Mortal Engines by Stanisław Lem

  “We will be receiving special mining lasers of six times that power,” Achanian added.

  “But that is only what the Americans call overkill,” McCork replied with a smile. “Such power will provide no advantage in a duel with the Setaur’s laser…”

  Someone asked whether it wouldn’t be possible to destroy the automaton from aboard some cosmic vessel. McCork declared himself not qualified to answer; Achanian meanwhile glanced at the attendance sheet and said:

  “We have here a navigator first class. Pirx … would you care to comment on this?”

  Pirx got up.

  “Well in theory a vessel of medium tonnage like my Cuivier, in other words having sixteen thousand tons rest mass, could certainly destroy such a Setaur, if it got it in its line of thrust. The temperature of the exhaust gases exceeds six thousand degrees for a distance of nine hundred meters. That would be sufficient, I think…?”

  McCork nodded.

  “But this is sheer speculation,” Pirx continued. “The vessel would have to be somehow brought into position, and a small target like the Setaur, which really isn’t any larger than a man, could always have time to move out of the way, unless it were immobilized. The lateral velocity of a vessel maneuvering near the surface of a planet, in its field of gravity, is quite small; sudden pursuit maneuvers are completely out of the question. The only remaining possibility, then, would be to use small units, say, the Moon’s own fleet. Except that the thrust here would be weak and of not very high temperature, so perhaps if you used one of those crafts as a bomber instead… But for precision bombing you need special instruments, sights, range finders, which Luna doesn’t have. No, we can rule that out. Of course it will be necessary, even imperative, to employ such small machines, but only for reconnaissance purposes, that is, to pinpoint the automaton.”

  He was about to sit down, when suddenly a new idea hit him.

  “Oh yes!” he said. “Jump holsters. Those you could use. I mean—you would have to have people who knew how to use them.”

  “Are they the small, individual rockets one straps on over the shoulders?” asked McCork.

  “Yes. With them you can execute jumps or even sail along without moving; depending on the model and type, you get from one to several minutes aloft and reach an altitude of fifty to four hundred meters…”

  Achanian stood.

  “This may be important. Who here has been trained in the use of such devices?”

  Two hands went up. Then another.

  “Only three?” said Achanian. “Ah, you too?” he added, seeing that Pirx, now understanding, had also raised his hand. “That makes four. Not very many… We’ll ask among the ground crew. Gentlemen I This is—it goes without saying—strictly a voluntary action. I really ought to have begun with that. Who of you wishes to take part in the operation?”

  A slight clatter ensued, for everyone present was standing up.

  “On behalf of Control I thank you,” said Achanian. “This is good… And so we have seventeen volunteers. We will be supported by three units from the lunar fleet, and in addition will have at our disposal ten drivers and radio operators to help man the transporters. I will ask you all to remain here, and you,” he turned to McCork and Pirx, “please come with me, to Control…”

  Around four in the afternoon Pirx was sitting in the turret of a large caterpillar transporter, jolted by its violent motions. He was wearing a full suit, with the helmet on his knees, ready to put it on at the first sound of the alarm, and across his chest hung a heavy laser, the butt of which poked him unmercifully; in his left hand he had a map, and used the right to turn a periscope, observing the long, spread-out line of the other transporters, which pitched and tossed like boats across the debris-strewn tracts of the Sea of Tranquillity. That desert “sea” was all ablaze with sunlight and empty from one black horizon to the other. Pirx received reports and passed them on, spoke with Luna 1, with the officers of the other machines, with the pilots of the reconnaissance modules, whose microscopic exhaust flames every so often appeared among the stars in the black sky, yet with all of this he still couldn’t help feeling at times that he was having some kind of highly elaborate and stupid dream.

