? It's not so bad on
this side, don't you suppose? There were, of course, Marx and
Freud. Marx, for example, was the first to understand that it
all depended on economics. He understood that to rip the
economics out of the hands of greedy nincompoops and
fetishists, to make it part of the state, to develop it
limitlessly, was the very way to lay the foundations of a
Golden Age. And Freud showed us for what, after all, we needed
this Golden Age. Recollect the source of all human misery.
Unsatisfied instincts, unrequited love, and unsated hunger --
isn't that right? But here comes Her Majesty, Science, and
presents us with satisfactions. And how rapidly all this has
come to pass! The names of gloomy prognosticators are not yet
forgotten, and already... How do you like the sturgeon? I am
under the impression that the sauce is synthetic. Do you see
the pinkish tint? Yes, it is synthetic. In a restaurant we
should be able to expect natural sauce. Waiter! On second
thought -- the devil take it, let's not be so finicky. Go on,
go on... Now what was I saying? Yes! Love and hunger. Satisfy
love and hunger, and you'll see a happy man. On condition, of
course, that your man is secure about the next day. All the
utopias of all times are based on this simplest of
considerations. Free a man of the worry about his daily bread
and about the morrow, and he will become truly free and happy.
I am deeply convinced that children, yes, precisely the
children, are man's ideal. I see the most profound meaning in
the remarkable similarity between a child and the carefree man
who is the object of utopia. Carefree means happy -- and we are
so close to that ideal! Another few decades, or maybe just a
few more years, and we will attain the automated plenty, we
will discard science as a healed man discards his crutches, and
the whole of mankind will become one huge happy family of
children. The adults will be distinguished from the children
only by their ability to love, and this ability will, again
with the help of science, become the source of new and
unheard-of joys and pleasures.... Excuse me, what is your name?
Ivan? So, you must be from Russia. Communist? Aha... well,
everything is different there I know.... And here is the
coffee! Mm, not bad. But where is the cognac? Well, thank you!
By the way, I hear that the Great Wine Taster has retired. The
most grandiose scandal befell at the Brussels contest of
cognacs, which was suppressed only with the greatest of
difficulties. The Grand Prix is awarded to the White Centaur
brand. The jury is delighted! It is something totally
unprecedented! Such a phenomenal extravaganza of sensations!
The declaratory packet is opened, and, oh horrors, it's a
synthetic! The Great Wine Taster turned as white as a sheet of
paper and was physically ill. By the way, I had an opportunity
to try this cognac, and it's really superb, but they run it
from crude and it doesn't even have a proper name. H ex
eighteen naphtha fraction and it's cheaper than hydrolyzed
alcohol.... Have a cigar. Nonsense, what do you mean you don't
smoke? It's not right not to have a cigar after a dinner like
this.... I love this restaurant. Every time I come here to
lecture at the university, I dine at the Olympic. And before
returning, I invariably visit the Tavern. True, they don't have
the greenery, nor the tropical birds, and it's a bit stuffy and
warm and smells of smoke, but they have a genuine, inimitable
cuisine. The Assiduous Tasters gather nowhere but there -- at
the Gourmet. In that place you do nothing but eat. You can't
talk, you can't laugh, it's totally nonsensical to go there
with a woman -- you only eat there! Slowly, thoughtfully..."
Doctor Opir finally ran down, leaned back in his chair,
and inhaled deeply with total enjoyment. I sucked on the mighty
cigar and contemplated the man. I had him well pegged, this
doctor of philosophy. Always and in all times there have been
such men, absolutely pleased with their situation in society
and therefore absolutely satisfied with the condition of that
society. A marvelously well-geared tongue and a lively pen,
magnificent teeth and faultless innards, and a well-employed
"And so the world is beautiful, Doctor?"
"Yes," said the doctor with feeling, "it is finally
"You are a gigantic optimist," said I.
"Our time is the time of optimists. Pessimists go to the
Good Mood Salon, void the gall from their subconscious, and
become optimists. The time of pessimists has passed, just as
the time of tuberculars, of sexual maniacs, and of the military
has passed. Pessimism, as an intellectual emotion, is being
extirpated by that self-same science. And that not indirectly
through the creation of affluence, but concretely by way of
invasion of the dark world of the subcortex. Let's take the
dream generator, currently the most popular diversion of the
masses. It is completely harmless, unusually well adopted to
general use, and is structurally simple. Or consider the
I attempted to steer him into the desired channel.
"Doesn't it seem to you that right there in the
pharmaceutical field science is overdoing it a bit sometimes?"
Doctor Opir smiled condescendingly and sniffed at his
"Science has always moved by trial and error," he said
weightily. "And I am inclined to believe that the so-called
errors are always the result of criminal application. We
haven't yet entered the Golden Age, we are just in the process
of doing so, and all kinds of throwbacks, mobsters, and just
plain dirt are under foot. So all kinds of drugs are put out
which are health-destroying, but which are created, as you
know, from the best of motives; all kinds of aromatics ... or
this... well, that doesn't suit a dinner conversation." He
cackled suddenly and obscenely "You can guess my meaning -- we
are mature people! What was I saying? Oh yes, all this
shouldn't disturb you. It will pass just like the atom bombs."
"I only wanted to emphasize," I remarked, "that there is
still the problem of alcoholism, and the problem of narcotics."
Doctor Opir's interest in the conversation was visibly
ebbing. Apparently he imagined that I challenged his thesis
that science is a boon. To conduct an argument on this basis
naturally bored him, as though, for instance, he had been
affirming the salubriousness of ocean swimming and I was
contradicting him on the basis that I had almost drowned last
"Well, of course..." he mumbled, studying his watch, "we
can't have it all at once.... You must admit, after all, that
it is the basic trend which is the most important.... Waiter!"
Doctor Opir had eaten well, had a good conversation --
professing progressive philosophy -- felt well-satisfied, and I
decided not to press the matter, especially as I really didn't
give a hang about his progressive philosophy, while in the
matters which interested me the most, he probably would not be
concretely informed at all in the final analysis.
We paid up and went out of the restaurant. I inquired, "Do
you ]mow, Doctor, whose monument that is? Over there on the
Doctor Opir gazed absent-mindedly. "Sure enough, it's a
monument," he said. "Somehow I overlooked it before.... Shall I
drop you somewhere?"
"Thank you, I prefer to walk."
"In that case, goodbye. It was a pleasure to meet you....
Of course it's hard to expect to convince you." He grimaced,
shifting a toothpick around his mouth. "But it would be
interesting to try. Perhaps you will attend my lecture? I begin
tomorrow at ten."
"Thank you," I said. "What is your topic?"
"Neo-optimist Philosophy. I will be sure to touch upon a
series of questions which we have so pithily discussed today."
"Thank you," I said again. "Most assuredly."
I watched as he went to his long automobile, collapsed in
the seat, puttered with the auto-driver control, fell back
against the seat back, and apparently dozed off instantly. The
car began to roll cautiously across the plaza and disappeared
in the shade and greenery of a side street.
Neo-optimism... Neo-hedonism... Neo-cretinism...
Neo-capitalism... "No evil without good," said the fox. So, I
have landed in the Country of the Boobs. It should he recorded
that the ratio of congenital fools does not vary as a function
of time. It should be interesting to determine what is
happening to the percentage of fools by conviction. Curious --
who assigned the title of Doctor to him? He is not the only
one! There must have been a whole flock of doctors who
ceremoniously granted that title to Neo-optimist Opir. However,
this occurs not only among philosophers.
I saw Rimeyer come into the hall and forgot Doctor Opir at
once. The suit hung on Rimeyer like a sack. Rimeyer stooped,
and his face was flabby. I thought he wavered in his walk. He
approached the elevator and I caught him by the sleeve there.
He jumped violently and turned on me.
"What in hell?" he said. He was clearly unhappy to see me.
"Why are you still here?"
"I waited for you."
"Didn't I tell you to come tomorrow at noon?"
"What's the difference?" I said. "Why waste time?"
He looked at me, breathing laboriously.
"I am expected. A man is waiting for me in my room, and he
must not see you with me. Do you understand?"
"Don't shout," I said. "People are noticing."
Rimeyer glanced sideways with watery eyes.
"Go in the elevator," he said.
We entered and he pressed the button for the fifteenth
"Get on with your business quickly," he said.
The order was startlingly stupid, so that I was
"You mean to say that you don't know why I am here?"
He rubbed his forehead, and then said, "Hell, everything's
mixed up.... Listen, I forgot, what is your name?"
"Listen, Zhilin, I have nothing new for you. I didn't have
time to attend to that business. It's all a dream, do you
understand? Matia's inventions. They sit there, writing papers,
and invent. They should all be pitched the hell out."
We arrived at the fifteenth floor and he pressed the
button for the first.
"Devil take it," he said. "Five more minutes and he'll
leave.... In general I am convinced of one thing, there is
nothing to it. Not in this town, in any case." He looked at me
surreptitiously, and turned his eyes away. "Here is something I
can tell you. Look in at the Fishers. Just like that, to clear
"The Fishers? What Fishers?"
"You'll find out for yourself," he said impatiently. "But
don't get tricky with them. Do everything they ask." Then, as
though defending himself, he added, "I don't want any
preconceptions, you understand."
The elevator stopped at the first floor and he signaled
for the ninth.
"That's it," he said. "Then we'll meet and talk in detail.
Let's say tomorrow at noon."
"All right," I said slowly. He obviously did not want to
talk to me. Maybe he didn't trust me. Well, it happens!
"By the way," I said, "you have been visited by a certain
It seemed to me that he started.
"Did he see you?"
"Naturally. He asked me to tell you that he will be
"That's bad, devil take it, bad...." muttered Rimeyer.
"Listen... damn, what is your name?"
The elevator stopped.
"Listen, Zhilin, it's very bad that he has seen you....
However, what the hell is the difference. I must go now." Re
opened the elevator door, "Tomorrow we'll have a real good
talk, okay? Tomorrow... and you look in on the Fishers. Is that
He slammed the door with all his strength.
"Where will I look for them?" I asked.
I stood awhile, looking after him. He was almost running,
receding down the corridor with erratic steps.
I walked slowly, keeping to the shade of the trees. Now
and then a car rolled by. One of these stopped and the driver
threw open the door, leaned out, and vomited on the pavement.
He cursed weakly, wiped his mouth with his palm, slammed the
door, and drove off. He was on the elderly side, red-faced,
wearing a loud shirt with nothing under it.
Rimeyer apparently had turned into a drunkard. This
happens fairly often: a man tries hard, works hard, is
considered a valuable contributor, he is listened to and made
out as a model, but just when he is needed for a concrete task,
it suddenly turns out that he has grown puffy and flabby, that
wenches are running in and out of his place, and that he smells
of vodka from early morning.... Your business does not interest
him, while at the same time, he is frightfully busy, is
constantly meeting someone, talks confusingly and murkily, and
is of no help whatsoever. And then he turns up in the alcoholic
ward, or a mental clinic, or is involved in a legal process. Or
he gets married unexpectedly -- strangely and ineptly -- and
this marriage smells strongly of blackmail. ... One can only
comment: "Physician, heal thyself."
It would still be nice to hunt up Peck. Peck is hard as
flint, honest, and he always knows everything. You haven't even
finished the rundown on the tech control, and haven't had a
chance to get off the ship, before he is buddy-buddy with the
cook, is already fully informed and involved in the
investigation of the dispute between the Commander of the
Pathfinders and the chief engineer, who didn't settle the
matter of some prize; the technicians are already planning an
evening in his honor, and the deputy director is listening to
his advice in a quiet corner... Priceless Peck! He was born in
this city and has spent a third of his life here.
I found a telephone booth, and rang information for Peck
Xenai's number and address. I was asked to wait. As usual, the
booth smelled of cats. The plastic shelf was covered with
telephone numbers and obscene images. Someone had carved quite
deeply, as with a knife, the strange word "SLUG." I opened the
door, to lighten the string atmosphere, and watched the
opposite shady side of the street, where a barman stood in
front of his establishment in a white jacket with rolled-up
sleeves, smoking a cigarette. Then I was told that according to
the data at the beginning of the year, Peck resided at No. 31
Liberty Street, number 11-331. I thanked the operator and
dialed the number at once. A strange voice told me that I had a
wrong number. Yes, the number was correct, and so was the
address, but no Peck lived there, and if he had, they didn't
know when he left or where he had gone. I hung up, left the
booth, and crossed the street to the shady side.
Catching my eye, the barman came to life and said from
afar, "Come in, why don't you?"
"Don't know that I'd like to," I said.
"So you won't be friendly, eh?" he said. "Come in anyway.
We'll have a talk. I feel bored."
"Tomorrow morning," I said, "at ten o'clock, at the
university, there will be a philosophy lecture on Neo-optimism.
It will be given by the renowned Doctor Opir from the capital.
The barman listened with avid interest -- he even stopped
"How do you like that!" he said. "So they have come to
that! The day before yesterday, they chased all the girls out
of a night club, and now they'll be having lectures. We'll show
"It's about time," I said.
"I don't let them in," he continued, getting more
animated. "I have a sharp eye for them. A guy could be just
approaching the door, when I can spot him for an Intel
'Fellows,' I say, 'an Intel is coming.' And the boys are all
well picked; Dodd himself is here every night after training.
So, he gets up and meets this Intel at the door, and I don't
even know what goes on between them, but be passes him on
elsewhere. Although it's true that sometimes they travel in
bunches. In that case, so there wouldn't be a to-do, we lock
the door -- let them knock. That's the right way, isn't it?"
'That's okay by me," I said. I had had enough of him.
There are people who pall unusually quickly. "Let them."
"What do you mean -- let them?"
"Let them knock. In other words, knock on any door."
The barman looked at me with growing alertness.
"What say you move on," he said.
"How about a quick one," I offered.
"Move along, move along," he said. "You won't get served
We looked at each other awhile,, then he growled
something, backed up, and slid the glass door in front of him.
"I am no Intel," I said. "I am a poor tourist. A rich
He looked at me with his nose flattened against the glass.
I made a motion as though knocking a drink back. Re mumbled
something and went back into the darkness of the place -- I
could see him wandering aimlessly among empty tables. The place
was called the Smile. I smiled and went on.
Around the corner was a wide main thoroughfare. A huge
van, plastered with advertisements, was parked by the curb. Its
back was swung down for a counter, on which were piled
mountains of cans, bottles, toys, and stacks of
cellophane-wrapped clothing and underwear. Two teenage girls
twittered some sort of nonsense while selecting blouses.
"Pho-o-ny," squeaked one. The other, turning the blouse this
way and that, replied, "Spangles, spangles and not phony."
"Here by the neck it phonies." "Spangles." "Even the star
The driver of the van, a gaunt man with huge, horn-rimmed
dark glasses, sat on the step of the advertising rotunda. His
eyes were not visible, but, judging by his relaxed mouth and
sweat-beaded nose, he was asleep. I approached the counter. The
girls stopped talking and stared at me with parted mouths. They
must have been about sixteen, and their eyes were vacant and
blue, like those of young kittens.
"Spangles," I said. "No phonying and lots of sparkle."
"And around the neck?" asked the one who was trying on the
"Around the neck it's practically a masterpiece."
"Spangles," said the other uncertainly.
"OK, let's look at another one," offered the first
peacefully. "This one here."
"This one is better, the silvery one with the frame."
I saw books. They were magnificent books. There was a
Strogoff with such illustrations as I had never even heard of.
There was Change of Dream with an introduction by
Saroyan. There was a Walter Mintz in three volumes. There was
almost an entire Faulkner, The New Politics by Weber,
Poles of Magnificence by Ignatova, The Unpublished
Sian She-Cuey, History of Fascism in the "Memory of
Mankind" edition. There were current magazines, and almanacs,
pocket Louvres, Hermitage, and Vatican. There was everything!
"It phonies too but it has a frame." "Spangles." I grabbed the
Mintz. Holding the two volumes under my arm, I opened the
third. Never have I seen such a complete Mintz. There were even
the йmigrй letters.
"How much will that be?" I called.
The girls gaped again; the driver sucked in his lips and
"What?" he said huskily.
"Who is the owner here?" I said.
He got up and came to me.
"What would you like?"
"I want this Mintz. How much is it?"
The girls giggled. He stared at me in silence, then
removed his glasses.
"You are a foreigner?"
"Yes, I am a tourist."
"It's the most complete Mintz."
"Of course, I can see that. I was stunned when I saw it."
"Me too," he said, "when I saw what you were after."
"He is a tourist," twittered one of the girls. "He doesn't
"It's all free," said the driver. "Personal needs fund. To
take care of personal needs."
I looked back at the bookshelf.
"Did you see Change of Dream?" asked the driver.
"Yes, thank you, I have it."
"About Strogoff I will not even inquire."
"How about the History of Fascism?"
"An excellent edition."
The girls giggled again. The driver's eyes popped in
"Scram, snot faces," he barked.
The girls jumped. One of them thievishly grabbed several
blouse packages. They ran across the street, where they stopped
and continued to gaze at us.
"With frames!" said the driver. His thin lips twitched. "I
should drop this whole idea. Where do you live?"
"On Second Waterway."
"Aha, in the thick of the mire.... Let's go -- I will drop
you off. I have a complete Schedrin in the van, which I don't
even exhibit; I have the entire classics library; the whole
Golden Library, the complete Treasures of Philosophic Thought."
"Including Doctor Opir's?"
"Bitch tripe," said the driver. "Salacious bum! Amoeba!
Rut do you know Sliy?"
"Not much," I said. "I don't like him. Neo-individualism,
as Doctor Opir would say."
"Doctor Opir stinks," said the driver. "While Sliy is a
real man. Of course, there is the individualism. But at least
he says what he thinks and does what he says. I'll get some
Sliy for you.... Listen, did you see this? And this!"
He dug himself up to his elbows in books. He stroked them
tenderly and his face shone with rapture.
"And this," he kept on. "And how about this Cervantes?"
An oldish lady of imposing bearing approached and started
to pick over the canned goods.
"You still don't have Danish pickles... didn't I ask you
to get some?"
"Go to hell," said the driver absent-mindedly.
The woman was stunned. Her face slowly turned crimson.
"How dare you!" she hissed.
The driver looked at her bullishly.
"You heard what I said. Get out of here!"
"Don't you dare!" said the woman. "What is your number?"
"My number is ninety-three," said the driver,
"Ninety-three -- is that clear enough? And I spit on all of
you. Is that clear? Any other questions?"
"What a hooliganism!" said the woman with dignity. She
took two cans of delicacies, scanned the counter, and with
great precision, ripped the cover off the Cosmic Man
magazine. "I'll remember you, number ninety-three! These aren't
the old times for you." She wrapped the two cans in the cover.
"We'll see each other in the municipal court."
I took a firm hold on the driver's arm. His rigid muscles
"The nerve!" said she majestically and departed.
She stepped along the sidewalk, proudly carrying her
handsome head, which was topped with a high cylindrical
coiffure. She stopped at the corner, opened one of the cans,
and proceeded to pick out chunks with elegant fingers.
I released the driver's arm.
"They ought to be shot," he said suddenly. "We ought to
strangle them instead of dispensing pretty books to them." He
turned toward me, and I could see his eyes were tortured.
"Shall I deliver your books?"
"Well, no," I said. "Where will I put them?"
"In that case, shove off," said the driver. "Did you take
your Mintz? Then go and wrap your dirty pantaloons in it."
He climbed up into the cab. Something clicked and the back
door began to rise. You could hear everything crashing and
rolling inside the van. Several books and some shiny packets,
boxes, and cans fell on the pavement. The rear panel had not
yet closed completely when the driver shut his door and the van
took off with a jerk.
The girls had already disappeared. I stood alone on the
empty street and watched the wind lazily turn the pages of
History of Fascism at my feet. Later a gang of kids in striped
shorts came around the corner. They walked by silently, hands
stuck in their pockets. One jumped down on the pavement and
began to kick a can of pineapple, with a slick pretty cover,
like a football down the street.
On the way home, I was overtaken by the change of shifts.
The streets filled up with cars. Controller copters appeared
over the intersections, and sweaty police cleared constantly
threatening jams with roaring bull horns. The cars moved
slowly, and the drivers stuck heads out of windows to light up
from each other, to yell, to talk and joke while furiously
blowing their horns. There was a instant screech of clashing
bumpers. Everyone was happy, everyone was good-natured, and
everyone glowed with savage glee. It seemed as though a heavy
load had just fallen from the soul of the city, as though
everyone was seized with an enviable anticipation. Fingers were
pointed at me and the other pedestrians. Several times I was
prodded with bumpers while crossing -- the girls doing it with
the utmost good nature. One of them drove alongside me for
quite a while, and we got acquainted. Then a line of
demonstrators with sober faces walked by on the median,
carrying signs. The signs appealed to people to join the
amateur club ensemble Songs of the Fatherland, to enter the
municipal Culinary Art groups, and to sign up for condensed
courses in motherhood and childhood. The people with signs were
nudged by bumpers with special enthusiasm. The drivers threw
cigarette butts, apple cores, and paper wads at them. They
yelled such things as "I'll subscribe at once, just wait till I
put my galoshes on," or "Me, I'm sterile," or "Say, buddy,
teach me motherhood." The sign carriers continued to march
slowly in between the two solid streams of cars, unperturbed
and sacrificial, looking straight ahead with the sad dignity of
Not far from my house, I was set upon by a flock of girls,
and when I finally struggled through to Second Waterway, I had
a white aster in my lapel and drying kisses on my cheeks, and
it seemed I had met half the girls in town. What a barber! What
Vousi, in a flaming orange blouse, was sitting in the
chair in my study. Her long legs in pointy shoes rested on the
table, while her slender fingers held a long slim cigarette.
With her head thrown back, she was blowing thick streams of
smoke at the ceiling, through her nose.
"At long last!" she cried, seeing me. "Where have you been
all this time? As you can see, I've been waiting for you."
"I've been delayed," I said, trying to recollect if I had
indeed promised to meet her.
Wipe off the lipstick," she demanded. "You look silly!
What's this? Books? What do you need books for?"
"What do you mean by that?"
"You are really quite a problem! Comes back late, hangs
around with books. Or are those pornos?"
"It's Mintz," I said.
"Let me have them!" She jumped up and snatched the books
out of my grasp. "Good God! What nonsense -- all three are
alike. What is it? History of Fascism... are you a
"How can you say that, Vousi!"
"Then, what do you need them for? Are you really going to
"I just don't understand," she said peevishly. "I liked
you from the first. Mother says you're a writer, and I went and
bragged to everyone, like a fool, and then you turn out to be
the next thing to an Intel."
"How could you, Vousi!" I said with reproach. By now I had
realized that it was impermissible to be taken for an Intel.
"These bookos were simply needed in my literary business,
"Bookos!" she laughed. "Bookos! Look at what I can do."
She threw back her head and blew two thick streams of smoke out
of her nostrils. "I got it on the second try. Pretty good,
"Remarkable aptitude," I remarked.
"Instead of laughing at me, you should try it yourself.
... A lady taught me at the salon today. Slobbered all over me,
the fat cow... Will you try it?"
"How come she did that?"
"Not normal. Or maybe a sad sack.... What's your name? I
"An amusing name! You'll have to remind me again. Are you
"I don't think so."
"So-o... and I went and told everyone that you are a
Tungus. Too bad.... Say, why not have a drink?"
"Today I should have a strong drink to forget that
She ran out into the living room and came back with a
tray. We had some brandy and looked at each other, not having
anything to say. I felt ill at ease. I couldn't say why, but I
liked her. I sensed something, something I couldn't put my
finger on; something which distinguished her from the
long-legged, smooth-skinned pin-up beauties, good only for the
bed. I had the impression that she sensed something in me, too.
"Beautiful day, today," she said, looking away.
"A bit hot," I observed.
She sipped some brandy; I did too. The silence stretched.
"What do you like to do the most?" she asked.
"It depends. And you?"
"Same with me. In general, I like to have fun and not have
to think about anything."
"So do I," I said. "At least I do right now."
She seemed to perk up a little. I understood suddenly what
was the matter: during the whole day, I had not met a single
truly pleasant person, and I simply had gotten tired of it.
There was nothing to her, after all.
"Let's go somewhere," she said.
"We could," I said. I really didn't want to go anywhere, I
wanted to sit and relax in the cool room for a while.
"I can see you're not too eager," she said.
"To be honest, I would prefer to sit around here for a
"Well then, amuse me."
I considered the problem, and recounted the story of the
traveling salesman in the upper bunk. She liked it, but I think
she missed the point. I made a correction in my aim, and told
her the one about the president and the old maid. She laughed a
long time, kicking her wonderfully long legs. Then, taking
courage from another shot of brandy, I told about the widow
with the mushrooms growing on the wall. She slid down to the
floor and almost knocked over the tray. I picked her up under
the armpits, hoisted her back up in the chair, and delivered
the story of the drunk spaceman and the college girl, at which
point Aunt Vaina came rushing in and inquired fearfully what
was going on with Vousi, and whether I was tickling her
unmercifully. I poured Aunt Vaina a glass, and addressing
myself to her personally, recounted the one about the Irishman
who wanted to be a gardener. Vousi was completely shattered,
but Aunt Vaina smiled sorrowfully and confided that Major
General Tuur liked to tell the same story, when he was in a
good mood. But in it there was, she thought, a Negro instead of
the Irishman, and he aspired to the duties of a piano tuner and
not a gardener. "And you know, Ivan, the story ended somehow
differently," she added after some thought. At this point I
noticed Len standing in the doorway, looking at us. I waved and
smiled at him. He seemed not to notice, so I winked at him and
beckoned for him to come in.
"Whom are you winking at?" asked Vousi, through lingering
"It's Len," I said. It was really a pleasure to watch her,
as I love to see people laugh, especially such a one as Vousi,
beautiful and almost a child.
"Where's Len?" she wondered.
There was no Len in the doorway.
