Mortal Engines by Stanisław Lem

  “I have something!” shouted the radiotelegraph man. He connected his receiver to the inside circuit, so that everyone could hear the signals in their helmets.

  “Aximo-portable talus! A wall with encystation—repetition from the headland unnecessary—the access at an azimuth of—multicrystalline metamorphism…” the voice filled Pirx’s earphones, delivering the words clearly, in a monotone, with no intonation whatever.

  “It’s him!” he yelled. “The Setaur! Hello, radio! Get a fix on that, quickly! We need a fix! For God’s sake! While it’s still sending!” He roared till he was deafened by his own shouts amplified in the closed space of the helmet; not waiting for the telegraph operator to snap out of it, he leaped, head bent, to the top of the turret, seized the double handgrip of the heavy laser and began turning it along with the turret, his eyes already at the sighter. Meanwhile inside his helmet that low, almost sorrowful, steady voice droned on:

  “Heavily bihedrous achromatism viscosity—undecorticated segments without repeated anticlinal interpolations”—and the senseless gabble seemed to weaken.

  “Where’s that fix, damn it?!!”

  Pirx, keeping his eyes glued to the sighter, heard a faint clatter—McCork had run up front, shoved aside the operator, there was a sound of scuffling…

  Suddenly in his earphones he heard the calm voice of the cyberneticist:

  “Azimuth 39.9 … 40.0 … 40.1 … 40.2…”

  “It’s moving!” Pirx realized. The turret had to be turned by crank; he nearly dislocated his arm, he cranked so hard. The numbers moved at a creep. The red line passed the forty mark.

  Suddenly the voice of the Setaur rose to a drawn-out screech and broke off. At that same moment Pirx pressed the trigger and half a kilometer down, right at the line between light and shadow, a rock spouted fire brighter than the sun.

  Through the thick gloves it was next to impossible to hold the handgrip steady. The blinding flame bored into the darkness at the bottom of the basin, a few dozen meters from the dimly glowing wreck, it stopped and—in a spray of jagged embers—cut a line sideways, twice raising columns of sparks. Something yammered in the earphones. Pirx paid no attention, he plowed on with that line of flame, so thin and so terrible, until it split into a thousand centrifugal ricochets off some stone pillar. Red swirling circles danced before him, but through their swirl he saw a bright blue eye, smaller than the head of a pin, it had opened at the very bottom of the darkness, off to the side somewhere, not where he had been shooting—and before he was able to move the handgrips of the laser, to pivot it around on its swivel, a rock right next to the machine itself exploded like a liquid sun.

  “Back!” he bellowed, ducking down by reflex, with the result that he no longer saw anything, but he wouldn’t have seen anything anyway, only those red, slowly fading circles, which turned now black, now golden.

  The engine thundered. They were thrown with such violence that Pirx fell all the way to the bottom, then flew to the front, between the knees of the cadet and the radio operator; the cylinders, though they had tied them down securely on the armored wall, made an awful racket. They were rushing backwards, in reverse, there was a horrible crunch beneath the tractor tread, they swerved, careened in the other direction, for a minute it looked like the transporter was going to flip over on its back… The driver, desperately working the gas, the brakes, the clutch, somehow brought that wild skid under control; the machine gave a long quiver and stood still.

  “Do we have a seal?!” shouted Pirx, picking himself up off the floor. “A good thing it’s rubber,” he managed to think.


  “Well, that was nice and close,” he said in an altogether different voice now, standing up and straightening his back. And added softly, not without chagrin: “Two hundredths more to the left and I would have had him…”

  McCork returned to his place.

  “Doctor, that was good, thank you!” called Pirx, already back at the periscope. “Hello, driver, let’s go down the same way we came up. There are some small cliffs over there, a kind of arch—that’s it, right!—drive into the shadow between them and stop…”

  Slowly, as if with exaggerated caution, the transporter moved in between the slabs of rock half-buried in sand and froze in their shadow, which rendered it invisible.

  “Excellent!” said Pirx almost cheerfully. “Now I need two men, to go with me and do a little reconnoitering…”

  McCork raised his hand at the same time as the cadet.

