Prince of Gosplan


The little figure runs along the corridor. It is drawn with great affection, perhaps a little too sentimentally. If you press the <Up> key, it jumps, arches its back, and hangs in the air for a second, trying to catch hold of something above its head. If you press <Down> it squats and tries to pick something up from the ground under its feet. If you press <Right> it runs to the right, if you press <Left> it runs to the left. In fact you can use various keys to control it, but these four are the most important.

The space through which the figure runs changes. Most of the time it’s no more than a plain stone passageway, but sometimes it turns into an incredibly beautiful gallery with a strip of oriental ornament running along the wall and tall narrow windows. There are torches blazing on the walls and enemies with naked swords standing in the dead ends of side corridors and on the precarious bridges over deep shafts of stone—the little figure can fight with them if you press the <Shift> key. If you press several keys at the same time, the little figure can leap and stretch, hang swaying on the edge of a precipice, and even run and jump over the deep stone shafts with the sharp spikes sticking up down below. The game has a number of levels, and you can pass from lower ones to higher ones, or tumble back down from the higher levels. The corridors change, the traps change, the jars from which the figure drinks to restore its vital energy look different, but still everything remains the same: the figure still runs over the flagstones past the torches, the skulls on the shelves, and the drawings on the walls.

The final purpose is to reach the highest level, where the princess is waiting, but to do that you have to devote a lot of time to the game itself. In fact, to be successful, you have to forget that you’re pressing keys and actually become the little figure—only then will it acquire the degree of agility required to fence, jump through the snapping body-scissors in the narrow stone corridors, leap over the stone shafts and run over the collapsing flagstones, each of which can only support the weight of a body for seconds—although the figure has no body, let alone any weight, and neither, if you think about it, do the tumbling slabs of stone, no matter how convincing the sound might be when they fall.

Level 1

The prince was running along the stone ledge: he had to squeeze through under the iron portcullis before it dropped, because beyond it stood a jar with a slim neck, and he had almost no strength left at all. There were already two shafts with spikes behind him, and the leap down onto the floor strewn with stone fragments had cost him a serious effort as well. Sasha pressed <Right> and then immediately <Down>, and by some miracle the prince squeezed under the portcullis, which was already half-lowered. Then the picture on the screen shifted, and in place of the jar there was an obese warrior wearing a turban standing on the bridge and gazing hypnotically at Sasha.

“Lapin!” said a repulsively familiar voice behind his back, and Sasha felt a sudden sinking feeling in his stomach, although there was no real reason for him to feel afraid.

“Yes, Boris Grigorievich?”

“Come into my office.”

Boris Grigorievich’s office was actually not an office at all, it was simply a section of the room separated off by several bookshelves and cupboards, and when Boris Grigorievich strode around his territory the bald dome of his head could be seen over the top of them, so that Sasha sometimes had the feeling that he was squatting down beside a billiard table and watching the movement of the only remaining ball over the top of the cushion. After lunch Boris Grigorievich usually dropped into one of the pockets, but he spent the golden hours of the morning bouncing around from cushion to cushion, with the part of the cue played by the telephone—every ring it gave made the ivory-colored hemisphere move faster above the paper-cluttered surface of the cupboards.

Sasha hated Boris Grigorievich with the calm, enduring hatred known only to Siamese cats who live with cruel masters, and Soviet engineers who read George Orwell. Sasha had read all of Orwell at college, when it was still forbidden, and every day since then he had found a multitude of reasons to smirk wryly and shake his head. And now, as he approached the passage between two cupboards, he gave a crooked smile at the thought of the conversation ahead. Boris Grigorievich was standing by the window and practicing the “swallow’s flight” blow, pausing at length in each of the intermediate positions. He wasn’t using a bamboo pole, as he had when he recently began studying Budokan, but a genuine samurai sword. Today he was wearing a “hunting costume” of green satin over a creased kimono of patterned sinobu fabric. When Sasha entered, he lovingly laid the sword on the windowsill, sat down on a straw mat and pointed to another mat beside it. Folding his legs underneath him with a struggle, Sasha sat down and fixed his gaze on the Honda poster showing a motorcyclist in tall leather boots who for more than a year had been riding the wall of death across the cupboard to the right of Boris Grigorievich’s straw mat. Boris Grigorievich placed his hand palm-down on the processor unit of his AT—it was the same as Sasha’s, except that it had an eighty megabyte hard disk—and closed his eyes, pondering how to begin the conversation.

“Have you read the latest issue of Arguments and Facts?” he asked after a minute or so.

“I don’t subscribe.”

“You should,” said Boris Grigorievich, picking up the folded sheets of newsprint from where they lay on the floor and shaking them back and forth, “it’s a fine newspaper. What I can’t understand at all is just what the communists are hoping for. Killed fifty million people and still they carry on with their mumbo jumbo. They can’t fool anyone any longer.”

“Uh-uh,” said Sasha.

“And look at this, about a thousand women in America pregnant by aliens. Plenty of them here too, but the KGB’s got them hidden away somewhere.”

“Just what is he after?” Sasha thought wearily.

Boris Grigorievich began thinking and his face darkened.

“You’re a strange lad, Sasha,” he said at last. “You’re always sullen, never make friends with anyone in the department. They’re people, you know, not just pieces of furniture. Yesterday you gave Lusya a real fright. She told me today: ‘I don’t care what you say, Boris Grigorievich, but I’m scared of being alone in the elevator with him.’”

“I’ve never been alone in the elevator with her,” said Sasha.

“And that’s exactly why she’s afraid. Take a ride with her, grab her by the cunt, have a bit of a laugh. Have you read Dale Carnegie?”

“What did I do to frighten her?” Sasha asked, trying to recall who Lusya was.

“Never mind Lusya, that’s not the point,” said Boris Grigorievich, gesturing impatiently. “You just need to behave like a normal human being, understand? All right, we’ll continue this conversation some other time, right now I’ve got an important question for you. How well do you know Abrams?”

“Fairly well.”

“How do you turn the turret in it?”

“First you press <C> and then use the cursor keys. The vertical ones raise the barrel.”

“You sure? Let’s take a look.”

Sasha went over to the computer. Boris Grigorievich whispered something to himself as his fingers stumbled uncertainly over the keyboard while he loaded the game.

“That turns it right, and that turns it left,” said Sasha.

“So it does. I’d never have guessed in a hundred years.”

Boris Grigorievich picked up his phone and began dialing a number.

“Boris Emelianovich,” he purred, “we’ve worked it out. Press <C> and then use the arrow keys... Yes, yes... You reverse it using <C> too... Oh no, not at all, ha ha ha...”

Boris Grigorievich turned to Sasha, curved his lips into an imploring smile and without giving the slightest hint of offense, twirled his fingers in the direction of the exit. Sasha stood up and went out.

“Ha ha ha... On paper? Populous? I’ve never even heard of it. We’ll do it. We’ll do it. We’ll do it. Take care now.”

Level 2

Sasha always went out onto the dark staircase to smoke, to a window from which he could see a tall building and some ramshackle but beautiful earth terraces below it. When he had lit his cigarette, he usually stared for a long time at the skyscraper—his view of the star perched on its pinnacle was slightly from one side and the wreaths framing it made it look like a double headed eagle. As he looked at it, Sasha often imagined a different version of Russian history—or rather a different trajectory, leading to precisely the same point—with the construction of exactly the same tall building, but with a different symbol on its summit. But right now the sky looked particularly repulsive, and seemed even grayer than the building.

On the landing one floor below, two men dressed in identical overalls of fine English wool were smoking: each of them had a gold wrench sticking out of his breast pocket. Listening to their conversation, Sasha realized that they were from the game Pipes. Sasha had seen the game, he’d even gone to install it on some deputy minister’s hard disk, but he didn’t like its total lack of romanticism, its superficiality of feeling, and especially the fact that up in the top left corner it had an image of a loathsome-looking plumber who began laughing every time one of the pipes burst. These two, however, seemed to be seriously involved.

“They won’t deliver under the old contracts,” complained the first set of overalls, “they want hard currency.”

“Try going back to the beginning of the stage,” answered the other set, “or simply reload.”

“I’ve tried that. Yegor even took a trip to the plant, three times he tried to get to see the director before he went down.”

“If he goes down, you have to press <Control-Break> or <Reset>. You know what Yevgraf Emelianovich says, ‘Fix your woes with <Reset>.’”

The two sets of overalls looked up simultaneously at Sasha, glanced at each other, tossed their cigarette butts into the bucket, and disappeared off down the corridor.

“I wonder,” thought Sasha, “whether they’re just pretending to each other or they really find it interesting playing with those pipes?” He set off down the staircase. “My God, just what is it I’m hoping for?” he thought. “What will I be doing here a year from now? They may be very stupid, but they see everything—and they understand everything. And they never forgive anything. What a chameleon you have to be to work here.”

Suddenly the staircase under his feet shuddered, a heavy concrete block with four steps on it fell away from under his feet, and a second later smashed into the flight of steps a floor below, without causing the slightest harm to the two girls from the administration office who were standing at the precise point of its impact. The girls raised their pretty birdlike heads and looked at Sasha, who had just managed to save himself by grabbing the edge of the step that was still in place.

“Your shoes need cleaning,” said the younger one, moving away to avoid Sasha’s swaying legs, and the girls giggled. Sasha squinted down at them and saw they were standing on the lower edge of a pyramid of small multicolored cubes. That must be Crazy Bird, a pleasant enough game with amusing music, but with an unexpectedly stupid and cruel ending. He could hang there like this for as long as he wanted, there was even something pleasant about the monotonous swaying to and fro, but Sasha thought it must look stupid. He pulled up his legs and clambered onto an unfamiliar stone landing that broke off abruptly above an abyss, while its opposite edge was concealed behind the left edge of the screen—he could just make out a buzzing sound from that direction. The other edge of the landing was flanked by a high wall built of coarse blocks of stone. Sasha sat down on the cold, rough surface of the floor, leaned back against the wall, and closed his eyes. Somewhere in the distance he could hear a flute playing quietly. Sasha didn’t know who was playing it, or where they were, but he heard that music almost every day. At the beginning, when he was still finding his bearings on the first level, he had been irritated by the monotony of the distant quavering sound, its seeming pointlessness, but in time he had gotten used to it and even began to discover a certain beauty in it—it was as though the single long, drawn out note contained an entire complex melody, and he could listen to the melody for hours at a time. Just recently he had even begun stopping in order to listen to the flute and would go on standing motionless for some time—just as he was now—after its sound had faded away.

