Mortal Engines by Stanisław Lem

  “Exactly as I say it,” he said, “and it means I neither raise myself above you nor humble myself before you, for however much we may differ, your ignorance, which you have confessed to me and which I believe, makes us equals in the face of Providence. That being so, come with me and I shall show you something.”

  We went, one after the other, through the monastery garden, and came to an old woodshed, the monk pushed and the creaking door opened, in the dimness inside I made out a dark form lying on a bundle of straw, and a smell entered my lungs through my nostrils, a smell I had pursued incessantly, and so strong here, that I felt my sting stir of its own accord and emerge from its ventral sheath, but in the next instant my vision grew accustomed to the darkness and I perceived my error. On the straw lay only discarded clothes. The monk saw by my trembling that I was greatly agitated, and he said: Yes, Arrhodes was here. He hid in our monastery a month ago, when he had succeeded in throwing you off the scent. He regretted that he was unable to work as before, and so secretly notified his followers, who sometimes visited him at night, but two traitors sneaked in among them and carried him off five days ago.

  “Do you mean to say ‘agents of the King’?” I asked, still quivering and prayerfully pressing to my breast my crossed arms.

  “No, I say ‘traitors,’ for they abducted him by a ruse and using force; the little deaf-mute boy whom we took in, he alone saw them leave at dawn, Arrhodes bound and with a knife held to his throat.”

  “Abducted him?” I asked, not understanding. “Who? To what place? For what reason?”

  “In order, I think, to have use of his mind. We cannot appeal to the law for help, for the law is the King’s. Therefore they will force him to serve them, and if he refuses they will kill him and go unpunished.”

  “Father,” I said, “praised be the hour in which I made so bold as to approach you and speak. I will go now on the trail of the abductors and free Arrhodes. I know how to hunt, how to track down, there is nothing I do better, only show me the right direction, known to you from the words of the mute!”

  He replied: And yet you do not know whether you will be able to restrain yourself, you admitted as much to me! To which I said: That is so, however I think that I will find a way. I have no clear idea as yet—perhaps I will seek out a skillful master craftsman, who will find in me the right circuit and change it, such that my desire becomes my destiny.

  The monk said: Before you set out you may, if you like, consult with one of our brothers, because before he joined us he was, in the world, conversant with precisely such arts. He serves us now as a physician.

  We were standing once more in the sunny garden, and though he gave no indication of it, I understood that still he did not trust me. The scent had dissipated in the course of five days, thus he could have given me the wrong as well as the right direction. I consented.

  The physician examined me, maintaining the necessary caution, shining a dark lantern inside my body through the chinks of my interabdominal rims, and this with the utmost care and concentration. Then he stood, brushed the dust from his habit and said:

  “It often happens that a machine sent out with these sort of instructions is waylaid by the condemned man’s family or his friends, or by other persons who for reasons unknown to the authorities attempt to foil their plans. In order to prevent this, the prudent armorers of the King lock such contents hermetically and connect them with the core in such a way that any tampering whatever must prove fatal. After the placing of the final seal even they cannot remove the sting. Thus it is with you. It also often happens that the victim disguises himself in different clothing, alters his appearance, his behavior and odor, but his mind he cannot alter and hence the machine does not content itself with using the lower and upper senses of smell to hunt, but puts questions to the quarry, questions devised by the foremost experts on the individual characteristics of the human psyche. Thus it is with you also. In addition, I see in your interior a mechanism which none of your predecessors possessed, a multiple memory of things superfluous to a hunting machine, for these are recorded feminine histories, filled with names and turns of phrase that lure the mind, and a conductor runs from them down into the fatal core. Therefore you are a machine perfected in a way unknown to me, and perhaps even an ultimate machine. To remove your sting without at the same time producing the usual result is impossible.”

  “I will need my sting,” I said, still lying on my back, “as I must rush to the aid of the abducted one.”

