Stanislaw Lem: The Chain of Chance

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Stanislaw Lem The Chain of Chance
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    The Chain of Chance
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    Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
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    Фантастика и фэнтези / на английском языке
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    New York
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A former astronaut turned private detective is dispatched to Naples to discover the pattern in a mysterious series of deaths and disappearances occurring at a seaside spa.

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Stanislaw Lem


Translated by Louis Iribarne

The Chain of Chance

The last day was by far the longest and most drawn out. Not that I was nervous or scared; I had no reason to be. Surrounded by a multilingual crowd, I felt lonely the whole time. No one took any notice of me; even my escorts kept out of sight. Besides, they were total strangers to me. I should actually have felt relieved knowing that by tomorrow I would be shedding my false skin, because not for a moment did I believe I was tempting fate by sleeping in Adams’s pajamas, shaving with his razor, and retracing Ms steps around the bay. Nor was I expecting an ambush along the way—not the slightest harm had come to him on the highway—and during my one night in Rome I was to be given special protection. I was just anxious to get it over with, I told myself, now that the mission had proved a failure anyway. I told myself a lot of other sensible things, but that didn’t stop me from continually upsetting my daily schedule.

After a trip to the baths I was scheduled to be back at the Vesuvio by three o’clock. But at twenty past two I was already heading toward the hotel as if hounded there by something. There was no chance of anything’s happening in my room, so I walked up and down the street for a while. I knew the neighborhood inside out—the barbershop on the comer, the tobacconist’s a few doors down, the travel agency, followed by the hotel parking lot set back in a row of houses. If you walked uphill past the hotel, you passed the boot shop where Adams had left the suitcase with the broken handle for repair—and a small, round-the-clock movie house. The first evening I almost ducked inside, after mistaking the rosy-pink spheres on the posters for planets. Not until I was standing in front of the box office did I notice my mistake: displayed on the poster was an enormous fanny. The stagnant heat was starting to get to me, so I hurried back to the corner and turned, to find a street vendor peddling his almonds—last year’s supply of chestnuts had already run out. After scanning the selection of pipes in the window, I stepped into the tobacconist’s and bought a pack of Kools, even though I was not in the habit of smoking menthols. The hoarse guttural sounds from the movie loudspeakers carried above the noisy traffic, reminding me of a slaughterhouse. Meanwhile the almond vendor had pushed his cart into the shade of the Vesuvio’s sheltered driveway.

Everything testified to the gradual decline of what must have been an elegant hotel at one time. The lobby was practically deserted, and the inside of the elevator was cooler than my room. I scrutinized my surroundings. Packing in this heat would mean working up a good sweat, in which case the sensors wouldn’t stick. I decided to pack in the bathroom, which in this old hotel was nearly as big as my room. The air in the bathroom was just as stuffy, but at least there was a marble floor. I took a shower in a tub supported by lions’ paws; then, without drying off completely, standing barefoot to savor the coolness beneath my feet, I began stuffing things into my suitcases. While I was filling my toilet kit, I came across something solid. The automatic. It had completely slipped my mind. At that moment I would have liked nothing better than to ditch it under the bathtub; instead I buried it in the larger suitcase, under my shirts, then carefully dried off the skin around my chest and stood before the mirror to attach the sensors. There had been a time when my body used to show marks in these places, but they were gone now. To attach the first electrode I located my heart’s apex beat between my ribs, but the other electrode refused to stick in the region of the clavicular fossa. I dried off the skin a second time and fixed some tape on either side, so the sensor wouldn’t stick out beyond the collarbone. I was new at this game; I’d never had to do it on my own before. Next: shirt, pants, and suspenders. I’d started wearing suspenders after my return trip to earth. I was more comfortable that way, because I didn’t have to keep reaching for my pants, which always felt as if they were on the verge of falling. When you’re in orbit your clothes are weightless, but as soon as you’re back on earth the “trouser reflex” sets in; hence the suspenders.

