Andrew has certainly gone mad. Always been crasy. Ever since he urgently demanded to haul the central rock in Stonehenge two metres right because, he explained, the rock made it impossible for an alien ship from some obscure galaxy to land, with the galaxy not even being on the Earth’s roster! And the fact that those damned aliens actually had to land in Egypt, finding their bearing by pyramids, and couldn’t take off because their calculations went all wrong, doesn’t change anything. The whole world then was urgently helping them to take off , because those nervous alien scums amused themselves by covering one terrestrial city after another with lightproof domes, merging them into darkness for a day or two.
After all, why he? It must be a hoax, complete nonsense! It simply can’t be! After all, he is not a phsychologist. Besides Gulnara will never allow it — they were to marry in August. And this would make him disappear for a day or two. But the main thing was that he was scared. Although this was technically simple, he is damned if he could get the hang of how it worked.
Sergey gave another look at the official invitation on the form of the Department on Investigation of Faschism, Communism and Totalitarism of the Institute of World History. The hoax seemed to become too large-scale, as Anatoly Vasilyevich Barsov, scientific vice-director, had signed it himself. He had seen Barsov only once, when he was waiting for Andrew in the lounge of the Institute.This was enough to be thouroughly impressed.
Although Barsov was only a vice director, he was the most remarkable personality in their scientific campus. Though he was about sixty, local hussies still languished at seeing his powerful figure and looked at him with a barely concealed adoration. One nod of his maned head was enough to make foreign partners sign any agreement with the Institute and consider all his ideas brilliant. Whereas, be they put forward by somebody else, they would be branded as mad.
"I’ll have to go, I guess,” sighed Sergey. May be Anatoly Barsov will just invite him to visit Andrew in a lunatic asylum. But the lunatic asylum wasn’t yet conferred the honour to lay hands on him. Which was luck, because Andrew would immediately drive it mad.
Meanwhile he made himself comfortable in an armchair next to Barsov and was vaguely toying with a small elastic disc, talking about visits forty-fifty years back to the past so lightly, as if it was quite a customary business. Mind, he spoke not of two or even five visits. It was all about walks back and forth " during half a year for a start, and then we shall see.”
"See how soft it is!’ Andrew was pushing the disc to Sergey. "You will be implanted it right here.” He pointed to Sergey’s palm below his thumb. "You won’t even feel it!”
Sergey was pushing the disc away as if it were a poisonous snake. The disc was actualy a temporal portal, which was activated by pressing it with any part of the body which housed it. No other object or person could make it work, however hard he would press.
"What if I fail to come back?” asked Sergey, horrified. Anatoly Vasilyevich raised his head from the papers which he was studying.
"This is basically impossible,” he said softly and started to explain something about mole holes in time-space continuum, biological fields which affected the disc and which were unique the way fingerprints are. Sergey brushed away all arguments. He didn’t want to understand the fundamentals of time travelling and thought it absurd. No-one thought it necessary to know the inside of a car-motor to understand why it runs. A different thing worried him: what if the disc breaks!
"Hey, are you listening?” said Andrew indignantly. "This is not a mechanism! It’s a capsule.”
"Then go there yourself,” he snapped peevishly. "I do wish you would stop pestering me, by God!”
"I did.” said Andrew calmly.
Sergey was interested:
"You did what ? Went there? How did it feel? Did you come back?”
"I’m still there,” sighed Andrew. "Talking with a caveman. Casting pearls before a swine. Figuratively speaking.”
"Talk about swines!” snarled Sergey. "By the way, I have a job of my own. By the way,I am a top-class programmer. And our boss said, by the way, that if it wasn’t for me, our bank would …”
"By the way,” mocked Andrew testily, "there is no such thing as an irreplaceable specialist.”
"Yes there is!”
"No there isn’t”.
"By the way…”
The conversation was implacably turning into bickering and Barsov had to interfere. He gave an official cough and started loflily, stressing how he appreciated such an outstanding personality as Sergey Bakhmetev and how he relied on it. Him .
