Mortal Engines by Stanisław Lem

  Automatthew, upon hearing this noble-minded explanation, shook with renewed anger.

  “I’ll smash you! I’ll grind you to dust, you, you bastard!!” he bellowed, and that crazy dance among the rocks, the leaps, the lunges, the stamping in place, began all over again. This time however the well-wishing squeaks of Alfred joined in:

  “I don’t think you can do it, but let’s give it a try! Go ahead! And again! No, not that way, you’ll tire too quickly! Legs together! That’s right—and up! One-two, and-a-one, and-a-two! Jump higher, higher, the impact will be greater! What, you can’t? Really? Don’t have it in you? Ah yes, yes, now there’s an idea! Drop a rock from above! That’s it, good! Try another? Don’t have any larger? One more time, now! Wham! Bam! Go to it, dear friend! What a shame I can’t pitch in and help! Why are you stopping? Worn out so soon? What a shame… Well, no matter… I can wait, you rest yourself! Let the breeze cool you off…”

  Automatthew collapsed with a clatter on the rocks and gazed with burning hatred at the metal grain that lay in his open hand, and he listened—he could not choose but listen—as it spoke:

  “If I were not your electrofriend, I would say that you are behaving disgracefully. The ship went down on account of the storm, you saved yourself along with me, I gave you what advice I could, but then, when I failed to come up with a means of rescue, since that was impossible, you made up your mind—for my words of simple truth and honest counsel—to destroy me, me, your only companion. It’s true that in this way you at least acquired some purpose in life, so for that alone you owe me gratitude. Strange, though, that you should find so hateful the thought of my surviving…”

  “Surviving? That remains to be seen!” snarled Automatthew.

  “No, really, you are too much. Here’s a thought. Why not place me on the buckle of your belt? It’s steel, and steel I think is harder than rock. Worth a try, though personally I’m convinced it’s quite useless, yet I’d like to be of help…”

  Automatthew, albeit with a certain reluctance, finally followed this suggestion, but all he succeeded in doing was cover the surface of his buckle with tiny pit holes, produced by frenzied blows. When even the most desperate of his strokes proved harmless, Automatthew fell into a truly black despair and, sapped of strength, stared dully at the metal mote, which spoke to him in its high-pitched voice:

  “And this is supposed to be an intelligent being! He falls into deep dejection because he cannot wipe off the face of the earth the only fellow creature he has in all this dead expanse! Tell me, dear Automatthew, aren’t you just a little ashamed of yourself?”

  “Shut up, you worthless chatterbox!” hissed the castaway.

  “Why should I shut up? If I’d wished you ill, you know, I would have shut up long ago, but I remain your true electrofriend. I will keep you company in your death agonies like a steadfast brother, no matter what you do, and no, you will not cast me into the sea, my dear, for it is always better to have an audience. I will be the audience of your final throes, which thereby surely will turn out better than they would in utter isolation; the important thing is emotion, it matters not what kind. Hatred for me, your genuine friend, will sustain you, give you courage, lift up your spirits, impart to your groans a true and convincing ring, also it will systematize your twitchings and bring order to each of your last moments, and that is no small thing… As for myself, I promise I shall speak little and avoid commenting, for were I to do otherwise, I might—without meaning to—break you with an excess of friendship, which you could not withstand, since to tell the truth you have a nasty character. However I shall manage this as well, and, by returning kindness for unkindness, conquer you, and in this way save you from yourself—out of friendship, I repeat, but not blind friendship, for affection does not close my eyes to the baseness of your nature…” These words were interrupted by a roar, that issued suddenly from the breast of Automatthew.

  “A ship! A ship!! A ship!!!” he shrieked wildly and, jumping to his feet, began to run back and forth along the shore, hurling stones in the water, waving his arms with all his might, but mainly screaming at the top of his voice until he grew completely hoarse—all without need, for a ship was clearly approaching the island and before very long had sent out a rescue boat.

