Mortal Engines by Stanisław Lem

  “—in all probability the last of the Leonid swarm,” the soft baritone of the speaker filled the room. “Only one apartment building suffered a direct hit and lost its seal. By a lucky coincidence its residents were all at work. The remaining meteorites caused little damage, with the exception of one that penetrated the shield protecting the storerooms. As our correspondent reports, six universal automata designated for tasks on the construction site were totally destroyed. There was also damage to the high-tension line, and telephone communication was knocked out, though restored within a space of three hours. We now repeat the major news. Earlier today, at the opening of the Pan-African Congress…”

  He shut off the radio and sat down. Meteorites? A swarm? Well yes, the Leonids were due, but still the forecasts—those meteorologists were always fouling up, exactly like the synoptics on Earth… Construction site—it must have been that one up north. But all the same, atmosphere was atmosphere, and its absence here was damned inconvenient. Six automata, if you please. Well at least no one was hurt. A nasty business, though—a shield punctured! Yes, that designer, he really should have…

  He was dog-tired. Time had gotten completely bollixed up for him. Between Mars and Earth they must have lost a Tuesday. After Monday it suddenly became Wednesday; which meant they also missed one night. “I better stock up on some sleep,” he thought, got up and automatically headed for the tiny bathroom, but at the memory of the icy water he shuddered, did an about-face and a minute later was in bed. Which couldn’t hold a candle to a ship’s bunk. His hand by itself groped around for the belts to buckle down the quilt, he gave a faint smile when he couldn’t find them; after all he was in a hotel, not threatened by any sudden loss of gravitation… That was his last thought. When he opened his eyes, he had no idea where he was. It was pitch black. “Tyndall!” he wanted to shout, and all at once—for no apparent reason—remembered how once Tyndall had burst terrified out of the cabin, in nothing but pajama bottoms, and desperately cried to the man on watch: “You! For God’s sake! Quick, tell me, what’s my name?!” The poor devil was plastered, he had been fretting over some imagined insult or other and drank an entire bottle of rum. In this roundabout way Pint’s mind returned to reality. He got up, turned on the light, went to take a shower, but then remembered about the water, so carefully let out first a small trickle—lukewarm; he sighed, because he yearned for a good hot bath, however after a minute or two, with the stream beating on his face and torso, he actually began to hum.

  He was just putting on a clean shirt when the loudspeaker—he had no idea there was anything like that in the room—said in a deep bass:

  “Attention! Attention! This is an important announcement. Will all men with military training please report immediately to Port Control, room 318, with Commodore-Engineer Achanian. We repeat. Attention, attention…” Pirx was so astonished, he stood there for a moment in only his socks and shirt. What was this? April fool? With military training? Maybe he was still asleep. But when he flung his arms to pull the shirt on all the way, he cracked his hand against the edge of the table, and his heart beat faster. No, no dream. Then what was it? An invasion? Martians taking over the Moon? What nonsense! In any case he had to go…

  But something whispered to him while he jumped into his pants: “Yes, this had to happen, because you are here. That’s your luck, old man, you bring trouble…” When he left the room his watch said eight. He wanted to stop somewhere and ask what in the hell was going on, but the corridor was empty, so was the escalator, as though a general mobilization had already taken place and everyone was scrambling God-knows-where at the front line… He ran up the steps, though they were moving at a good clip to begin with, but he hurried, as if he actually might miss a chance at derring-do. At the top he saw a brightly lit glass kiosk with newspapers, ran up to the window to ask his question, but the stand was empty. The papers were sold by machine. He bought a pack of cigarettes and a daily, which he glanced at without slowing his pace; it contained nothing but an account of the meteorite disaster. Could that be it? But why military training? Impossible! Down a long corridor he went towards Port Control. Finally he saw people. Someone was entering a room with the number 318, someone else was coming up from the opposite end of the corridor.

