Mortal Engines by Stanisław Lem

  “I see you don’t recognize me. I am Prolaps… I worked on the Cosmic Almanac…”

  “Ah yes, of course! Forgive me,” I muttered. Obviously this was Prolaps, the honest linotype who had printed practically all my books. I valued him highly, he was truly infallible. He took me familiarly by the arm and we started down the shaded lane. Patches of light and shadow animated the tranquil face of my companion. We talked for a while of new books and publishing; he expressed himself as precisely as ever, with his usual acumen, altogether he was in excellent intellectual form. I found not a trace of abnormality in him. But when we came to a small gazebo and had seated ourselves on a stone bench, he lowered his voice to a confidential whisper and asked:

  “But what are you doing here? Did they replace you too…?”

  “Well, you see… I came here of my own accord, because…”

  “Of course! I did too!” he interrupted. “When the thing happened to me, I went straight to the police, but I quickly saw that that was useless. My friends suggested I try Vliperdius—he went about my case altogether differently! He’s conducting a search and I’m certain it will soon be found…”

  “Excuse me—what is that?” I asked.

  “What do you mean? My body.”

  “Aha … yes…” I nodded several times, trying my best not to look startled. But Prolaps noticed nothing.

  “How well I recall that day, the 26th of June,” he said, suddenly grown gloomy. “Sitting down at the table, to read the newspaper, I clanked. That caught my attention, I mean, after all, what man clanks when he sits down? I So I feel my legs—curiously hard, the arms—the same, I tapped myself and suddenly realized that I had been substituted! Some scoundrel had made a forgery—I searched my entire apartment, not a sign of it, they must have carried it off in the night…”

  “Carried what off?”

  “I already told you! My body. My natural body, surely you can see that THIS”—and he rapped his chest until it rang—“is artificial…”

  “Ah, of course! I wasn’t thinking … obviously…”

  “Can it be that you too…?” he asked with hope in his voice. Suddenly he seized my hand and with it struck the stone slab of the table at which we were sitting. I groaned. He dropped the hand, disappointed.

  “Forgive me,” he muttered, “I thought I saw it glitter.”

  I understood now that he held himself to be a man whose body had been stolen, and that, like so many ill who are eager to have around them companions in misery, he hoped that the very same thing had happened to me.

  Rubbing my battered hand beneath the table, I tried to change the topic of our conversation, but now he began describing with great enjoyment and emotion the charms of his former corporality, he went on and on about the blond forelock he was supposed to have possessed, the silkiness of his cheeks, even the runny nose—I didn’t know how to get rid of him, for I was feeling more and more uncomfortable. But Prolaps himself delivered me from this awkward situation. For all at once he jumped to his feet and cried: “Oh, I think that is IT over there!!”—and he bounded straight across the lawn after some indistinct figure. I was still sitting, lost in thought, when someone behind me said:

  “May I…?”

  “Yes, certainly,” I replied.

  The stranger sat down and fixed his eyes on me, unblinking, as if he wished to hypnotize me. For a long time he contemplated my face and hands with an expression of growing sorrow. Finally he looked deep into my eyes with such tremendous sympathy, and at the same time with such satisfaction, that I became confused. I didn’t know what to make of this. The silence between us increased, I tried to break it, but couldn’t think of a single neutral statement with which to begin a conversation: for his gaze expressed too much, and yet too little.

  “Poor wretch…” he said softly, unutterable feeling in his voice, “how I pity you…”

  “But really—I don’t—that is—” I blurted, looking for words to defend myself against this strange excess of commiseration he was heaping on me.

  “You needn’t speak, I understand everything. More than you imagine. I know, too, that you take me for a lunatic.”

  “Not in the least,” I started to protest, but he cut me off with a peremptory gesture.