"Len isn't here," said Aunt Vaina, who was sniffing the
brandy with approval, and did not notice a thing. "The boy went
to the Ziroks' birthday party today. If you only knew, Ivan..."
"But why does he say it was Len?" asked Vousi, glancing at
the door again.
"Len was here," I said. "I waved at him, and be ran away.
You know, he looked a bit wild to me."
"Ach, we have a highly nervous boy there," said Aunt
Vaina. "He was born in a very difficult time, and they just
don't know how to deal with a nervous child in these modern
schools. Today I let him go visit."
"We'll go, too, now," said Vousi. "You'll walk with me.
I'll just fix myself up, because on account of you everything
got smeared. In the meantime, you can put on something more
Aunt Vaina wouldn't have minded staying behind to tell me
a few more things and maybe show me a photo album of Len, but
Vousi dragged her off and I heard her ask her mother behind the
door, "What's his name? I just can't remember it. He is a jolly
fellow, isn't he?"
"Vousi!" admonished Aunt Vaina.
I laid out my entire wardrobe on the bed and tried to
imagine what Vousi would consider a decently dressed man. Until
now, I had thought I was dressed quite satisfactorily. Vousi's
heels were already beating an impatient rat-a-tat on the study
floor. Not having come up with anything, I called her in.
"That's all you have?" she asked, wrinkling her nose.
"It really isn't good enough?"
"Well, it will pass. Take off the jacket and put on this
Hawaiian shirt... or better yet, this one here. They sure have
dressing problems in your Tungusia! Hurry up. No, no, take off
the shirt you have on."
"You mean, without an undershirt?"
"You know, you really are a Tungus. Where do you think you
are going -- to the pole or to Mars? What's this under your
"A bee stung me," I said, hurriedly pulling on my shirt.
The street was already dark. The fluorescents shone palely
through dark foliage.
"Which way are we bound?" I asked.
"Downtown, of course.... Don't grab my arm, it's hot! At
least you know how to fight, I hope?"
"I know how."
"That's good. I like to watch."
"To watch, I like, too," I said.
There were a lot more people out in the streets than in
the daytime. Under the trees, in the bushes, and in the
driveways there were groups of unsettled-looking individuals.
They furiously smoked crackling synthetic cigars, guffawed,
spat negligently and often, and spoke in loud rough voices.
Over each group hung the racket of radio receivers. Under one
streetlight a banjo twanged, and two youngsters, twisting in
weird contortions and yelling out wildly, were performing
fling, a currently fashionable dance, a dance of great beauty
when properly executed. The youngsters knew how. Around them
stood a small crowd, also yelling lustily and clapping their
hands in rhythm.
"Shall we have a dance?" I offered.
"But no, no..." hissed Vousi, taking me by the hand and
increasing her pace.
"And why not? You do fling?"
"I'd sooner hop with alligators than this crowd."
"Too bad," I said, "They look like regular fellows."
"Yes, each one by himself," said Vousi, "and in the
They hung around on the corners, huddled around
streetlights, gauche, smoked to the gills, leaving the
sidewalks behind them strewn with bits of candy paper,
cigarette butts, and spittle. They were nervous and showy
melancholic, yearning, constantly looking around, stooped. They
were awfully anxious not to look like others, and at the same
time, assiduously imitated each other and two or three popular
movie stars. There were really not that many, but they stood
out like sore thumbs, and it always seemed to me that every
town and the whole world was filled with them -- perhaps
because every city and the whole world belonged to them by
night. And to me, they seemed full of some dark mystery, But I
too used to stand around of evenings in the company of friends,
until some real people turned up and took us off the streets,
and many a time I have seen the same groups in all the cities
of the world, where there was a lack of capable men to get rid
of them. But I never did understand to the very end what force
it is that turns these fellows away from good books, of which
there are so many, from sport establishments, of which this
town had plenty, and even from ordinary television sets, and
drives them out in the night streets with cigarettes in their
teeth and transistor sets in their ears, to stand and spit as
far as possible, to guffaw as offensively as possible, and to
do nothing. Apparently at fifteen, the most attractive of all
the treasures in the world is the feeling of your own
importance and ability to excite everyone's admiration, or at
least attract attention. Everything else seems unbearably dull
and dreary, including, perhaps above all, those avenues of
achieving the desirable which are offered by the tired world of
"This is where old Rouen lives," said Vousi. "He has a new
one with him every night. The old turnip has managed it so that
they all come to him of their own will. During the fracas, his
leg was blown off.... You see there is no light in his place,
they are listening to the hi-fi. On top of which, he's ugly as
"He lives well who has but one leg," I said
Of course she had to giggle at this, and continued.
"And here lives Seus. He is a Fisher. Now there's a man
"Fisher," I said. "And what does he do, this
"He Fishers. That's what Fishers do -- they Fisher. Or are
you asking where he works?"
"No, I mean to ask where does he Fisher?"
"In the Subway." Suddenly she stopped. "Say, you wouldn't
be a Fisher?"
"Me? Why, does it show?"
"There is something about you, I noticed at once. We know
about these bees that sting you in the back."
"Is that right?" I said.
She slipped her arm through mine.
"Tell me a story," she said, cajoling. "I never had a
Fisher among my friends. Will you tell me a story?"
"Well now... shall I tell you about the pilot and the
She tweaked my elbow.
"What a hot evening," I said. "It's a good thing you had
me take off my jacket!"
"Anyway, everybody knows. Seus talks about it, and so do
"Ah, so," I said with interest. "And what does Seus tell?"
She let go of my arm at once.
"I didn't hear it myself. The girls told me."
"And what did they tell?"
"Well, this and that.... Maybe they put it all on. Maybe,
you know. Seus had nothing to do with it."
"Hmmm," I said.
"Don't think anything about Seus, he's a good guy and he
keeps his mouth closed."
"Why should I be thinking about Seus?" I said to quiet
her. "I have never even laid eyes on him."
She took my arm again and enthusiastically announced that
we were going to have a drink now.
"Now's the very time for us to have a drink."
She was already using the familiar address with me. We
turned a corner and came out on a wide thoroughfare. Here it
was lighter than day. The lamps shone, the walls glowed, the
display windows were lambent with multicolored fires. This was,
apparently, one of Ahmad's circles of paradise. But I imagined
it differently. I expected roaring bands, grimacing couples,
half-naked and naked people. But here it was relatively quiet.
There were lots of people, and it seemed to me that most were
drunk, but they were all very well and differently dressed and
all were gay. And almost all smoked. There was no wind, and
waves of bluish smoke undulated around the lights and lanterns.
Vousi dragged me into some establishment, found a couple of
acquaintances, and disappeared after promising to find me
later. The crowd was dense, and I found myself pressed against
the bar. Before I could gather my wits, I found myself downing
a shot. A brown middle-aged man with yellow whites of the eye
was booming into my face.
"Kiven hurt his leg -- right? Brush became an antique and
is now quite useless. That makes three -- right? And on the
right they haven't got nobody. Phinney is on the right, and
that's worse than nobody. A waiter, that's what be is."
"What are you drinking?" I asked.
"I don't drink at all," replied the brown one with
dignity, breathing strong fumes at me. "I have jaundice. Ever
hear of it?"
Behind me, someone fell off a stool. The noise modulated
up and down. The brown one, sitting down next to me, was
shouting out some story about some character who almost died of
fresh air after breaking some pipe at work. It was hard to
understand any part of it, as various stories were being
shouted from all sides.
"... Like a fool, he quieted down and left, and she called
s taxi truck, loaded up his stuff, and had it dumped outside
"... I wouldn't have your TV in my outhouse. You can't
think of one improvement on the Omega, my neighbor is an
engineer, and that's just what he says -- you can't think up an
improvement on the Omega..."
"... That's the way their honeymoon ended. When they
returned home, his father enticed him in the garage -- and his
father is a boxer -- and trounced him until he lost
consciousness. They called a doctor later..."
"... So, all right, we took enough for three... and their
rule is, you know, take as much as you wish, but you get to
swallow all of it... and they are watching us by now, and he is
carried away -- and says -- let's take more... well, I says to
myself, enough of this, time to break knuckles..."
"... Dear child, with your bust, I wouldn't know any
grief, such a bosom is one in a thousand, but don't think I'm
flattering you, that's not my style..."
A scrawny girl with bangs down to the tip of her nose
climbed up on the vacant stool next to me and began to pound
with puny fists on the bar, yelling, "Barman, barman, a drink."
The din died down again, and I could hear behind me a
tragic whisper -- "Where did he get it?" "From Buba, you know
him, he is an engineer." "Was it real?" "It's scary, you could
croak." "Then you need some kind of pill --" "Quiet, will you?"
"Oh, all right, who would be listening to us? You got one?"
"Buba gave me one package, he says any drugstore has them by
the ton... here, look." "De... Devon -- what is it?" "Some sort
of medicine, how would I know?" I turned around. One was
red-faced with a shirt unbuttoned down to his navel, and with a
hairy chest. The other was strangely haggard-looking with a
large-pored nose. Both were looking at me.
"Shall we have a drink?" I said.
"Alcoholic," said the pore-nose.
"Don't, Pete. Don't start up, please," said the red-faced
"If you need some Devon, I've got it," I said loudly.
They jumped back. Pore-nose began to look around
cautiously. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see several
faces turn toward us and grow still.
"Let's go, Pat," said red-face. "Let's go! The hell with
Someone put a hand on my shoulder. I turned around and saw
a handsome sunburned man with powerful muscles.
"Yes?" I said.
"Friend," he said benevolently, "drop this business. Drop
it while it's not too late. Are you a Rhinoceros?"
"I am a hippopotamus," I joked.
"No, don't. I'm serious. Did you get beat up, maybe?"
"Black and blue."
"All right, don't feel bad about it. Today it's you,
tomorrow it's them.... As for Devon and all that -- that's
crap, believe me. There's lots of crap in the world, but that
is the crap of all crap."
The girl with the bangs advised me, "Crack him in the
teeth... what's he sticking his nose in for... lousy dick."
"Lapping it up, and doing it up brown, aren't you?" said
the sunburned one coolly, and turned his back on us. His back
was huge, and studded with bulging muscles under a tight
"None of your business," said the girl at his back. Then
she said to me, "Listen, friend, call the barman for me -- I
can't seem to get through to him."
I gave her my glass and asked, "What's to do?"
"In a minute, we'll all go," replied the girl. Having
swallowed the alcohol, she went limp all at once. "As to what
to do -- that's up to luck. Without luck, you can't make out.
Or you need money if you deal with promoters. You're probably a
visitor? Nobody here drinks that dry vodka. How is it your way,
you should tell me about it.... I'm not going anywhere today,
I'll go to the salon instead. I feel terrible and nothing seems
to help.... Mother says -- have a child. But that's dull too,
what do I need one for?"
She closed her eyes and lowered her chin on her entwined
fingers. She looked brazen, but at the same time crestfallen. I
attempted to rouse her but she stopped paying attention to me,
and suddenly started shouting again, "Barman, barman, a drink!"
I looked for Vousi. She was nowhere to be seen. The cafe
began to empty. Everyone was in a hurry to get somewhere. I got
off my stool, too, and left the cafe. Streams of people flowed
down the street. They were all going in the same direction, and
in about five minutes, I was swept out onto a big square. It
was huge and poorly lighted, a wide gloomy space bordered by a
ring of streetlights and store windows. It was full of people.
They stood pressed against each other, men, women, and
youngsters, boys and girls, shifting from foot to foot, waiting
for I knew not what. There was almost no talking. Here and
there cigarette tips flared, lighting hollow cheeks and
compressed lips. Then a clock began to strike the hour, and
over the square, gigantic luminous panels sprang into flaming
light. There were three of them -- red, blue, and green,
irregularly shaped rounded triangles. The crowd surged and
stood still. Around me, cigarettes were put out with subdued
movements. The panels went out momentarily and then started to
flash in rotation: red-blue-green, red-blue-green... I felt a
wave of hot air on my face, and was suddenly dizzy. They were
astir around me. I got up on tiptoes. In the center of the
square, the people stood motionless; I had the impression that
they were seized rigid and did not fall only because they were
pressed in by the crowd. Red-blue-green, red-blue-green.
Wooden, upturned faces, blackly gaping mouths, staring, bulging
eyes. They weren't even winking there, under the panels. A
total quiet fell, so that I jumped when a piercing woman's
voice nearby yelled: "Shivers!" All at once, tens of voices
responded: "Shivers! Shivers!" People on the sidewalk on the
square's perimeter began to clap hands in rhythm with the
flashes, and to chant in even voices, "Shi-vers! Shi-vers!
Shi-vers!" Somebody prodded me in the back with a sharp elbow.
I was pressed forward to the center, toward the panels. I took
a step and another and started through the crowd, pushing the
stiffened bodies aside. Two youngsters, rigid as icicles,
suddenly started thrashing wildly, grabbing at each other,
scratching and pounding with all their strength, but their
faces remained frozen in the direction of the flashing sky...
red-blue-green, red-blue-green. And just as suddenly as they
started, they grew still again.
At this paint, finally, I understood that all this was
extraordinarily amusing. Everyone laughed. There was lots of
room around me and music thundered forth. I swept up a charming
girl and we began to dance, as they used to dance, as dancing
should be done and was done a long, long time ago, as it was
done always with abandon, so that your head swam, and so that
everyone admired you. We stepped out of the way, and I held on
to her hands, and there was no need to talk about anything, and
she agreed that the van driver was a strange man. Can't stand
alcoholics, said Rimeyer, and pore-nose is the most genuine
alcoholic, and what about Devon I said, how could you be
without Devon when we have an excellent zoo, the buffaloes love
to wallow in the mud, and bugs are constantly swarming out of
it. Rim, I said, there are some fools who said that you are
fifty years old -- such nonsense when I wouldn't give you over
twenty-five -- and this is Vousi, I told her about you, but I
am intruding on you, said Rimeyer; no one can intrude on us,
said Vousi, as for Seus he's the best of Fishers, he grabbed
the splotcher and got the ray right in the eye, and Hugger
slipped and fell in the water and said -- wouldn't it be
something for you to drown -- look your gear are melting away,
aren't you funny, said Len, there is such a game of boy and
gangster, you know, you remember we played with Maris... Isn't
it wonderful, I have never felt so good in my life, what a
pity, when it could be like this every day. Vousi, I said,
aren't we great fellows, Vousi, people have never had such an
important problem before, and we solved it and there remained
only one problem, Vousi, the sole problem in the world, to
return to people a spiritual content, and spiritual concerns,
no, Seus, said Vousi, I love you very much, Oscar, you are very
nice, but forgive me, would you, I want it to be Ivan, I
embraced her and felt that it was right to kiss her and I said
I love you...
Boom! Boom! Boom! Something exploded in the dark night sky
and tinkling sharp shards began to fall on us, and at once I
felt cold and uncomfortable. There were machine guns firing!
Again the guns rattled. "Down, Vousi," I yelled, although I
could not yet understand what was going on, and threw her down
on the ground and covered her with my body against the bullets,
whereupon blows began to rain on my face.
Bang, bang, rat-tat-tat-tat... around me people stood like
wooden pickets. Some were coming to and rolling their eyeballs
inanely. I was half reclining on a man's chest, which was as
hard as a bench, and right in front of my eyes was his open
mouth and chin glistening with saliva... Blue-green,
blue-green, blue-green... Something was missing.
There were piercing screams, cursing, someone thrashed and
screeched hysterically. A mechanical roar grew louder over the
square. I raised my head with difficulty. The panels were right
overhead, the blue and green flashing regularly, while the red
was extinguished and raining glass rubble. Rat-tat-tat-tat and
the green panel broke and darkened. In the blue remaining light
unhurried wings floated by, spewing the reddish lightning of a
Again I attempted to throw myself on the ground, but it
was impossible, as they all stood around me like pillars.
Something made an ugly snap quite near me, and a yellow-green
plume rose skyward from which puffed a repulsive stench. Pow!
Pow! Another two plumes hung over the square. The crowd howled
and stirred. The yellow vapor was caustic like mustard, my eyes
and mouth filled, and I began to cry and cough, and around me,
everyone began to cry and cough and yell hoarsely: "Lousy bums!
Scoundrels! Sock the Intels!" Again the roar of the engine
could be heard, coming in louder and louder. The airplane was
returning. "Down, you idiots," I yelled. Everyone around me
flopped down all over each other. Rat-tat-tat-tat! This time
the machine gunner missed and the string apparently got the
building opposite us. To make up for the miss, the gas bombs
fell again right on target. The lights around the square went
out, and with them the blue panel, as a free-for-all started in
the pitch-black dark.
I'll never know how I arrived at that fountain. It must be
that I have good instincts and ordinary cold water was exactly
what I needed. I crawled into the water without taking off my
clothes, and lay down, feeling better immediately. I was lying
on my back, drops rained on my face, and this was unbelievably
pleasant. It was quite dark here, and dim stars shone through
the branches and the water. It was very quiet. For several
minutes I was watching a brighter star, for some reason unknown
to me, which was slowly moving across the sky, until I realized
that I was watching the relay satellite Europa. How far from
all this, I thought, how degrading and senseless to remember
the revolting mess on the square, the disgusting foul mouthings
and screechings, the wet phrumping of the gas bombs, and the
putrid stench which turned your stomach and lungs inside out.
Understanding freedom as the rapid satisfaction and
multiplication of needs and desires, I recollected, people
distort their natures as they engender within themselves many
senseless and stupid desires, habits and the most unlikely
Priceless Peck, he loved to quote old pundit Zosima as he
circled around a well-laid table, rubbing his hands. We were
snot-nosed undergrads then and ingenuously believed that such
pronouncements, in our time, were meant only to show off
flashes of humor and erudition.... At this point in my
reflections, someone noisily plunged into the water some ten
paces from me.
At first he coughed hoarsely, spat and blew his nose, so
that I hurried to leave the water, then he started to splash,
finally became quiet, and suddenly discharged himself of a
string of curses:
"Shameless lice," he growled. "Whores, swine... on live
people! Stinking hyenas, rotten scum... learned prostitutes,
filthy snakes." He hawked furiously again. "It bothers them
that people are having a good time! Stepped on my face, the
crud!" He groaned nasally and painfully, "The hell with this
shiver business. That will be the day when I'll go again."
He moaned again and rose. I could hear the water running
from his clothes. I could dimly perceive his swaying figure. He
saw me too.
"Hey, friend, have a smoke on you?"
"I did," I replied.
"Low-lifers! I didn't think to take them out. Just fell in
with everything on." He splashed over to me and sat down
alongside. "Some moron stepped on my cheek," he informed me.
"They marched over me, too," I said. "The people went
"But, you tell me, where do they get the tear gas?" he
said. "And machine guns?"
"And airplanes," I added.
"An airplane means nothing," he contradicted. "I have one
myself. I bought it cheap for seven hundred crowns.... What do
they want, that's what I don't understand."
"Hoodlums," I said. "They should have their faces pulped
properly, and that would be the end of that argument."
He laughed bitterly.
"Someone did! For that you get worked over good.... You
think they didn't get beat up? And how they got beat up! But
apparently that isn't enough.... We should have driven them
right into the ground, together with their excrement, but we
passed up the chance.... And now they are giving us the
business! The people got soft, that's what, I tell you. Nobody
gives a damn. They put their four hours in, have a drink and
off to the shivers! And you can pot them like clay pigeons." He
slapped his sides in desperation. "Those were the times," he
cried. "They didn't dare open their mouths! Should one of them
even whisper, guys in black shirts or maybe white hoods would
pay a night visit, crunch him in the teeth, and off to the camp
he went, so there wouldn't be a peep out of him again.... In
the schools, my son says, everyone bad-mouths fascism: Oh dear,
they hurt the Negroes' feelings; oh dear, the scientists were
witch-hunted; oh dear, the camps; oh dear, the dictatorship!
Well, it wasn't witch-hunting that was needed, but to hammer
them into the ground, so there wouldn't be any left for
breeding!" He drew his hand under his nose, slurping long and
"Tomorrow morning, I have to go to work with my face all
out of shape.... Let's go have a drink, or we'll both catch
We crawled through the bushes and came out on the street.
"The Weasel is just around the corner," he informed me.
The Weasel was full of wet-haired half-naked people. They
seemed depressed, somehow embarrassed, and gloomily bragging
about their contusions and abrasions. Several young women, clad
only in panties, clustered around the electric fireplace,
drying their skirts. The men patted them platonically on their
bare flesh. My companion immediately penetrated into the thick
of the crowd, and swinging his arms and blowing his nose with
his fingers, began to call for "hammering the bastards into the
ground." He was getting some weak support.
I asked for Russian vodka, and when the girls left, I took
off my sport shirt and sat by the fireplace. The barman
delivered my glass and returned at once to his crossword in the
fat magazine. The public continued its conversation.
"So, what's the shooting for? Haven't we had enough of
shooting? Just like little boys, by God... just spoiling some
"Bandits, they're worse than gangsters, but like it or not
that shiver business is no good, too."
"That's right. The other day mine says to me, 'Papa, I saw
you; you were all blue like a corpse and very scary' -- and
she's only ten. So how can I look her in the eyes? Eh?"
"Hey anybody! What's an entertainment with four letters?"
asked the barman without raising his head.
"So, all right, but who dreamed all this up -- the shiver
and the aromatics? Eh and also..."
"If you got drenched, brandy is best."
"We were waiting for him on the bridge, and along he comes
with his eyeglasses and some kind of pipe with lenses in it. So
up he goes over the rail with his eyeglasses and his pipe, and
he kicked his legs once and that was that. And then old Snoot
comes running, after having been revived, and he looks at the
guy blowing bubbles. "Fellows," he says, "What the hell is the
matter with you, are you drunk or something, that's not the guy
-- I am seeing him for the first time..."
"I think there ought to be a law -- if you are married,
you can't go to the shiver."
"Hey somebody," again the bartender, "What's a literary
work with seven letters -- a booklet, maybe?"
"So, I myself had four Intels in my squad, machine gunners
they were. It's quite true that they fought like devils. I
remember we were retreating from the warehouse, you know
they're still building a factory there, and two stayed behind
to cover us. By the way, nobody asked them, they volunteered
entirely by themselves. Later we came back and found them
hanging side by side from the rail crane, naked, with all their
appurtenances ripped off with hot pincers. You understand? And
now, I'm thinking, where were the other two today? Maybe they
were the very same guys to treat me to some tear gas, those are
the types that can do such things."
"So who didn't get hung? We got hung by various places,
"Hammer them into the ground right up to their noses, and
that'll be the end of that!"
"I'm going. There is no point in hanging around here, I'm
getting heartburn. They must have fixed everything up by now,
"Hey, barman, girls, let's have one last one."
My shirt had dried, and as the cafe emptied, I pulled it
on and went over to sit at a table and to watch. Two
meticulously dressed gentlemen in the corner were sipping their
drinks through straws. They called attention to themselves
immediately -- both were in severe black suits and black ties,
despite the very warm night. They weren't talking, and one of
them constantly referred to his watch. After a while, I grew
tired of observing them. Well, Doctor Opir, how do you like the
shivers? Were you at the square? But of course you were not.
Too bad. It would have been interesting to know what you
thought of it. On the other hand, to the devil with you. What
do I care what Doctor Opir thinks? What do I think about it
myself? Well, high-grade barber's raw material, what do you
think? It's important to get acclimatized quickly
and not stuff the brain with induction, deduction, and
technical procedures. The most important thing is to get
acclimatized as rapidly as possible. To get to feel like one of
them.... There, they all went back to the square. Despite
everything that happened, they still went back to the square
again. As for me, I don't have the slightest desire to go back
there. I would, with the greatest of pleasure at this point, go
back to my room and check out my new bed. But when would I go
to the Fishers? Intels, Devon, and Fishers. Intels -- maybe
they are the local version of the Golden Youth? Devon... Devon
must be kept in mind, together with Oscar. But now the Fishers.
"The Fishers; that's a little bit vulgar," said one of the
black suits, not whispering, but very quietly.
"It all depends on temperament," said the other. "As for
me, personally I don't condemn Karagan in the slightest."
"You see, I don't condemn him either. It's a little
shocking that he picked up his options. A gentleman would not
have behaved that way."
"Forgive me, but Karagan is no gentleman. He is only a
general manager. Hence the small-mindedness and the
mercantilism and a certain what I might call commonness..."
"Let's not be so hard on him. The Fishers -- that's
something intriguing. And to be honest, I don't see any reason
why we should not involve ourselves. The old Subway -- that's
quite respectable. Wild is much more elegant than Nivele, but
we don't reject Nivele on that account."
"'You really are seriously considering?"
"Right now, if you wish.... It's five to two, by the way.
Shall we go?"
They got up, said a friendly and polite goodbye to the
bartender, and proceeded toward the exit. They looked elegant,
calm, and condescendingly remote. This was astounding luck. I
yawned loudly, and muttering, "Off to the square," followed
them, pushing stools out of my way. The street was poorly
illuminated, but I saw them immediately. They were in no hurry.
The one on the right was the shorter, and when they passed
under the street lights, you could see his safe, sparse hair.
As near as I could tell, they were no longer conversing.
They detoured the square, turned into a dark alley,
avoided a drunk who tried to strike up a conversation, and
suddenly, without one backward glance, turned abruptly into a
garden in front of a large gloomy house. I heard a heavy door
thud shut. It was a minute before two.
I pushed off the drunk, entered the garden, and sat down
on a silver-painted bench under a lilac bush. The wooden bench
was situated on a sandy path which ran through the garden. A
blue lamp illuminated the entrance of the house, and I
discerned two caryatids supporting the balcony over the door.
This didn't look like the entrance to the old subway, but as
yet, I couldn't tell for sure, so I decided to wait.
I didn't have to wait long. There was a rustle of steps
and a dark figure in a cloak appeared on the path. It was a
woman. I did not grasp immediately why her proudly raised head
with a high cylindrical coiffure, in which large stones
glistened in the starlight, seemed familiar. I arose to meet
her, and said, trying to sound both respectful and mocking,
"You are late, madam, it's after two."
