Goodness only knows why, perhaps Ivanov was to blame or perhaps the sensational news just travelled through the air on its own, but in the huge seething city of Moscow people suddenly started talking about the ray and Professor Persikov. True, only in passing and vaguely. The news about the miraculous discovery hopped like a wounded bird round the shining capital, disappearing from time to time, then popping up again, until the middle of July when a short item about the ray appeared in the Science and Technology News section on page 20 of the newspaper Izvestia. It announced briefly that a well-known professor at the Fourth University had invented a ray capable of increasing the activity of lower organisms to an incredible degree, and that the phenomenon would have to be checked. There was a mistake in the name, of course, which was given as "Pepsikov".
Ivanov brought the newspaper and showed Persikov the article.
"Pepsikov," muttered Persikov, as he busied himself with the chamber in his laboratory. "How do those newsmongers find out everything?"
Alas, the misprinted surname did not save the Professor from the events that followed, and they began the very next day, immediately turning Persikov's whole life upside down.
After a discreet knock, Pankrat appeared in the laboratory and handed Persikov a magnificent glossy visiting card.
"Tell him to go to blazes," said Persikov flatly, tossing the card under the table.
Pankrat turned round and went out, only to return five minutes later with a pained expression on his face and a second specimen of the same visiting card.
"Is this supposed to be a joke?" squeaked Persikov, his voice shrill with rage.
"Sez 'e's from the Gee-Pee-Yoo," Pankrat replied, white as a sheet.
Persikov snatched the card with one hand, almost tearing it in half, and threw his pincers onto the table with the other. The card bore a message in ornate handwriting: "Humbly request three minutes of your precious time, esteemed Professor, on public press business, correspondent of the satirical magazine Red Maria, a GPU publication."
"Send him in," said Persikov with a sigh.
A young man with a smoothly shaven oily face immediately popped out from behind Pankrat's back. He had permanently raised eyebrows, like a Chinaman, over agate eyes which never looked at the person he was talking to. The young man was dressed impeccably in the latest fashion. He wore a long narrow jacket down to his knees, extremely baggy trousers and unnaturally wide glossy shoes with toes like hooves. In his hands he held a cane, a hat with a pointed top and a note-pad.
"What do you want?" asked Persikov in a voice which sent Pankrat scuttling out of the room. "Weren't you told that I am busy?"
In lieu of a reply the young man bowed twice to the Professor, to the left and to the right of him, then his eyes skimmed over the whole laboratory, and the young man jotted a mark in his pad.
"I am busy," repeated the Professor, looking with loathing into the visitor's eyes, but to no avail for they were too elusive.
"A thousand apologies, esteemed Professor," the young man said in a thin voice, "for intruding upon you and taking up your precious time, but the news of your incredible discovery which has astounded the whole world compels our journal to ask you for some explanations."
"What explanations, what whole world?" Persikov whined miserably, turning yellow. "I don't have to give you any explanations or anything of the sort... I'm busy... Terribly busy."
"What are you working on?" the young man asked ingratiatingly, putting a second mark in his pad.
"Well, I'm... Why? Do you want to publish something?"
"Yes," replied the young man and suddenly started scribbling furiously.
"Firstly, I do not intend to publish anything until I have finished my work ... and certainly not in your newspapers... Secondly, how did you find out about this?" Persikov suddenly felt at a loss.
"Is it true that you have invented a new life ray?"
"What new life?" exploded the Professor. "You're talking absolute piffle! The ray I am working on has not been fully studied, and nothing at all is known yet! It may be able to increase the activity of protoplasm..."
"By how much?" the young man asked quickly.
Persikov was really at a loss now. "The insolent devil! What the blazes is going on?" he thought to himself.
"What ridiculous questions! Suppose I say, well, a thousand times!"
Predatory delight flashed in the young man's eyes.'
"Does that produce gigantic organisms?" "Nothing of the sort! Well, of course, the organisms I have obtained are bigger than usual. And they do have some new properties. But the main thing is not the size, but the incredible speed of reproduction," Persikov heard himself say to his utmost dismay. Having filled up a whole page, the young man turned over and went on scribbling.
"Is it true that in forty-eight hours you can hatch two million tadpoles from frog-spawn?"
"From how much spawn?" exploded Persikov, losing his temper again. "Have you ever seen the spawn of a tree-frog, say?"
"From half-a-pound?" asked the young man, unabashed. Persikov flushed with anger.
"Whoever measures it like that? Pah! What are you talking about? Of course, if you were to take half-a-pound of frog-spawn, then perhaps... Well, about that much, damn it, but perhaps a lot more!"
Diamonds flashed in the young man's eyes, as he filled up yet another page in one fell swoop.
"Is it true that this will cause a world revolution in animal husbandry?"
"Trust the press to ask a question like that," Persikov howled. "I forbid you to write such rubbish. I can see from your face that you're writing sheer nonsense!"
"And now, if you'd be so kind, Professor, a photograph of you," said the young man, closing his note-pad with a snap.
"What's that? A photograph of me? To put in those magazines of yours? Together with all that diabolical rubbish you've been scribbling down. No, certainly not... And I'm extremely busy. I really must ask you to..."