  As it developed later, the captain of the vessel that had carried Automatthew, just before it sank, succeeded in sending a radiotelegram calling for help, thanks to which that region of the sea was scoured by numerous ships, and it was one of these that found the island. As the rowboat with the sailors neared the shore in shallow water, Automatthew’s first impulse was to jump into it himself, but after a moment’s thought he ran back for Alfred, fearing the latter might raise a cry, which the others might hear, and that could lead to embarrassing questions, possibly even accusations made by his electrofriend. To avoid this, he grabbed up Alfred and, not knowing how or where to hide it, hurriedly inserted it back into his ear. There followed effusive scenes of greeting and thanks, during which Automatthew conducted himself very noisily, afraid that one of the sailors might overhear the tiny voice of Alfred. For all this time his electrofriend was saying, over and over: “Well, but this was really unexpected! One chance in four hundred thousand… What amazing luck! I would hope now that our relations improve, yes, we shall get on splendidly together, especially as I refused you nothing in your moments of greatest trial, besides which I can be discreet and know how to let bygones be bygones!”

  When, after a long voyage, the ship came to port, Automatthew surprised everyone by expressing a desire, incomprehensible to them, to visit a nearby ironworks, which boasted a great steam hammer. It was said that in the course of this visit he behaved somewhat strangely, for, having gone up to the steel anvil in the main shop, he began shaking his head violently, as if he intended to knock the very brains out through his ear and into his raised hand, and he even hopped on one leg; those present, however, made as if they didn’t notice, judging that a person so recently rescued from terrible straits might well be given to eccentricities, the product of an unbalanced mind. And indeed, afterwards Automatthew changed his former way of life, seemingly falling into one mania after another. Once he gathered explosives of some sort, and even tried setting them off in his own room, the neighbors however put a stop to that, they went straight to the authorities; and once, for no apparent reason, he took to collecting hammers and carborundum files, telling his acquaintances that he planned to build a new type of mind-reading machine. Later on he became a recluse and acquired the habit of conversing with himself, and sometimes you could hear him running about the house in loud soliloquy, even shouting words very much like curses.

  Finally, after many years, developing a new obsession, he began to buy cement, sacks and sacks of it. From this he fashioned an enormous sphere and, when the thing had hardened, carted it off to an unknown destination. It has been said that he hired himself out as a caretaker at an abandoned mine, that one dark night he dropped down its shaft an enormous block of concrete, and thereafter, to the end of his days, he prowled the vicinity, and there was not a piece of garbage he would not pick up, in order to throw it down that empty shaft. True, his ways were rather strange, but most of these rumors do not—I think—merit credence. It is difficult to believe that for all those years he harbored in his heart a grudge against his electrofriend, to which—after all—he owed so much.

  King Globares

  and the Sages

  Globares, ruler of Eparida, once summoned his greatest sages to appear before him, and he said:

  “Truly, hard is the lot of a king who has learned everything there is to learn, so that what is said to him sounds hollow as a broken jug! I wish to be astounded, yet am bored, I seek stimulation, yet hear wearisome twaddle, I long for novelty, and they treat me to insipid flatteries. Know, O wise ones, that today I have ordered all my fools and jesters executed, along with my advisers high and low, and this same fate awaits you if you fail to do my bidding. Let each of you tell me the st
rangest tale he knows, but if it moves me neither to laughter nor to tears, confounds not nor dismays, provides no entertainment nor food for thought—he parts with his head!” The King made a sign and the sages heard the iron step of the myrmidons that surrounded them at the foot of the throne, and whose naked swords did gleam like flame. They were afraid and nudged one another, for none of them wished to risk the King’s anger and lay his head upon the block. Finally the first spoke:

