The World Does Exist
Forty-one Degrees Centigrade
Morning. Through the ceiling the sky is, as usual, ﬁrm, round, red-cheeked. I think I should have been less surprised had I found above some extraordinary quadrangular sun, or people clad in many-colored dresses made of the skins of animals, or opaque walls of stone. Then the world, our world, does exist still? Or is it only inertia? Is the generator already switched out, while the armature is still roaring and revolving; two more revolutions, or three, and at the fourth it will die away?
Are you familiar with that strange state in which you wake up in the middle of the night, when you open your eyes into the darkness, and then suddenly feel you are lost in the dark; you quickly, quickly begin to feel around, seeking in the Journal of the United State; quickly, quickly — I found this:
“The celebration of the Day of Unanimity, long awaited by all, took place yesterday. The same Well-Doer who so often has proved his unshakable wisdom was unanimously re-elected for the forty-eighth time. The celebration was clouded by a little confusion, created by the enemies of happiness, who by their action naturally lost the right to be the bricks for the foundation of the renovated United State. It is clear to everyone that to take their votes into account would mean to consider as a part of a magniﬁcent heroic symphony the accidental cough of a sick person who happened to be in the concert hall.”
Oh, great Sage! Is it really true that despite everything we are saved? What objection, indeed, can one ﬁnd to this inost crystalline syllogism? And further on a few more mes:
“Today at twelve o’clock a joint meeting of the Administrative Bureau, Medical Bureau, and Bureau of Guardians will take place. An important State decree is to be expected momentarily.”
No, the Walls still stand erect. Here they are! I can feel them. And that strange feeling of being lost somewhere, of not knowing where I am—that feeling is gone. I am no longer surprised to see the sky blue and the sun round and all the Numbers going to work as usual. . . .
I walked along the avenue with a particularly ﬁrm, resounding step. It seemed to me that everyone else walked exactly like me. But at the crossing, on turning the corner, I noticed people strangely shying away, going around the corner of a building sidewise, as if a pipe had burst in the wall, as if cold water were Spurting like a fountain on the sidewalk and it was impossible to cross it.
Another ﬁve or ten steps and I, too, felt a spurt of cold water that struck me and threw me from the sidewalk; at a height of approximately two meters a quadrangular piece of paper was pasted to the wall, and on that sheet of paper, unintelligible, poisonously green letters:
And under the paper—an S-like curved back and wing ears shaking with anger or emotion. With right arm lifted as high as possible, his left arm hopelessly stretched out backward like a hurt wing, he was trying to jump high enough to reach the paper and tear it off, but he was unable to do so. He was a fraction of an inch too short.
Probably every one of the passers-by had the same thought: “If I go to help him, I, only one of the many, will he not think that I am guilty of something and that I am therefore anxious to . . .”
I must confess I had that thought. But remembering how many times he had proved my real Guardian Angel and how often he had saved me, I stepped toward him and with courage and warm assurance I stretched out my hand and tore oil the sheet. S- turned around. The little drills sank quickly into me to the bottom and found something there. Then he lifted his left brow, and winked toward the wall where “Mephi” had been hanging a minute ago. The tail of his little smile even twinkled with a certain pleasure, which greatly surprised me. But why should I be surprised? A doctor always prefers a temperature of 40°C. and a rash to the slow, languid rise of the temperature during the incubation period of a disease; it enables him to determine the character of the disease. Today “Mephi” broke out on the walls like a rash. I understood his smile.
In the passage to the underground railway, under our feet on the clean glass of the steps, again a white sheet: “Mephi.” And also on the walls of the tunnel, and on the benches, and on the mirror of the car (apparently pasted on in haste as some were hanging on a slant). Everywhere, the same white, gruesome rash.
I must confess that the exact meaning of that smile became clear to me only after many days which were overﬁlled with the strangest and most unexpected events.
The roaring of the wheels, distinct in the general silence, seemed to be the noise of infected streams of blood. Some Number was inadvertently touched on the shoulder, and he started so that a package of papers fell out of his hands. To my left another Number was reading a paper, his eyes ﬁxed always on the same line; the paper perceptibly trembled in his hands. I felt that everywhere, in the wheels, in the hands, in the newspapers, even in the eyelashes, the pulse was becoming mom and more rapid, and I thought it probable that today when I-330 and I found ourselves there, the temperature would rise to 39°C., 40°, perhaps 41° and. . .
At the docks — the same silence ﬁlled with the buzzing of an invisible propeller. The lathes were silent as if brooding. Only the cranes were moving almost inaudibly as if on tiptoe, gliding, bending over, picking up with their tentacles the lumps of frozen air and loading the tanks of the Integral. We are already preparing the Integral for a trial ﬂight.
“Well, shall we have her up in a week?” This was my question addressed to the Second Builder. His face is like porcelain, painted with sweet blue and tender little pink ﬂowers (eyes and lips), but today those little ﬂowers looked faded and washed out. We were counting aloud when suddenly I broke off in the midst of a word and stopped, my mouth wide open; above the cupola, above the blue lump lifted by the crane, there was a scarcely noticeable small white square. I felt my whole body trembling — perhaps with laughter. Yes! I myself heard my own laughter. (Did you ever hear your own laughter?)
“No, listen,” I said. “Imagine you are in an ancient airplane. The altimeter shows 5,000 meters. A wing breaks; you are dashing down like . . . And on the way you calculate: ‘Tomorrow from twelve to two . . . from two to six . . . and dinner at ﬁve!’ Would it not be absurd?”
The little blue ﬂowers began to move and bulge out. What if I were made of glass and he could have seen what was going on within me at that moment? If he knew that some three or four hours later . . .