Mortal Engines by Stanisław Lem
The other stirred. Its movements were fluid and uncommonly swift. All at once it was in full view, erect on that upended stone, as though still looking for the mysterious cause of the two explosions. Then it turned away, jumped down and, leaning slightly forward, began to run—now and then it dropped from Pirx’s sight, but never for more than a few seconds, only to break out into the sunlight again on one of the spurs of the magma labyrinth. In this way it approached Pirx, though running the whole time at the bottom of the basin. They were separated now only by the space of the slope and Pirx wondered whether he shouldn’t shoot after all. But the other whisked past in narrow strips of light and again dissolved into the blackness—and since it continually had to change direction, picking its way between the rocks and rubble, one could not predict where its arms, working to maintain balance like a man running, and where its headless trunk would show up next, to flash metallically and vanish once again. Suddenly ragged lightning cut across the mosaic of debris, striking long plumes of sparks among the very blocks where the Setaur was running. Who had fired that? Pirx couldn’t see McCork, but the line of fire had come from the opposite side—it could have only been the cadet, that snot-nosed kid, that idiot! He cursed him, furious, because nothing had been accomplished, of course—the dome of metal flitted on for another fraction of a second, then disappeared for good. “And not only that, but he tried to shoot him in the back!” thought Pirx in a fury, not at all feeling the absurdity of this reproach. And the Setaur hadn’t returned fire. Why? He tried to catch a glimpse of it—in vain. Could the bulge of the slope be in the way? That was entirely possible… In which case he could move safely now… Pirx slipped down from his boulder, seeing that nothing was any longer watching from below. He ran, bent over slightly, along the rim itself, passed the cadet, who lay prone as if on a rifle range—the feet flung out wide and pressed sidewise against the rock—and Pirx felt an unaccountable urge to kick him in the behind, which stuck up ludicrously and was made even larger by a poorly fitting suit. He slowed down, but only to shout:
“Don’t you dare shoot, do you hear me?! Put away that laser!”
And before the cadet, turning on his side, began to look around in bewilderment—for the voice had come from his earphones, giving no indication of the direction or place in which Pirx was located—Pirx had already run on; afraid that he was wasting precious time, he hurried as much as he could, till he found himself facing a broad crevasse, which opened up a sudden view all the way to the bottom of the basin.
It was a type of tectonic trench, so old that its edges had crumbled, lost their sharpness, and resembled a mountain gully widened by erosion. He hesitated. He didn’t see the Setaur, but then it was probably impossible to see it anyway from this vantage point. So he ventured into the gully with laser ready to fire, well aware that what he was doing was insane, and yet he couldn’t resist whatever was driving him; he told himself that he only wanted to take a look, that he would stop at the first place where he could check out the last section of the outcrop and the entire labyrinth of rubble beneath it; and perhaps, even as he ran, still leaning forward, with the gravel shooting out in streams from under his boots, he actually believed this. But at the moment he couldn’t give thought to anything. He was on the Moon and therefore weighed barely fifteen kilograms, but even so the increasing angle tripped him up, he went bounding along eight meters at a time, braking for all he was worth; already he had covered half the length of the slope, the gully ended in a shallow pathway—there in the sun stood the first masses of the lava flow, black on the far side and glittering on the southern, about one hundred meters down. “I got myself into it this time,” he thought. From here one could practically reach out and touch the region in which the Setaur was at large. He glanced rapidly to the left and to the right. He was alone; the ridge lay high above him, a broiling steepness against the black sky. Before, he had been able to look down into the narrow places between the rocks almost with a bird’s-eye view, but now that crisscross maze of fissures was blocked out for him by the nearest masses of stone. “Not good,” he thought. “Better go back.” But for some reason he knew that he wasn’t going back.
However he couldn’t just stand there. A few dozen steps lower was a solitary block of magma, evidently the end of that long tongue which once had poured red-hot off the great crags at the foot of Toricelli—and which had meandered its way finally to this sinkhole. It was the best cover available. He reached it in a single leap, though he found particularly unpleasant this prolonged lunar floating, this slow-motion flight as in a dream; he could never really get used to it. Crouched behind the angular rock, he peered out over it and saw the Setaur, which came from behind two jagged spires, went around a third, brushing it with a metal shoulder, and halted. Pirx was looking at it from the side, so it was lit up only partially, only the right arm glistened, dully like a well-greased machine part—the rest of its frame lay in shadow. He had just raised the laser to his eye when the other, as if in a sudden premonition, vanished. Could it be standing there still, having only stepped back into the shadow? Should he shoot into that shadow, then? He had a bead on it now, but didn’t touch the trigger. He relaxed his muscles, the barrel fell. He waited. No sign of the Setaur. The rubble spread out directly below him in a truly infernal labyrinth, one could play hide-and-seek in there for hours—the glassy lava had split into geometrical yet eery shapes. “Where is he?” he thought. “If it were only possible to hear something, but this damned airless place, it’s like being in a nightmare… I could go down there and hunt him. No, I’m not about to do that, he’s the mad one after all… But one can at least consider everything—the outcrop extends no more than twelve meters, that would take about two jumps on Earth; I would be in the shadow beneath it, invisible, and could move along the length of it, with my back protected by the rock at all times, and sooner or later he’d walk out straight into my sights…” Nothing changed in the labyrinth of stone. On Earth by this time the sun would have shifted quite a bit, but here the long lunar day held sway, the sun seemed to keep hanging in the very same place, extinguishing the nearest stars, so that it was surrounded by a black void shot through with a kind of orange, radial haze… He leaned out halfway from behind his boulder. Nothing. This was beginning to annoy him. Why weren’t the others showing up? It was inconceivable that radio contact hadn’t been established by now… But perhaps they were planning to drive it out of that rubble… He glanced at the watch beneath the thick glass on his wrist and was amazed—since his last conversation with McCork barely thirteen minutes had elapsed.