  Things had happened with increasing frenzy. He wasn’t the only one to whom it seemed that construction headquarters had succumbed to something like panic. For really, what could one automaton-halfwit do, even armed with a lightthrower? So when at the second “summit meeting,” right at noon, there began to be talk of turning to the UN, at least to the Security Council, for “special sanction,” namely permission to bring in heavy artillery (rocket launchers would be best), and possibly even atomic missiles—Pirx objected along with others that in that way, before they got anywhere, they would be making complete asses of themselves in front of all Earth. Besides, it was obvious that for such a decision from the international body they would have to wait days if not weeks, meanwhile the “mad robot” could wander off God-knows-where, and once hidden in the inaccessible rifts of the lunar crust, you wouldn’t be able to get at it with all the cannons in the world; therefore it was necessary to act decisively and without delay. It became clear then that the biggest problem would be communications, which had always been a sore point in lunar undertakings. There supposedly existed about three thousand different patents for inventions designed to facilitate communications, ranging from a seismic telegraph (using microexplosions as signals) to “Trojan” stationary satellites. Such satellites had been placed in orbit last year—they didn’t improve the situation one bit. In practice the problem was solved by systems of ultrashortwave relays set on poles, a lot like the old pre-sputnik television transmission lines on Earth. This was actually more reliable than communication by satellite, because the engineers were still racking their brains over how to make their orbiting stations unsusceptible to solar storms. Every single jump in the activity of the sun, and the resultant “hurricanes” of electrically charged high-energy particles that tore through the ether, immediately produced a static that made it difficult to maintain contact—and sometimes for several days. One of those solar “twisters” was going on right now, thus messages between Luna 1 and Construction went by way of the ground relays, and the success of Operation Setaur depended—to a large degree, at least—on the “rebel” not taking it into its head to destroy the girdered poles that stood, forty-five of them, on the desert separating Luna City from the cosmodrome near the construction site. Assuming, of course, that the automaton would continue to prowl in that vicinity. It had, after all, complete freedom of movement, requiring neither fuel nor oxygen, neither sleep nor rest, in all so self-sufficient, that many of the engineers for the first time fully realized how perfect was the machine of their own making—a machine whose next step no one was able to foresee. The direct Moon-Earth discussions which had begun at dawn between Control and the firm Cybertronics, including the staff of Setaur’s designers, went on and on; but not a thing was learned from them which hadn’t already been said by little Dr, McCork. It was only the laymen who still tried to talk the specialists into using some great calculator to predict the automaton’s tactics. Was the Setaur intelligent? Well yes, in its own fashion! That “unnecessary”—and at the present moment highly dangerous—“wisdom” of the machine angered many participants in the action; they couldn’t see why in the hell the engineers had endowed such freedom and autonomy on a machine made strictly for mining tasks. McCork calmly explained that this “intellectronic redundancy” was—in the current phase of technological development—the same thing as the excess of power generally found in all conventional machines and engines: it was an emergency reserve, put there in order to increase safety and dependability of function. There was no way of knowing in advance all the situations in which a machine, be it mechanical or informational, might find itself. And therefore no one really had the foggiest notion of what the Setaur would do. Of course the experts, and those on Earth as well, had telegraphed their opinions; the only problem was t
hat these opinions were diametrically opposed. Some believed the Setaur would attempt to destroy objects of an “artificial” nature, precisely like the relay poles or high-tension lines; others on the other hand thought that it would expend its energy by firing at whatever stood in its path, whether a lunar rock or a transporter filled with people. The former were in favor of an immediate attack for the purpose of destroying it, the latter recommended a wait-and-see strategy. Both were in agreement on this only, that it was absolutely necessary to keep track of the machine’s movements.

