This story is taken from ‘6000 miliard. Sci-fi povídky’ by Jan Váchal, published by Nakladatelství Penrous in 2009. The translation is by Andrew Oakland.
A contract with the devil
Just recently life’s been pretty hard on me. First I got fired from my job. After that my wife left me; more to the point, she insisted I left her, namely moved out of her apartment. At a single blow I was made emotionally and economically destitute. It was all the fault of the love of my life. Beer.
As boys don’t cry, I took it on the chin, as a kind of test that would serve to toughen me up. I said my farewells to the urban smoke and found a place at nature’s bosom. In my younger days I’d roamed the countryside, and I still had the little log cabin some friends and I had built on the edge of town. A pretty romantic spot. Later, in the years when I was man enough for anything, we’d dug a well and connected it to the electricity supply at the nearby gamekeeper’s lodge. It wasn’t much of a cabin, but you could just about live in it. The roof was watertight, its stove served for heating and cooking and the village was just a stone’s (or beer mug’s) throw away.
Little by little I adapted to the life of a woodlander. I kept my head above water by taking seasonal and casual jobs. I spent the remainder of my waking days in front of an ancient black-and-white television set or, more often than not, at the local pub, which was aptly named The Three Flashes: it could get pretty stormy in these parts, as though the elements were attracted by the rocky landscape.
Weather-wise today was another lively day. Since early morning the rain had been falling in stair rods and the wind was so strong that even sturdy trees were getting tossed about in it. Lousy weather that was in perfect keeping with my mood. Yesterday the postman, unable to find a letter-box, had nailed to the door a dispatch from my ex-wife. It didn’t make pleasant reading. One reproach after another, with the occasional conjunction and a many great references to the animal kingdom. The whole thing revolved around my ethical shortcomings in failing to honour financial commitments for our daughter’s maintenance. That really got to me. She wrote a great deal about money but nothing at all about the girl. I wanted to drown my anger in drink, but the storm meant I couldn’t leave the cabin. Good thing I’d stocked up on bottles yesterday.
I stepped on to the doorstep and took a look at what was kicking up. The storm was reaching its climax, the storm-demons cavorting.
“Devils,” I said to myself. “I wish they were real and not just found in fairy tales. I’d happily sign away my dirty old soul to a little man with horns. It’s not as if it’s any good to me.”
I stood there in silence a while longer, taking an occasional swig from my bottle.
Then something dawned on me. Why not give it a try? I looked around, finished off my beer, put the empty bottle on the bench beside me and spread out my arms.
“Powers of hell, I call to ye!” I bellowed into the roaring rain. “Devil, show thyself, and grant my wish!”
For a few moments I waited, turning this way and that to make sure I didn’t miss his arrival.
“Hey, you cloven-footed imp! Your soul awaits. Beelzebub, reveal thyself! We need to talk.”
Again I turned around. And again. And so I overdid it – my legs got tangled together and before I knew it I was on the edge of the veranda and a fall was inevitable. I flopped down on my back in the waterlogged grass in front of the cabin, taking a blow to the top of the head that was evidently heavy enough to cause me to black out. Silence. A silence as deep as the grave.
I awoke to birdsong. The sky had been swept clear of clouds. I was still lying on my back. I was dreadfully cold and my head was killing me. I was sitting up and racking my brains in an attempt to recall the tiniest thing about what had happened to me when I noticed something strange. It was on the veranda in front of the cabin, just floating there. It looked like a great inverted raindrop. Two large eyes and below them in place of a nose a column of three narrow longitudinal slits. It was yellowish-green yet quite transparent, moving ever so slightly from side to side, and perhaps also swivelling a little so that it could see better. I closed and opened my eyes several times in rapid succession, and then I rubbed them. It was still there.
“It must be the blow to the head,” I told myself. “What I’m seeing is nonsense. I need a beer and bed rest.”
I stood up slowly. Then I headed for the door. The thing on the veranda moved out of my way obligingly, but still it kept its gaze on me. I went into the cabin and slammed the door. I sat down on the edge of the bed, facing the door. The thing came right through it.
I gave my head a vigorous shake, repeated the whole process with the closing and opening of the eyes and rubbed them twice as hard. The thing was still there.
I remembered my earlier foolishness. “You don’t look like a devil,” I said.
“What is a devil?” said a whispered voice at the door.