She was not in the least startled.
"You don't say!" she exclaimed. "Can it be my watch is so
It was the very same woman who had the altercation with
the van driver, but of course she did not recognize me. Women
with such disdainful-looking lower lips never remember chance
meetings. I took her by the arm, and we mounted the wide stone
steps. The door turned out to be as heavy as a reactor-well
cover. There was no one in the entrance hall. The woman,
without turning, flung the cloak on my arm and went ahead, and
I paused for a second to look at myself in the huge mirror.
Good man, Master Gaoway, but it still behooved me to stay in
the shadows. We entered the ballroom.
No, this was anything but a subway. The room was enormous
and incredibly old-fashioned. The walls were lined with dark
wood, and fifteen feet up, there was a gallery with a railing.
Pink blond-curled angels smiled down with only their blue lips
from a far-flung ceiling. Almost the entire floor of the room
was covered with rows of soft massive chairs covered with
embossed leather. Elegantly dressed people, mostly middle-aged
men, sat in them in relaxed and negligent poses. They were
looking at the far end of the room, where a brightly lit
picture blazed against a background of black velvet.
No one turned to look at us. The woman glided toward the
front rows, and I sat down near the door. By now, I was almost
sure that I had come here for nothing. There was silence and
some coughs, and lazy streams of smoke curled upward from the
fat cigars; many bald pates glistened under the chandeliers. My
attention turned to the picture. I am an indifferent
connoisseur of paintings, but it looked like a Raphael, and if
it was not genuine, it was certainly a perfect copy.
There was a deep brassy gong, and simultaneously a tall,
thin man in a black mask appeared by the side of the picture. A
black leotard covered his body from head to toe. He was
followed by a limping, hunchbacked dwarf in a red smock. In his
short, extended pawlike arms, he held a dully glinting sword of
a most wicked appearance. He went to the right of the picture
and stood still, while the masked individual stepped forward
and spoke in a measured tone: "In accordance with the bylaws
and directives of the Honorable Society of Patrons, and in the
name of Art, which is holy and irreproducible, and the power
granted me by you, I have examined the history and worth of
this painting and now --"
"Request a halt," sounded a curt voice behind me.
Everyone turned around. I also turned around and saw that
three young, obviously very powerful, and immaculately dressed
men were looking at me full in the face. One had a monocle in
his right eye. We studied each other for a few seconds, and the
man with the monocle twitched his cheek and let it drop. I got
up at once. They moved toward me together, stepping softly and
soundlessly. I tried the chair, but it was too massive. They
jumped me. I met them as best I could and at first everything
went well, but very quickly it became evident that they wore
brass knuckles, and I barely managed to evade them. I pressed
my back against the wall and looked at them while they,
breathing heavily, looked at me. There were still two of them
left. There was the usual coughing in the auditorium. Four more
were coming down the gallery steps, which squeaked and groaned
loudly enough to reverberate in the hall. Bad business, thought
I, and launched myself to force a breach.
It was hard going, just like the time in Manila, but then
there were two of us. It would have been better if they were
armed, as I would have had a chance to expropriate a gun.
But all six of them met me with knuckles and truncheons.
Luckily for me it was very crowded. My left arm went out of
commission, and then the four suddenly jumped back, while the
fifth drenched me with a clammy liquid from a flat container.
Simultaneously, the lights were extinguished.
These tricks were well known to me: now they could see me,
but I could not see them. In all probability that would have
been the end of me, were it not that some idiot threw open the
door and announced in a greasy basso, "I beg forgiveness, I am
terribly late and so sorry..." I charged toward the light, over
some bodies, mowed down the latecomer, flew across the entrance
hall, threw open the front door, and pelted down the sandy path
holding my left arm with my right hand. No one was pursuing me,
but I traversed two blocks before it dawned on me to stop.
I flung myself down on a lawn and lay for a long time in
the short grass, grabbing lungfuls of the warm moist air. In no
time, the curious gathered around me. They stood in a
semicircle and ogled me avidly, not saying a word. "Take off,"
I said, getting up finally. Hurriedly, they scooted away. I
stood awhile, figuring out where I was, and began a stumbling
journey homeward. I had had enough for today. I still didn't
get it, but I had had quite enough. Whoever they were, these
members of the Honorable Society of Art Patrons -- secret art
worshippers, extant aristocrat-conspirators or whoever else --
they fought cruelly and without quarter, and the biggest fool
in that hall of theirs was still apparently none other than I.
I passed by the square, where again the color panels
pulsed rhythmically, and hundreds of hysterical voices
screamed, "Shi-vers! Shi-vers!" Of this too I had had enough.
Pleasant dreams are, of course, more attractive than unpleasant
ones, but after all, we do not live in a dream. In the
establishment where Vousi had taken me, I had a bottle of
ice-cold soda water, observed with curiosity a squad of police
peacefully camped by the bar, and went out, turning into Second
A lump the size of a tennis ball was rising behind my left
ear. I weaved badly and walked slowly, keeping close to the
fences. Later, I heard the tap of heels behind me and voices:
"... Your place is in the museum, not in a cabaret."
"Nothing of the sort, I am not drunk. Can't you
und-derstand, only one measly bottle of wine..."
"How disgusting! Soused and picking up a wench."
"What's the girl got to do with it? She is a m-model!"
"Fighting over a wench. Making us fight over her."
"Why in hell d-do you believe them and don't believe me?"
"Just because you're drunk! You're a bum, just like they
all are, maybe worse...."
"That's all right. I'll remember that scoundrel with the
bracelet quite well.... Don't hold me! I'll walk by myself!"
"You'll remember nothing, friend. Your glasses were
knocked off in the first instant, and without them, you aren't
even a man, but a blind sausage.... Stop kicking, or it will be
the fountain for you...."
"I'm warning you, one more stunt like that, and we'll
throw you out. A drunken kulturfuhrer -- it's enough to
make you sick."
"Stop preaching at him, give a man a chance to sleep it
"Fellows! There he is, the l-louse!"
The street was empty, and the louse was clearly me. I
could bend my left arm already, but it hurt like the devil, and
I stepped back to let them pass. There were three of them. They
were young, in identical caps, pushed over their eyes. One,
thickset and low-slung, was obviously amused and held the other
one, a tall, open-faced, loose-jointed fellow, with a powerful
grip, restraining his violent and sporadic movements. The
third, long and skinny, with a narrow and darkish face, was
following at some distance with his hands behind his back. As
he got alongside me, the loose-jointed one braked determinedly.
The short one attempted to nudge him off the spot, but in vain.
The long one passed by and then stopped, looking back
impatiently over his shoulder.
"Thought you were gonna get away, pig!" he yelled
drunkenly, attempting to seize me by the chest with his free
I retreated to the fence and said, addressing myself to
the short fellow, "I had no business with you."
"Stop being a rowdy," said the distant one sharply.
"I remember you very well indeed," yelled the drunk.
"You're not going to get away from me! I'll get even with you!"
He advanced upon me in surges, dragging the short one,
who hung on with bulldog grimness, behind him.
"It's not him," cajoled the low-slung one, who was still
very merry. "That guy went off to the shivers and this one is
"You won't fool me."
"I'm warning you for the last time. We are going to expel
"Got scared, the bum! Took off his bracelet."
"You can't even see him. You're worthless without your
"I can see everything pe-erfectly!... And even if he isn't
"Stop it! Enough is enough!"
The long one finally came back and grasped the drunk from
the other side.
"Will you move on!" he said to me with irritation, "Why
the devil are you stopping here! Haven't you ever seen a
"Oh, no! You aren't going to get away from me."
I continued on my way. I had not far to go by now. The
trio dragged along behind me noisily.
"I can see right through him, if you please. King of
Nature! Drunk enough to retch, and to beat up whoever comes
along. Got beat up himself, and that's all he needs.... Let go
of me, I'll hang a few good ones on his mug...."
"What have you come to, we have to walk you along like a
"So don't walk me!... I loathe them.... Shivers, wenches,
whiskey... brainless jelly..."
"Sure, sure, take it easy, just don't fall."
"Enough of your reproofs... I am sick of your hypocrisy,
your puritanism. We should blow them up, shoot them! Raze
everything off the face of the earth!"
"Drunk as a coot, and I thought he was sobered up!"
"I am sober. I remember everything... the twenty-eighth,
"Shut up, you fool."
"Shh! Right you are! The enemy is on the alert....
Fellows, there was a spy here somewhere.... Didn't I talk to
him?... The son of a bitch took off his bracelet... but I'll
get that dick before the twenty-eighth!"
"Will you be quiet!"
"Shh! And not another word. That's it! And don't worry,
the grenade launchers are my baby."
"I am going to kill him right now, the bum!"
"Lay it on the enemies of civilization.... Fifteen hundred
meters of tear gas -- personally... six sectors... awk!"
I was already by the gate to my house. When I turned
around to look, the burly man was lying face down, the short
one was squatting alongside, while the long fellow stood
rubbing the edge of his right hand.
"Why did you do that?" said the short man. "You must have
"Enough prattle," said the long one furiously. "We can't
seem to learn to stop prattling. We can't learn to stop
Let us be as children, Doctor Opir, thought I, slipping
into the yard as quietly as possible. I held the latch to keep
it from clicking into place.
"Where did he go?" said the long one, lowering his voice.
"The guy who went ahead of us."
"Turned off somewhere."
"Where? Did you notice?"
"Listen, I wasn't concerned about him."
"Too bad. But all right, pick him up, and let's go."
Stepping into the shadow of the apple trees, I watched
them drag the drunk by the gate. He was wheezing horribly.
The house was quiet. I went to my quarters, undressed, and
took a hot shower. My shirt and shorts smelled of tear gas and
were covered with the greasy spots of the luminous liquid. I
threw them into the hamper. Next, I inspected myself in the
mirror and marveled once more at how lightly I had gotten away:
a bump behind the ear, a sizable contusion on the left
shoulder, and some scraped ribs. Also skinned knuckles.
On the night table, I discovered a notice which
respectfully suggested that I deposit a sum to cover the rent
for the apartment for the first thirty days. The sum was quite
considerable, but tolerable. I counted out a few credits and
stuffed them into the thoughtfully provided envelope, and then
lay down on the bed with my hands behind my head. The sheets
were cool and crisp, and a salty sea breeze blew in through the
open window. The phonor susurrated cozily behind my ear. I
intended to think awhile before falling asleep, but was too
exhausted and quickly dozed off.
Later, some noise in the background awakened me, and I
grew alert and listened with eyes wide open.
Somewhere nearby, someone either cried or sang in a thin
childish voice. I got up cautiously and leaned out the open
window. The thin halting voice was intoning: "... having stayed
in the grave but a short time, they come out and live among the
living as though alive." There was the sound of sobs. From far
away like the keening of a mosquito came the chant "Shi-vers!
Shi-vers!" The pitiable little voice went on -- "Blood and
earth mixed together they can't eat." I thought that it was
Vousi, drunk and lamenting upstairs in her room, and called out
softly, "Vousi!" No one replied, The thin voice cried out:
"Hence from my hair, hence from my flesh, hence from my bones,"
and I knew who it was. I climbed over the window sill, jumped
onto the lawn, and went to the apple grove, listening to the
sobbing. Light appeared through the trees, and soon I came to a
garage. The doors were cracked open and I looked in. Inside was
a huge shiny Opel. Two candles were burning on the workbench.
There was a smell of gasoline and hot wax.
Under the candles, seated on a work stool, was Len,
dressed in a full-length white gown, in bare feet, with a
thick, well-worn book on his knees. He regarded me with
wide-open eyes, his face completely white and frozen with
"What are you doing here?" I said loudly and entered.
He continued to look at me in silence and started to
tremble. I could hear his teeth chattering.
"Len, old friend," I said, "I guess you didn't recognize
me. It's me -- Ivan."
He dropped the book and hid his hands in his armpits. As
earlier today, in the morning, his face beaded with cold sweat.
I sat down alongside of him and put my arm around his
shoulders. He collapsed against me weakly. He shook all over. I
looked at the book. A certain Doctor Neuf had blessed the human
race with An Introduction to the Science of Necrological
Phenomena. I kicked the book under the bench.
'Whose ear is that?" I asked loudly.
"A very nice Ford."
"It's not a Ford. It's an Opel."
"You're right -- it is an Opel... a couple of hundred
miles per hour I would guess..."
"Where did you get the candles?"
"I bought them."
"Is that right! I didn't know that they sold candles in
our time. Is your bulb burned out? I went out in the garden,
you know, to get an apple off a tree, and then I saw the light
in the garage."
He moved closer to me and said, "Don't leave for a while
yet, will you?"
"OK. What do you say we blow out the lights and go to my
"No, I can't go there."
"Where can't you go?"
"In the house and to your place." He was talking with
tremendous conviction. "For quite a while yet. Until they fall
"Who are -- they?"
"They -- you hear?"
I listened. There was only the rustle of branches in the
wind and somewhere very far away the cry of: "Shi-vers!
"I don't hear anything special," I said.
"That's because you don't know. You are new here and
they don't bother the new ones."
"But who are they, after all?"
"All of them. You've seen the fink with the buttons?"
"Pete? Yes, I saw him. But why is he a fink? In my
opinion, he's an entirely respectable man."
Len jumped up.
"Come on," he said in a whisper, "I'll show you. But be
We came out of the garage, crept up to the house, and
turned a corner. Len held my hand all the time; his palm was
cold and wet..
"There -- look," he said.
Sure enough, the sight was frightening. My customs friend
was lying on the porch with his head stuck at an unnatural
angle through the railing. The mercury vapor light from the
street fell on his face, which looked blue and swollen, and
covered with dark welts. Through half-open lids, the eyes could
be seen, crossed toward the bridge of the nose.
'They walk among the living, like living people in the
daytime," murmured Len, holding on to me with both hands. "They
bow and smile, but at night their faces are white, and blood
seeps through their skin." I approached the veranda. The
customs man was dressed in pajamas. He breathed noisily and
exuded a smell of cognac. There was blood on his face, as
though he'd fallen on his face into some broken glass.
"He's just drunk," I said loudly. "Simply drunk and
snoring. Very disgusting."
Len shook his head.
"You are a newcomer," he whispered. "You see nothing. But
I saw." He shook again. "Many of them came. She brought them...
and they carried her in... there was a moon... they sawed off
the top of her head... and she screamed and screamed... and
then they started to eat with spoons. She ate, too, and they
all laughed when she screamed and flopped around..."
"Who? Who was it?"
"And then they piled on wood and burned it and danced
around the fire... and then they buried everything in the
garden... she went out to get the shovel in the car... I saw it
all... do you want to see where they buried her?"
"You know what, friend?" I said. "Let's go to my place."
"To get some sleep, that's what for. Everyone is sleeping
-- only you and I are palavering here."
"Nobody is sleeping. You really are new. Right now no one
is sleeping. You must not sleep now."
"Let's go, let's go," said I, "over to my place."
"I won't go," he said. "Don't touch me. I didn't say your
"I am going to take a belt," I said menacingly, "and I
will strap your behind."
Apparently this calmed him. He clutched my hand again and
"Let's go, old pal, let's go," I said. "You're going to
sleep and I will sit alongside you. And if anything at all
happens, I will awaken you at once."
We climbed into my room through the window (he absolutely
refused to enter the house by the front door), and I put him to
bed. I intended to tell him a tale, but he fell asleep
immediately. His face looked tortured, and every few minutes he
quivered in his sleep. I pushed the chair by the window,
wrapped myself in a bathrobe, and smoked a cigarette to calm my
nerves. I attempted to think about Rimeyer and about the
Fishers, with whom I had not met up after all; about what must
happen on the twenty-eighth; and about the Art Patrons, but
nothing came of it and this irritated me. It was annoying that
I was unable to think about my business as something of
importance. The thoughts scattered and jumbled emotions
intruded, and I did not think so much as I felt. I felt that I
hadn't come for nothing, but at the same time, I sensed that I
had come for altogether the wrong reason.
But Len slept. He did not even awake when an engine
snorted at the gate, car doors were slammed, there were shouts,
chokes, and howls in different voices, so that I almost decided
that a crime was being committed in front of the house, when it
became clear that it was just Vousi coming back. Happily
humming, she began to undress while still in the garden,
negligently draping her blouse, skirt, and other garments over
the apple branches. She didn't notice me, came into the house,
shuffled around upstairs for a while, dropped something heavy,
and finally settled down. It was close to five o'clock. The
glow of dawn was kindling over the sea.
When I woke up, Len was already gone. My shoulder ached so
badly that the pain pounded in my head, and I promised myself
to take it easy the whole day. Grunting and feeling sick and
forlorn, I executed a feeble attempt at set-ting-up exercises,
approximated a wash-up, took the envelope with the money, and
set out far Aunt Vaina, moving edge-wise through the doorway.
In the hall, I stopped in indecision: it was quiet in the
house, and I wasn't sure that my landlady was up. But at this
point the door to her side of the house opened, and Pete, the
customs man, came out into the hall. Well, well, thought I. At
night he had looked like a drowned drunk. Now in the light of
day, he resembled a victim of a hooligan attack. The lower part
of his face was dark with blood. Fresh blood glistened on his
chin, and he held a handkerchief under his jaw to keep his
snow-white braided uniform clean. His face was strained and his
eyes tended to cross, but in general, he held himself
remarkably calm, as though falling face-down into broken glass
was a most ordinary event for him. A slight misadventure, you
know, can happen to anybody; please don't pay it any attention;
every-thing will be all right.
"Good morning," I mumbled.
"Good morning," he responded, politely dabbing his chin
cautiously and sounding a bit nasal.
"Anything the matter? Can I help?"
"A trifle," he said. ' The chair fell."
He bowed courteously, and passing by me, unhurriedly left
the house. I observed his departure with a thoroughly
unpleasant feeling, and when I turned back toward the door, I
found Aunt Vaina standing in front of me. She stood in the
doorway, gracefully leaning on the jamb, all clean, rosy, and
perfumed, and looking at me as though I was Major General Tuur
or, at least, Staff Major Polom.
"Good morning, early bird," she cooed. "I was puzzled --
who would be talking at this hour?"
"I couldn't bring myself to disturb you," I said,
shuddering fashionably and mentally howling at the pain in my
shoulder. "Good morning, and may I take the }liberty to hand
"How nice! You can tell a real gentleman right away. Major
General Tuur used to say that a true gentleman never makes
anyone wait. Never. Nobody..."
I became aware that slowly but very persistently, she was
herding me away from her door. The living room was darkened,
with the drapes apparently drawn, and some strange sweet smell
was wafting out of it into the hall.
"But you did not have to be in such a rush, really..."
She was finally in a convenient position to close the door
with a smooth negligent gesture. "However, you can be sure that
I will value your promptness appropriately. Vousi is still
asleep, and it's time for me to get Len off to school. So if
you will excuse me... By the way, we have the newspapers on the
"Thank you," I said, retreating.
"If you'll have the patience, I would like to ask you to
join me for breakfast and a cup of cream."
"Unfortunately, I will have to be going," I said, bowing
As to newspapers, there were six. Two local, illustrated,
fat as almanacs; one from the capital; two luxurious weeklies;
and, for some reason, the Arab El Gunia. The last I put
aside, and sifted through the others, accompanying the news
with sandwiches and hot cocoa.
In Bolivia, government troops, after stubborn fighting,
had occupied the town of Reyes. The rebels were pushed across
the River Beni. In Moscow, at the international meeting of
nuclear physicists, Haggerton and Soloviev announced a project
for a commercial installation to produce anti-matter. The
Tretiakoff Gallery had arrived in Leopoldville, official
opening being scheduled for tomorrow. The scheduled series of
pilotless craft had been launched from the Staryi Vostok base
on Pluto into the totally free flight zone; communications with
two of the craft were temporarily disrupted. The General
Secretary of the UN had directed an official message to
Orolianos, in which he warned that in the event of a repetition
of the use of atomic grenades by the extremists, UN police
forces would be introduced into Eldorado. In Central Angola, at
the sources of the River Kwando, an archaeological expedition
of the Academy of Sciences of the UAR had uncovered the remains
of a cyclopean construction, apparently dating from well before
the ice age. A group of specialists of the United Center for
the Investigation of Subelectronic (Ritrinitive) Structures had
evaluated the energy reserves available to mankind as
sufficient for three billion years. The cosmic branch of Unesco
had announced that the relative population growth of
extraterrestrial centers and bases now approached the
population growth on Earth. The head of the British delegation
to the UN had put forth a proposal, in the name of the great
powers, for the total demilitarization, by force if need be, of
the remaining militarized regions on the globe.
Information about how many kilos were pressed by whom and
about who drove how many balls through whose goal posts I did
not bother to read. Of the local announcements, I was intrigued
by three. The local paper, Joy of Life, reported: "Last night a
group of evil-minded men again carried out a private plane raid
on Star Square, which was full of citizens taking their
leisure. The hooligans fired several machine-gun bursts and
dropped eleven gas bombs. As a result of the ensuing panic,
several men and women suffered severe injuries. The normal
recreation of hundreds of respectable people was disrupted by a
small group of bandit (excuse the term) intelligentsia with the
obvious connivance of the police. The president of the Society
for the Good Old Country Against Evil Influences informed our
correspondent that the Society intended to take into its own
hands the matter of the protection of the well-earned rest of
fellow citizens. In no equivocal manner, the president let it
be known whom specifically the people regarded as the source of
the harmful infection, banditism, and militarized
On page twelve, the paper devoted a column to an article
by "the outstanding proponent of the latest philosophy, the
laureate of many literary prizes, Doctor Opir." The treatise
was titled "World Without Worry." With beautiful words and most
convincingly indeed, Doctor Opir established the omnipotence of
science, called for optimism, derided gloomy skeptics and
denigrators, and invited all "to be as children." He assigned a
specially important role in the formation of contemporary
(i.e., anxiety-free) psychology to electric wave
psychotechnics. "Recollect what a wonderful charge of vigor and
good feeling is imparted by a bright, happy, and joyful dream!"
exclaimed this representative of the latest philosophy. "It is
no wonder that sleep has been known for over a hundred years to
be a curative agent for many psychic disturbances. But we are
all a touch ill: we are sick with our worries, we are overcome
by the trivia of daily routine, we are irritated by the rare
but still remaining few malfunctions, the inevitable frictions
among individuals, the normal healthy sexual unsatisfiedness,
the dissatisfaction with self which is so common in the makeup
of each person. ... As fragrant bath salts wash away the dust
of travel from our tired bodies, so does a joyful dream wash
away and purify a tired psyche. So now, we no longer have to
fear any anxieties or malfunctions. We well know that at the
appointed hour, the invisible radiation of the dream generator,
which together with the public I tend to call by the familiar
name of 'the shivers,' will heal us, fill us with optimism, and
return to us the wonderful feeling of the joy of being alive."
Further, Doctor Opir expounded that the shivers were absolutely
harmless physically and psychologically, and that the attacks
of detractors who wished to see in the shivers a resemblance to
narcotics and who demagogically ranted about a "doped mankind,"
could not but arouse in us a painful incomprehension, and,
conceivably, some stronger public-spirited emotions that could
be dangerous to the malevolently inclined citizens. In
conclusion, Doctor Opir pronounced a happy dream to be the best
kind of rest, vaguely hinted that the shivers constituted the
best antidote to alcoholism and drug addiction, and insistently
warned that the shivers should not be confused with other (not
medically approved) methods of electric wave application.
The weekly Golden Days informed the public that a valuable
canvas, ascribed in the opinion of experts to the gifted band
of Raphael, had been stolen from the National Art Galleries.
The weekly called the attention of the authorities to the fact
that this criminal act was the third during the past four
months of this year, and that neither of the previously stolen
works of art had ever been found.
All in all, there was really nothing to read in the
weeklies. I glanced through them quickly, and they left me with
the most depressing impression.
All were filled with desolate witticisms, artless
caricatures, among which the "captionless" series stood out
with particular imbecility, with biographies of dim
personalities, slobbering sketches of life in various layers of
society, nightmarish series of photos with such titles as "Your
husband at work and at home," endless amounts of useful advice
on how to occupy your time without, God forbid, burdening your
head, passionately idiotic sallies against alcoholism,
hooliganism, and debauchery, and calls to join clubs and
choruses with which I was already familiar. There were also
memoirs of participants in the "fracas" and in the struggle
against organized crime, which were served up in the literary
style of jackasses totally lacking in taste or conscience.
These were obviously exercises of addicts of literary
sensationalism, loaded with suffering and tears, magnificent
feats and saccharine futures. There were endless crosswords,
chainwords, rebuses, and puzzle pictures.
I flung the pile of papers into the corner. What a dreary
place they had here! The boob was coddled, the boob was
lovingly nurtured, and the boob was cultivated; the boob had
become the norm; a little more and he would become the ideal,
while jubilant doctors of philosophy would exultantly dance
attendance upon him. But the papers were in full choreographic
swing even now. Oh, what a wonderful boob we have! Such an
optimistic boob, and such an intelligent boob, such a healthy
alert boob, and with such a fine sense of humor; and oh boob,
how well and adroitly you can solve crossword puzzles! But most
important of all, boob, don't you worry about a thing,
everything is quite all right, everything is just dandy,
everything is in your service, the science and the literature,
just so you can be amused and don't have to think about a
thing.... As for those seditious skeptics and hoodlums, boob,
we'll take care of them! With your help, we can't help but take
care of them! What are they complaining about, anyway? Do they
have more needs than other people?
Dreariness and desolation! There had to be some curse upon
these people, some awful predilection for dangers and
disasters. Imperialism, fascism, tens of millions of people
killed and lives destroyed, including millions of these same
boobs, guilty and innocent, good and bad. The last skirmishes,
the last putsches, especially pitiless because they were the
last. Criminals, the military driven berserk by prolonged
uselessness, all kinds of leftover trash from intelligence and
counterintelligence, bored by the sameness of commercial
espionage, all slavering for power. Again we were forced to
return from space, to come out of our laboratories and
factories, to call back our soldiers. And we managed it again.
