Cover Illustration: Unknown by Diana Nanaeva

The Missed Chance (1981) by Lyuben Dilov


In The Missed Chance, a true composite novel, the reader gets their metafictional lesson, the value of story and the storyteller’s responsibility to humankind, between interludes detailing a few frustrating work days in the life of science-fiction writer Lyuben Dilov. He has been compelled by the Writers’ Union to switch to the newest model of writing computer, which knows all world literature, recorded history, and data and can produce original works in the style of the author it serves. Dilov need only submit his spoken commands according to the manual. The eager computer effortlessly produces page after page, but the author is offended at the perceived diminution of his craft. Dilov hates all the stories, and as he vainly attempts to vocalize his specific complaints with this “highly-evolved” reflection of himself, the computer’s tales turn more and more bitterly satirical against their human patron and his arrogant self-denial. The effect is so immersive and complete and entertaining that it’s easy to forget what you definitely know: that you’re reading the words of Lyuben Dilov."


-- Science Fiction Research Association Review



... cover art from various editions of The Missed Chance...

Bulgarian (1981)

illustrator: Boyan Dimitrov & Velichko Marinov

Czech (1985)

illustrator: Viktoria Ban-Jiránková

Bulgarian(1986)

illustrator: Kremen Benev

Russian (1988)

illustrator: Tekla Aleksieva

Bulgarian (2005)

illustrator: ????

Bulgarian (2014)

illustrator: Vladimir Todorov

(excerpt)


The Sugar Lump


The living room was full of women - like in a gynecologist’s waiting room - with the difference that no one was divulging to her neighbor exactly what she’d come for. Here everyone had come for the same thing and carefully avoided it in their conversations, except for those who had come about the incurable disease of a loved one. Nowhere else were so many women gathered in one place, keeping so silent, and with so much tension, as if each were expecting a final and unappealable verdict. And they were scared of the seer's husband - a fussy, nimble man who would, every five minutes, stand in the middle of the living room converted into a waiting room, spin around in every direction, and smile a guiltily helpless smile like a person who’s forgotten what they were sent for. Every half an hour, the client who had already received her verdict would come out from the opposite door with pale cheeks and dreamy eyes. To the unspoken universal question directed at her, she would reply, still uncertain: “She knew me. She knew everything about me…” and hurry to leave the waiting room. Each one would respond the same way, as if they were afraid of spoiling some good magic or harming the authority of the fortune-teller. And that intensified the tension even more.

And for a long while, that tension had been keeping the youngest amongst the women, still a girl, from begging,

“Excuse me, perhaps I could go in now. I just want to ask something…”

The communal tension instantly became a common hatred. Everyone had just come to ask something.

“I... I'll just wait my turn then. I only need to ask…” It cost her much effort to confess to something that she herself may not really believe in. “It seems that I’ve lost it, my lump. I remember I took it, and now it’s gone, and…”

“You can’t,” said one of the women, a villager, knowledgeable in the secrets of clairvoyance. “Without a lump that’s been slept on and a handkerchief, you can’t.”

“I have a handkerchief,” said the girl. “But the lump... I’ve come all the way from Sofia…”

The hatred was halved and transformed into annoyance, into a merciful willingness to submit for that half of the women who had come before the girl, and into joyous magnanimity for those women who had come after her - their waiting would probably be shortened.

“Let her ask, why make her wait for nothing?” called out a voice from the hopeful half.

The fortune-teller, fat, about sixty years of age, was sitting on the sofa unwound and bored from her own clairvoyance. It was stuffy and gloomy in the room because of the thick curtains on the window. It stunk of cockroaches. The eyes of the seer could not be seen, sunken into the puffed pastry of her bulky face. It was said that she was blind, that she was half-blind, that she could see but pretended to be blind. But this did not diminish the crowd in her waiting room.

“Sit down,” the fortune-teller said hoarsely. Her voice, too, was already weary from predicting the future.

The girl did not sit down.

“Ma’am, I just have a question for you. I've lost my lump somewhere, so if possible…”

The blind eyes of the fortune-teller gave the girl a long look before cutting her off: “You can’t!”

“I have a handkerchief,” the girl was ready to cry, “and I remember the dream!”

“You can’t, I told you,” the fortune-teller replied roughly, and made an unsuccessful attempt to move herself. “The lump is the most important, everything is recorded on it. You can come back.”

