Freedom is the greatest myth ever created by mankind. And like all things unattainable, it is beautiful, perfect.
12 May 2078
Bright rays of sunlight pierced the dull haze of the spring sky, pouring liquid gold onto the polished roofs of automobiles, then slipping lower, down to where the icy crystals of skyscrapers grew from the murky desert sidewalks, hitting countless panels of glass before fragmenting and fading into nothingness. The pale morning sun had appeared over the huge imperial city of Libertionne.
Tiberius Crown, reclining on the leather seat of his Mercedes, was looking out the window. His eyes were blind to the thousands of virtual billboards that floated by: “Superfast breakfast cereal — any flavor!” “Superslim — lose three kilograms per day, no artificial ingredients!” “Young? Successful? Rich? Impotent? Our formula will bring back your erection in just a few days!” “Viagra. Improved formula — your boyfriend will be ecstatic!” “Lonely? At the Club Lady Safo we guarantee that you’ll find a girlfriend”… But Tiberius’s thoughts were far away, in the rector’s office of Libertionne State University.
Why is she calling me in first thing in the morning, on the day of exams? Tiberius wondered. We could talk later today — I have so few students in the history department, and I’d be free in two hours. He suddenly realized that he had been sitting in a traffic jam staring at a poster aggressively pushing a sexual stimulant that guaranteed multiple orgasms no matter where you applied it (“It’ll put Adam and Eve back in the Garden of Eden”). Tiberius annoyedly poked at the button on the plasma screen. The glass obediently went dark, hiding the street from view, but now along the edge crawled a blinding, scarlet line of advertising text. After a third unsuccessful attempt to turn off the advertisements, he remembered that the previous day he was supposed to renew his monthly payment subscription; now he would have to look at the crawling text until the end of his ride. Cursing quietly, he opened the window, then chuckled. It used to be that people would pay money to get something; now we pay not to get something.
A traffic jam had formed on the air route. Hundreds of thousands of cars, aligned in a multicolored ribbon, obediently waited their turn, their lacquered sides glinting in the light. Down below on the sidewalks, which were growing dark in the shadows of the houses, there were practically no signs of life except for the occasional ambulance or police car.
“Switch to manual control,” Tiberius grumbled.
Now dive down a hundred meters, and you’ll be hurtling along an empty road, all alone…
“Sorry, sir, that’s impossible,” a woman’s voice emanated from the speaker, polite but completely disinterested. “Today is Friday, and you may only use manual control on weekends.”
“Damn! I completely forgot.”
“Sir, you have broken the law. Under Article 13456, Clause 561, profanity is deemed an administrative offence. Would you like to pay the fine now?”
“What the…” he stopped himself in time.
“Did you want to say something, sir?”
“No, no, nothing.”
“As you wish, sir.”
“But this can’t be — I’m not allowed to say anything out loud in my own car?”
“You can, sir, but according to…”
“That was a rhetorical question,” Tiberius interrupted, irritated, “and yes, transfer the money from the card right now.”
He wearily leaned back on the seat back. No, I have to pull myself together. My lack of self-control has just cost me two hundred dollars. And it’s a good thing I swore in my own car. How much would it cost me at a lecture? Probably a thousand — a third of my salary. But wait, he chuckled. I still haven’t commented on Adam and Eve, or their fall from grace that led to the creation and development of mankind, right up to the peace and happiness that exists today. I wanted to. But that joke would cost me six years in prison, or a mandatory course of therapy and psychology, which could be worse Or have they already increased the punishment for propagandizing heterosexual love? Seems that something like this was in the news recently. I need to find out from that idiot woman. Feeling happy that at least in his thoughts he could express himself, in his own car, as he chose, Tiberius already wanted to ask a question, but he didn’t have time. The car quickly and smoothly descended down to a huge granite staircase, where a multitude of students were ascending and descending.
“We have arrived at our destination, sir. I will go and park; have a good day.”
“I hope you spend a long time looking for a parking space,” muttered Tiberius as he clambered out. The fury on his uncontrollable tongue, as usual, was redirected toward the innocent car. With a quick, long stride he walked through the archway of Libertionne University, where the inscription “Unity, tolerance, freedom” was written in huge gold letters. Looking at his wrist for the time, he remembered that he was forbidden to wear outdated, mechanical watches, and now his wrist was adorned with a modern smartwatch. He spent three minutes leaving the social network Bodybook, then a slew of virtual stores, news items, and advertisements, and finally he saw what time it was. Twenty minutes before the lecture, excellent, he thought to himself, and hurried down the corridor, ignoring the mechanical walkway which, as usual, was crowded with people. Funny, he thought, throwing an indifferent gaze across the young faces of the students. Almost all of them, after the lecture, will go to the fitness center for a few hours of exercise, but all day long before this they will do anything to avoid any exertion or movement whatsoever. Even this walkway goes slower than I walk, and yet…
The university building was huge. In fact it was an entire city comprising countless structures, pathways, and galleries, and resembling a polished octopus. It was the only university in Libertionne; likewise, the city had one prison, one psychiatric clinic, one Court, and one House of Government. Arriving at the only elevator that connected to all the floors, he once again found himself stuck in a traffic jam. He mixed in with the crowd of students, mechanically determining the ages of the boys and girls. No, not by how mature they looked — modern medicine had made it possible for anyone over the age of eighteen to never change again. At least on the outside. But those born before 2064 could still be distinguished by phenotype, by the shape of their body, or by the color of their skin. It was decided that these differences were the source of many of society’s problems, so under Unity and Tolerance, when the Vile Remnants of the Past* were finally conquered, people began to look more or less the same — a convenient common denominator for humanity. And to think there was a time, thought Tiberius, when a person was born with the help of biological parents, and it was all left to chance.
The lift swallowed up another group of riders, and only he and two girls were left standing on the platform. Judging from their extravagant clothing they were from the Faculty of Design. He shot an admiring glance at one of them, a tall, shapely brunette. Evidently this glance, which drifted across her rather revealing clothing, was too overt, and did not meet the standards of Tolerance. The girl, surprised, raised her dark, almost velvety eyes toward him quizzically.
“A very stylish blouse,” Tiberius said, regaining his composure and trying to manage a friendly yet silly expression.
“Oh, thank you,” she replied, calming down and breaking into a wide smile. “It’s really popular this season. I read it in Androgyne. That means it has to be true.”
“The fashion magazine? It’s famous. You don’t know it?”
“No,” answered Tiberius, amused by the honesty in her surprised reaction, almost a sense of fear.
Tiberius might have finally gotten a chance to learn something about high fashion, but suddenly he was grabbed around the shoulders, and the chance was irretrievably lost. Which he actually did not regret.
“Tiberius, hello, my dear!”
A chubby, pink-cheeked man with faux cheerfulness embraced the sulking Tiberius.
“And hello to you, Normann.”
What rotten luck. This guy always showed up at the wrong time, and always tried to ruin his day somehow. Tiberius’s relationship with the math professor could be characterized as something like “tender hatred.” Normann lost no time.
“Judging from the fact that you are not running up to your sixth floor office, but instead you’re submissively waiting for the elevator, I’d say you are probably being called onto the carpet by the boss. Did you slip up again?”
“Normann, you don’t have to project your own experiences onto others.”
“Perhaps,” the mathematician said, feigning innocence, “you are not guilty of anything. Maybe they just want to let you know that the department is closing down. What will you do then?”
“Well, maybe I’ll return to my old job,” Tiberius said absently.
The pink physiognomy of Normann took on a slight green color, which was oddly pleasing to Tiberius.
“You can’t!” Normann cried, then stepped back and mumbled “There’s nothing to return to.”
“Whatever. But this other matter — about the department being shut down?” Tiberius inquired in a steady voice.
The two girls stepped into the elevator, and he and Normann were left standing alone.
“Well, I have a thousand students in my course, and you have how many? Ten?” The mathematician bared his teeth in a sickly-sweet smile.
His shot had hit the target, and revenge was called for. Tiberius absent-mindedly let his eyes wander over Normann’s entire round, doughy body, and suddenly he froze theatrically, staring hard at Normann’s feet, or rather his leopard-print high-heeled shoes. Tiberius’s actions did not go unnoticed.
“What? Something’s not right?” the mathematician asked, startled.
“Normann, how could you do this? You’re wearing three leopard-print items of clothing. You know that more than one is considered extremely bad form!”
“Are you sure?” said Normann, his eyes darting nervously. “Last season it was all the rage.”
“And now it’s simply a crime. I read it in Androgyne,” he remarked drily.
The lift opened, and he walked in, as triumphant as Perseus after slaying Medusa.
A Visit to Mount Olympus
In stark contrast to the lower floors, the fiftieth floor was a haven of peace, calm, and emptiness. The interior design was typical — black polished floor, fake granite trim, chrome planters with artificial plants. Bird noises emanated from hidden speakers, in a clumsy attempt to emulate traditional eastern concepts of relaxation, and the chirping mixing in with trivial background music, completely lacking in expression or melody. The bird sounds were supposed to be soothing, but Tiberius found them annoying. Once he was forced to wait twenty minutes here, and he imagined himself shooting them out of the sky, even wishing he had brought a gun. But this time there was no need for such violent fantasies, as there was no one else in the reception area.
“I’m here to see Mr. Darnley.”
Tiberius threw a glance at the secretary, who despite her youth had already managed to perfect an imperious air. She hesitated before replying.
“I see… is he expecting you?”
His answer was terse and confident, but she looked him over once again, even more disdainfully, before getting up from the black leather couch. Only a handful of mortals were granted an audience here, along with members of the government, patrons, and other celestial beings. Tiberius, with his humble suit and cheap smartphone, looked suspiciously like a professor, or even that most questionable type — a historian.
After a pause, she relented. “I’ll ask,” she said, looking timidly through the frosted glass of the massive door that led into the office. “Mr. Darnley, you have, um… a visitor. A certain Mr. Crown…. You may go in.”
The secretary flattened herself against the wall, in order to avoid the slightest physical contact with the dubious guest. The door began to retract slowly, and Tiberius impatiently gave it a kick as he walked into the room. A sharp whiteness cut into his eyes. It was a bright, pure color, but also a dead and naked one. Everything was white: the walls, the floor, the ceiling, the furniture. Eight years since his first visit, and he still wasn’t used to this blinding, sterile, cold whiteness. And although white was thought to be the pinnacle of design and the epitome of taste, reflecting the cleanness and perfection of our ideal era, Tiberius desperately longed for something dirtier.
“Well hello, Mr. Darnley,” said Tiberius as he walked into the office, smiling sincerely for the first time in two weeks.
Under the accepted norms, the inhabitants of Libertionne addressed each other officially as “feminolibertinian” and “masculolibertinian.” Ten years earlier, the Tolerance had introduced these terms to replace the sexist “man” and “woman.” It was decided that the informal title “Mr.” would be used for sexes, although Tiberius still felt awkward addressing women as “Mr.” It was never explained why “Mr.” was chosen and not “Miss.” Why, Tiberius wondered, hadn’t humanity’s feminine half protested against such gender domination? Perhaps for the same reason that for over a hundred years, while women were fighting for equality, they also loved to dress like men and cut their hair short. Come to think of it, most of the women he knew seemed to prefer the company of men (as did all of the men).
“I’ve missed you, Laura,” said Tiberius. “But what’s the urgency?” He unceremoniously dropped into a wide chair near the rector’s desk.
Laura quickly reached with one hand under the desktop, where Tiberius knew there was a “white noise” button, an unimaginable luxury that only members of the government had the right to own. But the rector of a university was a position no less important than a state worker; after all, what could be more significant than shaping the minds and attitudes of the young generation, the pillar upon which the superpower stood?
“Two items of news,” she said, raising her eyebrows gravely.
“Start with the good news.”
“Why do you think there’s good news? We’ve come up with a program to select one graduating student each year from each of the eleven academic departments, through a competition, and send them on a one-week excursion to one of the old cities. Please, close your mouth, that’s not the whole story. They have to be accompanied by the head of the history department, in other words, you. There will be a base of operations, fully-equipped with everything you might need. You’ll go out into the city only to explore…”
“Laura. You want me to be a babysitter to ten greenhorns for an entire week?”
“Eleven. The best students of the university. Questions?
“Only one. Why?!”
“The government wants future specialists to be able to extract fresh ideas from the rotting foundations of the past. And at the same time, they’ll learn just how miserable that past was.”
“Aha, that’s why…”
“Fine, I’ll be completely frank. They wanted to shut down the history department. Something like, a two-week history course in the primary school would be enough. Yes, that’s right, now stop imitating an crocodile that’s trying to swallow the Egyptian sun. If you only knew what I had to do in order to get this project approved, and also to find the money for it. But tell me,” she said, anxiously looking him straight in the eye, “don’t you want to see for yourself what you’ve been reading so much about?”
She stopped, then quietly added, “I was able to convince Him. And He gave the money for it.”
At that point Tiberius realized that he had no choice. If the project was being sponsored by the emperor himself, then of course neither Laura nor he could jump off this train until it had successfully reached its destination. But he was interested in another thing.
“Laura, that means you saw Him?”
“Yes,” she answered, reluctantly.
“Then you know what He looks like…”
“Yes, I do. But of course I can’t discuss it.”
“But don’t you think it a bit strange that in our modern era, when it’s acceptable to announce every single step you take to the entire world, that a figure such as the emperor is so cautious about hiding his name and image? A strange approach to PR, don’t you think?”
“Does this surprise you?” Laura said, squinting at him mockingly. “You’re a historian. Try and think of a single PR move, as you put it, like this one. There’s never been one.”
“Well, then,” he chuckled, his head still spinning from the unexpected news, “as an old and shabby wolf like myself once said, ‘We accept the fight.’” [a classic line from the Russian animated film Mowgli, adapted from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book]
The awkward pause was broken by the quiet but relentless ringing of Laura’s smartphone. She glanced at it, nodded, and then turned off the sound.
“Martha?” asked Tiberius, trying to imbue his voice with an uncharacteristic delicacy.
Laura nodded, upset.
“You had another fight?”
“Not exactly, it’s just…”
“That means you did have a fight,” Tiberius said, looking at her point-blank. “Are you going to renew the marriage license?”
She nervously drummed her fingers on the table.
“But you’ve been together for four years! It’s so rare these days that anyone renews their marriage even once, and you’ve done it three times!”
“Let’s talk about you,” she exhaled, eager to change the unpleasant topic of conversation. “Tiberius, there are rumors…”
He burst out laughing. “You don’t say!! What rumors? That I’m a sadist and a pervert? Maybe even a secret heterosexual?”
“No, nothing that serious, of course, but…”
“And what are you ordering me to do? Copulate with my partner in the central square?”
“Well, that would be a start. But no, seriously, go with your partner to a club, get more people to see you, take a selfie in a cafe, on a dance floor…”
“Maybe a selfie in bed?”
“It would actually be good. I’m sure that Paul would post them all to his social accounts, if he doesn’t first explode with joy. You don’t exactly spoil him with your company, right? Listen. You already stand out because of your appearance and your abnormal lifestyle. You can’t swim against the current all the time! Just look at us!”
She rose effortlessly from the table and led him, laughing, to a large mirror on the wall. It seemed like the man and woman reflected in the indifferent surface of the mirror were separated by twenty years, no less. Tiberius didn’t look at himself, but as always he was lost in admiration of his classmate — her young, tender face, and her hair, which was the flaxen color of a linen Pre-Raphaelites goddess. And it was her natural color. Why do women always dye their hair some other color, he thought, regardless of whether their natural hair color is so beautiful? She could easily pass for Lorelei, from German folklore, if it weren’t for her eyes. Iridescent as jasper, they were unromantically piercing; her stern, sharp glare seemed capable of penetrating the very soul of an opponent, causing them to cower like a government bureaucrat at the Court of Fear.
“You see? Just look at your gray hairs, your wrinkles, and your hands! When was the last time you were in a manicure salon?”
She sighed, looking at him as tenderly as a lawyer gazing at a beloved, longtime client, whose case he hasn’t been able to win for the last fifteen years, but thanks to whom the bank account is not exactly hurting.
“I’m not going to ask which rejuvenation procedures you use; I’m just going to give you the phone number of my doctor.”
“I could care less about rejuvenation.”
Smiling, he turned to her, took her by the hand, and then spoke in a serious voice. “It’s been ages since we’ve gone somewhere nice. Maybe we could get together in the woods?”
“Only after you start behaving like a good boy. Do you promise? And it’s about time — exams are about to start.”
“Yes, mama,” he said, unable to resist a risque little joke.
Laura jumped when she heard the vulgar word, but then pulled herself together and smiled. Taking something from a desk drawer, she put a small object into his hand.
“Here, have this. Open it one week from today, no earlier. And don’t be angry with me. If you can manage that.”
Taken aback by the unexpected gift, and by her strange words, Tiberius couldn’t hide his annoyance. Despite his strong gratitude for everything she had done for him, she had once again refused his offer to simply get together and talk freely, about nothing in particular…
“Thank you,” he muttered drily, already turning toward the door.
“Tiberius. You know that I know everything.”
He flinched, then slowly turned and calmly asked, “For how long?”
“From the moment that I first saw you.”
The classics are dead. Long live the classics!
The exams came and went without incident. Since his thoughts were wandering today, somewhere far beyond the walls of the lecture hall, Tiberius was particularly sluggish and indifferent. There were no tricky, tortuously complicated questions, like the one that stumped his students last year: “Was Jesus born in B.C or A.D.?” The handful of students that came to his history class loved him. They loved him for his deep, encyclopedic knowledge, for his sincere passion for his subject and even for his rather venomous sense of humor. When Tiberius had been strolling in his mind around the cobbled streets of Berlin for the past forty minutes, gave a sigh, got up from the table, a fair-haired, round-faced boy gave a sigh, got up from his desk, and timidly walked up to him while clutching a scroll of brown paper nervously to his chest.