The zephyr was gently turning the pages of History of
Fascism by my feet. But hardly had we had the time to savor
the cloudless horizons, when out of these same sewers of
history crept the scum with submachine guns, homemade quantum
pistols, gangsters, syndicates, gangster corporations, gangster
empires. "Minor malfunctions are still encountered here and
there," soothed and calmed Doctor Opir, while napalm bottles
flew through university windows, cities were seized by bands of
outlaws, and museums burned like candles.... All right.
Brushing aside Doctor Opir and his kind, once again we came out
of space, out of the labs and factories, recalled the soldiers,
and once again managed the problem. And again the skies were
clear. Once more the Opirs were out, the weeklies were purring,
and once more filth was flowing out of the same sewers. Tons of
heroin, cisterns of opium, and oceans of alcohol, and beyond
all that something new, something for which we had no name....
Again everything was hanging by a thread for them, and boobs
were solving crosswords, dancing the fling, and desired but one
thing: to have fun. But somewhere idiot children were being
born, people were going insane, some were dying strangely in
bathtubs, some were dying no less strangely with some group
called the Fishers, while art patrons defended their passion
for art with brass knuckles. And the weeklies were attempting
to cover this foul-smelling bog with a crust, fragile as a
meringue, of cloyingly sweet prattle, and this or that
diplomaed fool glorified sweet dreams, and thousands of idiots
surrendered with relish to dreams in lieu of drunkenness (so
that they need not think)... and again the boobs were persuaded
that all was well, that space was being developed at an
unprecedented pace (which was true), and that sources of energy
would last for billions of years (which was also true), that
life was becoming unquestionably more interesting and varied
(which was also undoubtedly true, but not for boobs), while
demagogue-denigrators (real-thinking men who considered that in
our times any drop of pus could infect the whole of mankind, as
once upon a time a beer putsch turned into a world menace) were
foreign to the people's interests and deserved of universal
condemnation. Boobs and criminals, criminals and boobs.
"Have to work at it," I said aloud. "To hell with
melancholy! We'd show you skeptics!"
It was time to go see Rimeyer. Although there were the
Fishers. But all right, the Fishers could be attended to later.
I was tired of poking around in the dark. I went out in the
yard. I could hear Aunt Vaina feeding Len.
"But, Mom, I don't want any!"
"Eat, son, you must eat. You are so pale."
"I don't want to. Disgusting lumps l"
"What lumps? Here, let me have some myself! Mm! Delicious!
Just try some and you'll see it's very tasty."
"But I don't want any! I'm ill, I'm not going to school."
"Len, what are you saying? You've skipped a lot of days as
"What do you mean, so what? The director has already
called me twice. We'll be fined."
"Let them fine us!"
"Eat, son, eat. Maybe you didn't get enough sleep?"
"I didn't. And my stomach hurts... and my head... and my
tooth, this one here, you see?"
Len's voice sounded peevish, and I immediately visualized
his pouting lips and his swinging stockinged foot.
I went out the gate. The day was again clear and sunny,
full of bird twitter. It was still too early, so that on my way
to the Olympic, I met only two people. They walked together by
the curb, monstrously out of place in the joyful world of green
branch and clear blue sky. One was painted vermilion and the
other bright blue. Sweat beaded through the paint on their
bodies. Their breaths heaved through open mouths and the
protruding eyes were bloodshot. Unconsciously I unbuttoned all
the buttons of my shirt and breathed with relief when this
strange pair passed me.
At the hotel I went right up to the ninth floor. I was in
a very determined mood. Whether Rimeyer wanted to or not, he
would have to tell me everything I wanted to know. As a matter
of fact, I needed him now for other things as well. I needed a
listener, and in this sunny bedlam I could talk openly only to
him, so far. True, this was not the Rimeyer I had counted on,
but this too had to be talked cut in the end....
The red-headed Oscar stood by the door to Rimeyer's suite,
and, seeing him, I slowed my steps. He was adjusting his tie,
gazing pensively at the ceiling. He looked worried.
"Greetings," I said -- I had to start somehow.
He wiggled his eyebrows and looked me over, and I was
aware that he remembered me. He said slowly, "How do you do."
"You want to see Rimeyer, too?" l asked.
"Rimeyer is not feeling well," he said. He stood hard by
the door and apparently had no intention of letting me by.
"A pity," I said, moving up on him. "And what is his
"He is feeling very bad."
"Oh, oh!" I said. "Someone should have a look."
I was now right up against Oscar. It was obvious he was
not about to give way. My shoulder responded at once with a
flare of pain.
"I am not sure it's all that necessary," he said.
"What do you mean? Is it really that bad?"
"Exactly. Very bad. And you shouldn't bother him. Not
today, or any other day!"
It seems I arrived in time, I thought, and hopefully not
"Are you a relative of his?" I asked. My attitude was most
"I am his friend. His closest friend in this town. A
childhood friend, you might say."
'This is most touching," I said. "But I am his relative.
Same as a brother. Let's go in together and see what his friend
and brother can do for poor Rimeyer."
"Maybe his brother has already done enough for Rimeyer."
"Really now... I only arrived yesterday."
"You wouldn't, by any chance, have other brothers around
"I don't think there are any among your friends, with the
exception of Rimeyer."
While we were carrying on with this nonsense, I was
studying him most carefully. He didn't look too nimble a type
-- even considering my defective shoulder. But he kept his
hands in his pockets all the time, and although I didn't think
he would risk shooting in the hotel, I was not of a mind to
chance it. Especially as I had heard of quantum dischargers
with limited range.
I have been told critically many times that my intentions
are always clearly readable on my face. And Oscar was
apparently an adequately keen observer. I was coming to the
conclusion that he obviously did not have anything there at
all, that the hands-in-the-pocket act was a bluff. He moved
aside and said, "Go on in."
We entered. Rimeyer was indeed in a bad way. He lay on the
couch covered with a torn drape, mumbling in delirium. The
table was overturned, a broken bottle stained the middle of the
floor, and wet clothes were strewn all over the room. I
approached Rimeyer and sat down by him so as not to lose sight
of Oscar, who stood by the window, half-sitting on the sill.
Rimeyer's eyes were open. I bent over him.
"Rimeyer," I called. "It's Ivan. Do you recognize me?"
He regarded me dully. There was a fresh cut on his chin
under the stubble.
"So you got there already..." he muttered. "Don't prolong
the Fishers... doesn't happen... don't take it so hard ...
bothered me a lot... I can't stand..."
It was pure delirium. I looked at Oscar. He listened with
interest, his neck stretched out.
"Bad when you wake up..." mumbled Rimeyer. "Nobody... wake
up... they start... then they don't wake up..."
I disliked Oscar more and more. I was annoyed that he
should be hearing Rimeyer's ravings. I didn't like his being
here ahead of me. And again, I didn't like that cut on
Rimeyer's chin -- it was quite fresh. How can I be rid of you,
red-haired mug, I wondered.
"We should call a doctor," I said. "Why didn't you call a
doctor, Oscar? I think it's delirium tremens."
I regretted the words immediately. To my considerable
surprise, Rimeyer did not smell of alcohol at all, and Oscar
apparently knew it. He grinned and said, "Delirium tremens? Are
"We have to call a doctor at once," I said. "Also, get a
I put my hand on the phone. He jumped up instantly and put
his hand on mine.
"Why should you do it?" he said. "Better let me call a
doctor. You are new here and I know an excellent doctor."
"Well, what kind of a doctor is he?" I objected, studying
the cut on his knuckles -- which was also quite new.
"An exemplary doctor. Just happens to be a specialist on
Rimeyer said suddenly, "So I commanded... also
spracht Rimeyer... alone with the world..."
We turned to look at him. He spoke haughtily, but his eyes
were closed, and his face, draped in loose, gray skin, seemed
pathetic. That swine Oscar, I thought, where does he get the
gall to linger here? A sudden wild thought flashed through my
head -- it seemed at that moment exceedingly well conceived: to
disable Oscar with a blow to the solar plexus, tie him up, and
force him then and there to expose everything he knew. He
probably knew quite a lot. Possibly everything. He looked at
me, and in his pale eyes was a blend of fear and hatred.
"All right," I said. "Let the hotel call the doctor."
He removed his hand and I called service. While waiting
for the doctor, I sat by Rimeyer, and Oscar walked from corner
to corner, stepping over the liquor puddle. I followed him out
of the corner of my eye. Suddenly he stooped and picked up
something off the floor. Something small and multicolored.
"What have you got there?" I inquired indifferently.
He hesitated a bit and then threw a small flat box with a
polychrome sticker on my knees.
"Ah!" I said, and looked at Oscar. "Devon."
"Devon," he responded. "Strange that it's here rather than
in the bathroom."
The devil, I thought. Maybe I was still too green to
challenge him openly. I still knew but very little of this
"Nothing strange about that," I said at random. "I believe
you distribute that repellent. It's probably a sample which
fell out of your pocket."
"Out of my pocket?" He was astonished. "Oh, you think that
I... But I finished my assignments a long time ago, and now I'm
just taking it easy. But if you're interested, I can be of some
That s very interesting, I said. "I will consult --"
Unfortunately, the door flew open at this point, and a
doctor accompanied by two nurses entered the room.
The doctor turned out to be a decisive individual. He
gestured me off the couch and flung the drape off Rimeyer. He
was completely naked.
"Well, of course," said the doctor. "Again..."
He raised Rimeyer's eyelid, pulled down his lower lip, and
felt his pulse. "Nurse - cordeine! And call some chambermaids
and have them clean out these stables till they shine." He
stood up and looked at me. "A relative?"
"Yes," I said, while Oscar kept still.
"You found him unconscious?"
"He was delirious," said Oscar.
"You carried him out here?"
"I only covered him with the drape," he said. "When I
arrived, he was lying as he is now. I was afraid he would catch
The doctor regarded him for a while, and then said, "In
any case, it is immaterial. Both of you can go. A nurse will
stay with him. You can call this evening. Goodbye."
"What is the matter with him, Doctor?" I asked.
"Nothing special. Overtired, nervous exhaustion... besides
which he apparently smokes too much. Tomorrow he can be moved,
and you can take him home with you. It would be unhealthy for
him to stay here with us. There are too many amusements here.
We went out into the corridor.
"Let's go have a drink," I said.
"You forgot that I don't drink," corrected Oscar.
"Too bad. This whole episode has upset me. I'd like a
snort. Rimeyer always was such a healthy specimen."
"Well, lately he has slipped a lot," said Oscar carefully.
"Yes, I hardly recognized him when I saw him yesterday."
"Same here," said Oscar. He didn't believe a word of it,
and neither did I.
"Where are you staying?" I asked.
"Right here," said Oscar. "On the floor below, number
"Too bad that you don't drink. We could go to your room
and have a good talk."
"Yes, that wouldn't be a bad idea. But, regretfully, I am
in a great rush." He was silent awhile. "Let me have your
address. Tomorrow morning, I'll be back and drop in to see you.
About ten -- will that suit you? Or you can ring me up."
"Why not?" I said and gave him my address. "To be honest
with you, I am quite interested in Devon."
"I think we'll be able to come to an understanding," said
Oscar. "Till tomorrow!"
He ran down the stairs. Apparently he really was in a
hurry. I went down in the elevator and sent off a telegram to
Matia: "Brother very ill, feeling very lonesome, but keeping up
spirits, Ivan." I truly did feel very much alone. Rimeyer was
out of the game again, at least for a day. The only hint he had
given me was the advice about the Fishers. I had nothing more
definite. There were the Fishers, who were located somewhere in
the old subway; there was Devon, which in same peripheral way
could have something to do with my business, but also could
just as well have no connection with it at all; there was
Oscar, clearly connected with Devon and Rimeyer, a player
sufficiently ominous and repulsive, but undoubtedly only one of
many such unpleasant types on the local cloudless horizons;
then again there was a certain "Buba," who supplied pore-nose
with Devon.... After all, I have been here just twenty-four
hours, I thought. There is time. Also, I could still count on
Rimeyer in the final analysis, and there was the possibility of
finding Peck. Suddenly I remembered the events of the night
before and sent a wire to Sigmund: "Amateur concert on the
twenty-eighth, details unknown, Ivan." Then I beckoned to a
porter and inquired as to the shortest way to the old subway.
"You would do better to come at night. It's too early
"I prefer now."
"Can't wait, eh? Perhaps you've got the wrong address?"
"Oh no, I haven't got it wrong."
"You must have it now, you are sure?"
"Yes, now and not later."
He clicked his tongue and pulled on his lower lip. He was
short, well knit, with a round shaved head. He spoke
hardly moving his tongue and rolling his eyes languidly under
the lids. I thought he had not had enough sleep. His companion,
sitting behind the railing in an easy chair, apparently also
had missed some. But he did not utter a word and didn't even
look in my direction. It was a gloomy place, with stale air and
warped panels which had sprung away from the walls. A bulb,
dimmed with dust, hung shadeless from the ceiling on a dirty
"Why not come later?" said the round-head. "When everybody
"I just got the urge," I said diffidently.
"Got the urge..." He searched in his table drawer. "I
don't even have a form left. Eli, do you have some?"
The latter, without breaking his silence, bent over and
pulled out a crumpled sheet of paper from somewhere near the
The round-head said, yawning, "Guys that come at break of
day... nobody here... no girls... they're still in bed." He
proffered the form. "Fill it out and sign. Eli and I will sign
as witnesses. Turn in your money. Don't worry, we keep it
honest. Do you have any documents?"
"That's good, too."
I scanned the form. "In open deposition and of my own
free will, I, the undersigned, in the presence of
witnesses, earnestly request to be subjected to the initiation
trials toward the mutual quest of membership in the Society of
VAL." There were blank spaces for signature of applicant and
signatures of witnesses.
"What is VAL?" I asked.
"That's the way we are registered," answered round-head.
He was counting my money.
"But how do you decipher it?"
"Who knows? That was before my time. It's VAL, that's all
there is to it. Maybe you know, Eli?" Eli shook his bead
lazily. "Well, really, what do you care?"
"You are absolutely right." I inserted my name and signed.
Round-head looked it over, signed it, and passed the form
"You look like a foreigner," he said.
"In that case, add your home address. Do you have
"Well then, you don't have to. All set, Eli? Put it in the
folder. Shall we go?"
He lifted up the gate in the railway and walked me over to
a massive square door, probably left over from the days when
the subway had been fitted out as an atomic shelter.
"There is no choice," he said as though in self-defense.
He pulled the slides and turned a rusty handle with
considerable effort. "Go straight down the corridor and then
you'll see for yourself."
I thought that I heard Eli snickering behind him. I turned
around. A small screen was fitted in the railing in front of
Eli. Something was moving on the screen, but I could not see
what it was. Round-bead put all his weight on the handle and
swung back the door. A dusty passage became visible. For a few
seconds he listened and then said, "Straight down this
"What will I find there?" I said.
"You'll get what you were looking for. Or have you changed
All of which was clearly not what I was looking for, but
as is well known, nobody knows anything until he has tried it
himself I stepped over the high sill and the door shut behind
me with a clang. I could hear the latches screeching home.
The corridor was lit by a few surviving lamps. It was
damp, and mold grew an the cement walls. I stood still awhile,
listening, but there was nothing to be heard but the infrequent
tap of water drops. I moved forward cautiously. Cement rubble
crunched underfoot. Soon the corridor came to an end, and I
found myself in a vaulted, poorly lit concrete tunnel. When my
eyes accommodated to the darkness, I discerned a set of tracks.
The rails were badly rusted and puddles of dark water gleamed
motionless along their length. Sagging cables hung from the
ceiling. The dampness seeped to the marrow of my bones. A
repulsive stench of sewer and carrion filled my nostrils. No,
this was not what I was looking for. I was not of a mind to
fritter away my time and thought of going back and telling them
that I would be back some other time. But first, simply out of
curiosity, I decided to take a short walk along the tunnel. I
went to the right toward the light of distant bulbs. I jumped
puddles, stumbled over the rotting ties, and got entangled in
loose wires. Reaching a lamp, I stopped again.
The rails had been removed. Ties were strewn along the
walls, and holes filled with water gaped along the right of
way. Then I saw the rails. I have never seen rails in such a
condition. Some were twisted into corkscrews. They were
polished to a high shine and reminded me of gigantic drill
bits. Others were driven with titanic force into the floor and
walls of the tunnel. A third group were tied into knots. My
skin crawled at this sight. Some were simple knots, some with a
single bow, some with a double bow like shoelaces. They were
mauve and brown.
I looked ahead into the depths of the tunnel. The smell of
rotting carrion wafted out of it, and the dim yellow lights
winked rhythmically as though something swayed in the draft,
covering and uncovering them periodically. My nerves gave way.
I felt that this was nothing more than a stupid joke, but I
couldn't control myself. I squatted down and looked around. I
soon found what I was looking for -- a yard-long piece of
reinforcing rod. I stuck it under my arm and went ahead. The
iron was wet and cold and rough with rust.
The reflection of the winking lights glinted on slippery
wet walls. I had noticed some time back the round,
strange-looking marks on them, but at first did not pay them
any attention. Then I became interested and examined them more
closely. As far as the eye could reach, there were two sets of
round prints on the walls at one-meter intervals. It looked as
though an elephant had run along the wall -- and not too long
ago at that. On the edge of one of the prints, the remains of a
crushed centipede still struggled feebly. Enough, I thought,
time to go back. I looked along the tunnel. Now I could plainly
see the swaying curves of black cables under the lamps. I took
a better grip on the rod and went ahead, holding close to the
The whole thing was getting through to me. The cables
sagged under the arch of the tunnel, and on them, tied by their
tails into hairy clusters, hung hundreds upon hundred of dead
rats, swaying in the draft. Tiny teeth glinted horribly in the
semi-dark, and rigid little legs stuck out in all directions.
The clusters stretched in long obscene garlands into the
distance. A thick, nauseating stench oozed from under the arch
and flowed along the tunnel, as palpable as glutinous jelly.
There was a piercing screech and a huge rat scurried
between my feet. And then another and another. I backed up.
They were fleeing from there, from the dark where there was not
a single lamp. Suddenly, warm air came pulsing from the same
direction. I felt a hollow space with my elbow and pressed
myself into the niche. Something live squirmed and squeaked
under my heel; I swung my iron rod without looking. I had no
time for rats, because I could hear something running heavily
but softly along the tunnel, splashing in the puddles. It was a
mistake to get involved in this business, thought I. The iron
rod seemed very light and insignificant in comparison with the
bow-tied rails. This was no flying leech, nor a dinosaur from
the Kongo... don't let it be a giganto-pithek, I thought,
anything but a giganto-pithek. These donkeys would have the wit
to catch one and let it loose in the tunnel. I was thinking
very poorly in those few seconds. And suddenly for no reason at
all I thought of Rimeyer. Why had he sent me here? Had he gone
out of his mind? If only it was not a giganto-pithek!
It raced by me so fast that I couldn't discern what it
The tunnel boomed from its gallop. Then there was the
despairing scream of a caught rat right close by and...
silence. Cautiously I peeked out. He stood about ten paces away
directly under one of the lamps, and my legs suddenly went limp
"Smart-alec entrepreneurs," I said aloud, almost crying.
'They would dream up something like this."
He heard my voice and raising his stern legs, pronounced:
"Our temperature is two meters, twelve inches, there is no
humidity, and what there isn't is not there."
"Repeat your orders," I said, approaching him.
He let the air out of his suction cups with a loud
whistle, twitched his legs mindlessly, and ran up on the
"Come down," I said sternly, "and answer my question."
He hung over my head, this poor long-obsolete cyber,
intended for work an the asteroids, pitiable and out of place,
covered with flakes of corrosion and blobs of black underground
"Get down," I barked.
He flung the dead rat at me and sped off into the dark.
"Basalts! Granites!" he yelled in different voices.
"Pseudo-metamorphic types! I am over Berlin! Do you copy! Time
to get to bed!"
I threw away the rod and followed him. He ran as far as
the next lamp, came down, and began to dig the concrete
rapidly, like a dog, with his heavy work manipulators. Poor
chap, even in better times his brain was capable of performing
properly only in less than one one-hundredth of a G, and now he
was altogether out of his mind. I bent over him and began to
search for the control center under his armor. "The rotters," I
said aloud. The controls were peened over as though battered
with a sledge. He stopped digging and grabbed me by the leg.
"Stop!" I shouted. "Desist!"
He desisted, lay down on his side, and informed me in a
basso voice, "I am deathly tired of him, Eli. Now would be the
time for a shot of brandy."
Contacts clicked inside him and music poured forth.
Hissing and whistling, he gave a rendition of the "Hunters'
March." I was looking at him and thinking how stupid and
repulsive it all was, how ridiculous and at the same time
frightening. If I had not been a spaceman, if I had been
frightened and run, he would almost certainly have killed me.
But nobody here knew I had been in space. Nobody. Not one
person. Even Rimeyer didn't know.
"Get up," I said.
He buzzed and started to dig the wall, and I turned around
and went back. All the time while I was returning to my
turn-off I could hear him rattling and clanging in the pile of
contorted rails, hissing with the electrowelder and ranting
nonsense in two voices.
The anti-atomic door was already open, and I stepped over
the sill, swinging it shut behind me.
"Well, how was it?" asked round-head.
"Dumb," I replied.
"I had no idea you were a spaceman. You have worked out on
"I have. But it's still dumb. For fools. For illiterate
"Well -- there you got it wrong. Lots of people like it.
Anyway, I told you to come at night. We don't have much
amusement for singles." He poured some whiskey and added some
soda from the siphon. "Would you like some?"
I took the glass and leaned on the railing. Eli gloomily
regarded the screen, a cigarette sticking to his lip. On the
screen careened shifting views of the glistening tunnel walls,
twisted rails, black puddles, and flying sparks from the
'That's not for me," I announced. "Let barbers and
accountants enjoy it. Of course, I have nothing against them,
but what I need is something the likes of which I have not seen
in my entire life."
"So you don't know yourself what you want," said
roundhead. "It's a hard case. Excuse me, you aren't an Intel?"
"Well, don't take offense -- we are all equal before the
grim reaper, you understand. What am I trying to say? That
Intels are the most difficult clients, that's all. Isn't that
right, Eli? If one of your barbers or bookkeepers comes here,
he knows very well what it is he needs. He needs to get his
blood going, to show off and be proud of himself, to get the
girls squealing, and exhibit the punctures in his side. These
fellows are simple, each one wants to consider himself a man.
After all, who is he -- our client? He has no particular
capabilities, and he doesn't need any. In earlier times, I read
in a book, people used to be envious of each other -- the
neighbor is rolling in luxury and I can't save up for a
refrigerator -- how could you put up with that? They hung on
like bulldogs to all kinds of trash, to money, to cushy jobs --
they laid down their lives for such things. The guy with a
foxier head or a stronger fist would wind up on top. But now
life has become affluent and dull and there is a plenty of
everything. What shall a man apply himself to? A man is not a
fish, for all that, he is still a man and gets bored, but can't
dream up something to do for himself. To do that you need
special talents, you need to read a mountain of books, and how
can he do that when they make him throw up. To become
world-famous or to invent some new machine, that's something
that wouldn't pop into his head, but even if it did, of what
use would it be? Nobody really needs you, not even your own
wife and children if you examine it honestly. Right, Eli? And
you don't need anybody either. Nowadays, it seems, clever
people think things up for you, something new like these
aerosols, or the shivers, or a new dance. There is that new
drink -- it's called a polecat. Wanna me knock one together for
you? So he downs some of this polecat, his eyes crawl out of
their sockets, and he's happy. But as long as his eyes are in
their sockets, life is just as dull as rainwater for him. There
is an Intel that comes here to us, and every time he complains:
Life, he says, is dull, my friends... but I leave here a new
man; after, say, 'bullets' or 'twelve to one,' I see myself in
a completely new light. Right, Eli? Everything becomes sweet
all over again, food, drink, women."
"Yes," I said sympathetically. "I understand you very
well. But for me it's all too stale."
"Slug is what he needs," said Eli in his bass voice.
"What's that again?"
"Slug is what I said."
Round-head puckered in distaste.
"Aw, come on, Eli. What's with you today?"
"I don't give a hoot for the likes of him," said Eli. "I
just don't like these guys. Everything is insipid for him,
nothing suits him."
"Don't listen to him," said round-head. "He hasn't slept
all night and is very tired."
"Well, why not," I contradicted. "I am quite interested.
What is this slug?"
Round-head puckered his face again.
"It's not decent, you understand?" he said. "Don't listen
to Eli, he is a good enough guy, a simple fellow, but it's
nothing for him to lambaste a man. It's a bad term. Certain
types have taken to writing it all over the walls. Hooligans,
that's what they are, right? The snot-noses hardly know what
it's about, but they write anyway. See how we had to plane off
the railing? Some son of a bitch carved into it, and if I catch
him, I'll turn his hide inside out. We do have women coming
"Tell him," pronounced Eli, addressing himself to
roundhead, "that he should get hold of a slug and quiet down.
Let him find Buba..."
"Will you shut up, Eli?" said round-head, now angry.
"Don't pay any attention to him."
Having heard the name Buba, I helped myself to another
drink and settled more comfortably on the railing.
"What's it all about?" I said. "Some kind of secret vice?"
"Secret!" boomed Eli, and let out an obscene horselaugh.
Round-head laughed, too.
"Nothing can be a secret here," he said. "What had of
secrets can there be when people are living it up at the age of
fifteen? The dopes, the Intels, manufacture secrets. They'd
like to get a fracas going on the twenty-eighth, they are all
in a huddle, took some mine launchers out of town recently to
hide them, like kids, honest to God! Right, Eli?"
"Tell him," the good simple fellow Eli was persisting.