  “In a sense I am a lunatic,” he said, almost majestically. “Like Galileo, Newton, like Giordano Bruno. If my views were only rational … humph! But more important are one’s feelings. How I pity you, victim of the Universe! What misery it is, what a hopeless trap—to live…”

  “Yes, life can be difficult,” I put in quickly, having found at last some point of departure. “Nevertheless, as a phenomenon which is, so to speak, natural…”

  “Precisely!” he seized upon my last word. “Natural! Is there anything more contemptible than Nature? The scientists, the philosophers have always tried to understand Nature, while the thing to do is to destroy it!”

  “In its entirety…?” I asked, despite myself fascinated by such a radical presentation of the matter.

  “Only so!” he said categorically. “Look at this, I ask you.”

  Gingerly, as if it were some caterpillar deserving study, yet at the same time disgusting (his revulsion he attempted to control), he lifted my hand and, holding it between us like a curious specimen, continued quietly though with emphasis:

  “How watery it is … how pulpy … squashy… Albumin! Ach, that albumin… A curd that moves for a time—a thinking cheese—the tragic product of a dairy accident, a walking slop…”

  “Excuse me, but…”

  He paid no attention to my words. I hid my hand beneath the table and he released it, as though no longer able to endure the touch, but then he placed his palm upon my head. It was uncannily heavy.

  “How is it possible! How is it possible to produce such a thing!” he repeated, increasing the pressure on my skull, until it grew painful, but I didn’t dare object. “These knobs, holes … cauliflowers—” with an iron finger he poked my nose and ears—“and this is supposed to be an intelligent creature? For shame! For shame, I say!! What use is a Nature that after four billion years comes up with THIS?!”

  Here he gave my head a shove, so that it wobbled and I saw stars.

  “Give me one, just one billion years, and you’ll see what I create!!”

  “True, the imperfection of biological evolution,” I began, but he didn’t let me finish.

  “Imperfection?!” he snorted. “Droppings! Trash! An outright botch-job! If you can’t do something right, you shouldn’t do it at all!”

  “Not that I want to make excuses,” I said quickly, “but Nature, don’t forget, worked with what it had at hand. In the primordial sea…”

  “Garbage floated!!” he roared so loud, I winced. “Isn’t that right? A star exploded, planets formed, and from the dregs, which couldn’t be used for anything, from those gobbets and scraps life arose! Enough, no more! No more of these pudgy suns, inane galaxies, this mucilage that has a soul—enough!”

  “Still, the atoms,” I began, but he interrupted. Already I saw the orderlies approaching across the grass: they had been alerted by the shouts of my interlocutor.

  “To hell with the atoms!” he roared. They took him by the arms from both sides. He let himself be led away, but, still looking at me—for he went backward, like a crab—he thundered, till the whole park rang:

  “We must involute! Do you hear, O pale colloidal soup!? Instead of discovering, we must make undiscoveries, we must cover up more and more, so nothing remains, you glutinous ooze draped over bone! That’s the way! Progress through regress! Nullify! Revert! Destroy! Down with Nature! Away with Nature! Awaaay!”

  His cries grew fainter and more and more distant, and once again the silence of the lovely noon was filled with the drone of bees and the smell of flowers. I thought to myself that Dr. Vliperdius had exaggerated after all, when he spoke of the disappearance of raving robots. Apparently those new methods of therapy did not always work. However the experien
ce itself, the outspoken diatribe on Nature I had heard a moment before, seemed worth these few bruises and the bump on my head. I found out later that that robot, formerly an analyzer of harmonic Fourier series, had created his own theory of existence, which was based on the accumulation of discoveries made by civilization, an accumulation that would reach such extreme proportions, the only thing left would be to cover up those discoveries one by one. For in this way, upon the completion of the work of science, there is no room—not only no room for civilization, but for the Universe that gave rise to it. A total liquidation of progress follows and the whole cycle begins again from the beginning. He considered himself a prophet of this second, undiscovering phase of development. He had been put away in Vliperdius’s sanatorium at the request of his family, when from the taking apart of friends and relatives he turned to the dismantling of third persons.

  I left the gazebo and for a time watched the swans. Next to me some crank was throwing them broken bits of metal wire. I told him that swans didn’t eat that.

  “I don’t care if they don’t,” he replied, continuing his activity.