  “As for whether you will succeed, if making every effort, in restraining the releases that are poised above the core of which we speak, I cannot tell you yes or no,” continued the physician, as though he hadn’t heard my words. “I can do—if you wish—one thing only, namely, I can sprinkle the poles of the place in question with finely ground particles of iron using a tube. This would increase somewhat the bounds of your freedom. Yet even if I do this, you will not know up until the last moment whether, in rushing to the aid of someone, you are not still an obedient tool against him.”

  Seeing them both look at me, I agreed to submit to this operation, which did not take long, it caused me no pain but then neither did it produce in my mental state any perceptible change. To gain their trust even more, I asked if they would allow me to spend the night in the monastery, the entire day having passed in talk, deliberations and auscultations. They willingly agreed, but I devoted that time to a thorough examination of the woodshed, familiarizing myself with the smell of the abductors. I was capable of this, because it sometimes happens that a King’s agent finds its way blocked not by the victim himself, but by some other daredevil. Before daybreak I lay down on the straw where for many nights had slept the one allegedly abducted, and motionless I breathed in his odor, waiting for the monks. For I reasoned that if they had deceived me with some fabricated story, then they would fear my vengeful return from the false trail, therefore this darkest hour at early dawn would suit their purpose best, if they meant to destroy me. I lay, pretending to be deep in sleep, alert to the slightest sound coming from the garden, for they could barricade the door from the outside and set fire to the woodshed, in order that the fruit of my womb tear me asunder in flames. They would not even have to overcome their characteristic repugnance for murder, inasmuch as they considered me to be not a person but merely a machine of death; my remains they could bury in the garden and nothing would happen to them. I did not really know what I would do if I heard them approach, and never learned, since that did not come about. And so I remained alone with my thoughts, in which recurred over and over the amazing words spoken by the elder monk as he looked into my eyes, You are my sister. I still could not understand them, but when I bent over them something warm spread through my being and transformed me, it was as if I had lost a heavy fetus, with which I had been pregnant. In the morning however I ran out through the half-open gate and, steering clear of the monastery buildings according to the monk’s directions, headed full speed for the mountains visible on the horizon—for there he had aimed my pursuit.

  I hastened greatly and by noon more than one hundred miles separated me from the monastery. I tore like a shell between the white birches, and when I ran straight through the high grass of the foothill meadows, it fell on either side as if beneath the measured strokes of a scythe.

  The track of both abductors I found in a deep valley, on a small bridge thrown across rapid water, but not a hint of Arrhodes’s scent, so regardless of the effort they must have taken turns carrying him, which gave evidence of their cunning as well as knowledge, since they realized no one has the right to replace the King’s machine in its mission, and that they were incurring the monarch’s great displeasure by their deed. No doubt you would like to know what my true intentions were in that final run, and so I will tell you that I tricked the monks, and yet I did not trick them, for I truly desired to regain or rather gain my freedom, indeed I had never possessed it. However concerning what I intended to do with that freedom, I do not kn
ow what confession to make. This uncertainty was nothing new, while sinking the knife into my naked body I also did not know whether I wished to kill or only discover myself, even if one was to have meant the other. That step too had been foreseen, as all subsequent events revealed, and thus the hope of freedom could have been just an illusion, nor even my own illusion, but introduced in me in order that I move with more alacrity, urged on precisely by the application of that perfidious spur. But as for saying whether freedom would have amounted simply to renouncing Arrhodes, I do not know. Even being completely free, I could have killed him, for I was not so mad as to believe in the impossible miracle of reciprocated love now that I had ceased to be a woman, and if perchance I was yet a woman in some way, how was Arrhodes, who had seen the opened belly of his naked mistress, to believe this? And so the wisdom of my creators transcended the farthest limits of mechanical craftsmanship, for without a doubt in their calculations they had provided for this state also, in which I hurried to the aid of him who was lost to me forever. And had I been able to turn aside and go off wherever my steps led me, then too I would not be rendering him any great service, I big with death, having no one to whom to bear it. I think therefore that I was nobly base and by freedom compelled to do not that which was commanded me directly, but that which in my incarnation I myself desired. Thorny ruminations, and vexing in their uselessness, yet they would be settled at the goal. By killing the abductors and saving my beloved, in that way forcing him to exchange the disgust and fear he felt towards me for helpless admiration, I might regain—if not him, then at least myself.

