The street sizzled. The clatter of skytrains, the car horns, the rattle of speeding trolleys, the twitter of traffic lights and the massive hubbub of human voices, all seethed in dark blue air, sliced into smithereens by columns of light of all colors and shades. Like giant serpents, endless throngs poured this way and that, filling sidewalks to capacity, lit up by square shop windows and by house lights sinking into the twilight. Freshly watered asphalt hissed under hundreds of car tires. Slithery black and silver bodies of elongated vehicles flitted by, one after another.
Without aim or thought I kept walking, a small indivisible particle pressed into the crowd, letting it carry me like a cork buoyed by waves.
The street breathed, murmured and rumbled, drenching me with cascades of lights and wafts of women’s heavy perfumes, sometimes with the acrid sharp smoke of southern cigarettes, other times with the choking sweetness of opium-laced cigars. Neon letters of dimming and illuminating advertisements scampered frenetically up the fronts of buildings, fountains swooshed upward, wisps of flares and fireworks flickered madly, showering the heads in the crowd with their dying glints.
I walked past gigantic portals shimmering with light, past dark storefronts, past sky-high columns of unfamiliar edifices, wedged into the mobile, multilingual mass of people engaged in a perpetual conversation, and yet more alone than on a desert island. Hands in pockets, mechanically I jingled a couple of nickels, my entire fortune.
I found myself at the junction of three grand boulevards, the stone maws of which, decked by the regular spinal mosaic of street lamps, stretched into the far distance with their necks elongated by perspective. I separated myself from the crowd and stood at the curb.
In rhythm with the changing traffic lights, human waves crept across the street, as if ejected from a giant river lock. During the alternate phase, big automobile engines roared, howled and murmured, from time to time screeching a warning with a whistle of brakes. Trotting by, a paperboy thrust an unwanted paper in my hand; I bought it to get rid of him, stuffed it up my coat sleeve and gazed on.
The crowd was in constant flux, but underneath it all, always the same. The street continued to pulse in both directions, like chewing gum passing through its asphalt gullet, either chunks of thronging people or, alternatively, the gleaming steelwork of motorcars.
An immense, glistening shadow detached itself suddenly from the thin stripline of the street and pulled up right next to me with a quiet hiss of tires. The left front window of the huge Buick rolled down and a voice spoke from inside.
“What paper is that?”
A hand clad in a chauffeur’s thick glove pointed to the white edge of the newspaper protruding from my sleeve.
The question, the manner, the meaning were all highly unusual, but life had taught me not to be surprised by anything, especially in this metropolitan sprawl. Since I did not know the title myself, I got the paper out before I replied.
“New York Times.”
“And what day is today? What day?” prompted the same voice. I got fed up with the stupid game.
“Friday!” I shot back, meaning to end it there and then.
The same instant the car door popped open and the voice said, “Get in, please.”
I started to back off.
“Come on!” rang the words with such force that, despite myself, I obeyed.
I don’t remember sinking into the soft cushions; the door crashed shut and all at once, like in a gangster movie, we were up and running fast. Street lights lurched, stretched into pulsing garlands—we ripped forward.
I looked around the automobile. It was dark. I was all alone in the back. In front of me, silhouetted against the dimly lit dash and the front windshield, were two burly males: the driver and his companion. I got to thinking. Two days of enforced fasting took its toll, but did not affect my brain any I could tell. If anything, the hunger brought with it a certain levity, not to say a heightened sense of indifference, with which I reviewed these extraordinary dealings. Now—where the heck was I? The vehicle had evidently entered a slower street since the engine began to whine in that elevated, singsong tone characteristic of compressors at high revs when the gas is still to the floor. Suddenly—a sharp turn—the brakes, hit hard, screeched. The car shuddered a few times, gently rolled into a pothole, and stopped.
The doors stayed shut. Only the driver honked, short, then long. Twice he killed the brights, then turned on the stop lights, then he killed those too. We waited motionless in the Stygian darkness.
“What kind of stupid bull . . .,” I started out, but the voice came out weak, my ears still full of the din of the engine and the drive. At exactly the same moment a square of pale light appeared before the nose of the car. The automobile growled and edged forward. All of a sudden I felt the floor sink. Aha!—I nodded—an underground garage—and we were already there.
