Published: 2024-04-13   Last modified: 2024-04-13



“I’m not thinking straight today," complained the Chief. “What do you mean by that?”

It takes a while to accustom to such kind of news. I took a measured pause and repeated:

“It’s round, boss. It occurred to them it’s round.”

Leaning back in his chair, the Chief surveyed me with such curiosity, as if I myself devised this whole disgrace. He pondered over something for a minute or two, silently moving his lips, and finally sighed with relief:

“Fools. Explain to them that everybody at the bottom will fall off like autumn leaves.”

“Tried it already. They have a theory on this, and, I must say, a fairly neat one. They say it’s not that you’re pulled to where the bottom is, but quite the opposite: where you’re pulled to fall to, there’s the bottom. And since—”

The Chief jerked upright and pierced me with a fixed gaze. I fell silent obediently.

“And since…,” he repeated, trying to catch on, “since—don’t stare, it’s distracting. So, since the Earth is round and everything is pulled towards the center, the bottom is different for everyone, yet it’s necessarily underfoot? Something like that?”

“You’ve grasped the crux of it, boss. That’s exactly how they, if I may say so, reason.”

The Chief shook his head in disbelief, trying to find a logical flaw. Then he shifted in his chair admiringly:

“Well, think about it! They turned everything on its head, yet it’s unassailable. Deployment-ready.”

“Is the merit is their though?” I sang enthusiastically, keeping up with the master’s mood.

For which I was granted a contemptuous grimace:

“How many times do I have to tell you, refrain from direct flattery. Is it difficult to remark: ‘A pretty good illustration of the brain’s potential to acquire abstract thinking skills’? I’ll then fathom on my own who gets the credit. Go ahead, practice.”

“The species-specific capacity,” I rattled off, “for the complex adaptive behavior manifested itself in full measure.”

“Bravo. Incidentally, so did yours. If you learn not to overfawn, I can put up with you long enough. Now go expound to them on the elephants and the turtle. Back to reality.”

I hesitated, choosing which was easier: to lay it all out at once or to run away, postponing the inevitable scolding.

“It won’t work, boss,” I finally uttered. “They perceive a paradox.”

“Really? And exactly who is deigning to perceive?”


“Who are they?”

“Sort of sages, albeit cheeky. Truly, what did they come up with! ‘Fine,’ they say. ‘The world sits on three enormous elephants. Let’s accept it. The elephants stand on a turtle. Let’s believe. But what does the turtle rest on?’”

“And what does it actually rest on?”

“So they are chorusing: ‘What does it rest on?’”

Here we both fell silent. I had no more doubt: this will not end well.

“Who’s in charge of the hardware?” the Chief croaked, and, when the Senior was summoned, immediately got down to business:

“What does the world actually rest on?”

That’s instead of a greeting. The Senior was quick-witted and instantly turned pale:

“During the implementation of the object in question, taking into account the circumstances and the personal directives—”

“I’m not interested in the historical background,” the Chief cut him off. “Please stick to the issue.”

“But you…​ I mean…​ On the elephants.”

“That’s the way. Brief and to the point. And the elephants?”

“On the turtle.” The Senior gulped convulsively, catching the direction of the boss’s thought.

“And the turtle?”

The Senior said nothing. If I were him, I’d also deem it fit to stay silent.

“Hurry up with your answer,” the Chief suggested in that icy tone which hides the darkest depths of his rage. And, looking steadily at stupefied with fear Senior, he sentenced:

“I’m afraid I’ll have to part ways with you.”

And right there and then he parted ways with him.

Afterward he absently stared straight ahead for a long time, wrapping himself chillily in a spacious chlamys. Finally he remembered about me:

“How long have they been having it—philosophy?”

“Perhaps three hundred years or so.”

“Why have you kept it quiet?”

“We didn’t dare. We thought it would pass.”

“It would pass,” mimicked listlessly somewhat cooled down by then boss. “Next time you keep it quiet, I’ll send you after him. Are there many of them, your philosophers?”

“There are about fifty alive,” I replied.

The Chief frowned, assessing what would it cost.

“Only if you mean direct methods, they have already blabbed out everything.”

“Go away,” I heard, and I was overjoyed.


When I presented myself to report the next day, I realized that the boss had been working all night. He looked exhausted. Without looking up, rummaging through the papers, he appointed me the Senior. I thanked him for his trust, but thought to myself, how long will I last?

“Now look here.“ The Chief pressed down a large sheet of paper with his palm. Two circles with curved lines and elaborate pictures were drawn on it. One of the circles reminded me vaguely of something. “Blue is water, everything else is land. This is the east, your smarties are here. This is”—he flicked the other circle with his finger—“the west. They are not here yet, but they will show up eventually. Remember what you need to do. You take these east and west and you stick them together by these marks. And pay attention: hills face out. Then you pump this thingy up to make a sphere. Slap some islands on the joint as if it were so, but don’t overdo it. And make sure the weight is everywhere towards the center, or else you’ll be catching them by armfuls. All clear?”

