Mortal Engines by Stanisław Lem
“Oho! Some nightmare must have Gnuff in its clutches—if only he doesn’t take it out on us!”
One night, after a particularly hard-working day—for the King had been thinking up new kinds of medals with which to decorate himself—he dreamed that his uncle, Cenander, had sneaked into the capital, taking advantage of the darkness, wrapped in a black cloak, and was roaming the streets in search of supporters, to organize a vile conspiracy. Out of the cellars crawled a host of masked ones, and there were so many of them and they showed such readiness for regicide, that Gnuff started trembling and awoke in terror. It was already dawn and the golden sun played upon the little white clouds in the sky, so he said to himself; “A dream, nothing more!”—and resumed his work of designing medals, and those he had invented the previous day were pinned onto his terraces and balconies. When however after his daylong toil he again settled down for the night, no sooner did he doze off than he saw the conspiracy in full flower. It had happened this way: when Gnuff, before, wakened from the conspiring dream, he did so incompletely; the downtown sector, in which had hatched that antigovernment dream, did not wake up at all, but continued to lie in its nightmare grip, and only the King awake knew nothing of this. Meanwhile a considerable part of his person, namely the old center of the city, quite unaware that the uncle-malefactor and his machinations were only a phantom, remained under the delusion of the nightmare. That second night Gnuff dreamed he saw his uncle in a state of feverish activity, mustering the relatives. And they all appeared, every last one, posthumously creaking their hinges, and even those with the most important parts missing raised up their swords against the rightful ruler! There was great commotion. Hordes of masked ruffians rehearsed in whispers rebel cheers; down in the vaults and cellars they were already sewing the black banners of insurrection; everywhere poisons were being brewed, axes sharpened, grenades assembled, and preparations made for an all-out encounter with the hated Gnuff. The King took fright a second time, awoke shaking, and was about to call—using the Golden Archway of the Royal Mouth—all his troops to his aid, to have them cut the conspirators to ribbons with their swords, but he quickly saw that this would serve no purpose. The soldiers, after all, could not enter his dream, could not crush the conspiracy growing there. So for a time he tried by sheer force of will to rouse those four square miles of his being that persisted in dreaming of rebellion—but in vain. Though truly he had no way of knowing whether it was in vain or not, for while awake he could not detect the conspiracy; it appeared only when sleep overtook him.
While conscious, he could not gain entry to the insurgent sectors, which is not surprising, since reality cannot penetrate its way into a dream’s interior, only another dream can do that. The King realized that in this situation the best thing was for him to fall asleep and dream a counterdream, and not just any kind, obviously, but one monarchistic, wholly devoted to him, flags waving in the wind; with a royal dream like that, rallied around the throne, he would then be able to wipe out the treasonous nightmare.
Gnuff set to work, but his fear kept him awake; so he began in his mind to count pebbles, till this exhausted him and he fell into a deep slumber. It turned out then that the dream under the leadership of his uncle had not only entrenched itself in the downtown district, but was even beginning to imagine arsenals filled with powerful bombs and demolishing mines. Whereas he himself, try as he might, succeeded in dreaming up no more than a single company of cavalry, and unmounted at that, poorly disciplined, and armed only with pot lids. “This isn’t working,” he thought, “I’ll have to start again from scratch!” So he set about waking, which was slow and difficult, at last he awoke all the way, but then a terrible suspicion came upon him. Had he in fact returned to reality, or was this instead a different dream, the semblance only of wakefulness? How to proceed in such a tangled situation? To sleep or not to sleep? That was the question! Suppose he did not now sleep, feeling himself to be secure, for indeed in the world of reality no conspiracy existed. No harm would be done: that regicidal dream would dream itself out, dreaming on to its dreamed conclusion, until in the final awakening the sovereign state regained its proper unity. Very good. Ah but if he did not dream a counterdream, going on the assumption that he was safely awake, while in actual fact his alleged awakedness was but a different dream, adjoining the other, the uncle dream, then this could lead to catastrophe! For at any moment the whole accursed band of regicides, with that odious Cenander at its head, could tear from that dream into this, the dream that feigned reality, in order to deprive him of his throne and life!
“It is true,” he reflected, “the depriving would take place only in a dream, yet if the conspiracy overruns my entire royal psyche, if it takes control from the mountains to the oceans, and if—O dreadful thought!—my self no longer wishes to awake, what then?! In that case I will be cut off from reality forever and Uncle will do with me what he wishes. He’ll torture me, humiliate me. To say nothing of my aunts—I remember them well: no mercy shown, never, no matter what. That’s how they are—or rather, were—no, are again in this horrible dream! And anyway, why speak of dreams? A dream can only be where there is also a reality to return to (and how shall I return, if they succeed in keeping me in the dream?); where there is nothing but dream, dream is the sole reality, and therefore it is not a dream. Hideous! All this, of course, comes of that wretched excess of personality, that expansionism of the mind—much good it has done me!”