The doors popped open. The driver showed me his face—enormous, broad, jutting jaws and eyebrows, a face at once bone-dry and meaty. I got out. My footfalls were light—the carpet in this subterranean gallery muffled sounds. A few moments later a side door opened and I was looking into a small navy-blue boardroom in which sat five men. Once they saw me, they all got to their feet and stared in silence, as if waiting for something.
The shortest, a middle-aged dark-blond character with a pale, glistening face that looked slightly flushed, turned to my escort.
The driver seemed startled, hesitated, but presently answered:
The guy that asked the question turned toward me and approached till we stood face to face.
“What day is today?”
I answered, this time correctly, that it was Wednesday—only to see everyone give a start. For a moment I thought I was surrounded by lunatics but, before I had time to get uneasy, the athletically built driver took a step forward.
“Mr. Frazer—I swear—he said Friday. And was holding the New York Times, on the corner of Fifth.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” asked the pale face. “Where are you from?”
“Chicago,” I replied. “Now, how about my turn to ask a few questions. What’s all this convocation about? And this mysterious car lift ride?”
“Don’t break a sweat,” his icy voice cut me off. “It’s not your turn yet. Before, why did you tell him it was Friday?”
It occurred to me that maybe I was dealing with fruitcakes. The thing was to be cooperative and gentle—I read it somewhere.
“When you really think about it,” I started, “maybe it really is Friday. Especially if you consider the Greenwich meridian . . .”
“Cut out that nonsense, right now. Do you have the letter and the instruments?”
I stood mute.
“Yes . . .,” drawled my interrogator. “Well, before . . . before . . . you’ll have to tell us who sent you. What you hoped to accomplish. And who told you what to do so you could get in here!”
At the end he was almost hissing, exposing his teeth, even whiter, or rather paler, than his features. The others stood immobile, fixing me with their eyes, neither menacing nor perturbed.
Slowly it dawned on me. For sure, these were not lunatics. No, the only lunatic and blundering idiot was I, and I had just stumbled into some vast and sinister cabal.
“Gentlemen,” I began, my jovial tone decidedly out of place, but I pressed ahead, trying to look unfazed. “I am, that is I was, a reporter for the Chicago World . . . For certain reasons, I was let go a couple of months ago . . . I was looking for a job, came to New York. Been here several weeks, nothing doing. And the way I got here, let me tell you, was strictly accidental. Everybody is entitled to own a copy of the Times, no?”
“And answer a question about the day of the week with Friday, instead of Wednesday . . . is that right?”
The words, spoken for the first time by a tall, skinny man in spectacles, made me turn toward him, even as I noticed that the door was now closed. Against it leaned the car driver, his massive face expressionless like a rock. His frame filled the whole exit in a manner that did not please me at all. It dawned on me that they did not believe me.
“Listen,” I started again, “it’s just a stupid coincidence . . . Please let me walk away . . . I don’t know anything, don’t understand anything at all, don’t even know where I am right now.”
“How true, you don’t understand anything,” the man with the glistening pale face said slowly. “But you can’t leave here.”
“Not now? So when?”
When the word came out, everybody kind of relaxed. The cat was out of the bag. Slowly, taking their time, the other four seated themselves, lighted their cigarettes over a small oil lamp, while I looked them over. I looked with special intensity at their movements, at the brightly lit room, at the face of the man in front of me who passed the sentence. Should I say something?—I thought—plead, persuade, go into detail? Explain? But when I peered into those pale blue eyes, as if bleached by distance, I knew words were useless.
“I don’t get this at all,” I said, straightening up. I was tired and hungry. “I don’t know why I’m supposed to disappear. Or what for. But even cannibals feed their victims . . . please. I’m hungry.” I stepped over to the desk, took a smoke out of a case and lighted up from the oil lamp.
At that moment, I noticed, the men looked at one another, then—over my head—at the guy who had been speaking to me, as if at their leader, and once again fell motionless. The boss gave me a once-over. I feigned unconcern. The door was still blocked by a massive body which cut off access to the door handle. I estimated he weighed at least two hundred pounds. I needed sleep, rest, food—resistance was futile.