He looked around. There was only one way out—a leap into the unknown beyond the left edge of the screen. He could take a run and jump, or just push off as hard as possible from the edge of the platform with both legs. All of the abysses in the labyrinth were the right width for either a running jump or a standing jump, and naturally the first seemed the most reliable, but for some reason intuition prompted him to try the second. Sasha walked over to the abyss and stood on its very edge, then launched himself as hard as he could into buzzing obscurity. After landing on his haunches he straightened up, and beads of cold sweat sprang out on his forehead at the thought that he had almost taken a running jump. Right there in front of him a dead body hung, twisted in torment on a sharp steel spike. It was already crimson and swollen, covered with hordes of fat, slow moving flies. When some of them flew up into the air to take a break they made the buzzing sound that was audible in the picture to the right. In life the corpse had been a middle-aged man; he was wearing a respectable suit and still clutching a briefcase in his hand. He must have been a novice in this game who decided it would be safer to take a running jump. But then, Sasha could easily have ended up on the bottom of a deep stone shaft, while the man in the suit might have continued on his journey toward the princess. There was no way of guessing for sure—at least Sasha didn’t know of any.

Carefully stepping around the corpse, he ran on along the corridor. At one point he reached up, clambered onto a platform supported by two coarse pillars and ran on along another corridor—at three points of which he had to leap across deep stone shafts. What he found surprising was that all of this was happening on the second level, which he thought he knew like the back of his own hand, and it was only when a control slab clicked under his feet and he heard the clanking of a portcullis rising in the corner that he realized what had happened.

Not far from the exit to the third level there was a portcullis which he had never found out how to open, and once he had managed to get onto the next level, he had decided it must be purely decorative. Now it turned out there was an entire section of the labyrinth behind it, only it was a dead end. Sasha ran under the raised portcullis and dashed on—he was in familiar territory now and the surroundings didn’t threaten any more surprises. He stepped on one more control slab, then jumped over another—otherwise the portcullis ahead, which had begun to rise, would drop back down—and then set off along the corridor as fast as he could. He had to hurry because once it was fully raised, the portcullis immediately began to descend. He just managed to squeeze through under the spikes when they were less than a yard from the ground and found himself beside the staircase on the third floor, very close to the spot where only a few minutes before a section of the stairs had collapsed underneath him. The door to the next level was close now. “Damn,” thought Sasha, shaking himself and finally realizing just how fast his heart was beating, “the staircase here never used to collapse before! It collapsed on the fourth floor, but not here. It must do that every now and then.”


He turned around. Emma Nikolaievna was peeping out of the door of the second section of the timber department. Her face was thickly coated with powder, reminding Sasha of a large pink patch of ringworm sprinkled with streptocide.

“Sasha, give me a light, will you?”

“What’s the matter, can’t you manage it yourself?” Sasha asked rather coldly.

“I’m not in The Prince, am I?” answered Emma Nikolaievna. “I haven’t got any flaming torches on the walls.”

“What, did you play it before then?” Sasha asked a little more kindly.

“There was a time, but those guardians, you know. They could do anything they liked with me. Anyway, I never got further than the second stage.”

“You have to use the <Shift> key for that,” said Sasha, taking the cigarette from her and striding toward the flickering image of a torch blazing on the wall. “And the cursor keys.”

“It’s too late for me now,” sighed Emma Nikolaievna, taking the lighted cigarette and gazing at Sasha with moist eyes. He was on the point of opening his mouth to express polite protest when he spotted a seminaked monster, complete with a chest covered in red hair and a thoughtful expression on its large snout of a face, peeping out from behind her shoulder—monsters like that are only encountered in small foreign trade organizations or on the bottom of the well of death in the game Targkhan. He blenched, nodded awkwardly, and went back to his own section.

“The dame’s done for,” he thought, “she’ll end up in DOS soon. Or maybe she’ll pull through somehow, who can tell?”

In his section the phone was ringing loudly and Sasha jumped impatiently onto the slab that opened the entrance, in order to make the door to the next level rise as quickly as possible.

Level 3

“Lapin! You’re wanted on the phone!”

Sasha hopped across to the desk and picked up the receiver.

“Sasha? Hi!”

It was Petya Itakin from Gosplan.

“Are you coming over today?”

“I wasn’t really planning to.”

“The boss said that someone from state supplies was coming by with some new programs, so I just thought it must be you.”

“I don’t know,” said Sasha, “nobody’s said anything to me about it yet.”

“But you’re the one who’s got the three extra files for Abrams, aren’t you?”


“That means they’re bound to send you. Be sure to wait for me if I’m out, okay?”


Sasha hung up and went to his desk. Beside him at the reserve computer a temporary consultant from Penza was absorbed in firing his laser gun at an Ergon rocket ship that had almost turned into position to fire back; on every side the joyless sands of Starglider extended as far as the eye could see.

“How’re you getting on there?” Sasha inquired politely.

“Not good,” answered the visitor, frowning as he hammered at the keyboard. “Not good at all. If that thing just...”

Suddenly a blinding whirlwind of fire hid everything from sight. Sasha pulled back and covered his face with his hands, quite instinctively; when he realized that nothing could happen to him and opened his eyes, the visitor was no longer there beside him—nothing was left but the flaps of his jacket, which were smoldering on the floor.

Boris Grigorievich bounded out from behind the cupboard and flung his sword on the floor, then held up the sides of the long padded cloak he had draped over his body armor before combat and began stamping on the lump of cloth that was giving off vile-smelling smoke. His horned helmet represented a sullen Japanese deity and in combination with the fussy, rather womanish movements of his large, flabby body, the scowl stamped into the metal was actually rather frightening. When he had liquidated the remains of the fire, Boris Grigorievich removed his helmet, wiped his wet bald patch and glanced inquiringly at Sasha.

“Done for,” said Sasha, and he nodded at the DOS prompt blinking in isolation on the screen.

“I can see that. Just load him up again, we’ve got a document here that still needs to be signed.”

Boris Grigorievich’s telephone began ringing, and he dashed back behind the cupboard without finishing what he was saying. Sasha moved over to the next computer, went into drive A, where the visitor’s rotten Bulgarian diskette was sitting, and called up the game. The disk drive buzzed quietly and a few seconds later the man from Penza reappeared in his chair.

“When you’re targeted by rocket fire, you should gain as much height as you can,” said Sasha. “You can’t get more than one of them with the laser, and that thing fires in salvoes.”

“Don’t try to teach me,” growled his neighbor, attacking the keyboard. “It’s not my first year out in deep space.”

“Then at least you should set up auto-exec for yourself,” said Sasha, “nobody’s got the time to keep on reloading you.”

The visitor didn’t answer—he was under attack simultaneously from two walking tanks, and had no time for idle chatter. Suddenly there was a loud rumble followed by shouting in the boss’ office.

“Lapin!” Boris Grigorievich roared from his cupboard. “Come here immediately!”

When Sasha came running in Boris Grigorievich was standing on the desk and using his sword to keep at bay a tiny Chinaman with a childish face who kept thrusting a pike at him with the speed of a sewing machine. Realizing at once what had happened, Sasha dashed over to the keyboard and jabbed his finger at the <Escape> key. The Chinaman froze in his stride.

“Phew!” said Boris Grigorievich, “that was a close one. Loaded the fifth dan by mistake—just pressed the key without thinking about it, thought it was asking me for the type of monitor. Never mind, we can sort him out now. But then, we’d better deal with him later. You’ve got a job to do. Go save that extension to Abrams onto a diskette and get over to Gosplan. You know Boris Emelianovich?”

“I installed Abrams for him,” Sasha answered, “deputy manager on the sixth floor.”

“Good. You can get a contract signed at the same time—take it over with the file. And he’ll give you a diskette...”

From the other side of the cupboards there came a blinding flash of flame, a series of bumps and a sudden smell of scorched flesh.

“What’s that?”

“The guy from Penza again. Looks like he hit a pyramid mine.”

“Okay, we’ll reload him tomorrow morning. We’ve suffered his noise and stench for more than an hour already. On your way. He’ll give you a diskette with Arkanoid. Take a look around to see what they have that’s new, okay?”

Sasha was about to turn toward the door, but Boris Grigorievich pulled him back by the sleeve.

“Wait,” he said, putting on his helmet. “I need you for a moment. When I shout ‘kiyai,’ press a key.”

“Which one?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

He went around behind the Chinaman, who was still frozen in his furious attack, assumed a low stance and measured his sword against the Chinaman’s neck.


“Ready,” said Sasha, turning away.


Sasha poked at the keyboard; there was a sharp whistle and a crunching sound and something struck the floor.

“Now you can go,” said Boris Grigorievich in a hoarse voice. “And be quick about it, there’s a lot of work to do.”

“I wanted to go to the cafeteria,” said Sasha, trying to look away.

“Better get across to Gosplan right away. You can get lunch there.”

Sasha emerged from behind the cupboards, went over to his seat, shoved the visitor’s fused spectacle frames under the radiator with his foot, then sat at his computer and dumped everything he needed onto a diskette. He put the diskette in his bag, stood up, and slowly made his way across the debris-scattered stone slabs of the corridor, jumping in his usual fashion over the trap, swung on his hands, jumped down to the lower stage, raised a slim, decorated jar from the floor and pressed it to his lips, thinking that he still didn’t know who set out these jars in the quiet corners of the underground terrain—or where each jar disappeared to after he had drunk its contents. Sasha knew every detail of the path to the fourth level and he walked, leapt, clambered, and stretched quite mechanically, thinking about all kinds of nonsense.

First he recalled Kudasov, deputy manager of the second section, who had reached the eighth level in the game Throatcutter ages ago, but still hadn’t managed to jump over some kind of green locker—he always said that was why he was the permanent deputy manager for several high-flying bosses who shot past him to promotion like rockets, all of them managing the locker, if not immediately, then at least without any great struggle.

Then Sasha began thinking about the strange things Itakin had said one evening recently—that some young guys had cracked his game a long time ago; it wasn’t quite clear just what Itakin had been thinking of, since the game had already been cracked when Sasha installed it on his hard drive. Then the door to the fourth level slowly rose and Sasha stepped into the subway car that happened to be behind it.

Level 4

“Just where is it I’m trying to get to?” he thought, staring into the black mirror of the subway door and adjusting the turban on his head. “I’ve already reached the seventh level—well, maybe not quite reached it, but I’ve seen what’s in there. It’s all the same stuff, only the guards are fatter. So I’ll reach the eighth level—but it’s going to take so long—and what comes after that? Of course, there’s the princess...” Sasha had last seen the princess two days before, somewhere between the third and fourth levels. The corridor on the screen had disappeared and been replaced by a room with a high vaulted ceiling, its floor spread with carpets. Immediately the music started playing, plaintive and wailing, but only at the beginning, and then only so that one note at the very end would sound particularly beautiful.