In despair he saw that inaction could very well destroy him, and that his only hope lay in the immediate mobilization of his psyche. “I must proceed as though I were asleep,” he said to himself. “I must dream a multitude of devoted subjects, all full of love and enthusiasm, battalions loyal to the bitter end, dying with my name upon their lips, and plenty of armaments. It might even be a good idea to think up quickly some miracle weapon, for in a dream surely everything is possible: let’s have a substance for removing relatives, anti-uncle cannons, something of that sort. In this way I’ll be prepared for whatever happens, and if the conspiracy shows itself, insidiously creeping from dream to dream, I’ll smash it in a single blow!”
King Gnuff heaved a sigh with every square and boulevard of his being, so complicated was all this, and got down to work—that is, he went to sleep. In his dream, troops of steel were to stand in formation, with hoary generals at their head, and crowds cheering to the thunder of trumpets and kettledrums. But all that appeared was a tiny bolt. Nothing—only this bolt, perfectly ordinary, a little jagged around the edges. What was he to do with it? He thought and thought, meanwhile he felt a strange uneasiness, a growing uneasiness, a faintness, a mounting fear, till suddenly it dawned on him: “Bolt rhymes with revolt!!”
He quaked all over. So then, the symbol of his downfall his overthrow, his death! Therefore the mob of relatives was even now coming for him, in stealth, in silence, having tunneled through that other dream to reach this dream—and any minute he would plunge into the treacherous pit, dug out of dream from under dream! Then the end was imminent! Death! Annihilation! But from where? How? In which direction?!
Ten thousand buildings of his royal person blazed; the substations, decked with medals and festooned with ribbons of the Cross of Greatness, shook; the decorations rang out rhythmically in the night air, such was King Gnuff’s struggle with the dreamed dread symbol of his downfall. At last he overcame it, mastered it, till it vanished so completely, it was almost as if it had never been. The King looked—where was he now? In reality or in another illusion? In reality, it would seem, yes but how could he be certain? It was possible, of course, that the uncle dream by now had finished dreaming, that there was absolutely no need to worry. But again: how could he find out? There was one way and one way only, with dream-spies disguised as subversives to comb and ceaselessly probe his entire, own, sovereign self, the kingdom of his being, and nevermore would the royal soul know peace, he would always have to be on guard against conspiracy slumbering in some secret comer of his vast consciou
Good heavens! But those tapestries—worn through in places, practically bald, and Uncle—Uncle had been bald… No, this could not be! “Back! Retreat! Wake up! Wake up!!” he thought. “Sound the alarm, reveille, away with this dream!” he wanted to shout, but when everything had vanished, it was no better. He had fallen out of one dream into another, a new dream, a dream dreamed by the dream preceding, which in turn had occurred in an earlier dream, therefore this present dream was already—as it were—to the third power. Everything in it changed, openly now, into treason, everything reeked of betrayal, the standards turned inside out—like gloves—from royal to black, the medals came with threaded screws, like severed necks, and from the golden bugles burst not battle charges, but his uncle’s laughter, a thunderclap-guffaw that spelled disaster. The King roared in a voice stentorian, he called for his soldiers—let them prick him with their lances, so he could wake! “Pinch me! Pinch me!!” he demanded with a mighty howl, and: “Reality!! Reality!!!”—but to no avail; so once again he strained and struggled from the traitorous, king-hating, assassinating dream to the dream of the throne, but by now the dreams in him had multiplied like rats, scurrying-scuttling everywhere, by now building infected building with the nightmare, in all directions spread a sneaking, a skulking, a slinking around, some sort of skulduggery, just what it was he didn’t know, but God-awful for sure! The electronic edifice in all its hundred stories dreamed of bolts, revolts, insurrection and defection, in every identity substation there schemed a band of relatives, in every amplifier an uncle cackled; the foundations trembled, terrified of themselves, and out of them a hundred thousand kin came swarming, false pretenders to the throne, two-faced first-born foundlings, glowering usurpers, and though not one of them knew whether he was a creature dreamed or dreaming, and who was dreaming whom, and why, and what all that implied—they all without exception made straight for Gnuff, to cut him down, to pull him from the throne, hang him, swing him from the highest belfry, ding to kill him, dong to bring him back again, hey! fill him with lead, ah! off with his head—and the only reason they had done nothing yet was that they couldn’t agree on where to start. Thus in torrents rushed the phantom monsters of the royal mind, until from the overload there was a burst of flame. No longer a dreamed but a very real fire now filled the windows of the King’s person with a golden blaze, and Gnuff collapsed into a hundred thousand separate dreams, linked by nothing now but a conflagration—and he burned for a long, for a very long time…
It was all the fault of that dentist who capped my teeth with metal. The salesgirl I smiled at the newsstand took me for a robot. I realized this only in the subway, when I unfolded the paper. It was the Automaton Courier. I don’t much care for that publication, not that I have any anti-electric feelings, you understand, but it does cater to the taste of its readers. The whole front page was devoted to a sentimental story of a mathematician who fell in love with his computer. At the multiplication tables he still held himself in check, but when it came to the solving of nonlinear equations to the nth degree, he began clasping its switches passionately and repeating: “Dearest! I’ll never leave you!” etc. Disgusted, I took a look in the society section—but all they had there were monotonous lists of who, when and with whom constructed progeny. The literary column contained a poem beginning with the lines:
The robotess goes
To the well with her jug,
A dashing young robot
Now holds out his plug;
With a blush she replies
To his offer so bold,
And gives from her basket
A pretty pentode.
