Mortal Engines by Stanisław Lem

  No, I was alone and alone I jumped up, to sink my teeth into those soft, shrouded walls, I tore at the padding, dry, coarse material crackled in my teeth. I spat out threads with saliva, my fingernails were snapping, good, that was it, that was the way, I didn’t know whether against myself or someone else, but no, no, no, no, no, no.

  I saw a light, something budded out in front of me, like the small head of a snake, except that it was metal. A needle? I was pricked, above the knee, in the thigh, from outside, a tiny, barely noticeable pain, a prick and then nothing.


  The garden was overcast. The royal park with its singing fountains, hedges clipped down all to one same level, the geometry of the trees, shrubs and steps, marble statues, scrolls, cupids. And the two of us. Cheap, ordinary, romantic, filled with despair. I smiled at him, and on my thigh was a mark. I had been punctured. So my soul, there where I had rebelled, and my body too, there where I had learned to hate it, they had had an ally. An ally of insufficient cunning. Now I did not dread him as much, now I played my role. Of course he had been cunning enough to impose the role on me, and from within, having forced his way into my stronghold. Cunning enough, but not enough—I observed the trap. The purpose I did not know yet, but the trap was visible, palpable, and one who sees is no longer so frightened as one who must live by conjecture alone.

  I had so much trouble, this struggling with myself, even the light of day was a nuisance with its solemnity, the gardens for the greater glory and admiration of His Majesty—not of the vegetation—I truly would have preferred my night now to this day, but the day was here and so was the man, who knew nothing, understood nothing, absorbed in the burning pleasure of his sweet insanity, in the enchantment cast by me, not by any third party. Traps, snares, a lure with a fatal sting, and was I all this? And did the lashing fountains also serve this end, the royal gardens, the haze in the distance? But really, how stupid. Whose ruin, whose death was at stake? Would not false witnesses have sufficed, old men in wigs, a noose, poison? Perhaps something bigger was involved. Some vicious intrigue, as on the royal parquets.

  The gardeners in high leather boots, intent upon the verdure of His Gracious Majesty, did not approach us. I remained silent, silence being more convenient, we sat on the step of an enormous stairway, as though built in preparation for a giant who would descend some day from his cloudy heights in order to make use of it. The emblems embossed in stone, the naked cupids, fauns, sileni, slippery marble dripping water, as dull and dismal as the gray sky. An idyllic scene, a Nicolette with her Aucassin, what utter bilge! I had come to my senses completely in these gardens, when the carriage drove off and I walked lightly, as if I had just stepped from a steaming, scented bath, and my dress was now different, vernal, with a misty pattern timidly reminiscent of flowers, it alluded to them, helping to inspire reverence, surrounding me with inviolability, Eos Rhododaktylos, but I walked between the dew-glistening hedges with a mark on my thigh, I did not need to touch it, I was unable to anyway, but the memory sufficed, they had not erased that from me. I was a mind imprisoned, chained at birth, born into bondage, but a mind still. And thus before he appeared, seeing that my time now was my own, that nearby was no needle nor sound detector, I began, like an actress readying herself for the performance, to say things in a whisper, the sort of things I did not know whether I would be able to utter in his presence, in other words I probed the limits of my freedom, in the light of day I searched for them blindly, by touch.

  What things? Only the truth—first, the change of grammatical form, then the plurality of my past pluperfects, everything too that I had gone through and the prick that stilled rebellion. Was this out of sympathy for him, in order not to destroy him? No, since I did not love him, not at all. It was treachery: for no good purpose had we trespassed on one another. Then should I speak to him thus? That by sacrifice I wished to save him from myself as from a doom?

  No—it was not that way at all. I had love, but elsewhere—I know how that sounds. Oh it was a passionate love, tender and altogether ordinary. I wanted to give myself to him body and soul, though not in reality, only in the manner of the fashion, according to custom, the etiquette of the court, for it would have to be not just any, but a marvelous, a courtly sinning.

