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stanislaw lem chain of chance cover  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. (...)

The flight had originally been a charter, but because the Boeing made available turned out to be larger than the number of passengers, the remaining seats were sold over the counter. Those who eventually landed in trouble were those like myself who bought their tickets at the last minute. The Boeing had been rented by a bank consortium, though the people standing closest to me hardly looked like bankers. The t first to step on the escalator was an elderly lady with a cane; then came a blond woman carrying a small dog, then myself, a little girl, and a Japanese. Glancing back down the stairs, I noticed that a couple of men had unfolded their newspapers. Since I was more in the mood for sightseeing, I tucked my Herald under the top of my suspenders like a fatigue cap.

The blonde, whose pearl-trimmed pants fit so snugly you could see the outline of her panties on her fanny, turned out to be carrying a stuffed animal; it was the way it blinked that made it seem alive. I was reminded of the blonde on the magazine cover who had accompanied me on my trip to Rome. In her white outfit and with her quick eyes, the little girl looked more like a doll. The Japanese, who wasn't much taller than the girl, was dressed to perfection and had all the mannerisms of an avid tourist. Crisscrossing the top of his buttoned-up checkered suit were the straps of a transistor radio, a pair of binoculars, and a powerful Nikon Six. While I happened to be looking around, he was in the process of opening the camera case to get a shot of the Labyrinth and the wonders of its interior. At the point where the stairs leveled off to form a ramp, I heard a shrill, drawn-out whistle; I spun around. It was coming from the direction of the Japanese. The little girl could be seen backing anxiously away from him, hugging her purse, which contained the ticket pouch. With a deadpan expression the Japanese turned up the volume on his radio, naively mistaken if he thought he could drown out the whistle: it was only the first warning.

We were gliding over the hall's vast interior. Looming up in the fluorescent light on either side of the bridge ramp were Romulus, Remus, and the she-wolf. By this time the whining noise coming from the ticket pouch of the Japanese had reached a piercing intensity. A tremor passed through the crowd, but no one dared to raise his voice. The only one who didn't bat an eyelash was the Japanese, who stood there expressionless, with only a few beads of sweat visible on his forehead. All of a sudden he yanked the pouch from his pocket and started wrestling with it like a madman, before a crowd of speechless onlookers-not a single woman cried out. As for me, I was only waiting to see how they would yank him out of the crowd. As the Bridge of Sighs came to an end and the ramp veered around a corner, the Japanese crouched down so suddenly and so low it looked as if he'd vanished from sight. It took me a while to realize what he was doing down there. Pulling the Nikon out of its case, he opened it just as the escalator was straightening out and beginning to climb again; it was now obvious that this second Bridge of Sighs was nothing more than an escalator moving back across the main hall at an angle. As soon as he was back on his feet again, there emerged from his Nikon a rounded, cylindrical object that glittered like a Christmas-tree ornament and that would barely have fit into the palm of my hand. A nonmetallic corundum grenade with a notched casing and no stem. The plastic pouch stopped whining. Using both hands, the Japanese pressed the bottom of the grenade to his mouth in the manner of a kiss; not until he removed it did I realize he'd pulled out the pin with his teeth and it was now sticking out between his lips. I made a dive for the grenade but only brushed it because the Japanese suddenly lunged backward with such force that he knocked those behind him off their feet and kicked me in the knee. My elbow landed in the girl's face; the impact sent me reeling against the railing. I banged into her again and this time took her with me as we both cleared the railing and went sailing through the air.

Then something solid hit me in the back, and I passed from light into darkness. I was expecting to land on sand. Though the papers hadn't mentioned explicitly what covered the floor, they were quite emphatic about the fact that no damage had resulted from the previous bomb explosion. Anticipating sand, I tried to get my legs into position while I was still in the air. But instead I encountered something soft and wet that gave way under me like foam until I landed in a freezing liquid. Simultaneously the blast of the explosion rocked my insides. I lost sight of the girl as my legs sank into some kind of sticky slime or mud; deeper and deeper I sank, fighting desperately with my hands, until a sudden calm took hold of me. I had about a minute, maybe a bit longer, to scramble out. First think - then act. It must have been a tank designed to soften the impact of a shock wave - a tank shaped more like a funnel than a bowl, spread with a layer of some sticky substance, filled with water, and then covered with a thick coating of an asphyxiating foam.

There was no way I could charge uphill - I was knee-deep in the stuff - so I crouched down like a frog and began groping around on the bottom with my hands spread out; it was sloped to the right. Using the palms of my hands like shovels and pulling my feet out of the muck one at a time, I started crawling in that direction with all my strength. I kept it up, sometimes sliding back down the sloping incline and having to start all over again, using my hands to hoist myself up like a mountain climber trying to scale a snowy cliff without any handholds -but at least one can breathe in the snow.

I worked my way up high enough so that the big blistery bubbles on my face began to pop; half asphyxiated and gasping for air, I emerged into a shadowy penumbra filled with the concerted howls of those directly above me. With my head barely sticking out above the surface of tossing foam, I looked around. The girl was gone. I took a deep breath and dove below. I had to keep my eyes closed; something in the water made them burn like hell. Three times I surfaced and went below, getting noticeably weaker after each dive: since there was no way to bounce back up from the slime, I had to keep swimming over it to avoid being sucked under. Just when I'd given up hope, my hand accidentally touched her long hair.


Translated by Louis Irbarne.  Copyright 1965. Courtesy of Harcourt, Inc.