"Tell him to be off to Hell and gone. And don't go protecting
him. Just tell him to go to Buba at the Oasis and that's that."
He threw my wallet and form on the railing. I finished the
whiskey. Round-head said soberly, "Of course, it's entirely up
to you, but my advice is to stay away from that stuff. Maybe
we'll all come to it someday, but the later, the better. I
can't even explain it to you, I only feel that it is like the
grave: never too late and always too soon."
"Thank you," I said.
"He even thanks you." Eli let loose another horselaugh.
"Have you seen anything like it! He thanks you!"
"We kept three dollars," said round-head. "You can tear up
the blank. Or let me tear it up. God forbid something should
happen to you, the police will come looking to us."
"To be honest with you," I said, putting the wallet away,
"I don't understand how they haven't closed your office
"Everything is on the up and up with us," said round-head.
"If you don't want any, no one is forcing you. But if something
should happen, it's your own fault."
"No one is forcing the drug addicts either," I retorted.
"That's some comparison! Drugs are a profiteering corrupt
"Well, okay, I'll be seeing you," I said. "Thanks,
fellows. Where did you say to look for Buba?"
"At the Oasis," boomed Eli. "It's a cafe. Beat it."
"What a polite fellow you are, my friend," I said. "It
gets me right in my heart."
"Go on, beat it," repeated Eli. "Stinking Intel."
"Don't get so excited, pal," I said, "or you'll earn
yourself an ulcer. Save your stomach, it's your most valuable
Eli started to move slowly out from behind the railing,
and I left. My shoulder had started to ache again.
A warm, heavy rain was falling outside. The leaves on the
trees shone wetly and joyfully, there was a smell of ozone,
freshness and thunderstorm. I stopped a taxi and named the
Oasis. The street ran with fresh streams, and the city was so
pretty and comfortable that it seemed improper to think of the
moldy and abandoned Subway.
The rain was pelting in full swing when I jumped out of
the car, ran across the sidewalk, and burst into the Oasis.
There were quite a few people, most of them were eating,
including the bartender, who was spooning some soup out of a
dish placed among drinking glasses. Those who had finished
eating sat smoking and abstractedly staring out of the
streaming window at the street. I approached the bar and
inquired in a low voice whether Buba was there. The bartender
put down his spoon and surveyed the room.
"Naah," he said. "Why don't you have something to eat now,
and he'll be along soon enough."
"Twenty minutes, half an hour maybe."
"So!" I said. "In that case I'll have dinner, and then
I'll come over and you can point him out to me."
"Uhuh," said the bartender, returning to his soup.
I picked up a tray, collected some sort of a meal, and sat
down by the window away from the rest of the patrons. I wanted
to think. I sensed that there was enough data to ponder the
problem effectively. Some sort of pattern seemed to be forming.
Boxes of Devon in the bathroom. Pore-nose spoke about Buba and
Devon (in whispers). Eli talked of Buba and "slug." A clear
chain of links -- bath, Devon, Buba, slug. Further: the
sunburned fellow with the muscles cautioned that Devon was the
worst of junk, while the roundhead saw no difference between
slug and the grave. It all had to fit together. It seemed to be
what we were looking for. If so, then Rimeyer had done the
right thing to send me to the Fishers. Rimeyer, I said to
myself, why did you send me to the Fishers? And even order me
to do as I was told and not to fuss about it? And you didn't
know, after all, that I was a spaceman, Rimeyer. If you did
know, there were still the other games with bullets and "one
against twelve," besides the demented cyber. You really took a
dislike to me for something or other, Rimeyer. Somehow I have
crossed you. But no, said I, this cannot be. It is simply that
you did not trust me, Rimeyer. It is simply that there is
something that I do not know yet. For example, I do net know
just who this Oscar is who trades in Devon in this resort city
and who is connected with you, Rimeyer. Most likely you have
been meeting with Oscar before our conversation in the elevator
... I don't want to think about that.
There he was lying like a dead man and here I was thinking
such things about him when he could not defend himself.
Suddenly I felt a repulsive cold crawling feeling inside. All
right, suppose we trapped this gang. What would change? The
shivers would remain, lop-eared Len would be up all night as
before, Vousi would be coming home disgustingly drunk, while
customs inspector Pete would be smashing his face into broken
glass. And all would be concerned about the "good of the
people." Some would be irrigated with tear gas, some would be
driven into the ground up to their ears, others would be
converted from apehood into something which passes muster as
human.... And then the shivers would go out of style and the
people would be presented with the super-shivers, while in lieu
of the extirpated slug a super-slug would surface. Everything
would be for the good of the people. Have fun, Boobland, and
don't think about a thing!
Two men in cloaks sat down at the next table with their
trays. One of them seemed to me in some way familiar. He had a
haughty thoroughbred face, and were it not for a thick white
bandage on the left side of his jaw, I was sure I would
recognize him. The other was a ruddy man with a bald pate and
fussy movements. They were speaking quietly, but not so as to
be inaudible, and I could hear them quite well where I was
"Understand me correctly," the ruddy one said with
conviction while hurriedly consuming his schnitzel, "I am not
at all against theaters and museums. But the allocation for the
municipal theater for the past year has not been expended
fully, while only tourists visit the museums."
"Also picture thieves," inserted the man with the bandage.
"Drop that, please, we don't have pictures that are worth
the theft. Thank God, they have learned how to synthesize
Sistine Madonnas out of sawdust. I wish to call your attention
to the point that dissemination of culture in our time must
occur in an entirely different manner. Culture must not be
inculcated into the people, rather it must emanate from the
people. Public chorister, do-it-yourself groups, mass games --
that is what our public needs."
"What our public needs is a good army of occupation," said
the man with the bandage.
"Please stop talking that way, when you actually don't
believe what you are saying. Our coverage by the various
associations is really at an unacceptably poor level. For
instance, Boella complained to me last night that only one man
attends her readings, and he apparently only does so out of
matrimonial intentions. But we need to distract the people from
the shivers, from alcohol, from sexual pastimes. We need to
raise the tone --"
The other interrupted, "What do you want from me? That I
should defend your project against that ass, our honorable
mayor, today? Be my guest! It is absolutely all the same to me.
But if you would like to hear my opinion about tone and spirit,
let me tell you it does not exist, my dear Senator; it is long
dead! It has been smothered in belly fat! And if I were in your
place I would take that into account and only that!"
The ruddy man seemed to be crushed. He was silent for a
while and then groaned suddenly, "Dear God, dear God, to think
of what we have been driven to concern ourselves with! But I
ask you -- is not someone flying to the stars? Somewhere meson
reactors are being built, new learning systems are being
devised! Dear God, I just recently grasped that we are not even
a backwater, we are a preserve! In the eyes of the whole world
we are a sanctuary of stupidity, ignorance, and pornocracy.
Imagine, Professor Rubenstein has a chair in our city for the
second year. A sociopsychologist of world renown. He is
studying us like animals. Instinctive Sociology of Decaying
Economic Structures -- that's the name of his work. He is
interested in people as bearers of primeval instincts, and he
complained to me that it was very difficult for him to gather
data in countries where instinctive activity is distorted and
suppressed by pedagogical systems! But with us he is in seventh
heaven! In his own words, we don't have any activity other than
instinctive! I was insulted, I was ashamed, but, good Lord,
what could I say to contradict him? You must understand me! You
are an intelligent man, my friend, I know you are a cold man,
but I can't really believe that you are indifferent to such a
The man with the bandage looked at him haughtily and then,
abruptly, his cheek twitched. I recognized him at once: he was
the character with the monocle who had thrown the luminous slop
all over me so deftly yesterday at the Art Patrons' hall.
Why, you vulture, thought I. You thief. So you need an
army of occupation! Spirit smothered in lard indeed!
"Forgive me, Senator," he said. "I do understand it all,
and that's precisely why it is perfectly clear to me that
everything surrounding you is in a state of dementia. The final
I got up and approached their table.
"May I join you?" I asked.
He stared at me in astonishment. I sat down.
"Please excuse me," I said. "I am, to be specific, a
tourist and just a short time here; while you seem to be
natives and even to have some connection with the municipal
government. So I decided to inflict myself on you. I keep
hearing about Art Patrons, Art Patrons. But what it's all about
no one seems to know."
The man with the bandage experienced another tie in his
cheek. His eyes grew wide -- he too recognized me.
"Art Patrons?" said the ruddy one. "Yes, there is such a
barbarous organization with us here. It is very sad that such
is the case, but it's so."
I nodded, studying the bandage. My acquaintance had
already regained his composure and was eating his jelly with
his accustomed haughty look.
"In essence they are simply modern-age vandals. I simply
couldn't find a more appropriate word. They pool their
resources and buy up stolen paintings, statues, manuscripts,
unpublished literary works, patents, and destroy them. Can you
imagine how revolting that is? They And some pathological
delight in the destruction of examples of world culture. They
gather in a large, well-dressed crowd and slowly, deliberately,
orgiastically destroy them!"
"Oh my, my, my!" I said, not taking my eyes off the
bandage. "Such people should be hung by their legs."
"And we are after them," said the ruddy one. "We are in
pursuit of them on the legal level. We are unfortunately unable
to get after the Artiques and the Perchers, who are not
breaking any laws, but as far as the Art Patrons are concerned
"Are you finished yet, Senator?" inquired the bandaged
one, ignoring me.
The ruddy one caught himself.
"Yes, yes. It's time for us to go. You will excuse us,
please," he said, turning to me. "We have a meeting of the
"Bartender!" called the bandaged one in a metallic voice.
"Would you call us a taxi."
"Have you been here long?" asked the ruddy man.
"Second day," I replied.
"Do you like it?"
"A beautiful city."
"Mm -- yes," he mumbled.
We were silent. The man with the bandage impudently
inserted his monocle and pulled out a cigar.
"Does it hurt?" I asked sympathetically.
"The jaw," I said. "And the liver should hurt, too."
"Nothing ever hurts me," he replied, monocle glinting. "Are you
two acquainted?" the ruddy one asked in astonishment.
"Slightly," I said. "We had an argument about art."
The bartender called out that the taxi had arrived. The
man with the bandage immediately got up.
"Let's go, Senator," he said.
The ruddy one smiled at me abstractedly and also got up.
They set off for the exit. I followed them with my eyes
and went to the bar.
"Brandy?" asked the bartender.
"Quite," I said. I shuddered with rage. "Who are those
people I just spoke to?"
'The baldy is a municipal counselor, his field are
cultural affairs. The one with the monocle is the city
"Comptroller," I said. "A scoundrel is what he is."
"Really?" said the barman with interest.
'That's right, really," I said. "Is Buba here?"
"Not yet. And how about the comptroller, what is he up
"A scoundrel, an embezzler, that's what he is," I said.
The bartender thought awhile.
"It could well be," he said. "In fact he's a baron -- that
is, he used to be, of course. His ways, sure enough, are
unsavory. Too bad I didn't go vote or I would have voted
against him. What's he done to you?"
"It's you he's done. And I've given him some back. And
I'll give him some more in due time. Such is the situation."
The bartender, not understanding anything, nodded and
said, "Hit it again?"
"Do," I said.
He poured me more brandy and said,
"And here is Buba, coming in."
I turned around and barely managed to keep the glass in my
grip. I recognized Buba.
He stood by the door looking about him as though trying to
remember where he had come and what he was to do there. His
appearance was very unlike his old one, but I recognized him at
once anyway, because for four years we sat next to each other
in the lecture halls of the school, and then there were several
years when we met almost daily.
"Say," I addressed the bartender. "They call him Buba?"
"Uhuh," said the bartender.
"What is it -- a nickname?"
"How should I know? Buba is Buba, that's what they all
"Peck," I cried.
Everyone looked at me. He too slowly turned his head and
his eyes searched for the caller. But he paid no attention to
me. As though remembering something, he suddenly started to
shake the water out of his cape with convulsive motions, and
then, dragging his heels, hobbled over to the bar and climbed
with difficulty on the stool next to mine.
"The usual," he said to the bartender. His voice was dull
and strangled, as though someone held him by the throat.
"Someone has been waiting for you," said the barman,
placing before him a glass of neat alcohol and a deep dish
filled with granulated sugar.
Slowly he turned his head and looked at me, saying, "Well,
what is it you want?"
His drooping eyelids were inflamed red, with accumulated
slime in the corners. He breathed through his mouth as though
suffering with adenoids.
"Peck Xenai," I said quietly. "Undergraduate Peck Xenai,
please return from earth to heaven."
He continued to regard me without a change in his manner.
Then he licked his lips and said, "A classmate, perhaps?"
I felt numb and terrified. He turned around, picked up his
glass, drank it down, gagging in revulsion, and began to eat
the sugar with a large soup spoon. The bartender poured him
"Peck," I said, "old friend, don't you remember me?"
He looked me over again.
"I wouldn't say that. I probably did see you somewhere."
"Saw me somewhere!" I said in desperation. "I am Ivan
Zhilin. Could it be you have completely forgotten me?"
His hand holding the glass quivered almost imperceptibly,
and that was all.
"No, friend," he said, "forgive me, please, but I don't
"And you don't remember the 'Tahmasib' or Iowa Smith?"
"This heartburn has really got to me today," he informed
the bartender. "Let me have some soda, Con."
The bartender, who had listened with curiosity, poured him
"Bad day, today, Con," he said. "Can you imagine, two
automates failed on me today."
The bartender shook his head and sighed.
"The manager is bitching," continued Buba, "called me on
the carpet and bawled me out. I am going to quit that place. I
told him to go to hell and he fired me."
"Complain to the union," the bartender advised.
"To hell with them." He drank his soda and wiped his mouth
with the palm of his hand. He did not look at me.
I sat as though spat upon, forgetting completely what it
was I wanted Buba for. I needed Buba, not Peck -- that is, I
needed Peck too. But not this one. This was not Peck, this was
some strange and repulsive Buba, and I watched in horror as he
sucked up the second glass of alcohol and again set to
shoveling spoonfuls of sugar into himself. His face effloresced
with red spots, and he kept gagging and listening to the
bartender as he animatedly recounted the latest football
exploits. I wanted to cry out, "Peck, what has happened to you?
Peck, you used to hate all this!" I put my hand on his shoulder
and said imploringly, "Peck, dear friend, hear me out, please."
He shied away.
"What's the matter, friend?" His eyes were now completely
unseeing. "I am not Peck, I am Buba, do you understand? You are
confusing me with someone else, there isn't any Peck here....
So what did the Rhinos do then, Con?"
I reminded myself where I was, and forced myself to
understand that there was no more Peck, and that there was a
Buba, here, an agent of a criminal organization, and this was
the only reality, while Peck Xenai was a mirage -- a memory
which must be quickly extirpated if I intended to press on with
"Hold on, Buba," I said. "I want to talk business to you."
He was quite drunk by now.
"I don't talk business at the bar," he announced. "And
anyway I am through with work. Done. I have no more business of
any kind. You can apply to the city hall, friend. They'll help
"I am applying to you, not the city hall," I said. "Will
you listen to me!"
"You I hear all the time, as it is. To the detriment of my
"My business is quite simple," I said. "I need a slug."
He shuddered violently.
"Are you out of your mind, pal?"
"You should be ashamed," said the bartender. "Right out in
front of people... you have lost all sense of decency."
"Shut up," I told him.
"You be quiet," the barman said menacingly. "It must be
some time since you've been busted? Watch your step or you'll
"I don't give a damn about the exportation," I said
insolently. "Don't stick your snoot in other people's
"Lousy sluggard," said the bartender.
He was visibly incensed, but spoke in a low voice. "A slug
he wants. I'll call an officer right now and he'll give you a
Buba slid off the stool and hurriedly hobbled toward the
I left off with the bartender and hurried after him. He
shot out into the rain, and forgetting to cover himself with
his cape, started to look around in search of a taxi. I caught
up with him and grasped him by the sleeve.
"What in God's name do you want from me?" he said
miserably. "I'll call the police."
"Peck," I said. "Come out of it, Peck. I am Ivan Zhilin,
and you must remember me."
He kept looking around and wiping the streaming water from
his face with the palm of his hand. He looked pitiful and run
down, and I, trying to suppress my irritation, kept insisting
to myself that this was my Peck, priceless Peck, irreplaceable
Peck, good, intelligent, joyful Peck, kept trying to remember
him as he was in front of the Gladiator's control console, and
I couldn't because I couldn't imagine him anywhere except at
the bar over a glass of alcohol.
"Taxi," he screeched, but the car flew by, full of people.
"Peck," I said, "come with me. I'll tell you all about
"Leave me alone," he said, his teeth chattering. "I won't
go anywhere with you. Leave off! I didn't bother you, I didn't
do anything to you, leave me be, for God's sake."
"All right," I said, "I'll let you alone. But you must
give me a slug and also your address."
"I don't know of any slugs," he moaned. "God, what kind of
a day is this!"
Favoring his left leg, he wandered off and suddenly dove
into a basement under an elegant and restrained sign. I
followed. We sat down at a table and a waiter immediately
brought us hot meat and beer, although we hadn't ordered
anything. Buba was shivering and his wet face turned blue. He
pushed the plate away with revulsion and began to swallow the
beer, both hands around the mug. The basement was quiet and
empty. Over the sparkling counter hung a white sign with gold
letters reading, "Paid Service Only."
Buba raised his head from the beer and said pleadingly,
"Can I go, Ivan? I can't... What's the point of all this talk?
Let me go, please."
I put my hand on his.
"What's happening to you, Peck? I searched for you. There
is no address listed anywhere. I met you quite by accident, and
I don't understand anything. How did you get involved in this
mess? Can I help you possibly, with anything? Maybe we could
Suddenly he jerked his hand away in a rage.
"What an executioner," he hissed. "The devil lured me to
that Oasis.... Stupid chatter, drivel. I have no slug, do you
understand? I have one, but I won't give it to you. What'll I
do then -- like Archimedes? Don't you have any conscience? Then
don't torture me, let me go."
"I can't let you go," I said, "until I get the slug. And
your address. We must talk."
"I don't want to talk to you, can't you understand? I
don't want to talk to anyone about anything. I want to go home.
I won't give you my slug. What am I -- a factory? Give it to
you and then chase all over town?"
I kept silent. It was clear that he hated me now. That if
he thought he had the strength he would kill me and leave. But
he knew that he did not have the strength.
"Scum," he said in a fury. "Why can't you buy one
yourself? Don't you have the money? Here! Here!" he began to
search convulsively in his pockets, throwing coppers and
crumpled bills on the table. "Take it, there's plenty."
"Buy what? Where?"
"There's a damned jackass! It's... what is it? Hmm... how
do you call it... Oh hell!" he cried. "May you drop straight to
He stuck his fingers into his shirt pocket and pulled out
a flat plastic case. Inside it was a shiny metal tube, similar
to a pocket radio local oscillator-mixer subassembly. "Here --
get fat!" He proffered me the tube. It was quite small, less
than an inch long and a millimeter thick.
"Thank you," I said. "And how do I use it?"
Peck's eyes opened wide. I think he even smiled.
"Good God!" he said almost tenderly. "Can it be you really
"I know nothing," I said.
"Well then, you should have said so from the start. And I
thought you were tormenting me like a torturer. You have a
radio? Insert it in place of the mixer, hang it, stand it
somewhere in the bath, and go to!"
"In the tub?"
"It must be in the bath?"
"But yes! It is absolutely necessary that your body be
immersed in water. In hot water. What an ass you are!"
"And how about Devon?"
"The Devon goes in the water. About five tablets in the
water and one orally. The taste is awful, but you won't regret
it later. And one more thing, be sure to add bath salts to the
water. And before you start, have a couple of glasses of
something strong. This is required so that... how shall I say?
-- so you can loosen up, sort of."
"So," I said. "I got it. Now I've got everything." I
wrapped the slug in a paper napkin and put it in my pocket. "So
it's electric wave psychotechnics?"
"Good Lord, now what do you care about that?"
He was up already, pulling the hood over his head.
"No matter," I said. "How much do I owe you?"
"A trifle, nonsense! Let's go quickly... what the hell are
we losing time for?"
We went up into the street.
"You made the right decision," said Peck. What kind of
world is this? Are we men in it? Trash is what it is and not a
world. Taxi!" he yelled. "Hey, taxi!"
He shook in sudden excitement. "What possessed me to go to
that Oasis... Oh no... from now on I'll go nowhere ...
"Let me have your address," I said.
"What do you want with my address?"
A taxi drew up and Buba tore at the door.
"Address," I said, grabbing him by the shoulder.
"What a dumbhead," said Buba.. "Sunshine Street, number
eleven... Dumbhead!" he repeated, seating himself.
"I'll come to see you tomorrow."
He paid no more attention to me.
"Sunshine," he threw at the driver. "Through downtown, and
hurry, for God's sake."
How simple, I thought, looking after his car. How simple
everything turned out to be. And everything fits. The bath and
Devon. Also the screaming radios, which irritated us so, and to
which we never paid any attention. We simply turned them off. I
took a taxi and set out for home.
But what if he deceived me, I thought. Simply wanted to be
rid of me sooner. But I would determine that soon enough. He
doesn't look like a runner, an agent, at all, I thought. After
all, he is Peck. However, no, he is no longer Peck. Poor Peck.
You are no agent, you are simply a victim. You know where to
buy this filth, but you are only a victim. I don't want to
interrogate Peck, I don't want to shake him down like some
punk. True, he is no longer Peck. Nonsense, what does that
mean, that he is not Peck. He is Peck, and still I'll have
to... Electric wave psychotechnics... But the shivers they're
wave psychotechnics too.... Somehow, it's a bit too simple. I
haven't passed two days here yet, while Rimeyer has been living
here since the uprising. We left him behind, and he had gone
native and everyone was pleased with him, although in his
latest reports he wrote that nothing like what we were looking
for existed here. True, he has nervous exhaustion... and Devon
on the floor. Also there is Oscar. Further, he did not beg me
to leave him be, but simply pointed me in the direction of the
I didn't meet anyone either in the front yard or in the
hall.. It was almost five. I went to my rooms and called
Rimeyer. A quiet female voice answered.
"How is the patient?" I asked.
"He is asleep. He shouldn't be disturbed."
"I won't do that. Is he better?"
"I told you he fell asleep. And don't call too often,
please. The phone disturbs him."
"You will be with him all the time?"
"Till morning, at least. If you call again, I'll have the
"Thank you," I said. "Just, please, don't leave him till
morning, I'll not trouble you again."
I hung up and sat awhile in the big comfortable chair in
front of the huge absolutely bare table. Then I took the slug
out of my pocket and laid it in front of me. A small shiny
tube, inconspicuous and completely harmless to all outward
appearances, an ordinary electronic component. Such can be made
by the millions. They should cost pennies.
"What's that you got there?" asked Len, right next to my
He stood alongside and regarded the slug.
"Don't you know?" I asked.
"It's from a radio. I have one like it in my radio and
it's breaking all the time."
I pulled my radio out of my pocket and extracted its mixer
and laid it alongside the slug. The mixer looked like the slug,
but it was not a slug.
"They are not the same," said Len. "But I have seen one of
those gadgets, too."
"Like the one you have."
All at once, his face clouded over and he looked grim.
"Did you remember?"
"No, I didn't," he said. "I didn't remember anything."
"All right, then." I picked up the slug and inserted it in
place of the mixer in the radio. Len grabbed me by the hand.
"Don't," he said.
He didn't reply, eyeing the radio warily.
"What are you afraid of?" I asked.
"I'm not afraid of anything. Where did you get that idea?"
"Look in the mirror," I said. "You look as though you are
afraid for me." I put the radio in my pocket.
"For you?" he said in astonishment.
"Obviously for me. Not for yourself, of course, though you
are still scared of those... necrotic phenomena."
He looked sideways.
"Where did you get that idea," he said. "We're just
I snorted in disdain.
"I am well acquainted with these games. Rut one thing I
don't know: where in our time do necrotic phenomena come
He glanced around and began backing up.
"I'm going," he said.
"O no," I said decisively. "Let's finish what we started.
Man to man. Don't think that I am altogether an ignoramus."
"What do you know?" He was already near the door and
talking very quietly.
"More than you," I said severely. "But I don't want to
shout it all over the house. If you want to talk, come on over
here. Climb up on the desk and have yourself a seat. Believe
me, I'm not a necrotic phenomenon."
He hesitated for a whole minute, and everything for which
he hoped and everything of which he was afraid appeared and
disappeared on his face. At last, he said, "Just let me close
He ran into the living room, closed the door to the
hallway, returned to close the study door tight, and approached
me. His hands were in his pockets, the face white, contrasting
with the protruding ears, which were red but cold.
"In the first place, you are a dope," I pronounced,
dragging him toward me and standing him between my knees. "Once
there was a boy who lived in such a fear that his pants never
dried out, not even when he was on a beach, and his ears were
as cold as though they had been left in a refrigerator
overnight. This boy trembled constantly and so well that when
he grew up his legs were all wiggly, and his skin became like
that of a plucked goose."
I was hoping that he would smile just once, but he
listened very intently and very seriously inquired, "And what
was he afraid of?"
"He had an elder brother, who was a nice fellow, but a
great one for drinking. And, as often happens, the tipsy
brother was not at all like the sober brother. He got to look
very wild indeed. And when he really drank a lot, he got to
look like a dead man. So this boy..."
A contemptuous smile appeared on Len's face.
"He sure found something to be scared of. When they are
drunk is when they turn good."
"Who are they?" I asked immediately. "Mother? Vousi?"
"That's it. Mother is just the opposite -- in the morning
when she gets up, she's always nasty, and then she drinks
vermouth once, then twice, and that's it. Toward evening she is
altogether nice because night is near."
"And at night?"
"At night that creep comes around," Len said reluctantly.
"We are not concerned with the creep," I said in a
businesslike manner. "It's not from him that you run to the
"I don't run," he said stubbornly. "It's a game."