On the carpet stood an immense hourglass. From the stone floor a spoiled palace cat gazed at Sasha as though through the lens of a monocle, and on the scattered cushions in the very center of the carpet sat the princess. From that distance he could not make out her face—she seemed to have long hair, unless it was a dark scarf falling across her shoulders. She could hardly be aware that he was watching her, or even that Sasha existed as such, but he knew that if he could just reach that room, the princess would run to throw her arms around his neck. The princess stood up, crossed her arms on her chest, took a few steps across the carpet, and went back to sit down on the scattered cushions. Instantly it all disappeared, a heavy door clanged shut behind him and Sasha found himself beside the tall rocky projection with which the fourth level began.

“I wonder what she’s thinking about now? Maybe she’s thinking about the one who’s making his way to her through the labyrinth? That is, about me—without even knowing that she’s thinking about me?”

The columns of a station flickered past beyond the glass of the door. The train stopped. Sasha allowed himself to be caught up in the crowd and drifted slowly toward the escalators. Two of them were working. Sasha branched into the section of the crowd that was making for the one on the left. His head gradually filled with the slow, gloomy thoughts about life that usually came in the afternoon. “It’s strange,” he thought, “how I’ve changed over the last three levels. It used to seem as though I just had to leap over the next gap and that was all. My God, how little I needed in order to be happy! And now I do it every morning almost without looking, so what? What have I got to hope for now? That at the next level everything will change and I’ll start wanting something the way I knew how to want before? Well, just suppose I do get there. I almost know how to do it already: after the fifth portcullis I have to jump—there must be a way through in the ceiling, the stone slabs there are odd. But when I do get through, where shall I find the me who wanted to get through?”

Hearing a familiar clanking sound, Sasha suddenly turned cold. He looked up and saw that a body-scissors had been switched on ahead of him on the escalator—two sheets of steel with sharp-toothed edges that clashed together every few seconds with such force that the sound was like a blow on a small church bell. The other passengers passed straight through it quite calmly—it existed only for Sasha, but for him it was absolutely real: he had a long ugly scar running the full length of his back, and on that occasion the body-scissors had barely touched him, ripping a patch of cloth out of his expensive denim jacket. It wasn’t very difficult to get through a body-scissors—you just had to stand close and then step through the moment it opened. But this time Sasha was riding on an escalator and there was no way he could guess at just which moment he would reach the scissors.

Without pausing to think, he turned and dashed back downward. It was hard to run—the escalator was packed with drunkards who only let Sasha past with great reluctance. A woman in a red shawl clutching two big bundles in her arms held Sasha up for so long that he found himself closer to the scissors than when he started, but eventually he managed to get through the crowd. Then a portcullis dropped down in front of him and Sasha realized that he was lost. Me turned limp and screwed up his face, but instead of seeing his entire life flash before his eyes in a single second, for some reason he recalled in great detail a singing lesson in the fourth grade when he had pushed the young music master so far that he had stopped playing Kabalevsky on the piano, got up, walked over to Sasha, and smacked him on the face. The clanking of the body-scissors was very close now, and Sasha instinctively stepped backwards, thinking that perhaps he might just...

Autoexec.bat—level 4

“Just where is it that I’m going?” Sasha thought, staring into the black mirror of the carriage door and adjusting the turban on his head. “I’ve already reached the seventh level—well, maybe not quite reached it, but I’ve seen what’s there. It’s the same old stuff, only the guards are fatter. So I’ll reach the eighth level—but it’s going to take so long. And what comes after that? Of course, there’s the princess.”

Sasha had last seen the princess two days before, between the third and fourth levels. The corridor on the screen had disappeared and been replaced by a room with a high vaulted ceiling, its floor spread with carpets. Immediately the music started playing, plaintive and wailing, but only at the beginning, and then only so that one note at the very end would sound particularly beautiful. He stopped thinking about the princess and began looking around at the people. Most of them were the filthy types that usually hung around railway stations. There were lots of drunks and identical-looking women carrying big bags. There was one Sasha particularly didn’t like the look of—wearing a red shawl and clutching two big bundles. “I’ve seen her before somewhere, for sure,” thought Sasha. He’d often had that feeling recently, the feeling that he’d already seen what was happening, only just where and in what circumstances he couldn’t recall. But he’d read in some journal that the feeling was called déjà vu, from which he had drawn the conclusion that the same thing happened to people in France. The columns of a station flickered past beyond the glass of the door. The train stopped. Sasha allowed himself to be caught up in the crowd and drifted slowly toward the escalators. Two of them were working. Sasha branched into the section of the crowd that was making for the one on the right. His head gradually filled with the slow, gloomy thoughts about life that usually came in the afternoon.

“It seems to me now,” he thought, “that nothing could be worse than what’s happening to me. But after another couple of levels I’ll start feeling nostalgic even about today. And it will seem to me that I had something in my grasp, without even knowing what it was, but I had it in my grasp and I threw it away. My God, how awful things must become afterwards, to make you start regretting what’s happening now. And the strangest thing of all is that life keeps on getting worse, more and more meaningless—but on the other hand, absolutely nothing in life changes. What have I got to hope for? And why do I get up every morning and go somewhere? I’m a bad engineer, a very bad one. I’m simply not interested in any of that. And I’m a poor chameleon as well, soon they’ll take me and throw me out, and they’ll be quite right too...”

A familiar clanking sound made Sasha turn cold. Looking up he saw that a body-scissors had been switched on on the next escalator. For the first moment the sense of fright was so strong that Sasha didn’t grasp that it was no threat to him. When he realized the situation he sighed so loudly that the woman with the bundles, the one who had attracted his attention in the train, looked over at him from the next escalator. She passed through the scissors without any idea of what would have happened if he had been in her place. Sasha found her gaze unpleasant and he turned away.

The next body-scissors stood at the exit from the subway and Sasha got through it without the slightest difficulty, but he didn’t drink from the small jar standing beyond it—it looked suspicious somehow, decorated with a strange triangle design. He had drunk from a jar like that once and then had had to take two weeks off work to get over it. Intuition told him that somewhere in the vicinity there must be another jar, and Sasha decided to look for it. His attention was caught by a hairdresser’s on the other side of the street: the first two letters in the shop sign were not lit and Sasha felt sure that must mean something.

Inside was a small room where clients waited their turn. It was quite empty now, which was the second strange thing. Sasha walked around the room, moved the armchairs about—late last year he had sat on a chair in the corridor at the army office, which he’d tumbled into from the third level, when suddenly a rope ladder had fallen down from above him and he’d made good his escape to a two month business trip. Then he jumped up and down a bit on the coffee table with the magazines (they sometimes controlled sections of the walls that swung open) and even tugged on the coat hooks. But it was all in vain. Then he decided to try the ceiling, climbed back up onto the coffee table and leapt upward, raising his hands above his head.

The ceiling proved to be solid and the table somewhat less so: two of its legs gave way at the same time and Sasha’s outstretched hands were thrust against a color photo of a smiling half-wit with red hair hanging on the wall. Suddenly a trap door creaked open in the floor, revealing the brass neck of a jar standing on the stone surface about two yards below.

Sasha leapt down onto the stone platform and the trap door slammed shut over his head. Looking around he saw at the other side of the corridor a pale warrior with a mustache wearing a plumed red turban. The warrior cast two diverging trembling shadows, because behind his back two smoky torches framed a tall carved door complete with a black sign which read “USSR GOSPLAN.”

“Well, well,” thought Sasha, snatching out his sword and dashing forward to meet the warrior, who had drawn a crooked yataghan, “and like a fool I always took the trolley.”

Level 5

“Itakin?” a female voice asked on the telephone. “He’s at lunch. But you can come up and wait. Is it you who was supposed to bring the new programs from State Supply?”

“Yes,” replied Sasha, “but I want to go to the cafeteria as well.”

“Do you remember the way up? Room 622, turn left along the corridor from the elevator.”

“I’ll find it,” said Sasha.

The cafeteria was noisy and crowded. Sasha walked between the tables, looking for his friend, but he couldn’t see him. Then he joined the line. In front of him there were two Darth Vaders from the first section: they breathed with a noisy whistling sound as they discussed some magazine article in their mechanical voices. It was very hard to understand anything at all from their unnatural speech. The first Darth Vader put two plates of sauerkraut on his tray, and the second took borscht and tea. Of course, the food in Gosplan wasn’t what it had been before the troubles began: all that remained of its former magnificence were the lovely five-pointed stars of carrot—cut with a special Japanese apparatus—which occasionally found their way into the cabbage.

Sasha was very curious about how the first Darth Vader would manage to eat his cabbage—he would definitely have to remove his hermetic black helmet for that. But the black-clad pair sat at a small table over in the corner and closed themselves off with a black curtain bearing the image of a sword and shield: all that could be seen beneath it were their gleaming calfskin boots, the pair on the left thrust motionless and firm against the floor, while the pair on the right were constantly swirling about, one boot rubbing against the other and wrapping its sock around the other’s calf. Sasha thought that if he happened to be playing Spy he would have recruited the Darth Vader on the right.

He looked around and carried his tray over to the farthest corner, where a dozen or so elderly men in flying uniforms were sitting at a table by the window. He sat politely at the edge of the group. They glanced at him, but didn’t say anything. One of the pilots, a stocky white-haired man with two unfamiliar medals on his light-blue flying suit, was standing holding a glass in his hand. He had just begun pronouncing a toast.

“Friends! We have the pleasure of marking a double celebration today. Today Kuzma Ulyanovich Staropopikov marks twenty years of service in Gosplan. And this very morning over Libya Kuzma Ulyanovich shot down his one-thousandth Mig.”

The pilots applauded and turned toward the hero of the hour, who was sitting at the center of the table. He was short, stout and bald, wearing thick glasses with frames held together with black tape. There was absolutely nothing distinctive about him—quite the contrary, he was the least remarkable of all the people gathered around the table, and Sasha had to look closely before he saw the rows of medals and ribbons—equally unfamiliar—on his chest.

“I make so bold as to assert that Kuzma Ulyanovich is the finest pilot in Gosplan! And the ‘Purple Heart’ which he was recently awarded by Congress will be the fifth that he bears on his chest.”

People began applauding again, and Kuzma Ulyanovich was slapped on the shoulder several times. He turned a deep shade of red, waved his hand in the air, removed his glasses, and wiped them thoroughly with his handkerchief.

“And that’s not all,” continued the white haired man, “in addition to the F-15 and F-16, Kuzma Ulyanovich recently mastered a new fighter plane, the B-2 ‘Stealth’ fighter. His record also contains numerous technical improvements—after pondering the lessons of the conflict in Vietnam, he asked his mechanic to create two files in Assembler so that the cannon and the machine gun could be operated by a single key, and now we all use this method...”

“That’s enough now, surely,” the hero of the hour mumbled shyly.

