Mortal Engines by Stanisław Lem


  I do not know whose will it was that I let him get a good head start, for until dawn instead of pursuing him I roamed the royal gardens. To a certain extent this served a purpose, because I lingered in those places where we had strolled, holding hands, between the hedges, therefore I was able to imbibe his smell precisely, to make sure I would not mistake it later for any other. True, I could have gone straight after him and run him down in his utter helplessness of confusion and despair, but I did not do this. I realize that my actions on that night may also be explained in an altogether different way, by my grief and the King’s pleasure, since I had lost a lover, acquiring only a prey, and for the monarch the sudden and swift demise of the man he hated might have seemed insufficient. Perhaps Arrhodes did not rush home, but went instead to one of his friends, and there, in a feverish monologue, he answering his own questions (the presence of another person needed only to reassure and sober him), arrived at the whole truth by himself. At any rate my behavior in the gardens in no way suggested the pain of separation. I know how unwelcome that will sound to sentimental souls, but having no hands to wring, no tears to shed, no knees on which I might fall, nor lips to press to the flowers gathered the day before, I did not surrender myself to prostration. What occupied me now was the extraordinary subtlety of distinction which I possessed, for while running up and down the paths not once did I take a waft of even the most deceptively similar trace for that which was my present destiny and the goad of my tireless efforts. I could feel how in my cold left lung each molecule of air threaded its way through the windings of countless scanning cells and how each suspicious particle was passed to my right lung, hot, where my faceted internal eye examined it with care, to verify its exact meaning or discard it as the wrong scent, and this took place more rapidly than the vibration of wings on the smallest insect, more rapidly than you can comprehend. At daybreak I left the royal gardens. The house of Arrhodes stood empty, stood open, not bothering then even to ascertain if he had taken with him any weapon, I found the fresh trail and went with it, no longer delaying. I did not believe I would be searching long. However the days became weeks, the weeks months, and still I tracked him.

  To me this seemed no more abominable than the conduct of any other being that has written into it its own fate. I ran through rains and scorching suns, fields, ravines and thickets, dry reeds slid along my trunk, and the water of the puddles or flood plains that I cut across sprayed me and trickled in large drops down my oval back and down my head, in that place imitating tears, which had however no significance. I noticed, in my unceasing rush, how everyone who saw me from a distance turned away and clung to a wall, a tree, a fence or, if he had no such refuge, kneeled and covered his face with his hands, or fell face-down and lay there for as long as it took me to leave him far behind. I did not require sleep, thus in the night too I ran through villages, settlements, small towns, through marketplaces full of earthen pots and fruits drying on strings, where whole crowds scattered before me, and children went fleeing into side streets with screams and shouts, to which I paid no attention, but sped on my trail. His odor filled me completely, like a promise. By now I had forgotten the appearance of this man, and my mind, as if lacking the endurance of the body, particularly during the night runs, drew into itself till I did not know whom I was tracking, nor even if I was tracking anyone, I knew only that my will was to rush on, in order that the spoor of airborne motes singled out for me from the welling diversity of the world persist and intensify; for should it weaken, that would mean I was not heading in the right direction. I questioned no one, and too no one dared accost me, somehow I felt that the distance separating me from those who huddled by walls at my approach or fell to the earth, covering the backs of their heads with their arms, was filled with tension and I understood it as a dreadful homage rendered me, because I was on the King’s hunt, which gave me inexhaustible strength. Only now and then a child, still quite small, whom the adults had not had time to snatch up and clasp to their breasts at my silent, sudden appearance in full career, would start to cry, but I took no heed of that, because as I ran I had to maintain an intense, unbroken concentration, directed both outwards, at the world of sand and bricks, the green world, covered above with azure blues, and inwards into my internal world, where from the efficient play of both my lungs there came molecular music, very lovely, since so magnificently unerring. I crossed rivers and the coves of coastal bays, rapids, the slimy basins of draining lakes, and every manner of beast avoided me, withdrew in flight or frantically began to burrow into the parched soil, surely a futile effort were I to stalk it, for no one was so lightning-agile as I, but I ignored those shaggy creatures scrambling on all fours, slant-eared, with their husky whinnying, squeals and wailing, they did not concern me, I had another purpose.