"I don't know, I don't know," I said. "There are, of
course, certain things in this world of which even I am afraid.
For instance when a boy is crying and trembling. I can't look
at such things, and it just turns me over inside. Or when your
teeth hurt and it is required by circumstances that you keep on
smiling -- that's pretty bad and there is no way of ignoring
it. But there are also just plain stupidities. When, for
example, some idiots help themselves, out of sheer boredom and
surfeit, to the brain of a living monkey. That's no longer
frightening, it's just plain disgusting. Especially as they
didn't think it up by themselves. It was a thousand years ago
when they thought of it first, and also out of excessive
affluence, the fat tyrants of the Far East. And contemporary
idiots heard and rejoiced. But they should be pitied, not
"Pity them?" said Len. "But they don't pity anybody. They
do whatever they like. It's all the same to them, don't you
see? It they are bored, then they don't care whose head they
saw apart. Idiots... Maybe in the daytime they are idiots, but
you don't seem to understand that at night they are not idiots,
they are all accursed."
"How can that be?"
"They are cursed by the whole world They can have no
peace, and they won't ever have it. You don't know anything.
What's it to you? As you arrived, so you will leave... but they
are alive at night, and in the daytime they are dead,
I went to the living room and brought him some water. He
drank down the glass and said, "Will you leave soon?"
"Of course not, how can you think that? I just got here,"
I said, patting him on the shoulder.
"Could I sleep with you?"
"At first I had a padlock, but she took it away for some
reason. But why she took it she won't say."
"OK," I said. "You will sleep in my living room. Do you
"Go ahead and lock yourself in and sleep to your heart's
content. And I will climb into the bedroom through the window."
He raised his head and gazed at me intently.
"You think your doors lock? I know all about this place.
Yours don't lock either."
"It's for you they don't lock," I said as negligently as
possible. "But for me they'll lock. It's only a half-hour's
He laughed unpleasantly, like an adult.
"You are afraid, too. All right, I was only joking. Don't
be afraid, your locks do work"
"You dope," I said. "Didn't I tell you I wasn't afraid of
anything of that sort?" He looked at me questioningly. "I
wanted to make the lock work for you in the living room, so you
could sleep in peace, as long as you are so afraid. As for me,
I always sleep with the window open."
"I told you, I was joking."
We were silent for a bit.
"Len," I said, "what will you be when you grow up?" "What
do you mean?" he said. He was quite astonished. "What do I
"Now, now -- what do you care. It's all the same to you
whether you will be a chemist or a bartender?"
"I told you -- we are all under a curse. You can't get
away from it, why can't you understand that? When everybody
"So what?" I said. "There were accursed peoples before.
And then children were born who grew up and removed the curse."
"That would take a long time to explain, old friend." I
got up. "I'll be sure to tell you all about it. For now, go on
out and play. You do play in the daytime? Okay then, run along.
When the sun sets, come on over, I'll make your bed."
He stuck his hands in his pockets and went to the door.
There he stopped and said aver his shoulder, "That gadget you'd
better take it out of the radio. What do you think it is?"
"A local oscillator-mixer," I said.
"It's not a mixer at all. Take it out or it will be bad
for you." "Why will it be bad for me?" I said.
"Take it out," be said. "You'll hate everybody. Right now
you are not cursed, blat you will become cursed. Who gave it to
He looked at me imploringly.
"Ivan, take it out!"
"So be it," I said. "I'll take it out. Run along and play.
And never be afraid of me. Do you hear?"
He didn't say anything and went out, leaving me sitting in
my chair, with my hands on the desk. Soon I heard him puttering
about in the lilacs under the windows. He rustled, stamped
about, muttering something under his breath, and softly
exclaimed, talking to himself, "Bring the flags and put them
here and here... that's it... that's it... and then I got on a
plane and flew away into the mountains." I wondered when he
went to bed. It would be all right if it were eight o'clock or
even nine; maybe it was a mistake to start all this business
with him. I could have locked myself in the bathroom and in two
hours I would know everything. But no, I couldn't refuse him --
just imagine I was in his place, I thought. But this is not the
way; I am catering to his fears, when I should think of
something more clever. But try to come up with it -- this is no
Anyudinsk boarding school.
A boarding school this certainly is not, I thought. How
different everything is, and what lies ahead of me now, which
circle of paradise, I wonder? But if it tickles, I won't be
able to stand it! Interesting -- the Fishers -- they too are a
circle of paradise, for sure. The Art Patrons are for the
aristocrats of the mind, and the old Subway is for the simpler
types, although the Intels are also aristocrats of the mind and
they get intoxicated like swine and become totally useless,
even they are useless. There is too much bate, not enough love
-- it's easy to teach hate, but love is hard to teach. But
then, love has been too well overdone and slobbered over so it
has become passive. How is it that love is always passive and
hate always active and is thus always attractive? And then it
is said that hate is natural, while love is of the mind and
springs from deep thought.
It should be worthwhile to have a talk with the Intels, I
thought. They can't all be hysterical fools, and what if I
should succeed in finding a Man. What in fact is good in man
that comes from nature -- a pound of gray matter. But this too
is not always good, so that he always must start from a naked
nothing; maybe it would be good if man could inherit social
advances, but then again, Len would now be a small-scale major
general. No, better not -- better to start from zero. True he
would not now be afraid of anything, but instead he would be
frightening others -- those who weren't major generals.
I was startled to suddenly see Len perched in the branches
of the apple tree regarding me fixedly. The next moment he was
gone, leaving only the crash of branches and falling apples as
an aftermath. He doesn't believe me in the slightest, I
thought. He believes nobody. And whom do I believe in this
town? I went over everyone I could recall. No, I didn't trust
anyone. I picked up the telephone, dialed the Olympic and asked
for number 817.
"Hello! Yes?" said Oscar's voice.
I kept quiet, covering the radio with my hand.
"Hello, I'm listening," repeated Oscar irritably. "That's
the second time," he said to someone aside. "Hello!... Of
course not, what sort of women could I be carrying on with
here?" He hung up.
I picked up the Mintz volume, lay down on the couch, and
read until twilight. I dearly love Mintz, but I couldn't
remember a word I read that day. The evening shift roared by
noisily. Aunt Vaina fed Len his supper, stuffing him with hot
milk and crackers. Len whimpered and was fretful while she
cajoled him gently and patiently. Customs inspector Pete
propounded in a commanding yet benevolent tone, "You have to
eat, you have to eat, if Mother says eat, you must comply."
Two men of loose character, if one could judge by their
voices, came around looking for Vousi and made a play for Aunt
Vaina. I thought they were drunk. It was growing dark rapidly.
At eight o'clock the phone in the study rang. I ran barefooted
and grabbed the receiver, but no one spoke. As you holler, so
it echoes. At eight-ten, there was a knock on the door. I was
delighted, expecting Len, but it turned out to be Vousi.
"Why don't you ever come around?" she asked indignantly
from the doorway. She was wearing shorts decorated with
suggestively winking faces, a tight-fitting sleeveless shirt
exposing her navel, and a huge translucent scarf: she was fresh
and firm as a ripe apple. To a surfeit.
"I sit and wait for him all day, and all the time he is
sacked out here. Does something hurt?"
I got up and stuck my feet into my shoes.
"Have a chair, Vousi." I patted the couch alongside me.
"I am not going to sit by you. Imagine -- he is reading.
You could at least offer me a drink."
"In the bar," I said, "How is your sloppy cow?"
"Thank God she was not around today," said Vousi,
disappearing in the bar. "Today I drew the mayor's wife. What a
moron. Why, she wants to know, doesn't anyone love her?... You
want yours with water? Eyes white, face red, and a rear end as
wide as a sofa, just like a frog, honest to God. Listen, let's
make a polecat, nowadays everybody makes polecats."
"I don't go for doing like everybody."
"I can see that for myself. Everyone is out for a good
time, and he is here -- sacked out. And reading to boot."
"He -- is tired," I said.
"Oh, so? Well then, I can leave!"
"But I won't let you," I said, catching her by the scarf
and pulling her down beside me. "Vousi, dear girl, are you a
specialist only for ladies' good humor or in general? You
wouldn't be able to put a lonely man whom nobody loves into a
"What's to love?" She looked me over. "Red eyes and a
potato for a nose."
"Like an alligator's."
"Like a dog's. Don't go putting your arm about me, I won't
allow it. Why didn't you come over?"
"And why did you abandon me yesterday?"
"How do you like that --.abandoned him!"
"All alone in a strange town."
"I abandoned him! Why, I locked for you all over. I told
everyone that you are a Tungus, and you got lost -- that was a
poor thing for you to do. No -- I won't permit that! Where were
you last night? Fishering, no doubt. And the same thing today,
you won't tell any stories."
"Why shouldn't I tell?" I said. And I told her about the
old Subway. I sensed at once that the truth would be
inadequate, and so I spoke of men in metallic masks, of a
terrible oath, of a wall wet with blood, of a sobbing skeleton,
and I let her feel the bump behind my ear. She liked everything
"Let's go right now," she said.
"Not for anything," I said and lay down.
"What kind of manners is that? Get up at once and we'd go.
Of course, no one will believe me. But you will show your bump,
and everything will be just perfect."
"And then we'll go to the shivers?" I wanted to know.
"But yes! You know that turns out to he even good for your
"And we'll drink brandy?"
"Brandy and vermouth and a polecat and whiskey."
"Enough, enough... and no doubt we'll also squeeze into
cars and drive at a hundred and fifty miles per hour?...
Listen, Vousi, why should you go there?"
She finally understood and smiled in discomfiture.
"And what's wrong with it? The Fishers also go."
"There is nothing bad," I said. "But what's good about
"I don't know. Everybody does it. Sometimes it's a lot of
fun... and the shivers. There everything -- all your wishes
"And that's it? That's all there is?"
"Well, not everything, of course. But whatever you think
about, whatever you would like to happen, often happens.
Just like in a dream."
"Well then maybe it would be better to go to bed?"
"What's the matter with you?" she said sulkily. "In a real
dream all kinds of things happen... as though you don't know!
But with the shivers, only what you like!"
"And what do you like?"
"We-e-ll! Lots of things."'
"Still... imagine I am a magician. And I say to you, have
three wishes. Anything at all, whatever you wish. The most
impossible. And I will make them come true. Well?"
She thought very hard so that even her shoulders sagged.
Then her face lit up.
"Let me never grow old," she said.
"Excellent," I said. "That's one."
"Let me..." she began inspiredly and stopped.
I used to enjoy tremendously asking my friends this very
question and used to ask it at every available opportunity.
Several times I even assigned compositions to my youngsters on
the theme of three wishes. And it was always most amusing that
out of a thousand men and women, oldsters and children, only
two or three dozen figured that it is possible to wish not only
for themselves personally, or their immediate close ones, but
also for the world at large, for mankind as a whole. No, this
was not witness to the ineradicable human egotism; the wishes
were not invariably strictly selfish, and the majority in
subsequent discussions, when reminded of missed opportunities
and the large problems of all mankind, did a double take and in
honest anger reproached me that I hadn't explained at the
beginning. But one way or another they all began their reply
along the lines of "Let me..." This was a manifestation of some
kind of ancient subconscious conviction that your own personal
wishes cannot change anything in the wide world, and it makes
no difference whether you do or do not have a magic wand.
"Let me..." began Vousi once more, and again was silent. I
was watching her surreptitiously. She noticed this, and
dissolving into a broad smile, said with a wave of her hand,
"So that's your game. Some card you are!"
"No -- no -- no," I said. "You should always be prepared
to answer this question. Because I knew a man once who always
asked it of everyone, and then was inconsolable -- 'Oh what an
opportunity I missed, how could I not have figured it out?' So
you see it's entirely in earnest. Your first wish is never to
grow old. And then?"
"Let's see -- what else? Of course, it would be nice to
have a handsome fellow, whom they would all chase, but who
would be with me only. Always."
"Wonderful," I said. "That's two. And what else?"
Her face showed that the game had already palled on her,
and that any second she'd drop a bomb. And she did. All I could
do was blink my eyes.
"Yes," I said, "of course that, too. But that happens even
without any magic."
"Yes and no," she argued and began to develop the idea,
based on the misfortunes of her clients. All of which was very
gay and amusing to her, while I, in ignominious confusion,
gulped brandy with lemon and tittered in embarrassment, feeling
like a virgin wall flower. Well, if all this went on in a night
club, I could handle it. Well, well, well... some fine
activities go on in those salons of the Good Mood. How do you
like these elderly ladies...
"Enough," I said. "Vousi, you embarrass me, and anyway I
understand it all very well now. I can see that it's really
impossible to do without magic. It's a good thing that I am not
"I really stung you well," she said happily. "And what
would you wish for yourself, now?"
I decided I'd reciprocate in kind.
"I don't need anything of that sort," I said. "Anyway, I
am not good at things like that. I'd like a good solid slug."
She smiled gaily.
"I don't need three wishes," I explained, "I can do with
She was still smiling, but the smile became empty, then
crooked, and then disappeared altogether.
"What?" she said in a small voice.
"Vousi!" I said, getting up. "Vousi!"
She didn't seem to know what to do. She jumped up and then
sat down and then jumped up again. The coffee table fell over
with all the bottles. There were tears in her eyes, and her
face looked pitiable, like that of a child who has been
brutally, insolently, cruelly, tauntingly deceived. Suddenly
she bit her lip and with all her strength slapped my face.
While I was blinking, she, now in full tears, kicked away the
overturned table and ran out of the room. I sat, with my mouth
open. An engine roared into life and lights sprang up in the
dark garden, followed by the sound of the motor traversing the
yard and disappearing in the distance.
I felt my face. Some joke. Never in my life have I joked
so effectively. What an old fool I was! How do you like that
for a slug?
"May we?" asked Len. He stood in the door, and he was not
alone. With him was a gloomy, freckle-faced boy with a cleanly
"This is Reg," said Len. "Could he sleep here too?"
"Reg," I said, pensively smoothing my eyelids. "Of course
-- even two Regs would be okay. Listen, Len, why didn't you
come ten minutes earlier!"
"But she was here," said Len. "We were looking in the
window, waiting for her to leave."
"Really?" I said. "Very interesting. Reg, old chum, how
about what your parents will say?"
Reg didn't reply. Len said, "He doesn't have parents."
"Well, all right," I said, feeling a bit tired. "You're
not going to have a pillow fight?"
"No," said Len, not smiling, "we are going to sleep."
"Fair enough," I said. "I'll make your beds and you can
give all this a quick clean-up."
I made their beds on the couch and the big chair and they
took off their clothes at once and went to bed. I locked the
door to the hall, turned out their lights, and went into my
bedroom, where I sat awhile listening to them whispering,
moving furniture, and settling down. Then they were quiet.
About eleven o'clock there was the sound of broken glass
somewhere in the house. Aunt Vaina's voice could be heard
singing some sort of marching song, followed by more breaking
glass. Apparently the tireless Pete again was falling down face
first. From the center of town came the cry of "Shivers,
shivers." Someone was loudly sick on the street.
I locked the window and lowered the shades. I also locked
the door to the study. Then I went to the bathroom and turned
on the hot water. I did everything per instructions. The radio
went on the soap shelf, I threw several Devon tablets in the
water, together with some salt crystals, and was about to
swallow the tablet when I remembered that it was propitious to
"loosen up." I didn't want to disturb the boys, but it wasn't
necessary -- an open bottle of brandy stood in the medicine
chest. I took a few swallows right out of the bottle, stripped
down to the skin, climbed into the bath, and turned on the
I intentionally did not set the thermo-regulator, so that
when the water cooled off, I returned to consciousness. The
radio was still shrieking and the sparkle of white light on the
walls hurt my eyes. I was thoroughly chilled and covered with
goose bumps. Switching off the radio, I turned on the hot water
and remained in the bath, basking in the flooding warmth and a
very strange, very novel sensation of total, cosmically
enormous emptiness. I expected a hangover, but there wasn't
any. I simply felt good. And there were very many memories.
Also my thoughts flowed inordinately well, as though after a
long rest in the mountains.
In the middle of the last century, Olds and Miller had
conducted experiments on brain stimulation. They inserted
electrodes into the brains of white rats. They employed a
primitive technology and a barbarous methodology, but having
located pleasure centers in the rats' brains, they succeeded in
having the animals press the lever which closed the contacts to
the electrodes, hour after hour, producing up to eight thousand
auto-excitations per hour. These rats did not need anything in
the real world. They weren't in the slightest interested in
anything but the lever. They ignored food, water, danger,
females; they were indifferent to everything except the
stimulation lever. Later, these experiments were tried on
monkeys and produced the same results. Rumors were about that
someone carried out similar experiments on criminals condemned
That was a difficult time for mankind: a time of struggle
against atomic destruction, a time of increasing limited wars
over the entire face of the planet, a time when the majority of
mankind was starving, but even so, the contemporary English
writer and critic Kingsley Amis, having learned of the
experiments with rats, wrote: "I cannot be sure that this
frightens me more than a Berlin or a Taiwan crisis, but it
should, I believe, frighten me more." He feared much about the
future, this brilliant and venomous author of New Maps of
Hell, and: in particular, he foresaw the possibilities of
brain stimulation for the creation of an illusory existence,
just as intense as the actual, or more intense.
By the end of the century, when the first triumphs of wave
psychotechnology were realized, and when psychiatric wards
began to empty, amid the chorus of exulting cries of science
commentators, the little brochure by Krinitsky and Milanovitch
had sounded like an irritating dissonance. In its concluding
section the Soviet educators wrote approximately as follows: In
the overwhelming majority of countries, the education of the
young exists on the level of the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries. This ancient system of education always did and
continues to posit as its objective, first of all and above
all, the preparation for society of qualified but stupefied
contributors to the production process. This system is not
interested in all the other potentialities of the human mind,
and for this reason, outside of the production process, man, en
masse, remains psychologically a cave dweller, Man the
Uneducated. The disuse of these potentialities causes the
individuals' inability to comprehend our complex world in all
its contradictions, to correlate psychologically incompatible
concepts and phenomena, to obtain pleasure from the examination
of connections and laws when these do not pertain directly to
the satisfaction of the most primitive social instincts. In
other words, this system of education for all practical
purposes does not develop in man pure imagination, untrammeled
vision, and as an immediate consequence, the sense of humor.
The Uneducated Man perceives the world as some sort of
essentially trivial, routine, and traditionally simple process,
a world from which it is possible only by dint of great effort
to extract pleasures which are, in the end, also compulsively
routine and traditional. But even the unutilized potentialities
remain, apparently, a hidden reality of the human brain. The
problem for scientific education consists precisely in
initiating the action of these possibilities, in teaching man
to dream, in bringing the multiordinality and variety of
psychic associations into quantitative and qualitative
coordination with the multiordinality and variety of
interrelationships in the world of reality. This problem is the
one which, as is well known, must become the fundamental one
for mankind in the coming proximate epoch. But until this
problem is resolved, there remains some basis to fear that the
successes of psychotechnics will lead to such methods of
electrical stimulation as will endow man with an illusory
existence which can exceed the real existence in intensity and
variety by a considerable margin. And if one remembers that
imagination allows man to be both a rational being and a
sensual animal, and if one adds to that the fact that the
psychic subject matter evoked by the Uneducated Man for his
illusory life of splendor derives from the darkest, most
primitive reflexes, then it is not hard to perceive the awful
temptation hidden in such possibilities.
And therefore -- slug.
It is now understandable, I thought, why they write the
word "slug" on fences.
Everything is now understandable. It's odious, that I
understand.... Better if I understood nothing, better if, upon
regaining consciousness, I shrugged my shoulders and climbed
out of the bath. Would it have been understandable to Strogoff
and Einstein and Petrarch? Imagination is a priceless gift, but
it must not be given an inward direction. Only outward, only
outward... What a tasty worm some corrupter has dropped from
his rod into this stagnant pool! And how accurately timed! Yes
indeed, if I were commander of Wells' Martians, I would not
have bothered with fighter tripods, heat rays, and other such
nonsense. Illusory existence ... no, this is not a narcotic, a
narcotic has a long way to go to approach it. In a. way this is
exactly appropriate. Here. Now. To each time its own. Poppy
seeds and hemp, the kingdom of sweet blurred shadows and peace
-- for the beggar, the worn-out, the downtrodden... But here no
one wants peace, here no one is dying of hunger, here is simply
a bore. A well-fed, well-heated, drunken bore. It's not that
the world is bad, it's just plain dreary. World without
prospects, world without promise. But in the end man is not a
carp, he still remains a man. Yes, it is no kingdom of shades,
it is indeed the real existence, without detraction, without
dreary confusion. Slug is moving on the world and the world
will not mind subjecting itself to it.
Suddenly, for a fraction of a moment, I felt that I was
lost. And it was cozy to be destroyed. Fortunately I grew
angry. Splashing out water, I climbed out of the bath, cursing
and stoking my ire, pulled my shorts and shirt over my wet
body, and grabbed my watch. It was three o'clock, and it could
have been three in the afternoon or three the following morning
or three o'clock after a hundred years. Idiot, I thought,
pulling on my trousers. Softened up and let Buba go when he was
ready to give me the address of the gangsters' den. The
operatives could have been there by now and we could have
nabbed the whole accursed nest, the vile nest. The vermin nest.
The repulsive cloaca... And at this instant against the very
depth of my consciousness, like a dancing spot of light,
flicked a very calm thought. But I could not fasten upon it.
I located some Potomac in the medicine cabinet, the
strongest stimulant which I could find in it. I started into
the living room, but the youngsters were snoring away there, so
I climbed out the window. The city was resting, of course.
Guffawing louts hung around under the street lamp on Waterway,
bawling crowds surged on the brightly lit avenues. Somewhere
songs were shouted, somewhere they were yelling "Shivers!"
Somewhere glass was being broken. I picked out a chauffeurless
taxi, found the index for Sunshine Street, and dialed it on the
control console. The car took off across town. The cab smelled
sour and bottles rolled underfoot. At one intersection it
almost plowed into a daisy chain of howling humanity, and at
another there was the rhythmic flashing of colored lights --
apparently it was possible to set up the shivers elsewhere than
the plaza. They were resting, resting with all their might,
these benevolent patrons from the Happy Mood Salons, these
polite customs inspectors, clever barbers, tender mothers and
manly fathers, innocent youths and maidens -- they all
exchanged their diurnal aspects for the nocturnal, they all
worked hard to have fun and so that it wouldn't be necessary to
think about a thing....
The taxi braked. It was the very same place. It even
seemed as though there was that same burning smell...
... Peck registered a hit on the armored carrier with the
Fulminator. It spun on a single tread, hopping in the piles of
broken bricks, and two fascists immediately jumped out in their
unbuttoned camouflage shirts, flung a grenade apiece in our
direction, and sped off into the darkness. They moved knowingly
and adeptly, and it was obvious that these were not youngsters
from the Royal Academy or lifers from the Golden Brigade, but
genuine full-blown tank corps officers. Robert cut them down
point-blank with a burst from his machine gun. The carrier was
bulging with cases of beer. It struck us that we had been
constantly thirsty for the last two days. Iowa Smith clambered
into the carrier and began handing out the cans. Peck opened
them with a knife. Robert, putting the machine gun against the
carrier, punched holes into the cans with a sharp point on the
armor. And the Teacher, adjusting his pince-nez, tripped on the
Fulminator straps and muttered, "Wait a minute, Smith; can't
you see I've got my hands full?" A five-story building burned
briskly at the end of the street, there was a thick smell of
smoke and hot metal, and we avidly downed the warm beer, and
were drenched through and through, and it was very hot and the
dead officers lay on the broken and crushed bricks, with their
legs identically flung out in their black pants, and the
camouflage shirts bunched at their necks, and the skin still
glistening with perspiration on their backs.
'They are officers," said the Teacher. "Thank God. I can't
bear the sight of any more dead kids. Accursed politics! People
forget God on account of it."
"What god is that?" inquired Iowa Smith out of the
carrier. "I've never heard of him."
"Don't jest about that, Smith," said the Teacher. "This
will all end soon, and from then on no one nowhere will be
permitted to poison the souls of men with vanity."
"And how then shall they multiply?" asked Iowa Smith. He
bent over the beer again, and we could see the burn holes in
"I am talking about politics," said the Teacher modestly.
"The fascists must be destroyed. They are beasts. But that is
not enough. There are many other political parties, and there
is no place for them and all their propaganda in our land." The
Teacher came from this town and lived within two blocks of our
post. "Social anarchists, technocrats, communists, are of
course -- "
"I am a communist," announced Iowa Smith, "at least by
conviction. I am for the commune."
The Teacher looked at him in bewilderment.
"Also I am a godless man," added Iowa Smith. "There is no
god, Teacher, and there's nothing you can do about it."
At which point we all began to say that we were all
atheists, and Peck said that on top of that he was for
technocracy, while Robert announced that his father was a
social anarchist and his grandfather was a social anarchist and
he, Robert, probably could not escape being a social anarchist,
although he didn't know what it was all about.
"Well now, if the beer would get ice-cold, said Peck
pensively, "I would at once believe in God with great delight."
Teacher smiled embarrassedly and kept wiping his glasses.
He was a good man and we always kidded him, but he never took
offense. From the very first night I observed that his courage
was not great, but he never retreated without being commanded.
We were still chattering and joking when there was a thunderous
crash, the burning building wall collapsed, and straight out of
the swirling flames and clouds of smoke and sparks swam a
Mammoth attack tank, floating a yard above the pavement. This
was a new horror, the likes of which we hadn't seen yet.
Floating out in the middle of the street, it rotated its
thrower as though looking around, and then, hovering on its air
cushion, began to move in our direction, screeching and
clanking metallically. I regained my wits only by the time I
was behind a gate post. The tank was now considerably closer,
and at first I couldn't see anyone at all, but then Iowa Smith
stood up in full view out of the carrier, and propping the butt
of the Fulminator against his stomach, took aim. I could see
the recoil double him up. I saw a bright flash against the
black brow of the tank. And then the street was filled with
roar and flame, and when I raised my burned eyelids with great
effort, the street was empty and contained only the tank. There
was no carrier, no mounds of broken brick, no leaning kiosk by
the neighboring house -- there was only the tank. It was as
though the monster had come awake and was spewing waterfalls of
flame and the street ceased being a street and became a square.