Another pilot got to his feet—he also had a lot of medals on his chest, but not as many as Kuzma Ulyanovich. “Our Party organizer has just informed us that today Kuzma Ulyanovich shot down his thousandth Mig. In addition to that he has, for instance, destroyed the radar installation outside Tripoli 4,500 times and if we were to add in all the rocket ships and airports, his hit total would be quite staggering. But a man can’t be measured by numbers alone. I know Kuzma Ulyanovich well, perhaps better than the others here—I’ve been his flying partner for six months now—and I want to tell you about one of our raids. It was my first time on an F-15, and as you all know, it’s not an easy machine to handle: you only have to hurry a little bit too much, try turning just a little bit too fast, and it goes down. Before takeoff Kuzma Ulyanovich said to me: ‘Vasya, remember, don’t get nervous, fly behind and below and I’ll cover you.’ Well, I was inexperienced then, and full of pride—why should he be covering me, I thought, when I’ve been all around the Persian Gulf on an F-16? Yes, indeed... Well, we got into our cockpits, and we were given the command to take off. We were flying from the aircraft carrier America and our mission was first to sink some ship in the port at Beirut, and then wipe out a terrorist camp near Al-Benghazi. So we took off, and we’re flying low, on autopilot. Down there near Beirut there are maybe eight radar units—well, you know, you’ve all been there...”

“Eleven,” said someone at the table, “and there are always Mig-25s on patrol.”

“Right. Anyway, we got there flying low with our sighting devices switched off, and then with about ten miles left we went into manual, climbed a thousand feet and switched on the radar. They spotted us right away, naturally, but we’d already locked on, let go one Amraam each, taken evasive action against rockets, and set off westwards, losing altitude. The ship had been blasted to smithereens, they told us over the radio. So there we are again flying low and blind, and we seem to have made it without any problems, but then I spotted a Mig-23 and like an idiot I went after it—let me just stick a Sidewinder up his nozzle, I thought. Kuzma Ulyanovich could see on the radar that I’d moved to the right and he yelled at me over the radio: ‘Vasya, get back in line, fuck you!’ But I’d already switched on my sights, locked onto the bastard, and fired my rocket. What I should have done then was to fly back down toward the ground, but no way—I started watching the Mig falling. Then I looked at the radar and I saw an SA-2 coming straight for me, I’d no idea who launched it.”

“That’s the radar site near Al-Baidoi. When you’re flying west from Beirut you should never move to the right,” said the Party organizer.

“Sure, but I didn’t know that then. Kuzma Ulyanovich yelled over the radio: ‘Cut in the baffle!’ But instead of the thermal baffle—you have to press <F> to do that—I go and press <C>. So I caught it right under the tail. I pressed <F7> and ejected. As I’m falling I look down and see a desert and a highway, and some kind of vehicles on the highway, and I’m being carried toward them. Then before I’d even landed, what do I see, damn it, but Kuzma Petrovich coming in for a landing on the highway? So I’m wondering who’s going to get there first...”

Sasha drank his last mouthful of tea, got up, and went to the door. The flagstone just outside the door of the cafeteria looked a little strange—it was a different color and jutted up about half an inch above the others. Sasha stopped one step short of it, stuck his head out into the corridor and looked upwards. He was right: a yard above his head hung the gleaming steel spikes of a portcullis.

“Oh, no,” Sasha muttered.

He took a careful look around the cafeteria. At first glance the other exit was nowhere to be seen, but Sasha knew that it was never obvious. The way might lie, for instance, behind the huge picture on the wall, but he would have to swing from the chandelier in order to be able to jump into it, and that would require piling several tables on top of each other. There were also several projections on the wall which he might use to climb upwards, and Sasha had already made up his mind to try that when a woman in a white overall coat called out to him.

“You’re supposed to take your tray over to the washer, young man,” she said, “that’s no way to behave.” Sasha went back for his tray.

“...The entire section started searching for mistakes,” Kuzma Ulyanovich’s junior flying partner was saying. “Remember that? Then the late Eshagubin comes over and asks a question: ‘How,’ he says, ‘can an F-15 fly on a single motor?’ And you know what Kuzma Ulyanovich answered him?”

“That’s enough, now, really,” said Kuzma Ulyanovich, embarrassed.

“No, no, let me tell them...”

Sasha didn’t hear any more. His attention switched entirely to the moving conveyor belt that was carrying the plates and trays to the washer. It ended at a small opening, which he could easily climb through, and he decided to try it. Putting his tray on the conveyor, he looked around and then quickly clambered up himself. Two tank crew members standing by the belt glanced at him in amazement, but before they could say anything Sasha had squeezed through the opening, leapt over a gap in the floor, and set off as fast as his legs would carry him toward a slowly rising section of the wall with a large plaster shell covered in peeling paint. Beyond it, by the light of blazing torches, he could see a narrow staircase leading upward.

Level 6

Itakin’s boss, Boris Emelianovich, turned out to be one of the tank crew who had stared at Sasha with such astonishment in the cafeteria. Sasha ran into him right in the doorway of room 622, and since Sasha had just clambered up maybe a dozen cornices that you had to climb by jumping and then pulling yourself up, he was tired and panting, while Boris Emelianovich had come up in the elevator, so he was fresh and smelled of eau de cologne.

“Are you from Boris Grigorievich?” Boris Emelianovich asked, not showing the slightest sign that he recognized Sasha as the young hooligan from the cafeteria. “Let’s move, I have to leave in five minutes.”

Boris Emelianovich’s office was part of an immense hall sectioned off with cupboards like Boris Grigorievich’s office, but inside, occupying almost all of the space, stood a huge tank, an Abrams M-1, gleaming with lubricant. By the wall stood two barrels of fuel with a telephone and a four-megabyte Super AT with a VGA color monitor that made Sasha’s mouth water when he looked at it.

“A 386 processor?” he asked respectfully. “And that must he a 1.2 megabyte hard drive?”

“I don’t know all that,” Boris Emelianovich replied dryly, “ask Itakin, he’s my mechanic. What do you need me to sign?” Sasha stuck his hand into his bag and pulled out the papers, which had gotten slightly crumpled on the journey. Boris Emelianovich signed the first two right there on the armor plating with a flourish of his gleaming Mont Blanc pen shaped like a machine gun shell with a golden bullet tip, but he paused at the third and started to think.

“I can’t do this one,” he said at last, “I have to call the directorate. I shouldn’t sign this, Pavel Semyonovich Prokurin should.”

He glanced at his watch and dialed a number.

“Get me Pavel Semyonovich. When will he be there? No, I’ll call back.” He turned to Sasha and looked at him significantly.

“You’ve come at rather a bad time,” he said. “We’re advancing in five minutes. And if you want your paper signed, you’ll have to go to the directorate. Hang on though. It might be quicker. You can ride a bit of the way with me.” Boris Emelianovich leaned over the computer.

“Damn,” he said, “where’s Itakin gone? I can’t start the engine.”

“Try changing directory,” said Sasha, “you’re in the root directory. Or go into Norton first.”

“You try it,” answered Boris Emelianovich, moving aside.

Sasha jabbed at the keys in his accustomed manner: the hard drive whirred into action and almost immediately the tank’s electric transmission began humming powerfully and the air was filled with the bitter fumes of diesel exhaust. Boris Emelianovich leapt up agilely onto the armor plating; Sasha preferred to drag a chair up to the tank and step from that onto its slightly raised nose.

It was roomy and very comfortable in the turret. Sasha looked into the sight, but it wasn’t working yet; then he looked around. Inside, the turret looked liked the cabin of a bus which had been lovingly decorated by the driver—on both sides of the cannon’s breech hung key rings, pennants, and little monkeys, and the armor plating had been adorned with several girls in bathing suits cut out of a magazine. Boris Emelianovich threw Sasha a microphone helmet and disappeared into the driver’s compartment. The engine roared and the tank rolled out onto an immense plain, complete with a mountain that looked like a volcano far ahead in the distance, its summit cut off by the edge of the screen. Sasha rose waist-high out of the turret and looked around. He could see twenty or so similar tanks, two or three of which had appeared while he had been watching.

“What’s that formation called?” he asked into the microphone.

“What formation?” Boris Emelianovich’s voice asked, distorted by the earphones.

“When the tanks are all in a single line. If it was soldiers it would just be called a line, but what’s it called for tanks?”

“I don’t know,” said Boris Emelianovich. “It’s always like that after lunch—we just all come out together. You’d do better to count how many tanks there are.”

“Twenty-six,” Sasha counted.

“Fair enough. Babarakin’s out sick, Skovorodich is in Austria, and the rest are all here. It’s going to be hot today.”

“Twenty-one, twenty-one, who’s that you’re talking to?” said a voice in the helmet phones.

“Twenty-one here, twenty-one calling seventeen, come in.”

“Seventeen here.”

“Seventeen, I’ve got a young guy from State Supplies here, he needs to get a piece of paper signed. This way he doesn’t have to go all the way across town.”

“Understood, twenty-one,” replied the voice. “At the farm in ten minutes.”

Boris Emelianovich’s tank turned sharply to the right and Sasha was jolted in the turret. Taking several ruts at full speed, Boris Emelianovich moved out onto the highway, turned and set off at about eighty miles an hour toward a distant grove of trees where the road forked at some kind of sign hanging on a post.

“Climb up the turret,” ordered Boris Emelianovich, “and close the door. There’s a grenade launcher sitting up on that hill over there.”

Sasha followed orders—and just in time: there was a blow against the tank’s armor plating and a loud, sharp, whining sound.

“There he is, the bastard,” Boris Emelianovich’s voice whispered in the earphones, and the turret began slowly turning to the right. On the sighting screen Sasha saw a small square positioned on the top of the hill and the words “gun locked.” But Boris Emelianovich was in no hurry to fire.

“Go on!” Sasha said under his breath.

“Wait,” whispered Boris Emelianovich, “lei me get a shrapnel shell loaded... We’ll need the armor-piercing shells later.”

Once again there was a whining sound and something hit the armor plating. Then the next moment the Abrams cannon barked and a huge black and red tree sprang up on the top of the hill. Soon a farm surrounded by a low fence appeared to the left of the highway and began rushing rapidly toward them—it looked like an abandoned government dacha. Boris Emelianovich braked three hundred yards short, and so sharply that Sasha, who was gazing into the sights, would probably have gotten a black eye if not for the soft rubber surrounding the eyepieces.

“I don’t like the look of that window,” said Boris Emelianovich, “now just let me...”

The turret turned to the left and once again the cannon barked. The farm was shrouded in smoke and flame, and when the air cleared all that was left of the comfortable two-story house was a smoke-blackened foundation and a small piece of wall, in which an open door led into mysterious space. For good measure Boris Emelianovich gave a long burst on the machine gun, shooting through several boards in the fence, and then drove slowly up to the farm.