  “But they could choke, and that would be a shame,” I said.

  “They won’t choke, because the wire sinks. It is heavier than water,” he explained cogently.

  “Then why do you throw it?”

  “I like to feed the swans.”

  That exhausted the subject. Upon leaving the pond, we struck up a conversation. As it turned out, I was dealing with a famous philosopher, the creator of the ontology of nothingness, otherwise known as neantics, and the continuator of the work of Gorgias of Leontinoi—Professor Urlip. The Professor at great length told me of the newest development in his theory. According to him there is nothing, not even himself. The nothingness of being is perfectly intact. The fact of the apparent existence of this and that has no significance whatever, for the argument, in keeping with Ockham’s razor, runs as follows: it would seem that reality, or actuality, exists, and also dream. But the hypothesis of reality is unneeded. So then, dream exists. But a dream demands a dreamer. Now the postulation of someone dreaming is—again—an unnecessary hypothesis, for it sometimes happens that in a dream another dream is dreamed. Thus everything is a dream dreamt by a succeeding dream, and so on to infinity. Now because—and here is the main point—each succeeding dream is less real than the one preceding (a dream borders directly on reality, while a dream dreamed within a dream borders on it indirectly, through that same intermediate dream, and the third through two dreams, and so on)—the upper bound of this series equals zero. Ergo, in the final analysis no one is dreaming and zero is dreamt, ergo only nothingness has existence, in other words there isn’t anything. The elegance and precision of the proof filled me with admiration. The only thing I didn’t understand was what Professor Urlip was doing in this place. It turned out that the poor philosopher had gone quite mad—he told me so himself. His insanity consisted in the fact that he no longer believed in his own doctrine and had moments in which it seemed to him that there was something after all. Dr. Vliperdius was to cure him of this delusion.

  Later I visited the hospital wards. I was introduced to an Old Testament computer that suffered from senility and couldn’t count up the ten commandments. I went also to the ward for electrasthenics, where they treated obsessions—one of the patients was continually unscrewing himself, with whatever lay at hand, and hidden tools were repeatedly taken from him.

  One electric brain, employed at an astronomical observatory and for thirty years modeling stars, thought it was Sigma Ceti and kept threatening to go off like a Supernova any moment. This, according to its calculations. There was also one there who begged to be remade into an electric wringer, having had his fill of sentience. Among the maniacs things were more cheerful, a group of them sat by iron beds, playing on the springs like harps and singing in chorus; “We ain’t got no ma or pa, ’cause we is au-tom-a-ta,” also “Ro, ro, ro your bot, gently down the stream,” and so forth.

  Vlipeidius’s assistant, who was showing me around, told me that not long ago the sanatorium had had a certain priest-robot, who intended founding an order of Cyberites, however he improved so much under shock treatment, that he soon returned to his true occupation—balancing books in a bank. On my way back with the young assistant I met in the corridor a patient who was pulling behind him a heavily laden cart. This individual presented a singular sight, in that he was tied all around with bits of string.

  “You don’t by any chance have a hammer?” he asked.


  “A shame. My head hurts.”

  I engaged him in conversation. He was a robot-hypochondriac. On his squeaking cart he carried a complete set of spare parts. After ten minutes I learned that he got shooting pains in the back during storms, pins and needles all over while watching television, and spots before his eyes when anyone stroked a cat nearby. It grew quite monotonous, so I left him quickly and headed for the Director’s office. The Director was busy however, so I asked his secretary to convey my respects, and then went home.