Peck slapped me hard on the neck and I could see his glassy
eyes right in front of my face, but there was no time to run
toward the trench and break out the launcher.
We both picked up the mine and started running toward the
tank, and all I remember is looking continually at the back of
his head, and gasping for breath and counting steps, when the
helmet flew off Peck's head, and he fell, so I almost dropped
the mine and fell on top of him. The tank was blown up by
Robert and Teacher. I still don't know how they did it or when;
it must be they were running behind us with another mine. I sat
until morning in the middle of the street holding Peck's
bandaged head on my knees and staring at the awesome treads of
the tank sticking out of the asphalt lake. That same morning
the whole bloody thing came to an end all at once. Zun Padana
surrendered with all his staff and was shot in the street by
some crazed woman when already a prisoner....
This was the very same place. I even thought I smelled
smoke and burned metal. Even the kiosk stood on the corner, and
it too was a bit crooked in the latest style of architecture.
The part of the street which the tank turned into a plaza
remained a plaza, and on the site of the asphalt lake there was
a small square in which someone was being beaten. Iowa Smith
was an urban planner from Iowa, U.S.A., Robert Sventisky was a
movie director form Krakow, Poland. The Teacher was a
schoolteacher from this town. No one ever saw them again, even
dead. And Peck was Peck, who had now become Buba
Buba lived in the same sort of cottage as I, and its front
door was open. I knocked, but no one responded and no one -
came out to meet me. I entered the dark hall. The lights did
not go on. The door to the right was locked, and I looked into
the one on the left. In the living room a bearded man, in a
jacket, but without pants, was sleeping on a tattered couch.
Someone's feet stuck out from under the overturned table. There
was a smell of brandy, tobacco smoke, and of something else,
cloyingly sweet, like in Aunt Vaina's room the other day. In
the door to the study, I bumped into a handsome florid woman,
who was not in the slightest surprised to see me.
"Good evening," I said. Please excuse me, but does Buba
"Here," she said, examining me out of glistening
"Can I see him?"
"And why not -- all you want."
"Where is he?"
"Funny man. Where would he be?" she laughed.
I could guess where, but said, "In the bedroom?"
"You are warm," she said.
"What do you mean -- warm?"
"What a dunce, and sober yet! Would you like a drink?"
"No," I said, angry. "Where is he? I need him right away."
"Your prospects are poor," she said gaily. "But search on,
search on. As for me, I must go."
She patted me on the cheek and went out.
The study was empty. There was a large crystal vase on the
table with some kind of reddish fluid in it. Everything smelled
of that nauseatingly sweet odor. The bedroom was also empty;
crumpled sheets and pillows were scattered about. I approached
the bathroom door. The door was full of holes, obviously made
by bullets shot from the inside, judging by their shape. I
hesitated, then took hold of the handle. The door was locked.
I opened it with considerable difficulty. Buba lay in the
bath up to his neck in greenish water; steam rose from its
surface. The radio howled and wheezed on the edge of the tub. I
stood and looked at Buba. At the erstwhile cosmonaut
experimenter, Peck Xenai. At the once-upon-a-time supple and
well-muscled fellow, who at eighteen left his warm city by the
warm sea, and went into space for the glory of man, and who at
thirty returned to his country to fight the last of the
fascists and to remain here forever. I was repelled to think
that only an hour ago, I had looked like him. I touched his
face and pulled his thin hair. He did not stir. Then I bent
over him to let him sniff some Potomac, and suddenly saw that
he was dead.
I knocked the radio off the edge of the tub and crushed it
under heel. There was a pistol on the floor. But Peck had not
shot himself; it must have been simply that someone interfered
with him and he shot through the door in order to be left
alone. I stuck my arms in the hot water, picked him up, and
carried him to the bed. He lay there all limp and terrible,
with eyes sunken under his brows. If only he were not my
friend... if only he were not such a wonderful guy... if only
he were not such an outstanding worker...
I called emergency aid on the phone and sat down beside
Peck. I tried not to think of him. I tried to think about the
business at hand. And I tried to be cold and harsh, because at
the very bottom of my conscious mind, that flick of warm
feeling, like a speck of light, flashed again, and this time I
understood what the thought was.
By the time the doctor came, I knew what I was going to
do. I would find Eli. I would pay any sum. Maybe I would beat
him. If necessary, I would torture him. And he would tell me,
whence this plague flows out upon the world. He would name
names and addresses. He would tell me all. And we would find
these men. We would locate and burn their secret laboratories,
and as for themselves, we would ship them out so far that they
would never return. Whoever they might be. We would catch them
all, we would catch all who ever tried slug and isolate them,
too. Whoever they were. Then I would demand that I, too, be
isolated because I knew what slug was. Because I grasped what
sort of thought I had, because I was socially dangerous, just
as they all are. And all that would be only the beginning. The
beginning of all beginnings, and ahead would remain that which
was most important: to make it so that people would never,
never, wish to know what slug was. Probably that would be
outlandish. Probably many would say that it was too outlandish,
too harsh, too stupid -- but we would still have to do it if we
wanted mankind not to stop....
The doctor, an old gray man, put down his white case,
leaned over Buba, looked him over, and said indifferently,
"Call the police," I said.
Slowly he put away his instruments.
"There is no need of that whatsoever," he said. "There's
no criminal content, here. It is a neurostimulator...."
"Yes, I know."
"There you are -- the second case this night. They just
don't know when to stop."
"When did it start?"
"Not very long ago... a few months."
"Then why in hell do you keep it quiet?"
"Keep it quiet? I don't understand. This is my sixth call
tonight, young man. The second case of nervous exhaustion and
four cases of brain fever. Are you a relative?"
"Well, all right, I'll send some men." He stood awhile,
looking at Peck. "Join some choruses," he said. "Enter the
League of Reformed Sluts..."
He was mumbling something else as he left, an old, bent,
uncaring man. I covered Peck with a sheet, pulled the drape,
and went out into the living room. The drunks were snoring
obscenely, filling the air with alcoholic fumes, and I took
them both by the heels and dragged them out in the yard,
leaving them in the puddle by the fountain.
Dawn was breaking once more and the stars were dimming in
the paling sky. I got into the taxi and dialed the old Subway
on the console.
It was full of people. It was impossible to get through to
the railing, although it seemed to me that only two or three
men were filling out the forms, while the rest were just
looking, stretching their necks eagerly. Neither the
round-headed man nor Eli were to be seen behind the barrier,
and no one knew where they could be found. Below, in the
cross-passages and tunnels, drunken, shouting, half-crazed men
and hysterical women were milling about. There were shots,
distant and muffled and some loud and close, the concrete
underfoot shook with the detonations, and a mixture of smells
-- gunpowder, sweat, smoke, gasoline, perfume, and whiskey --
coated in the air.
Squealing and arm-waving teenagers surrounded a big fellow
who dripped blood and whose pale face shone with a look of
triumph. Somewhere wild beasts roared menacingly. In the halls,
the audience was going wild in front of huge screens showing
somebody blindfolded, firing a spray of bullets from a machine
gun held against his belly, and someone else sat up to his
chest in some black and heavy liquid, blue from the cold and
smoking a crackling cigar, and another one with a
tension-twisted face, suspended as though cast in stone in some
sort of web of taut cords...
Then I found out where Eli was. I saw round-head by a
dirty room full of old sandbags. He stood in the doorway, his
face covered with soot, smelling of burnt gunpowder, the pupils
of his eyes fully distended. Every few seconds he bent down and
brushed his knees, not hearing me at all, so that I had to
shake him to make him take notice of me.
"There is no Eli," he barked. "Gone, do you understand?
Nothing but smoke -- get it? Twenty kilovolts, one hundred
amperes, see? He didn't leap far enough!"
He pushed me away vigorously and took off into the dirty
room, jumping over the sandbags. Elbowing the curious out of
the way, he got to a low metal door.
"Let me through," he howled. "Let me at it once more. God
favors a third time!"
The door shut heavily and the mob surged away, stumbling
and falling over the bags. I didn't wait for him to come out.
Or not to come out. He was no longer of any use to me. There
was only Rimeyer left. There was also Vousi, but I couldn't
count on her. So there was really only Rimeyer. I was not going
to wake him. I'd wait outside his room.
The sun was already up and the filthied streets were
The auto-streetcleaners were coming out of their
underground garages to do their job. All they knew was work;
they had no potentialities to be developed, but they also had
no primitive reflexes. Near the Olympic, I had to stop for a
long chain of red and green men followed by a string of people
enclosed in some sort of scales, who dragged their shuffling
feet from one street into the next, leaving behind a stench of
sweat and paint. I stood and waited for them to pass, while the
sun had already lit up the huge mass of the hotel and shone
gaily in the metallic face of Yurkovsky, who, as he had while
alive, looked out over the heads of all men. After they passed,
I went into the hotel. The clerk was dozing behind his counter.
Awaking, he smiled professionally and asked in a cheery voice,
"Would you like a room?"
"No," I replied, "I am visiting Rimeyer."
' Rimeyer? Excuse me -- room 902?"
"I believe so. What's the matter?"
"I beg your pardon, but he is not in."
"What do you mean, not in?"
"He checked out."
"Can't be, he has been ill. You are not mistaken? Room
"Exactly right, 902, Rimeyer. Our perpetual client. It's
an hour and a half since he left. More accurately, flew away.
His friends helped him down and aboard a copter."
"What friends?" I asked hopelessly.
"Friends, as I said, but, excuse me, they were
acquaintances. There were three of them, two of whom I really
don't know. Just young athletic-looking men. But I do know Mr.
Pebblebridge, he was our permanent guest. But he signed out --
"Exactly. Lately he has been meeting Rimeyer quite often,
so I concluded that they were quite well acquainted. He stayed
in room 817. A fairly imposing gentleman, middle-aged,
"Exactly, Oscar Pebblebridge.
'That makes sense," I said, trying to keep a hold on
myself. "You say they helped him?"
"That's right. He has been very sick and they even sent a
doctor up: to him yesterday. He was still very weak and the
young men held him up by his elbows, and almost carried him."
"And the nurse? He had an attendant nurse with him?"
"Yes, there was one. But she left right after them -- they
let her go."
"And what is your name?"
"Val, at your service."
"Listen, Val," I said. "You are sure it didn't look like
they were taking him away forcibly?"
I looked hard at him. He blinked in confusion.
"No," he said. "Although, now that you have mentioned
"All right," I said. "Give me the key to his room and come
Clerks are, as a rule, quite savvy types. Their sense of
smell, at least for certain things, is quite impressive. It was
perfectly obvious that he had guessed who I was. And maybe even
where I came from. He called a porter, whispered something to
him, and we went up to the ninth floor.
"What currency did he pay in?" I asked.
"I think... ah yes, marks, German marks."
"And when did he arrive here?"
"One minute... it will come to me... sixteen marks ...
precisely four days ago."
"Did he know that Rimeyer stayed with you?"
"Excuse me, but I can't say. But the day before yesterday,
they had dinner together. And yesterday, they had a long talk
in the foyer. Early in the morning while everybody was still
It was unusually clean and tidy in Rimeyer's room. I
walked about looking over the place. Suitcases stood in the
closet. The bed was rumpled, but I could see no signs of
struggle. The bathroom also was clean and tidy. Boxes of Devon
were stacked on the shelf.
"What do you think -- should I call the police?" asked the
"I don't know," I replied. "Check with your
"You understand that I am in doubt again. True, he didn't
say goodbye. But it all looked completely innocent. He could
have given me a sign, and I would have understood him -- we
have known each other a long time. He was pleading Mr.
Pebblebridge: 'The radio, please don't forget the radio.'"
The radio lay under the mirror, hidden by a negligently
"Yes?" I said. "And what did Mr. Pebblebridge say to
Mr. Pebblebridge was soothing him, saying, "Of course, of
course, don't worry..."
I took the radio, and leaving the bathroom, sat down at
the desk. The clerk looked back and forth from the radio to me.
So, I thought, now he knows why I came here. I turned it
an. It moaned and howled. They all know about slug. No need for
Eli, nor Rimeyer; you can take anyone at random. This clerk,
for instance. Right now, for instance. I turned it off and
said, "Please be good enough to turn on the combo."
He ran over to it with mincing steps, turned it on, and
eyed me questioningly.
"Leave it on that station. A little softer. Thank you."
"So you don't advise me to call the police?"
"As you wish."
"It seemed you had something quite definite in mind when
you questioned me."
"It only seemed so," I said coldly. "It's just that I
dislike Mr. Pebblebridge. But that does not concern you."
The clerk bowed.
"I'll stay here for a while, Val," I said. "I have a
notion that this Mr. Pebblebridge will be back. It won't be
necessary to announce that I am here. In the meantime, you are
free to go."
"Yes, sir," he said.
When he left, I rang up the service bureau and dictated a
telegram; "Have found the meaning of life but am lonely brother
departed unexpectedly come at once Ivan." Then I turned on the
radio again, and again it howled and screeched. I took off the
back and pulled out the local oscillator-mixer. It was no
mixer. It was a slug. A beautiful precision subassembly, of
obviously mass-produced derivation, and the more I looked at
it, the more it seemed that somewhere, sometime, long before my
arrival here, and more than once, I had already seen these
components in some very familiar device. I attempted to
recollect where I had seen them, but instead, I remembered the
room clerk and his face with a weak smile and his
understanding, commiserating eyes. They are all infected. No,
they hadn't tried slug -- heaven forbid! They hadn't even seen
one! It is so indecent! It is the worst of the worst! Not so
loud, my dear, how can you say that in front of the boy... but
I've been told it's something out of this world.... Me?... How
can you think that, you must have a low opinion of me after
all.... I don't know, they say over at the Oasis, Buba has it,
but as for myself -- I don't know.... And why not? I am a
moderate man -- if I feel something is not right, I'll stop....
Let me have five packets of Devon, we have made up a fishing
party (hee, hee!). Fifty thousand people. And their friends in
other towns. And a hundred thousand tourists every year. The
problem is not with the gang. That's the least of our worries,
for what does it take to scatter them? The problem is that they
are all ready, all eager, and there is not the slightest
prospect of the possibility to prove to them that it is
terribly frightening, that it is the end, that it is the last
I clasped the slug in my fist, propped up my head on it,
and stared at Rimeyer's dress jacket with the ribbon bar on it,
hanging on the back of the chair. Just like me, he must have
sat in this chair a few months ago, and also held the slug and
radio for the second time, and the same warm flick of desire
wandered through the depths of his consciousness: there is
nothing to worry about, because now there is light in any
darkness, sweetness in any grief, joy in any pain....
...There, there, said Rimeyer. Now you have got it. You
just have to be honest with yourself. It is a little shameful
at first, and then you begin to understand how much time you
have lost for nothing.... ...Rimeyer, I said, I wasted time not
for myself. This cannot be done, it simply cannot, it is
destruction for everyone, you can't replace life with
dreams.... ...Zhilin, said Rimeyer, when man does something, it
is always for himself. There may be absolute egotists in this
world, but perfect altruists are just impossible. If you are
thinking of death in a bathtub, then, in the first place, we
are all mortal, and in the second place, if science gave us
slug, it will see to it that it will be rendered harmless. And
in the meantime, all that is required is moderation. And don't
talk to me of the substitution of reality with dreams. You are
no novice, you know perfectly well that these dreams are also
part of reality. They constitute an entire world. Why do you
then call this acquisition ruin?... ...Rimeyer, I said, because
this world is still illusory, it's all within you, not outside
of you, and everything you do in it remains in yourself. It is
the opposite of the real world, it is antagonistic to it.
People who escape into this illusory world cease to exist in
the real world. They become as dead. And when everyone enters
the illusory world -- and you know it could end thus -- the
history of man will terminate.... ...Zhilin, said Rimeyer,
history is the history of people. Every man wants to live a
life which has not been in vain, and slug gives you such a
life.... Yes, I know that you consider your life as not having
been in vain without slug, but, admit it, you have never lived
so luminously, so fully as you have today in the tub. You are a
bit ashamed to recollect it, and you wouldn't risk recounting
it to others. Don't. They have their life, you have yours....
...Rimeyer, I said, all that is true. But the past! Space,
schools, the struggle with fascists, gangsters -- is all that
for naught? Forty years for nothing? And the others -- they did
it all for nothing, too?... ...Zhilin, said Rimeyer, nothing is
for nothing in history. Some fought and did not live long
enough to have slug. You fought and lived long enough....
...Rimeyer, I said, I fear for mankind. This is really the end.
It's the end of man interacting with nature, the end of the
interplay of man with society, the end of liaisons among
individuals, the end of progress, Rimeyer. AU these billions of
people submerged in. hot water and in themselves... only in
themselves.... ... Zhilin, said Rimeyer, it's frightening
because it's unfamiliar. And as for progress -- it will come to
an end only for the real society, only for the real progress.
But each separate man will lose nothing, he will only gain,
since his world will become infinitely brighter, his ties with
nature, illusory though they may be, will become more
multifaceted; and ties with society, also illusory but not so
known to him, will become more powerful and fruitful. And you
don't have to mourn the end of progress. You do know that
everything comes to an end. So now comes the end of progress in
the objective world. Heretofore, we didn't know how if, would
end, But we know now. We hadn't had time to realize all the
potential intensity of objective existence, it could be that we
would have reached such knowledge in a few hundred years, but
now it has been put in our grasp. Slug brings a gift of
understanding of our remotest ancestors which you cannot ever
have in real life. You are simply the prisoner of an obsolete
ideal, but be logical, the ideal which slug offers you is just
as beautiful. Hadn't you always dreamed of man with the
greatest scope of fantasy and gigantic imagination....
...Rimeyer, I replied, if you only knew how tired I am of
arguing. All my life I have argued with myself and with others.
I have always loved to argue, because otherwise life is not
worth living. But I am tired right now and don't wish to argue
over slug, of all things.... ...Then go on, Ivan, said
I inserted the slug into the radio. As he had then, I got
up. As he did then, I was past thought, past belonging in this
world, but I still heard him say: don't forget to lock the door
tight so that you won't be disturbed.
And then I sat down. ...So that's the way of it, Rimeyer!
said I. So that's how it went. You surrendered. You closed the
door tight. And then you sent lying reports to your friends
that there wasn't any slug. And then again, after hesitating
but a moment, you sent me to my death so that I wouldn't
disturb you. Your ideal, Rimeyer, is offal. If man has to
perform what is base in the name of an ideal, then the worth of
such ideal is -- less than dross....
I glanced at the watch and shoved the radio in my pocket.
I was past waiting for Oscar. I was hungry. And beyond that I
had the feeling that for once I had done something useful in
this town. I left my phone number with the room clerk -- in
case Oscar or Rimeyer should return -- and went out onto the
plaza. I did not believe that Rimeyer would come back or even
that I would ever see him again, but Oscar could hold to his
promise, though more likely, I would have to seek him out. And
probably not alone. And probably not here.
There was but one visitor in the automated cafe.
Barricaded behind bottles and hors d'oeuvres at a corner table
sat a dark man of oriental cast, magnificently but outlandishly
dressed. I took some yogurt and blintzes with sour cream and
set to, glancing at him now and then. He ate and drank much and
avidly, his face shiny with sweat, hot inside his ridiculous
formal clothes. He sighed, leaning back in his chair and
loosening his belt. The motion exposed a long yellow holster
glistening in the sunlight under the clothing.
I was on my way into the last of the blintzes when he
hailed me: "Hello," he said. "Are you a native here?"
"No," I said. "A tourist."
"So that means you don't understand anything either."
I went to the bar, threw a juice cocktail together, and
"Why is it empty here?" he continued. He had a lively
spare face and a bold gaze. "Where are the inhabitants? Why is
everything closed up? Everyone is asleep, you can't get any
"You just arrived?"
He pushed an empty plate away, moved up a full one, and
gulped some light beer.
"Where are you from?" I asked. He glared at me menacingly,
and I added quickly, "If it's not a secret, of course."
"No," he said, "it's not a secret," and went back to his
I finished the juice and got ready to leave. Then he said,
"They live well, the dogs. Such food and as much as you want,
and all for free."
"Well, not quite for free," I contradicted.
"Ninety dollars! Pennies! I'll show them how to eat ninety
dollars within three days!" His eyes stopped roving
momentarily, "D-dogs!" he muttered and fell to again.
I was quite familiar with such types. They came from
minuscule, totally milked kingdoms and prefectdoms, reduced to
utter poverty, and greedily ate and drank, mindful of the hot
dusty streets of their home towns, where in the niggardly
ribbons of shade, moribund men and women lay dying and
immobile, while children with distended bellies rummaged in the
garbage piles of foreign consulates. They were surcharged with
hatred and needed only two things -- food and weapons. Food for
their own gang, which was the opposition, and weapons to fight
the other gang, which was in power. They were the most flaming
patriots, who spoke hotly and effusively of their love for the
people, but resolutely refused all help from without, because
they loved nothing but their power and no one but themselves,
and were ready in the name of the people and the victory of
high principles to mortify the same people, right down to the
last man, if necessary, with hunger and machine gun.
"Weapons? Food?" I asked.
He grew wary.
"Yes," he said. "Food and weapons. Only without any silly
conditions. And as free as possible. Or on credit. True
patriots never have any money. While the ruling clique drowns
"Famine?" I asked.
"Anything you want. While you here swim in luxury." He
gazed at me with hatred. "The whole world is drowning in wealth
and we alone are starving. But your hopes are in vain! The
revolution cannot be stopped!"
"Yes," I said. "And whom is the revolution against?"
"We are fighting the blood leeches of Boadshah! We are
against corruption and debauchery of the ruling top layer, we
are for freedom and true democracy. The people are with us, but
they have to be fed. And you tell us that you'll give us food
only after we disarm. And even threaten intervention.... What
filthy, lying demagogy! What deception of the revolutionary
masses! To disarm in the face of those bloodsuckers -- that
means to throw a hangman's noose over the heads of all the true
freedom fighters! We answer you -- no! You will not deceive the
people. Let Boadshah and his brutes disarm! Then we shall see
what needs doing!"
"Yes," I said. "But Boadshah also, in all probability,
does not wish a noose thrown over his neck."
He put the beer down savagely, and his hand moved toward
the holster in a habitual gesture. But then he quickly caught
"I should have known you don't understand a damn thing,"
he said. "You who are well fed have grown drowsy from a full
stomach, you are too conceited to understand us. You wouldn't
have dared to talk to me like that in the jungle."
In the jungle, I would have talked differently to you,
bandit, I thought, and said:
"I really don't understand many things. For instance, I
don't understand what will happen when you gain the upper hand.
Let us imagine that you have won, Boadshah has been hanged, if
be, in his turn, hasn't fled to seek food and weapons --"
"He won't get away. He'll get his just deserts. The
revolutionary people will tear him to shreds. That's when we'll
go to work. We will regain the territory seized from us by
affluent neighbors, we will carry out the entire program which
the lying Boadshah constantly shouts about to deceive the
people.... I'll show them how to strike! They'll learn about
strikes with me on top -- there'll be no strikes! They'll all
go under arms and forward march! We will win and then..."
He shut his eyes and moaned a bit, shaking his head.
"And then you will be well fed, you will swim in luxury
and sleep till noon?"
"I deserve that. The people deserve it. No one will dare
reproach us. We will eat and drink as much as we wish, we will
live in real houses, we will say to the people: now you are
free -- divert yourselves!"
"And don't think about a thing," I added. "But don't you
think that all that could come out badly for you?"
"Forget it," he said. "That's sheer demagogy. You are a
demagogue. Also a dogmatist. We too have all kinds of
dogmatists similar to yourself. Man, they say, will lose the
meaning of life. No, we reply, man will lose nothing. Man will
acquire and not lose. You have to feel the people. You have to
be from the people yourself. The people don't like sophists.
What the hell for do I let myself be fed on by wood leeches and
feed on worms myself?" Suddenly he smiled amiably. "You must
have taken offense at me a bit, for calling you well fed and
other things. Please don't. Affluence is bad when you don't
have it, but your neighbor does. But achieved affluence --
that's a great thing! It's worth fighting for. Everybody fought
for it. It must be obtained with weapons in hand, and not
traded for freedom and democracy."
"So your final goal is still abundance? Just abundance?"
"Obviously! The final objective always is abundance. The
difference is that we are choosy about the means to get it."
"I have already grasped that. But what about man?"
"What do you mean, man?"
I did understand that it was futile to argue.
"You have never been here before?" I asked.
"Look into it, I said. This town gives excellent practical
lessons in abundance."
He shrugged his shoulders.
"So far, I like it here." Again he pushed away an empty
plate and replaced it with a full one. "These hors d'oeuvres
are strange to me.... Everything is tasty and cheap.... It's
enviable." He swallowed a few forkfuls of salad and growled.
"We know that all great revolutionaries fought for abundance.
We don't have time to theorize, but there is no need for it,
anyway. There are enough theories without us. Furthermore,
abundance is in no way threatening us. It won't threaten us for
quite a while yet. We have much more pressing problems."
"To hang Boadshah," I said.
"Yes -- to begin with. Next we will need to do away with
the dogmatists. I can perceive that even now. Next comes the
realization of our legitimate claims. After that, something
else will come up. And only then, and after many other things,
will abundance arrive. I am an optimist, but I don't believe I
will live to see it. Don't you worry -- we'll manage somehow.
If we can stand hunger then we can take abundance for sure....
The dogmatists prattle that abundance is not an end, but a
means. We reply that every means was once an goal. Today,
abundance is a goal. Tomorrow, perhaps it may become a means."
I got up.