I was ready. I had the whole plan down pat. Three-quarters of an hour for lunch, taking care of the bill, and picking up the car keys; a half hour to reach the highway, which allowed for rush-hour traffic with ten minutes to spare. I checked the chest of drawers, set my luggage down by the door, splashed some cold water on my face, made a final inspection in the mirror to make sure the sensors weren’t visible, and took the elevator downstairs. The restaurant was already packed. A waiter dripping with sweat set a bottle of chianti down in front of me, and I ordered a spaghetti dish with a basil sauce, and a Thermos of coffee. I’d just finished my meal and was checking the time when a garbled message came over the loudspeaker: “Telephone call for Mr. Adams!” I watched as the tiny bristles lining the back of my hands stood on end. Should I go to the phone, or shouldn’t I? A barrel-bellied man in a peacock-blue shirt got up from a small table by the window and headed for the telephone booth. Somebody else with the same name. Adams was certainly a common enough name. I realized now it was a false alarm, but I was still annoyed with myself: it turned out my composure was only skin deep. I wiped my mouth to get rid of the olive oil, swallowed a bitter-tasting pill, washed it down with the rest of the wine, and got up to go to the reception desk. The hotel still prided itself on its plush furniture, stucco ornaments, and velvet coverings, though it wasn’t hard to detect various kitchen odors coming from the back. The hotel: an aristocrat belching with sauerkraut.

That was the extent of my farewell. A porter carried out my bags, and I followed him into the stubborn heat. A Hertz rental car was waiting, with two wheels rolled up onto the curb. A Hornet, black as a hearse. I stopped the porter just in time from loading my luggage into the trunk, where I had a hunch the transmitter was stored, and sent him on his way with a tip. Climbing into the car was like climbing into an oven. I immediately broke out in a sweat and reached into my pocket for the gloves. Unnecessary, since the steering wheel was upholstered with leather. The trunk turned out to be empty—so where could they have put the amplifier? It was lying on the floorboard on the passenger’s side, hidden underneath a magazine that was spread out in such a way that a naked blonde on the cover lay staring up at me passively, with her moist and shiny tongue hanging out. I made no sound, but something inside me quietly groaned as I began merging with the heavy traffic. A solid line from one light to the next. Even though I’d slept enough, I felt moody and on edge, first grouchy and then a little giddy. That’s what I got for eating all that damned spaghetti, which I normally couldn’t stand. It was always the same: the greater the danger, the more weight I’d put on. At the next intersection I turned on the blower, which immediately began bubbling with exhaust fumes. I switched it off. Cars were lined up bumper to bumper, Italian style. A detour. In both mirrors nothing but car roofs and automobile hoods, la potente benzina italiana stank of carbon monoxide, and I was stalled behind a bus, trapped in its smelly exhaust fumes. Some kids, all wearing the same green caps, sat gawking at me through the rear window. My stomach felt like a lump of dough, my head was on fire, and stuck to my heart was a sensor that caught on my suspenders every time I turned the wheel. I broke open a package of Kleenex and stuck a few tissues on top of the steering column. My nose was starting to tickle the way it always did before a storm. I sneezed once, twice, and soon was so busy sneezing I lost track of ever having left Naples, now fading in the azure coastal sky. I was cruising along the Strada del Sole now. Traffic was pretty light for the rush hour, but it was as if I’d never taken the Plimasine: my eyes were tingling and my nose was running, though my mouth was dry. I could have used some coffee, though I’d already drunk two cappuccinos back at the hotel, but the first coffee break wasn’t till Magdalena. The Herald wasn’t on the stands again because of some strike or other. While I was boxed in between some smoking Fiats and a Mercedes, I turned on the radio. It was a news broadcast, though most of it was lost on me. Some demonstrators had set fire to a building. One of the security guards was interviewed. The feminist underground promised more demonstrations in the future; then a woman, speaking in a deep alto, read a proclamation by the terrorists condemning the Pope, followed by various voices of the press…

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