The girl sensed that the fortune-teller would not relent so she found the courage to express her doubts,

“Okay, ma'am, but... well, the second time I probably won't have the same dream, will I? Then what…”

The fortune-teller could not tolerate conversations that concerned her profession.

“I do not look at dreams, you little fool! Go on, leave here! I am fed up with this! People come to me with their pains, with their sorrows, from all over Bulgaria, about the sick one at home, about the man who has run away, and you drag yourself here to me with your foolishness. Will I get married, won't I get married, and to whom... You will not be an old maid, rest assured! Go away and you will not come back..!”

The girl didn’t know that the fortune-teller further nurtured her fame with such evictions and rushed out into the waiting room, now actually in tears. The women gathered around her, “What happened, why such a...?”

“She... she kicked me out. I came for... for... foolishness. And I…”

One merciful hand stroked her hair. Another woman, however, called from somewhere far away,

“Well, you probably did come for foolishness, by looking at you…”

And now the entire waiting room was overflowing with boundless faith in the clairvoyant: if she could tell what they had come for even without the lump...

Later, after the girl had already gone, the man who came in after her and to whom the women immediately recounted as a warning what had taken place unsuccessfully laid out a theory of his own for them.

He was a well-dressed man, well-fed, and well-reasoned; he was probably an intellectual or a buyer because he obviously didn't come from the provinces. He said to the women,

“This with the lump of sugar is just idle chatter. It’s a folk tradition. Once upon a time, the seer didn’t want any money for her divinations; where would the villager get this money? But sugar was expensive stuff, they used to sweeten with rachell* back then. And so, instead of the honorarium,” he used this word - “honorarium”, so the women would recognize he was being an intellectual, but an intellectual who comes from the people, “allegedly for the magic, you give one lump of sugar and one handkerchief. From this one - a lump of sugar, from that one - a lump of sugar, and she fills up the sack for the Easter kosunak*. But now, she takes the lump and the honorarium too...”

The women tried to object to this: the lump is placed under the pillow, and while you sleep, it absorbs your dreams and thoughts. But how this happened still wasn’t quite clear to them, so they cut him off, “Why did you come then, if you don’t believe?”

He replied to them that he didn't believe in the lump, but he did believe in the fortune-teller. When he came the first time, he didn’t have the sugar, and so he had run to the grocery store to buy it so he wouldn’t have to come back, and she, the fortune-teller, still knew everything about him even though he hadn’t slept on the lump. But now, if they wanted to know, he had come for quite another thing. He wouldn’t ask her about himself, but about flying saucers, about other civilizations... when they would arrive and things like that. “About flying saucers?!” the women gasped.

Since, in the waiting room, a common topic of conversation had been found that didn't cast any doubt on the fortune-teller's abilities, her husband, who was still spinning around in the living-waiting room, still unable to remember what he had come in for, went out without sensing anything alarming. For the renowned fortune-teller, it was an ordinary visiting day that would finish late in the evening once again without any notable incidents.

But later on that night, in the same small town, an event occurred that would turn out to be fateful for the entire planet. It would have been the ultimate opportunity for the town to be noted for something besides having their own visionary, but she, immersed in foretelling the futures of her clients, had not been able to foresee that. If she had focused on the questions of the intellectual, maybe she would have at least sensed it. But she had driven this client away as well, with the same scolding she had given the girl: she deals with the local civilization, with human torments and sufferings, and things like that, which are wide around the necks of the people, her powers would be wasted on all that nonsense...

By deftly manipulating the anti-gravitators built into their spacesuits, Sik and Sek stepped lightly onto the clearing in the city park. They didn’t know whether they were this planet’s first visitors from the Cosmos, but it was the first planet they had come across that had proven to have another highly developed civilization, and the two of them were filled with a sense of responsibility before the historic mission.