  Having forged through a dense thicket of hazels, beneath the first terraces I suddenly lost the scent. I searched for it in vain, here it was and there it vanished, as if the ones pursued had flown up into the sky. Returning to the copse, as prudence dictated, I found—not without difficulty—a shrub from which several of the thicker branches had been cut. So I sniffed the stumps oozing hazel sap and, going back to where the trail disappeared, discovered its continuation in the smell of hazel, because the ones fleeing had made use of stilts, aware that the trail of the upper scent would not last long in the air, swept away by the mountain wind. This sharpened my will; soon the hazel smell grew weak, but here again I saw through the ruse employed—the ends of the stilts they had wrapped in the shreds of a burlap sack.

  By an overhanging rock lay the discarded stilts. The clearing here was strewn with giant boulders overgrown with moss on the north side and so piled up together that the only way to cross that field of rubble was by leaping from one rock to the other. This too the escapers had done, but not in a straight line, they had weaved and zigzagged, therefore I was obliged constantly to crawl down from the rocks, run around them in a circle and catch the particles of scent trembling in the air. Thus I reached the cliff up which they had climbed—so they must have freed the hands of their captive, but I was not surprised that he went with them of his own accord, for he could not have turned back. I climbed, following the clear spoor, the triple odor on the warm surface of the stone, though it became necessary to ascend vertically, by rocky ledges, troughs, clefts, and there was no clump of gray moss nestled in the crevice of a crag nor any tiny chink that could give a brief purchase to the feet which the fleeing ones had not used as a step, halting every now and then in the more difficult places to study the way ahead, which I could tell from the intensification of their odor there, but I myself raced up barely touching the rock and I felt my pulse strengthening within, felt it play and sing in magnificent pursuit, for these people were prey worthy of me and I felt admiration for them and also joy, because whatever they had accomplished in that perilous ascent, moving in threesome and securing themselves with a line whose jute smell remained on the sharp ledges, I accomplished alone and easily, and nothing was able to hurl me from that aerial path. At the summit I was met by a tremendous wind that whipped across the ridge like a knife, and I did not look back to see the green landscape spread out below, its horizons fading into the blue of the air, but instead, hurrying along the length of the ridge in either direction, I searched for further traces, and found them finally in a minute nick. Then suddenly a whitish scrape and a chipping marked the fall of one of the escapers, therefore leaning out over the brink of a rock I peered down and saw him, small, lying halfway down the mountain side, and the sharpness of my vision permitted me to make out even the dark spattering on the limestones, as if for a moment around the prone man there had fallen a rain of blood. The others however had gone on along the ridge, and at the thought that now I had only one opponent left guarding Arrhodes I felt disappointment, because never before had I had such a sense of the momentousness of my actions and experienced such an eagerness for battle, an eagerness that both sobered and intoxicated me. So I ran down a slope, for my prey had taken that direction, having left the dead man in the precipice, unquestionably they were in a hurry and his instantaneous death from the drop must have been obvious. I approached a craggy pass like the ruin of a giant cathedral, of which only the huge pillars of the broken gate remained, and the adjoining side buttresses, and one high window through which the sky shone, and silhouetted against it—a slender, sickly tree; in its unconscious heroism it had grown there from a seed, planted by the wind in a handful of dust. After the pass was another, higher mountain gorge, partly enveloped in mist, covered over by a trailing cloud out of which there fell a finely sparkling snow. In the shadow thrown by one turret of rock I heard a loose, pebbly sound, then thunder, and a landslide came rumbling down the slope. Stones pummeled me, till sparks and smoke issued from my sides, but then I drew all my legs under me and dropped into a shallow recess beneath a boulder, where in safety I waited for the last rocks to descend. The thought came to me that the hunted one guarding Arrhodes had chosen by design a place of avalanches he knew, on the chance that I, being unfamiliar with mountains, might set off an avalanche and be crushed—and though this was only a slight possibility, it raised my spirits, for if my opponent did not merely flee and evade but also could attack, then the contest grew more worthy.