"Erm. Sergey Alexandrovich! I would like you to fully understand the humanitarian significance of the mission we are entrusted with.”
"Hey, not we. I am not entrusted with anything for all I know.”
If Barsov heard him, he wouldn’t show it. His voice continued to murmer, enveloping Sergey’s mind with a hypnotising haze. "Your sociability is unique. You successfully contact people with any level of intellect.. You gain people’s confidence in no time. They open their minds and souls before you…”
"Not that I’m asking them about it.” Sergey put in sheepishly, but obviously giving in.
"We must investigate the nature of human envy. Our task…”
"Your task,” explained Sergey, quite peacefully.
"It’s a humanitarian task,” said Barsov in a didactic tone. "The mechanism of envy is very complicated. More often than not those who envy are not the ones you would expect it from. And the period of total misery and absence of any freedoms where we are sending you is very convenient for such an investigation.’
Anatoly Vasilyevich covered his eyes and made smacking sounds with his lips, admiring the wretched epoch, convenient for the investigation. The epoch already free of dinasaurs, with Bakhmetev-the-senior playing in a sand-box. It would be fun,Serhey thought, to meet his Dad in the times of his barefooted childhood. He could condescendingly pat him on his head and give him a candy, probably accompanied by a slap –very light, of course. It would be far more difficult to meet Mum — she was born in Belorussia, way from Moscow. He would buy a ticket and go there. Like a common Soviet citizen.
And yet, Sergey thought, coming to his senses, why him? A week ago his arch-friend Andrew called him. All his life, beginning from the nursery school, he involved Sergey in quite crazy adventures which each time ended in shattering Sergey’s nervous system. During the last year and a half he was fully immersed in working out new technologies of low cost time shifts, to carry out some sophisticated international psychological experiment.
Russia initiated getting an experimental foundation to set up the theory for a new psychological protective weapons, which was to affect political figures and all kinds of fat cats in case they get out of line and rip off big lumps of budget money. If Sergey did a good job in the past and provoked multiple reactions to prosperity and repletion of a man who came from God knows where, they would construct a psychological model of manipulation with human consciousness or, at least, of predictability of human responses. All that with simple, licensed means, no foul game about meddling with the subconscious.
The plan was to send scouts, the same as him, to big and small cities at the same time. It’s common knowledge that people in megapolices have a psychology which differs from those in small ones. Their data will flow to the international laborotary with the Moscow Institute of World history, where highbrow people in black suites, and very often in torn jeans and sweaters will knit their brows and say something very clever, like "shortage of pineapples most likely causes redistribution of this fruit to the accompaniment of outbursts of uncontrolled ferocity also fuelled by occasional lack of soap”. Three guesses who will head this sparkling well of exquisite intellect? Right, Anatoly Vasilyevich Barsov.
Barsov murmured on something about Sergey’s incredibly flexible psyche and his adequate reactions — what a flattery!, — and about his uniqueness which would make it possilbe to prepare a springboard for other messengers. When Barsov came to more material things and added that he would have an unlimited funding in the past, for the amount of old banknotes in the archives of the Finance Department was inexhaustible, Sergey became fully awake.
The whole enterprise suddenly looked quite attractive. Travelling in the past, great! After all it isn’t dinasaurs he was going to! He felt an unpleasant tingle somewhere between his blades, though. He might as well be sent to the age of Ivan the Terrible by some fatal mistake, where he might be easily impaled or sent to some war — conquer Kazan, for example.
"My boss wouldn’t let me go,” he said pleasantly. "It’s really been good to chat with you. Now have a nice d… "
"He already has.”
"I’ll drop in some day… what?”
"Your boss. Artemyev. He has already let you go. He said that Inna Kuritzyina will work for you. And you will sometimes come back and put her lapses right.”
"Kuritsyina! I will never made head or tail of it after her!”
"Head or tail of what?”
"Head or tail of everything! If you only knew what she does with invoices! The only thing I allow her to do on the computer is play sky bubbles…”
"You have a week before you go,” reassured Andrew. "About enough time to teach her something, isn’t it?"