“You can get out and stretch your legs for a while,” he said to Sasha, when the tank stopped at the burnt-out ruin. “It all seems quiet enough.”

Sasha climbed out of the turret, jumped down to the ground, and turned his head to and fro. There was a buzzing in his ears, his knees were trembling, and he felt he wanted to grab hold of a handrail like the ones inside the turret.

“Feeling a bit strange?” Boris Emelianovich asked in a friendly voice. “You should try it five days a week, eight hours a day, or all on your own with three T-70S at a time moving against you. That’ll make your knees shake. This is a quiet spot, paradise.”

It really was a beautiful spot—tall trees stood here and there in the even field, and Sasha could hear the birds chattering in the green grove beyond the highway. The sun came out from behind a cloud and everything assumed the gentle hues that are only to be seen on a well-tuned VGA monitor assembled in Europe or America—but never on a Korean model, let alone a monitor from Singapore. There was a roaring sound from the direction of the highway.

“Pavel Semyonovich is on his way. Get your document ready.”

The black dot on the highway was approaching rapidly and soon it had turned into a tank exactly like Boris Emelianovich’s, except for the howitzer sticking up above its turret. The tank drove up and stopped, and out of the turret jumped a thin, gloomy-looking soldier wearing gold-framed spectacles and a black pilot’s jacket.

“Let’s see what you’ve got there,” he said to Sasha. Then he squatted on one knee beside a sheet of roofing metal torn away by the shell blast, placed Sasha’s piece of paper on the flat section, and wrote on the top of it “No objection.”

“And as for you, Boris,” he said to Boris Emelianovich, “no more of this. You’ve always got some kind of fucking nonsense to be dealt with just before battle.”

“Never mind,” said Boris Emelianovich, “we’ll catch up. This young guy’s as good a mechanic as Itakin, he got my engine going in a second.”

The gloomy soldier glanced at Sasha under his eyebrows, but he said nothing. They heard a roaring sound approaching rapidly from the direction of the distant blue hills on the horizon. Sasha looked up and saw a squadron of F-15s hedge-hopping toward them. They flew just above the tanks, and the lead pilot, who had a red eagle’s head drawn on his wing, performed a roll only fifty feet above the ground, then shot up almost vertically in a steep climb; the others divided into two groups and, gaining height, set off toward the distant mountain with the truncated summit. For the second time that day Sasha had the feeling that something had happened to him before—perhaps a bit differently, but it had happened, he was sure of it.

“Not a single Mig will stick its nose out today,” said Boris Emelianovich. “Kuzma Ulyanovich is in the air. That’s his plane with the eagle. You can leave your howitzer here.”

“I’ll hang onto it for a while,” answered his morose companion. Somewhere in the distance by the mountain there was a flash and they heard a rumble.

“It’s begun,” said the gloomy soldier. “Time to be going.”

“I brought you a howitzer just like that,” said Sasha, remembering the diskette he had in his pocket and taking it out.

But Boris Emelianovich was already lowering himself into the tank.

“No time now. Give it to Itakin.”

One turret door clanged shut, then the other, and the tanks sprang into motion, throwing up clods of earth with their caterpillar tracks. Sasha watched them move away until they were just two dots and then walked toward the farm, where the two transparent torches he had noticed some time ago were blazing by the door in the only wall which was still standing.

Level 7

When the door closed behind him, Sasha realized that at last he had got out of the underground labyrinth and was now somewhere in the interior palace chambers. The walls around him no longer consisted of crudely hewn stone blocks, but of fine openwork arches, supported on light carved columns. The ceilings receded upward into twilight, the bright southern stars twinkled in the black velvet sky outside the windows, and even the torches on the walls burned in a different way—without any crackling or sooty smoke. There were two identical lowered portcullises, one on each side of Sasha. Patterned Persian carpets were hanging on the wall above his head—yet another thing he had never seen on the lower levels. He moved toward the portcullis on the left, in front of which the slab controlling the lifting mechanism protruded slightly above the floor; but when he stood on it, it was the portcullis behind his back that began to rise.

Sasha spun around and ran back that way. Beyond the portcullis the path divided. He could jump, draw himself up, and run on—there were several body-scissors clanking away and that meant there was a jar hidden somewhere close by, maybe even two—that had happened once on the third level. On the other hand, he could go down the steps, and after hesitating for a second, that was what he decided to do.

At the bottom of the steps was the beginning of a long gallery with a mural running in a narrow strip along the wall. Torches were smoking in the bronze rings screwed into the wall and up ahead, guarding the entrance to a staircase, stood a guard in a scarlet caftan, with a curling mustache, holding a long sword. Down in the bottom right corner of the screen Sasha noticed the six triangles that indicated the life force of his opponent, and he turned cold at the sight; he’d never encountered anything like that before. The most he’d seen so far was four triangles. Sasha took out the sword he had found once beside a heap of human bones, and assumed the position. The warrior began to approach, gazing straight into his eyes, and stamping his green Morocco-leather boot on the stone slabs. Suddenly he lunged with incredible speed and Sasha barely managed to deflect his sword using the <PgUp> key, before immediately pressing <Shift>, but that surefire move didn’t work either—the warrior managed to leap back before advancing again.

“Hi there, Sasha!” said a voice behind his back.

Sasha felt a sharp surge of hatred for the unknown idiot who had decided to distract him with conversation at such a moment, feigned a lunge, then aimed his sword directly at his enemy’s throat and sprang forward. Once again the warrior in the scarlet caftan had time to leap back.


Sasha felt someone’s hands turning him around bodily on his revolving chair, and he almost stuck his sword into the person who appeared in front of him. It was Petya Itakin. He was wearing a green sweater and old jeans, which surprised Sasha greatly, given what he knew of the etiquette at Gosplan.

“Let’s talk,” said Itakin.

Sasha glanced at the little figure frozen motionless on the screen.

“I’ve been waiting for you for an hour,” he said. “I started up your boss’ Abrams for him.”

“I’ve seen it already,” said Itakin. “Five minutes ago a T-70 got him right on the turret. He’s come in for repairs.”

Sasha stood up and followed his friend out into the corridor. Every now and then Petya jumped over something, and at one point he dropped to the floor and froze. Sasha noticed a huge blue eye that drifted over their heads and guessed it must be the third or fourth stage in the game Tower. He’d once gotten halfway up the first tower, but when he heard that after you climbed the first tower you had to start on the second and nobody had any idea what came after that, he gave up and became the Prince instead. Petya had been climbing his tower for well over a year at this stage. They went out onto the staircase, where Petya deftly dodged something like a flying boomerang, and then onto the long, empty balcony, with its heaps of sun-bleached stands bearing colored photographs of pale and flabby faces. Sasha tested the floor with his feet—there didn’t seem to be any suspicious slabs. Petya leaned his elbows on the rail of the balcony and gazed at the lights of the city below.

“What is it?” asked Sasha.

“Okay,” said Petya, “I’m leaving Gosplan soon.”

“Where are you going?”

Petya nodded vaguely to his right. Sasha looked in that direction and saw thousands of glowing points, all different colors, burning all the way off to the horizon. Itakin could also have meant that he was planning to jump from the balcony.

“Like the stars in The Prince” Sasha said unexpectedly, gazing at the lights, “only they’re all upside down. Or downside up.”

“Maybe it’s in your Prince that they’re all upside down,” said Petya. “Haven’t you ever wondered why the picture there sometimes reverses?”

Sasha shook his head. As always, the view of the city in the evening induced a feeling of sadness in him. Long-forgotten memories would surface before being immediately forgotten again—most of all it seemed like an oath he had sworn to himself a thousand times and already broken 999 times.

“What’s the damn point of living anyway?” he asked.

“Well, now,” said Petya, “I haven’t done any drinking today, but anyway, why don’t you ask the guard? He’ll explain all about life to you.”

Sasha fixed his gaze on the lights again.

“You’ve been running through that labyrinth for more than a year now,” said Petya, “but have you ever wondered whether it’s really there or not?”


“The labyrinth.”

“You mean, whether it really exists or not?”


Sasha thought about it.

“I think it does. Or rather, it would be correct to say that it exists to the same extent that the Prince does. Because the labyrinth only exists for him.”

“To put it absolutely correctly,” said Petya, “both the labyrinth and the figure only exist for the person watching the screen.”

“Well, yes... I mean, why?”

“Because both the labyrinth and the figure can only appear in him. And the screen as well, come to that.”

“Well,” said Sasha, “we did that in second year.”

“But there’s one more detail,” Petya continued, paying no attention to Sasha’s words, “one very important detail. The dopes we did the course with forgot to mention it.”

“What detail?”

“You see,” said Petya, “if the figure has been working in State Supply for a long time, then for some reason it starts thinking that it is looking at the screen, although it is only running across it. And anyway, if a cartoon character could look at something, the first thing he would notice would be whoever was looking at him.”

“And who is looking at him?”

Petya thought for a moment.

“There is only one...”

The next instant something struck him hard in the back and he tumbled over the rail and hurtled down toward the ground. Sasha saw the thing like a boomerang that he had seen before on the stairs. It was spinning as it swung away in the direction of the chimneys on the horizon with their crown of motionless smoke. Sasha hadn’t even enough time to feel scared, it had all happened so quickly. Leaning over the edge of the balcony he saw Petya clinging tightly to the railings of the balcony one floor below.

“It’s all right,” shouted Petya, “the spinners never drop you more than one story. I’ll just...”

At this point Sasha spotted a huge eye like a round aquarium, overflowing with blue liquid, slowly creeping toward Petya along the wall.

“Petya! On your left!” he shouted.

Petya freed one hand and threw two small red spheres the size of a ball of wool at the blue eye—the first made the eye shudder to a halt, and when the second hit it, the eye dissolved into the air with a popping sound.

“Go back to room 620,” shouted Petya, clambering over the railings. “I’ll be there in a minute, and we’ll polish off your game.”

Sasha turned toward the balcony’s exit and suddenly a steel portcullis came rattling down right in front of him, its sharp spikes splitting several of the tiles on the floor. He stepped back, and a second portcullis clanged down onto the railing of the balcony. Looking up, Sasha saw a small square manhole in the low cement ceiling. He jumped in his accustomed fashion, pulled himself up and climbed into a narrow stone corridor.

Ahead of him a square patch of reddish light fell on the floor. Sasha walked up to it and looked cautiously upwards. There was a narrow four-sided shaft, and high above him he could see a burning torch and a section of smoke-blackened ceiling. It was obviously an ordinary corridor trap, but this time Sasha was at the bottom. There could be guards up above, so he stood on tip-toe, and stepping carefully over the dust that had accumulated over the centuries, he walked on.