  “Good! Now listen, you,” he turned to the others, “will remain here. Don’t move out of the shadow, even if the Setaur should come straight at you—sit quietly. Well, I guess if it walks right into the transporter, then you’ll have to defend yourselves, you have the laser—but that’s not very likely… You,” he said to the driver, “will help this young man remove those cylinders of gas from the wall, and you”—this, to the radio operator—“will call Luna, the cosmodrome, Construction, the patrols, and tell the first who answers that it destroyed one transporter, probably belonging to Construction, and that three men from our machine have gone out to hunt it. So I don’t want anybody barging in with lasers, shooting blindly and so on… And now let’s go!”

  Since each of them could carry only one cylinder, they took four. Pirx led his companions not to the top of the “skull,” but a little beyond, where a small, shallow, ascending ravine was visible. They went as far as they could, set the cylinders down by a large boulder, and Pirx ordered the driver to go back. Himself he peered out over the surface of the boulder and trained his binoculars on the interior of the basin. McCork and the cadet crouched down beside him. After a long while he said:

  “I don’t see him. Doctor, what the Setaur said, did it have any meaning?”

  “I doubt it. Combinations of words—something in the nature of schizophrenia…”

  “That wreck is going out,” said Pirx.

  “Why did you shoot?” asked McCork. “There might have been people.”

  “There wasn’t anyone.”

  Pirx moved the binoculars a millimeter at a time, scrutinizing every crease and crevice of the sunlit area.

  “They didn’t have time to jump.”

  “How do you know that?”

  “Because he cut the machine in half. You can still see it. They must have practically run into him. He hit from a few dozen meters. And besides, both hatches are closed. No,” he added after a couple of seconds, “he’s not in the sun. And probably hasn’t had a chance to sneak away… We’ll try drawing him out.”

  Bending over, he lifted a heavy cylinder to the top of the boulder and, shoving it into position before him, muttered between his teeth:

  “A real live cowboys-and-Indians situation, the kind I always dreamed of…”

  The cylinder slipped; he held it by the valves and, flattening himself out on the stones, said:

  “If you see a blue flash, shoot at once—that’s his laser eye…”

  With all his might he pushed the cylinder, which at first slowly but then with increasing speed began to roll down the slope. All three of them took aim, the cylinder had now gone about two hundred meters and was rolling more slowly, for the slope lessened. A few times it seemed that protruding rocks would bring it to a stop, but it tumbled past them and, growing smaller and smaller, now a dully shining spot, approached the bottom of the basin.

  “Nothing?” said Pirx, disappointed. “Either he’s smarter than I thought, or just isn’t interested in it, or else…”

  He didn’t finish. On the slope below them there was a blinding flash. The flame almost instantly changed into a heavy, brownish yellow cloud, at the center of which still glowed a sullen fire, and the edges spread out between the spurs of rock.

  “The chlorine…” said Pirx. “Why didn’t you shoot? Couldn’t you see anything?”

  “No,” replied the cadet and McCork in unison.

  “The bastard! He’s hid himself in some crevice or is firing from t
he flank. I really doubt now that this will do any good, but let’s try…”

  He picked up a second cylinder and sent it after the first.

  At first it rolled the same, but somewhere halfway down the incline it turned aside and came to rest. Pirx wasn’t looking at it—all his attention was concentrated on the triangular section of darkness in which the Setaur somewhere lurked. The seconds went by slowly. All at once a branching explosion ripped the slope. Pirx was unable to locate the place where the automaton had concealed itself, but he saw the line of fire, or more precisely a part of it, for it materialized as a burning, sun-bright thread when it passed through what was left of the first cloud of gas. Immediately he sighted along that gleaming trajectory, which was already fading, and as soon as he had the edge of the darkness in his cross hairs, he pulled the trigger. Apparently McCork had done the same thing simultaneously, and in an instant the cadet joined them. Three blades of sun plowed the black floor of the basin and at that very moment it was as if some gigantic, fiery lid slammed down directly in front of them—the entire boulder that protected them shook, from its rim showered a myriad searing rainbows, their suits and helmets were sprayed with burning quartz, which instantly congealed to microscopic teardrops. They lay now flattened in the shadow of the rock, while above their heads whipped, like a white-hot sword, a second and a third discharge, grazing the surface of the boulder, which immediately was covered with cooling glass bubbles.