  Since early morning the lunar fleet, numbering twelve small units, had patrolled the Sea of Tranquillity and sent continual reports to the group defending the construction site, which in turn was in constant contact with Headquarters at the cosmodrome. It was no easy thing to detect the Setaur, a tiny piece of metal in a giant wilderness of rock filled with fields of detritus, cracks and half-buried crevices, and covered besides with the pockmarks of miniature craters. If only those reports had been at least negative! But the patrolling crews had alarmed ground personnel several times already with the information that the “mad machine” was sighted, after which it turned out that the object was some unusual rock formation or a fragment of lava sparkling in the rays of the sun; even the use of radar along with ferroinduction sensors proved to be of little help—in the wake of the first stages of lunar exploration and colonization there remained upon the Moon’s rocky wastes a whole multitude of metal containers, heat-fused shells from rocket cartridges and all possible sorts of tin junk, which every now and then became the source of fresh alarms. So much so, that operation headquarters began to wish the Setaur would finally attack something and show itself. However the last time it had revealed its presence was with the attack on the small transporter belonging to the electrical repair team. Since then it seemed as if the lunar soil had opened up and swallowed the thing. But everyone felt that sitting and waiting was out of the question, particularly when Construction had to regain its energy supply. The action—covering about ten thousand square kilometers—consisted in combing that area with two waves of vehicles approaching each other from opposite directions, that is, from the north and from the south. From Construction came one extended line under the command of their head technologist Strzibor, and from the Luna cosmodrome—the second, in which the role of operations coordinator of both sides, working closely with the Chief (Commodore Navigator Pleydar), fell to Pirx. He understood perfectly that at any moment they could pass right by the Setaur; it might for example be hidden in one of those deep tectonic trenches, or even be camouflaged by only the dazzling lunar sand, and they would never notice it; McCork, who rode with him as “intellectronist-consultant,” was of the same opinion.

  The transporter lurched dreadfully, moving along at a speed which, as the driver quietly informed them, “after a while makes your eyes pop out.” They were now in the eastern sector of the Sea of Tranquillity and less than an hour away from the region where the automaton was most likely to be located. After crossing that previously determined border they were all to don their helmets, so that in case of an unexpected hit and loss of seal, or fire, they could leave the vehicle immediately.

  The transporter had been changed into a fighting machine; the mechanics had mounted on its domelike turret a mining laser of great power, though pretty poor as far as accuracy went. Pirx considered it altogether useless against the Setaur. The Setaur possessed an automatic sighter, since its photoelectric eyes were hooked up directly to the laser and it could instantly fire at whatever lay in the center of its field of vision. Theirs, on the other hand, was a quaint sort of sighter, probably from an old cosmonautical range finder; it had been tested in this way, namely, that before leaving Luna they took a few shots at some rocks on the horizon. The rocks had been large, the distance no greater than a mile, and even so they hit the mark only on the fourth try. And here, to make matters worse, you had lunar conditions to cope with, because a laser ray was visible as a brilliant streak only in a diffusing medium, e.g. an earthlike atmosphere; but in empty space a beam of light, regardless how powerful, was invisible until it hit some material obstacle. Therefore on Earth you could shoot a laser much the way you shot tracer bullets, being guided by their observable line of flight. Without a sighter a laser on the Moon was of no practical value. Pirx didn’t keep this from McCork; he told him when only a couple of minutes separated them from the hypothetical danger zone.

  “I didn’t think of that,” said the engineer, then added with a smile:

  “Why did you tell me?”

  “To free you of illusions,” replied Pirx, not looking up from the double eyepiece of his periscope. It had foam-rubber cushions, but he felt sure that he would be going around with black eyes for the longest time (assuming, of course, he came out of this alive). “And also, to explain why we’re carrying that stuff in the back.”

  “The cylinders?” asked McCork. “I saw you taking them from the storeroom. What’s in them?”

  “Ammonia, chlorine and some hydrocarbons or other,” said Pirx. “I thought they might come in handy…”

  “A gas-smoke screen?” ventured the engineer.

  “No, what I had in mind was some way of aiming. If there’s no atmosphere, we create one, at least temporarily…”

  “I’m afraid there won’t be time for that.”

  “Perhaps not… I took it along just in case. Against one that is insane, insane measures are often best…”

  They fell silent, for the transporter had begun to lurch like a drunk; the stabilizers whined and squealed, sounding as if any minute the oil in them would begin to boil. They hurtled down an incline strewn with sharp boulders. The opposite slope gleamed, all white with pumice.

  “You know what worries me most?” resumed Pirx when the heaving let up a little; for he had grown strangely talkative. “Not the Setaur—not at all… It’s those transporters from Construction. If just one of them takes us for the Setaur and starts blasting away with its laser, things’ll get lively.”

  “I see you’ve thought of everything,” muttered the engineer. The cadet, sitting beside the radio operator, leaned across the back of his seat and handed Pirx a scrawled radiogram, barely legible.