"Any old one will do. And we'll return it straightaway." "Pankrat!" the Professor yelled in a fury. "Your humble servant," said the young man and vanished. Instead of Pankrat came the strange rhythmic scraping sound of something metallic hitting the floor, and into the laboratory rolled a man of unusual girth, dressed in a blouse and trousers made from a woollen blanket. His left, artificial leg clattered and clanked, and he was holding a briefcase. The clean-shaven round face resembling yellowish meat-jelly was creased into a welcoming smile. He bowed in military fashion to the Professor and drew himself up, his leg giving a springlike snap. Persikov was speechless.
"My dear Professor," the stranger began in a pleasant, slightly throaty voice, "forgive an ordinary mortal for invading your seclusion."
"Are you a reporter?" Persikov asked. "Pankrat!"
"Certainly not, dear Professor," the fat man replied. "Allow me to introduce myself-naval captain and contributor to the Industrial Herald, newspaper of the Council of People's Commissars."
"Pankrat!" cried Persikov hysterically, and at that very moment a red light went on in the corner and the telephone rang softly. "Pankrat!" the Professor cried again. "Hello."
"Verzeihen Sie bitte, Herr Professor," croaked the telephone in German, "das ich store. Ich bin Mitarbeiter des Berliner Tageblatts..."
"Pankrat!" the Professor shouted down the receiver. "Bin momental sehr beschaftigt und kann Sie deshalb jetzt nicht empfangen. Pankrat!"
And just at this moment the bell at the main door started ringing.
"Terrible murder in Bronnaya Street!" yelled unnaturally hoarse voices, darting about between wheels and flashing headlights on the hot June roadway. "Terrible illness of chickens belonging to the priest's widow Drozdova with a picture of her! Terrible discovery of life ray by Professor Persikov!"
Persikov dashed out so quickly that he almost got run over by a car in Mokhovaya and grabbed a newspaper angrily.
"Three copecks, citizen!" cried the newsboy, squeezing into the crowd on the pavement and yelling: "Red Moscow Evening News, discovery of X-ray!"
The flabbergasted Persikov opened the newspaper and huddled against a lamp-post. On page two in the left-hand corner a bald man with crazed, unseeing eyes and a hanging lower jaw, the fruit of Alfred Bronsky's artistic endeavours,
stared at him from a smudged frame. The caption beneath it read: "V I. Persikov who discovered the mysterious ray." Lower down, under the heading World-Wide Enigma was an article which began as follows:
"'Take a seat,' the eminent scientist Persikov invited me hospitably..."
The article was signed with a flourish "Alfred Bronsky (Alonso)".
A greenish light soared up over the University roof; the words "Talking Newspaper" lit up in the sky, and a crowd jammed Mokhovaya.
"Take a seat!' an unpleasant thin voice, just like Alfred Bronsky's magnified a thousand times, yelped from a loudspeaker on the roof, "the eminent scientist Persikov invited me hospitably. 'I've been wanting to tell the workers of Moscow the results of my discovery for some time...'"
There was a faint metallic scraping behind Persikov's back, and someone tugged at his sleeve. Turning round he saw the yellow rotund face of the owner of the artificial leg. His eyes were glistening with tears and his lips trembled.
"You wouldn't tell me the results of your remarkable discovery, Professor," he said sadly with a deep sigh. "So that's farewell to a few more copecks."
He gazed miserably at the University roof, where the invisible Alfred raved on in the loudspeaker's black jaws. For some reason Persikov felt sorry for the fat man.
"I never asked him to sit down!" he growled, catching words from the sky furiously. "He's an utter scoundrel! You must excuse me, but really when you're working like that and people come bursting in... I'm not referring to you, of course..."
"Then perhaps you'd just describe your chamber to me, Professor?" the man with the artificial leg wheedled mournfully. "It doesn't make any difference now..."
"In three days half-a-pound of frog-spawn produces more tadpoles than you could possibly count," the invisible man in the loudspeaker boomed.
"Toot-toot," cried the cars on Mokhovaya.
"Ooo! Ah! Listen to that!" the crowd murmured, staring upwards.
"What a scoundrel! Eh?" hissed Persikov, shaking with anger, to the artificial man. "How do you like that? I'll lodge an official complaint against him."
"Disgraceful!" the fat man agreed.
A blinding violet ray dazzled the Professor's eyes, lighting up everything around-a lamp-post, a section of pavement, a yellow wall and the avid faces.
"They're photographing you, Professor," the fat man whispered admiringly and hung on the Professor's arm like a ton weight. Something clicked in the air.
"To blazes with them!" cried Persikov wretchedly, pushing his way with the ton weight out of the crowd. "Hey, taxi! Prechistenka Street!"
A battered old jalopy, a 'twenty-four model, chugged to a stop, and the Professor climbed in, trying to shake off the fat man.
"Let go!" he hissed, shielding his face with his hands to ward off the violet light.
"Have you read it? What they're shouting? Professor Persikov and his children've had their throats cut in Malaya Bronnaya!" people were shouting in the crowd.
"I don't have any children, blast you!" yelled Persikov, suddenly coming into the focus of a black camera which snapped him in profile with his mouth wide open and eyes glaring.
"Chu... ug, chu... ug," revved the taxi and barged into the crowd.
The fat man was already sitting in the cab, warming the Professor's side.