  The Hunt

  He left Port Control hopping mad. It had to happen to him, to him! The owner didn’t have the shipment—simply didn’t have it—period. Port Control knew nothing. Sure, there had been a telegram: 72 HOUR DELAY—STIPULATED PENALTY PAID TO YOUR ACCOUNT—ENSTRAND. Not a word more. At the trade councillor’s office he didn’t get anywhere either. The port was crowded and the stipulated penalty didn’t satisfy Control. Parking fee, demurrage, yes, but wouldn’t it be best if you, Mr. Navigator, lifted off like a good fellow and went into hold? Just kill the engines, no expenditure for fuel, wait out your three days and come back. What would that hurt you? Three days circling the Moon because the owner screws up! Pirx was at a loss for a reply, but then remembered the treaty. Well, when he trotted out the norms established by the labor union for exposure in space, they started backing down. In fact, this was not the Year of the Quiet Sun. Radiation levels were not negligible. So he would have to maneuver, keep behind the Moon, play that game of hide-and-seek with the Sun using thrust; and who was going to pay for this?—not the owner, certainly. Who then—Control? Did you gentlemen have any idea of the cost of ten minutes full bum with a reactor of seventy million kilowatts?! In the end he got permission to stay, but only for seventy-two hours plus four to load that wretched freight—not a minute more! You would have thought they were doing him a favor. As if it were his fault. And he had arrived right on the dot, and didn’t come straight from Mars either—while the owner…

  With all this he completely forgot where he was and pushed the door handle so hard on his way out, that he jumped up to the ceiling. Embarrassed, he looked around, but no one was there. All Luna seemed empty. True, the big work was under way a few hundred kilometers to the north, between Hypatia and Toricelli. The engineers and technicians, who a month ago were all over the place here, had already left for the construction site. The UN’s great project, Luna 2, drew more and more people from Earth. “At least this time there won’t be any trouble getting a room,” he thought, taking the escalator to the bottom floor of the underground city. The fluorescent lamps produced a cold daylight. Every second one was off. Economizing! Pushing aside a glass door, he entered a small lobby. They had rooms, all right! All the rooms you wanted. He left his suitcase, it was really more a satchel, with the porter, and wondered if Tyndall made sure that the mechanics reground the central nozzle. Ever since Mars the thing had been behaving like a damned medieval cannon! He really ought to see to it himself, the proprietor’s eye and all that… But he didn’t feel like taking the elevator back up those twelve flights, and anyway by now they had probably split up. Sitting in the airport store, most likely, listening to the latest recordings. He walked, not really knowing where; the hotel restaurant was empty, as if closed—but there behind the lunch counter sat a redhead, reading a book. Or had she fallen asleep over it? Because her cigarette was turning into a long cylinder of ash on the marble top…
Pirx took a seat, reset his watch to local time and suddenly it became late: ten at night. And on board, why, only a few minutes before, it had been noon. This eternal whirl with sudden jumps in time was just as fatiguing as in the beginning, when he was first learning to fly. He ate his lunch, now turned into supper, washing it down with seltzer, which seemed warmer than the soup. The waiter, down in the mouth and drowsy like a true lunatic, added up the bill wrong, and not in his own favor, a bad sign. Pirx advised him to take a vacation on Earth, and left quietly, so as not to waken the sleeping counter girl. He got the key from the porter and rode up to his room. He hadn’t looked at the plate yet and felt strange when he saw the number: 173. The same room he had stayed in, long ago, when for the first time he flew “that side.” But after opening the door he concluded that either this was a different room or they had remodeled it radically. No, he must have been mistaken, that other was larger. He turned on all the switches, for he was sick of darkness, looked in the dresser, pulled out the drawer of the small writing table, but didn’t bother to unpack, he only threw his pajamas on the bed, and set the toothbrush and toothpaste on the sink. He washed his hands—the water, as always, infernally cold, it was a wonder it didn’t freeze. He turned the hot water spigot—a few drops trickled out. He went to the phone to call the desk, but changed his mind, there was really no point. It was scandalous, of course—here the Moon was stocked with all the necessities, and you still couldn’t get hot water in your hotel room! He tried the radio. The evening wrap-up—the lunar news. He hardly listened, wondering whether he shouldn’t send a telegram to the owner. Reverse the charges, of course. But no, that wouldn’t accomplish anything. These were not the romantic days of astronautics! They were long gone, now a man was nothing but a truck driver, dependent on those who loaded cargo on his ship! Cargo, insurance, demurrage… The radio was muttering something. Hold on—what was that?… He leaned across the bed and moved the knob of the apparatus.

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