“Sam Becket? You want to challenge your grade?”
“No, by no means, sir,” the boy said, breaking into a broad smile. “It’s just, well… today is the last day, and maybe we’ll never see each other. I mean, as a teacher and student…” He blushed even harder. “And I’d like to present you with a parting gift.”
Tiberius took the scroll, and without even removing the paper, he understood what was inside. He shot a surprised look at his student, who was returning his gaze with even more adoring eyes.
“A book? A real paper book? Sam, you’re crazy. This must have cost you a fortune!”
“It’s not just a book! It’s Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy. When you told us about it, I understood that the story was like, interesting for you, from a historical standpoint, of course.”
“And…,” Tiberius said, looking incredulously at the boy, “where did you buy it?”
“At the antique store!”
“Yes, and so what?” said Sam, somewhat at a loss for words. “We live in a free empire…”
“Of course, of course,” said Tiberius, and, still not believing his luck, tore open the wrapping. At the last second a fearful suspicion crept into his mind — the book was so small and light, probably published after “42, when editors were given carte blanche to make corrections. And the result was usually a fairly drastic reduction in the text. Anything that was unnecessary, extraneous, or forbidden, anything that could tire out the reader or cause boredom was thrown out, leaving only the very essence. And if the essence, so to say, was lacking something, then that something was added, at the publisher’s discretion. So as Tiberius removed the wrapping, he was somewhat mentally prepared. But not for this. The entire sleeve, except for the gold vignettes, of course, was covered with an eye-grabbing photo illustration. He didn’t expect a hand-drawn scene, of course, but this one gave Tiberius a migraine. In an alcove, on rumpled silk sheets frolicked Bronsky and Karenin (the latter Tiberius recognized by the outrageous, crookedly pasted-on sideburns), and Anna stood over them, holding a candle, shedding light on the scene, literally. Realizing how much money Sam must have paid for this abomination, Tiberius politely flipped through the pages. The book was not very heavy. Of course, the Creation Myth was written with five hundred words, and this work focused on a subject that was much less substantive, but still, at least twenty of the sixty pages were used for illustrations. And the subject matter of these illustrations was not very different from the cover. It took an immense effort for Tiberius to summon a smile of thanks.
“Thank you. Something like this… I never expected.”
Accepting his teacher’s painful grin for an expression of joy and gratitude, Sam happily bid him farewell, and Tiberius finally gained his freedom. “Looks like I have to bring this atrocity into my house. If I throw it into the trash, he might find it.“He placed the book into his briefcase, like a Christian martyr bearing the full weight of his cross, and departed the auditorium. Passing a trash can whose opening was grinning widely in the elevator lobby, Tiberius noticed something brightly colored, with red spots. Nearly the entire volume of the trash can was occupied by a leopard-skin jacket, with a torn white handbag resting on top. Apparently Normann had tried to correct his fashion faux pas by removing the bag’s decorative leopard-skin triangle. His clumsy efforts were aggravated by his foul mood, and he ended up ruining it completely. Imagining how tough it would be for the poor guy to go around today with countless lipsticks, creams, eyeshadow and other men’s accessories stuffed into his pockets, Tiberius marched cheerfully to the parking lot.
A battle in paradise
A beautiful, unnatural rose-colored sunset was painted across the evening sky. Tiberius, forced to kill time on the back seat, absent-mindedly looked out at the multicolored stream of cars, carefully and safely carrying their passengers home or to their usual evening entertainment.
I wonder how many of them know that above their heads is a fake sky? The creation of the all-powerful designers, the modeled illusion conveys the most eye-pleasing shades of color. There, at the top, above the spherical cupola maybe it’s raining and an icy wind is blowing, but people don’t know about this. True, we have a few overcast days each month, but they were created because according to sociological data, many people like moderately bad weather. When it’s cloudy outside, one can get cozy under a fleece shawl, imitation Scottish wool, and, sitting in front of an electric fireplace, drink a cup of decaffeinated coffee. None of these accessories would be necessary if there were no overcast days, and no one would buy them for a modern, warm apartment, and obviously the more unnecessary things a person buys, the better it is for production. Everything in our time has become a surrogate — virtual games instead of wars, aspartame in place of sugar, false windows in the workspaces of office clerks, fake-brick wallpaper hung on drywall modestly covering up a real brick wall. Or holidays… One time, in a joking mood, he asked his students “Why do we celebrate Christmas?” And their answer was a noisy cocktail of plastic Santa Clauses, the tradition of giving presents, the celebration of the middle of winter and someone called Jesus who smiles in the illustrations on greeting cards.
But then, an ideal world should not be otherwise. If we had real honey, that would mean taking it from poor bees, real meat is the flesh of slaughtered animals, and natural childbirth is fraught with illness and imperfections. Let’s take control of everything and we’ll be more merciful than God. And i Pre-Raphaelites Pre-Raphaelites f we have become like God, what is he to us now? Amen. We have become lilies of the Lord which are neither sown nor reaped; we commit no evil, for all of our needs are satisfied beyond measure.
“We have arrived at our destination, Eden, sir,” the car’s voice spoke delicately, interrupting his thoughts.
Tiberius grinned. The car slowed down at the checkpoint, waiting for the pass to be scanned.
Eden. I wonder if the creators of this residential sector were simply guided by the inviolable standards of management, compelled to paint a picture of paradise for the imagined consumer, or did they have a subtly warped sense of humor? The endless rows of buildings, straight as arrows, identical on both the outside and the inside. Well, OK, not completely identical on the inside; otherwise how would the army of interior designers earn enough to eat?
He recalled a conversation with a designer that Laura had imposed on him, who showed up to try to give his bachelor’s den some dignity. At first the young man gave a long and impressive monologue on the importance of combining comfort, modernity and originality in his then-virgin interior (Tiberius, having just obtained [bought] the apartment, didn’t have the slightest intention of creating some kind of design, but alas…). Although when he saw that he might as well be speaking with the colossus of Abu Simbel, trying to explain to it the latest trends in modern design, he got more specific: “What color shall we paint the bedroom? I recommend choosing between the shades ‘sparkly snow,’ ‘mountain lily,’ and ‘cloud white.’ Here are the samples.” Tiberius looked at the three completely identical white pieces of paper, then asked:
“What about black? It’s easier to sleep.”
The horror experienced by the priest of the temple of creativity is difficult to describe. When Tiberius finally grew tired of listening to his moaning, which was a bizarre cocktail of eastern philosophy, modern psychiatry and his personal (rather superficial) knowledge in the field of architecture, he asked: “Is it not the designer’s job to satisfy the customer’s desires?”
Turns out it wasn’t; the designer’s job was to explain to an unreasonable client what was best for him, and this task had to be fulfilled, regardless of any protest. In the end, the apartment was given a complete makeover, but Tiberius couldn’t see any difference, no matter how hard he tried.
Tiberius parked the car in one of the anonymous concrete courtyards and with a kind of vengeful pleasure he listened to its hysterical monologue. “This parking lot cannot be found in the database! There is no satellite connection! I cannot process the payment! Sir, you are in breach of rule this and rule that. But I cannot send the data — there is no connection!”
“Very good,” Tiberius answered gently. “Now shut up, stay here and wait for me.”
The car fell into a gloomy silence. Tiberius tenderly patted it on its polished fender, like an obstinate but beloved horse, and, whistling, set off along the broken sidewalk. It was hard to imagine that this place was bristling with life just a few years ago; everything was young and fresh. Eden — the cradle of the empire. In this huge, now abandoned district, lived the ones who built the great Libertionne. The empire city, a great and modern Babilon, a realm of intelligence and freedom.
At the intersection he was supposed to turn right, but Tiberius slowed, glancing at the crooked sign that read “Peace Street. 2 km”. In Eden, streets still had names; the more modern and practical Libertionne had decisively rejected them. There, on Peace Street, was his old apartment. Somehow he had to go there and have a look. Probably the windows were broken, highly likely on the first floor; the lawn, which had never been mowed, was a jungle of sagebrush and wild mint. But not now; time was pressing and he was already late. Tiberius began walking faster.
What a difference there was between the aging modern buildings and their elderly cousins! These jewels of baroque and gothic architecture over time only got better, acquiring a special gloss unique to each one, the dust and cobwebs making their chiseled reliefs and sculptures even more mysterious and beautiful. Modern buildings, if not looked after even for a short time, started to resemble dented cardboard boxes, rotting in the rain. Their beauty depends directly on their cleanliness and shine; if a little dirt or the smallest imperfection should appear on their straight, smooth walls, just look how pathetic they become. In similar fashion, a Meissen porcelain plate becomes an antique, while a modern, plastic one turns into garbage.
Tiberius, taking a precautionary look around, went into an indiscernible little courtyard which looked like its thousands of cousins, opened a rusty door and descended a dimly lit and dirty staircase. The further down he went, the louder the noise and shouting of the crowd became. At the end of a dark corridor, Beelzebub’s fiery mouth burned in the arched passageway; a plywood sign hung with the handwritten inscription:
As with any advertisement, even ones that had put down their roots here like weeds, the sign was a cunning one. There were rules in this club, for sure, how else would successful businessmen, lawyers, and bankers — in short, people who were born to fight and having the bad luck of being born in such a peaceful and trouble-free era. Rules, and of course, restrictions. Besides an ordinary taboo list, finger holds and manipulations. Overall, this was nothing surprising — for a modern person, this was the main part of the body, the most essential part for survival. If you couldn’t pound on a keyboard, you would be deprived of your daily bread, and friends and family. Punches to the face were also not welcome. This was specifically mentioned to Tiberius on the first day of his membership. That being the case, there was nothing written against hits to the groin. And what of it? In our day and age, the face was more important that the genitals.
Tiberius went into the changing room, by the way, not immediately. The door literally would not close; it was letting people in and out. Men and women were changing clothes together; after all they were not to generate interest among each other. There he quickly undressed, changing from a business suit into shorts and a stretch t-shirt. Today there were so many people that he barely was able to find a place on the narrow iron bench to put his briefcase.
“Hello, Raven,” said a tall, skinny brunette, firmly shaking his hand.
Here people knew each other by nicknames. The last thing the members of the club wanted was for any information to leak beyond the walls of Pankrationne. Absolutely everything that took place here in the evenings was strictly illegal. The owner of the venue was a Mr. Smith. Small and altogether invisible, this person had a truly rare sense of intuition in business. Thinking up and bringing to fruition the idea of a secret fight club, he easily and unfailingly found potential clients. Held in the grips of business ethics, forced to hold themselves back, and to all day be nice, pleasant and right-minded, people here had the priceless opportunity for a few minutes to be themselves. To forget about bank loans, to stop worrying whether you laughed hard enough when your boss told a joke. Mr. Smith himself had no more feelings for the members of his club than a frigid prostitute for her clients, but with the same degree of success he derived a profit, rationalizing: “If people are willing to pay five hundred a month for the hope of taking one in the neck, then heaven bless them. And their hopes and aspirations, too.”
A heavy-set girl with a mobile terminal walked into the changing room. “Who hasn’t paid their dues for this month?” she asked. Tiberius placed his palm on the scanning device. His payment was processed as a visit to a Thai massage salon. How Mr. Smith did it — after all, gone were the carefree days when a person could pay for anything he or she wanted unsupervised — only God knew, but no one could deny that he had a sense of humor. When he was finished with the payment, he assisted Nyx the name given to his female acquaintance, in removing the pads from her hands.
“You’re still wearing the six-ounce ones? You’re not a beginner.”
“I’ll switch to the ones you have. Today is just a nightmare. One guy broke his collarbone, knockouts right and left. As if everyone had a tough week.”
“That’s actually true. You know what happened at the stock exchange. All right, I have to go.”
He nodded farewell to Nyx and approached the entrance to the hall, where someone’s lifeless body was being carried out. There was a traffic jam at the entrance, and scarcely had Tiberius got through it into the packed hall, or rather elbowed his way in, when he heard his name called by the swarthy, stocky man in charge of drawing lots. As Tiberius made his way to the ring, he caught a glimpse of a new face in the crowd — a young man, almost a boy. Feminine, skinny, impeccably dressed, with long, blond carefully-styled hair, a typical little “baby doll.” Although the face, with its clear and expressive individual features, indicated that he was the same age as Tiberius, if not older. In his paws, like a chipmunk with an acorn, he firmly held a smartphone. Tiberius frowned. Clearly he was one of the “curious ones.” Mister Smith welcomed as members to the club not only those who wanted to insult someone close to them, but also those who wanted to watch. True, for this he charged triple. But here’s what was strange — usually these people had joy and desire written all over their faces, yet the “baby doll” was observing the proceedings with a look of horror and mistrust. His hands were clearly shaking, and his face was white as chalk. Tiberius had no time to commiserate, however, as his opponent had already climbed into the ring.
“Bull versus Crow! Raven” the referee shouted gleefully.
Bull — that was putting it mildly. Calculating the weight category was not done here, just like in a normal street fight. The only chance Tiberius had was to move the fight as quickly as possible to the floor, and he didn’t miss this chance. Bringing down the furiously snarling giant, Tiberius pinned his shoulders in a “crucifix”, gripping the throat with his free hand. Usually this pain-inducing technique forced even the most unyielding enthusiasts to slap the floor, but this one wasn’t giving up.
“All right now!” Tiberius wheezed, his voice cracking from the tension, “or I’ll squeeze harder.”
But his opponent only howled in pain and fury. Seconds hung in the air. And the referee wasn’t stopping the bout. Tiberius felt an overwhelming desire to push harder, to hear the crack of breaking bones. What was up with this guy? What`s up with me? Nyx had been right — there was something strange in the atmosphere today. When the judge congratulated Tiberius with his victory, his opponent, crimson with rage after suffering defeat, jumped into the crowd, shouting at him in parting “We’ll meet again.” Fine, no problem. Tonight had brought no satisfaction; the victory had been too easy.
When Tiberius left the club, the temperature outside had dropped. With pleasure he turned his red-hot face into the blustery May wind and whispered, “Now to go home.., turn off the smartphone.., brew some coffee…”
“Help!” came a blood-curdling scream from the next courtyard.
Tiberius inhaled. His dream of a pleasant evening ended abruptly. In the alleyway he saw the “baby doll,” wailing, looking not nearly as presentable as earlier. His trendy raincoat was torn, and blood flowed from a broken nose. He didn’t immediately notice the arrival of the rescue squad, and shouted with all his might, clearly in the hope that he would be heard in a place more peaceful and serene than Eden. And he had a real chance of succeeding; Tiberius had never heard such a piercing soprano, even from the whistle of a boiling teakettle.
“You’ve chosen a rather lightweight opponent, guys,” he shouted in jest at the four men surrounding the boy, who was shaking with fear.
“He was spying,” said the largest of them through his teeth, holding the “baby doll” by his hair-sprayed front bangs.
At this moment, the moon peeked out coquettishly from behind a cloud, illuminating the stage of the pending tragedy with its romantic light. “Bull! And you’re here,” Tiberius said, as the recent opponents recognized each other in the magical glow of the moon.
“Guys! This is our champion. Come over here, let’s have a chat.”
Full of passion and desire, Tiberius responded willingly to the challenge. Nothing fans the flames of our soul like removing all inhibition. At first he held back, trying only to take them down, not maiming them. They were not as reserved when Tiberius broke one of their forearms; he let out such a stream of profanity that it was fortunate there was no satellite connection in Eden. The guy would have had to sell his apartment to pay the fine. But when Tiberius caught a metal pipe to the face, his humanitarian ideals left him for a better world. Humanism is good in more comfortable surroundings. When pleasantly sitting on a little couch in a cozy cafe, talking about love and forgiveness, and about turning the other cheek. If this is done by a half-naked beauty as part of an elegant game, then he wouldn’t mind. But with four gentlemen who’ve gone berserk in a dark alley — no thanks.
Tiberius returned to reality when he heard a loud shout.
“Don’t move! Police!” To be honest, no one was planning on moving at all. Tiberius’s opponent couldn’t do this for technical reasons. One of them, laying on his stomach, was racking up a huge fine by filling the air with unkind wishes toward Tiberius; two more had no signs of life. The “baby doll,” looking like the ghost of Hamlet’s mother, not even Hamlet himself, father was quietly whimpering against a wall, exactly like Laura’s bulldog Lancelot when someone has taken away his doggy biscuit. Tiberius himself with great regret slowly unclasped his hands, realizing nevertheless that everything turned out for the best. A murder would not have looked good on the resume of a history professor. Bull, having turned the noble color of a revolutionary banner for the second time in one evening, coughed and gasped for breath like a Silver Age aristocrat with tuberculosis.
“Sir, you almost committed murder in the heat of passion.”
Tiberius, still sitting on the chest of his defeated opponent, raised his bloody face. He was lucky. The robot policeman extended his hand to him. If he had had to deal with people, imagine how many issues and problems would there be right now. These things just do their jobs without emotion. How much better the world would be if everyone and everything just did its job. But wait — how did they get here? Given that there was no telephone connection, and the police patrols ignore this place like a cemetery for plague victims. When Tiberius was being taken into the police car, the “baby doll” came up to him, wobbling like a drunk sailor on a ship.
“Why did you save me?”
“Could I have really just walked past?” Tiberius said, slightly surprised.
“Thank you,” uttered the ill-fated adventure seeker, and pensively wandered away.
