THE EIGHTH WORLD FUTUROLOGICAL CONGRESS was held in Costa Rica. (...) The Hilton soared one hundred and six floors upward from its flat, four-story base. On the roof of this lower structure were tennis courts, swimming pools, solariums, racetracks, merry-go-rounds (which simultaneously served as roulette wheels), and shooting galleries where your could fire at absolutely anyone you liked - in effigy - provided you put in your order twenty-four hours in advance, and there were concert amphitheaters equipped with tear gas sprinklers in case the audience got out of hand.
I was given a room on the hundredth floor; from it I could see only the top of the bluish brown cloud of smog that coiled about the city. Some of the hotel furnishings puzzled me - the ten-foot crowbar propped up in a corner of the jade and jasper bathroom, for example, or the khaki camouflage cape in the closet, the sack of hardtack under the bed. Over the tub, next to towels, hung an enormous spool of standard Alpine rope, and on the door was a card which I first noticed when I went to triple lock the super-yale. It read: "This Room Guaranteed BOMB-FREE. From the Management."
It is common knowledge that there are two kinds of scholar these days: the stationary and the peripatetic. The stationaries pursue their studies in the traditional way, while their restless colleagues participate in every sort of international seminar and symposium imaginable. The scholar of this second type may be readily identified: in his lapel he wears a card bearing his name, rank and home university, in his pocket sticks a flight schedule of arrivals and departures, and the buckle on his belt - as well at the snaps on his briefcase - are plastic, never metal, so not to trigger unnecessarily the alarms of the airport scanners that search boarding passengers for weapons. Our peripatetic scholar keeps up with the literature of his field by studying in buses, waiting rooms, planes and hotel bars. Since I was - naturally enough - unacquainted with many of the recent customs of Earth I set off alarms in the airports of Bangkok, Athens and Costa Rica itself having six amalgam fillings in my mouth. These I was planning to replace with porcelain in Nounas, but the events that followed so unexpectedly made that quite impossible. As for the Alpine rope, the crowbar, the hardtack and the camouflage cape, one of the members of the American delegation of futurologists patiently explained to me that today's hotels take safety precautions unknown in earlier times. Each of the above items, when included in the room, significantly increases the life expectancy of the occupant. How foolish it was of me not to have taken those words more seriously!
The sessions were scheduled to begin in the afternoon of the first day, and that morning we all received complete programs of the conference; the materials were handsomely printed up, elegantly bound, with numerous charts end illustrations. I was particularly intrigued by a booklet of embossed sky-blue coupons, each stamped: "Good for One Intercourse." (...)
That morning - the Management treated us all to free drinks. This little ceremony took place without incident, barring the fact that a few rotten tomatoes were thrown at the Unites States contingent. I was sipping my Martini when I learned from Jim Stantor, a well-known UPI reporter, that a consul and a grade-three attaché of the American Embassy in Costa Rica had been kidnapped at dawn. The abductors were demanding the release of all political prisoners in exchange for the diplomats. To show they meant business, these extremists had already delivered individual teeth of their hostages to the Embassy and various government offices, promising an anatomical escalation. Still, this contretemps did not mar the cordial atmosphere of our morning get-together. The United States ambassador himself was there, and gave a short speech on the need for international cooperation - short, as he was surrounded by six muscular plainclothesmen who kept their guns trained on us all the time. I was rather disconcerted by this, especially when the dark-skinned delegate from India standing next to me had to wipe his nose and reached for the handkerchief in his back pocket. The official spokesman for the Futurological Association assured me afterwards that the measures taken had been both necessary and humane. Bodyguards now employ weapons of high caliber and low penetration, the kind security agents carry on board passenger flights in order that innocent bystanders not be harmed. In the old days it often happened that the bullet which felled the would-be assassin would subsequently pass through five or even six persons who, though minding their own business, were standing directly behind him. Still, the sight of a man at your side crumpling to the floor under heavy fire is not among the most pleasant, even if it is the result of a simple misunderstanding, which ends with an exchange of diplomatic notes and official apologies.
But rather than attempt to settle the thorny question of humanitarian ballistics, perhaps I ought to explain why I was unable, all that day, to familiarize myself with the conference materials. So then, after hurriedly changing my spattered shirt, I went to the hotel bar for breakfast, which usually I do not do. My custom is to eat a soft-boiled egg in the morning but the hotel hasn't yet been built where you can have one sent up to your room that isn't revoltingly cold. This is due, no doubt, to the continually expanding size of metropolitan hotels. If a mile and a half separates the kitchen from your room, nothing will keep that yolk warm. As far as I know, the Hilton experts did study the problem; they came to the conclusion that the only solution would be special dumbwaiters, moving at supersonic speeds, but obviously sonic booms in an enclosed area would burst everyone's eardrums. Of course you could always have the automatic cook send the eggs up raw and the automatic bellhop soft-boil them right in your room, except that would eventually lead to people coming in and out with their own chicken coops. And thus I headed for the bar.(...)
Scarcely had I taken a seat at the bar on my floor when a broad-shouldered individual, with a jet-black beard (a beard that read like a menu of all the past week's meals) unslung his heavy, double-barreled gun, stuck the muzzle right beneath my nose and asked, with a coarse laugh, how I liked his papalshooter. I had no idea what that was supposed to mean, but knew better than to admit it. The safest thing in such situations is to remain silent. And indeed, the next moment he confided in me that this high-powered repeater piece of his, equipped with a laser-finding, telescopic sight, triple-action trigger and self-loader, was custom-made for killing popes. Talking continually, he pulled a folded photo from his pocket, a picture of himself taking careful aim at a mannequin in a robe and zucchetto. He had become an excellent shot, he said, and was now on his way to Rome, prepared for a great pilgrimage - to gun down the Holy Father at St. Peter's Basilica. I didn't believe a word of it, but then, still chattering away, he showed me, in turn, his airplane ticket, reservation, tourist missal, a pilgrim's itinerary for American Catholics, as well as a pack of cartridges with a cross carved on the head of each bullet. To economize he'd purchased a one-way ticket only, for he fully expected the enraged worshippers to tear him limb from limb - prospect of which appeared to put him in the best possible humor. I immediately assumed that this was either a madman or a professional terrorist-fanatic (we have no lack of them these days), but again I was mistaken. Talking on and on, though he repeatedly had to climb off the high bar stool, for his weapon kept slipping to the floor, he revealed to me that actually he was a devout and loyal Catholic; the act which he had carefully planned - he called it "Operation P"- would be a great personal sacrifice, for he wished to jolt the conscience of the world, and what could provide a greater jolt than a deed of such extremity? He would be doing exactly what according to Scripture Abraham had been commanded to do to Isaac, except in reverse, as he would be slaying not a son, but a father, and a holy one at that. At the same time, he explained to me, he would attain the utmost martyrdom of which a Christian was capable, for his body would suffer terrible torment and his soul eternal damnation - all to open the eyes of mankind. "Really," I thought, "we have too many of these eye-opening enthusiasts." Unconvinced by his arguments I excused myself and went to save the Pope - that is to notify someone of this plot - but Stantor, whom I bumped into on the 77th floor bar, told me, without even hearing me out, that among the gifts offers to Hadrian XI by the last group of American tourists there had been two time bombs and a cask containing - not sacramental wine, but nitroglycerin. I understood Stantor's indifference a little better when I heard that the local guerillas had recently mailed a foot to the Embassy, though as yet it was uncertain whose. (...)
Translated by Michael Kandel. Copyright 1971. Courtesy of Harcourt, Inc.