  “O King and ruler! The strangest tale in all the visible and invisible Universe is without question that of the stellar tribe known in the chronicles as the Awks. From the dawn of their history the Awks did everything opposite compared to all other beings of intelligence. Their ancestors settled on Urdruria, a planet famous for its volcanoes; each year it gives birth to new mountain chains, during which time terrible spasms convulse it, so that nothing remains standing. And, to make the misery of the inhabitants complete, the heavens saw fit to have their globe pass through the Meteor Stream; this for two hundred days out of the year pounds the planet with droves of stone battering rams. The Awks (who at that time were not yet called thus) raised edifices of tempered iron and steel, and themselves they covered with such quantities of steel plates, they resembled walking mounds of armor. Nevertheless the ground opened up during the quakes and swallowed their steel cities, and meteor hammers crushed their suits of armor. When the entire race became threatened with annihilation, its sages gathered and held council, and the first one said:—Our people will not survive in their present form and there is no escape save through transmutation. The earth opens from below in crevices, therefore in order not to fall in, each Awk must possess a base that is wide and flat; the meteors on the other hand come from above, and so each Awk must be sharp-ended at the top. As cones, we will be safe from harm.

  “And the second one said:—That is not the way to do it. If the earth opens its jaws wide, it will swallow up a cone as well, and a meteor falling at an angle will pierce its side. The ideal shape is a sphere. For when the ground begins to tremble and heave, a sphere will always roll aside by itself, and a falling meteor will hit its oblique surface and skim off; we should therefore transform ourselves in order to roll onward towards a brighter future.

  “And the third one said:—A sphere is subject to being crushed or swallowed up no less than any other material form. No shield exists, which a powerful enough sword cannot penetrate, nor a sword which will not be notched by a hard shield. Matter, O my brothers, means perpetual change, flux and transformation, it is impermanent. Not in it should beings truly blessed with intelligence take up residence, but in that which is immutable, eternal and all-perfect, though of this world!

  “—And what is that?—inquired the other sages.

  “—I shall not tell you, but instead show you!—replied the third. And before their eyes he began to undress; he removed his outer robe, studded with crystals, and the second, gold-embroidered, and the silver trousers, then removed the top of his skull and his breast, then stripped himself with increasing speed and precision, going from joints to couplings, from couplings to bolts, from bolts to filaments, scintillas, till finally he got down to atoms. And then that sage began to shell his atoms, and shelled them so swiftly, nothing could be seen except for his dwindling and his disappearing, yet he proceeded so adroitly and in such great haste, that in the course of those dismantling movements—before the eyes of his flabbergasted fellow sages—he remained as a perfect absence, which was so exact as to be, in a manner of speaking, negatively present. For there where he had had, previously, a single atom, now he did not have that single atom, where a moment ago six had been, six were now missing, in the place where a little screw had been, the lack of a little screw appeared, perfectly faithful and in no wise departing from it. And in this way he became a vacuum, arranged just as was arranged, previously, that which it replaced, namely himself; and no existence interfered with his nonexisting, for he had worked quickly and maneuvered nimbly in order that no particle, no material intrusion should pollute the perfection of the presence of his absence! And the others saw him as a void shaped exactly as he had been only an instant before, they recognized his eyes by the absence of their black color, his face by the missing sky-blue shine, and his limbs by the vanished fingers, joints and shoulderplates!—In this very way, O my brothers—said the One There Not There—through active self-incorporation into nothingness, we shall acquire not only tremendous immunity, but immortality as well. For only matter changes, and nothingness does not accompany it on that path of continual uncertainty, therefore perfection lies in nonbeing, not in being, and we must choose the first, and spurn the latter!

  “And they decided, and did accordingly. From then on the Awks were, and are to this day, an invincible race. They owe their existence not to that which is within them, for within them there is nothing, but wholly to that which surrounds them. And when one of them enters a home, he is visible as that home’s nonpresence, and if he steps into a mist—as its local discontinuity. Thus, in ridding themselves of the vicissitudes of precarious matter, have they made possible the impossible…”

  “But how then do they travel through the cosmic void, my sage?” asked Globares.