“Please, give him something to eat,” directed the pale face, “and look after him. And well!”
At that the driver’s burly back shrank a bit. Wordlessly, he opened the door and motioned at me.
“G’night, gentlemen,” I said, and followed his lead.
The door crashed shut, I found myself in the twilight of the corridor.
The same instant I was seized by two powerful hands, there was a click, and I felt the cold steel of handcuffs on my wrists.
“So, that’s how you treat your guests?” I asked, without raising my voice.
The chauffeur and his accomplice, invisible in the darkness, were not the talkative type. One of them efficiently frisked me and, finding nothing, gave me a little push forward.
I figured it for an invitation to supper. After we marched in the Stygian darkness for a good minute, my guide halted so suddenly that I almost ran into a wall that materialized out of nowhere, looming in front of my face. A dull clang and the doors opened—a rectangle of light.
The new locality looked like a bank treasure vault, actually like a picture of a treasure vault in all those avidly read crime mysteries. Large steel doors thundered behind me and my escort, sinking their huge claws into the matching slots in the frame. The room was harshly illumined by a strong unshaded lightbulb. On the walls—regularly placed rows of steel portals displaying massive handles and multiple locks. The only furnishings I could see were two low chairs on a concrete floor, next to a three-legged taboret and a tiny table. Oddly, everything was made of steel. I realized this when the chauffeur pushed the taboret at me with his leg; it made an unmistakable sound.
I sat down, the chauffeur approached the table, lifted the top and took out of the exposed drawer several cans of meat and a longish loaf of white bread. He fished out of his pocket an immense pocketknife, selected the blade to his liking, cut open one of the cans, then with the same knife sliced the bread. Finally, he patted his pockets until he fished out the key to my cuffs—just as I was getting resigned to being fed with my hands out of commission. Seated in front of me, his eyes contemplatively followed every part of the monotonous meal, until there was nothing left in the can. I glanced at the next one—lobster, and I’m really partial to lobster—and stretched out my hand: pocketknife. The chauffeur’s tanned massive face stretched, probably indicating a smile, then he produced the knife and opened the can himself. He’s afraid of me!—I thought with satisfaction, since he looked twice my weight. When the second can was empty and mopped up with bread crust, I faced him.
The driver again stretched his face, this time a shade wider, lifted the tabletop and produced a flask of excellent Cognac. I thought he’d do the honors but he only popped the cork and put a cup in front of me, which I completely ignored. A healthy dose of cognac ungummed my cranial machinery. It seemed I was in quite a pickle, and was about to inquire how I could get some sleep in this cut-rate hotel, when a low, short buzzer sounded over my head, repeating three times. The chauffeur twitched ever so slightly, and said:
I hesitated—he only backed off a step and touched a suspiciously packed pocket in his pants.
“Nec Hercules,” I said aloud, smiled, and surrendered my wrists. He smiled back, a little crooked at that, opened the door and we fell into the black soup on the other side.
We must have walked in another direction for, after a while, he grabbed my arm and yanked it. Not a moment too soon, for I was about to fall down a flight of stairs. We climbed. Soon enough I was able to detect a pale-blue light which progressively grew stronger, then a landing and a wide windowless hallway lit by square matte lamps set inside the walls. The hallway terminated in a door as wide as the entire wall. When we got to it, the chauffeur pushed me ahead. It opened by itself, and equally by itself closed behind us (or behind me).
I found myself in a gigantic library—that was my immediate impression. The walls were filled to the ceiling with books. There were library ladders reading tables and lamps, and in the middle of the room a small round table seating all the guys I had already met. The eyeglasses of the one who had spoken to me only once—tall and slim, gray at the temples—now flashed in my direction. I approached.
“We were just talking about you,” he said at length, slowly and quietly. He sounded awfully tired. I bowed slightly and waited. “We want to believe you . . . Our investigations show that, in all likelihood, you’re telling the truth . . .”
I gaped, amazed. What investigations? Was he referring to the supper with the wordless chauffeur? In that case, I reckoned, they were a pretty pathetic bunch. He appeared to pay no heed to my bewilderment.
