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Henry Lion Oldie "The Prophet"

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"Arise, oh prophet, hark and see,
Perform that will o'mine!
And wandering through lands and seas
Burn hearts by verbal fire."
A. S. Pushkin

Antisthenes took the test-tube and examined the fluid against the light. The elixir was dark-golden, thick, resembling old Tokay. Was this the one or not? Hope, Antishpenus' eternal companion, cried yes, it was! But scepticism -- the invariable burden of a scientist -- demanded a trial. Antishpenus came up to the old table, corroded by acids and charred in some places, took a flask with reagent. At that very moment came a demanding knock on the door. He knew that would happen, sooner or later, but... oh no, not now! Too much pain. The knock was getting more and more persistent. Antisthenes came to with a startle. The door would stand no longer than two minutes. He should act. Feverishly he grabbed a pile of tattered papers with formulae, figures and designs, and tossed them into the fireplace. Then the papers from the drawer went flying into the fire. What else? The apparatus! Antisthenes grasped the poker and, his eyes closed, swung and struck the entanglement of coil pipes, filters, boiling retorts, and copper wires. Something hissed letting out clouds of smoke. The upper lock on the door went off, the bar hardly holding on. Antisthenes struck once more, then again... It seemed to him he was breaking his own ribs. Well, that was all. Perhaps, he still had time to escape? Antisthenes darted for the window when his look fell on the test- tube he was still squeezing in his hand. The elixir? Or poison?.. Didn't matter now -- and in a gulp he drained the tube. The liquid had an acrid taste with some elusive flavour, breathtaking, giving pressure to his temples. For a second he stood listening to what was going on inside him. Whatever the test-tube had contained would not take effect instantly. Antishpenus tossed the tube into fire. The next second the hinges gave in and the door collapsed smashing the remains of the apparatus. Guardsmen broke into the room. It was too late to run. He didn't notice the coming blow and the room growing dark swam before his eyes...

The Dictator, rosy-cheeked and clean-shaven, sitting at the bulky oak table of antique artwork, was smiling. In the whole huge hall, with columns and a vaulted ceiling with stucco ornaments, there was nothing except that table. Upon it there was a telephone and a shabby office folder. Antisthenes kept silent looking in the face so familiar by newspaper clips and TV shows. The bruised lip hurt, his tongue was involuntarily feeling the hole in the place of a knocked-out tooth, but in general he got off quite lightly. The Dictator kept silence, which was playing into his hands -- that's why Antisthenes spoke first. -- What do you want from me? The Dictator kept silence. -- By what right, after all?.. The Dictator kept silence. -- What do you want from me?! -- Antisthenes burst out shouting. -- The elixir, -- the Dictator uttered very quietly, his lips hardly moving, but Antisthenes would have understood even if he hadn't spoken at all. -- I do not understand you. -- Don't try to pull my leg. I'm not an expert, and I don't know the exact properties of your elixir -- whether it prolongs life or returns youth or renders one immortal... You'll supply the details later on. As well as the technology. Just now I need a dose. One dose in exchange for your life. Plus a lot of money. Do you get me? Very big money. Really big. Antisthenes remained silent. -- Well then. -- Crustill! Heels clicked together behind Antisthenes' back. -- At your command, your excellency. -- This man must say "yes". Take him away.

Unable to walk by himself, Antisthenes had to be carried by the arms and legs. There the guards stood him leaning against the wall. Antisthenes staggered, but managed to steady huimself. The square was reeling before his eyes. The officer began reading out the sentence. Antisthenes had known the sentence. Short and clear as a burst of tommy- gun fire. The people who had been driven into a huge crowd in the square, kept a sullen silence. Antisthenes was considered to be a crank, a man slightly touched in the head, a kind of God's fool doing no harm to anyone. And that's why they were silent -- it was a usual form of protest. By the end of the sentence reading the town-hall clock began striking noon, their chime drowning the words. Words, words, words... Who said that? Don't remember. Four soldiers lined up facing him. Tommy-gun locks went clicking. The gold-laced officer raised his hand. Antisthenes could clearly see the black muzzles of the gun barrels. Now... Torn flames blew up at him. And then there came silence. -- Are you damned blind?! -- shouted the officer. -- Can't you hit a man at thirty steps? -- he waved again. Tommy-guns opened fire. Bullets were chipping chunks of brick off the wall, but Antisthenes was still standing there. The officer swore, snatched a gun from a soldier's hands and aimed it carefully. At that very moment Antisthenes realized. People saw his battered parched lips stretch in a smile, then they saw the sentenced man detach himself from the wall and walk towards the soldiers. In a sudden convulsive movement the officer pulled the trigger, but the fire once again made a bend around the beaten man and stinged the wall crumbling its plaster. In the crowd, a few women went hysterical. And then the soldiers started running. Tough young guys -- but never before did they have to shoot prophets... Antisthenes quickened his pace. He didn't know how long the elixir would work, and he had to make it to the palace. And following him moved the continually growing crowd, on their way picking up the guns thrown by guardsmen...

x x x

...Antisthenes put a full stop, brushed the manuscript aside to the table edge and, satisfied, leaned back in his armchair. And at that very moment came a demanding knock on the door. He knew that would happen, sooner or later, but... oh no, not now! Too much pain. Now hardly anyone would be able to read that book. The door collapsed and the guardsmen broke into the room.

The Dictator, rosy-cheeked and clean-shaven, sitting at the bulky oak table of antique artwork, was smiling. In the whole huge hall, with columns and a vaulted ceiling with stucco ornaments, there was nothing except that table. -- Won't tire you with silence like in your book, -- he continued smiling. -- Let's leave elixirs to alchemy. I want a renunciation. A well-staged one, public, with representatives of the press. Don't promise you any reward. But you'll live. Antisthenes kept silent. -- You know, I've read your... opuses. You write well. But it's no good to follow the plot so closely. For as far as I remember, the next scene you've got is torture. And shooting. Antisthenes kept silent. -- All right then, let's not restrict the author's imagination. No elixirs, though. And we will not suspend the sentence 'till tomorrow. -- Crustill! Heels clicked together behind Antisthenes' back.

Unable to walk by himself, Antisthenes had to be carried by the arms and legs. Then the guards stood him leaning against the wall. Antisthenes staggered, but managed to steady himself. The square was reeling before his eyes. He had known the sentence -- short and clear as a burst of tommy-gun fire. By the end of the sentence reading the town-hall clock began striking noon, their chime drowning the words. Words, words, words... Who said that? Hamlet. Four soldiers lined up facing him. Tommy- gun locks went clicking. The gold-laced officer raised his hand. Now... Torn flames blew up at him. But Antisthenes was still standing there watching in dumb amazement the bullets chipping pieces of plaster off the wall around him.

THE END

(c) Henry Lion Oldie, 1991. (c) Translation from Russian, 1997-1998, Mikhail Zislis, Irina Kapitannikova.

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