  “We have entered the danger zone at relay twenty, so far nothing, stop, Strzibor, end of transmission,” Pirx read aloud. “Well, we’ll soon have to put our helmets on too…”

  The machine slowed a little, climbing a slope. Pirx noticed that he could no longer see the neighbor on his left—only the right transporter was moving like a dim blot up the bank. He ordered the left machine to be raised by radio, but there was no answer.

  “We have begun to separate,” he said calmly. “I thought that would happen. Can’t we push the antenna up a little higher? No? Too bad.”

  By now they were at the summit of a gentle rise. From over the horizon, at a distance of less than two hundred kilometers, emerged, full in the sun, the sawtooth ridge of the crater Toricelli, sharply outlined against the black background of the sky. They had the plain of the Sea of Tranquillity all but behind them now. Deep tectonic rifts appeared, frozen slabs of magma jutted here and there from under the debris, and over these the transporter crawled with difficulty, heaving up first like a boat on a wave, then dropping heavily down, as though it were about to plunge head over heels into some unknown cavity. Pirx caught sight of the mast of the next relay, glanced quickly at the celluloid map card pressed to his knees, and ordered everyone to fasten their helmets. From now on they would be able to communicate only by inside telephone. The transporter managed to shake even more violently than before—Pirx’s head wobbled around in its helmet like the kernel of a nut inside an empty shell.

  When they drove down the slope to lower ground, the saw of Toricelli disappeared, blocked out by nearer elevations; almost at the same time they lost their right neighbor. For a few minutes more they heard its call signal, then that was distorted by the waves bouncing off the sheets of rock, and complete radio s
ilence followed. It was extremely awkward trying to look through the periscope with a helmet on; Pirx thought he would either crack his viewplate or smash the eyepiece. He did what he could to keep his eyes on the field of vision at all times, though it shifted totally with each lurch of the machine and was strewn with endless boulders. The jumble of pitch-black shadow and dazzlingly bright surfaces of stone made his eyes swim. Suddenly a small orange flame leaped up in the darkness of the far sky, flickered, dwindled, disappeared. A second flash, a little stronger. Pirx shouted: “Attention everyone! I see explosions!”—and feverishly turned the crank of the periscope, reading the azimuth off the scale etched onto the lenses.

  “We’re changing course!” he howled. “Forty-seven point eight, full speed ahead!”

  The order really applied to a cosmic vessel, but the driver understood it all the same; the plates and every joint of the transporter gave a shudder as the machine wheeled around practically in place and surged forward. Pirx got up off his seat, its tossing was pulling his head away from the eyepiece. Another flash—this time red-violet, a fan-shaped burst of flame. But the source of those flashes or explosions lay beyond the field of vision, hidden by the ridge they were climbing.

  “Attention everyone!” said Pirx. “Prepare your individual lasers! Dr. McCork, please go to the hatch. When I give the word or in case of a hit, you’ll open it! Driver! Decrease velocity!…”

  The elevation up which the machine clambered rose from the desert like the shank of some moon monster, half-sunken in debris; the rock in fact resembled, by its smoothness, a polished skeleton or giant skull; Pirx ordered the driver to go to the top. The treads began to chatter, like steel over glass. “Hold it!” yelled Pirx, and the transporter, coming to a sudden halt, dipped nosedown towards the rock, swayed, the stabilizers groaning with the strain, and stopped.

  Pirx looked into a shallow basin enclosed on two sides by radially spreading, tapered embankments of old magma flows; two-thirds of the wide depression lay in glaring sun, a third was covered by a shroud of absolute black. On that velvet darkness there shone, like a weird jewel, fading ruby-red, the ripped-open skeleton of a vehicle. Only the driver saw it besides Pirx, for the armor flaps of the windows had been lowered. Pirx, to tell the truth, didn’t know what to do. “A transporter,” he thought. “Where is the front of it? Coming from the south? Probably from the construction group, then. But who got it, the Setaur? And I’m standing here in full view, like an idiot—we have to conceal ourselves. But where are all the other transporters? Theirs and mine?”

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