  “I won’t find out anything now, I’m too late,” he thought, straightened his jacket and walked in. It was a small room, with three windows; behind them blazed an artificial lunar landscape, the unpleasant color of hot mercury. In the narrower part of the trapezoidal room stood two desks, the entire area in front of them being crammed with chairs, evidently brought in on short notice, since almost every chair was different. There were some fourteen-fifteen persons here, mostly middle-aged men, with a few kids who wore the stripes of navy cadets. Sitting apart was some elderly commodore—the rest of the chairs remained empty. Pirx took a seat next to one of the cadets, who immediately began telling him how six of them had flown in just the other day to start their apprenticeship “that side,” but they were given only a small machine, it was called a flea, and the thing barely took three, the rest had to wait their turn, then suddenly this business cropped up. Did Mr. Navigator happen to know…? But Mr. Navigator was in the dark himself. Judging by the faces of those seated, you could tell that they too were shocked by the announcement—they probably all came from the hotel. The cadet, it occurring to him that he ought to introduce himself, started going through a few gymnastics, nearly overturning his chair. Pirx grabbed it by the back, and then the door opened and in walked a short, dark-haired man slightly gray at the temples. He was clean-shaven, but his cheeks were blue with stubble, he had beetle brows and small, piercing eyes. Without a word he passed between the chairs, and behind the desk pulled down from a reel near the ceiling a map of “that side” on a scale of 1:1,000,000. The man rubbed his strong, fleshy nose with the back of his hand and said without preamble:

  “Gentlemen, I am Achanian. I have been temporarily delegated by the joint heads of Luna 1 and Luna 2 for the purpose of neutralizing the Setaur.”

  Among the listeners there was a faint stir, but Pirx still understood nothing—he didn’t even know what the Setaur was.

  “Those of you who heard the radio are aware that here,” he pointed a ruler at the regions Hypatia and Alfraganus, “a swarm of meteors fell yesterday. We will not go into the effects of the impact of the others, but one—it may well have been the largest—shattered the protective shield over storage units B7 and R7. In the second of the two was located a consignment of Setaurs, received from Earth barely four days ago. In the bulletins it was reported that all of these met with destruction. That, gentlemen, is not the truth.”

  The cadet sitting next to Pirx listened with red ears, even his mouth hung open, as if he didn’t want to miss a single word; meanwhile Achanian went on:

  “Five of the robots were crushed beneath the falling roof, but the sixth survived. More precisely—it suffered damage. We think so for this reason, that as soon as it extricated itself from the ruins of the storage unit, it began to behave in a manner … to behave like a…”

  Achanian couldn’t find the right word, so without finishing his sentence he continued:

  “The storage units are situated near the siding of a narrow-gauge track five miles from the provisional landing field. Immediately after the disaster a rescue operation was initiated, and the first order of business was to check out all personnel, to see if anyone had been buried beneath the devastated buildings. This action lasted about an hour; in the meantime however it developed that from the concussion the central control buildings had lost their full seal, so the work dragged on till midnight. Around one o’clock it was discovered that the breakdown in the main grid supplying the entire construction site, as well as the interruption of telephone communication, had not been caused by the meteors. The cables had been cut—by laser beam.”

  Pirx blinked. He had the irresistible feeling that he was participating in some sort of play, a masquerade. Such things
didn’t happen. A laser! Sure! And why not throw in a Martian spy while you were at it? Yet this commodore-engineer hardly looked like the type who would get hotel guests up at the crack of dawn in order to play some stupid joke on them.