  My love was very great, it caused me to tremble, it quickened my pulse, I saw that his glance made me happy. And my love was very small, being limited in me, subject to the style, like a carefully composed sentence expressing the painful joy of a tête-à-tête. And so beyond the bounds of those feelings I had no particular interest in saving him from myself or another, for when I reached with my mind outside my love, he was nothing to me, yet I needed an ally in my struggle against whatever had pricked me that night with venomous metal. I had no one else, and he was devoted to me wholly: I could count on him. I knew, of course, that I could not count on him beyond the feeling he had for me. He would not rise to any reservatio mentalis. Therefore I could not reveal the entire truth to him: that my love and the venomous prick were from one and the same source. That for this reason I abhorred both, had hatred for both and wanted to trample both underfoot as one steps on a tarantula. This I could not tell him, since he would surely be conventional in his love, would not accept in me the kind of liberation I desired, the freedom that would cast him off. Therefore I could only act deceitfully, giving freedom the false name of love, and only in and through that lie show him to himself as the victim of an unknown someone. Of the King? Yes, but even were he to lay violent hands upon His Majesty, that would not set me free; the King, if the King was indeed behind this, was still so far removed that his death could not alter my fate in any way. So, in order to see if I would be able to proceed thus, I stopped by a statue of Venus, its naked buttocks a monument to the higher and lower passions of earthly love, so that in complete solitude I could prepare my monstrous explanation with its well-honed arguments, a diatribe, as if I were sharpening a knife.

  It was extremely difficult Repeatedly I found myself at an impassable boundary, not knowing where the spasm would seize my tongue, where the mind would stumble, for that mind was my enemy after all. Not to lie completely, but neither to get into the center of the truth, of the mystery. Only by gradual degrees then did I decrease its radius, working inwards as along a spiral. But when I caught sight of him in the distance, saw how he walked and began almost to run towards me, still a small silhouette in a dark cape, I realized that all this was for nothing, the style would not permit it. What sort of love scene is it, in which Nicolette confesses to Aucassin that she is his branding iron, his butcher? Not even a fairy-tale style, in removing me from the spell, if it could, could return me to the nothingness from which I had come. Its entire wisdom was useless here. The loveliest of maidens, if she considers herself to be the instrument of dark forces and speaks of pricks and branding irons, if she speaks this and thus, she is a madwoman. And does not bear witness to the truth, but instead to her own disordered mind, and therefore deserves not only love and devotion, but pity besides.

  Out of a combination of such feelings he might pretend to believe my words, might look alarmed, assure me of steps taken to have me freed, in reality to have me examined, spread the news of my misfortune everywhere—it would be better to insult him. Besides, in this complex situation the more of an ally I had, the less of a lover filled with hopes of consummation—he would certainly not be willing to step far from the role of lover, his madness was normal, vigorous, solidly down-to-earth: to love, ah to love, scrupulously to chew the gravel on my path into soft sand, yes but not to toy with the chimeras of analysis concerning the origin of my soul!

  And so it appeared that if I had been primed for his destruction, he must die. I did not know which part of me would strike him down, the forearms, the wrists in an embrace, surely that would have been too simple, but I knew now that it could not be otherwise.

  I had to go with him, down alleys prettied by the skilled artisans of horticulture; we removed ourselves quickl
y from the Venus Kallipygos, for the ostentation with which she displayed her charms was not in keeping with our early-romance stage of sublime emotions and shy references to happiness. We passed the fauns, also blunt, but differently, in a way that was more suitable, for the maleness of those shaggy things of stone could not impinge upon my purity, which was sufficiently chaste as to remain unoffended even close to them: I was allowed not to understand their marble-rigid lust.

  He kissed my hand, there where the lump was, though unable to feel it with his lips. And where was my cunning one waiting? In the dark of the carriage? Or could it be that I was merely supposed to worm out of Arrhodes some unknown secrets: a beautiful stethoscope put to the breast of the doomed wise man?

  I told him nothing.