The price of poetry
In the car, the police officers offered to take Tiberius to the hospital, but he adamantly refused. Right now his mind was occupied by something else — how many years of compulsory vacation would the rescue of the young idiot cost him? Of course, this depended on the extent to which he overdid it with the two who maintained a suspicious silence in such uncomfortable positions on the asphalt. But even in the best case scenario (if they were alive) it would be slightly less than the great Merlin spent locked up in the enchanted cave. But Merlin had an indisputable advantage. First of all, he was a wizard and could probably have conjured up some kind of entertainment for himself, in order to speed up the two hundred and eight-six years, and secondly, he fell victim to this tragic situation due to the fault of the sorceress Nimueh. You could sympathize with him. But here! His thoughts on the topic of timeless examples of human stupidity were interrupted. The car stopped, and the policemen dropped off the dazed warrior of justice at the entryway of his own building. And they drove away, bidding him a good evening and a fast recovery. He stood there for a minute, slack-jawed, then shrugged and went up to his apartment.
As soon as he crossed the threshhold, Tiberius understood why men in the past century were not burning with the desire to be tied with the bonds of Hymenaeus. He didn’t even have time to switch on the light before the wall monitor lit up, and Laura unleashed all of her righteous anger on him:
“Why aren’t you answering your smartphone?!
“It broke,” Tiberius said, showing the empty strap on his wrist.
Laura didn’t let up.
“That’s not the main thing! How could you be so lacking in judgment…”
Not listening to her in the slightest, Tiberius shuffled off to look for the first-aid kit. Thanks to modern medicine, tomorrow he would almost look human again. But opening the syringe with the antibiotics proved to be not so simple. Every inch of his body hurt, and especially his head, and the reprimand from his boss did not bring him any peace and quiet. Especially torturous was the procedure for self-administered nose repair. Stealthily wiping away his unauthorized tears, Tiberius, trying to impart a lightness and effortlessness to his voice, asked,
“Do you want to go to the river? This week? We can take Michael as well. He needs to get away from his wards once in awhile; he hasn’t left the clinic for a month.”
She was not pleased by the sudden change in the topic of discussion, along with the fact that he totally ignored her remarks.
“Come on, that’s just ridiculous…”
She couldn’t have said anything worse. Tiberius, turning away so that she would not see his expression, quoted a long-forgotten line of verse:
“O enchanting one, evil one, can it be true
That you find humorous the holy word friend…”
“Tiberius, what are you doing, those are forbidden lines!” Laura cried, clearly frightened, and he saw her this way for the first time.
“On your moonlit body, you want only
To feel the touch of a woman’s hands?
You don’t need the contact of lips, passionate and shy
Or the gaze of eyes, do you?”
“You’re mad, that’s six months of jail time! Be quiet, I beg you!”
“She begs?” For this alone, six months is worth it. He went to the wash room, brushing his hand against the wall. Along its surface, beautified with “white heavens” (or “snow lilies”? ), bloody lines extended.
“Can it be that a murky vision has never
Haunted you in your childhood dreams?”
“You know the police are already coming.”
“The love of a man — Prometheus’s fire —
Makes demands, and, in demanding, gives…”
There was a sharp ring at the door. This was probably, really the police. Before he touched the door handle, Tiberius turned and looked Laura in the eye:
“Are you coming with me?”
Satisfied, he nodded and opened the door.
“Good evening, sir. You have violated the law and you have to come with us.
“Only not now,” Tiberius smiled.
He turned once more to look at the monitor and suddenly felt an electric shock to the neck.
A velvet hand in an iron glove
Tiberius opened his eyes and immediately closed them. There was an unpleasant, blindingly white light. The color, even the smell was white: a mixture of chemical cleaners with a fake “lily of the valley” aromatizer, completely unlike the natural scent. “Either I’ve died, or I’m Laura’s office. I don’t know which is worse,” he said, and gathering his strength, he sat down on the bed and looked around.
White walls, floor, and ceiling, and overly ascetic furniture. But not all the walls. One seemed like a continuous, smooth mirror, but his sharp eye caught a thin line in the outline of a doorframe. “I’m in a jail!” he realized, finally, and looked around with animated curiosity.
Noting cheerfully that the dimensions of the cell were twice those of his apartment, and that there were nice luxuries like a coffee table, Tiberius was already imagining, half-seriously, that the food was going to be an improvement over his lonely meals. While he was unconscious, someone’s skillful hands had reset his dislocated joints and stitched up his wounds, and there was no trace of his minor abrasions.
With pleasure Tiberius stretched out on the wide, soft bed, and recounted the events of the previous day: “I almost sent four guys to the next world, then I was taken home and thanked. I read some poetry — I was arrested and thrown in jail. How could I not recall the story about Matisse. When the great painter was asked “Which is more important — “How?” or “Why?”, “in reference to the eternal debate about the supremacy of substance or style. He answered, “The most important is “Who?”. “Truth be told, everything in life is relative. And there’s nothing new under the sun — holy blessings were given to the Crusades, which included in their program the burning of villages and the killing of peaceful citizens, and at the same time punished as heresy those who read the psalms differently. By the way, how did Laura find out?”
All of a sudden, the fragments of the mosaic came together to form a picture. Only one person could have called the police to a place where there was no network coverage. Only one person could be so blind and self-assured as to go alone and without a bodyguard into Pankrationne. A person who was so close to Laura as to show her his face. Tiberius broke out laughing. “The Emperor! And what was the poor guy doing there? He wanted to be closer to the people? But right now it would be better to worry about his own fate.”
Tiberius looked at his reflection in the mirror, when suddenly… He froze. Slowly, afraid to believe his own eyes, he turned. On the wall behind him hung a huge poster in a chrome frame, of a kitten in a huge fuchsia-colored ribbon, with empty, sad eyes that were round as tea saucers. Next to it was a bigger poster; on it two gigantic kittens were rolling a strange ball made of wool yarn. Tiberius pushed the security alarm button so hard that he almost broke it.
“What is this?” he asked hoarsely when the guard walked in, pointing his finger behind his back. He had no desire to turn around. The feeling was as if an ancient Slav who had gone searching in the night for a flowering fern. From all sides the monsters from the darkness were looking with their terrifying eyes; they were only ghosts, but as soon as you turned around, they’d become flesh.
The guard was a little surprised. Then, in a mentoring tone, exactly like a governess whose mischievous charges had found an anatomical atlas and demanded an explanation, answered:
“I can see that myself. But why?”
“According to psychological data, sir, kittens are the most pleasant image for a person — they, so to speak, create a feeling of psychological comfort. They are the top choice on internet surveys,” and, seeing the terror and confusion in the eyes of the inmate, he condescendingly explained:
“In prison, a person is so degraded by the lack of freedom, that in all other areas his rights must not be infringed; a positive psychological environment must be created for him.
“But what if I don’t want to see these beasts?”
“I’m very sorry for you, sir.”
“But they are infringing my rights! This can be fully equated with torture.”
The discussion was cut short by another guard who brought in a tray with a steaming cup of coffee, toast and golden fried camembert with lingonberry jam. Tiberius managed to sit in such a way that the kittens were not visible, even in the reflection in the mirrored wall. When he had finished with breakfast, and the tray taken away obligingly, the guard announced,
“You have a visitor.”
At that second, cold metal handcuffed snapped onto his wrists. The guards separated, walked to the sides of the door and froze, taking on a surprising resemblance to guards at an Egyptian tomb, promising any unlucky looters that “horror, flying on the wings of night” would find them without fail. And before Tiberius could ask a question, the door opened and in walked Laura at a hurried pace, resembling a German Valkyrie, tossing her locks of blond hair, her eyes darkening with fury. He got up to greet her and nearly fell back from the force with which she struck him in the face. The two examples of “terror flying on the wings of night” came to life and timidly approached Laura, who evidently was not impressed and bestowed another face-slap upon Tiberius, after which he tasted blood.
“Mister Darnley…” they bleated.
Laura slowly turned her head and the brave guards backed away.
“Get the hell out of here.”
She said it very slowly and quietly, but the guys immediately retreated behind the door. Laura turned to Tiberius.
“How could you dare…” she hissed, raising her arm for a third blow.
But Tiberius caught her rising palm with his handcuffed hands, and, looking her straight in the eye, and pressed the back of her hand to his bloody lips. He smiled, seeing the bottomless wells widen in the irises of her multicolored eyes. She immediately pulled her hand away, but he heard her breathing get faster, and saw her tightly closed lips start to open. She lowered her gaze, not being able to stand the calm, tender way he was looking at her. And another picture presented itself to him: a girl with linen hair, standing on the roof of a huge building. Under her feet was a roaring abyss of sidewalks, people, cars. And she, looking down, was slowly leaning, bending over the parapet, lower and lower over that cold emptiness…
He was only a few meters away, standing behind the overhang of the wall, but how long those meters seemed! And when his hands managed to grab her as she fell, she turned to him with a detached expression, as if dreaming, and asked, “Why?”
“You don’t have the right,” he answered, gasping from the wind that was blowing in his face, and from the scare he had just lived through. “You are needed.” And the same words now emanated from her lips. He felt guilty. In fact, she had done so much for him, bringing his dream to life, and how had he repaid her?
“Forgive me,” Tiberius said for the first time in his life. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to get out of here before Wednesday. You’ll have to find someone else to go with the students.”
“And if they were to declare you crazy,” Laura sighed and added sarcastically, “which is funny because it’s true. Then it would have been possible to get you out of here today.”
“To a psychiatric hospital? Where…”
“Where it would be exactly the place for you. But the main thing is that Michael Storm is in charge of everything, which means the worst is that you’d have to go to a psychologist for a preachy lecture.
“I’d rather sit in jail,” snorted Tiberius, but when he saw her knitted brow, he bowed his head in conciliation. “OK, OK. You’re right, of course.”
“Yes,” sighed Laura. But I have no idea how to arrange this.”
Very slowly, like a tiger pursuing a happy-go-lucky little deer and afraid to spook it, Tiberius took a step forward. Knowing that every move was being followed by a camera, and every word of theirs was being recorded, just like in an ordinary apartment, he appeared to casually lean toward Laura.
“If you agree to help me…”
“Of course,” she answered, not understanding.
“Forgive me,” Tiberius whispered to her, and before she could collect herself, he took a step forward, throwing his handcuffed arms behind her back, thus holding her in an embrace.
Gasping, Laura jerked sharply, trying to free herself, but he grabbed her around the waist and threw her on the bed, rolling around on top of her with his whole body. He found her mouth, half-open in a silent scream, and kissed her greedily. Her lips tried to close, but unexpectedly began to twitch in a half-hearted attempt to respond. He impatiently spread her legs with his hips, lowered himself onto the hollow of her stomach, for the first time feeling under him the firm softness of a woman’s body. It was so new, so strong and clear that he didn’t hear the cries of the guards and barely felt the jolt of the electric shocker before he plunged into darkness.
The Aesculapian of souls
The formalities were settled as soon as possible, and it was only three in the afternoon when Tiberius walked into the psychologist’s office. The doctor wasn’t there — clearly no visitors were expected. Tiberius lowered himself into a soft, light-gray chair. It was too soft. The chair adjusted itself to the slightest curves of the body; it was so ergonometric and virtually unnoticeable that it seemed like being gently hugged by the tentacles of a huge, velvet jellyfish. Finding a comfortable position, he looked around. Muted light, an abstract painting on the wall with soothing, pale spots on an obscure background, windows hidden by light-gray screens, and a soft, light-gray rug. The arrangement was infused with peace and tranquility, with an inexorable sense of doom. One wanted to either doze off or commit suicide. But then the door silently opened, and in walked a girl who could easily be called a beauty, if not for the all-knowing expression on her face. Sitting down at the table, she immediately stared at the monitor, barely glancing at her patient.
“Hello.” She looked again at the screen, apparently having trouble with his highly atypical name — Tiberius. What an unusual name.
She raised her eyebrows questioningly, gazing at him with her large, slightly bulging gray eyes.
He answered with his usual tongue-twister:
“I took advantage of the third amendment to the law ‘On names’: every Libertionnian has the right, upon reaching the age of sixteen, to change their name to…”
“I know about this amendment,” the psychologist dryly interrupted. “I’m interested why you chose this one specifically. I believe it was some sort of cruel Roman emperor?”
“You have an unusually deep knowledge of history,” Tiberius smiled, unsuccessfully trying to hide his scorn with a compliment. “Yes, that is true. Actually, Tiberius was considered cruel by his high-born subordinates, who were unhappy with his fight against corruption and the introduction of a luxury tax. One of my female classmates teased me in a similar way…”
His memory conjured up a slender, laughing face framed by golden curls. And summer, far away, hot, smelling of sagebrush and dust, walks along the stone-paved streets of Eden, the azure July sky overhead, the air ringing with the piercing cries of swifts. Two years later they were caught and relocated together with the pigeons, crows and other unkempt members of society who did not respect the inviability of the public order and who did not know to use public toilets.
“… I’m used to being called by that name, do you understand?” he mockingly glanced at the doctor, who was frozen solid in her chair; her figure could have been used for the creation of a new character type — “Virtue Offended.”
She did not understand, but she refrained from comment out of a sense of professional ethics.
“So, what has brought you here…” She delved deeper into his file, which, as he noticed with unease, was already rather thick.
The more she read, the gloomier the expression on her beautiful face became. Then the doctor plunged into the depths of her desk, and, after digging around for awhile, extracted a genuine sheet of paper and a vintage pencil, to Tiberius’s surprise.
“Draw me a picture of a mythical animal.”
“What?” At first, he thought he misheard her.
“An animal. Any animal. Maybe an imaginary one,” she said, her fingertips pushing the sheet of paper toward him, literally afraid to touch his hands.
For a second Tiberius didn’t know what to do, but then Normann’s face obediently popped into his mind, and, smiling, he quickly drew a fat pig with a turned-up snout and tail. He thought a bit, then for greater similarity he added coquettish bangs. Contemplating his work, and seeing that the result wasn’t so mythical as it was realistic, he added tiny, out-of-proportion wings to the pig. The psychotherapist took away the drawing and for a few minutes Tiberius her face becoming more and more tragic.
“Yes. Sad, very sad,” she sighed, placing the paper on the table.
“Yes. Paranoid-depressive syndrome, deep neurasthenia, sexual deviations and complexes, repressed desires, sadistic tendencies… And this is far from everything.”
“And all this can be determined from my, um, pig?” Tiberius looked at his piggy with an almost respectful look.
“Of course.” The psychotherapist had already scribble the diagnosis, but deigned to explain. “Look, a turned-up little pig, this is unrealized libido, and the incompletely cloven hooves indicates a serious psychological trauma that you experienced in your childhood. No, just look at those hooves! This is a silent scream for help!”
“Really? I didn’t know that I was thinking about it so deeply. And why sadism?”
“Well, just look at her eyes?”
Here, perhaps, she was right. However limited Tiberius’s drawing ability was, he succeeded in conveying Normann’s look. As a result the pig had a resemblance to the worst, most deplorable representatives of humanity.
“Tell me about your last dream.”
“I don’t dream,” Tiberius lied, but after hearing the doctor mumble something to herself about “functional sleep disorder,” he corrected himself. “But wait, last night I had a dream.”
“Excellent. An erotic one?”
Tiberius nodded, deciding that it would be better to lie about decent, safe and neutral topics.
“Wonderful. Did you dream about a partner who was a stranger?”
“Ah… well, yes.”
“Which options did you use? Anal, oral?” She was clearly happy, discovering at last that her patient had at least some healthy mental reactions.
When is this mockery finally going to end, he thought. And I have to go through a whole series of sessions. Although… Laura said that afterwards his file would be ceremonially put to the flame, so why not end this nightmare and have some fun at the same time?
“Doctor,” he raised his tranquil gaze to the doctor, who was not expecting a disaster. “To be honest, my partner was a woman. And you know what we were doing?”
The hunt for the bluebird
“Tiberius. You are an amazing person!” Michael said, wiping away his tears of laughter, and Laura continued to sip her mint cocktail mournfully, sitting on the little couch in the large office of Doctor Storm. “Within 24 hours they tossed you not only out of jail, but out of a mental hospital!”
“What’s even more surprising,” Tiberius noted softly, “is that they still haven’t kicked me out of the only place — the university — where I, by the way, teach children.”
“This is specifically thanks to me,” said Laura gruffly. “If you continue acting like this, I’ll fire you.”
She turned away demonstratively and scratched Lancelot behind the ear. The bulldog sprawled imposingly on his master’s lap, and drooled on her perfectly ironed linen pants.
“Fire me,” said Tiberius, stretching out sweetly in the chair. “I will live like half of Libertionne — on unemployment benefits, which is more than my teaching salary.”
For the first time in 24 hours he was able to truly relax. Here, in his friend’s office was a veritable oasis in the desert of practicality, speed and progress. Not following the latest fashion trends, blind to external criticism, Michael decorated his office according to his own sense of style. The walls were covered with oak paneling halfway to the ceiling, with dark green wallpaper above it. An old fashioned wooden desk with various drawers and sections. Tiberius particularly liked the 19th-century bronze clock. One of the clock hands squeaked as it moved from section to section, no matter how much Michael oiled it, and the sound it made was rather charming.
Tea was served in thick porcelain cups the color of whipped cream. Even Laura warmed up a bit; she was not looking so angrily at Tiberius, and even smiled when Lancelot silently and unashamedly stole a cookie from the tray.
“Laura, my dear, don’t sulk,” Michael winked at her. “If you had seen the look on the therapist’s face when she called the police, and they refused to have anything to do with him, begging her to take him back!”