“Almost all,” I said, gathering up the papers. There was only one question left. “What about the turtle?”

Instead of answering, the Chief darted at me such a look that I backed away towards the door, not envying either myself or the turtle.


"I didn’t hear you well,” the Chief grumbled.

“It moves now,” I repeated politely.

“What’s this nonsense?..”

The boss became thoughtful. Most likely contemplated their further shenanigans.

“Well. So what, a neat theory again?”

“As usual. The company there is quite motley, but one of the most reckless is an Italian. With a collar like that. He also started throwing stones from a tower. Scared away half the city.”

“Teach then some manners,” the Chief advised dryly. “You may leave the collar though.”

“Oh, if only were he alone! There also one cunning Pole popped up: wrote a booklet and passed away. It’s pointless to hold him responsible now, but then the Italian did his best and spread it wherever he could.”

“In a word, you’ve overlooked it,” concluded the Chief.

“I’m sorry, boss. We all expected they are just about to settle this themselves. In the end, they tried the collar. He renounced!”

“What do you mean, renounced? What is he, a weathercock?”

A shadow of disappointment flashed in the boss’s eyes.

“They made him renounce, boss. But then, as he walked out, he said it does move. I was amazed.”

“Oh, so yet it moves!” the Chief picked up. “What I appreciate in them is consistency. So, it spins, like a top?”

“And revolves around the Sun.”


“Around the Sun,” I confirmed.

The boss became serious and, looking at the ceiling, began to reckon the details:

“I see. Circular orbits won’t fit; we need elliptical. And it’s better to put the orb not in the center but in the focus. Turns out we overcomplicated the epicycles, they emerge on their own. Look at it, everything fits together! Hmm…​ Too bad for the fellows.”

I gathered all my courage and said, getting cold:

“There’s something else, boss. They cobbled up some spyglasses and see with them up to the thirteenth sphere. And we’ve never got any circuits beyond the seventh. Haven’t gotten around to it.”

“How come you’ve never got it?” the Chief thundered. “What do you mean ‘Haven’t gotten around’? Have you forgotten your predecessor?”

I remember, I thought. Him and a dozen others. But aloud I gabbled out shakily:

“But there were no instructions…​ That is, of course, everyone and their duty…​ But they always get it wrong, and there’s never enough…​ Although it does not relieve of responsibility—”

“Go away,” the Chief cut off. “Get out of my sight.”

That was exactly what I was hoping to hear.


The next morning I didn’t recognize the boss’s office. It looked like a warlock’s cell, a watchmaker’s workshop, and a toy store at the same time. Intricate machinery was piled up everywhere, everything was flying, sparkling and clanking.

“We’re going to rebuild,” said the boss, wiping his hands with the flap of his velvet doublet. “Keep in mind. Discard these wheels, off with these clips too. Run the planets in ellipses. There’s a notebook on the table with the orbital parameters. The other one is for comets and asteroids. Soon they’ll get to them too, so it’d better done in one go. You may begin. Or rather, wait a moment…”

He headed to the corner of the office where the sphere of the fixed stars shone, the only one that survived his nocturnal cosmogonies. He stood for a while, thoughtfully stroking the sphere and listening to the crystal melody coming from inside, and suddenly, with one blow, he scattered it into a sparkling dust. I just gasped.

“We can’t be inconsistent,” he explained, brushing himself off thoroughly. ”Go already, get to work. Let everything fly and spin. I repeat: everything.”

“To where?” I asked. Not so much asked as shouted. For there are times when even our kind becomes fortune’s fool.

“We’ll sort it out one day,” the boss confessed honestly. “I believe in them.”


“Come again,” the boss muttered thickly. I’ve never seen him so ferocious before.

“From…​ from…​ I can’t, boss. It’s unspeakable.”

The boss leaned silently towards me. I managed right away:

“From a monkey, boss. But I—”

“Shut up.”

All at once he went limp and sagged heavily on the armrests of the chair. I exhaled noiselessly, trying to not attract attention.

“What a shame,” he uttered at last. “So, from a crooked baboon, all of sudden—voilà, the crown of creation! I’m not going to talk about elementary gratitude, but where is their vaunted logic?”

“As for the origin species, boss, they favor apes. And it’s not all of sudden, but rather gradual. They’re obsessed with evolution now.”

“Evolution?” The Chief perked up. “That’s new.”

“A French concoction. I looked into it. If, for example, you take an earthworm and slip at once an African rhinoceros instead, everyone can see they’ve been duped. But if the same trick is stretched out over a long time, no one will notice. That’s the whole point: whoever saw the worm—died out long ago, and whoever met the rhinoceros—has no time to discuss trifling matters.”

“And how much time do these tricks take?”

“They say a billion years may be enough.”