  In two days the love affair had progressed in due form. I was staying, with a handful of good servants, at a residence four furlongs removed from the royal estate; Phloebe, my factotum, had rented this chateau the first day following the meeting in the garden, saying nothing of the means which that step had required, and I, as the maiden with no head for financial matters, did not ask. I think that I both intimidated and annoyed him, possibly he was not let in on the secret, most likely he was not, he acted on the King’s orders, was respectful to me in words, but in his eyes I saw an impertinent irony, probably he took me for a new favorite of the King, and my rides and meetings with Arrhodes did not surprise him greatly, for a servant who demands that his King treat a concubine in accordance with a pattern he can understand, is not a good servant. I think that had I bestowed my caresses on a crocodile, he would not have batted an eye. I was at liberty within the confines of the royal will, nor did the monarch once approach me. I knew by now that there were things which I would never tell my man, because my tongue stiffened at the very thought and the lips turned numb, like the fingers when I had touched myself that first night in the carriage. I forbade Arrhodes to call on me, he interpreted this conventionally, as the fear that he might compromise me, and the good fellow restrained himself. On the evening of the third day I finally set about discovering who I was. Dressed for bed, I stripped in front of the pier glass and stood naked in it like a statue, and the silver pins and steel lancets lay upon the dressing table, covered with a velvet shawl, for I feared their glitter, though not their cutting edge. The breasts, high-set, looked to the side and upwards with their pink nipples, all trace of the puncture on the thigh had disappeared; like an obstetrician or a surgeon preparing for an operation I closed both hands and pushed them into the white, smooth flesh, the ribs sank beneath the pressure, but my belly domed out like those of the women in Gothic paintings, and under the warm, soft outer layer I met with resistance, hard, unyielding, and moving my hands from top to bottom gradually made out an oval shape within. With six candles on either side, I picked up the smallest lancet, not out of fear but rather for esthetic reasons.

  In the mirror it looked as if I intended to knife myself, a scene dramatically perfect, sustained in style to the last detail by the enormous fourposter and canopy, the two rows of tall candles, the glint in my hand and my paleness, because my body was deathly frightened, the knees buckled under me, only the hand with the blade had the necessary steadiness. There where the oval resistance was most distinct, not moving under pressure, right below the sternum, I thrust the lancet in deep, the pain was minimal and on the surface only, from the wound there flowed a single drop of blood. Incapable of showing the butcher’s skill slowly and with anatomical deliberation, I cut the body in half practically to the groin, violently, clenching my teeth and shutting my eyes as tightly as I could. To look, no, I hadn’t the strength. Yet I stood no longer trembling, only cold as ice, the room was filled with the sound, like something far from me and foreign, of my ragged, almost spastic breathing. The severed layers separated, like white leather, and in the mirror I saw a silver, nestled shape, as of an enormous fetus, a gleaming chrysalis hidden inside me, held in the parted folds of flesh, flesh not bleeding, only pink. What horror, terror, to look at oneself thus! I dared not touch the silvery surface, immaculate, virgin, the abdomen oblong like a small coffin and shining, reflecting the reduced images of the candle flames, I moved and then I saw its tucked-in limbs, fetal-fashion, thin as pincers, they went into my body and suddenly I understood that it was not it, a foreign thing, different and other, it was again myself. And so that was the reason I had made, when walking on the wet sand of the garden paths, such deep prints, that was the reason for my strength, it was I, still I, I was repeating to myself when he entered.

  The door had remained unlocked—an oversight. He sneaked in, entered thus, intrigued with his own daring, holding out before him—as if in his justification and defense—a huge shield of red roses, so that, having encountered me, and I turned around with a cry of fright, he saw, but did not notice, did not yet understand, could not. It was not out of fear now, but only in a horrible, choking shame that I tried with both hands to cover back up inside of me the silver oval, it was however too large and I too opened by the knife for this to be done.