“It’s not funny.”
“Oh, go on! Just imagine, I’m sitting in my office, and there’s a scream and a noisy racket, then the announcement that a patient has caused a doctor to faint. What did you tell poor Cordeline? She’s asking for an unpaid leave of absence.”
“She’s a bit of a weakling.”
“They also tell me that this patient broke one orderly’s jaw, and another one’s arm. I recognized the style immediately. Only my beloved childhood friend, a shining star in the field of history and ethnology could, in a half hour, drive even a madhouse crazy. Tiberius, my dear, why did you beat up the orderlies?”
“Well… it was kind of an accident. A reflex or something. I’m sitting in a chair, talking with a nice girl about pleasant, insignificant things, when suddenly your guys fly in, pile on top of me, and gag me, by the way,” Tiberius said, becoming animated. “I got used to the handcuffs from today, but why a gag?”
“Come now, my dear,” Michael said, looking craftily but amiably at Tiberius. “Do I have to explain it to you? The tongue is the most fearsome of weapons. In short, where did all the problems in this world come from? That’s right. ‘In the beginning there was the word.’ Then what? The fall of man, war, various disasters. Or as another example, how did the serpent deceive Eve? Again, with words.”
“Of course I’m flattered by such a comparison,” Tiberius growled, “but if I knew how to lie like the abovementioned creepy-crawly, my life would be a lot simpler.”
Dr. Storm broke out laughing, and his entire friendly, rosy face brightened. Looking at him, Tiberius felt a combination of admiration and light envy. Dr. Storm was a rare type of person — passionately devoted to his work, and thus oblivious to what was happening around him. He reminded Tiberius of the French painter Jacques-Louis David, who painted wonderful paintings regardless of the regime that was ruling at the time. Being for the government what we now call a “brand manager,” he set fire to a three-meter straw figure symbolizing the monarchy, then the same straw figure of the revolution, not worrying about anything. Dr. Storm was able to not attend civic events, not have a hobby, and the main thing, not to have a private life. This is what Tiberius envied most of all. When asked how he managed this, Michael happily replied that in the eyes of society, the head of a psychiatric clinic was himself a bit of a nutcase, so why are you asking him?
“And who are your patients?” asked Tiberius, “losers who were ruthlessly cast aside by society, unstable types?”
“What? Of course not!” Michael replied, shaking his head. “They are all successful people, who have reached the top of the hill after years of climbing.”
“I don’t understand. Someone who has reached the top…”
“… ends up on a small patch, wind blowing from all sides, and, as a rule, all alone. You know, all of us from childhood are obsessed with the idea of what I call “chasing after the bluebird.” As a doctor, I believe the biggest tragedy in our society is the dictatorship of happiness. A person is forced to be happy; happiness is wished upon him with every step he takes, and others are constantly checking — are you happy? Doctors, social workers, our partners. They order us: be happy! And how to be sure that you are? And how should you act, if you know in the depths of your soul that you are not?
Tiberius was barely listening to his friend’s pontification as he stared intently at Laura’s half-opened, pale-pink lips. Having touched them only several hours earlier, he had in effect opened a Pandora’s box.
I wonder if her nipples are that color…
From far away came Michael’s voice:
“We deified the economy, gave it the role of a referee who determines the level of our happiness, and it no longer serves, but commands us. We have mixed up the concepts of comfort, well-being and happiness, and this is why we began to regard money with such reverence; we believed in its absolute power, that only money was the measure of success and the primary virtue. Like ants we climbed to the top, firmly believing that just a little more and we’ll buy a house, we’ll get a better job, and finally it — happiness — will arrive. For the sake of this dream, to catch the bluebird, we reject everything that might stand in its way. And now, the result has been achieved. And further? Instead of euphoria, disappointment and boredom. Depression, neurosis, psychosis, and…
Tiberius, as if spellbound, looked at the impertinent Lancelot, whose hind paw was slowly but steadily pushing Laura’s purse to the edge of the couch. If the purse were to fall, she was sure to lean down and pick it up.
“Looking at how you live,” Laura smiled, “it’s obvious you are completely uninterested in money. That, I assume, is a real Boucher hanging to the left of the desk? And if that’s the case, humanity has always craved money.”
Lancelot, just a little more, come on…
“Of course, but people used to say that life was difficult and filled with sorrow. That difficulties were presented to us in order to test us and make us stronger. Nowadays a person regards the slightest difficulty as a personal insult. How can this be — such difficulties are not planned! From all sides a person is given assurances that he is worthy of better, that he should believe in himself, and if he only thinks positively, then positive things will materialize…
Lancelot lazily stretched his leg, kicking the purse with his paw; not only did it fall, but the contents were strewn all over the floor.
Oh Lancelot, you are the best among beasts. What a wise decision I made when I bumped into you at the pet store. And I even hesitated, wondering whether I should give you to her as a Christmas present, or the usual pieces of electronic junk?
“I don’t know about that,” Laura said, gently moving the bulldog to the couch, and leaning down toward the fallen purse. “We live in a free empire.” You could have speculated about the universe in public five hundred years ago. In our modern society we are given all rights…”
She leaned down low, and her hair, which was in a pony tail, fell down, revealing a slender neck with soft, golden curls of hair. Her blouse was pulled up, showing a section of her lightly suntanned back. Tiberius suddenly felt hot, his tie was uncomfortable, and he mechanically loosened the silk knot.
“Except for the right to be unhappy,” Michael retorted.
“I understand what you mean,” said Laura, trying to retrieve her lipstick, which had rolled under the couch, got down on all fours, with her back to Tiberius and Michael, “that a modern person… There’s no way I can reach it. I mean, a modern person will react to any obstacle on the path to the top as a tragedy of cosmic proportions. Darn it, what the…
She extended her hand as far as possible, trying to grab the smooth golden cylinder, which upon contact with her fingers rolled even further away. Her breasts almost touching the floor, Laura bent even lower, and the thin fabric of her pants tightly hugged her well-proportioned hips and widely spread legs.
Tiberius closed his eyes and clenched his teeth so hard that they made a scraping sound. And then it wasn’t only his tie that felt tight.
Calm down, you pervert.
There, I almost got it,” Laura said, arching like a cat, and finally reached the cursed lipstick with the tips of her fingers. When she straightened up, the top button of her blouse, not being able to handle what the experiment required of it, came unbuttoned.
“Tiberius, you just broke my favorite obsidian pen,” Michael observed.
“Really?” he said, returning to reality with great effort. Tiberius looked down and saw that his palm was crushing in two a black quill pen. “Please, forgive me. I didn’t even notice that I had grabbed it.”
At that, Laura finally started paying attention:
“What’s the matter with you? You’re a little pale, your eyes are glazed.”
“He’s just a little lost in thought,” said Michael, good-naturedly calming her down. “You know these academics, their heads are always stuffed with some kind of high-minded philosophical exploration. Tiberius, my dear, is there something you need in order to be happy, something you don’t have?
Tiberius flinched, and at that moment the bronze clock chimed, its rich sound resonating loudly.
“Probably a clock like that one,” he said, the first thing that came into his head, a bit slyly. Laura raised her eyebrows, but Michael nodded in understanding.
“I understand what you mean. You are talking about the right to some capricious luxury, about deviating from the established norm.
“Yes, yes,” Tiberius nodded hurriedly. “That’s exactly it.”
“By the way,” Michael said, bringing the teacup to his lips and glancing at Lancelot with amused curiosity, “our restless friend — why here? I don’t mind, I’m just interested.”
“Martha is worried that I making her into a housewife, and so she refused to watch him today.”
“It’s rather strange, as she’s never worked, and almost never leaves the house.”
“But she says that I can’t see her personality,” Laura said with an irritated wave of her hand. “I had to take Lance with me to a meeting of the trustees. Now there’s one trustee less. You see, he didn’t like the fact that Lance made passionate love to his briefcase. What a bore…”
Laura scratched the one responsible for the change in the lineup of the board of trustees behind the ear, and leaned back on the couch. Neither she nor Michael noticed the buttons that had come undone, but Tiberius with effort shifted his gaze to the painting hanging before him on the wall. It depicted an alpine mountain ridge covered with snow, but in his mind’s eye he saw a completely different picture.
“You actually have physical meetings?” Michael said, his eyebrows raised in surprise. “There’s a thing called videoconferencing…”
“For those who want their business and private affairs to be part of the public domain? Certainly,” Laura snorted, “even you, Michael must know that the best network security is the absence thereof. I mean, the network, not the security.”
“Why not put Lancelot in a hotel for animals?” Tiberius inhaled deeply and tried to think rationally.
Two pairs of eyes, one dark-brown and doglike, the other feminine and jade, stared at him sternly and judgmentally.
“We were there,” Laura answered reservedly, “and we didn’t like it. They put them in cages — roomy ones, but still cages — and they feed them dry food. They give them muskrats.”
“Yes. Rubber ones. One single toy, can you imagine? And there’s no social interaction.”
A blasphemous thought crept into Tiberius’s head, that the capricious Martha and Lancelot, for the modern and free Laura, were a replacement for something, something natural for a unmodern and unfree woman.
A nurse suddenly walked into the room.
“Mr. Storm, you have a visitor. Not a sick one, I mean. I think.”
“Oh,” Michael sighed, “I completely forgot. I have a commissioner today, from the ministry of health. And what do they need?”
Laura perked up.
“That’s good. I like commissioners. Show them in.”
And for some reason she opened her smartphone. A scraggly woman entered the room, resembling a moth-eaten hyena in a bad mood. A tweed suit, a tablet computer under her arm, and an unfriendly look.
“Mr. Storm!” she began in a harsh, barking voice. “We have been observing your activities for a long time, and some issues have arisen. Yes, issues.”
“How can I help you?” Michael asked politely.
The hyena stuck her long nose into the tablet computer.
“Our commission has watched your activities for the last three years and has detected excessive, I would say, loyalty. You discharge your patients too soon…”
“Clearly because they are quickly cured,” Michael smiled, but it was obvious that he was not himself.
“Today, according to our data, you received a socially dangerous, aggressive, violent psychopath. That’s right, dangerous! Yet I’ve audited the premises, and I have not seen any such patients. Where is he?”
“There,” said Michael, pointing at Tiberius, who was wearing a business suit and quietly drinking tea.
“Explain! And explain also, why your office looks so strange? This looks more like a historical museum than the ordinary office of a practicing physician.
“I can explain,” Laura said, her voice now soft and gentle, a sure sign that she was very angry. “Dr. Storm was in the middle of a treatment session for a patient, which you have unceremoniously interrupted,” she added, raising her voice.
“In the course of one year, under the leadership of Dr. Storm,” Laura said, glancing at her smartphone, “the clinic has cured and returned to society sixteen thousand five hundred and three patients, which is two and a half times more than his predecessor did in ten years of work.”
“But this office!”
“Shock therapy for the patients. The Dr. works with each one personally. Personally! Now let’s look at the complaints over the course of eight years of work… Can you believe, not a single one. As for complaints about the ministry of health…” Laura turned the screen of her smartphone toward the woman inspector, “should I dictate the seven-figure total?”
“But wait, I…”
“That’s right, you. Let’s open your private file, Mr. Bitch.”
“What?! You cannot…”
“Why not? I truly can, as I’m the rector of the university where you were once a student. We take care of our graduates, keep an eye on them, so to say.
Mr. Bitch turned pale and jumped a little.
“Perhaps… I’ve seen everything that I wanted. I have no more questions for you, Dr. Storm. Would you allow me to leave? I will write a report…”
“I have a question — she was relentless — did you see the door?”
Mr. Bitch saw the door.
“Please be so kind as to use it right now, and to carefully close it from the other side. And also, when you have written the report, send it to me beforehand for approval. Lancelot, give the respected representative of the commission my business card.
The bulldog trotted unhurriedly across the room with a business card in his teeth. The miserable hyena graciously took the card, which was moistened with dog drool, and quickly slipped out the door after shooting Laura an obsequious smile.
“You are a monster!” Michael exclaimed in admiration.
Laura chuckled ambiguously, but it was clear that she felt good.
Ignoring the elevator as always, Tiberius walked up his own stairway. The electronic key was acting up as usual; the green light refused to switch on. From the doorway of the adjacent apartment, the long nose of his female neighbor, Mr. Stern. The lady was of venerable age, but this in no way detracted from her enormous energy and enthusiasm. These wonderful qualities were entirely dedicated to spying night and day on all the residents of the building who had the misfortune of being her neighbor. And of the subsequent related visits. She was constantly pestering Tiberius with various requests for help, and he, out of pity for the creature, almost never refused.
“Aaaah, Mr. Crown, finally. They brought you a little package. And by the way… I have this little refrigerator I need to bring into my apartment,” she pointed to a huge crate that resembled the sarcophagus of Pharoah Seti I, standing like a monument in the center of the elevator landing.
Tiberius was so tired that didn’t have the physical or emotional strength to object, and silently he dragged the sarcophagus into the lair of the matronly lady.
“And where did you disappear to, for two whole days?” the old dame asked, skipping and frolicking around Tiberius, looking him over with quick, birdlike curiosity. “What a swell-looking suit you found. Expensive one, too. Can it be that you’ve got a new boyfriend?”
The suit was Michael’s, because when Laura took his suit to the cleaner’s, they told her that it may be of interest to a museum of criminology, but not to a respectable dry cleaner.
“I’m not judging you,” the old lady said, stroking Tiberius’s shoulder with her parchment-dry hand, “it’s a young thing, hee-hee. Does your boyfriend know?”
“There’s no boyfriend,” Tiberius replied, forcing the refrigerator into the space between the cupboard and the television. “There, all set.”
“Oy, thank you, my dear! I’m grateful to you for a hundred years. Whatever you need, just come by and ask. And where did you sleep, if you don’t have anybody…?
“First in a jail. Then in a psychiatric hospital,” Tiberius answered with pleasure. “All the best, Mr. Stern.”
And he left, hiding a smile.
Walking into the apartment, Tiberius saw that there was, in fact, a package with a card attached. Without much surprise (he was used to the fact that a locked door was never an obstacle to a delivery service), he picked up the card. Turning over the embossed square, he read: “To my best friend. Michael.”
Inside was a familiar-looking clock. His first reaction was a feeling of regret for his careless words, but then an overwhelming sense of gratitude and unusual warmth poured over him. He put the clock in the most visible place, and sat down to work, unable to think of how to thank his friend.
An hour passed. The bronze hand twitched, and with a jerking motion it jumped to six pm. A pleasant, rich tone resounded through the room, like the ringing of a church bell. Tiberius stopped writing and thought for a moment. He shouldn’t forget to mention the cult of priests in Ariccia and their golden branches. And he should certainly add the myth of Hippolytus. What a pity that this trip was going to delay the completion of a two-year project! But on the other hand, he was going to walk the cobbled streets of the actual, not ephemeral, city of Berlin — touch with his hand the time-worn walls of its great cathedrals — and see the sculptures of Rodin. And it’s no problem that there will be children with him; of course they will somewhat darken his mood, but everything in life has its price.
An intrusive ringing interrupted his daydream. On the display of his smart flashed the word “Paul”. Tiberius frowned and was about to switch off the sound, but suddenly Laura’s face appeared, reminding him of his blatant misanthropy. If not now, then when? Sighing, he pressed the Answer button. A familiar, playful, toothache-inducing voice cried out:
“Tibby, sweetheart, hel-looooo! It’s me, your sweet and nasty little Moopechka!”
“Hello, Paul,” answered Tiberius reservedly. “Please, stop calling me Tibby. How many times have I…”
“OK, Tibby, I’ll stop. So, are we going to have some fun today? Let’s go to the Gnarly Duck. Today there’s going to be a swell little gathering!”
“Fine, Paul,” Tiberius agreed without resisting.
“Really?” said Moopechka in astonishment, having grown as accustomed to Tiberius’s refusals as a business training salesperson. “And maybe we can stop into Nature’s exhibit opening? He’s a good friend!”
“Nature, silly. He’s the leader of the naturist movement.”
“Oh, come on, you’re such a barbarian, my little furrikins. Naturists. It’s the latest artistic movement. They show naturally occurring phenomena, as they really are.”
“They show photos of the sun shining?”
“Of course not, Tibby. You’re such a virgin. Moopechka will show you everything. Should we go?”
Figuring that the expansion of the cultural program would mathematically lead to a reduction in the romantic program, Tiberius willingly agreed.
“Where should I meet you?”
Like many of his contemporaries, Moopechka considered car ownership to be a heavy burden, an encumbrance, limiting his freedom and requiring responsibility and resources. But he eagerly and frequently used Tiberius’s car. This was like having a lover who you could visit for an hour, but regarding marriage…
“Ah, just come and pick me up. I’m at Freedom of Speech Park.”
“You were with those freaks again?”
“They’re not freaks. This is where the cultured members of our nation gather to protest.”
“It would be better if these cultured members found jobs. And what did you forget there?”
“Come on, Tibby — the pee-eeople here are just sooo…! And there are free sandwiches and coffee.”