"To teach this dunce…”
"Yes. But she is a dunce with superb legs.”
Kuritzyina’s legs were really superb, the fact that Sergey could not deny.
"And Gulnara?” he said feebly.
"What about Gulnara?” asked Alexey querulously.
"What does she have to do with it, when we are starting the experiment that has no equal…”
"I won’t give a damn about your experiment if Gulnara starts nagging.,” answered Sergey reasonably.
Barsov had to take his eyes from some diagram.
"You will come back home every day,” he said softly.
"Almost. So your… "
"My bride,” prompted Sergey helpfully. Just a shadow of doubt and may be some confession flickered in Barsov's eyes.
"Yes, certainly. Right. Bride. Of course. She will have no grounds to be displeased. Which means that everything is settled.”
Sergey hesitated about everything being settled, so he sulked and was about to say "no”, or rather "NO-O!”. But somehow he didn’t have the guts to refuse Andrey. He had never had. Which Andrew, for all he knew, had never appreciated. He just took it for granted. It’s like, you are blessed with such an egg-head as my ingenious self, so at least do as you are told! The thought that theremight be people not interested in his ideas has never attended him. The only thing that remained was to confess for the thousandth time that Andrey was shamelessly manipulating him. He feebly wondered where the fate, which had adopted not a very attractive image of Andrey, will cast him this time.
"To the year nineteen fifty three,” said Andrew with a radiating smile.
"That seems OK. Let it bethe year of fifty three, neither better, not worse than many others, Sergey grumbled humbly. "What month?” "January.” "Can’t you make it summer?” protested Sergey. "You are taking half a summer from me, which is short as it is.” He sighed and then it dawned on him:
"Hey, look! Nineteen fifty three is the age of Stalin personality cult. What if they send mу to prison?”
Andrey gave a heavy sigh.
"So what?” shrugged Barsov. "If you are imprisoned, you will press the disc and come back.”
"The very second,” articulated Andrew very clearly.
"Our capsules are of momentary action.” Anatoly Vasilyevich gave a little cough.
"Actually if you do a good job they must put your to prison.”
Sergey jumped on his chair and glared at Andrey.
"What the hell!” he cried. You have been crossing me up, now that I think about it. I am your guinea pig, getting all the bumps. And you are a scholar in a white gown, who gazes at the monitor and scribbles in his register. You go there, get imprisoned and shot and then tell us about your sensations!"
"You are thinking too bad about your friend, Sergey,” Barsov softly interrupted his tirade imbued with a fair wrath.
"I am thinking too bad!” Sergey choked with anger. "Yes, I am thinking bad of him! Very bad, in fact. And what do you think? My father once punished me because of him. Because I had trusted my new tricycle to this jerk…”
Sergey’s voice trembled traitorously, so sorry he felt about the tricycle which turned into 3 neat piles twenty years ago: one had symmetrically arranged spokes, another one – three new shiny wheels, and the third contained the handlebars and many screws. These piles were never to become a tricycle again, and the rage of Bakhmetev the senior, as well as the junior, knew no bounds.
"You are unfair, Sergey. Let’s walk to our look-out station. You will understand a lot of things there. Don’t be angry with him, Andrey. Sergey doesn’t know anything."
While they were walking along the long corridor, Barsov was explaining what a wonderful scientist his friend Andrey was. "Friend Andrey” was casting offended looks at Sergey. "Surves him right,” Sergey thought malevontly. He was not going to forgive such a neglect to his life, freedom, safety … and the tricycle! Walking along the corridor in a boyish resilient gate, Anatoly Vasilyevich kept on explaining what a great preparatory job Andrey had done to provide Sergey’s safety.
"He risked his own life, even,” he emphasized.