Strictly speaking, their behavior was violating the rules of making contact with an alien civilization; they didn’t yet have any authorization to go down to the planet. But after more than a month of revolving in a distant orbit and attempting in vain to establish communication with it - seemingly, the flood of all sorts of sounds, lights, electromagnetics, radars, and so on that the planet radiated from itself prevented it from receiving and recognizing their call signals - they had decided on direct contact. Of course, it wasn’t going to happen this night, tonight was only about getting acquainted with the environment they would have to move around in. So for now, Sik and Sek were nothing more than a reconnaissance unit tasked with performing a quick but meticulous survey. A unit - because in their civilization the social unit actually consisted of two distinct and always individually perceptive beings. Natural forces on that distant world had divided the reasoning part of matter between the two identical bodies. Thus, they had achieved more physical strength and a greater range of intellective energy in a sort of twin-hulled monad of minds which nonetheless remains inextricably linked inside a unitary mental complex. Sik said, having looked around the alley,

“I like this place. There is pleasant and well-ordered vegetation.”

“I don’t like it,” Sek said. “This order denotes a crude and tasteless interference in nature.”

No one in the town could hear them, nor could they have heard them, because they were talking to each other with their cerebral bio-currents just as a single earth brain would talk to itself.

The planet’s natural satellite gave only dim illumination, but the two of them could see everything down to the smallest detail through the night visors on their helmets. They moved in absolute silence, leaving their anti-gravitators on the lowest setting, just enough that their spacesuits wouldn’t drag. Otherwise, for this occasion, they wouldn’t have even needed them. The world they came from had approximately the same gravitational force.

Sik said,

“I’m burning up with curiosity to see what they’ll look like!”

“Not so fast, or at least don’t burn up all the way,” Sek replied. “Then, who will I have to talk nonsense to me?”

“Listen,” Sik was angry, “If you, even in this fateful moment, are going to nag me, I will simply stop speaking to you altogether.”

“Then stop, deary! Unless you come up with something more clever.”

Sik kept silent as they emerged onto the street between the two rows of houses with long-asleep windows, spectrally illuminated by the few weak fluorescent street lamps. But he was the enthusiastic and good-hearted part of the monad, so he couldn’t help but announce,

“What a pleasant settlement! And all these interesting buildings.”

But the skeptical half objected,

“Judging by the total volume of energy emissions and the number of artificial satellites around the planet, the civilization should be much more developed, but their way of life seems to be lagging behind. Look how the buildings are peeling, the street is quite dirty, everything looks poor.”

Sik didn't give up,

“To be sure: these beings prefer a modest and unpretentious life, so their minds can be liberated for their high-level tasks.”

“Don’t rush to conclusions!” Sek growled. “Let’s keep going and we’ll have a look at them.”

But the beings were nowhere to be seen. Both the street and its intersections were deserted. And the first living and - as opposed to the plants - moving thing they came across cast them into perplexity.

It was a very tiny creature, with a long and flexible growth at the end of its body. Sik and Sek paused in anticipation. It gazed at them with its phosphorescent yellow eyes and moved timidly toward their feet, uttering some gentle monotonous sounds that came out as: meowww... meowww, meowww... It came nearly all the way to Sek’s boot, so he calmly but vigorously pulled away.

“Why are you running? Don’t you see that it is seeking a peaceful contact with us? It’s probably congratulating us. Surely, this is a higher being.”

“There can be no higher beings on all fours,” Sek said.

“That’s just one of our theories of evolution that has not yet been confirmed on a galactic scale. How fascinating and graceful it is! I would like to touch it!”

“Don’t you dare!”

“Meowww,” said the creature, looking at them, begging to be touched.

Sik bent down, despite the veto of his negative half. His palm rested cautiously on the being’s back. It was covered in something soft, but under this softness, the spine suddenly curled upward and stiffened, as if it wanted to intensify its contact against the spacesuit’s glove. Inside of it, something quietly activated: rrruuu, rrruuu...

Sek pulled sharply on the arm of his more trusting monad half,

“Let’s get out of here!” and since he had already turned up his own anti-gravitator, he dragged his monadic half upward with him.

Sik was still objecting so Sek neutralised him,

“Fool, didn’t you hear what happened inside it?”

“Well, yes, in response to my touch. It must have been expressing approval. Or it was trying another form of communication.”

“But don’t you find this mechanism sound a bit too coincidental? Once you touched it, the mechanism started up.”

“True,” Sik admitted. “It was like some kind of apparatus inside it was triggered. But it…”

“We don’t even know what it is, do we? Maybe it’s some kind of bio-robot they sent to investigate us. Didn’t you see how it was looking at our boots, exactly there, where the anti-gravity devices are? What if it’s carrying a blasting device inside with a timer mechanism? That sound was very suspicious.”