Half and hour later, Tiberius arrived at Freedom of Speech Park. The sharp smell of freshly cut grass hung in the air; flower beds of crocuses had opened their bright yellow and violet buds; and under striped canopies, pleasant-looking girls were serving mineral water and hot coffee. The park was equipped with every possible convenience for those with a strong desire to speak in public. There were tall, colorful tribunes and open spaces for rallies and demonstrations. For aristocrats and snobs there was a very expensive restaurant, with horrible food and a strange and decidedly provocational interior. Tiberius walked through the park, listening to some of the speech of a fervent young man, his eyes ablaze as he called upon his audience to destroy it and burn all of it to the ground. What, exactly, he did not specify. Especially loathsome to Tiberius was a demonstration in support of the rights of pedophiles. Men and women held signs depicting a young Cupid, and the generic phrase: “We demand freedom!” Finally he say Moopechka. There were so many athletic boys dressed in tight red trousers, their faces almost completely hidden behind BigBen sunglasses. Moopechka stood in the shade of a wide-branched evergreen tree, holding two pink, heart-shaped balloons, clearly chosen to match the color of his shoes, which were generously festooned with rhinestones. Spotting Tiberius, he broke into a blinding smile and waved the balloons. Tiberius felt a painful tightening in his heart. Two balloons was bad. It meant…
“Tibby, dear, it’s for you!” said Moopechka, happily handing Tiberius one of the pink monsters.
He unenthusiastically accepted the gift and asked:
“Where did you get this… this marvellous thing?”
“I was at an anti-government rally. Everybody got one.”
“And what, my dear, do you have against the government?”
“Um, I don’t know,” grinned the empty-headed member of the opposition. “There were such nice, handsome boys there, and they called me over. We laughed, talked a bit, nothing serious. Look, they gave out pins.”
He started to look for the pin, but then, stung by the mocking glance of Tiberius, he said in a serious tone of voice:
“Well… the government… It infringes our rights… “Moopechka fell silent, then suddenly remembered something and came to life again.
“Stipends are small! And benefits. Yes! Benefits should be greater.”
“Have you tried working? Thirty-three years already.”
Moopechka took offense.
“I haven’t decided yet what I want to do in my life. And, by the way, I’m studying.
“In your sixth academic program so far. You enroll, go to a few lectures, but you haven’t finished a single one.”
“Did you meet me today to hurt my feelings?” Moopechka’s lips started to tremble precariously.
“No,” Tiberius answered honestly. “I had a different goal entirely. Do you want some ice cream?”
All of the resentfulness was suddenly forgotten, and they walked to the parking lot, chatting merrily, and the car took them in the direction of the “Garbage Factory” exhibition hall, where the latest and most relevant art was displayed. Moopechka blissfully leaned back on the leather seat of the Mercedes, and filled the cabin with smoke from a nicotine-free cigarette. Tiberius shot him a wincing look.
“Could you explain why you smoke that crap? There’s not even any tobacco in it, only a repulsive smell, and no effect whatsoever.”
“Tibby, it’s trendy. How could you not understand, you knucklehead. Oh no, another traffic jam!”
“Switch to manual,” Tiberius grumbled.
The car complied with the order, not forgetting to accompany this action with a detailed lecture on the horrible tragedies and misfortunes that could be brought down upon the unwise car owner who wishes to reject the services of the automatic chauffeur. As soon as the tires touched the roadway, Tiberius placed his hands on the steering wheel with pleasure. In about ten minutes they would be there; in the traffic jam they would have spent at least an hour. But there was another reason why manual mode was preferable.
“Paul, take your hand away.”
“I’m driving. You’re bothering me.”
“Moopechka just wants to do something nice for furrykins.”
“How about this?” Moopechka’s hand, which had already undone the zipper of Tiberius’s jeans, continued its exploration.
“If you don’t stop right now, I’m going to hit you. We could have an accident.”
“Ye-esss! Punish me, daddy!”
“I’ll punish you, but you’re not going to like it.”
Moopechka sulked, with a pouting lower lip, for five minutes. Tiberius looked at him askance. His sagging, faux-faded t-shirt displayed a rabbit and the words “If you don’t sleep with me, I’m going to cry.” “Probably from some idiot designer, and costs a fortune.” Jeans, specially torn and dyed to look like they had been rolled in the waste material of a cattle factory, a bracelet consisting of beads from different social and material ratios (on a leather strap, gold beads encrusted with rubies and diamonds peacefully coexisted with specially-varnished balls of chewing gum and paper pellets). Trend. A mysterious god that Tiberius pictured as a cruel and radical Moloch. And who knew which god was more fierce and insatiable: one child per village became Moloch’s victim, while all children fall victim to Trend without exception.
“You forgot what today was,” mumbled Moopechka, in a completely hurt voice.
“Day?” Tiberius’s thoughts were somewhere beyond 34th street, where they were driving.
“Yes. Today, by the way, is a holiday.”
“Is that right?”
Tiberius made a halfhearted tally: Lovers’ Day was some time in February, New Year’s (the most tortuous — the rule that, according to some people’s ridiculous beliefs, at precisely twelve o’clock you need to be doing something that you want to be doing all year). As for him, he would be happy to greet the new year at midnight on some deserted island. Alone. Or with Laura, if, of course, she was not finding something to nitpick about. And she couldn’t, if she found herself in his power on that same blessed island… He was torn from his sweet daydream by stifled sobbing. Throwing a sidelong glance at the cracking voice of Moopechka, Tiberius made an unmistakeable diagnosis:
“It’s your birthday?”
“Ye-es. And you forgo-ot!”
“What do you mean, of course not. There’s even a present…”
Damn. What can I give?!
And then it dawned on him.
“Paul. Open the glove compartment.”
Afraid to believe his luck, cautiously eyeing Tiberius like a dog who is regularly beaten by his master, and given sugar bones only on major holidays, Moopechka opened the glove compartment.
“A classic Russian novel, written by Leo Tolstoy. A rare and original, ah, printing,” Tiberius said admiringly, almost not feeling any remorse. “Have you heard of him?”
“I have, from Melissa. She’s horribly intellectual, a real bohemian. I will introduce you today; she’s going to be at the party.” Moopechka proceeded to look at the illustration.
Three minutes went by in silence.
“And they say the classics are boring.”
Moopechka stared at one of the illustrations for an unusually long time, and Tiberius couldn’t help but look over his shoulder. To the photographer’s credit, if the authors of the Kama Sutra had been alive to see his creation, they would have understood how weak and modest their erotic fantasies were. Tiberius flinched and tried to focus his attention on the road.
“Perhaps I will even read this book,” Moopechka announced decisively, and suddenly fell silent. His eyes became glassy, his lips opened slightly. Tiberius recognized the symptoms — Moopechka was lost in thought. This rarely happened with him, and it was not easily achieved; nevertheless it clearly had to happen.
“Tibby,” Moopechka began anxiously, looking suspiciously at the disastrous book. “Is this in style?”
“Of course,” Tiberius answered firmly. “The classics are always in style.”
The book was immediately photographed together with the Moopechka’s glowing face, and was quickly sent around the world to delight and shock his countless online friends. The result was an immediate reply.
“Melissa Swan. She wants us to pick her up.”
“This is the ‘horrible intellectual?’”
“No, not her. Our Melissa, the editor of ‘Young Lucifer.’”
This coincidence wasn’t surprising. Since children came into the world at the reproductive center, liberated from the bondage of family and parental oppression, and having four thousand (exclusively pleasant-sounding) variations of names and surnames, it was a common occurrence that among one’s circle of close acquaintances there appeared someone who has the same name as you.
Tough Days at Young Lucifer
The Libertionne TV building strongly reminded Tiberius of his own stomping grounds. The same concrete octopus, with numerous structures and passageways, just slightly smaller. Little-brother octopus. “Young Lucifer’ was located on the eighth floor in close proximity to Lucifer, Libertionne’s main info-entertainment channel. It was only natural, as the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. In days past, Lucifer tried with all its might to justify the proud name of the first revolutionary and the destroyer of the world order. The impression was that it was run by a gang of ruthless subversives through and through — from bourgeois family values to religion, from politics to anarchy, everything got plowed under by the channel. The films it showed were all provocational, it aired radical viewpoints, diametrically opposed to the mood of the day. But in time it started to lose steam. Of course, one could empathize with its creators — was it easy to surprise the viewer in our day and age? In the past, say a hundred years ago, if you showed society a film about a happy love triangle, what was the result? Society would be astonished and indignant, and there was progress. But now, as part of the all-encompassing freedom that had arisen, only old ladies might watch something like that before bedtime. To save on sleeping pills. There was a fragile hope for the younger generation; after all, children could still be surprised.
Tiberius and Paul opened a door with a name plate that read:
“Young Lucifer. Melissa Swan”. Melissa, a skinny blonde in a blood-curdling pink dress, sat moodily at her giant editor’s desk, sorting through a pile of advertising brochures.
“I can’t figure out,” she complained to the visitors, “how they want their ads to be viewed by millions, when those same millions are paying us each month not to see these ads.”
Tiberius looked with boyish curiosity at the monitors, which were showing humorous, educational cartoons. On one monitor was Jesus, resembling a hippy, suffering through what was not the best of times, sitting at a bar with some disreputable types; on another, two bearded gentlemen under a red banner were leading a lively, marching crowd toward the edge of a cliff. And so on.
“We are developing the younger generation, liberating them from complexes and prejudices, teaching them,” Melissa commented briskly, not waiting for the usual questions.
“And what are we teaching here?” Tiberius inquired, pointing to a monitor where a bunch of big-eyed, smiling creatures (Animals? Birds? People?) were beating each other with hammers, sawing each other, shooting, stabbing and burning. If you were to show this masterpiece of the celluloid industry to the creators of “Hammer of the Witches,” they would drop to their knees and award a medal to the worthy successors of their complicated and creative profession. The cartoon was very bright and concisely drawn; that is, it met all the hallowed standards by which cartoons were made for the very young.
“Um, this one… this is an entertainment one, for children. We can’t always be instructing them; they need to relax once in a while. Which is why adults enjoy watching these cartoons, too.
Melissa wiped her tiny little nose, which thanks to the efforts of plastic surgeons grew smaller and smaller each year. She was literally obsessed with tweaking her appearance; last week, for example, she had an operation to remove wrinkles on her wrists. Before she proudly told Paul and Tiberius about it, the latter had no idea that there could be wrinkles in such places.
“And look at this,” Tiberius said, picking up an advertising brochure for the Medea company and read the slogan out loud. “Medea will look after your children. Is this supposed to be funny?”
“What’s the problem?” Melissa said, alarmed. “That’s our main advertiser.”
“You see, Princess Medea was very disappointed when Jason, her beloved, not only didn’t marry her — he dumped her for another woman. As I said, she was a little upset, and went and killed their two sons. Then she cooked them and served them to Jason for dinner.”
Silence fell. Then Melissa sighed heavily and mumbled:
“And I thought that Medea was from the word мёд [‘honey’ in Russian]. That didn’t really work.”
“You could say that. And what does the company make?”
“Darn it, what should we do?” Melissa said, wandering around the office. “Order a rebranding? The designers will tear the hides from three people. Listen, was there a different girl with that name?”
“Alas, after this princess, shall we say, became so grimly famous, people no longer wanted to give their daughters this name. You can understand them.”
Moopechka saved the moment. Gently stroking the unhappy editor on her recently operated-on wrists, he said that it’s all rot, stop grieving and give in to some unbridled pleasure. Melissa perked up a bit, like a deflated balloon receiving a puff of air.
“That’s true. Let’s leave everything and go drive somewhere fun. Wow, what a beautiful pair you make! Just a couple of cooing love-birds!”
“Hmmm, not sure about that,” thought Tiberius, looking at their reflection in the mirrored door of the shelf unit. It took some imagination, but Paul still could pass for a turtle dove, with his impudent, inwardly slanting gray eyes, his wicked, girlishly pouting lips, and gold-colored hair, which he dyed every week. And there was Tiberius, powerful and muscular, hair tinged with gray and wrinkles on his still young-looking face, bearing a resemblance to an Italian mafia boss who had been a professional fighter in his youth. On his jaw, a long, fresh scar, and a two-day stubble. A fine love-bird, he.
Suddenly there was shouting from the other side of the wall, the noise of furniture being thrown around, a scream and the sound of breaking glass. In other words, all the signs of a heated and constructive professional debate. Melissa didn’t even bat an eyelash.
“That’s the miniseries department,” she explained to Tiberius and Moopechka. “Creative folks, what can you do.”
Moopechka was intrigued.
“Miniseries! I love them! Can we go and see, please, please?”
They had to go and see.
Melissa pounded on the door with her fist, ignoring the doorbell and the brass plaque that read “Use the doorbell!!!” The ruckus going on inside instantly stopped, then something hit the door with a dull thud and crashed to the floor.
“That must be Lucy’s bag,” Melissa commented thoughtfully. “James’s is a bit heavier. That means the author’s pride has once again been wounded.”
“But why didn’t we ring the doorbell?” Moopechka inquired. Devoured by curiosity, he did a little dance in place and extended his neck like a goose.
“They wouldn’t have opened the door for us. That’s for visitors; our own don’t use the doorbell. Well, finally.”
The door was opened by a young man who looked like a slightly ugly gnome. A full week of stubble, red-nosed and very angry. The gnome was clearly happy to see Melissa.
“Melissa, my dear, explain to your girlfriend that if the sponsors want the main character to eat their brand of hot dogs, then he has to eat them, even if it gives him heartburn!”
In response to this, a horrible crashing sound came from the center of the room. The whole group carefully peered through the half-opened reinforced door. The situation was even more dismal than at Young Lucifer. It was practically empty: a few computer desks, an office desk piled with books, and dark, dried-up puddles of coffee. In the corner, a plastic fig tree was timidly hiding. And not without reason, its twin brother was lying next to the wall, buried underneath office folders with crumpled pieces of paper sticking out. Tiberius’s gaze followed another folder that flew past them and landed in the pile. The destruction was caused by a girl who was sitting at a computer desk, not paying the slightest attention to the visitors.
“How?” she bellowed, to no one in particular. “How is Joan going to eat your wormy… your disagreeable hot dogs, if for the last six hundred and eighty episodes she has been a vegan?”
“She gave up,” said the gnome, wringing his hands, “or gave in to temptation. In other words, think something up; you’re the screenwriter. But she has to eat them in the next episode — we signed the contract yesterday.”
“Can’t you feed them to a different main character?” Tiberius said, offering a rational suggestion.
“Alas,” said the gnome, ruffling his disheveled hair, “Joan is the audience’s favorite; her rating is the highest.”
Seeing the absence of understanding in the eyes of his guests, he motioned them over to his desk.
“Allow me to show you. Every day we get a technical order.” Panting, he dragged a sizeable red folder out of the burial mound under which the fig tree so majestically rested.
“This is from the sponsors, the advertisers, and from above, if you catch my drift. We then think up a plot for the ongoing series based on this scheme,” James pointed to a magnetic board hanging on the wall, broken into the sections “Who”, “With whom”, “Where”, “What they did” and so forth. We add the products that we are advertising, and, voilà!”
The gnome, standing on tiptoe, firmly took “Joan” and with a magnet he pinned under her name a sheet of paper that read: “Wild Boar hot dogs. Organic. Feel the flesh of a wild boar on your tongue!” The screenwriter, who up to that point was in a kind of stupor as she watched his manipulations, burst out in tears. Moopechka, in contrast, rejoiced:
“Tibby! Look, this is a nonsense game. Remember, we sort of tried it at George’s party? Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…” He looked embarrassedly at James.
“It’s nothing. It’s true, actually. We make TV shows about idiots, for idiots,” Seeing how Tiberius and Moopechka flinched at this remark, he reassured them. “Everything’s fine — the system sees the word “idiot’ as a medical term. We’ve become skilled at freely expressing our thoughts about our dear TV audience.
A skinny girl resembling a mouse looked through the doorway without knocking. The gnome greeted her with a snarl.
“Sarah! Well, it’s about time. Is the poster ready for Little Red Riding Hood?
The mouse nodded, went over to the presentation stand and with her smartphone transferred an image of a languid youth in a red bonnet (he wasn’t wearing anything else) surrounded by a bizarre cocktail of muscle-bound men and just as muscle-bound werewolves. The text read: “A global blockbuster! Passion and treachery! Bestiality, rape, murder and the eating of flesh! All this and more, at all cinemas throughout the empire! For ages 6 and up.”
“We need to go,” Melissa delicately reminded them, “or else we’ll be late for the exhibit. Good luck, James, with your tricky matter.”
“I’m also leaving, as my workday is ending,” the gnome said, and walked toward the exit. Reaching the doorway he turned to the screenwriter. “Oh yes, I almost forgot. Our contract with the pet store is ending, so, Lucy, my dear, please relieve Mr. Snork of her eight cats.
“Well, I think they caught distemper.”
And he gracefully darted behind the door.
The new word in art
The car stopped near a huge, ghastly building, its architecture resembling an industrial factory. Above the gloomy entrance hung a five-ton polished slab with the laconic message: “Garbage factory. Art gallery.” Solid and massive, you understood immediately as you passed this tombstone-looking slab, that this place exhibited serious art for a serious public. If the names of bars and clubs sometimes induced in Tiberius a question, sometimes a smile, and sometimes complete bewilderment, then with the name of this cathedral of art he was in completely agreement. Well, perhaps it was a bit too honest, but overall… Inside it was noisy and crowded; the entire world was there for the exhibit opening. Looking at the walls, Tiberius sighed with relief. They were empty. That meant there would be a performance, not an installation. He was afraid of installations — you never knew where to expect them. At the last exhibition he embarrassed himself when he threw some garbage into a bin that was obediently sitting near the entrance to the hall. He hadn’t noticed a sign nearby informing visitors that this was an installation called “The Consumer.” And a lawyer friend of his had spent a month dealing with a lawsuit over the conduct of several robot janitors who at the end of an exhibition had thrown away a pile of ripped-up cardboard boxes, which, as it was ascertained that same evening, had comprised an installation called “Liberation.” With performances it was simpler — you wouldn’t mistake the creator for a piece of garbage.