Bloody hell, this is worse than I thought! I said to myself.
“What is a devil?” it asked again.
“Not you, that’s for sure,” I bellowed, having first convinced myself that I was either talking to myself or still lying in limbo out there on the grass. “A devil is black. It has horns and hooves and smells of sulphur.”
“I am not a devil,” it admitted.
“Pity. If you were, you could grant me a wish.”
“Right. I’d make an impossible wish and the devil would make it come true.”
“I, too, have a wish.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m not a devil either.”
“But I really do have an impossible wish.”
At that moment this was rather too philosophical for me. “OK. How about you tell me who you are?”
The thing hesitated. “I am a visitor,” it said.
“Anyone who comes in here can say that.”
“I am a visitor from the stars.”
“From outer space, you mean? You’re a Martian?”
“What is a Martian?”
“Never you mind. So you say that you’re from some other planet. You’re an extraterrestrial.”
It nodded. “I am a visitor.”
“Well ... welcome.”
“Welcome,” it repeated.
I got up and went over to the washbasin, where I splashed cold water on my face. Then I wrapped myself up in an old blanket and opened another bottle. The thing was still there.
“For an alien, you seem to know your way around.”
“I have files of data. They are incomplete but usable.”
“I have a wish,” it repeated diffidently.
I waved a hand in encouragement. “So tell me about it.”
It was nervous, shaking. “There have been changes to the force fields on our planet. As a result I am unable to divide myself. To be precise, I am unable to have a continuation, an heir. So I seek help.”
“You can’t have children?”
“Offspring,” I specified.
“That is right. The word ‘offspring’ I understand. That is what I cannot have.”
“So what do you plan to do about it?”
“I have learned that people here are still able to make offspring.”
“I don’t wish to boast,” I lied. “But that’s one thing the girls have never complained about.”
“You have offspring?”
“One. A daughter.”
“Yes. A girl. Hang on a sec, I’ll show you.” I pulled a photo out of my wallet and held it out.
“Girl,” the thing stated.
“Pretty, eh? And clever, too. Straight A’s at school. Although I haven’t seen her last two school reports. But if she’s anything like me, her grades’ll still be pretty good.” I did a good line in self-flattery.
“I have a wish,” the thing repeated.
I scratched behind my ear. “That might be a bit of a problem. I can do children – offspring, I mean – here on earth, but I don’t think I could do it with you.”
“I welcome any advices you can give.”
“We say ‘advice’, not ‘advices’.”
“Advice. I shall make a note.”
I shrugged. “Advice is pretty dear here.”
“A devil would be able to do it?”
I smiled. “There are no devils. Or only in the fairy tales we tell to our children. Sometimes when they’re naughty we use devils to scare them. Other times we give them false hope, telling them they can get something for nothing by outwitting a devil.”
“Did you not call one?”
“I did. Maybe I wanted something free of charge.”
“Free of charge.”
“Without having to work for it.”
“So will you help me?”
“I can no more help you than you can help me.”
“But what if I could help you?” The thing was not going to give up.
“You can make impossible wishes come true?” I asked with a smile.
“I do not know,” it admitted. “Please define ‘impossible wish’.”
“In fairy tales it might for be wealth. To come into a great fortune. A sack of gold coins, the hand in marriage of a princess, half a kingdom.”
“I cannot do this.” It looked sad.
“OK, let’s go about it another way. What can you do that people here can’t do?”
It thought for a moment. “I can adapt my molecular structure to my surroundings.”
I shrugged to show that I didn’t understand.
“I can make myself look like you, for instance.”
All of a sudden the thing started to flash. It looked not unlike the improvised discotheque at the higher of the two pubs. Then it paled and began to take on human contours. Soon I was staring at my own self.
“Wow!” I gasped. My first thought was that I could show myself in one place while in another I was calmly murdering my ex-wife. What an alibi that would be! But I thought it best to keep this thought to myself. For my daughter’s sake, but also so as not to use up my wish.
The thing was inspecting its – my – swollen abdomen. “Is this of any use to you?” it asked.
“It’s just a beer belly.”
“How strange.” This it said to itself rather than to me.
“Anything else you can do?”
“Pilot a rocket, survive in space, store great quantities of data and information for rapid recall, receive radio waves, absorb radioactivity.”
“None of that’s much use to you here, mate. If you were able to print money, on the other hand ...”