  At the bottom of the next gorge, which was white with snow, stood a building, not a house, not a castle, erected with such massive stones that not even a giant could have moved one single-handed—and I realized it had to be the enemy’s retreat, for where else in this wilderness? And so, no longer bothering to find the scent, I began to lower myself, digging my back legs into the shifting rubble, with my front legs practically skimming over the powdered fragments, and the middle pair I used to brake this downward slide, in order that it not become a headlong plunge, until I reached the first snow and noiselessly now proceeded across it, testing every step so as not to drop into some bottomless crevice. I had to be cautious, for that one expected my appearance precisely from the pass, therefore I did not draw too near, lest I become visible from the walls of the fortress, and then, squeezing myself under a mushroom-shaped stone, I patiently waited for night to fall.

  It grew dark quickly, but the snow still sifted down and whitened the gloom; because of this I didn’t dare approach the building, but only rested my head on my crossed legs in such a way as to keep the building within view. After midnight the snow stopped, but I did not shake it from myself, for it made me resemble my surroundings, and from the sliver of moon between the clouds it shone like the bridal gown that I had never worn. Slowly I began to crawl towards the misty outline of the stronghold, not taking my eyes off the window on the second floor, in which a yellowish light was glimmering, but I lowered my heavy lids, for the moon dazzled and I was accustomed to the dark. It seemed to me that something moved in that dimly lit window, as if a large shadow had swept across a wall, so I crawled faster, till I came to the foundation. Meter by meter I began to scale the battlement, and this was not difficult, as the stones had no mortar joints and were held in place only by their enormous weight. Thus I reached the lower windows, which loomed black like parapet loopholes intended for the mouths of cannons. They all gaped dark and emp
ty. And inside too such silence reigned, it was as though death had been the only occupant here for ages. To see better, I activated my night vision and, putting my head inside the stone chamber, opened the luminous eyes of my antennae, from which issued forth a phosphorescent glow. I found myself facing a grimy fireplace made of rough flagging, in which a few split logs and slightly charred twigs had grown cold long ago. I saw also a bench and rusted utensils by the wall, a crumpled bed and some sort of stone-hard rolls of bread in the corner. It struck me odd that nothing here was preventing my entrance, I didn’t trust this beckoning emptiness, and though at the other end of the room the door stood open, perhaps for that very reason sensing a trap, I withdrew as I had entered, without a sound, to resume my climb to the top floor. The window from which the faint light came—I did not even consider approaching it. Finally I scrambled up onto the roof and, finding myself on its snow-covered surface, lay down like a dog keeping watch, to wait for day. I heard two voices, but could not tell what they were saying. I lay motionless, both longing for and fearing the moment when I would leap upon my opponent to free Arrhodes, and tensed like a taut coil, wordlessly picturing the course of the struggle that would be ended by a sting; at the same time I looked within myself, now no longer seeking there a source of will, but trying to find some small indication, even the smallest, as to whether I would kill only one man. I cannot say at what point this fear left me. I lay, still uncertain, for not knowing myself, yet that very ignorance of whether I had come as a rescuer or as a murderess—it became for me something hitherto unknown, inexplicably new, investing my every tremor with a mysterious and girlish innocence, it filled me with an overwhelming joy. This joy surprised me not a little and I wondered if it might not be another manifestation of the wisdom of my inventors, who had seen to it that I find limitless power in the bringing of both succor and destruction, however I was not certain of this either. A sudden, short noise, followed by a babbling voice, reached me from below—one more sound, a hollow thud, as of a heavy object falling, then silence. I started to crawl down from the roof, nearly bending my abdomen in two, such that with the chest-half of the body I clung to the wall, while my back pair of legs and the tube of the sting still rested on the edge of the roof, until with my head shaking from the strain I approached, hanging, the open window.

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