Vacation is supposed to be relaxing. But while traveling in Naples, several American tourists die in a most macabre and unusual way: committing suicide in a fit of madness. The cases are too similar to be coincidental, and the prevailing theory soon assumes that a serial poisoner is on the loose.
Called in to investigate, and stem the rash of death before it becomes an epidemic, is a former astronaut from the States. As he follows the path of the last victim, he is confronted with a mystery that proves the truth is always stranger than fiction—and that we are all casualties of fortune in the end.
Called “a Jorge Luis Borges for the Space Age, who plays in earnest with every concept of philosophy and physics, from free will to probability theory,” Stanislaw Lem now tackles the suspense genre with his famed intensity and intelligence, weaving a taut and enigmatic tale as only a great novelist can (The New York Times Book Review).
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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 his 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 corner, 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....
A women's underground. Nothing took one by surprise any more. People had lost all capacity to be surprised. What were they fighting against, anyhow? The tyranny of men? I didn't feel like a tyrant, any more than others did. Woe to the playboys! What were they planning to do to them? Would they wind up kidnapping the clergy, too? I shut off the radio as if slamming shut a garbage chute.
To have been in Naples and not seen Vesuvius — it was almost unforgivable of me. All the more so since I'd always been amiably disposed toward volcanoes. Half a century ago my father used to tell me bedtime stories about them. I'm turning into an old man, I thought, and was as stunned by this last thought as if I'd said I was on the verge of becoming a cow. Volcanoes were something solid, something that inspired trust. The earth erupts, lava spills, houses collapse. Everything looks so marvelous and simple to a five-year-old. I was sure you could reach the center of the earth by climbing down a crater, though my father had disputed that. Too bad he died when he did; he'd have been so proud of me. You don't have time to contemplate the terrifying silence of those infinite expanses when you're listening to the marvelous sound of the couplers as they moor the space vehicle to the module. Granted, my career had been a short one, and all because I'd proved myself unworthy of Mars. He'd have taken the news a lot harder than I did. What the hell — would you rather have had him die right after your first flight, so he could have closed his eyes still believing in you? Now, was that cynical or just plain petty of me? Better keep your eyes on the road.
As I was squeezing in behind a psychedelic-painted Lancia, I glanced in the mirror. Not a sign of the Hertz-rented Chrysler. Something had flashed back in the vicinity of Marianelli, but I couldn't be sure, because the other car had dropped out of sight again. On me alone did this short and monotonous highway, now teeming with an energetic mob on wheels, bestow the privilege of its secret, a secret that had uncannily eluded the police of both the old and new worlds combined. I alone had in my car trunk an air mattress, a surfboard, and a badminton racket intended not for sport and recreation but for inviting a treacherous blow from out of the unknown. I tried to get a little worked up, but the whole affair had ceased to be an adventure, had lost its charm. My thoughts were no longer on the mystery of the deadly conspiracy, only on whether it was time for another Plimasine to stop my constantly runny nose. I didn't care any more where the Chrysler was; besides, the transmitter had a hundred-mile range. My grandmother once had had a pair of bloomers on the attic line matching the color of that Lancia.
At six-twenty I began stepping on the gas. For a while I stayed behind a Volkswagen with a pair of sheep's eyes painted on the back that kept staring at me in tender reproach. The car is an amplifier of the personality. Later I cut in behind a fellow countryman from Arizona with a bumper sticker that read: HAVE A NICE DAY. In front and in back of me were cars piled high with outboards, water skis, golf bags, fishing gear, paddle boards, and bundles in all shapes and colors including orange and raspberry-red: Europe was doing its damnedest to "have a nice day." I held up my right hand and then my left one, as I'd done so many times in the past, and examined my outstretched fingers. Not one of them was shaking. They say that's the first sign. But who's to say for sure? No one can claim to be an authority in such matters. If I held my breath for a whole minute, Randy would certainly panic. What a half-assed idea!