“Money? You are speaking of legal tender, currency, I believe.”
“But they’d lock us up for that, wouldn’t they?”
Again the thing looked downcast.
I thought hard. “Hey, listen. Ever heard of Einstein?”
“Einstein? He was a scientist, physicist and violinist.”
“That’s right. He had some strange things to say about space. That space and light are curved, for instance; that it’s all relative, and most importantly that it’s the same with time. They told us something about it at school.”
“What is your purpose in telling me this?”
“If it’s true what that boffin said, that you can fly off into space and stay there a while and then come back to Earth and age hardly at all while you’re doing it, unlike those left behind on Earth ... Film-makers use the theme of time travel a lot. So listen. Can you travel in time?”
“Everyone travels in time.”
“You don’t understand me. What I mean is, would you be able to fly away then come back tomorrow, then fly away again and come back today?”
“You ask if I would be able to transmit myself into the future and then return?”
“That’s what I mean, yes.”
“I believe so. In theory it is possible. In practice it is pointless.”
“But it’s not! This is what they call an impossible wish.”
The thing brightened up immediately. “And in return you would advise me about doing offspring?”
“I’d tell you everything I know about it.”
“Then let us do it. It will be like a contract with that devil of yours. What must I do?”
I went to the cupboard and took out a newspaper, which I waved at the thing. “This is what we need.”
“What should I do with it?”
“It’s like this. You travel forward in time, but only by one day. You buy this newspaper. It must have tomorrow’s date on it. Then you bring it back to me.”
“I do not understand the purpose of this,” the thing said.
I put the newspaper on the table in front of us and folded it out. “Look at this. These are winning lottery numbers. You bring tomorrow’s paper, I bet on these numbers today, I win the jackpot. I get over seventy million crowns.”
“What is the purpose of this?” it said again.
“I’ll be fucking loaded!”
“It’s a word men use with other men. Sometimes women use it, too. It’s a kind of conjunction. It’s untranslatable. I used it because we’re mates – friends.”
“I see.” It nodded its agreement. Then it picked up the newspaper and scanned it into its memory.
“Here’s a twenty-crown piece. You give them this, they give you the newspaper. It’s a kind of exchange. Down in the village there’s a newsagent’s stand right on the square. It looks like a little house. Don’t forget to check the date on the newspaper and whether it contains lottery numbers. Then come back here. But be careful no one sees you arrive. To be on the safe side, go in my shape.”
It nodded. Then it started to flash. Then it vanished.
I returned to the edge of the bed and picked up my beer. But before I managed to swig from it, the thing was back.
“Good grief, that was quick!” I blurted, full of admiration. “Let’s see, then.”
The thing unfolded the newspaper.
“Bingo! Here they are.” I copied them down quickly before looking at my watch. “Right then ... What’s your name, by the way?”
“What is a name?”
“What do folk call each other where you come from?”
“You would not hear it. It is a kind of whistle, at high frequency.”
“Try to say it so that I can hear it.”
“The closest I can get is perhaps ‘Tooonk’.”
“My name’s Joe. Anyway, Tooonk, I’ll just nip down to the post office to bet on these numbers. Wait for me here.”
Then came the numbers: 7, 13, 14, 27, 29, 44. Identical to mine in every way. A victory from my wildest dreams. Seventy big ones. For the next twenty minutes I roared, whooped, ran from one end of the cabin to the other, kissed the ticket. All this time Tooonk watched me in a state of wonder. In the end I calmed down a bit. I sat down on the bed with a stupid smile on my face. A madman’s smile.
“Excuse me, Joe.” Tooonk ventured at last to speak to me.
“I have granted your impossible fucking wish. Now we may address mine.”
Straight away I came out in a cold sweat. Tooonk noticed nothing.
“To begin with, let me explain how things are here,” I began. “To make an offspring, there have to be two. A man and a woman. Not too young and not too old, but let’s not dwell on the details. Ideally the two of them will have feelings for each other, but this is not a condition. If they decide to have an offspring, technically speaking it is necessary for the man to transfer his informational fluid to the woman and for her to process this fluid. The transfer is connected with a physical ritual. If the woman succeeds in her processing, the offspring develops inside her. This takes nine months. Do you understand?”
“I understand. Is that all?”
“Now tell me how it’s done where you come from and we’ll see if there’s anything we can use. I’m speaking in general terms, of course.”