“Against your will, you got yourself into a certain . . . into a very complex situation.” You could see he was pondering every word. “One thing you need to know: you can’t leave here the same person you were before.”
It flashed through my head that maybe this is the headquarters of some fantastically sophisticated criminal gang—or maybe a political clique—fascists or something like that. But why these books?
“Either you’ll never leave, or . . .” he halted. He regarded me calmly, but I could feel the tension all the same.
“Or?” I asked. And then to the guy who lighted up before: “Excuse me, do you mind? As you see, I can’t use my hands but I really could use a smoke.”
Slowly (the guy did everything slowly—it was amusing, and other times frightening—he was like an actor on the stage) he put a cigarette in my mouth and gave me the light. For the second time the others exchanged meaningful glances.
“Or you’ll end up with us,” finished the man in glasses. “And, judging by appearances, I’d say that’s the way it’s going to be.”
“Appearances can be misleading.” I was also trying to speak slowly, not so much to match their pace but to overcome the vapors which, after my prolonged fast, were enveloping my brain thanks to the Cognac I had drunk at supper. “Can you tell me what’s this all about?”
The pale man who, up to now, remained silent, looked up.
“This, of course, you can’t know,” he said in a tone that sounded almost apologetic. Then louder: “But why should you care? Your job is simple: do as you’re told and keep quiet.”
I have to admit, the whole conversation made me feel odd. Earlier, when these strange people condemned me to disappear, in other words to die, I was acutely aware of the hopelessness of my position, but this novel turn of events filled me with renewed strength. Up against the wall, a man becomes apathetic, listless. But give him the tiniest ray of hope and his strength grows a hundredfold, his senses fire up to peak levels, and he turns into a single coiled muscle ready to explode in an effort to save his life. That’s what happened to me. Speaking slowly, in hushed tones, I kept examining my surroundings, gauging distances from under lowered eyelids. Escape . . . ? Why not? No doubt about it, it was now or never. I could snatch the massive ashtray and bounce it off the boss’s head, but that would be stupid. Better toss it at the large electric light that illuminated the hall. The question was, was there only one, or more lightbulbs inside its round matt sphere? Everything would hinge on that. And then, there was the door. The peculiar door that opened and closed by itself. My back was turned against it, I couldn’t even tell if it had a handle.
“You mustn’t ask any questions,” the man with the pale, sweaty face was speaking unhurriedly, with emphasis, stubbing his cigarette inside the ornate block of the silver ashtray. He flicked an invisible fleck from his cuff and suddenly braced me with his cold blue gaze.
“If you don’t mind,” I smiled, shrugging slightly and risking a peek out of the corner of my eye. Ordinary-looking door handle. “It seems to me, we really ought to, in a certain sense . . .”
One of the men, who had seemed utterly uninterested in our conversation, suddenly spoke a few words in a language unknown to me. They sounded oddly throaty. My interlocutor leaned over the table and said quickly and quietly:
“Do you agree?”
“To what?” I was stalling for time at all costs.
“You have a choice, either join our”—he hesitated (hardly professionals, I thought, this is no gang or they could never run like this)—”our organization, or you’ll be rendered harmless.”
“You mean chilled to about grave temperature, is that right?”
“No,” he replied calmly. “We are not going to kill you. We’re only going to perform a minor operation which will turn you into an idiot for the rest of your life.”
“OK . . . and what to you want me to do in the ‘organization’?”
“Nothing you’re not capable of.”
“Anything against the law?”
“What do you . . . our, American law . . .”
“No doubt . . . from time to time,” he replied. As if on command, they all smiled thinly. You could say, wax masks came alive for a split second. With deliberation I moved my leg so that, with a sudden torque, I could get to the ashtray. Could I hurl it at the lamp in cuffed hands? I was a pretty good gymnast. At the same instant the guy with the spectacles turned to the oleander standing in a beautiful jade vase next to the table and said a few words, none of which were audible. The doors opened to reveal the chauffeur together with his accomplice.
“Escort him . . . to the surgery,” ordered the commander. “And remove the cuffs.”
From Czlowiek z Marsa. Copyright Stanisław Lem. By arrangement with the estate of Stanisław Lem. Translation copyright 2009 by Peter Swirski. All rights reserved.