He was preparing to abandon his position when two things happened at once, both equally unexpected. Through the stone arch between the two magma embankments that closed off the basin to the east, he saw transporters moving, one after the other. They were still far away, possibly more than a kilometer, and going at full speed, trailing long, seemingly rigid plumes of swirling dust. At the same time two large hands, human-looking, except that they were wearing metal gloves, appeared at the very edge of the precipice, and following them came—so quickly, he hadn’t time to back away—the Setaur. No more than ten meters separated them, Pirx saw the massive bulge of the torso that served for a head, set between powerful shoulders and in which glittered the lenses of the optic apertures, motionless, like two dark, widely spaced eyes, together with that middle, that third and terrible eye, lidded at the moment, of the laser gun. He himself, to be sure, held a laser in his hand, but the machine’s reflexes were incomparably faster than his own, and anyway he didn’t even try leveling his weapon—he simply stood stock-still in the full sun, his legs bent, exactly as he had been caught, jumping up from the ground, by the sudden appearance of him, and they looked at one another: the statue of the man and the statue of the machine, both sheathed in metal. Then a terrible light tore the whole area in front of Pirx; pushed by a blast of heat, he went crashing backwards. As he fell he didn’t lose consciousness and—in that fraction of a second—felt only s
He landed on his back, for the discharge had gone past—but clearly it had been aimed at him, because the horrible flash was repeated in an instant and chipped off part of the stone spire that had been protecting him before; it sprayed drops of molten mineral, which in flight changed into a dazzling spider web. But now he was saved by the fact that they aimed at the height of his head and he was lying down—it was the first machine, they were firing the laser from it. He rolled over on his side and saw then the back of the Setaur, who, motionless, as if cast in bronze, gave two bursts of lilac sun. Even at that distance one could see the foremost transporter’s entire tread overturn, together with the rollers and guiding wheel; such a cloud of dust and burning gases rose up there, that the second transporter, blinded, could not shoot. The two-and-a-half-meter giant slowly, unhurriedly looked at the prone man, who was still clutching his weapon, then turned and bent its legs slightly, ready to jump back from where it had come, but Pirx, awkwardly, sideways, fired at it—he intended only to cut the legs from under it, but his elbow wavered as he pulled the trigger, and a knife of flame cleaved the giant from top to bottom, so that it was only a mass of glowing scrap that tumbled down into the field of rubble.
The crew of the demolished transporter escaped unhurt, without even bums, and Pirx found out—much later, it’s true—that they had in fact been firing at him, for the Setaur, dark against the dark cliffs, went completely unnoticed. The inexperienced gunner had even failed to notice that the figure in his sights showed the light color of an aluminum suit. Pirx was pretty certain that he would not have survived the next shot. The Setaur had saved him—but had it realized this? Many times he went over those few final seconds in his mind, and each time his conviction grew stronger, that the Setaur had been standing in a place from which it could tell who was the real target of the long-range fire. Did this mean that it had wished to save him? No one could provide an answer to that. The intellectronicists chalked the whole thing up to “coincidence”—but none of them was able to support that opinion with any proof. Nothing like this had ever happened before, the professional literature made no mention of such incidents. Everyone felt that Pirx had done what he had to do—but he wasn’t satisfied. For many long years afterwards there remained etched in his memory that brief scene when he had brushed with death and come out in one piece, never to learn the entire truth—and bitter was the knowledge that it was in an underhanded way, with a stab in the back, that he had killed his deliverer.
In the beginning there was darkness and cold flame and lingering thunder, and, in long strings of sparks, char-black hooks, segmented hooks, which passed me on, and creeping metal snakes that touched the thing that was me with their snoutlike flattened heads, and each such touch brought on a lightning tremor, sharp, almost pleasurable.
From behind round windows eyes watched me, immeasurably deep eyes, unmoving, and they receded, but perhaps it was I who was moving on, entering the next circle of observation, which inspired lethargy, respect and dread. This journey of mine on my back lasted an indeterminate time, and as it progressed the it that was I increased and came to know itself, discovering its own limits, and I cannot say just when I was able to grasp its own form fully, to take cognizance of every place where I left off. There the world began, thundering, flaming, dark, and then the motion ceased and the delicate flitting of articulated limbs, which handed the me to me, lifted lightly up, relinquished that me to pincer hands, offered it to flat mouths in a rim of sparks, disappeared, and the it that was myself lay still inert, though capable now of its own motion yet in full awareness that my time had not come, and in this numb incline—for I, it, rested then on a slanting plane—the final flow of current, breathless last rites, a quivering kiss tautened the me and that was the signal to spring up and crawl into the round opening without light, and needing no urging now I touched the cold, smooth, concave plates, to rest on them with stone relief. But perhaps all that was a dream.
