“Well, let’s fly . . .”
“Why, a geologist of course, no question about it,” said the rector with a scowl. “A spy wouldn’t throw himself under a train because of a broken heart.”
“Bravo, correct! And Winnie-the-Pooh? That’s a tough one.”
“Hmm, Winnie-the-Pooh, well, I would say a spy,” said the rector thoughtfully. “The geologist is probably Piglet.”
“You see?” said Lednev cheerily. “You can already classify the examples correctly. But your one mistake is that you understood all of this too late and didn’t make use of your position as rector in time. Rector of what would seem to be an obscure establishment that not every school-leaver would look for in the university application handbook. For this is Armageddon, Ivan Ilyich, the venue of the decisive battle between good and evil. Hordes of invisible forces from the past and future are observing events here and preparing for the final clash that will take place -who would have thought it?-in the very center of Moscow, here on Mokhovaya street. This battle will elevate on a pedestal a new Messiah, a new prophet, who under the flag of the spies or the geologists (as remains to be seen) will lead humankind to absolute good or final evil. And the fact that the geologists will clobber the spies tonight is not the end of it. The real victor will emerge tomorrow when they hear about the latest scandal in the Education Ministry. Remember this day, Ivan Ilyich. You thought that the alliance of Hammer and Mata Hari would help strengthen the good relations between the two faculties, like the love of Romeo and Juliet ultimately reconciled two warring Italian families. Foolish nonsense! Now you understand as well as I do that Romeo and Juliet were both incorrigible romantics, meaning geologists, rather like Shakespeare himself, who ended his life in poverty. But Mata Hari is a born spy, unlike your Juliet. Therefore her union with Hammer was an impossibility from the very start. And did you not consider another thing, Ivan Ilyich? How could it be that I, a person with enormous practical experience, with incredible connections, a person who has traveled so much of the world, suddenly went and took up a post as mere dean in an obscure institute?”
“Well, how did that happen?” asked the rector.
“I’ll tell you,” continued Lednev. “I had been looking for Armageddon my whole life. I searched on the mainland, on the islands. Threw myself into the thick of things, stirred up conflicts, organized countless acts of sabotage and local wars. I did all sorts of mean deeds, incited people to commit fratricide and caused fights between tribes who had lived in peace for centuries. But finally I came to the conclusion that it was no use trying to create Armageddon when I should be trying to find the real thing. By now I had realized that humankind is divided into geology and surveillance, but I couldn’t figure out where this confrontation should reach its culmination. I already knew it wouldn’t be in Palestine, as was written in the holy scriptures, nor on the fringes of the earth at Cape Horn, and not even in the Himalayas, where there is a particularly large concentration of both spies and geologists. So imagine my surprise when one day, as I am bordering on desperation deep in the Amazon jungle, a university application handbook comes into my possession. I open it, flip through and what do I see?! There it is! In Moscow! With the name and address on Mokhovaya Street. Providence itself gave such a name to the institute, using the hand of some ministry functionary to write Geological-Surveillance Institute. You can’t imagine what elation I felt inside when I landed myself the post of dean here after my return to Moscow.”
“OK, OK,” said Ivan Ilyich. “So who in your opinion is the embodiment of good, as you see it, and of evil?”
“It’s obvious who’s who,” said Oleg Yanovich with a shrug. “The geologists are evil and the spies are good. Chaos, that’s the geologists again, order is the spies. And so on . . .”
“Like that, is it?” said IIvan Ilyich. “And the future Messiah, who might that be?”
“Who?” said Lednev with surprise. “Why, me of course. I didn’t just come here to do a bit of sightseeing.”
“That’s how it is then…”
Ivan Ilyich paced up and down silently for a few seconds, staring at his feet as if digesting what he just heard, then looked up quickly, surveying his adversary from head to toe, eyes blazing.
“And now you just listen to me, Oleg Yanovich,” he began. “I always admired your ability to speak with persuasion, your analytical thinking, not to mention the way you camouflage yourself, vanish, and generally all the stuff you learned as a spy. I always spoke only well of you in front of the students, including the young geologists. But it wasn’t even this that really disappointed me. How could it be that someone who has traveled the world over, who has trodden the sands of the Calahari, seen the fiords of Trondheim, the geysers of Iceland, the pink sun rising over Mount Fujiama, and much more, suddenly becomes a devotee of intrigue, dry figures, and egotistical manipulations? How can one who has tasted the fruits of accomplishment of past and present civilizations suddenly just delete one half of humanity, having made the subjective judgment that it is worse than the other?