A viaduct. The air made a flapping noise along the concrete uprights. I stole a glance at the scenery, a marvelous panorama of desolate green stretching all the way to the mountains that framed the horizon. A Ferrari as flat as a bedbug chased me out of the fast lane, and I broke out in another fit of sneezing that sounded more like swearing. My windshield was dotted with the remains of flies, my pant legs were sticking to my calves, and the glare from the wipers was killing my eyes. As I went to blow my nose, the package of Kleenex slipped down into the gap between the front seats and made a rustling noise. Who can describe that still-life spectacle that takes place in orbit? Just when you think you've got everything tied, secured, magnetized, and taped down with adhesive, the real show begins — that whirling swarm of felt-tip pencils, eyeglasses, and the loose ends of cables writhing about in space like lizards. Worst of all were the crumbs, hunting for crumbs with a vacuum cleaner. ...
Or dandruff. The hidden background of mankind's cosmic steps was usually passed over in silence. Only children would dare to ask how you pee on the moon.
The mountains loomed up brown and sturdy, serene and somehow familiar. One of earth's more scenic spots. When the road later changed direction, the sun started shifting around the car's interior in a rectangular pattern, reminding me of the silent and majestic rotation of light inside the cabin. Day lurking within night, the one merging with the other as before the creation of the world, and then man's dream of flying becomes a reality, and the body's confusion, its dismay when the impossible becomes possible ...
Although I'd attended a number of lectures on motion sickness, I had my own thoughts on the subject. Motion sickness was no ordinary attack of nausea, but a panic of the intestines and the spleen; though not usually conspicuous, they protested. Their bewilderment evoked only pity in me. All the time we were enjoying the cosmos, it was making them sick. They couldn't take it from the start. When we insisted on dragging them there, they revolted, though training obviously helped. But even if a bear can be taught to ride a bicycle, that doesn't mean he's cut out for it. The whole thing was ridiculous. We kept at it till the cerebral congestion and hardening of the intestines went away, but that was only postponing the inevitable: sooner or later we had to come back down. After landing on earth we had to put up with the excruciating pressure, the painful ordeal of having to unbend our knees and backs, and the sensation of having our heads spin around like bullets. I was fully aware of the effects, because I'd often seen athletically trained men made so uncomfortable by their inability to move that they would have to be lowered into tubs where they could be momentarily freed of bodily weight. Damned if I know what made me think it'd be any different with me.
According to that bearded psychologist, my own case was not exceptional. But even after you regained your sense of gravity, the experience of orbital weightlessness would come back to haunt you as a kind of nostalgia. We're not meant for the cosmos, and for that very reason we'll never give up.
A flashing red signal traveled straight to my foot, short-circuiting my brain. My tires made a crunching sound as they rolled over something like spilled rice, only bigger, like hailstones, which turned out to be glass. Traffic was slowing down to a crawl; the right lane was blocked off with traffic cones. I tried to get a glimpse beyond the lineup of cars and caught sight of a yellow helicopter in the process of making a slow landing in a field, the dust swirling under its fuselage like flour. On the ground lay two metal hulks, their hoods up and their front ends rammed into each other. But why so far off the road? And why were there no people around? Again the sound of glass crunching under tires as we drove at a snail's pace past a line of policemen waving us on with the words "Faster, faster!" Police helmets, ambulances, stretchers, an overturned car with one wheel still spinning and its directional signal still blinking ... The highway was under a cloud of smoke. From burning asphalt? More likely gasoline. Cars began switching back to the right lane, and breathing became easier as soon as traffic started picking up speed. A death toll of forty had been predicted. Soon an elevated restaurant came into view. Next door the sparks of a welder's torch lit up the dark interior of the car repair shops located inside the sprawling area di servizio. Judging by my odometer, Cassino was the next exit. At the first bend in the road, my nose suddenly stopped tickling: the Plimasine had finally worked its way through the spaghetti.
Excerpted from "The Chain of Chance"
Copyright © 1975 Stanislaw Lem.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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