“To you, everything is suspicious, Sek,” Sik said bitterly, but he allowed himself to be carried off.

And the being, sitting on its soft rear appendage, saw them off with one almost desperate: mmmeeeooowww. The creature seemed very lonely this night in this sleeping village. Or else it was pretending to be, to deceive the foreign civilization. But civilization hadn’t been fooled this time.

Its two representatives kept rising even higher and, turning themselves around to pick which direction they would go, they saw a dimly-lit window, the only window on the entire street with any life left in it.

It was on the top floor of the building, there weren’t any curtains, and the two scouts were obligated to peek into it so they could also familiarize themselves with the interior of the buildings of this unfamiliar civilization. By adjusting their anti-gravitators accordingly, the two of them hung in front of the window. A surprisingly weak lamp illuminated the premises at one end. On top of a long, wide platform, moving and gleaming with its white skin, was an even more odd being. It was large, almost as tall as the two scouts, but apparently naked, and it was performing puzzling multi-directional movements with its multitude of limbs.

“How many legs would you say there are now?” Sik mocked his monadic half. “Don’t you determine the intelligent beings by the number of legs?”

“Sik,” said the eternally skeptical Sek, after they had been watching for a notably long time, “Are you telling me that it’s possible for an intelligent being to perform such movements? Do you detect a purpose in them, any sense? They obviously require a lot of work, but this being is not using them to move anywhere or accomplish anything at all. You’re laughing, but do you see any reason in the positioning of the feet? There seem to be two pairs, but the pairs move in unthinkable opposite directions.”

Sik triumphed,

“For once, I get to see you puzzled! Don’t you see that there are two beings?”

Sek raised his night visor, lowered it again.

“I suppose there are two. Yes, definitely the one on the bottom is completely different. Film them, I’ll make images of them too, and when we establish contact with the higher beings, we’ll ask them what they were doing.”

“Wait a minute,” Sik said with revelatory enthusiasm. “Maybe they’re also some kind of monad like us. Their bodies do seem to be joined to one another with only the limbs separated.

“Sik,” Sek said. “Again, you’re in a hurry to declare these beings intelligent. I will admit frankly to you, I wouldn’t want to be with you in a monad like that. They’re outright hitting each other, biting each other like beasts, and torturing each other.”

“Well, you do torture me a little,” Sik said.

“It’s not decided which of us is tortured more! Do you think I’m at peace with your stupid simplicity and naive optimism? Come on, let’s not waste our time here! Let’s finally meet the creators of this civilization.”

The two descended to the stone pavement on the street slowly, selecting where to step down.

“That over there, the white thing…” Sik pointed, tireless in his exploratory passion, and he immediately forgot the naggings of his monadic half.

“It looks like an artificial object,” Sek said, “Not so fast!”

But Sik had already directed his leap towards it, and Sek wasn’t always able to stop his bolder half from doing hasty and unreasonable things. By the time Sek walked over to him, Sik was already holding the object in his palm.

It was gleaming white, like the bodies of that writhing monad behind the window, it had a fine-grained and evidently crystalline structure.

“Sek,” Sik said excitedly. “I have the feeling that we’ve come across an important find. I am nearly certain that this is a recording crystal, though it doesn’t look quite like our holographic record crystals. Look, it’s thousands, maybe a million crystals bound together, and externally shaped like this for compact placement in the apparatus. I have no patience, Sek, let’s go verify it!”

“Go back to the ship just for this, then come down again... Let me think…”

But Sek was unable to reach his decision because a being with a decidedly humanoid appearance emerged from the darkness and rushed straight towards them. Sek could be content, it had two legs, and it was using them to convey itself, though its gait was strangely unstable as if it were the first time these limbs had been stood up on. The outer parts of its clothes were fluttering, its arms thrusting as if they were catching something invisible in the air.

“Let’s hide,” Sek suggested under his breath.

“Stay still,” Sik ordered abruptly. “It already sees us.”

He also possessed some power over his mondic half.

“Yes, but it’s preparing to attack us!”

“Sek, you consider yourself to be so perceptive, so I can not understand why you’re acting so cowardly. Have a good look at it, what can it do to us? We’ll just wait and see what it means to do. And besides, by looking at it, this is not likely to be the creator of the civilization. Or is it just so unsteady because it has lost its monadic half, if they do live in similar monads? You and I also get unsteady as we move further away from each other. Stay still, I tell you!”