  “Everyone all right?” asked Pirx, not lifting his head.

  “Yes!”—“Here too!”—came the answers.

  “Go down to the machine and tell the radio operator to call everyone, because we have him here and will try to keep him pinned as long as possible,” Pirx said to the cadet, who then crawled backwards and ran, stooping, in the direction of the rocks where the tractor was standing.

  “We have two cylinders left, one apiece. Doctor, let’s switch positions now. And please be careful and keep low, he’s already hit right on our top…”

  With these words Pirx picked up one cylinder and, taking advantage of the shadows thrown by some large stone slabs, moved forward as quickly as he could. About two hundred steps farther on they rested in the deft of a magma embankment. The cadet, returning from the transporter, wasn’t able to find them at first. He was breathing hard, as if he had run at least a mile.

  “Easy, take your time!” said Pirx. “Well, what’s up?”

  “Contact has been resumed…” The cadet squatted by Pirx, who could see the youth’s eyes blinking behind the viewplate of the helmet. “In that machine, the one that was destroyed … there were four people from Construction. The second must have withdrawn, because it had a defective laser … and the rest went by, off to the side, and didn’t see anything…” Pirx nodded as if to say: “I thought as much.”

  “What else? Where’s our group?”

  “Practically all of them—twenty miles from here, there was a false alarm there, some rocket patrol said it saw the Setaur and pulled everyone to the spot. And three machines don’t answer.”

  “When will they get here?”

  “At the moment we’re only receiving…” said the cadet, embarrassed.

  “Only receiving? What do you mean?!”

  “The radio operator says that either something’s happened to the transmitter, or else in this place his emission is damping out. He asks if he might change the parking location, so he can test…”

  “He tan change his location if he has to,” Pirx replied. “And please stop running like that! Watch where you put your feet!”

  But the other must not have heard, for he was racing back.

  “At best they’ll be here in half an hour, if we succeed in making contact,” observed Pirx. McCork said nothing. Pirx pondered the next move. Should they wait or not? Storming the basin with transporters would probably ensure success, but not without losses. Compared with the Setaur their machines made large targets, were slow and would have to strike together, for a duel would end as it had with that tractor from Construction. He tried to come up with some stratagem to lure the Setaur out into the lighted area. If it were possible to send in one unmanned, remote-control transporter as a decoy, then hit the automaton from elsewhere, say, from above…

  It occurred to him that he really didn’t have to wait for anyone, he already had one transporter. But somehow the plan didn’t jell. To send a machine out blindly like that wouldn’t be any good. He would just blow the thing to bits, and wouldn’t have to move to do it. Could he have possibly realized that the zone of shadow in which he stood was giving him so much of an advantage? But then this was not a machine created for battle with all its tactics… There was method in his madness, yes, but what method? They sat, bent over, at the foot of a rocky scarp, in its dense, cold shadow. Suddenly it struck Pirx that he was acting like a complete idiot. What would he do, after all, if he were the Setaur? Immediately he felt alarm, for he was certain that he—in his place—would attack. Passively waiting for things to happen gained nothing. So then, could he be advancing towards them? Even now? One could surely reach the western cliff, moving under cover of darkness the whole time, and farther on there were so many huge boulders, so much fissured lava, that in that labyrinth one could hide for God knows how long…

  He was almost positive now that the Setaur would proceed in precisely this way, and that they could expect him at any moment.

  “Doctor, I fear he will take us by surprise,” he said quickly, jumping to his feet. “What do you think?”

  “You believe he might sneak up on us?” asked McCork and smiled. “That occurred to me too. Well yes, it’s even logical, but will he behave logically? That is the question…”

  “We’ll try it one more time,” Pirx muttered. “We have to roll these cylinders down the hill and see what he does…”

  “I understand. Now?…”

  “Yes. And be careful!”