"Which doesn’t prevent him from being a fool all the same,” Sergey muttered to himself obstinately. They came to the our look-out station.There were lots of computers and displays with irrelgular zigzag flashes and with what Sergey would have taken for gynaecological coaches, over which someone had placed shiny metal hoods. This would produce a very strong impression of a scientific sanctuary had it not been for jars and empty beer bottles, cups with stuck tea-leafs and plates with the remains of sushi, which piled on the tables among tangled wires. The wires entwined and sent deep into the bowels of tall cases. The cases were giving a low significant drone. The wires were hanging fro the tables to the floor and were twining on it like blacshiny snakes, filling all the space. Two guys who managed to exist in such a mess were absorbed with science and sushi. They looked back ar Barsov and hastily began to collect dirty dishes into a black plastic bag.
"You’ve made a pigsty again!” Barsov growled, pulling out a greasy tie from between the wires.
The tie was politely taken out of his hands with a polite request not to crumple it because it was put on at official receptions. Like international conferences, that is.
Stalking over wires and boxes Sergeyobediently followed Andrey to one of the computers. On its monitor he saw a usual yard — smal and snowy. In a far corner, fenced in a metal grate were two huge blue metal containers resembling giant flasks. Sergey looked at Barsov inquiringly.
"This is the place near hotel ‘Holt’,” he explained.
"Aha!” Sergey said with a clever look, expecting somebody to explain tohim why he should contemplate some yard even if it is situated near the hotel "Holt”. This hotel was situated in the centre of there small scientific town. Expert scientists, after they felt they could do without discos and the bustle of megapolices and were ready to concentrate on their families, grandchildren and science — or rather on science, families and grandchildren — assembled here, in Middlevolgashire. Here, in hinterland they generated great ideas. Sergey was to become the culprit of one of them. Sergey peered into the monitor and leaned closer.
"Wait,” he said with a puzzled look.
"There can’t be a yard like this near "Holt”. It has a parking lot on one side and a market on the other…” Andrey and Barsov couldn’t tear themselves from the screen.
"Hey, why is it winter there?” persisted Sergey. "It is July outside.”
A fat woman appeared, wearing a black winter coat with a karakul collar. The coat tightly embraced her body making her look like three feather pillows put on top of each other. She was carrying a deformed leather bag. Following her was a man in a short black coat, karakul hat in the form of a forage cap and very wide trousers. "Let's sit for a while,” the woman said to him and they sat down on a bench near the front door.
"Why are you staring at them?” reminded about himself Sergey. Barsov reluctantly tore himself from the screen.
"This yard doesn’t exist any more,” he explained. "As well as those people.”
"I see”, Sergey said thoughtfully. "Then how can we see them?”
"Andrey had installed surveillance cameras there. Now we can choose such a moment for time-shift. When noone sees us. It was much more difficult for Andrey.
"Oh. So you were there? Sergey said jealously. He began to get used to the idea that his mission will be unique, and he sort of kindled the hope that he could dowithout competitors in this enterprize. Meanwhile Barsov asked Andrey to show how to shift. Andrey nodded.
"Wait till these two go away… OK, it doesn’t matter, in fact. I’l find a secluded corner somewhere.”
He calmly unhoooked a sand-coloured sheepskin coat that was hanging in the corner, perched a dishevelled beaver lamb hat and walked to the screen and looked at it attentively.
"Why have you dressed like a tramp?” wondered Sergey, forgetting that he was angry with Andrey.
"I could get you a decent hat.”
"The hat is all the rage.” He paused and added: "Dupe.” Then he pressed his right forefinger on wrist of his left had and disappeared. Sergey twisted his head, but Barsov pointed to the screen. In about thirty seconds Andrey entered the snow- covered yard from the street. He passed the couple sitting on the bench, entered the front door and in a moment he was sitting in the armchair next to Sergey, in his ridiculous sheepskin coat, smelling fresh winter air and frost.
"You… how have you… what the h…”
"I can do it again,” Andrey said readily. He pressed the left wrist again, and in a couple of seconds he was coming out of the front door of the non-existant house towards long-deceased people who were sitting on the bench which turned to dust decades ago. Sergey felt dizzy from the thought of it.
"OK,” he said resolutely and stretched out his had. "Implant your disc. Now.”