The year is 3149, and a vast paper destroying blight—papyralysis—has obliterated much of the planet’s written history. Fortunately, these rare memoirs, preserved for centuries in a volcanic rock, record the strange life of a man trapped in a hermetically sealed underground community . . .
From the Kafka Prize–winning author of Solaris, this is an entertaining and thought-provoking blend of politics, philosophy, humor, and science fiction.
Translated by Michael Kandel and Christine Rose
|Publisher:||Houghton Mifflin Harcourt|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||525 KB|
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... I couldn't seem to find the right room — none of them had the number designated on my pass. First I wound up at the Department of Verification, then the Department of Misinformation, then some clerk from the Pressure Section advised me to try level eight, but on level eight they ignored me, and later I got stuck in a crowd of military personnel — the corridors rang with their vigorous marching back and forth, the slamming of doors, the clicking of heels, and over that martial noise I could hear the distant music of bells, the tinkling of medals. Now and then janitors would go by with steaming percolators, now and then I would stumble into rest rooms where secretaries hastily renewed their make-up, now and then agents disguised as elevator men would strike up conversations — one of them had an artificial leg and he took me from floor to floor so many times that after a while he began waving to me from a distance and even stopped photographing me with the camera-carnation in his lapel. By noon we were buddies, and he showed me his pride and joy, a tape recorder under the elevator floor. But I was getting more and more depressed and couldn't share his enthusiasm.
Stubborn, I went from room to room and pestered people with questions, though the answers were invariably wrong. I was still on the outside, still excluded from that ceaseless flow of secrecy that kept the Building strong. But I had to get in somewhere, find an entry at some point, no matter what. Twice I ended up in a storage cellar and leafed through some secret documents lying about. But there was nothing there of any value to me. After several hours of this, thoroughly annoyed and hungry as well (it was past lunchtime and there wasn't even a cafeteria to be found), I decided to take a different tack.
I recalled that the highest concentration of tall, gray officers was on the fourth level, so I headed there, opened a door bearing the sign BY APPOINTMENT ONLY and entered an empty reception room, from there went through a side door marked KNOCK BEFORE ENTERING and into a conference room full of moldering mobilization plans. Here I ran into a problem — there were two doors. One said NO ADMITTANCE, the other CLOSED. After some deliberation I decided on the second door — the correct choice as it turned out, since this was the office of General Kashenblade himself, the Commander in Chief. I walked in, and the officer who was on duty at the time led me to the Chief without asking any questions.
A powerful, bald old man, Kashenblade stirred his coffee. His head was perched upon the collar of his uniform; the bristling, many-folded jowls covered the galactic insignia and stripes like a bib. The desk was cluttered with phones and surrounded by computer consoles, speakers, buttons, and in the center was a row of labeled glass jars — specimens, apparently, though I couldn't see a thing in them apart from the alcohol. Kashenblade, the veins bulging on his shiny pate, was busy pushing buttons to silence the phones as soon as they began to ring. When several rang together, he rammed his fist into the whole bank of buttons. Then he noticed me. In the silence that followed there was only the grim tapping of his teaspoon.
"So there you are!" he snapped. It was a powerful voice.
"Yes," I answered.
"Wait, don't tell me, I have a good memory," he growled, watching me from under those bushy eyebrows. "X-27 contrastellar to Cygnus Eps, right?"
"No," I said.
"No? No! Well then. Morbilantrix B-KuK 81 dash Operation Nail? B as in Bipropodal?"
"No," I said, trying to maneuver my pass before his eyes. He waved it aside impatiently.
"No?" He looked hurt. Then he looked pensive. He stirred his coffee. The phone rang — his hand came down on the button like a lion's paw.
"Plastic?" he shot at me.
"Plastic?" I said. "Well, hardly ... I'm just an ordinary —"
Kashenblade stilled the rising din of phones with one quick slap and looked me over once more.
"Operation Cyclogastrosaur ... Ento-mo ... pentacla," he kept trying, unwilling to admit to any gap in his infallibility. When I failed to respond, he suddenly leaned forward and roared:
And it really looked as if he himself were ready to throw me out bodily. But I was too determined — also too much a civilian — to obey that order. I held my ground and kept the pass under his nose. At last Kashenblade reluctantly took it and — without even examining it — tossed it into a drawer of some machine, which immediately began to hum and whisper. Kashenblade listened to the machine; his face clouded over and his eyes glittered He gave me a furtive glance and started pressing buttons. The phones rang out together like a brass band. He silenced them and pressed other buttons: now the speakers drowned one another out with numbers and cryptonyms. He stood there and listened with a scowl, his eyelid twitching. But I could see the storm had passed.
"All right, hand over your scrap of paper!" he barked.
"I already did ..."
"To you, sir."
"Just a moment ago, and you threw —" I began, then bit my tongue.