They sailed past the huge line at the entrance thanks to Moopechka; he made a phone call, and a pale, sickly-looking youth quickly came out to meet them from the building, and led them past security.
“Tibby, this is the great Naitch!” Moopechka said, introducing the pale young man. For some reason he forgot about Melissa, and she could only look reverently at the creator, not venturing to introduce herself.
“I know you,” Tiberius smiled. “Last year I was with my friend Michael Storm at your performance “My Day.”
He recalled the theatrical hall rented for this purpose, crammed with people. The organizers wisely locked the doors, the lights went out, and only the stage was lit. On the stage was a couch, and on the couch rested Naitch, his hand placed on his head. For the first ten minutes the crowd observed a respectful silence, staring at the completely immobile figure. Then, when it became clear that the essence of the performance consisted of the creator’s complete absence of action, a certain agitation began. Tiberius, whom nature had more or less graced with intellectual ability, if not conscience, made his way over to the guards and whispered that he had an urgent need. Apparently his example was an inspiration to many, as a few minutes later when he sat in the car, he saw dozens of art lovers rushing into the parking lot.
“Naitch, my dear, you don’t look so well,” said Moopecha, his voice snapping Tiberius out of his flashback.
“You see, Paul,” Naitch replied, lowering his voice to a whisper, “today the theme of the performance is ‘The artistic process’… And so, I have to defecate in front of the viewers…”
“Oh, how clever!” Moopechka clapped.
“Right here,” Naitch pointed to a square pedestal in the very center of the hall. On a snow-white surface, a chrome vase had been installed. They stood for a while looking respectfully at the improvised altar where the sacred act would be committed. Melissa furtively took a photo of herself with the pedestal in the background. The artist broke the extended pause wistfully.
“I’ve done a similar performance as a test at the Crisis club. There was, shall we say, a technical glitch. To avoid repeating that, I’ve taken precautions. That is, a laxative.”
“And if this cursed performance doesn’t begin right now, it won’t happen at all.”
“Oh,” exclaimed Moopechka nervously. “I’ll run and catch the curator, that baddie, he’s probably messing around at the bar. We need to start right away!”
“Hold on, Paul,” groaned the unhappy creator, leaning backwards against a fake-marble sculpture. It was a copy of the Venus de Milo, indistinguishable from the original, but adorned with a black military cap and a spiked collar. The nipples of the unlucky goddess of love were decorated with metal clamps festooned with pink silk tassels. While Tiberius was thinking whether or not the sculpture was a continuation of the tradition of dadaism, with its strangely manner of drawing a Salvador Dali mustache on the Mona Lisa, or was it an advertisement for a typical pleasure store, or both at the same time, as was frequently the case in the art world, with the plight of the great artist growing worse and worse. Something had to be done immediately, and Tiberius decided to engage in some cultured small-talk on the topic of art in order to distract the unhappy artist from more pressing issues.
“Tell me,” he said to the creator, who was making strange motions near the legs of the placid and serene Venus, and his complexion was in perfect harmony with the sculpture, “I understand how it is with installations, that you can sell them, but how can you extract a financial benefit from a performance?”
“Oh,” said the artist, livening up a bit, “usually this is really a challenge, but to be honest you don’t really need this, because the main idea is to generate buzz, to make a big splash, to become famous, and then they’ll buy whatever, any old, how to say it…”
“Bi-products of vital functions?” hinted Tiberius considerately, trained to clothe his true thoughts into tolerant words.
“Yes, yes, that’s right. But in the case of today’s special event, it’s possible to obtain the actual goods themselves. Now where is Paul with that nasty curator? What, did they go to the bar to goof off?”
“Really? And where’s the novelty?” Tiberius inquired sweetly, as if by chance.
“What are you trying to say?” barked the creator, insulted to the core. He was so indignant that his face began to turn slightly red.
“But everyone knows,” Tiberius continued innocently, “that Piero Manzoni, in the year 1961, sold ninety tins of his own excrement, each one with an inscription stating that it contained “100% natural Artist’s Shit”, sold by weight for the same price as gold. Thirty grams in each tin. The idea is that people like the word “natural.”
“By the way, the tins exploded, for obvious reasons,” Tiberius continued, ignoring the melodic ring of his smart, informing him that he once again had incurred a fine for using expletives, “and their lucky owners were left with nothing.”
“I didn’t know…” whispered Naitch, “…but this only means that I’m following in the footsteps of the greats!”
There was no arguing this point. And Tiberius hadn’t managed to voice his opinion about being spoken his mind about the precedence of ideas in art, when over near the archway that led into the hall, a commotion ensued. The cavalcade was led by Moopechka, leading by the hand a frail-looking youth in a sumptuous pink jacket decorated with sequins, clearly the curator, and behind him teemed a crowd of reporters, and behind them, the judges. And everything heralded a happy ending, but suddenly a pitiful groan reached Tiberius’s ears. Taking a look at the creator and realizing that he who hesitates is lost, Tiberius turned to the public and slightly raised his voice. It’s true, nothing strengthens the vocal cords and nerves like lecturing in front of young gold-diggers in the mines of academia. Tiberius’s voice easily rose above the hum of the crowd, the background music, and other sounds.
“Ladies and gentlemen! Today the great Naitch calls your attention to a performance called ‘The Artistic Process’! ” And he turned and whispered, “Take your pants off now, you loser.”
The audience applauded, and cameras began clicking. Several hours later, Tiberius and Moopechka were profoundly amused as they watched the news broadcast dedicated to culture: “Today the great Naitch shocked the public with his unusually brave, innovative declaration in the sphere of art. Choosing Venus as the symbol of an aging artifact of a dead and barren classicism, he very passionately and expressively depicted the process of breaking away from the conditionalities of academism…” And so on and so forth.
The Gifts of Bacchus
And then began what Tiberius hated with every fiber of his soul. Evening socializing. One had to go from a bar to a club, then from a club to a bar, everywhere having to drink something and greet someone. At a bar called the Malevolent Hacker, he met Moopechka’s acquaintance Colin, who was a winemaker. In short, Moopechka had friends everywhere. This wonderful creature better than anyone embodied the postulate: “trust everything to God.” His mornings began with a dilemma — where and with whom to have breakfast. And what was interesting was that he always solved this issue, and never paid. And although as someone living on unemployment benefits Moopechka had more money than Tiberius, who worked five days a week, his pockets were always empty within the first few days of the month. And he never knew why. But the reason was fairly clear to Tiberius, from whom Moopechka was always trying to borrow money. The poor guy couldn’t live a single day without buying some kind of “terribly trendy little item.” His apartment, thanks to this lifestyle, closely resembled the warehouse of a fashion store, yet he was always complaining that he had absolutely nothing to wear. This was actually understandable — it was impossible to find anything in that pile of stuff.
“Ah, Colin, hi! Let me introduce you — this is Tiberius, who I’ve told you about so many times. Aren’t you jealous?”
Colin, who up to that moment was reading something intently, jumped up as if he had been stung, and broke into an ecstatic smile.”
“And what is it you are reading?” Moopechka glanced over the shoulder of his friend. “Roquelaure services? What is that?”
All three looked at the advertisement. “Roquelaure services. Just send a text, and you’ll immediately receive the service! Only one hundred thousand dollars. A whole hour offline!”
“I don’t get it,” said Moopechka, scratching his nose, perplexed. “Just to sit for an hour without Internet, one hundred thousand dollars? What’s the big deal?”
“Not just without Internet,” Tiberius said, for the first time in his life looking at an advertisement with interest and affection. “You are completely switched off from the grid. No cameras, no surveillance, you can do anything you want, that is, within the confines of your own apartment.”
“Right. And you want to tell me that the secret police will honestly close their eyes to everything.”
“I don’t think they would bother with such nonsense,” winked the bartender, who, as there were no clients, decided to join the discussion. “They are serious guys. Their job is to kill and torture people, supervise punitive expeditions, investigate secret plots. So, I think you can go ahead and fool around in your own apartment.”
“But weren’t they disbanded?” asked Moopechka, doubtingly. “The secret police? A few years ago? There was some kind of scandal.”
“Yes, I read about it,” said Tiberius absentmindedly. “There was a businessman who committed suicide not entirely on his own, the details came out in the investigation, there was an uproar — something like that, such medieval methods in our humanitarian day and age.”
“And so what?” the bartender shrugged. “They are always being disbanded, then they regroup again. As soon as the noise dies down. This is why I’m sure the Roquelaure service is a safe bet. In our time, a scandal in the press can even destroy monsters like the secret police.”
“But… a hundred thousand! Tibby’s salary is three thousand. And to be honest, I can’t imagine how I’d spend that hour, since everything’s is possible anyway. We live in a free empire.” Moopechka was a bit confused.
“For you,” thought Tiberius. “But not for me. Why, why wasn’t I born like everyone else? Why am I a freak, a pervert, who has to carefully hide his illness?”
“And the name is strange,” snickered Colin.
“Actually, no,” Tiberius objected softly. “‘Roquelaure’ is a black cloak with a hood, used by Venetian men so they wouldn’t be recognized.”
The next twenty minutes were informative. Tiberius, who had a rather outdated concept of winemaking, imagining sun-drenched vineyards and hundred-year-old alpine oak casks, discovered that wine, like the majority of modern-day products, was made at a factory from water and a mixture of interesting chemical substances. And the price of this industrially-produced cocktail was the same for all types of wine. Colin, laughing, added that if one were to increase by a few grams the dosage of two of the components, then the result would be a popular cleaning product found in every apartment.
“One and the same formula, you understand? The rest is the work of designers and PR specialists, as the market needs wine in different price categories. That’s why you never get too drunk from synthetic wine, but you will suffer from the consequences. That’s why I only drink beer,” the celebrated winemaker confided.
“But that’s probably also…”
“Of course. But I don’t know about this.”
And what could one say, knowledge increases sorrow.
“But real alcohol is still sold?”
“We make it. But we make very little, and sell it cheap. So that it’s not prestigious. Almost nobody buys it.
The Labyrinth of the Minotaur
The Gnarly Duck was just exactly like a fashionable club should be. Inside it was cramped, crowded, dark, with strange smells hanging in the air; the noise from the music and the hundreds of voices was so loud that people had to shout, and the light show dazzled the eyes. On the bar countertops, swaying in waves, were the lethargic and somnambulistic body motions of half-naked male and female strippers. Tiberius couldn’t help admiring one of them, who was very young and immaculately built. Her gaze was serene and completely absent. She seemed not to notice where she was and what she was doing, looking off into the distance somewhere above the heads of the dancers. “Exactly like Nausicaa, staring at the sea horizon fruitlessly, knowing that she will never see Odyssey.” No sooner had Tiberius crossed the threshold of the club, when his smartphone began to pester its owner with questions. “Should I show your geolocation? Do you want information about our discounts and special offers?” And so forth, and so on. Tiberius took pleasure in pressing “cancel.” He was in this place for the first time; usually he went to the more democratic “Delirium’, where one could sit quietly at the bar with a glass of wine and boring, guileless sandwiches. Here you had to order a table beforehand, and pay a handsome amount of money in advance. True, this included drinks marked with a star on the menu, a three-minute private dance (Tiberius wracked his brain thinking of how to organize a private dance in a big, open room in front of a table for six) and several items from the “crazy menu’. Moopechka was completely in his element, loudly discussing with Melissa the weekly prize giveaway — today the club was giving away some kind of “Labyrinth of the Minotaur.” Everyone except Tiberius rushed to register for the contest. Tiberius, remembering that a traveler could expect nothing good from the so-named labyrinth, asked for a clarification. It turned out to be nothing special — a typical package of nightclub amusements, except for free. Moreover, Tiberius was completely bored by this typical evening entertainment, and reading the menu not only didn’t help things — on the contrary, it led to a new round of questions. The list read:
— Private dance. Again? he thought.
— A thematic costume striptease. What could that mean?
— The smearing and subsequent licking off of cream from the body of the minotaur. Cream: no cholesterol, zero calories, only natural ingredients… The poor minotaur.
— Oral sex. Who does it to whom? They need to be more specific.
Tiberius opened the menu. It had a retro look, leather-bound on thick, textured paper. The first page provided information that was succinct and easy to understand: “Narcotics.” This was followed by a long list, including terms that Tiberius knew, like “cocaine’, “hashish’, and so forth, as well as the mysterious “Kiss of the Geisha’, “Anjelica, kidnapped by pirates’. A professional consultant was needed.
“Paul,” Tiberius said, showing Moopechka the menu, “what is this?”
“This, my little dearie, is a cocktail of narcotics. For example, ‘Cinderella’s Slipper’ is a combination of amphetamines and acid.”
“Then they forgot to write, ‘For use near a cemetery’.”
“No, silly. It’s like with alcohol — everything is synthetic. It’s completely safe, non-addictive, and the effect lasts about fifteen minutes. Eh, if they weren’t so expensive…” Moopechka rolled his eyes dreamily… “I would go from one of these wonderful things to another all day.”
“Well, it makes sense,” thought Tiberius. “You could say, with care and concern for society. After all, each of us has his own narcotic.” He remembered a neighbor, a gamer, who lived across the wall. Tiberius saw him only once, when he moved into his new apartment, and it seemed like he had never left the place even once. Pale, skinny, he greeted Tiberius, who had returned from his morning run, so timidly and quietly that the latter had to guess what he was saying. This inhabitant of a virtual world ordered food from a delivery service; where he got his money from, one could only surmise. But there, in his magical, mysterious land, he was probably working miracles, flying on dragons or whatever else they do there. The walls in modern apartments were so thin, clearly for easier spying on those who were so indifferent to the fate of humanity, like Mister Stern. And until Tiberius completed a thorough soundproofing, he heard practically all the neighbors — to the right, below and above — except for him. Only occasionally in awhile did the door open, to let in a delivery, and the sound of bare feet treading to the bathroom and back. Oh great Internet, you opened an entire world for humankind, locking him into his own four walls!
There were a few more pages of synthetic alcohol with the constant promotional message about how safe — “light, fast-disappearing effect’, healthy — “contains vitamin additives’, and fashionable — “Catch the wave! Turn on to the world of bright experiences.” A black sheep at the end of the colorful list indicated a couple of brands of “real Scotch whiskey’ (bearing in mind that Scotland had long sing passed away), a dubious wine and five lines of fine print with a frightening warning: “Alcohol is contraindicated for those with even the slightest health problems, people working at enterprises, office workers, children under the age of twenty-one’ etc. etc. At the bottom was a vignette in the form of a beautiful funeral wreath. “They could have written right away ‘contraindicated for everyone’, ” Tiberius thought, amused. Flipping through half of this hefty volume, he looked through the food options and made his choice, something called the pinnacle of French cuisine, but in reality was a slightly flame-seared piece of decent filet steak. Under the section “Chef’s choice” he found the eponymously named house specialty of the Gnarly Duck club. Tiberius with all his heart that the duck met a violent death. While the general public took a whole hour selecting the wine, with Moopechka especially ranting and raving, and decisively tiring everyone out with his comparisons of wine bouquets and aftertastes (and this after hearing in detail how they were made), Tiberius quietly slipped away toward the bar. The end of an entertaining and informative evening of socializing was drawing near, as was the trip home. He wouldn’t be able to get rid of Paul, of course, and he would probably spend the night. He had to mentally prepare himself.
“Oh, of course. Ice, club soda?” smiled the young bartender, effeminately stretching toward the sparkling, mirrored shelf where pot-bellied bottles stood, their amber sides gleaming.
“No, the real thing.”
The smile instantly faded, the young man’s face stretched, and he looked at the strange client with genuine surprise.
“But… why? Have something normal, modern. A light, quickly-passing effect.”
“Today I’m afraid I need something heavy and long-lasting,” Tiberius chuckled.
“In that case… May I?”
“Of course,” Tiberius smiled, extending his hand, patiently waiting while the bartender checked his documents, record of convictions, medical restrictions and insurance coverage.
“You’re new, aren’t you?” asked Tiberius, staring point-blank at the bartender with his impenetrable black eyes. “And I’m you’re first?”
“No…” the youth mumbled, blushing, but then, suddenly understanding the meaning of the question, became even more embarrassed and red-faced. “I mean, yes, I’ve been working here one month, and so far no one has asked for real whiskey.”
Hoping to smooth over the awkward situation, he quickly and obsequiously asked, “How much? A single, a double?”
Tiberius threw a casual glance in the direction of their table. Colin was explaining something to Moopechka, seriously and intently, and the latter, his eyes bulging with zeal, for some reason trying to stuff a huge banana into his mouth. Whole. Unfortunately for Tiberius, with the heavy stare, the whole group turned toward him. Moopechka, with a banana in his mouth, waved at him with both hands. Melissa, pointing at Moopechka, made a heart shape with her fingers; Colin broke out into a sugary sweet smile. Tiberius swallowed.
“The whole bottle, please.”
Tiberius gulped down the first drink, and an invigorating warmth spread throughout his chest, his taut nerves relaxed a bit. He sat down, talked some more with the bartender, and turned his back to the stark reality in the shape of Moopechka and friends, and five minutes went by peacefully and pleasantly. However, as a certain romantic poet put it, nothing under the moon lasts forever. Someone’s hand playfully touched his hip, and Tiberius woke from his sweet reverie of peace and solitude.
“Tibby. Colin and I were discussing the problems of our private life,” Moopechka reported in a low voice.
“Your and his?” Tiberius carefully asked with a certain hope.
“No, of course. Yours and mine. It’s time for us to try something new.”