You forget, Mr. Lednev, that the pioneers and the boldest scientists were and remain in their essence geologists. It is they who conquered space and ventured into the depths of the oceans. And it was the geologists who fought in the face of superior enemy forces, rather than write reports in some safe HQ behind the lines. And no spy who ever captured a geologist would ever learn any secret from him and would reach the erroneous conclusion that they, the geologists, know nothing and are in fact total idiots.
“I am certain that even you, Oleg Yanovich, have at least one drop of geologists’ blood, otherwise what would have led you into the depths of the Amazon jungles, where you found the university application handbook? But if, all the same, you have decided to put a cross on the geological movement and leave only the surveillance faculty, if you already decided to smother the Earth with regulations, instructions, and figures that are known only to yourself, if you see in yourself a prophet and decided to create a rational-mercantile society, a gloomy society of Stalins and Winnie-the-Poohs, know this: However you may try, there will always be a corner of the earth where the geologist’s hammer will knock and the campfire will smoke. I don’t believe your ‘alliance’ with Mata Hari will last or that the ill-fated note that made the boy climb on to the window ledge wasn’t a fake. I am certain that sooner or later Pavel will find his formula for happiness and that no spy will be able to get to him and steal it away. And Mata Hari will think yet about freeing herself from your spell and will realize that there is something better in this life than being the wife of an up-and-coming dean. Then, Mr. Lednev, you will not become some prophet rising above the smoldering Armageddon. Oh no. Since I am still rector until tomorrow morning, I intend to write a letter to Anna’s parents telling them to take her away from here, to get her into the Meat and Milk Institute or somewhere. Things are too hot around here to allow the presence of women, Mr. Lednev.”
“You will not do that,” came Lednev’s hissing reply.
“I’ll do it, I surely will,” chirped back Ivan Ilyich.
“No you will not,” Lednev’s order-cum-warning hissed once again. He stopped and grabbed the rector painfully above the elbow.
“And why the hell are you grabbing me by the elbow?! You forget, sir, that I am still the rector at this institute. And you are a mere dean!” Ivan Ilyich said with loud indignation and promptly fainted.
When he came round he saw a crowd of students standing in a tight circle around him and Professor Lednev. After he stopped seeing Lednev in double vision and the students’ features became discernible again, Ivan Ilyich raced at Lednev, who with some imperceptible movement fended off the attack. The rector couldn’t fathom if this was some hand-to-hand combat technique or if the dean was using some technical device. Lord only knows what sort of arsenal was hidden in the pockets and sleeves of the cunning Lednev.
But Ivan Ilyich noticed with pleasure that spies as well as geologists had joined the crowd of onlookers, drawn out of the hostel by this unusual duel. United by the spectacle before them, the irreconcilable faculties were not fighting each other this time but, on the contrary, amicably cadged cigarettes from one another, exchanged opinions and even made bets. The sounds of swinging chains died and the torches were only brought forward to better light the area where the rector and the dean were settling their differences.
“Take my vacuum pipe at least, Ivan Ilyich,” whispered one student standing nearby. “This Lednev is sure to have a telescopic truncheon and electroshock, and a syringe with acid, if not a Browning with silencer.”
“I don’t need anything, boys,” smiled Ivan Ilyich. “I will fight with bare hands. I am sure that this time professor Lednev doesn’t have any unsavory items in his pockets. He’s a decent person. Well, shall we continue?” suggested Ivan Ilyich, looking at the tensed Lednev as cheerfully as he could. And the rector, throwing aside a guitar that a student tried to place in his hands, hurled himself at the dean with the cry, “Armageddon!”
Ivan Ilyich next regained consciousness in the central clinical hospital about a week after that terrible night. The doctors were unable to make a diagnosis and establish why the rector lost consciousness for such a long time. There was no sign of blows, and blood and urine tests found no evidence of poisoning.
“Evidently Lednev used some secret weapon against me,” thought Ivan Ilyich, nonetheless pleased with the outcome of this fight of principle. Okay, he would certainly be sacked as rector, but he had apparently saved the geology students, thanks to which the institute would retain its Geological-Surveillance title for a good while yet. And Lednev, tripped up by the drop of romanticism in his blood that forced him into a fight for Mata Hari, would turn green every time he reads the first part of the name, instead of sawing it off the very next day as he had intended.
Soon the rector started to get visits from loud groups of geologists, who smuggled guitars and beer into the ward. To spare the patient any distress, they made sure not to tell Ivan Ilyich under any circumstances that he had been removed from the post of rector. But they joyfully imparted the news that Mata Hari had left Lednev, most likely because the dean of the spy faculty was himself in disgrace for his part in the fight, although the scoundrel had easily proved that he wasn’t the one who started it.
“No matter how hard we tried to persuade these officials, no matter how many signatures we collected, the rat still produced a stenographic transcript of the fight and a video recording of how you, Ivan Ilyich, leaped on him,” the geologists said indignantly.