Of waking I know nothing. I remember incomprehensible rustlings and a cool dimness and myself inside, the world opened up before it in a panorama of glitter, broken into colors, and I remember also how much wonder there was in my movement when it crossed the threshold. Strong light beat from above on the colored confusion of vertical trunks, I saw their globes, which turned in its direction tiny buttons bright with water, the general murmur died down and in the ensuing silence the thing that was myself took yet another step.
And then, with a sound not heard but sensed, a tenuous string snapped within me and I, a she now, felt the rush of gender so violent, that her head spun and I shut my eyes. And as I stood thus, with eyes closed, words came to me from every side, for along with gender she had received language. I opened my eyes and smiled, and moved forward, and her dresses moved with me, I walked with dignity, crinoline all around, not knowing where I was going, but continuing on, for this was the court ball, and the recollection of her own mistake a moment before, when I had taken the heads for globes and the eyes for wet buttons, amused me like a silly girlish blunder, therefore I grinned, but this grin was directed only at myself. My hearing reached far, sharpened, so in it I distinguished the murmur of courtly recognition, the concealed sighs of the gentlemen, the envious breathing of the ladies, and pray who is that young woman, Count? And I walked through an enormous hall, beneath crystal spiders, from their ceiling webs dropped petals of roses, I looked at myself in the disfavor creeping out over the painted faces of dowagers, and in the leering eyes of swarthy lords.
Behind the windows from the vaulted ceiling to the parquet gaped the night, pots were burning in the park, and in an alcove between two windows, at the foot of a marble statue, stood a man shorter than the rest, surrounded by a wreath of courtiers clad in stripes of black and bile, who seemed to press towards him, yet they never overstepped the empty circle, and this single one did not even look in my direction when I approached. Passing him, I stopped, and though he was not looking at all in my direction, with the very tips of my fingers I gathered up my crinoline, dropping my eyes, as if I wished to curtsy low to him, but I only gazed at my own hands, slender and white, I did not know however why this whiteness, when it shone against the sky blue of the crinoline, there was something terrifying in it. But he, that short lord or peer, surrounded by courtiers, and behind whom stood a pale knight in half armor, with a bare blond head and holding in his hand a dagger small as a toy, he did not deign to look upon me, saying something in a low, boredom-muffled voice to himself, for to no one else. And I, not making my curtsy, but only looking at him a brief moment very fiercely, to remember his face, darkly aslant at the mouth, for its comer was turned up in a weary grimace by a small white scar, and riveting my eyes on that mouth, I turned on my heel, the crinoline rustled and I moved past. Only then did he look at me and I felt perfectly that fleeting, cold glance, such a narrow glance, as though he had an unseen rifle at his cheek and aiming for my neck, right between the rolls of golden curls, and this was the second beginning. I didn’t want to turn back, but I did turn back and lowered myself in a deep, a very deep curtsy, lifting the crinoline with both hands, as if to sink through its stiffness to the sheen of the floor, for he was the King. Then I withdrew slowly, wondering how it was I knew this so well and with such certainty, and also strongly tempted to do something inappropriate, for if I could not know and yet did know, in a way inexorable and categorical, then all of this was a dream, and what could it hurt in a dream—to pull someone’s nose? I grew a little frightened, for I was not able to do this, as if I had inside me some invisible barrier. Thus I wavered, walking unaware, between the convictions of reality and dream, and meanwhile knowledge flowed into me, somewhat like waves flowing up onto a beach, and each wave left behind new information, ranks and titles as if trimmed with lace; halfway through the hall, underneath a blazing candelabrum that hovered
I knew so very much now, like one fully roused out of a nightmare, yet with the memory of it still lingering, and that which remained inaccessible to me appeared in my mind as two dark shadows—my past and my present, for I was as yet in complete ignorance about myself. Whereas I was experiencing, in its totality, my nakedness, the breasts, belly, thighs, neck, shoulders, the unseen feet, concealed by costly clothing, I touched the topaz in gold that pulsed like a glowworm between my breasts, I could feel also the expression on my face, betraying absolutely nothing, a look which must have perplexed, for anyone who noticed me received the impression of a smile, yet if he searched my mouth more closely, my eyes, my brows, he would see that there was not a trace of amusement there, not even merely polite amusement, so he would gaze once more into my eyes, but they were completely tranquil, he would go to the cheeks, look for the smile in my chin, but I had no frivolous dimples, my cheeks were smooth and white, and the chin intent, quiet, sober, of no less perfection than the neck, which revealed not a thing. Then the gazer would be troubled, wondering why on earth he had imagined I was smiling, and in the bewilderment caused by his doubts and my beauty he would step back into the crowd, or render me a deep bow, in order that he might hide himself from me beneath that gesture.
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