Kashenblade glared at me and opened the drawer of that machine: it was empty, my pass had disappeared. Not that I believed for a moment that this was an accident; in fact, I had suspected for some time now that the Cosmic Command, obviously no longer able to supervise every assignment on an individual basis when there were literally trillions of matters in its charge, had switched over to a random system. The assumption would be that every document, circulating endlessly from desk to desk, must eventually hit upon the right one. A time-consuming procedure, perhaps, but one that would never fail. The Universe itself operated on the same principle. And for an institution as everlasting as the Universe — certainly our Building was such an institution — the speed at which these meanderings and perturbations took place was of no consequence.
At any rate, my pass was gone. Kashenblade slammed the drawer shut and observed me for a while, blinking. I stood there, my hands at my side, uncomfortably aware of their emptiness. His blinking became more insistent as I stood there, then positively fierce. I blinked back. That seemed to pacify him.
"Okay," he muttered, pushing a few buttons. Computers churned, multicolored tapes snaked out onto the desk. He tore them off bit by bit, read them, absent-mindedly set other machines going, machines that made copies and destroyed originals. Finally a white folder emerged with INSTRUCTIONS B-66-PAPRA-LABL in letters so large I could read them from across the desk.
"Your assignment ... a Mission, a Special Mission," General Kashenblade said with tremendous gravity. "Deep penetration, subversion — were you ever there?" he asked with a blink.
He lifted his head; once again the eyelids fluttered. I didn't know what to answer.
"And this is an agent," he said with disgust. "An agent ... a modern agent ..." He grew morose. The word "agent" was stretched out of shape and became a taunt, it whistled through his teeth, every consonant and vowel was chewed and slowly tortured. Then he exploded: "Everything has to be spelled out, eh? Don't you read the papers? Stars, for example — tell me about the stars! What do they do? Well?!"
"They shine," I said doubtfully.
"They shine, he says! All right, how? How do they shine? Tell me how!"
And he pointed to his eyelids.
"Uh, they twinkle — they blink — they — wink," I answered in an involuntary whisper.
"How clever he is! At last! They wink! Yes, they wink! But when do they wink? Do you know when? I bet you don't! And that's the kind of material I have to work with around here! At night! They wink, they cower under cover of night!!"
He roared like a lion. I stood at attention, straight as an arrow, waiting for the storm to pass. But it was not passing. Kashenblade, puffed up and purple to the top of his bald head, shook the room with his bellow, shook the Building itself.
"And the spiral nebulae?! Well?! Don't tell me you don't know what that means! SPY-ral!! And the expanding universe, the retreating galaxies! Where are they going? What are they running from? And the Doppler shift to the red!! Highly suspicious — no, more! A clear admission of guilt!!"
He gave me a withering look, sat back and said in a voice cold with contempt:
"Now just a minute —" I flared up.
"What? What was that?! Just a minute —? Ah yes, the password! Good, good. Just a minute ... the password, yes, that's better ..."
And he attacked the buttons — the machines rattled like rain on a tin roof, green and gold ribbons spun out and coiled on the desk. The old man read them avidly.
"Good!" he concluded, clutching them in his fists. "Your Mission. Conduct an on-the-spot investigation. Verify. Search. Destroy. Incite. Inform. Over and out. On the nth day nth hour sector n subsector n rendezvous with N. Stop. Salary group under cryptonym Bareback. Voucher for unlimited oxygen. Payment by weight for denunciations, and sporadic. Report regularly. Your contact is Pyra-LiP, your cover Lyra-PiP. When you fall in action, posthumous decoration with the Order of the Top Secret, full honors, salutes, memorial plaque, and a written recommendation in your dossier. Any questions?"
"But if I don't fall in action?" I asked.
An indulgent smile spread across the general's face.
"A wise guy," he said. "I had to get a wise guy. Very funny. Okay, so much for the jokes. You have your Mission now. Do you know, do you understand what that is?" His lofty brow unwrinkled, the golden medals on his chest gleamed. "A Mission — it's a wonderful thing! And Special — a Special Mission! Words fail me! Go, go my boy, God be with you, and keep on your toes!"
"I'll do my best," I said. "But what exactly is the assignment?"
He pressed several buttons, phones rang, he silenced them. The purple pate slowly turned pink. He eyed me benevolently, like a father.
"Oh," he said, "extremely hazardous. But remember, it is not for me! I am not sending you! The Country! The Common Good! Yes, yes ... you, I know ... it'll be hard, no picnic, a tough nut to crack ... You'll see! Tough, but it must be done, because ... because ..."
"Our Duty," I prompted.
He beamed. He rose. The medals on his chest swayed and jingled like bells, a hush fell over the machines, the phones grew silent and the lights dimmed. He approached me, he gave me his powerful, hairy hand, the hand of an old soldier. His eyes bored right through me, the bushy brows knitted in a solemn squint. Thus we stood, united by a handshake, the Commander in Chief and the secret agent.