  Several times I plowed through, like a missile, great ant hills, and their tiny inhabitants, russet, black, speckled, helplessly slid across my shining carapace, and once or twice some animal of unusual size blocked my path, so though I had no quarrel with it, in order not to waste precious time on circlings and evasions, I tensed and sprang, broke through in an instant, thus with a snap of calcium and the gurgle of red spouts splashing my back and head I hurried away so quickly, it was only later that I thought of the death that had been dealt in this swift and violent manner. I remember too that I stole across lines of battle, covered with a scattered swarm of gray and green surcoats, of which some moved, and in others there rested bones, putrid or completely dried out and thereby white as slightly grimy snow, but this also I ignored, because I had a higher task, a task made for me and me alone. For the trail would double back, loop around and cut across itself, and all but vanish on the shores of salt lakes, there parched by the sun into dust that bothered my lungs, or else washed away by rains; and gradually I began to realize that the thing eluding me was full of cunning, doing everything it could to baffle me and break the thread of molecules carrying the trace of its uniqueness. If the one whom I pursued had been an ordinary mortal, I would have overtaken him after a suitable time, that is, the time needed for his terror and despair to enhance duly the punishment in store, I would have surely overtaken him, what with my tireless speed and the unfailing operation of my tracking lungs—and would have killed him sooner than the thought that I was doing so. I had not followed at his heels at first, but waited for the scent to grow quite cold, so as to demonstrate my skill and in addition give the hunted one sufficient time, in keeping with the custom, a good custom as it allowed his fear to grow, and then sometimes I would let him put a considerable distance between us, for, feeling me constantly too near, he might in an access of despair have done some harm to himself and thus have escaped my decree. And therefore I did not intend to fall on him too quickly, nor so unexpectedly that he would have no time to realize what was awaiting him. So at nights I halted, concealed in the underbrush, not for rest, rest was unnecessary, but for intentional delay, and also to consider my next moves. No more did I think of the quarry as being Arrhodes, once my suitor, because that memory had closed itself off and I knew that it ought to be left in peace. My only regret was that I no longer possessed the ability to smile when I recalled to mind those ancient stratagems, like Angelita, Duenna, the sweet Mignonne, and a couple of times I looked at myself in a mirror of water, the full moon overhead, to convince myself that in no respect was I now similar to them, though I had remained beautiful, however my present beauty was a deadly thing, inspiring as great a horror as admiration. I also made use of these night bivouacs to scrape lumps of dried mud off my abdomen, down to the silver, and before setting out again I would move lightly the quill of my sting, holding it between my tarsi, testing its readiness, for I knew not the day nor the hour.

  Sometimes I would noiselessly creep up to human habitations and listen to the voices, bending myself backwards, propping my gleaming feelers on a window sill, or I might crawl up on the roof in order to hang down freely from the eaves, for I was not (after all) a lifeless mechanism
equipped with a pair of hunting lungs, I was a being that had a mind and used it. And the chase had already lasted long enough to become common knowledge. I heard old women frighten children with me, I also heard countless tales about Arrhodes, who was favored as much as I, the King’s emissary, was feared. What sort of things did the simple folk say on their porches? That I was a machine set upon a wise man who had dared to raise his hand against the throne.

  Yet I was supposed to have been no ordinary death machine, but a special device, one capable of assuming any form: a beggar, a child in a cradle, a lovely young lass, but also a metal reptile. These shapes were the larva in which the assassin emissary showed itself to its victim, in order to deceive him, but to everyone else it appeared as a scorpion made of silver, scurrying with such rapidity that no one yet had been able to count its legs. Here the story split into different versions. Some said that the wise man had sought to bestow freedom upon the people in opposition to the King’s will, and therewith kindled the royal wrath; others—that he possessed the water of life and with it could raise up the martyrs, which was forbidden him by the highest authority, but he, while pretending to bow to the sovereign’s will, in secret did marshal a battalion of hanged men, who had been cut down at the citadel after the great execution of the rebels. Still others knew nothing at all of Arrhodes and did not attribute to him any marvelous abilities, but only took him to be a condemned man, for that reason alone deserving their favor and support. Although it was unknown what had originally roused the King’s fury, that he summoned his master craftsmen and commanded them to fashion him a hunting machine in their forge, everyone called it a wicked design and that command most sinful; for whatever the victim had done, it could not have been as awful as the fate the King had prepared for him. There was no end to these tall tales, in which the rustic imagination waxed audacious and unchecked, not changing in this one respect, that it conferred on me the most hideous qualities conceivable.

  I heard, too, innumerable lies about the valiant ones hastening to relieve Arrhodes, men who supposedly barred my way, only to fall in uneven combat—lies, for not a living soul ever dared to do this. Nor was there any lack, in those fables, of traitors too, who pointed out to me Arrhodes’s tracks when I was no longer able to find them—also an unmitigated lie. But as for who I was, who I might be, what occupied my mind, and whether or not I knew despair or doubt, no one said a thing, and this did not surprise me either.