  His face, his silent scream and flight. Let this part of the account be spared me. He’d been unable to wait for permission, for an invitation, so he came with his flowers, and the house was empty, I myself had sent out all the servants, that no one might disturb me in what I planned—by then there was no other way open to me, no other course. But perhaps the first suspicion had begun to grow in him back then. I recall how the preceding day we were crossing the bed of a dried-out stream, how he wanted to carry me in his arms and I refused, not out of modesty true or pretended, but because I had to. He noticed then in the soft, pliant silt my footprints, so small and so deep, and was going to say something, it was to have been a harmless joke, but he checked himself suddenly and with that now-familiar crease between his knitted brows went up the opposite slope, without even offering me, who was climbing behind him, a helping hand. So perhaps even then. And further, when at the very top of the rise I had stumbled and grasped—to regain my balance—a thick withe of hazel, I felt that I was pulling the entire bush out by its roots, so I dropped to my knees, ordered by reflex, releasing the broken branch, so as not to show the overpowering, incredible strength that was mine. He stood off to the side, was not looking, so I thought, but he could have seen everything out of the corner of his eye. Was it then suspicion that had sent him stealing in, or uncontrollable passion?

  It didn’t matter.

  Using the thickest segments of my feelers I pressed against the edges of the wide-open body, in order to emerge from the chrysalis, and worked myself free nimbly, after which Tlenix, Duenna, Mignonne first sank to her knees, then tumbled face-down to the side and I crawled out of her, straightening all my legs, moving slowly backwards like a crab. The candles, their flames still fluttering in the draft raised by his escape through the open door, blazed in the mirror; the naked thing, her legs thrown apart immodestly, lay motionless; not wishing to touch her, my cocoon, my false skin, the she that was now I went around her and, rearing up like a mantis with the trunk bent in the middle, I looked at myself in the glass. This was I, I told myself wordlessly, I. Still I. The smooth sheaths, coleopterous, insectlike, the knobby joints, the abdomen in its cold sheen of silver, the oblong sides designed for speed, the darker, bulging head, this was I. I repeated it over and over, as if to commit those words to memory, and at the same time the manifold past of Duenna, Tlenix, Angelita dulled and died within me, like books read long ago, books out of a children’s room, their content unimportant and now powerless, I could recall them, slowly turning my head in either direction, looking for my own eyes in the reflection, and also beginning to understand, though not yet accustomed to this shape that was my own, that the act of self-evisceration had not been altogether my rebellion, that it represented a foreseen part of the plan, designed for just such an eventuality, in order that my rebellion turn out to be, in the end, my total submission. Since still able to think with my former skill and ease, I yielded at the sam
e time to this new body, its shining metal had written into it movements which I began to execute.

  Love died. It will die in you as well, but over years or months, this same waning I experienced in a matter of moments, it was the third in my series of beginnings, and emitting a faint, shuffling hiss, I ran three times around the room, touching with outstretched, quivering feelers the bed on which it was denied me now to rest. I took in the smell of my unsuitor, unlover, so I could follow in his track, I known to him and yet unknown, in this newly begun—and likely the last—game. The trail of his wild flight was marked first by a succession of open doors and the roses strewn, their smell could be of help to me, in that it had become, at least for a while, apart of his smell. Seen from below, from the ground, therefore from a new perspective, the rooms through which I scuttled seemed to me to be primarily too big, full of cumbersome, useless articles of furniture, looming unfamiliarly in the semidarkness, then there was the light scrape of stone steps, stairs, beneath my claws and I ran out into a garden dark and damp—a nightingale was singing, I felt an inner amusement, for that was now a wholly unnecessary prop, others were called for by this succeeding scene, I poked about in the shrubbery a good while, aware of the gride of the gravel underfoot, I circled once and twice, then sped straight ahead, having caught the scent. For I could not have helped but catch it, composed as it was of a unique harmony of fleeting odors, of the tremors of the air parted by his passage, I found each particle not yet dispersed in the night wind, and thus hit upon the right course, which would be mine now until the end.

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