“Well, I mean role-plays. Like all normal couples. For example, a little sadomasochism would really liven up our sex life. I have some cute little handcuffs and a whip, and quite a few marvellous toys.”
Tiberius’s imagined painted an enticing scene — Moopechka, tightly handcuffed to the bed, with a mouth gag (so the indignance would be silent), and he himself would calmly work in peace and quiet all evening. “Hey, great idea.”
Moopechka stuck his nose into Tiberius’s glass, and recoiled.
“You’re drinking real whiskey again? What is this… every time we have a date, you get drunk, and then you’re always rude, savage, insensitive, and cruel,” said Moopechka, tears welling in his eyes, “and there’s never any foreplay, just immediately…”
He sniffed and looked at Tiberius so piteously that the latter nearly relented. The bartender listed to this disjointed but fairly loud monologue with great interest, after which, glancing with admiration at Tiberius, told Moopechka with poorly disguised jealousy:
“You really struck it lucky, man!
Tiberius, grabbing the bottle and glass, returned to the table, leaving Moopechka to pour out his grief to the grateful listener. But there he found no peace.
“Tiberius, meet Melissa!”
Colin was dragging by the arm a rather extravagant woman. Tiberius understood immediately — a bohemian. The woman of art can be seen from a mile away — frequently, instead of attracting attention with their creativity, they attract it with their external appearance. With Melissa, the second one was true. She looked as if she had jumped out of an anime cartoon: hair colored candy-red, striped stockings, a dress suggesting a fairy-tale princess, but even for a fairy-tale princess it was too short. “Fantastic manicure, means she isn’t a writer or an artist. She’s either a designer or a photographer,” thought Tiberius. “Probably a photographer; designers sometimes have to do business with clients, and so they have a slightly different approach to their image.” His guess turned out to be true; no sooner had they met, than Tiberius was forcibly seated in order to view Melissa’s photo album. This masterpiece was called “Dreams about the fantastical” and amounted to a series of photos of languid, half-nude boys and girls, their faces made up in all sorts of ways, and draped in transparent and half-transparent fabric. Tiberius was immediately offered the chance to pose for the next photo shoot as a romantic knight: “You, against a backdrop of wild cliffs, unsheathe your large sword…” Tiberius was saved from following description of his deplorable fate by the appearance of a new member of the group, a girl named Evelyn Young. She turned out to be an employee at a human rights organization, and a ferocious supporter of a society for the protection of animals. Things started to heat up at the table. Melissa “number one” was compelled to prove that her mink coat was fake, and Melissa “number two” apologized for the leather purse, professing her innocence — it was a gift from a female fan! Then, finally, the food that was ordered an hour ago was served. Evelyn succumbed to a critical evaluation of everyone’s plates. Everyone froze before their desserts and salads, while Tiberius unabashedly turned his attention to his bloody steak. Retribution did not take long to crash down upon his rebellious head.
“How can you eat the flesh of a slaughtered animal! Allow me to close my eyes and not look at this!” Evelyn dramatically covered her eyes with one hand and turned away.
Tiberius did not react at all. Sprinkling freshly-ground black pepper on the steaming piece of meat, he was about to tuck into his meal with pleasure. But it wasn’t to be. Evelyn did not abide by her own words — not only could she not keep her eyes shut, but her mouth as well. Furiously raising a plate of sliced apples, she returned to her sermon:
“This is monstrous! I can’t watch this in silence!”
“Why not?” politely asked Tiberius.
“I’m — a fruitarian!”
“I don’t eat the flesh of slaughtered animals! That poor bull wanted to live, and because of you… because of you they killed him! Fruitarians eat only fruit that falls to the ground, we don’t tolerate any violence, we eat only that which is natural from the point of view of nature. But this — this is corpse-eating!”
With a picturesque loathing she squinted at Tiberius’s plate, and he, without any embarrassment, began to eat.
“But…” he said, thoughtfully pouring sauce on his meat, “if we’re talking about fruit. Have you ever wondered why they fell on the ground? That’s right, so that their seeds would end up in the soil, that is, to continue the reproductive process. That is, right now you are eating pregnant women. And by the way,” Tiberius added, humorously looking at Eve, who had gone slightly pale, “I would hasten to assure you that if these apples truly fell on the ground, then they were not sent to the store by a respectable supplier.”
At that moment the waiter approached them, wobbling on skinny high heels, carrying a tray laden with glasses. Young and wicked-looking, he surveyed the entire company at the table with an exacting look, and flashed a dazzling smile at Tiberius. Heaving onto the table the wine ordered by Moopechka, he needlessly adjusted Tiberius’s napkin and, throwing him an expressive look, departed. Under the napkin a few minutes later he found a business card with a phone number and an urgent appeal to call. Thinking for a bit, Tiberius quietly placed it into Evelyn’s handbag.
“Colin, enlighten me — you said that the formula is absolutely the same, and only the aromatizer determines whether the wine will be a prestigious brand or a cheap table wine. Then why, despite the identical production cost, a bottle of fake Chateau Petrus, like a hundred years ago, costs an entire fortune?”
“Well, this is obvious,” Colin smiled his professional sales manager smile, that is, paternally condescending, “if someone has the money, they will want to buy the most expensive wine.”
“But why? It’s one and the same garb… I mean healthy beverage.”
“You’re forgetting the most important thing — prestige. Look at how those young men at the next table is watching us, sitting there with his common, cheap Chablis.
Tiberius was not convinced that it was worth throwing away a hundred dollars for an envious look from a bunch of young men, but since he had firmly decided to try to be good today, he didn’t protest. Understanding that Moopechka was not impressed by the Russian classic novel, he secretly ordered something more substantial and traditional — a teddy bear and a bouquet of flowers, which was called “Pride of the Queens.” He didn’t have to be very secretive about it. When a group of friends gets together for a meal, it’s completely natural that everyone sits at the table poking at their smartphones, and they eat with their free hand, not looking at anything else.
Since Tiberius made purchases like a typical man, that is, in a hurry and without reading, the result surprised him a little. And he wasn’t alone. When the glass doors opened silently, letting in the courier, whose thin legs trembled and bent under the weight of a gigantic, scary-looking bear, mentioned in the catalog as a “cute little surprise’, everyone was dumbstruck. The “Pride of the Queens” was also surprising, but in the opposite sense. Before presenting it to Paul, Tiberius snickered as he held in his hand something that looked more like a corsage than the luxurious bouquet in the photograph. Either the florist had a weird sense of humor when naming his creation, or else he had a equally small opinion of the honor and dignity of the above-mentioned persons, God only knew. But Moopechka was completely ecstatic, and Tiberius noticed with an involuntary smile how he was circling in an improvised dance with the horrible bear as a partner. In short, an aging Christopher Robin. Finally he got tired and flopped down at the table, setting the bear between Tiberius and himself.
“He’s so… big,” smiled Melissa.
“Everything about Tibby is rather big,” Moopechka giggled.
Tiberius choked on his “fake Merlot.” And then he turned sharply, because the sound he heard behind his back could have been made only by a person who had just experienced a serious attack of asthma. It turned out that medical attention wasn’t required; while Michael could have perhaps rendered some assistance in this situation, but he himself told Tiberius that there are cases where medicine is powerless to help. Moopechka, both Melissas and Colin were acting like members of an Amazonian tribe who were seeing an airplane land for the first time. Evelyn Young, to her credit, did not change her expression, fully occupied with apples and the censure of the despicable flesh-eaters, this time in her Bodybook app, since Tiberius was not scared.
“It’s Don Largo!” Colin whispered, not looking away from the monitor. “He came to our club, and now we’re going to see him for real!”
His excitement caused him to put his napkin, instead of a piece of lettuce, into his mouth and continued to chew, oblivious. Even Tiberius was interested. What was all the fuss? The crowd at the entrance started to thicken, like bees swarming around an uninvited guest who is after their honey. Finally it was possible to see the person responsible for this pandemonium.
“Who is he, anyway?” Tiberius, out of touch with celebrity life, asked Moopechka, who was in a strange and complicated state of mind halfway between orgasm and catatonic stupor.
“What, you don’t know Don Largo? How is that possible? He’s an entertainer, the king of happenings and parties, he’s so famous!”
“Really? So what does he actually do?” Tiberius asked, looking at the man clad in black leather with metal spikes. Dark hair shaved on the sides, a complicated construction on top of braids and free strands, his head wrapped in tattoos of thorny branches that ran down his neck.
No one could answer that question, but this did not detract from their adoration. The celebrity, his fans clinging to him like burrs to a water spaniel, moved toward the stage. The group at the table decided to have a loud discussion about how this Don was impenetrable, how nobody knew anything about his private life, even though a brave and fearless team of paparazzi worked in shifts in all places where he might be. Only Evelyn refrained from participation in this feast of reason and outpouring of souls. She sat sadly over a plate of pears now, and Tiberius began to think that fruitarianism, perhaps, could even beat buddhist ascetics at their own game. Their menu was more varied, for one. He quietly nudged Moopechka, and the latter, a kind soul, immediately understood — he told her a fresh joke and presented her with his “Pride of the Queens.”
It is surprising how simple flowers can change a woman’s mood! No matter what radical political outlook she might subscribe to, or what strange sect she belongs. Evelyn lit up immediately, the pink returned to her cheeks, and she nearly even smiled. And, perhaps, peace and prosperity might have continued its winning streak this evening, but, as everyone knows, bad luck never sleeps. As soon as a person relaxes, his vigilance goes to sleep, and fate will overtake him like a deadly heat in a waterless desert.
The waiter brought Tiberius the carpaccio he had ordered, and not only brought it, but accidently set it in front of Evelyn. With the same effect, Dante could have been served at a banquet with the head of his beloved Beatrice with oyster sauce. In order not to embarrass this respectable institution with horrible shrieking, Tiberius had to use a little force, placing his hand over the mouth of the enraged defender of animal rights. This was, of course, not very polite, but it was absolutely necessary. Evelyn struggled in Tiberius’s iron grip for a while, then went limp, and he decided that the time had come to let this springtime swallow fly free. He was mistaken.
“How can a civilized person even stand the sight of this ripped and bleeding piece of flesh, which literally screams of monstrous cruelty?!” she shouted.
“Flesh, strictly speaking, is silent,” Tiberius cold-bloodedly retorted. “You are the one who is screaming. And you are ruining the evening for everyone here.”
“Eve, it’s better not to argue with him,” Moopechka said softly, almost begged. “He’s a bit of a tyrant, and he’ll get his way no matter what.”
“Don’t you dare defend him!” Evelyn snapped, and glared at Moopechka’s cake. “Eggs!” she cried, gnashing her teeth, “that cake contains eggs. The unborn embryos of future chickens!
Moopechka turned pale.
“And in your hands you are holding the amputated sex organs of plants,” Tiberius calmed noted, pointing to the bouquet of flowers that Evelyn was still mechanically squeezing. “And the worst thing is, just imagine, these poor flowers bloomed for love, but the cruel hand of the gardener castrated them at the very dawn of their brief and fragile childhood. And then…”
Tiberius, tiring of the relentless tugging of his hand, gently and tenderly hugged Paul. The poor guy’s bones crunched, and he calmed down, like a trapped pigeon.
“… and after that, still clinging to life with the perseverance of a soldier crippled but not killed, they are mercilessly ripped out of the ground by the roots, to be burned, mind you, alive. And in their place, the next mortals are planted. All of the above applies to fruits and vegetables,” summed up Tiberius.
And he started on his carpaccio, the rascal.
However, the punishing hand of fate did not pass over him with its vengeance. Behind the tables was some activity, conversations stopped, and the guests of the restaurant turned to the wall-mounted monitors. The moment had arrived for the daily prize to be drawn. Mupochka fidgeted in his chair, rocking from side to side with impatience, and even the sour, sickly Evelyn expressed interest — stiffening and standing at attention, acquiring a surprising resemblance to a hunting dog, which has stood in the rack. Tiberius did not pay any attention to it whatsoever. The voice of the invisible DJ rose above the roar and rumble of music, mixed with the strong cocktail of human voices. “The voice of God”, mockingly thought Tiberius, before his consciousness met his own name.
“And tonight’s winner, who will take home the prize ‘Labyrinth of the Minotaur’ i-i-i-is…. Tiberius Crown! Let’s hear it, folks!”
The room erupted in envious applause.
“What? How?” Tiberius looked around the room in confusion. “I didn’t even sign up for this stup… pointless lottery! I turned off my geolocation. Why?!”
“Silly, you turned it off for your friends,” Moopechka cooed tenderly. “but for serious people, like the government, or stores, or clubs, your switch-offs… Hey, you know. It’s like running into some hooligans on the street. Forbid them, don’t forbid them. Their still going to do whatever they want to your butt. I know this.”
Tiberius moaned. But then an idea popped into his head to save him. “Maybe I should just pay the young man, and not use his services.” Encouraged by cheers of approval, he stumbled over a gold brocade curtain, taking with him a rescue bottle of whiskey. He found himself in a fairly dark, stuffy room. The air conditioner was on full blast, but it wasn’t enough to eliminate the mixed odors of perfume, powders, warm bodies, and caustic and suffocating air fresheners. He could see them — two large cups filled with multi-colored, dried leaves, flowers, and cotton balls. Thin wisps of smoke rose from them, making the room even more inappropriate for breathing. Tiberius sat on a couch, taking a large, precautionary sip from his bottle.
Finally from the speakers emanated a stylized, antique-sounding music, and the minotaur dashed into the room. The face of the male striptease dancer was half-covered by a gold mask, depicting a sharp-horned bull. The body was also covered in gold; except for a mask, tunic and caligae, the improvised minotaur had nothing on. There was also a long tail, with a brush at the end that was dragging on the floor. The other end disappeared between the minotaur’s legs.
How uncomfortable it must be for him to dance with that costume, Tiberius thought, pitying the poor guy. And why is he gold? Did they confuse him with the legend of the golden calf? And people want to close down the history department.
Performing something that was supposed to signify the dance of an ancient Greek warrior, the minotaur got rid of his tunic, which didn’t take much time, and stopped in front of Tiberius. Thinking that the first two stages of the program were complete, Tiberius quickly said, “No cream, please. I have an allergy, you know.”
The Minotaur sighed with relief and dropped to its knees in front of the client. Tiberius did not feel uplifted. Not that he was at all squeamish, but today for some reason he was not drawn toward the priests of commercial love.
“You know, to be honest, today I’m not in the mood. I drank a lot. That’s right.” Tiberius showed his half-empty bottle. “Let’s just say the show is over, okay? I’d like to tip you…”
He reached over to the table, where he had already noticed a payment sensor, but the minotaur stopped him with a pleading gesture.
“Sir, please! Just let me give you some pleasure!”
Tiberius’s eyes widened. “Of course it’s admirable that someone loves their work so much, and so approaches his official duties so fervently, but it’s a little strange. The client has no complaints, everything is paid for, why are you so enthusiastic?”
“You see, I’m in my trial period,” the unhappy minotaur began to explain, haltingly. “There are two weeks left, and the administration is watching closely. What will they say if nobody wants me, even for free? Up to now, I’ve had only the best reviews.”
“What, I have to write a review as well?”
“Well, just a small form to fill out. Here,” the minotaur nimbly ducked under the table, which was draped like a sacrificial altar, and extracted from its dark nether regions a sheet of lined paper.
Tiberius read from the top. “Assessment report of the activity”… — “Not my luck today.” He always felt sorry for trainees. Powerless creatures, their entire career was at risk because of someone’s bad review.
“Let me fill it out,” he signed, taking the piece of paper.
The minotaur fell on his knees before him for the second time.
“You can’t do it so easily! The camera will see it.” He took Tiberius by his lifeless arm. “You’ll like it! I have, you know, talent.”
And then, not waiting for a decision, got down to business. Tiberius closed his eyes and tried to imagine the same doomed Nausicaa, dreamily wiggling her hips over the polished bar countertop. It didn’t work. There were definitely men’s hands touching his thighs, men’s lips expertly but unsuccessfully performing their work. “Okay, let’s try again. We’ll make Nausicaa lay down on the bar. No — the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. No. It’s not happening. Maybe some more whiskey. Aqua vitae. Now why aren’t you working? According to legend, you can raise the dead. Looks like not completely… OK, one last try… No way… Sorry, minotaur.” He opened his eyes and looked at the genuflecting youth. He had seen those eyes and hands somewhere before. Definitely. And very recently. They held a scroll in a brown envelope.
“Sam?” he queried, then, not waiting for a reply, he literally grabbed the bull by the horns and pulled off the gold mask.
To be honest, his student didn’t look particularly confused. Disappointed, but only slightly. But Tiberius flew into a rage.
“My best student! Here?” His voice acquired a poisonous quality. “And going through a trial period! Three different departments wanted you as a graduate student, but you said you had a better career opportunity.” Tiberius gestured widely at the improvised boudoir. “Really?”
“It’s true!” said Sam, still on his knees, but raising his head proudly. “Judge for yourself, sir — when they give me an official contract here, I will be making a thousand a night, plus tips.”
“Who would argue?” Tiberius snorted, “I always said the main thing is to find a profession where you can use your best talents.”
He picked up the end of the long tail. Sam looked into his eyes hopefully.
“Sir, why don’t we try it one more time?”
“Sit!” barked Tiberius, only now remembering that he was still sitting with his pants undone in front of a student of his, albeit a former one.
Sam jumped up timidly (recent seminars suddenly came to life in his memory), trying to sit next to his professor on the couch, but failing. The tail got in the way.
“So tell me,” Tiberius began sarcastically, when they ended up reaching a diplomatic agreement instead of going to war, “how is everything organized here? Pensions, vacations, overtime pay? Tell me, I’ve always been interested in what my best students end up doing, how their careers pan out.”