Some way ahead he came to a turn and a few yards further on, a dead end. He was about to go back, but he heard a portcullis clank down at the far end of the corridor and he stopped. He’d fallen into a trap. There was only one thing left for him to do—carefully test all the slabs in the floor and the ceiling: any of them might control portcullises or sliding sections of the wall. Holding his hands above his head, he jumped. Then again. And again. The third slab gave slightly. After that it was simple: he jumped again, pushed against the slab with his hands and immediately sprang back. There was a rumbling sound and he squinted in the usual fashion to prevent the dust stirred up from the floor obstructing his vision.

After a little while he stepped forward. There was now a gaping rectangular hole in the ceiling, through which he could climb, and towering up above him was a wall with wooden cornices every two and a half yards—the distance was the same on all of the levels. Standing on one of those cornices he could jump up and catch hold of the next one, stand on it, and repeat the process, and so on all the way to the top. This wall had six cornices, so the entire process took a little over a minute, and he wasn’t even slightly tired. Now he was standing in a corridor between walls of crudely dressed stone blocks. Ahead of him there was a well shaft, with the bitter smell of torch smoke rising out of it.

Sasha looked down—about five yards below he could see a brightly lit floor. He sighed, lowered one leg over the edge of the hole, hung there on his hands, and then with a certain effort forced himself to open his fingers. The height was not very great, but the slab he landed on fell away under his feet and went tumbling downward. He didn’t have time to grab the edge of the hole and after an agonizingly long fall he crashed into the floor on top of the broken pieces of the shattered slab. He didn’t break anything, but he was stunned at the shock of the blow. For several seconds he squatted there on his haunches, remembering how long ago, one terrible dark winter in his childhood, he had bruised his coccyx badly jumping down from the dormer window of a gas substation onto a frozen mattress.

When he shook his head and opened his eyes, Sasha found himself in the same gallery with the strip of decoration on the walls that Itakin had dragged him out of, and standing there staring at him with his arms crossed on his chest was the same guard in the red caftan—Sasha made sure it was him by glancing at the lower corner of the screen, where he spotted the six triangles indicating the warrior’s vital energy.

Sasha leapt to his feet, assumed combat position, and pulled out his sword. The warrior pulled out his own and came toward him; his gaze was so menacing that Itakin’s advice to have a talk about the meaning of life seemed like a malicious joke. Sasha swung the end of his blade through the air, preparing to strike, but the warrior suddenly struck the sword from Sasha’s hand with a swift, unexpected blow, and hit Sasha across the head with the flat of his heavy blade.

Level 8

Lying on the floor, Sasha opened his eyes and gazed uncomprehendingly around the twilit room. He could feel a soft carpet underneath him. An oil lamp was burning on the wall, and beneath it was an incredibly beautiful chest bound with repoussé sheets of copper. Clouds of smoke hung under the ceiling and Sasha was aware of a strange smell, like scorched feathers or burnt rubber, but rather pleasant all the same. Sasha tried to sit up, but realized that he couldn’t move—he was stitched up to the neck in a sack made of something like mattress ticking, and bound with thick rope.

“Are you awake now, shuravi?”

Looping himself up like a worm, Sasha turned over onto his other side. He saw the warrior in the red caftan sitting on a pile of cushions. Beside him smoke was rising from a large hookah, whose long pipe and copper mouthpiece were lying on the carpet. On the other side of the warrior lay Sasha’s bag. The warrior drew a crooked knife out of the folds of his caftan and held it up, laughing, for Sasha to inspect.

“Don’t be afraid, shuravi,” he said, bending over Sasha. “If I didn’t kill you right away, I won’t touch you now.” The loops of rope around the sack relaxed. The warrior sat back down on his cushions and puffed thoughtfully on the hookah as he watched Sasha disentangle himself from the sack. When he had finally freed himself from it and was sitting on the carpet rubbing his swollen legs, the warrior held out the smoking hose of the hookah toward him. Sasha took it meekly and inhaled deeply. The room instantly narrowed and twisted out of shape, and suddenly he could hear the crackling of the oil in the lamp—an encyclopedic collection of different sounds.

“I am called Zainaddin Abu Bakr Abbas al Huvafi,” said the warrior, pulling Sasha’s open bag toward himself and thrusting his hand into it. “You may call me by any of these names.”

“My name is Alexei,” Sasha lied, without knowing why. Of all of those incomprehensible words the only one he had been able to make out was “Abbas.”

“Are you a spiritual man, then?”

“Me?” said Sasha, following the room’s transformations with fascination. “Yes, I suppose I am spiritual.”

For some reason he felt quite safe.

“I was looking here at the books you read.”

Abbas held up John Spencer Trimmingham’s Sufic Orders in Islam, which Sasha had bought recently at the Academy book shop and had already read more than halfway through. The cover of the book bore a mystic symbol: a green tree made of interwoven Arabic letters.

“I wanted very much to kill you,” Abbas confessed, weighing the book in his hand and gazing tenderly at the cover, “but I cannot kill a spiritual man.”

“But why would you want to kill me?”

“Why did you kill Maruf today?”

“Who is Maruf?”

“So you have forgotten already?”

“Ah, you mean the one with the yataghan, and that feather in his turban?”

“That one.”

“I didn’t want to kill him,” Sasha answered. “He came straight at me, or did he? Anyway, he was already standing there at the door with his yataghan. It just all happened automatically.”

Abbas shook his head in disbelief.

“What do you take me for, some kind of monster?” Sasha asked, feeling quite disconcerted by this time.

“And why not? In our villages, shuravi, they frighten the children with your name. And this very Maruf, whose throat you cut, came to me this morning and said: ‘Farewell, Zainaddin Abu Bakr. I feel in my heart that today the shuravi will come...’ I thought he had taken too much hashish, but this afternoon they brought him to the guardroom with his throat cut.”

“Honestly, I didn’t really want to...”

“Perhaps you wanted and perhaps you didn’t want. Every man has his fate, and Allah holds all the threads in his hand. Is this not so?”

“Indeed it is,” said Sasha, “precisely so.”

“I once spent five days here drinking with a Sufi from Khorasan,” said Abbas, “and he told me a little story—I don’t remember now exactly how it all happened, but someone had his throat cut by mistake, and afterwards it turned out he was a murderer and a thief, and at that very moment he was preparing to commit the most horrible atrocities. I enjoy drinking with spiritual men; and so I remembered this story and thought perhaps you might know some stories as well.”

Abbas went over to the trunk and took out a bottle of White Horse whisky, two plastic cups, and a handful of crumpled cigarettes.

“Where did you get those from?” Sasha asked in amazement.

“The Americans,” Abbas replied. “Humanitarian aid. When they started putting computers into your ministries, they started helping us as well. And they also trade for hashish.”

“And you mean to say the Americans aren’t monsters too?”

“They are all different,” Abbas replied, filling the two plastic cups. “But at least it is possible to come to an understanding with them.”

“Come to an understanding? How?”

“It is very simple. Whenever you see one of the guards, you just press the <K> key, then he’ll pretend to be dead and you can carry on your way.”

“I didn’t know that,” said Sasha, taking a plastic cup.

“How should you know,” asked Abbas, raising his own cup in salute to Sasha, “when all of your games have been broken open and you have no instructions? But you could have asked, couldn’t you? I even came to believe the shuravi didn’t know how to talk.”

Abbas drank and sighed loudly, then suddenly began to speak in quite a different tone of voice.

“You know, you have something called the Moscow Housing Construction Office,” he said, “and in that place there is a certain Semyon Prokofievich Chukanov—a short, fat little swine, a nasty piece of work. He comes into the first level, but he’s too afraid to go any further because of the traps. He just stops and waits for our men. You know how things are on our side—no matter what you might think about it, it’s your duty and you just go in and do it—and what experience have the boys got down there, they’re still nothing but kids? So he kills five men a day. He has his norm—he goes in, kills a few, and then withdraws. Then he does the same thing all over again. But you know, if he should ever get to the seventh level!”

Abbas set his hand on the handle of his sword.

“Do the Americans supply you with weapons?” Sasha asked in order to change the subject.

“They do.”

“Can I have a look?”

Abbas went over to his chest, took out a small scroll of parchment, and tossed it over to Sasha. When Sasha unrolled it he saw a short column of microassembler commands written in an ornate, curly hand in black ink.

“What’s this?” he asked.

“A virus,” answered Abbas, pouring them another drink.

“Well, well... and I was wondering what it was that keeps wiping out our system. What file is it sitting in?”

“All right, now,” said Abbas, “enough of this nonsense. It’s time to tell your story.”

“What story?”

“One with a moral. You’re a spiritual man, aren’t you? So you must know one.”

“But what about?” Sasha asked, squinting at the long sword lying on the carpet close beside Abbas.

“Whatever you wish. The important thing is, it must have wisdom.”

In order to gain time to think, Sasha picked up the hookah from the carpet and inhaled deeply several times in rapid succession, trying to recall what he had read in Trimmingham’s book about Sufi stories. Then he closed his eyes for a minute.

“Do you know the story of the Maghrib prayer carpet,” he asked Abbas, who had prepared himself to listen.


“Then listen. A certain vizier had a small son by the name of Yusuf. One day he left his father’s estates and went off walking until he came to a deserted road where he loved to walk alone, and set off along it, gazing around him on all sides. Suddenly he saw an old man dressed in the robes of a sheik, wearing a black hat on his head. The boy greeted the old man politely and the old man stopped and gave him a sweet sugar cockerel. When Yusuf had eaten it, the old man asked: ‘Boy, do you like stories?’ Yusuf liked stories very much indeed, and he said so. ‘I know a certain story,’ said the old man, ‘it’s the story of a Maghrib prayer carpet. I would tell you it, but it’s much too terrible.’

“But the boy Yusuf, of course, said that he was not afraid of anything, and he made himself ready to listen. Then suddenly there was a sound of bells ringing loudly and shouting from the direction of his father’s estate—that always happened when anybody arrived. The boy immediately forgot all about the old man in the black hat and dashed away to see who had arrived.

“It turned out to be only one of his father’s junior subordinates, and the boy ran back as fast as he could, but the old man was no longer there on the road. Yusuf was very upset and went back to the estate. Choosing his moment carefully, he went up to his father and asked: ‘Father! Do you know anything about a Maghrib prayer carpet?’ His father suddenly turned pale, began shaking all over, fell down on the floor and died. At this the boy was frightened and he ran to his mother. ‘Mother!’ he shouted. ‘A terrible thing!’ She came up to him, smiled, put her hand on his head and asked: ‘What is it, my son?’ ‘Mother,’ cried the boy, ‘I went to father and asked him about something, and he suddenly fell down dead!’ ‘What did you ask?’ she said with a frown. ‘About a Maghrib prayer carpet!’ he answered, and suddenly she also turned deadly pale, shook all over, and fell down dead.