Curiously, this brought to mind some verse I thought I knew, but for the life of me I couldn’t recall the author. There were also jokes of doubtful quality on the topic of people, about gnomists being specialists on trolls, and gremlins resulting from impedance, that sort of foolishness. Since I still had a half an hour’s ride to go, I turned to the classifieds—as you know, even in the poorest paper they often make interesting reading. But here too I was doomed to disappointment. This one wanted to sell his servobrother, that one was giving a correspondence course in astronautics, someone else advertised atoms split while-U-wait. As I was folding up the newspaper to throw it out, my eyes fell upon a large ad in a box: THE SANATORIUM OF DR. VLIPERDIUS——TREATMENT OF NERVOUS DISORDERS AND MENTAL ILLNESS.
The whole problem of electrical dementia, I must confess, has always intrigued me. I thought to myself that a visit to such a sanatorium might be profitable. I did not know Vliperdius personally, but the name was not unknown to me: Professor Tarantoga had spoken of him. When an idea comes to me, I usually act on it at once.
So as soon as I got home I telephoned the sanatorium. Dr. Vliperdius at first had many reservations, but when I referred to our mutual friend Tarantoga, he relented. I got an appointment for the following day, since that was Sunday and I had plenty of free time before noon. And so after breakfast I drove to the city, where in a district famous for small lakes was located, picturesquely set in an old park, the psychiatric institution. Vliperdius, they said, was waiting for me in his office. Sunlight filled the building, for the walls were of aluminum and glass, in the modem fashion. On the ceilings were colorful panels showing robots at play. You could not have called this hospital gloomy; from unseen rooms came the sounds of music; passing through the lobby, I saw Chinese puzzles, colorful albums, and a sculpture, a boldly executed robot nude.
The Doctor did not rise from behind his wide desk, but was most gracious: as I found out, he had read and was quite familiar with more than one of my books of travel. It’s true he was a bit old-fashioned, and not merely in his manner, for he was completely fastened to the floor, like some antique Eniac. Possibly I did not conceal my surprise upon seeing his iron feet, for he said with a laugh:
“I am, you see, so devoted to my work and to my patients, that I feel no need to leave the sanatorium!”
Now I knew how sensitive psychiatrists could be on the subject of their speciality, and also how offended by the attitude of the average man, who finds exoticism and monstrosity in mental aberrations, therefore I was very careful in presenting my request. The Doctor hemmed, frowned, raised his anode potential and said:
“If that is what you wish … but I think you will be disappointed. These days there are no raving robots, Mr. Tichy, that is ancient history. Our therapy is modern. The methods of the last century—the soldering of wires to soften the main pipe, the use of chokes and other instruments of torture—already belong to the annals of medicine. H’m. How might this be best demonstrated to you? Perhaps if you would simply go into the park and there acquaint yourself directly with our patients. They are individuals most refined and cultured. I trust you have no—ah—aversion, no irrational fear in the presence of s
I assured him this was the case, whereat Vliperdius said he regretted that he was unable to escort me on my walk, indicated the way and asked that I drop in again on my way back.
I went down the stairs, across wide verandas, and found myself on a graveled path. All around spread the park, full of flower beds and elaborate palms. Farther on, in a pond swam a small flock of swans, the patients were feeding them, others on gayly colored benches were devoting themselves to chess or friendly conversation. I walked slowly on, when someone called me by my name. I turned to face a completely unknown person.
“Tichy! Is it you?!” repeated that individual, extending his hand. I shook it, in vain attempting to recollect who he might be.
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