  They dragged them to the top of the rise and, doing their best to remain unseen from the bottom of the basin, pushed both metal cylinders practically at the same time. Unfortunately the absence of air did not let them hear if the things were rolling, or in what way. Pirx made up his mind and—feeling strangely naked, as though there were no steel sphere over his head, nor a heavy three-layered suit covering his body—he pressed himself flat against the rock and cautiously stuck out his head.

  Nothing had changed below. Except that the wrecked machine had ceased to be visible, for its cooling fragments merged with the surrounding darkness. The shadow occupied the same area, the shape of an irregular, elongated triangle, its base abutting the cliffs of the highest, western ridge of rocks. One cylinder had stopped some hundred feet beneath them, having struck a stone that put it in a lengthwise position. The other was still rolling, slowing down, growing smaller, till it stood still. The fact that nothing more happened was not at all to Pirx’s liking. “He isn’t stupid,” he thought. “He won’t shoot at a target someone sticks under his nose.” He tried to find the place from which the Setaur, some ten minutes before, had betrayed itself by the flash of its laser eye, but that was extremely difficult.

  “Perhaps he’s not there anymore,” he reflected. “Perhaps he’s simply retreating to the north; or going parallel, along the bottom of the basin, or along one of those rifts of magnetic course… If he makes it to the cliffs, to that labyrinth, then we’ve lost him for good…”

  Slowly, groping, he raised the butt of his laser and loosened his muscles. “Dr. McCork!” he said. “Could you come here?”

  And when the doctor had scrambled up to him, he said:

  “You see the two cylinders? One straight ahead, below us, and the other farther on…”

  “I see them.”

  “Fire at the closer one first, then at the other, in an interval, say, of forty seconds… But not from here!” he added quickly. “You’ll have to find a better place. Ah!” He pointed with his hand. “There is not a bad position, in that hollow. And when you shoot, craw
l lack immediately. All right?”

  McCork asked no questions, but set off at once, keeping low, in the direction indicated. Pirx waited impatiently. If he was even a little like a man, he had to be curious. Every intelligent creature was curious—and curiosity prompted it to act when something incomprehensible took place… He couldn’t see the doctor now. He forced himself not to look at the cylinders, which were to explode under McCork’s shots; he focused all his attention on the stretch of sunlit debris between the zone of shadow and the outcrop. He lifted the binoculars to his eyes and trained them on that section of the lava flow. In the lenses grotesque shapes filed slowly by, shapes as though formed in the studio of some sculptor-abstractionist: tapering obelisks twisted about like screws, plates furrowed with snaking cracks—the jumble of glaring planes and zigzag shadows had an irritating effect on the eye. At the very edge of his vision, far below him, on the slope, there was a burgeoning flash. After a long pause the second went off. Silence. The only sound was his pulse throbbing inside his helmet, through which the sun was trying to bore its way into his skull. He swept the lenses along a stretch of chaotically interlocking masses.

  Something moved. He froze. Above the razorlike edge of a slab that resembled the fractured blade of some giant stone ax there emerged a shape, hemispherical, in color much like a dark rock, but this shape had arms, which took hold of the boulder from both sides. Now he could see it—the upper half of it. It didn’t look headless, but rather like a man wearing the supernatural mask of an African magician, a mask that covered the face, neck and chest, but flattened out in a manner that was somewhat monstrous… With the elbow of his right arm he felt the butt of his laser, but didn’t dream of shooting now. The risk was too great—the chance of getting a hit with a relatively weak weapon, and at such a distance, was minuscule. The other, motionless, seemed to be examining with that head it had, which barely protruded above the shoulders, the remains of the two gas clouds that were drifting along the slope, helplessly expanding into space. This lasted a good while. It looked as if it did not know what had happened, and was unsure of what to do. In that hesitation, that uncertainty, which Pirx could understand full well, there was something so uncannily familiar, so human, that he felt a lump in his throat. What would I do in his place, what would I think? That someone was firing at the very same objects I had fired at before, and therefore this someone would be not an opponent, not an enemy, but instead a kind of ally. But I would know, surely, that I had no ally. Ah but what if it were a being like myself?

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