“The boy was left all alone, and soon his father’s powerful enemies had seized the estate and driven him out into the wide world. For a long time he wandered the length and breadth of Persia until finally he found himself in the khankah of a renowned Sufi and became his pupil. Several years went by, and Yusuf approached this Sufi when he was alone, bowed and said: ‘Teacher, I have studied with you now for several years. May I ask you one question?’ ‘Ask it, my son,’ said the Sufi with a smile. ‘Teacher, do you know anything about a Maghrib prayer carpet?’ The Sufi turned pale, clutched at his heart, and fell down dead.

“Then Yusuf fled as fast as his legs would carry him and became a wandering dervish who walked through Persia in search of renowned teachers. But all those he asked about the Maghrib carpet fell down on the ground and died. Gradually Yusuf grew old and feeble. He began to be tormented by the thought that soon he would die, and leave no trace behind him on the earth.

“One day, when he was sitting in a tea house and thinking of all of this, he suddenly saw the same old man in the black hat. The old man was exactly the same as before; the years had done nothing at all to age him. Yusuf ran up to him, sank to his knees, and implored him: ‘Most venerable sheik! I have sought you all of my life! Tell me about the Maghrib prayer carpet!’ The old man in the black hat said: ‘Very well. Have it your own way.’ Yusuf prepared himself to listen. The old man sat opposite him, sighed deeply, and died. For a whole day and night Yusuf sat in silence facing his corpse. Then he got up, took the black hat from the old man’s head, and placed it on his own. He had a few small coins left, and before leaving he used them to buy a sugar cockerel from the owner of the tea house.”

Abbas said nothing for a long time, then he asked:

“Tell me the truth, are you a hidden sheik?”

Sasha didn’t answer.

“I understand,” said Abbas. “I understand everything. Tell me, are you certain the old man’s hat was black?”


“Maybe it was green? I think it might have been the Green Khidr.”

“And what do they know here about the Green Khidr?” Sasha asked. He hadn’t read about this person in Trimmingham’s book yet, and he was curious.

“Everybody says different things. For instance, the dervish from Khurasan that I drank with. He said that the Green Khidr rarely appears in his own form, he assumes the appearance of others. Or he puts his words into the mouths of different people—and anybody who wishes to may hear him speaking all the time, even when they are talking with idiots, because some of their words are spoken for them by the Green Khidr.”

“That is true,” said Sasha. “Tell me, Abbas, who is it that plays the flute here?”

“Nobody knows. Time and again we have combed the labyrinth from end to end, but all in vain.”

Abbas yawned. “It’s time I was at my post,” he said. “I have to set out the jars. The Americans will be here soon. I don’t know how to thank you... except... perhaps you would like to have a look at the princess?”

“I would,” answered Sasha, draining what was left in his cup at a single gulp.

Abbas stood up, took a bunch of big, rusty keys from a nail on the wall, and went out into the dimly lit corridor. Sasha followed him. The door of the room where they had been sitting was painted to match the wall, and as Abbas closed it, Sasha realized that he would never have suspected that this dead end—he had been in hundreds of dead ends just like it—was actually a disguised door. They walked in silence as far as the exit to the following level, which proved to be very close.

“Just be quiet,” said Abbas, handing Sasha the keys, “or else you’ll frighten our men.”

“Shall I give you the keys back afterwards?”

“Keep them. Or throw them away.”

“But won’t you need them?”

“If I need them,” said Abbas, “I’ll take them off the nail. This is your game. I have my own. If you want anything, just drop in.”

He held out a piece of paper with something written on it.

“It is written here which way to go,” he said.

Level 12

The climb to the upper level took no more than ten minutes, and if Sasha had managed to get the key into the keyhole immediately, it would have taken even less. A narrow servants’ staircase set into the thickness of the stone walls led from one level to another. It was very difficult to tell what kind of stone it was—it was very crudely defined, and it didn’t exist for very long—but when the final door closed behind Sasha, reality once again acquired precise outlines and clear colors. In front of him Sasha saw a wall towering up in the distance, with the same kind of cornices he had recently scrambled up toward his encounter with Abbas. He automatically stepped forward, jumped, and reached up.

Suddenly remembering that he was carrying the keys, he screamed in exasperation, came back down, and then for no reason at all jumped straight at the blank wall. Colliding with the stone surface, he collapsed, jumped again, and fell again. He tried to stand up normally, but instead he jumped, and hung, shuddering, in the air for a second with his hands extended above his head. Only then did he come to his senses and think shamefacedly to himself: “This time I really overdid it!” This was the final level, and the servants’ staircase ended here. Sasha ran down the long gallery with torches and bronze rings—it seemed to him as though someone had stuck them where there ought to be flags—and after a while he ran into a carpet hanging on the wall.

Turning around, he ran in the opposite direction, winding his way through corridors and galleries until he came up against a heavy metal door like the ones that led from one level to another. He bent down toward it, holding the keys at the ready, but the door had no lock. The princess should have been behind this very door, but in order to open it he would have had to wander for ages through the vast warren of the twelfth level, with the risk of breaking his neck at every step. He found the other entrance ten minutes later when he glanced behind the carpet hanging in the dead end of the corridor: the black staring pupil of a keyhole was visible in one of the slabs. Sasha pushed the smallest key from the bundle into it and a tiny iron door opened, no larger than a manhole. Sasha squeezed through with some difficulty.

He was facing a hall with a tall vaulted ceiling; on the walls there were lighted torches and carpets, and at the far end he could see a raised portcullis, beyond which began a dimly lit corridor. In another wall there was a heavy metal door—the one which had no keyhole—through which Sasha would have entered if he had reached this level on his own. He recognized this place—this was where he had seen the princess when she occasionally appeared on the screen. Rut she wasn’t here now, and neither were the carpets with the pillows, or the potbellied sand clock or the palace cat. There was nothing but the bare floor. The raised portcullis in the wall was something Sasha had not seen before—that part of the hall never appeared on the screen when the princess was shown. He set off toward it. The corridor behind the portcullis unexpectedly ended in an ordinary wooden door like those that lead into the bathroom or toilet in a communal apartment, and Sasha felt his heart fill with unpleasant foreboding. He pulled the door toward himself.

The room which confronted him resembled a large empty shed. There was a smell of something sour and musty, and the floor was littered with trash: empty medicine bottles, an old boot, a broken guitar without any strings, and scraps of paper. In several places the wallpaper had peeled away from the wall and was hanging down in strips, and the window looked straight out onto a brick wall, no more than a yard away.

Standing in the middle of the room was the princess. Sasha looked at her for a long time, walked around her several times, and then suddenly lashed out at her with his foot. All the junk she was made of tumbled onto the floor and fell apart—the head, made from a dry pumpkin with the eyes and mouth glued on, fell over by the radiator, the cardboard arms crumpled in the sleeves of the long cotton caftan, her right leg fell off while the left slumped to the floor still attached to the waist-length tailor’s dummy and its iron shaft. Sasha left the room and set off back along the corridor, but the portcullis which separated the corridor from the vaulted hall was now lowered. He remembered he had heard it fall a moment after he had kicked at the dummy, but at the time he had paid no attention.

He went back and looked again at the floor and the walls, and spotted the outline of a door that had been papered over. Going over, he pressed against it with his shoulder. The door gave a little, but it didn’t open, though it was obviously very thin. Then Sasha drew back, clenched his fists, took a run and shoulder-charged the door so hard that it burst open. He tore through the wallpaper and hurtled on through the air for a yard or two before he stumbled over something and crashed to the floor, catching a fleeting glimpse as he fell of a pair of shoulders and a head above the back of a chair.

“Careful,” said Itakin, turning away from a flickering screen which showed a high vaulted hall with a princess in the center lying on a carpet and stroking a cat, “you’ll disturb Boris Emelianovich. He’s about to go into battle again. They suffered heavy losses today.”

Sasha raised himself up on his arms and looked around—behind him the door of a cupboard set in the wall stood open and various papers were still slithering out of it onto the floor.

“Well I don’t know, Petya,” he said as he rose to his feet. “What was all that about?”

“You mean the princess?” asked Itakin.

Sasha nodded.

“She was the goal you were striving for all that time,” said Itakin. “I told you, your game’s been cracked.”

“But hasn’t anyone else ever reached her?”

“Of course, lots of people have.”

“Then why didn’t they say anything? So that the others would ... To conceal their own disappointment?”

“I don’t think that’s the reason why. It’s just that when a man spends so much time and effort on a journey and finally gets to its end, he no longer sees everything the way it really is... Although that’s not exactly it either. There is no such thing as the way everything ‘really is.’ Let’s just say he can’t allow himself to see.”

“Then why could I see?”

“Well, you went in by the back staircase.”

“But how is it possible to see something else? And then, I’ve seen her so many times myself—when you move from one level to another she sometimes appears on the screen, but that’s not what she looks like at all!”

“Perhaps I didn’t express myself very well,” said Itakin. “This game is arranged so that only a cartoon prince can reach the princess.”


“Because the princess herself is a cartoon too. And you can draw absolutely anything you like in a cartoon.”

“What happens to the people who are playing? Where does the person controlling the prince go?”

“Do you remember how you got to the twelfth level?” Itakin asked, with a nod at the screen.


“Can you tell who it was beating his head against the wall and jumping up and down? You or the prince?”

“The prince, of course,” said Sasha. “I can’t jump like that.”

“And where were you all that time?”

Sasha was about to open his mouth and answer, but he stopped short.

“That’s where they go as well,” said Itakin. Sasha sat down on a chair by the wall and thought for a long time.

“Listen,” he said at last, “who is it that plays the flute in there?”

“Nobody’s discovered that yet.”

Sasha glanced at the clock and suddenly hiccuped.

“The shop down at the corner is still open,” he said. “I’ll just get a bottle. Will you wait? Just a glass each, eh?”

“I’m in no hurry,” said Itakin. “You’re the one they won’t let back in.”

“I’ll be quick,” said Sasha, pressing <Escape>. “I’ll be back in fifteen minutes.” The picture on the screen froze, showing a view through a Moorish arch of an immense oriental palace made up of ranks of towers and turrets reaching up toward huge stars gleaming in the summer sky.

Game paused

The line in the shop was so long that Sasha realized it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for him to buy a bottle. If he’d been sober, it would definitely have been impossible, but it turned out that he had drunk enough for several minutes of Brownian motion across the crowded shop floor to bring him within a reasonable distance of the cash desk. People leaned on him and swore at him from all sides, but soon Sasha realized that the apparent chaos was actually four lines scraping against each other because they were moving at different speeds. The line for cheap wine was on the left, while the line he had found his way into was for sardines in tomato sauce—the kind that gaze up at you with a dozen beady little eyes as soon as you open the can. Sasha’s line was moving faster than the line for wine, and he decided to move a yard or two forward in his present company and then jump across to the next one. The maneuver was successful, and Sasha found himself sandwiched between a building laborer’s jacket bearing the mysterious inscription “KATEK” on its back, and a brown sports jacket which its wearer, a man of about fifty, was wearing directly over his naked torso.