They ordered coffee and chatted for another ten minutes. But meanwhile at the Gnarly Duck, passions were flaring.
“He doesn’t love me at all,” Moopechka whined to the world-wise Colin. “Each time I have to beg him for sex. And he never even takes off his shirt! And he’s never kissed me!”
“Then leave him.”
“I can’t. He’s so handsome and strong, and smart…”
“I see.” Colin glanced condescendingly at the unfortunate victim of hopeless passion. “In that case, here’s the best thing to do…”
And then he poked a finger at a menu item: The Secret of Priapus! Just one gram of pure sexuality, and you will turn into an unbridled stallion!
“Do you think one gram will be enough?” Moopechka asked anxiously.
“Better take three; he’s pretty big.”
A tough night
Tiberius decided not to sit around in the boudoir. The young man was on the clock, and enough was enough. He went back to the table unnoticed, poured himself some more whiskey and fell into a sleepy drunken state. Colin was babbling about something, and Moopechka and both Melissas were discussing a burning question: how to take a photo with the immortal Don Largo in the background so that it would look like they were together? Tiberius, who was fairly drunk, made an unexpected, strategic proposal.
“Why don’t you just go up to him and ask?”
They hissed and waved their hands at him; it was as if he had suggested they go to a club with the emperor himself. At that moment his smartphone went off — a message from his insurance company. If he didn’t immediately stop the intake of alcohol into his blood (that’s what was written!), they would immediately raise the price of his medical insurance by twenty percent. Tiberius pulled himself together. He was pretty far gone; one mustn’t get so completely relaxed.
“Paul,” he shouted to Moopechka without turning, “pour me some water, please.”
“Of course,” came the reply, with a treacherous smile.
And, encouraged by Melissa “number two”, he passed Tiberius a glass to which the Secret of Priapus had been quietly added. All three grams right away.
Tiberius drank the water with a single gulp, and only at the very end did he notice a strange honey flavor. All the blood drained from his face and went to another place, slightly lower, the room was floating in colored lights, and sounds flowed together in strange, intrusive buzzing of notes. And something soft hit him in the back of the head. Already falling into a darkness filled with brightly shining stars, he abruptly got up from the table, leaning on an unsteady hand.
And then, all at once, everything disappeared.
The subsequent events melted together into a sparkling fireworks display, with crazy bursts of color; he returned to reality, only to be thrown again into the delirious darkness. The first time he woke up, he was in the middle of the dance floor — in one hand was a nearly empty bottle of whiskey, and in the other, two laughing girls who were clicking their cameras like crazy. Fortunately, he was able to recite from the stage Tennyson’s fairly politically correct “Lotus Eaters”. Tiberius looked around. Hands were reaching for him from all sides, all around he saw flushed, half-mad ecstatic faces, the music was like red-hot nails being driven into the brain, and the strobes from the light show was blinding him. The survival instinct demanded that he immediately leave this monstrous place, and he drank the rest of the bottle in one gulp.
Again there was darkness.
When consciousness returned for a second time, he found himself in clearly friendly company, in a recreation area. Here the music was blaring quieter, there were drinks on low glass tables, and across from him on the couch he saw Moopechka with two unfamiliar girls. They were talking, and joking with him, and he was responding. Colin, who, journalists later discovered, had unsuccessfully tried to attract Tiberius’s attention, ultimately did not come up with anything better than to poke his little finger under his shoulder blade. His besotted brain was thinking very slowly, but his body hardened over the years by training worked perfectly and instantly. Just a moment before, Tiberius had been sitting, relaxed, his eyes half closed; then like lightning he turned and grabbed Colin’s wrist, knocked away a nonexistent knife, and sent him flat onto his back. The gray eyes staring in horror seemed vaguely familiar, and Tiberius loosened his grip.
“Sorry,” he murmured, releasing his victim.
An already familiar bartender appeared nearby and obligingly handed him a glass of whiskey.
“Sir, you need to relax.”
The last thing he heard before he fell back into oblivion was the melodious and ecstatic voice of Melissa.
“Tiberius, how did you earn a living before you started to teach history?”
…The dark spots in front of his eyes start to clear, and he hears his own voice, confident and clear, as if he is teaching in his department: “More water, please. And so. Freedom is a myth, Evelyn. You, as an employee of an organization for the protection of human rights should know this well. As for myself, I’m not saying that absolute freedom is a good thing, but for some reason, the more a certain group of people is called to it, the more blood it is going to shed.”
“No, that’s not it,” Evelyn Young hotly objected. “We live in a free empire. We have democracy, openness, freedom of speech.”
“We have no freedom of speech. If you mean the right to go yell in this ridiculous park, then I’d like to remind you that there are a lot of things you can’t yell about there.”
“No, of course, you can’t say anything that insults someone’s honor, or incite violence…”
“Evelyn, try to go out on the street and declare that heterosexualism is not perversion. And to fight for the rights of heterosexuals. This is not a call to violence and does not insult anyone’s honor. And then you will see what kind of freedom of speech we have.”
If only Tiberius had known how much he would have to pay for these words, which he would never have spoken while sober! Moopechka turned pale with horror, and then, his eyes resembling those of a lemur, he quickly filled Tiberius’s glass with a tea-colored liquid and shoved it into his hand.,
Again he nodded off.
The next image: he is standing, holding onto the surface of a perforated steel supporting column; the column is somehow swinging, as is the floor beneath it; on his arm hangs Mupochka, plaintively asking about something, looking unhappy. “That’s awful. What’s the matter?” Tiberius raised his bleary eyes and saw in front of him Don Largo, caught in the beam of a spotlight. “Oh, I see, he probably wants to be photographed. This is why Melissa and they were worried.” Tiberius tried to focus on the show business idol. “Nothing special, just some overdressed peacock, honestly. And then he dares to reject my friends? Now I’m going to take care of this…”
…He finally regained permanent consciousness in a taxi. His own car, Paul told him, absolutely refused to take him home, because the incoherent speech of its owner indicated that he was extremely intoxicated. And drivers in such a condition are not only prohibited from sitting in the driver’s seat — they aren’t allowed in the vehicle at all. After Tiberius was unable to correctly recite, even a second time, the tongue-twister that was generated, the car angrily shut down, but not before it informed him that he would need to present a narcologist’s report before it would make the next trip.
The taxi showed less indifference. Moopechka apologized on the way for the Secret of Priapus and carefully inquired about what exactly his Honey Bunny remembered about what had happened. When he found out it was practically nothing, he almost felt glad. The fragile world had been restored.
As soon as he walked into the apartment, Tiberius made a beeline for the bathroom where, after retrieving a special first-aid kit from a secret compartment under the sink, he injected himself with an antidote right through his pants. The cursed haze melted before his eyes, his head stopped spinning on its own axis, and his thoughts, at last, became clearer. It was awful that the memories of the previous night’s events did not return, and that there was no trace of the intoxication. The hops was gone. The threat of a night of passionate love, however, still existed. However, there was a decent option for salvation which had rescued Tiberius on several occasions.
“Paul!” he cried, poking his head out of the bathroom. “I’ll be in the shower, and you’ll play for a while, okay?”
“Well, I, basically, don’t want to,” indecisively murmured Moopechka, with the tone of voice of a chronic alcoholic who has just been offered a glass of superb cognac.
“I’m going to be bathing anyway,” Tiberius informed him in an innocent voice. “And you can quickly come in for five minutes, that’s all.”
“Oh, just for five minutes,” Moopechka licked his lips, and quickly added “I’ve got big plans for you today. Because you are always like that… in a hurry. You don’t even get undressed.
Tiberius again felt annoyed.
“You’re like Psyche, who tortured Cupid about this. It all ended badly.”
“Really? How? And who is this Psyche?”
Tiberius tried to explain in a way that Moopechka would understand.
“A mortal woman. She loved Cupid. The ancient Greek god of love, if you don’t know. He seduced her with words, and not only. They met in the darkness, and Psyche didn’t see what her lover looked like. She had to wait three months, and then he promised to marry her. This means to fill out a marriage license, only for an unlimited time. But her feminine curiosity led her to take a lamp and have a look at her beloved. The lamp dripped oil on his chest. Hot oil. He awoke, took offense and flew away.
“Oh,” said Moopechka, impressed. “She should have been more careful. With the lamp.”
“She shouldn’t have stuck her nose where it didn’t belong,” hissed Tiberius and slammed the door.
“Tibby!” Moopechka looked with interest at the bloody streaks that added color to the impossibly snow-white walls. “What an interesting design! Was this done by hand? Did it cost a lot?”
“No, not really,” Tiberius smirked.
“It’s creative,” Moopechka nodded approvingly, and sat down at the computer.
Now the coast was clear. The culmination of the evening was near — that is, the illegal book. He turned out the lights, and then, using a special flashlight, pulled out a small, unregistered smartphone. He looked toward the closed door again, then switched on his most valuable thing. He scrolled through the list of books stored in this tiny, unassuming storage device. To what lengths people went through to find them, buy them, and, most importantly, to hide them. His experience as a professional historian was helpful, very helpful. Access to secret archives, permission to examine them. And then came the methods he learned at his previous job. A real job. Thus he became the owner of ten thousand books; for the possession of each one of them he would face at least two years in prison.
Today’s selection was “Undine” by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué. Tiberius had read it before, but today for some reason he was pulled toward it again.
He remembered the golden, tousled hair, the iridescent, greenish eyes, and their tragic maelstrom. And the taste of her gentle lips, opened in a silent scream, so warm and soft. He sat on the edge of the bathtub, as there was nowhere else. The already small bathroom in Tiberius’s typical apartment was even smaller because of the secret compartment built into the wall. Like a serial killer who cannot part with the victims’ blouses, he could not keep away from his beloved books. A small button, invisible to prying eyes, opened an entire cabinet, which held the real printed books that were most dear to his heart. Of course, the lion’s share of his treasures were a hundred kilometers away, and difficult to access, so how could he live for endless weeks without the wonderful smell of old paper, fine hand-made drawings, and worn leather bindings? Already not afraid of Paul, who was just a meter away on the other side of the thin glass partition, he opened his treasury and gently traced the binding of the real, living, non-electronic “Undine” and took it out of the closet. An hour passed, then another. The antidote started to wear off, and the dizziness and weakness returned, to be expected after such a disgraceful series of events. But he could not bring himself to stop. His headache and intoxication grew stronger — he had to sleep. Finally, Tiberius put the book back and carefully peered into the main room. There he was — Moopechka in headphones, frozen in front of the monitor, only his fingers showing signs of life, a very active one.
“Just a minute. These guys have invited me to a raid, and there are only three bosses left.”
“Of course, of course. Don’t hurry.”
Yes! In the best case scenario, it would end in the morning. During that time, even the victim of the Secret of Priapus is entitled to a legitimate dream. Tiberius quietly made his way to his bed, trying not to attract attention. And he went to sleep as usual, when there were guests at his place, without undressing.
Time to collect stones
Waking up was not the most pleasant experience. The sunlight wasn’t simply pounding on his eyes, it was causing physical pain. Tiberius parted his eyelids with great effort. His body was strangely cool. He rubbed a shaking hand over his abdomen. He was right — he wasn’t wearing a shirt, or pants either. He sat up quickly in bed, and immediately moaned, because his head was exploding from the sharp, inhuman pain. “Damn it, did Paul take the story of Psyche as a call to action?” It seemed so, as he distinctly remembered not getting undressed before going to sleep. Tiberius looked around — the apartment was small, one room in fact, divided into a kitchen zone and a study with a bed. The only decoration besides Michael’s watch was an antique mermaid, carved from marble by some unknown German romantic. Tiberius had bought it at an auction; its gentle, thoughtful face reminded him very much of someone. Moopechka was nowhere to be seen, which meant he was in the bath. Tiberius managed to stand up, his head reeling, and went toward the sound of muffled sobs.
Moopechka was sitting on the toilet, holding the immortal Romeo and Juliet, and the cabinet was open. Some of the books were in a pile on the floor, a carefully arranged pile, that is. But his enlightened friend wasn’t crying about the fate of the two unlucky lovers. Seeing Tiberius, he jumped up as if he had been stung.
“I… I always knew it! I guessed it! You never wanted me, you — pervert!”
“All these horrible books… They’re about sex between a man and a woman!”
“Not all of them.”
“I adored you! I admired you today, like that… that Psyche!”
“Paul, calm down.”
For greater stability, Tiberius raised his left hand and grabbed onto the doorframe. But he realized too late that it was a bad idea. Moopechka’s glance was fixed on his armpit, his eyes widened, and his mouth opened. He instantly stopped sobbing, which was good. Realizing now that all his bridges were burned, Tiberius just sighed, well, so be it. At least now there was no chance that he would tell anyone about the secret library.
“You… monster,” exhaled Moopechka, shooting Tiberius a crazy stare. “If I had only known…”
He tore out of the bathroom, trying not to look at Tiberius. He even forgot his Prada jacket, something he had never done before. When the front door slammed shut, Tiberius sat down on the bed. He had mixed feelings; on the one hand, he felt a huge relief. There was no need to lie, to pretend, and all the other stuff, too. On the other hand, how long will he hold out before everyone starts to ask sympathetic questions and trying to help him with his personal life? He was so used to Moopechka; now he would have to find someone new. And he didn’t want to. However, there was a time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them. He held his smartphone with an unsteady hand, and dialed the only number that he remembered by heart.
“Laura?” Tiberius tried his best to soften his sinfully raspy voice.
She answered immediately, but rather dryly.
“I’m in a meeting.”
“The hell with your meeting. Tomorrow?”
“The day after tomorrow. First, get yourself together.”
“But you’re the one who said…”
“I said, that you had to spend the evening like a normal person,” Laura said, apparently deciding to neglect her official duties for a while, “not to hold a full-on Roman orgy at a club!”
“You didn’t see the news?”
“Well, have a look.”
And she hung up. And as soon as the call was broken, Tiberius saw himself across the entire screen, in the report on breaking news. The photo was worthy of an advertising poster. In one hand a glass, his perfect abs showing between the flaps of his open shirt, standing spectacularly on a table surrounded by a cheering audience.
The headline read: Tiberius Crown, well-known professor of history and ethnology — followed by a detailed list of his honors, awards and books (the public being enamored of scandals involving celebrities). Like you’ve never seen him! Doing a wonderful dance on a table…” “What?” “… he forced Don Largo, the star of nightclub parties, to kneel…” “That can’t be!” “… and authoritatively grabbed him by the hair…”
The rest was very hard to read. Tiberius sat for a while, holding his splitting head in both hands.
“That’s it. I’m not drinking again,” he promised the marble Undine.
Was it him, or did she answer with a quizzical look? He took a headache pill, then he took a half-empty bottle of whiskey from the cabinet and poured the entire contents into the sink. Then he stood under the shower for ten minutes, deciding whether to read the nasty article or not. It didn’t matter — he would soon hear everything in detail from Laura.
The heinous sound of his smartphone heralded a message: “From Normann.”
“Dear Tiberius! How nice it is to learn that the colleague I’ve worked with all my life has such an outstanding build! If I had known that you had such fit, muscular legs and such a wonderful butt, I would’ve immediately…”
What followed was a detailed description of Normann’s plans, vaguely in the style of the honorable Marquis de Sade, but overall romantic. Breathing deeply to calm his simmering rage, Tiberius made a calculation. “I’ll have enough to make it to my next paycheck.” His fingers tapped on the keyboard. “Dear Norman! You can go f*** yourself!”
As soon as he sent the message, he was suddenly disappointed. In effect, he had just wished him a pleasant evening.
He picked up the smartphone again.
“Gordon, hi. Can we meet? Today.”
“You’ve done something else?” a voice gleefully asked on the other end of the line. “Do you need me as a lawyer, or just to go have a beer?”
“Fine, but I have no time at all. And a lot of work. Let’s meet in three hours at Superburger? The one below my office. We can grab lunch.”
It took him less than an hour to get ready. The typical morning of a modern man: shower, coffee, workout. Antibiotics, prebiotics, performance enhancers. Usually Tiberius had only the first half of the menu, but today he had to keep up with the times. He looked at himself in the mirror. His typically aging but fresh and still handsome face today was pale, haggard, which dark shadows under his eyes that gave him a decadent flair, a gloomy and angry look. Now he looked like a typical office worker in the middle of the workweek. “Just great. Today Gordon and I will look like colleagues, and no one will be suspicious about our daytime meeting in a cafe,” thought Tiberius.
Within the bounds of absolute freedom
The Superburger cafe was located on the first floor of a huge business center. Like thousands of similar places that targeted office workers who wanted to eat quickly and cheaply, it was a bit lacking in terms of its decor, food, and especially service. The waiters, moving around on roller skates, had difficulty winding their way between the tables, which were so close together that people’s backs were touching. The trays carrying the “superburgers” had to be carried high overhead, like traders from the Orient, in order not to collide with the other customers. When Tiberius entered the dining area, which was completely jammed with people hurriedly eating their lunches, he had to jump a bit in order not to knock over a gem of stylish minimalism — a chair made of cheap, white plastic. The friends shook hands.
“Sorry, I’m two minutes late.”
“That’s okay, it could have been worse. It’s just that today I had a lot of work and very little time,” said Gordon, with the dignified air of a Flanders lacemaker who had spent many sleepless nights working on an order from a heartless Dutchess.
“You’ve been saying that for the last ten years.”
“That’s what the last ten years have been like. What have you done this time? Briefly. Just the facts.”
“I spent a night in jail, and a day at the psychiatric clinic.”
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