  “The telephone lines were repaired first,” said Achanian. “But at that same time a small transporter of the emergency party, having reached the place where the cables were broken, lost radio contact with headquarters at Luna. After three in the morning we learned that this transporter had been attacked by laser and, as a result of several hits, now stood in flames. The driver and his assistant perished, but two of the crew—fortunately they were in suits, having gotten themselves ready to go out and repair the line—managed to jump free in time and hide in the desert, that is, the Mare Tranquillitatis, roughly here…” Achanian indicated with his ruler a point on the Sea of Tranquillity, some four hundred kilometers from the little crater of Arago. “Neither of them, as far as I know, saw the assailant. At a particular moment they simply felt a very strong thermal blast and the transporter caught fire. They jumped before the tanks of compressed gas went off; the lack of an atmosphere saved them, since only that portion of the fuel which was able to combine with the oxygen inside the transporter exploded. One of these people later died in as yet undetermined circumstances. The other succeeded in returning to the construction site, crossing a stretch of about one hundred and forty kilometers, but he ran and exhausted his suit’s air supply and went into anoxia—fortunately he was discovered and is presently in the hospital. Our knowledge of what happened is based entirely on his account and needs further verification.”

  There was now a dead silence. Pirx too could see where all of this was leading, but he still didn’t believe it, he didn’t want to…

  “No doubt you have guessed, gentlemen,” continued the dark-haired man in an even voice—his profile stood out black as coal against the blazing mercury landscapes of the Moon—“that the one who cut the telephone cables and high-tension line, and also attacked the transporter, is our sole surviving Setaur. This is a unit about which we know little, it was put into mass production only last month. Engineer Klarner, one of Setaur’s designers, was supposed to have come here with me, to give you gentlemen a full explanation not only of the capabilities of this model, but also of the measures that now must be taken with the object of neutralizing or destroying it…” The cadet next to Pirx gave a soft moan. It was a mean of pure excitement, that didn’t even make the pretense of sounding horrified. The young man was not aware of the navigator’s disapproving look. But then no one noticed or heard anything but the voice of the commodore-engineer.

  “I’m no expert in intellectronics and therefore cannot tell you much about the Setaur. But among those present, I believe, is a Dr. McCork. Is he here?”

  A slender man wearing glasses stood up. “Yes. I didn’t take part in the designing of the Setaurs, I’m only acquainted with our English model, similar to the American one but not identical. Still, the differences are not so very great. I can be of help…”

  “Excellent. Doctor, if you would come up here. I’ll just present, first, the current situation: the Setaur is located somewhere over here,” Achanian made a circle with the end of his ruler around an edge of the Sea of Tranquillity. “Which means it is at a distance of thirty to eighty kilometers from the construction site. It was designed, the Setaurs in general were designed, to perform mining tasks under extremely difficult conditions, at high temperatures, with a considerable chance of cave-ins, hence these models possess a massive frame and thick armor… But Dr. McCork will be filling you gentlemen in on this aspect. As for the means at our disposal to neutralize it: the headquarters of all the lunar bases have given us, first of all, a certain quantity of explosives, dynamite and oxyliquites, plus line-of-sight hand lasers and mining lasers—of course, neither the explosives nor the lasers were made for use in combat. For conveyance, the groups operating to destroy the Setaur will have transporters of small and medium range, two of which possess light anti-meteorite armor. Only such armor can take the blow of a laser from a distance of one kilometer. True, that data applies to Earth, where the energy absorption coefficient of the atmosphere is an important factor. Here we have no atmosphere, therefore those two transporters will be only a little less vulnerable than the others. We are also receiving a considerable number of suits, oxygen—and that, I’m afraid, is all. Around noon there will arrive from the Soviet sector a ‘flea’ with a three-man crew; in a pinch it can hold four on short flights, to deliver them inside the area where the Setaur is located. I’ll stop here for the moment. Now, gentlemen, I would like to pass around a sheet of paper, on which I will ask you to write clearly your names and fields of competence. Meanwhile, if Dr. McCork would kindly tell us a few words about the Setaur… The most important thing, I believe, would be an indication of its Achilles heel…”

  McCork was now standing by Achanian. He was even thinner than Pirx had thought; his ears stuck out, his head was slightly triangular, he had almost invisible eyebrows, a shock of hair of undetermined color, and all in all seemed strangely likable.

  Before he spoke, he took off his steel-rimmed glasses, as if they were in the way, and put them on the desk.