The boss whistled softly:

“They are cheeky indeed. Whence will they get a billion?” He weighed up something and said firmly, “No, I won’t give that much. Forget it.”

“But if it’s shorter, they’ll make up paradoxes again. In this evolution of theirs, there were not enough intermediate links, so they then dug up the whole Earth.”

“Did they find anything?”

“They will. After all, you believe in them.”

“They will,” the Chief repeated. “They’ll get to the bottom of it.”

He left the table. He was wearing faded jeans, sneakers and a printed T-shirt.


The next day I barely squeezed into the Chief’s office, filled to the brim with books. He was sitting at the table, hidden by a mountain of manuscripts.

“Last time,” the boss said, “we mishandled the perihelion of Mercury. They’ve been scratching their heads for a century. At last, however, one bright lad found how to get out of it. But you’ll have to work.”

From the apologetic intonation, so rare in his voice, I knew there was enough work to do.

“Here”—the boss opened a sophisticated journal—“it says how to bend space, and while you’re at it, time. That is, it says what should come out in the end; you just need to figure out how to implement that. Shift the beginning back a dozen billion years. And, in order not to be tormented with paradoxes, arrange a large explosion.”

“All this because of one lousy Mercury?”

“You won’t get it cheaper.“ The boss suddenly pulled me by the lapel and, for some reason, looking around, whispered in my ear: “Here’s another thing to keep an eye on: if matter is taken away from one body, then the same amount will come to another. No more and no less. They are strict about this now.”

He pushed me away imperiously and returned the normal expression to his face.

“What’s tomorrow? Friday? Fine. Count back a couple of billion years and brew life. Learn from this article how to weave chromosomes. Don’t be too fussy about it: should you entangle something, they’ll untangle it. And let them evolve, if they like so.”

I almost cried out of frustration:

“Boss, it’s unacceptable! All we do is bustle around like hired hands. Where is our professional pride?”

“Which one of us is supposed to reason!” the Chief growled in response and hurled a makeshift black hole at my head.

His jokes are probably a bit rude, I thought, covering myself with an encyclopedia. But how quickly he masters new material!


This time the Chief understood perfectly, but waited mercilessly until I was completely lost in the hints. Then he asked sharply:

“In sum?”

“In sum,” I answered, giving up on myself, “they no longer need this hypothesis.”

“Interesting. And what has become of us in that case?”

“They have no problem with it, boss. We never existed, period.”

The chief nodded weakly, as if he hadn’t expected to hear anything else. He occupied himself for a long time with an ancient inkstand, absently running his finger over its marble pattern.

“Well, I never knew.“ He left the table and looked at the empty, shabby chair. “So, it’s a hypothesis.”

He went to the window and yanked the frames so furiously that an ejected latch clanked by my feet. Outside the window everything was as usual. In the thick grass hummed bumblebees and trembled thin cobwebs, the river splashed on the rapids—everything as in the custom. A mottled butterfly carelessly spread its wings right on the glass.

The Chief sneaked and deftly covered it with a folded palm.

“It would be of interest to know,” he said, peering curiously between his fingers, “where did it come from? And where did all this come from?“ He pointed demandingly out the window.

“They say, boss, it’s always existed. Or, according to sundry laws, it came out of those things that existed still earlier.”

“Let’s say. And what does that thing on the hill stick out for?”

“A heritage site, boss. Protected by law. Why wouldn’t it stick out?”

Near the river a truck buzzed heavily, overcoming a hillock. A crow flew to a nearby pine tree, took a liking to the flimsiest branch and, perched, cawed with satisfaction.

“Bring me a screwdriver,” the Chief commanded.

Couldn’t he find anything more important to do than repairing a crippled latch? It took me a while to hear what he was muttering under his breath, so loudly he was slamming the inkstand on the bent pin.

“For all your struggle, for all the struggle,” he repeated, keeping time with the blows. “Where from will I get them so many laws?”

“That’s what I was thinking. And they are also capricious: fancy not that many laws as to get confused, but sufficient to get by without…”

“Without unnecessary hypotheses? Without our company? Without who else? Speak out.”

“Among others,” I suggested delicately.

“Indeed, they’ve got ambitions,” the boss summed up, and while he was twisting the screwdriver, I tried to understand whether he liked it or not. “Well. As they say, the customer is always right. And technically,”—he took aim at the last screw—“technically it’s possible, they got it right. You will come tomorrow for the instructions.”

He clicked several times, checking the latch. The window was as good as a new.

“And halt whining,” said the boss. “Remember the professional pride. Go, go. Entertain yourself. They have fun there now.”

At the door I looked back. The Chief was sitting on the windowsill, half-turned to the window, his dangling hand clutching a piece of the inkstand. His gaze left the floor, slid along the wall, out the window, and returned to the floor. He seemed not to see me, but suddenly he said with a subtle smile:

“Remember how we built them the turtle?”

I lingered a little more and carefully closed the door behind me.