Authors: Stanislaw Lem
At eight the next morning I went to see Randy. I was in a fairly decent mood, because I’d started the day with Plimasine and despite the dry heat my nose wasn’t bothering me. Randy’s hotel was nowhere near my hotel; it was located on a crowded back street paved in the Roman style, not far from the Spanish Steps. I’d forgotten the name of the street. While I waited for Randy in a narrow passageway containing lobby, reception desk, and coffee shop, I browsed through a copy of
I’d picked up on the way to the hotel. I was interested in negotiations under way between Air France and the government, because I didn’t relish the thought of being stranded at Orly. A strike had been declared by the airport’s auxiliary crew, but Paris was still open to incoming flights.
It wasn’t long before Randy showed up. Considering he’d been up most of the night he was in pretty good shape, except for being a little down in the mouth, but then by now it was obvious the mission had been a flop. Paris was our last resort, our last refuge. Randy offered to drive me to the airport, but I didn’t let him; I thought it was better he got some sleep. He insisted it was impossible to sleep in his hotel room, so I followed him upstairs. As a matter of fact, his room was bright as day, and from the bathroom came the smell of hot suds instead of cool air.
Luckily we were in a high-pressure area. Relying on my professional knowledge, I drew the curtains, dampened them underneath to improve the air circulation, and left all the faucets running slightly. Having done my Samaritan duty, I said goodbye, promising to give Mm a call as soon as I came up with something concrete. I took a taxi out to the airport, stopping off at the Hilton for my things, and shortly before eleven was already pushing my luggage cart toward the departure area. It was my first trip to the new airport terminal in Rome, and I kept my eyes peeled for the wonders of its technical security system, which had been publicized in all the papers, never suspecting I would become something of an expert on it.
The press had greeted the opening of the new terminal as an event signaling the end of all terrorist attacks. The glassed-in departure area was the only thing that looked somehow familiar. Viewed from above, the building resembled a drum, traversed by a network of escalators and ramps that discreetly filtered the boarding passengers. Lately people had begun smuggling aboard weapons and explosives in parts, later assembling them in the airport toilets, which was why the Italians were the first to stop using magnetometers. The screening was now conducted by means of ultrasonic detection devices while the passengers were being transported on the escalators; the data obtained from this invisible search was then instantly evaluated by a computer programmed to identify smuggling suspects. It was reported that these ultrasonic waves were able to sense every tooth filling and suspender clasp, that not even a nonmetallic explosive could escape detection.
The new terminal was known unofficially as the Labyrinth. During a trial run lasting several weeks, intelligence experts armed with the most ingeniously concealed weapons had crammed the escalators, and not one of these smuggling attempts was known to have succeeded. The Labyrinth had been operating since April without any serious incidents; the only ones caught were those having in their possession objects as harmless as they were strange: a toy cap pistol, for example, or a metalized plastic replica of a gun. Some of the experts argued that such incidents amounted to a kind of psychological diversion on the part of frustrated terrorists, while others claimed they were merely meant to test the system’s effectiveness. These pseudo smugglers posed something of a problem for the legal experts because, although their motives were unmistakable, they could not be considered punishable by law. So far the only serious incident had taken place on the day of my departure from Naples. An Asian passenger, after being detected by the sensors, had unloaded a live bomb on the Bridge of Sighs, which spanned the entire width of the Labyrinth. Hurled straight down into the hall, it caused an explosion that did little damage except to the nerves of the other passengers. In retrospect, I now believe these minor incidents were staged in preparation for an operation aimed at penetrating the new security system with a new type of offense.
My Alitalia flight was delayed an hour because of the uncertainty over whether we were to land at Orly or De Gaulle. Since the forecast was for thirty degrees Celsius in Paris, I decided to change clothes. I couldn’t remember which suitcase I’d packed my summer shirts in, so I set out for the rest room with my luggage cart, which was too big for the escalator. I wandered in and out of the lower-level ramps until a rajah finally showed me the way—he was on Ms way to the rest room, too. I couldn’t tell whether he was really a rajah, because although he wore a turban he had a very weak command of English. I was curious to see if he would take off his turban in the rest room. My little excursion with the cart had consumed so much time that I had to shower in a hurry and change quickly into my cotton summer suit and laced canvas sneakers. By sticking my toilet kit into a suitcase I was able to free my hands to make my way back to departures and to check in all my things as luggage. As it turned out this was a smart move, since I doubt whether the rolls of microfilm—they were stashed in the toilet kit—would have survived “the massacre of the steps.”
The terminal’s air-conditioning system was on the blink, blowing ice-cold air in some places and warm air in others. At the Paris gate it was warm, so I slung my jacket over my shoulder, which also turned out to be a lucky move. Each of us was handed an Ariadne Pass—a plastic pouch equipped with an electronic resonator—without which it was impossible to board any of the planes. On the other side of the turnstile was an escalator so narrow it could only be boarded single file. The ride was a little reminiscent of Tivoli and a little of Disneyland. The escalator climbed straight up till it gradually leveled off into a moving ramp that spanned the hall in a flood of fluorescent lights while the ground floor remained dark, though how they managed to achieve such a lighting effect was beyond me. Once past the Bridge of Sighs, the ramp swerved around and became an escalator again, cutting back at a steep angle across the same hall, which was now recognizable only by the openwork ceiling, as both sides of the ramp were lined with aluminum panels decorated with mythological scenes. I never did find out what the rest of it looked like. The idea was simple: any passenger having something suspicious in his possession was reported by means of an uninterrupted sound transmitted by the plastic pouch. The suspect had no possible escape, since the conveyor ramp was too narrow, and the constant repetition of passageways was designed to weaken him psychologically and force him to dispose of his weapon. The departure area was posted with signs in twenty different languages warning that anyone attempting to smuggle weapons or explosives aboard would place his own life in jeopardy if he tried to commit an act of terrorism against his fellow passengers. This cryptic warning was variously interpreted. There were even rumors that a team of sharpshooters was kept concealed behind the aluminum walls, but I didn’t believe a word of it.
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 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
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, naïvely 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 comer, 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. The foam had left it slippery as a fish. While I was trying to tie a knot in her blouse as a grip, the blouse ripped.