“Ech-ech-ech...” said the man in the brown sports jacket when Sasha looked at him. A quite unbelievable stench issued from his mouth and Sasha hastily turned away and began staring at the wall, where a triangular pennant of red cloth hung beside a head of Lenin constructed out of painted plywood.

“My God,” he thought. “I actually do live here in this... in this... I’m standing here drunk in a line for cheap fortified wine amongst all these filthy pigs—and I think that I’m a prince!”

“Out of sardines!” shouted frightened voices in the neighboring line.

“No sardines!”

Sasha felt someone behind him tugging at his shoulder.

“What I think,” the man in the sports jacket said, “is that we should withdraw to our ancient territory in Vladimir and Yaroslavl and... and then give the people arms and conquer the whole of Russia all over again.”

“And then?”

“And then we march against the Khan Kuchum,” said the man, waving his fist in Sasha’s face.

“The wine’s running out,” the people began whispering in alarm.

Sasha squeezed himself out of the line and began pushing his way toward the door. He no longer had even the slightest desire to drink. Two women were standing by the door in white coats and caps, glancing at the clock, and discussing something with quiet passion. Suddenly somewhere behind him, up beneath some invisible ceiling which was about three times the height of the shop, he heard a strange sound that instantly began to swell, like dozens of aviation engines all working together. After a few seconds it had become so loud that the people who only a few moments before were peacefully swearing at each other began, first, to stare upwards in astonishment, and then to squat down on their haunches or simply collapse to the floor, blocking their ears with their hands. The sound reached a peak, then just as suddenly began to fade, finally disappearing completely, before being replaced by the rumbling of tank motors from some other mysterious source, which in turn disappeared just as mysteriously a few seconds later.

“Same thing every evening,” said one of the women in the white coats, “right at a quarter to six. We’ve tried ringing everyone you could think of. Zoya from the Novoarbatsky Supermarket told me it’s the same there too.”

People were picking themselves up from the floor, glowering at each other suspiciously as they tried to remember who had been where in what line. But that didn’t matter now anyway, because the sardines and the wine had both run out. Sasha went out into the street and wandered slowly toward the cheerful electric lights in the windows of the Gosplan building. Ahead of him a body-scissors clicked into action, but from the painful, squeaking way it worked and the large gaps between its bent saw teeth Sasha guessed that it wasn’t from his game—it was just an ordinary Soviet body-scissors, old and inefficient, that someone had either dumped in the street or which was still standing in its appointed place.

He was about to walk past, but following the habit he had acquired in his game, he turned back and looked to see whether there was a jar full of revitalizing liquid just beyond it, as there usually was in the labyrinth. There was no jar, but there were three bottles of fortified wine No. 72 standing there. Sasha walked on, listening to the knocking and squeaking behind his back and picking out in it a few notes, repeated over and over again, from “Midnight in Moscow”—as though a record had gotten stuck on a gramophone and a rusty, hopeless voice kept repeating some eternal question addressed to the dull Moscow sky.

Sasha reached Gosplan and realized that he was too late. The working day was coming to an end and the tall, Assyrian door was disgorging wave upon wave of people into the street. He made an effort to go in anyway, managed a few yards of progress against the current, and was just about to grab hold of the cold railing of the turnstile when he was swept away and carried back out into the street by a group of cheerful women. Kuzma Ulyanovich Staropopikov went slouching by holding his briefcase and Sasha automatically set off after him. Staropopikov turned off into a maze of dark side streets—he obviously lived somewhere close by. Sasha didn’t know why he was following Staropopikov—he just needed something to do, something to hang onto for a while so that he could think in peace.

Ten minutes later—or perhaps it was more, he seemed to have lost all track of time—Staropopikov reached a large deserted yard and headed for the entrance in the corner. Sasha decided that following him any further would be even stupider than following him this far and he was just on the point of turning back when Staropopikov was suddenly confronted by two lanky youths in fashionable NATO jackets. Sasha would have bet any of his extremities that a moment ago they had not been in the yard. Sensing something was wrong, he ducked swiftly behind the fire escape, which was masked with planks right down to the ground—nobody could see him there, even though he was right beside the entrance.

“Are you Kuzma Ulyanovich Staropopikov?” one of the youths asked in a loud voice—he spoke Russian with a strong accent and, like his companion, he had dark curly hair, swarthy skin, and unshaven cheeks.

“Yes,” Staropopikov answered in surprise.

“Did you bomb the camp outside Al-Djegazi?”

Staropopikov shuddered and removed his spectacles.

“And who might you...” he began, but his interlocutor cut him short.

“The Palestine Liberation Organization has condemned you to death,” he said, drawing a long-barreled pistol from his pocket. His companion did the same. Staropopikov jerked back and dropped his briefcase, and an instant later there was a deafening roar of shots followed by the sound of spent shells clattering against the asphalt. The first bullet threw Staropopikov back against the door, but before he fell the Palestinians had emptied the magazines of both their pistols into him, turned on their heels, and hurried away. Sasha was astonished to notice that he could see the trees and benches through them—by the time they reached the corner, they were almost completely invisible and didn’t even seem to make any pretense of turning around it.

An eerie silence fell. Sasha came out from behind the fire escape, looked at Staropopikov, who was quietly rolling to and fro on the pavement, and then glanced around in confusion. A man wearing a tracksuit came out of the next doorway and Sasha dashed toward him as fast as he could run. The man stopped in astonishment and Sasha suddenly felt stupid.

“Didn’t you hear anything just now?” he asked.

“Not a thing. What should I have heard?”

“Nothing—There’s someone in a bad way over there.”

The man finally caught sight of Staropopikov.

“Drunk, probably,” he said, going over and taking a closer look. “But then maybe not. Hey, what’s wrong with you?”

“My heart,” said Staropopikov in a weak voice, pausing between words. “Call an ambulance, I mustn’t move. Or get my wife. Second floor, apartment forty-two.”

“Maybe we should carry you in?”

“No,” said Staropopikov. “I’ve already had two heart attacks. I know what to do.”

The man in the tracksuit dashed up the stairs and Sasha turned and walked quickly away. He wasn’t aware of how he reached the subway and then rode back to the State Supply Building. When he found himself in front of the familiar, friendly five-story building with the columns on its façade, he was already completely sober. Two windows on the third floor were still lit and he decided to go up.

The third floor was empty and dark, and it seemed as though everyone had left already, but there was still someone working in the first timber section. Sasha stepped up to the half-open door and glanced inside through the gap. Boris Grigorievich was standing in the center of the office, dressed in a worn, light-blue kimono and green khakama, with the cap of a fifth-rank official on his head and a fan in his hand. He couldn’t see Sasha out in the dark corridor, but just at the moment when Sasha glanced in, Boris Grigorievich raised his fan above his head, folded and unfolded it, pressed it against his chest, and thrust it out toward Sasha. Then slowly, pulling up one half-bent leg to the other at each small step, he glided toward the door, holding up the open fan with its red silk face turned toward him. It seemed to Sasha that his boss was crying—or howling quietly—but a moment later he made out the poem that he was reciting:

Like to a drop of dew

That gleams a second’s space

Upon the stalk

And flies in vapor

Up to the clouds—

So do not we

Wander all eternity

In darkness?

Oh, hopelessness!

Boris Grigorievich spun around on the spot and froze, with the fan raised high in the air. He stood like that for several minutes and then, as though regaining consciousness, he straightened his jacket, smoothed down his hair, and disappeared into the narrow passageway between the cupboards. Soon Sasha heard a sword whistling through the air and he realized that his boss had begun his usual evening Budokan practice in the second hall to the left after the gates. Then he went in, cleared his throat and called out:

“Boris Grigorievich!”

The whistling of the sword fell silent.


“I got everything signed, Boris Grigorievich!”

“Aha. Put it all on the cupboard, I’m busy just now.”

“D’you mind if I do a bit of work, Boris Grigorievich?”

“Go ahead, go ahead. I’ll be here till late today.”

Sasha put the papers on the cupboard, sat at his own desk, and was about to set his finger to the switch that turned on his computer. Then he grinned, took down the telephone book from the shelf above the desk, and leafed through it before pulling the telephone toward him.

“Hello,” he said, “is that the Moscow Housing Construction Office? Is Semyon Prokofievich Chukanov still there? What’s his number?” He wrote down the new number and dialed it immediately.

“Semyon Prokofievich? I’m calling from Gosplan, on the instructions of Comrade Staropopikov... What’s more important is that he remembers you... As you wish. It’s up to... No, about The Prince. He asked me to let you know how to get directly to the seventh level... I don’t know, perhaps at some meeting in the ministry. I’m sure you’ll be able to remember who saw whom and where, but in the meantime can you write this down... All right, first...”

Sasha unfolded the piece of paper Abbas had given him.

“Enter the words ‘prince megahit seven’. In Latin letters. A Russian ‘N’—no, the number. Not at all, not at all. All the best, now.”

He got up and went out into the corridor for a smoke. When he returned a few minutes later, he dialed the same number again.

“Semyon Prokofievich, please... What—But I was just talking with him. How awful. I’m so sorry.”

Sasha put down the receiver and switched on his monitor.

Level 1

Jumping down from the stone cornice, he set off along the corridor toward the dead end where he had taken all the things he had found. It was a long time now since he had come in here, but everything was just the same—the couch made of broken fragments of stone slabs, covered with old, rotten rags for softness, someone’s shin bone, which he had begun to shape into a cigarette holder and then abandoned, a pair of slim copper jugs, one of which still held some of its contents, and lying on the floor, a State Supply Office form with a plan of the first level, now covered with a thick layer of dust. Sasha lay down on the couch and closed his eyes and almost immediately, from somewhere far, far above him, beyond innumerable ceilings of stone, there came the faint sound of a flute being played. He began remembering the day’s events, but he was too sleepy, and pulling some of the old rags over himself, he found a niche where he was not in a draft and fell asleep.

At first he dreamed of Petya Itakin, sitting on the top of a tower and playing on a long reed flute, and then he dreamed of Abbas, wearing a shimmering green caftan, who explained to Sasha at length that if he pressed the <Shift>, <Control>, and <Return> keys simultaneously, and then reached for the key with the arrow pointing upwards and pressed that as well, then wherever the little figure might be, and no matter how many enemies it was facing, it would do something very unusual—it would jump, stretch up, and a second later dissolve in the sky.

Have a nice DOS!