  And I heard not a little about the simple trailing machines known to the people, machines that carried out the King’s will, which was the law. At times I did not hide myself at all from the occupants of the humble huts, but waited for the sun to rise, in order in its rays to leap like silver lightning on the grass and in a sparkling spray of dew connect the end of the previous day’s journey with its new beginning. Running briskly, I was gratified when those I came upon prostrated themselves, when eyes turned glassy, and I delighted in the numb dread that surrounded me like an impervious aura. But the day came when my lower sense of smell went idle, in vain too did I circle the hilly vicinity seeking the scent with my upper smell, and I experienced a feeling of misfortune, of the uselessness of all my perfection, until, standing at the top of a knoll, my arms crossed as though in prayer to the windy sky, I realized, with the softest sound filling the bell of my abdomen, that not all was lost, and so in order that the idea be carried out I reached for that which long ago had been abandoned—the gift of speech. I did not need to learn it, I already possessed it, however I had to waken it within me, at first pronouncing words sharply and in a jangling way, but my voice soon grew humanlike, therefore I ran down the slope, to employ speech, since smell had failed me. I felt no hate whatever for my prey, though he had shown himself to be so clever and adept, I understood however that he was performing the part of the task that lay to him, just as I was performing mine. I found the crossroads where the scent had gradually disappeared, and stood quivering, but not moving from my place, for one pair of legs pulled blindly down the road covered with lime dust, while the other pair, convulsively clawing the rocks, drew me in the opposite direction, where the walls of a small monastery gleamed whitely, surrounded by ancient trees. Steadying myself, I crawled heavily, almost as if unwillingly, towards the monastery gate, under which stood a monk, his face upraised, possibly he gazed at the dawn on the horizon. I approached slowly, so as not to shock him with my sudden appearance, and greeted him, and when he fixed his eyes on me without a word I asked if he would permit me to confess to him a certain matter, which I had difficulty dealing with on my own. I thought at first that he was petrified with fright, for he neither moved nor made an answer, but he was only reflecting and at last indicated his consent. We went then to the monastery garden, he in the lead, I following, and it must have been a strange pair that we made, but at that early hour not a living soul was about, no one to marvel at the silver praying mantis and the white priest. I told him underneath the larch tree, when he sat, taking on unconsciously—out of habit—the posture of father confessor, that is, not looking at me but only inclining his head in my direction, I told him that first, before I ever set out on the trail, I had been a young woman destined by the King’s will for Arrhodes, whom I met at the court ball, and that I had loved him, not knowing anything about him, and without thought embarked upon the love that I had wakened in him, till from the puncture in the night I realized what I might be for him, and seeing no other salvation for either of us I had stabbed myself with a knife, but instead of death a metamorphosis befell me. From then on the compulsion which previously I had only suspected set me on the heels of my beloved, and I became to him a persecuting Fury. However the chase had lasted, and lasted so long, that everything the people said of Arrhodes began to reach my ears, and while I did not know how much truth lay in it, I began once more to brood on our common fate and a liking for this man rose up in me, for I saw that I wanted desperately to kill him, for the reason that I could not any longer love him. Thus I beheld my own baseness, that is, my love turned inside-out, degraded, and craving vengeance on one whose only crime against me was his own misfortune. Therefore I wished now to discontinue the chase, and to cease arousing mortal fear around me, yes, I wished to remedy the evil, yet knew not how.

  As far as I could tell, the monk by the end of this discourse had still not cast off his distrust, for he had straightway warned me, before I even began to speak, that whatever I might say would not bear the stamp of a confession, since in his judgment I represented a creature devoid of free will. And too, he might well have asked himself whether I had not been sent to him intentionally, indeed such spies existed, and in the most perfidious disguises, but his answer appeared to proceed from honest thought. He said: And what if you should find the one you seek? Do you know what you will do then?

  I replied: Father, I only know what I do not wish to do, but I do not know what power slumbering in me might force its way out then, and therefore I cannot say that I would not be made to murder.

  He said to me: What advice then can I give you? Do you wish that this task be taken from you?

  Like a dog lying at his feet I lifted up my head and, seeing him squint in the glare of sunlight reflected off the silver of my skull, said: There is nothing I desire more, although I realize that my fate would then be cruel, as I would have no longer any goal before me. I did not plan the thing for which I was created, and will surely have to pay, and pay dearly, for transgressing against the royal will, because such transgression cannot be permitted to go unpunished, and so I shall in turn become the target of the armorers in the palace vaults and they will send a pack of metal hounds out into the world, to destroy me. And even should I escape, making use of the skills that have been placed in me, and go to the very ends of the world, in whatever spot I hide myself all things will shun me and I shall find nothing for which it would be worth continuing my existence. And too, a fate such as yours is closed to me, since each one in authority like yourself will tell me—as you have tol
d me—that I am not spiritually free, therefore I cannot avail myself of the refuge of a cloister!

  He grew thoughtful, then showed surprise and said: I am not versed in the construction of your kind, nevertheless I see and hear you and you seem to me, from what you say, to be an intelligent being, though possibly thrall to a limiting compulsion; yet if, as you indeed tell me, you struggle with this compulsion, O machine, and furthermore state that you would feel yourself delivered if the will to murder were to be taken from you, tell me then, just how does this will feel? How is it with you?

  I replied: Father, maybe it is not well with me, but concerning how to hunt, track, detect, ferret out, lie in wait, stalk, sneak and lurk, and also smash obstacles standing in the way, cover traces, backtrack, double back and circle, concerning all of this I am extremely knowledgeable and to perform such operations with unfailing skill, turning myself into a sentence of relentless doom, gives me satisfaction, which no doubt was designedly inscribed by fire into my bowels.

  “I ask you once again,” he said, “tell me, what will you do when you see Arrhodes?”

  “Father, I tell you once again that I do not know, for though I wish him no evil, that which is written within me may prove more powerful than what I wish.”

  Upon hearing this, he covered his eyes with his hand and said: “You are my sister.”

  “How am I to understand that?” I asked, astonished.

 
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