  “This alone they cannot do, O King, since the outer void would merge with their own and they would cease to exist as nonexistences concentrated locally. Therefore also they must maintain a constant watch over the purity of their absence, over the emptiness of their identities, and this vigilance occupies their time… They call themselves Be-nothings or Nullians…”

  “Sage,” said the King, “it is a foolish tale you tell, for how can material diversity be replaced by the uniformity of that which is not there? Is a rock the same as a house? Yet surely the lack of a rock may take the same form as the lack of a house, consequently the one and the other become as if identical.”

  “Sire,” the sage defended himself, “there are different kinds of nothingness…”

  “We shall see,” said the King, “what happens when I order you beheaded. How think you, will the absence of a head become its presence?” Here the monarch gave a hideous laugh and motioned to his myrmidons.

  “Sire!” cried the sage, already in the grip of their steel hands. “You were pleased to laugh, my tale therefore awoke your mirth, thus in keeping with your given word you should spare my life!”

  “No, I provided my own amusement,” said the King. “Unless, that is, you go along with the joke: if you agree voluntarily to be beheaded, that will amuse me, and then ’twill be as you wish.”

  “I agree!” shouted the sage.

  “In that case behead him, seeing that he himself requests it!” said the King.

  “But Sire, I agreed in order that you not behead me…”

  “If you agree, you must be beheaded,” explained the King. “And if you do not agree, you will have failed to amuse me, and so then too you must be beheaded…”

  “No, no, it is the other way around!” the sage cried. “If I agree, then you, amused, should spare my life, and if I do not agree…”

  “Enough!” said the King. “Executioner, do your duty!”

  The sword flashed and the sage’s head came tumbling down.

  After a moment of deathly silence the second of the sages spoke:

  “O King and ruler! The strangest of all the stellar tribes is without question the race of the Polyonts, or Multiploids, also called the Pluralites. Each of them has, it is true, only one body, but despite this many legs, and the higher the office held, the greater the number. As far as heads are concerned, they have them as the need arises: each office, among them, carries with it an appropriate head, impoverished families possess in common only one, the wealthy on the other hand accumulate in their safes a variety, for different occasions: they have, then, morning heads and evening, strategic heads in case of war and high-speed heads when they are in a hurry, as well as cool-and-level heads, explosive heads, heads for passion, dalliance, marriage and funerals, and thus they
are equipped for every situation in life.”

  “Is that it?” asked the King.

  “No, Sire!” replied the sage, who saw it wasn’t going well for him. “The Pluralites also derive their name from the fact that all are linked up with their ruler, and in such a way that if ever the majority deems the royal actions to be harmful to the general welfare, that ruler loses his cohesion and disintegrates…”

  “Unoriginal, if not—regicidal!” the King said darkly. “Since you yourself, sage, have had so much to say upon the topic of heads, perhaps you can tell me: Am I now going to order you beheaded, or not?”

  —If I say he will—quickly thought the sage—then he will indeed, for he is ill-disposed toward me. If I say he will not, that will catch him unawares, and if he is surprised, he will have to set me free according to his promise.—And he said:

  “No, Sire, you will not behead me.”

  “You are mistaken,” said the King. “Executioner, do your duty!”

  “But Sire!” cried the sage, already seized by the myrmidons, “did not my words surprise you? Did you not expect me to say, rather, that you would order me beheaded?”

  “Your words did not surprise me,” answered the King, “for they were dictated by fear, which you have written on your face. Enough! Off with his head!”

  And with a clang the head of the second sage went rolling across the marble floor. The third and oldest of the sages watched this scene with complete calm. And when the King again demanded an amazing tale, he said:

  “O King! I could tell you a story truly extraordinary, but this I shall not do, for I would rather make you honest than cause you to be amazed. Thus will I force you to behead me, not under the paltry pretext of this game into which you seek to turn your killing, but in a manner true to your nature, a nature which, though cruel, dares not work its pleasure without donning first the mask of falsehood. For you wished to behead us, so that it would be said afterwards that the King had put to death fools who pretended to wisdom not theirs. It is my desire, however, that the truth be told, and so will I keep silent.”

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