"Tomorrow may be too late," I said. "It is incorrect of
you to fall back on great revolutionaries. They would not have
accepted your shibboleth: now you are free -- enjoy yourselves.
They spoke otherwise: now that you are free -- work. After all,
they never fought for abundance for the belly, they were
interested in abundance for the soul and the mind."
His hand twitched toward the holster again, and again he
"A Marxist!" he said with astonishment. "But then again,
you are a visitor. We have almost no Marxists, we take them
I kept control of myself.
Passing by the window, I took another look at him. He sat
with his back to the street and ate and ate, his elbows stuck
When I got home, the living room was already vacant. The
youngsters had piled the bedsheets and pillows in the corner.
There was a note under the telephone on the desk. Written in a
childish scrawl, it read: "Take care. She has plotted
something. She was fussing in the bedroom." I sighed and sat
down in the armchair.
There was still an hour until the meeting with Oscar,
assuming he came. There was no sense in going to sleep, but in
addition, it might not be safe -- Oscar could bring company,
and come earlier than expected, possibly not through the door.
I got the pistol out of the suitcase, put in a clip, and
dropped it in my side pocket. Next I climbed into the bar,
brewed myself some coffee, and went back to the study.
I took the slug out of my radio and the one out of
Rimeyer's, lay them down in front of me on the table, and
attempted again to recollect where indeed I had seen just such
components and why I thought that I had seen them before and
more than once. And then it came to me. I went into the bedroom
and brought in the phonor. I didn't even need a screwdriver. I
took the case off the phonor, stuck my index finger under the
odorizer horn, and, catching it with my finger nail, extracted
a vacuum tubusoid FX-92-U, four outputs, static field, capacity
equals two. Sold in consumer electronic stores at fifty cents
each. In local patois -- a slug.
It had to be, I thought. We are disoriented by
conversations about a new drug. We are constantly derailed by
talk about horrific new inventions. We have already made
several similar blunders.
There was the time when Alhagana and Burris served up a
complaint in the U.N. that the separatists were using a new
type of weapon -- freeze bombs. We threw ourselves furiously
into a search for underground laboratories and even arrested
two genuine underground inventors (sixteen and ninety-six years
old, respectively). And then it turned out that the inventors
were in no way connected, and the awful freeze bombs were
acquired by the separatists in Munich from a refrigerator
warehouse -- and were in fact reject super-freezers. True, the
effect of these super-freezers was indeed horrible. Used in
conjunction with molecular detonators (widely used by undersea
archaeologists in the Amazon for dispersing crocs and
piranhas), the super-freezers were capable of instantaneous
temperature depression of one hundred and fifty degrees
centigrade over a radius of twenty meters. Afterward, we spent
much effort indoctrinating ourselves with the concept that we
should keep in mind that in our times, literally every month,
masses of new inventions appear with the most peaceful of
applications, but with the most unexpected side effects. These
characteristics are often such that lawbreaking in the area of
weapons manufacture and stockpiling becomes meaningless. We
became extremely cautious about new types of armament, employed
by various extremists, and only a year later got caught by
another twist, when we went looking for a mysterious apparatus
with which poachers lured pterodactyls from the Uganda Preserve
at a great distance. We found a clever do-it-yourself
adaptation of the "Up-down" toy in combination with a fairly
generally available medical device.
And now we had caught slug -- a combination of a standard
radio with a standard tubusoid and a standard chemical and very
common plumbing-supplied hot water.
To make a long story short, there would be no need to
search for secret factories. We'd have to look for some very
adroit and unprincipled speculators who sensed very delicately
indeed that they found themselves in the Country of the
Boob.... They'd be like trichinae in a ham. Five or six
enterprising self-seekers. An innocent cottage somewhere in the
suburbs. Just go to a department store, buy the vacuum tubusoid
for fifty cents, peel off the plastic wrapping, and place in an
elegant box with a glassite cover. And then sell it for fifty
marks -- "only to you and only through friends." True, there
was still the inventor. Probably he was not alone, and most
certainly he was not the only one.... But probably they had not
survived; for this was nothing like a lure for pterodactyls.
Anyway, was the matter really one of speculators? Let them sell
another forty slugs, or a hundred. Even in the City of Boobs,
people had to figure out in the end what it was all about. And
when that happened, slug would spread like wildfire.
The first ones to see to that would be the moralists from
the Joy of Living. They would be followed by Dr. Opir, who
would sally forth and announce that according to scientific
endings, slug was conducive to clarity of thought and was
unsurpassed in the treatment of alcoholism and depression. In
general, the future ideal was a vast trough filled with hot
water. Then they would stop writing the word "slug" on the
That's who should be taken by the throat, I thought, if
anybody. The trouble is not the profiteers. The trouble is that
there exists this Country of the Boob, this filthy
misconstruction. It has taken the shivers under its wing and
can't wait to legalize slug....
There was a knock on the door. Oscar came into the study,
and he was not alone. With him was Matia himself, stocky, gray,
with dark glasses and thick cane, as always, looking like a
veteran who has lost his sight. Oscar was smirking
"Hello, Ivan," said Matia. "Meet your back-up, Oscar
Pebblebridge, from the southwest section."
We shook hands. What I have always disliked about our
Security Council is the plethora of mossy traditions, and
especially infuriating is the idiotic system of
cross-investigation, due to which we are constantly tripping
over each other's sleuthing, busting each other's mugs, and not
uncommonly shooting each other with fair accuracy. I can hardly
see that as serious work -- more like adolescents playing at
detectives. Let them go soak their heads in a swamp.
"I was going to take you in today," confided Oscar. "Never
in my life have I seen such a suspicious character."
Without saying a word, I took the pistol out of my pocket,
unloaded it, and threw it in the desk drawer. Oscar followed my
actions with approval. I said, addressing Matia, "I guess that
the investigation would simply collapse, without getting
started, had I known about Oscar. But I must inform you that I
almost maimed him yesterday."
"I read you right," said Oscar smugly.
Grunting, Matia lowered himself into the armchair.
"I can't ever remember a situation," he said, "when Ivan
was pleased with everything. But conspiracy is the foundation
of our business.... Take a chair and sit down, both of you.
You, Oscar, had no right to be maimed, and you, Ivan, had no
right to be arrested. That's how you should regard it. And what
have you got here?" he said, taking off his dark glasses to
look at the slugs, "Taking up radio as a hobby in between your
work? Laudable, laudable!"
It was evident that they didn't know a thing. Oscar was
leafing through his notebook, where everything was encrypted in
his own personal code, and was apparently preparing himself to
make a report, while Matia scanned over the slugs with his
fleshy nose, holding the glasses aloft in his hand. There was
something symbolic in this spectacle.
"And so, agent Zhilin is enriching his leisure with radio
technology," continued Matia, restoring his glasses and leaning
back in his chair. "He has lots of free time, he has switched
to a four-hour day.... And bow do you stand on the question of
the meaning of life, agent Zhilin? It appears you may have
found it. I hope it won't be necessary to take you away like
"It won't be required," I said. "I had not enough time to
become addicted. Did Rimeyer tell you anything?"
"But of course not," he said with vast sarcasm. "Why
should he do that? He was ordered to find the drug, and he did,
and he used it, and now he apparently considers his duty
discharged. He became an addict himself, don't you see. He is
silent. He is loaded with this brew up to his ears, and it's
useless to talk to him! He raves that he has murdered you and
constantly asks for his radio." Matia stopped short and gazed
at the radios. "Strange," he said and looked at me. "However, I
like orderliness. Oscar got here first, and he has certain
deductions both about the goodies and the conduct of the
operation. Let's begin with him."
I looked at Oscar.
"About what operation?"
"The devil knows," said Matia.
"The raiding of the center. You haven't located the center
The hunt is on, I thought, and said, "No, I didn't. A
center I haven't latched on to. But --"
"All in good order, in proper order," said Matia severely
and banged the table with the flat of his hand. "Oscar, you may
begin, and as for you, Ivan, you listen attentively and make
your deductions. If you are still capable, that is."
Oscar began. Obviously he was a good worker. He moved
fast, energetically, and purposefully. True, Rimeyer had
twisted him around his finger as well as he had me.
Nevertheless, Oscar had been able to grasp much in spite of it.
He understood that the sought-for "goodies" were known locally
as "slug." Very rapidly he had grasped the connection between
slug and Devon. He divined that neither the Fishers, nor the
Perches, nor the Sorrowers had any relation to our problem. He
had deduced with superb insight that in this town it was
practically impossible to hide any secret. He had even been
able to insinuate himself into the confidence of the Intels,
and had established beyond any doubt that there were only two
truly secret societies -- the Art Patrons and the Intels. Since
the Art Patrons could be eliminated, that left only the
"It was not contrary to the conviction which I had
formed," said Oscar, "that the only people with access to
laboratories and capable of conducting scientific or
quasi-scientific research were the students and professors in
the university. It's true that the factories in the city also
have laboratories. There are only four of them, and I have
investigated them all. These laboratories are stringently
specialized and are loaded to the limit with ongoing work. As
the factories work around the clock, there is no basis
whatsoever to postulate that the industrial labs could become
centers of slug manufacture. On the other hand, out of the
seven university labs, two are obviously surrounded with an
atmosphere of mystery. I was unable to determine what goes on
in them, but I spotted three students, who, I believe, should
know for sure...."
I listened to him intently, amazed at how much he had been
able to accomplish here, but it was already all too clear to me
where his main error lay. I could see he was following a false
trail, and alongside of that, there grew within me a vague
feeling of an even more significant error, of a most important
error, the error in the underlying premises of the Council.
"I arrived at the visualization," he continued, "of a
gangsterlike organization of the vertical type with rigorously
separated functions in decentralized sections. The production
section is involved in the manufacture and perfection of the
slug.... I should inform you that slug, whatever it may be, is
being perfected: I was able to establish that in the beginning.
Devon was not employed at all.... Next, the marketing section
is concerned with expanding the slug distribution, while the
strong-arm section terrorizes the population and interdicts all
debate on that topic.... The intimidation of the people..."
Now I understood it all.
"Just a minute, Oscar," I said. "Can you guarantee that in
the entire city there are only two secret organizations?"
"Yes," he said. "Only the Art Patrons and the Intels."
"Please continue, Oscar," said Matia with displeasure. "I
would ask you not to interrupt, Ivan."
"Sorry," I said. Oscar continued to talk, but I was no
longer listening. Something flared in my mind. The traditional
initial model for all our undertakings, with its invariant
axiom predicating the existence of a ramified organization of
evildoers, had been shattered into dust, and I was only amazed
that I had failed heretofore to recognize its inane complexity
in the context of this simple-minded country. There were no
secret shops guarded by gloomy persons with brass knuckles,
there were no wary, unprincipled businessmen, there were no
traveling salesmen with double-walled shirt collars stuffed
with contraband, and it was quite for nothing that Oscar was
drafting the elegant chart of squares and circles, connected by
a confusion of lines, and inscribed with the words "center,"
"staff," and numerous question marks. There was nothing to
demolish and be and no one to send off to Baffin Land.... But
there was modern industry involved in everyday trade, there
were state stores where slugs were sold for fifty cents apiece,
and there were -- but only in the beginning one or two
individuals not devoid of inventiveness and dying of inactivity
and thirsting for new sensations. And there was the
medium-sized country where, once upon a time, abundance and
affluence were the end to be attained, and they never did
become the means to another end. And that was all that was
Someone inserted a slug into a radio by mistake and lay
down in the bath to relax and maybe listen to some good music
or to hear the latest news -- and it started. The news oozed
and remnants of phonors found their way into the garbage ducts,
then someone figured out that slugs could be obtained not only
from phonors, but could simply be bought in stores. Someone was
inspired to use aromatic salts and someone employed Devon.
People started to die in their baths from nervous exhaustion,
and the statistical department of the Security Council
submitted a top secret report to the Presidium. It became
apparent at once that all such deaths occurred with people who
had come here as tourists. And furthermore, that there were far
more such deaths in this country than anywhere else on the
planet. As so often happens, a false theory was constructed on
well-verified facts, and we, one after another, well schooled
in conspiracy, were sent here to uncover the secret gang of
dealers in a new and unknown drug, and we arrived here and did
stupid things. But, as always, no labor goes for naught, and if
you must look for the guilty, then all were guilty, from the
mayor to Rimeyer, and if so, then no one was guilty, and now we
have to --
"Ivan," said Matia irritably, "are you asleep?"
They were both looking at me. Oscar was extending me his
notebook with the diagrams. I took the notebook and threw it on
"Listen," I said. "Oscar has done wonders, of course, but
we have come a cropper again! Oscar, you have seen such a lot,
but you understood nothing. If there are any people in this
land who hate slug, it's the Intels. The Intels are not
gangsters, they are desperate men and patriots. They have but
one aim -- to stir this bog. By any means. To give this city
some kind of purpose, to force it away from the trough They are
sacrificing themselves, do you understand? They invite fire
upon themselves, they are attempting to arouse the town to come
sort of common emotion, even if it has to be hatred. Can it be
you haven't heard of the tear gas, the shooting up of the
shivers? They are not making slug in the laboratories, they are
building bombs and cooking tear gas ... and generally breaking
the laws on weapons technology. They are preparing a putsch for
the twenty-eighth, but as for slug -- here it is!"
I shoved one at each of them, and simultaneously expounded
everything I thought on the subject.
At first, they listened to me in disbelief. Then they
stared at the slugs, not taking their eyes off them until I'd
finished, and when I did, they were quiet for quite a while.
Matia held his slug as though it were a buzzing wasp. There was
displeasure written on his face.
"Vacuum tubusoid... Hmmm... In fact... and radios ...
there is something to it."
Matia stuck the slug in his shirt pocket and announced
decisively, "There is nothing in it. That is, of course, I am
very pleased with you, Ivan, since you have apparently found
that which was needed, but your work is in the Council and not
with the Commission of World Problems. They adore philosophy
there, and haven't done a single useful thing to date. As for
you, you have been working with us for ten years now, but you
still haven't grasped the simple truth: if there is a crime,
there must be a criminal."
'That's not true," I said.
"That is true!" said Matia. "Don't start a debate with me!
You are eternally debating!... Be quiet, Oscar. It's my turn to
talk. I am asking you, Ivan, what is the worth of your version?
What do you propose to do? But be concrete, please! Be
"Concretely..." I faltered.
True enough, my version did not suit them.
They probably didn't even consider it a version.
For them it was just philosophizing. They were men, so to
say, of resolute action, knights of immediate decisive
measures., They let nothing slide. They cut through knots and
demounted Damocles' swords. They made rapid decisions, and
having made them, they no longer doubted. They didn't know how
to be otherwise. That was their world-view -- and I was the
only one to consider that their time had passed. Patience, I
thought. I am going to need an awful lot of patience. Suddenly,
I understood that life's logic was again ripping me away from
my best comrades, and that now it would be especially hard for
me, since the resolution of this argument would take a long
time, a very long time.... They were both looking at me.
"Concretely," I repeated. "Concretely I suggest a plan for
the development and spread of a humanistic viewpoint in this
Oscar grimaced with distaste, and Matia said biliously:
"Nah! I am talking seriously."
"So am I. What we need is not detectives, nor squads armed
with machine pistols."
"We need a decision!" said Matia, "not conversations, but
'That's precisely what I am proposing -- a decision."
"We have to save people," he said. "Souls we can save
after we save the people.... Don't annoy me, Ivan!"
"While you are restructuring world-views," said Oscar,
"people will be dying or turning into idiots."
I didn't want to argue, but said anyway, "As long as
world-views are not restructured, people will be dying and
turning into idiots, and no squads will help. Remember
"Rimeyer forgot his duty," raged Matia.
"Exactly," said I.
Matia slammed his mouth shut and, tearing off his glasses,
was silent for a while, his eyes rotating angrily. He was,
without a doubt, a man of iron; you could actually watch turn
drive his rage inward. In a minute he was entirely calm and
"Yes," he said. "It seems that I am forced to admit that
intelligence as a social institution has regressed to the
piteous end. Apparently we destroyed the last of the true
operatives in the time of the last putsches. "Knife" --
Dannziger; "Bamboo" -- Savada; "Doll" -- Grover; "Ram" --
Boas... True, they were bought and they were sold, they had no
country, they were scum, lumpens, but they worked! "Sirius" --
Haram... worked for four intelligences and was a scoundrel. He
was a filthy animal. But if he gave information, it was real
information, clear, precise, and timely. I can recollect
ordering him hung without the slightest pity, but when I look
at my current co-workers, I can understand what a loss
that was.... Granted, a man can fail in the end and become
a drug addict, as "Bamboo" Savada did finally. But why write
lying reports? Rather resign, excuse yourself, don't write any
reports at all.... I arrive in this town in the profound
conviction that I know it through and through, because I have
had here for ten years an experienced, proved, resident agent.
And suddenly I determine that I know precisely nothing. Every
local kid knows who the Fishers are. But I don't know. I know
only that the KVS Society which occupied itself with about the
same things as the Fishers was disbanded and outlawed three
years ago. I know this from the reports of the resident. But at
the local police I am informed that the VAL Society was formed
two years ago, which I did not learn from the resident's
reports. I am employing a simplified example, since I really
don't give a damn about the Fishers, but this becomes
transformed into a general style of work. Reports are delayed,
reports lie, reports misinform... in the end reports are simply
invented. One man openly resigns from the Council and doesn't
consider it incumbent upon him to so inform his superior. He
has enough, you see; he had intentions to communicate but
somehow couldn't find the time.... Another, instead of fighting
the drug problem, becomes an addict himself.... And the third
He nodded at me with regretful bitterness.
"Understand me correctly, Ivan," he continued. "I am not
opposed to philosophy. But philosophy is one thing and our work
altogether another. Judge for yourself, Ivan. If there is no
secret headquarters, if we are faced with a deluge of
do-it-yourself enterprise, then why all the secretiveness? All
this conspiratorial atmosphere? Why is slug enveloped in such
mystery? I allow that Rimeyer is silent because of pangs of
conscience in general and specifically on your account, Ivan.
But the rest? Slug is not illegal; everyone knows about it and
yet everyone keeps it a secret. Oscar, here, doesn't
philosophize; he postulates that the inhabitants are simply
terrorized. I can understand that. And what do you postulate,
"In your pocket," I said, "there is a slug. Go in the
bathroom. There's Devon on the shelf -- one tablet orally, four
in the water. There's some whiskey in the medicine chest. Oscar
and I will wait. And then you can tell us aloud, so we can
hear, we your comrades in work and your underlings, about your
sensations and experiences. And we -- better it should be Oscar
-- should listen, but as for me, I think I'll leave."
Matia put on his glasses and stared at me.
"You are implying that I won't tell? You propose that I,
too, will be derelict in my duty?"
"What you will learn will have no relation whatsoever to
your duty. That you will renege on subsequently. As did
Rimeyer. Comrades, this is slug. It's a cute device, which
awakens fantasy and directs it where it will, particularly
where you yourself subconsciously -- and I mean subconsciously
-- would like to direct it. The further you are removed from
the animal, the more inoffensive would slug be, but the closer
to the animal, the more you would be impelled to adhere to the
conspiratorial way. The animals themselves are altogether
silent. They just know how to press the lever."
I explained about the rats to them.
"Did you try it yourself?" asked Matia.
"As you can see, I tend to silence."
Matia sibilated for some time and then said, "Well, I am
no nearer to the animal than you are. How do you put it in?"
I loaded the radio and handed it to him. Oscar was
following all this with interest.
"God be with me," said Matia, "Where is your bath? I'll
wash after my trip while I'm at it."
He locked himself in, and we could hear him dropping
"Strange affair," said Oscar.
"It's really not an affair," I contradicted. "It's a piece
of history, Oscar, and you would like to fit it into a file and
tie it with a ribbon. But this is no gangster business. It
should be obvious to a hedgehog, as Yurkovsky used to say."
"Yurkovsky, Vladimir Sergeyevitch. There was such a
renowned planetologist. I worked with him."
"Aah," said Oscar, "By the way, on the plaza by the Hotel
Olympic there is a monument to a Yurkovsky."
"The very same man."
"Really?" said Oscar. "On the other hand, it's quite
possible. However, the monument was not put up because he was a
renowned planetologist. It's simply that for the first time in
the history of the city, he broke the electronic roulette bank.
It was decided to immortalize such a feat."
"I expected something of the sort," I murmured. I felt
The shower began to hiss in the bathroom, and there was a
frightful roar from Matia, At first, I decided that he turned
on ice water instead of warm, but he kept yelling and then
began to curse in the most horrendous terms. Oscar and I
exchanged glances. He was generally calm, interpreting this as
the typical action of slug, and his face exhibited a
compassionate expression. The latch rattled wildly, the door
flew open with a crash. Bare heels slapped in the bedroom, and
a naked Matia rolled into the study.
"Are you some kind of an idiot?" he bellowed at me. "What
sort of filthy trick is this?"
I went numb. Matia resembled a grotesque zebra. His
well-fed body was covered with poison-green vertical stripes.
He reared and stamped his feet, spraying emerald drops. When we
regained our composure and investigated the site of the
accident, we learned that the shower head had been stuffed with
a sponge saturated with a green dye. I remembered Len's note
and guessed that Vousi was the culprit. It took a long while to
restore a normal atmosphere. Matia viewed the incident as a
boorish joke and an inadmissible disregard of subordinate
discipline and behavior. Oscar horse-laughed. I scrubbed Matia
with a brush and explained. Then Matia announced that from now
on he wouldn't trust anyone and would try out slug when he got
home. He dressed and went into conference with Oscar on the
plans for blockading the city.
I was cleaning up in the bath and thinking that with this,
my work in the Council was coming to an end, and another kind
of work was beginning -- which I did not know how to begin. I
would have liked to include myself in the blockade planning,
not because I considered it necessary, but because it was so
simple, so much more simple than to return to people their
souls which had been devoured by affluence, and to teach each
one to think of world problems in the same way as his own
"Isolate this pus bag from the rest of the world, isolate
it totally, that's the total of our philosophy," orated Matia.
That was aimed at me. But perhaps not even me. For Matia was a
brilliant mind. He understood too well that isolation was
always a defense, but here we had to attack. But he knew how to
advance only with squads, and this was embarrassing to him.
To rescue. For how long would you need rescuing? When
would you learn to rescue yourselves? Why were you eternally
harkening to priests, fascists, demagogues, and imbecile Opirs?
Why didn't you want to exert your brains? Why did you resist
thinking so? Why couldn't you understand that the world is
vast, complex, and fascinating? Why was everything simple and
boring tc you? In what way did your mind differ from the mind
of Rabelais, Swift, Lenin, Einstein, Makarenko, Hemingway, and
Strogoff? Someday I would grow tired of all this. Someday when
I had no more strength and conviction. For I was similar to
you. But I wanted to help you, and you didn't want to help
Reg and Len came over after school, and Len said, "We
have decided, Ivan. We will go to the Gobi Central." He had red
fuzz on his lip and huge red hands, and I could see that it
divas he who had thought up the Gobi trip, and quite recently
-- not more than ten minutes ago. Reg, as usual, was silent,
chewing on a blade of grass and placidly studying me with his
calm gray eyes. He has become altogether a square, I thought,
and said, "Wonderful book, isn't it?" "Yes, indeed," said Len.
"We understood at once where we should go." Reg was quiet.
"Heat and stench are suspended in the shadow of these hard
laboring dragons," I said from memory. "They devour everything
under them -- the ancient Mongolian prayer gate, the bones of a
two-humped beast fallen in some sand storm..." "Yes," said Len,
while Reg went on chewing his blade of grass. "Every time," I
continued (now from Ichin-dagli), "that the sun arrives at a
mathematically precise required position, a strange mirage
blossoms out in the East -- of a strange city with white towers
which no one has yet seen in reality. " "One should see that
with his own eyes," said Len, and laughed. "Friend Len," I
said, "it's too fascinating and therefore too simple. You will
see that it's too simple yourself and it will become an
unpleasant disappointment." No, I hadn't said it right. "Friend
Len," I said, "what sort of a mirage is that? Here is one.
Seven years ago, in your mother's house, I saw a truly
marvelous mirage: both of you standing before me almost grown
up..." No -- I was saying that for myself, not for them. It
should be said differently. "Friend Len," I said, "seven years
ago you explained to me that your people were accursed. We came
here and removed the curse from you and Reg and from many other
children who had no parents. And now it's your turn to remove,
the curse, which..."
It will be very difficult, but I'll explain it to them.
One way or another, I'll get it across. We have known from
childhood how to remove the curses on the barricades and on
construction sites and in laboratories, and you will remove the
last of the curses, you will be the future teachers and
educators. In the last war -- the most bloodless and the most
difficult for its soldiers.
Upstairs Vousi screeched and Len started to cry piteously.
Oscar's voice boomed in the study. How well off he is, I
thought. Simple: slug is bad, harmful, unnatural. Therefore, it
must be destroyed, forbidden by law, and then you must watch
closely that the law is strictly enforced. Only Matia is
smarter than that, because he is older and more experienced.
Matia can still be pulled over to my side. My word doesn't mean
anything to him, but others will be found to whom he will
listen.... How wonderful that I can now cry out to the whole
world and be heard by millions of like-thinkers!
And then I thought that I would not leave this place. I
had been here only three days. It could not be that there was
no one here who would be with us. No one who hated all this
with a deadly hatred, who wanted to blast this dull sated world
out of its stasis. Such people always existed and always will.
Perhaps that bibliophile driver or that tall, harsh one of the
Intels... and who knew how many more. They stumbled about as
though they were blind. We would do everything in our power to
help them so that they would not waste their anger on trifles.
It was our place to be here now. And my place, too.
What a labor lies ahead, I thought, what a task! For the
time being, I didn't know where to begin in this Country of the
Boob, caught unprepared in a flood of affluence, but I knew
that I wouldn't leave here as long as the immigration laws
permitted. And when they stopped permitting it, I would break
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