The startled Sek snapped off the anti-gravitator and set his full weight into the stone pavement, ready to defend his self-sacrificing half. The creature had already stopped in front of them, but it continued to sway as if under the influence of a strong wind. And at the same time, it was telling them something quite loudly. Naturally, they didn't understand its words, but their recording devices earnestly recorded the speech of this planetary inhabitant who, for the time being, wasn't exhibiting any visible hostile intent.

“So, that’s it, huh…” the humanoid spoke to them. “So, we’re wearing masks! Well, why not wear a mask, everybody’s already wearing a mask anyway. Look at me. I disguise myself as a drunk. You wouldn’t believe how convenient it is. They all know: a drunk and all that! Nothing else. Simple and clear! And convenient, you’ll find, nobody picks on you... And are there really two of you or am I seeing double? I think you both look very similar, I think you’re suspiciously similar. Talk damn it..! You won’t, huh? So you all don't talk to drunks, huh? Well, don’t you see how convenient it is! I don’t talk to drunks and all that! Simple and clear..! Whoop! So... science-fiction, huh? As for me, damn it, I can’t, nothing shocks me anymore, I've read all of it. I even read Lyuben Dilov too, so don’t you give me any on that science-fiction, do you hear..! Nothing to say, huh? You won't or you can't? Well, that's how it is, even the drunks are having visions of spacesuits now! That's what we’ve come to with this scientific-technical revolution, it’s pushing our mother away, naturrre, nature..! Hey, I don't want to talk to spacesuits anymore! Get out of the way!”

The two didn't understand its threat, but the being intensified itself so much to pass through them that they barely managed to get out of its way. The humanoid flew by head first and hugged the nearest tree. That helped it to not fall over, but it started caressing the bark of the large plant and touching it with its mouth.

“Take off the spacesuits!” it cried to the two humanoids who were still just standing there motionless, like metal sculptures. “What have they done to you, naturre, naturrre..?”

And again it touched the tree with its lips, and some even stranger sounds bubbled up from its throat.

“Sik, let’s get out of here!”

“It talked to the plant, did you hear?”

“Let it keep talking!”

“But do we have the ability to talk to nature like that? Sek, not only are you cowardly, you’re legitimately just as vain as any other coward. You’re just offended that it’s not paying us any attention and would rather embrace the plant than us.”

“So be it,” Sek said, embarrassed. “We are only scouts without any authorization. We will first check if anything is recorded in this crystal, we’ll make a report, and we’ll let the others beat their heads over what’s what and when to establish contact and how. Let’s go!”

The two switched on the anti-gravitators, activated their small impulse engines, and soundlessly ascended, like a whirlwind bearing balloons up to the stars.

“Ciao, spacesuits!” the humanoid cried after them without letting the plant out of his loving embrace.

The engineering monads on the spaceship were rather tormented by the white crystalline parallelepiped. But in it was contained the hope of the entire crew because the intelligence brought back by Sik and Sek hadn't allowed them to establish any logical concept whatsoever of ​​the beings that created the local civilization. The films of the double being in the room weren’t clear enough. And they hadn’t deciphered any reasonable scheme whatsoever in the behavior of the other biped moving itself around so unsteadily. After all, it had encountered representatives from other worlds and had treated them like it meets them on their streets every day. It hadn’t even made the rudimentary attempt at contact that the tiny four-legged one had tried.

The white crystals undoubtedly contained three-dimensional holographic images, but they were so momentary and so overlaid one on top of the other in such an amazingly small space - the entire recording lasted no more than a few seconds - that they had to devise a completely new technology to be able to project them. Even just this small lump of crystals confirmed the extraordinarily high technical and intellectual level of the local civilization.

“Their recording technique is undoubtedly ahead of our own,” the engineers reported.

After much head scratching and many controversies, the solution was finally found. The engineers re-recorded the contents of each crystal individually, then ran their recordings at slower speeds. And then, scenes flowed before them from a stunning manner of existing, moving, and behaving that even the most daring imagination wouldn’t have been able to guess...

Find out what was recorded on the sugar lump! Be on the lookout for The Missed Chance !