“Well, God shall be his judge,” smiled Ivan Ilyich.
He was pleasantly surprised when two spies came to visit him too, silently slipping into the ward. Without a word they put a bundle of sandwiches on the bedside table and both took a tiny bite of each one so Ivan Ilyich need not worry the food had been tampered with. But most of all, the former rector was overjoyed by the visit of fifth-year student Pavel the Hammer.
“Sometimes I still climb out on to the window ledge,” said Pavel. “But I assure you it’s not to throw myself from the ninth floor. You see, I submitted a request that I be transferred to the Pamirs after I graduate. And I get a little more used to heights by standing on the window ledge. Imagine, Ivan Ilyich, the Pamirs! So high you can touch the clouds! And me, singing a song and tapping my hammer on the frozen rocks.”
“Hold on, Pavel,” interrupted Ivan Ilyich. “Tell me straight, did they fire me as rector or not? I want the truth. Man to man. I assure you, my heart is in full working order and I feel fine, so I’ll survive any bad news.”
“They fired you, Ivan Ilyich,” said Pavel, looking at the floor.
“And who did they put in my place?”
“Well, not Lednev, of course,” smiled Hammer. “The ministry sent us a new rector from the Meat and Milk or somewhere, I don’t remember exactly. Anyway, what does it matter what background he has, a rector is a rector.”
“So how are things with Mata Hari?” inquired Ivan Ilyich curiously. “You didn’t patch it up then? I heard something about her leaving Lednev.”
“The devil take Mata Hari, vixen she is,” said Pavel with a dismissive wave. “Imagine, I promised her the moon from the sky and to show her how the waves pound the shores of Dixon Peninsula and in response she starts waving her mobile phone and talking some nonsense or other. I composed a song specially for her, Ivan Ilyich, and she didn’t even hear me out, just sat down to do something at her computer. And when I thought I’d surprise her in St. Petersburg, she just says ‘Don’t follow me.’ When I was willing to sell my soul to the devil for her, she opts for Lednev because he gives her a Volkswagen. A Volkswagen over a soul, imagine! It’s ridiculous.”
A few days later, when Ivan Ilyich was completely recovered, he ran into Mata Hari as she was leaving after lectures.
“Anna,” called the ex-rector. “Come here.”
“Why should I come to you?” she replied with a pout. “You aren’t rector any more, are you?” After pausing for thought, she added, “Give me ten dollars and I’ll come over.”
“Okay, here you are.”
“Well, what do you want?” said Mata Hari through narrowed eyes, tucking the ten-dollar bill into her handbag.
“Not much really, I just wanted to ask something.”
“How did it all turn out like that with Hammer? You seemed to become so close, the whole institute was in awe of you both, placed so many hopes in you.”
“He’s an idiot, that Hammer of yours,” scowled Mata Hari. “Imagine, he promised me the moon from the sky instead of paying the bill for my mobile phone. Promised his soul to the devil, and some blather about the Dickson Peninsula. They say he still climbs onto the window ledge.”
“True, but not for the reason you think. He goes out there for another reason that you don’t understand.”
“Maybe I don’t understand,” said Mata Hari. “But I do know he spoiled everything for me in St. Petersburg.”
“I see,” murmured the former rector “And what about Lednev? Why did you ditch him?”
“He’s getting on, Ivan Ilyich. If he hadn’t ended up in disgrace and been promoted instead then I might have been able to put up with it, but like that, no way.”
“And the Volkswagen? He gave you a Volkswagen,” said Ivan Ilyich, not letting her off so easily.
“So what, he gave it to me, then he took it back again,” sighed Mata Hari. “Took back the VW after I left him. Can I go now, Ivan Ilyich?”
“Time for me to go too.”
The former rector took another fond look at the facade of the institute, read aloud the name he had managed to save and then walked away, not turning round so as to avoid stirring any unnecessary sentiments in himself.
Moscow is a beautiful city, with many wonderful boulevards and streets, many striking modern buildings that please the gaze of the tourists and the hearts of native Muscovites. You can buy or sell anything you like in this city, agree to whatever with whomever, find pleasant relaxation here or join in the hectic bustle of the crowd for fun. If, dear reader, you should ever find yourself in the center of Moscow, be sure to take a stroll along Mokhovaya Street, the one running from Manege Square past the Alexandrovsky Gardens. Not far away, set back from the road, stands the wonderful Geological-Surveillance Institute. It may seem like a place of higher education like any other, with its own modest entry in the applicants’ handbook. But few people know that this is not only the place where the rector and the dean had a fight in public and ended up in the police records, but the site of a mighty clash that was observed by hordes of invisible forces from the past and the future. Armageddon. The site of the decisive battle of good and evil, a battle neither won nor lost.