“With us there need not be two. If I wish for an offspring, I must wait for my cycle. When it arrives, I retire to a designated place where I achieve a state of calm. After this it is done by autosuggestion: I must wish for an offspring very hard.”
“So you twist yourself up inside and separate into two – is that it?”
“Oh no. The separation is performed swiftly. There is a rapid vibration, and when this stops there are two. It is as though all molecules have divided in two. The second is new – here you call this ‘young’.”
“Big problem. These are two completely different systems. You said earlier there was something wrong with a force field or something.”
“That is right. The force field is the place where you go when your cycle arrives.”
“And away from this place you can’t do it?”
“It is not quite so. Away from this place you are not able to achieve a state of calm.”
“And when you are there, you are not able to believe what you need to believe.”
“That is probably so,” Tooonk agreed.
“I remember when me and the wife were trying for a child. At the start we were getting nowhere and the doctor said that the problem was mainly mental. Both people need to be calm and relaxed for the whole thing to work, it’s as simple as that.”
“It sounds similar.”
“We need to get you calm enough for you to start vibrating.”
“And I believe it may help me to try it your way.”
My eyes almost popped out of my head. “Look at yourself!! I spluttered. “You and me, we’re identical! From an earthling’s point of view, you’re a bloke. No way, mate. No way!”
Tooonk lowered his eyes. “But I really believe that it would help. If it works here, then it must be right. It is tried and tested. It would give me self-confidence. A calm, relaxed environment, just as the doctor said.”
“But it’s technically impossible ... Although ...”
He was all ears.
“There may be one way of doing it.” I stood up from the bed and from underneath it pulled an old box of magazines, one of which I took out. It was covered in dust.
Tooonk strained his neck to see what I was doing.
“This is Playboy. A gentlemen’s magazine.” I started to leaf through it. “This is Miss September 1995. Pretty sassy, I’m sure you’ll agree. I’ve dreamt about her more than once. If ever I have a problem making love, I think of her and the problem’s solved. I’ll never be in her class, not even now I’ve won all that money. A dream woman, the complete chick. My ideal mate.”
“I do not understand your purpose.”
“You don’t understand my purpose? If you start flashing and then change into her, we’ll have a night neither of us will ever forget. Believe me.”
He took a look at her.
“Take your time. Look carefully at all the photos. I want all the details.”
He concentrated hard on the pictures. What happened next almost knocked the wind out of me. Suddenly Miss September was right there in front of me. Flesh and bone, fully substantial. Naked as the day she was born and horny enough to do whatever.
I wailed like Tarzan.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Please shut up. Don’t do anything, just relax, follow my lead. You wouldn’t understand anyway.” Then, as the power of speech left me, I spluttered, “Sigh very loud. It won’t work if you don’t.”
I threw her on the bed and jumped on top of her. Hey you watching from outer space! This is what a proper earthling male can do when the woman of his dreams falls into his arms.
In the betting office they paid me a small advance on my winnings; the rules of entry specified I would receive the full amount only once the inspection procedure was complete. This didn’t bother me much. The money I got was enough to fill the cabin’s stores with a range of delicacies and top-quality beers. I framed the best photo of Miss September 1995 and put it on the wall; I wanted it before me always. All this was pretty crazy, I know – but I felt good. Had I not, after all, performed an act of charity? Helped a friend in need. Blokes ought to help each other out – although to this day I’m still not entirely sure that Tooonk was a bloke. He was probably a bit of both. He left as quickly as he had come. Had it not been for my winnings – the great heap of dosh I had coming – I might have believed all this was a dream brought on by that bang on the head.
I cut a thick slice of salami, garnished it with ham, horseradish and tartare sauce, added a bread roll for form’s sake. All this I arranged with a nicely-chilled Pilsner beer on the table next to my rocking chair. I made myself comfortable before switching on my brand-new plasma-screen TV and flicking through the satellite channels.
“Hullo! Greetings!” said a voice behind me.
I swung round. Standing in the doorway was a yellowy-green inverted raindrop with enormous eyes which, so I thought, were looking at me with affection. My shock must have been pretty plain.
The thing repeated its greeting before introducing itself. “My name is Kyyyts. Tooonk sent me.”
“Well hi!” I bleated. “What can I do for you?”
With a devilish smile and a look that went straight through me, it said, “I have brought the fucking newspaper.”
|© Jan Váchal