"Our Duty!" were his words. "Well said, my boy! Our Duty! Take care!"
I saluted, about-faced, exited, hearing on the way out how he sipped his cold coffee. Kashenblade — now there was a man.CHAPTER 2
Still a little dazed by my conversation with the Chief, I entered the main office. The secretaries were all busy putting on lipstick and stirring coffee. A wad of papers tumbled out of the mail chute: my orders, signed by General Kashenblade. One clerk stamped them "classified" and handed them to another, who put them on index cards, which in turn were filed away, retrieved, coded by machine — then the key was destroyed, all the original papers burned, the ashes sifted, registered and sealed in an envelope bearing my number, and the envelope was dispatched by pneumatic tube to an unknown vault. But I was unable to pay proper attention to this procedure; the unexpected turn of events had left me quite numb. General Kashenblade's cryptic remarks clearly indicated matters so secret that one could only hint at them. Though sooner or later I would have to be apprised of their substance. How else could I accomplish my Mission? Did the Mission have anything to do with my original pass? But that question was utterly insignificant in the light of this new, all-too-sudden career of mine.
My musings were interrupted by the arrival of a young officer who introduced himself as the Chiefs undercover aide, Lieutenant Blanderdash. This Lieutenant Blanderdash shook my hand, told me he had been assigned to my person, led me to an office across the hall, offered me some coffee, began to extol my extraordinary abilities (they had to be extraordinary indeed for Kashenblade to have given me such a tough nut to crack), and also marveled at the naturalness of my face, particularly the nose — then I realized he assumed it was false. I stirred my coffee in silence, deciding that reticence was the best policy. After some fifteen minutes he took me through an officers' passageway to a service elevator. We broke the seal and rode it down.
"Incidentally," he said as soon as we stepped out, "do you yawn much?"
"Not that I know of. Why?"
"Oh, nothing. When a person yawns, one can look inside, you know. You don't snore, by any chance?"
"Wonderful. You can't imagine how many of our people have come to a bad end by snoring."
"What happened to them?" I was reckless enough to ask.
But he only smiled and fingered his insignia. "Perhaps you would like to see the displays? They're right on this level — over there by the columns. Our Department of Collections."
"Sure," I replied, "but do we have the time?"
"No problem," he said, steering me in the right direction. "Anyway, this is not to satisfy an idle curiosity. In our profession the more one knows, the better."
Blanderdash opened an ordinary white door, behind which was solid steel. He worked a combination lock and the steel slid away, revealing an enormous, windowless but brightly lit hall. The coffered ceiling was supported by pillars; the walls were covered with tapestries and hangings in black, gold and silver. I had never seen anything so magnificent before. Between the columns across the highly polished parquet stood the showcases, cabinets, vitrines on slender metal legs, chests with their lids open. The one nearest me was filled with small items that gleamed like jewels. They were cuff links, and there must have been a million of them. From another chest rose a mound of pearls. Blanderdash led me to the glass cases: on velvet cushions lay artificial ears, noses, bridges, fingernails, warts, eyelashes, boils and humps, some displayed in cross section to show the gears and springs inside. As I stepped back, I stumbled against the chest of pearls and shuddered: they were teeth — snaggleteeth and tiny teeth, buck teeth, teeth with cavities and teeth without, milk teeth, eye teeth, wisdom teeth ...
My guide smiled and pointed to the nearest tapestry. I took a closer look: beards, goatees, sideburns, muttonchops, all sewn onto a nylon base in such a fashion that the blond ones represented, against a brunette background, the national seal. In the next room, even more spacious than the first, were more glass cases. These contained artifacts and keepsakes such as cheeses or decks of cards. From the pine ceiling-beams hung artificial limbs, corsets, clothing. There were artificial insects too, crafted with a precision that only a great and wealthy power could have summoned the means to achieve. The insect display alone filled several shelves. Blanderdash did not intrude with explanations, certain that the corpora delicti assembled here would speak for themselves. But now and then, whenever he thought I might overlook some particularly interesting item in the abundance of things to see, he pointed it out discreetly. For example, he directed my attention to a great quantity of poppy seed placed on white silk under a strong magnifying lens. This enabled me to notice that each individual seed had been painstakingly hollowed out. Amazed, I turned to ask him what this meant. But he cut me off with a commiserating smile and a shrug, and to make his meaning clear, silently mouthed the word "classified." Only when we left did he casually remark, "Interesting trophies, aren't they?"
The next room was even more magnificent I looked up and saw an enormous tapestry on the opposite wall, a true masterpiece in auburn and black depicting the birth of a nation. After some hesitation, Blanderdash pointed out one dignitary's coat in the panorama: the lapels were neatly trimmed black sideburns; I was given to understand they originally belonged to an enemy agent this dignitary had unmasked.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Memoirs Found in a Bathtub"
Copyright © 2018 Stanislaw Lem.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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