  “I’d be lying if I said we allowed for the possibility of the kind of thing that’s happened here. But besides the mathematics a cyberneticist has to have in his head some grain of intuition. Precisely for this reason we decided not to put our model into mass production just yet. According to the laboratory tests, Mephisto works perfectly—that’s the name of our model. Setaur is supposed to have better stabilization for braking and activating. Or so I thought, going by the literature—now I’m not so sure. The name suggests mythology, but it’s only an abbreviation, from Selfprogramming Electronic Ternary Automaton Racemic, racemic since in the construction of its brain we use both dextro- and levorotatory monopolymer pseudocrystals. But I guess that’s not important here. It is an automaton equipped with a laser for mining operations, a violet laser; the energy to emit the impulses is supplied it by a micropile, working on the principle of a cold chain reaction, therefore the Setaur—if I remember correctly—can put out impulses of up to forty-five thousand kilowatts.”

  “For how long?” someone asked.

  “From our point of view—forever,” immediately replied the thin scientist. “Well in any case for many years. What exactly happened to this Setaur? In plain language, I think it got hit over the head. The blow must have been unusually strong, but then even a falling building here could damage a chromium-nickel skull. So what took place? We’ve never conducted experiments of this kind, the cost would be too great,” McCork gave an unexpected smile, showing small, even teeth, “but it is generally known that any sharply localized damage to a small, that is, to a relatively simple brain or ordinary computer results in a complete breakdown in function. However the more we approximate the human brain by imitating its processes, then to a greater degree will such a complex brain become able to function despite the fact that it has suffered partial damage. The animal brain—a cat’s brain, for example—contains certain centers, the stimulation of which produces an attack response, manifested as an outburst of aggressive rage. The brain of the Setaur is built differently, yet does possess a certain general drive, a potentiality for action, which can be directed and channeled in various ways. Now, some sort of short circuit occurred between that motive center and an already initiated program for destruction. Of course I am speaking in grossly oversimplified terms.”

  “But why destruction?” asked the same voice as before.

  “It is an automaton designed for mining operations,” Dr. McCork explained. “Its task was to have been the digging of levels or drifts, the boring through of rock, the crushing of particularly hard minerals, broadly speaking—the destruction of cohesive matter, obviously not everywhere and not everything, but as a result of its injury such a generalization came about. Anyway my hypothesis could be completely wrong. That side o
f the question, purely theoretical, will be worth considering later, after we have made a carpet of the thing. At present it is more important for us to know what the Setaur can do. It can move at a speed of about fifty kilometers an hour, over almost any terrain. It has no lubricating points, all the friction-joint surfaces work on teflon. Its suspensions are magnetic, its armor cannot be penetrated by any revolver or rifle bullet, such tests have not been made, but I think that possibly an antitank gun… But we don’t have any of those, do we?”

  Achanian shook his head. He picked up the list that had been returned to him and read it, making little marks beside the names.

  “Obviously the explosion of a fair-sized charge would pull it apart,” McCork went on calmly, as if he were talking about the most ordinary things. “But first you would have to bring the charge near it, and that, I am afraid, will not be easy.”

  “Where exactly does it have its laser? In the head?” asked someone from the audience.

  “Actually it has no head, only a sort of bulge, a swelling between the shoulders. That was to increase its resistance to falling rock. The Setaur measures two hundred and twenty centimeters in height, so it fires from a point about two meters above the ground; the muzzle of the laser is protected by a sliding visor; when the body is stationary it can fire through an angle of thirty degrees, and a greater field of aim is obtained when the entire body turns. The laser has a maximum power of forty-five thousand kilowatts. Any expert will realize that this is considerable; it can easily cut through a steel plate several centimeters thick…”

  “At what range?”

  “It’s a violet laser, therefore with a very small angle of divergence from the line of incidence… And therefore the range will be, for all practical purposes, limited to the field of vision; since the horizon here on a level plane is at a distance of two kilometers, two kilometers at the very least will be the range of fire.”

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