Mortal Engines by Stanisław Lem


  The candle, thrown to the floor, had gone out, but its wick still glowed red, and by exerting my nocturnal vision I saw beneath the table a body, recumbent, streaming blood—black in that light—and although everything within me yearned to spring, I first sniffed the air redolent of blood and stearin: this man was a stranger to me, therefore a struggle had taken place and Arrhodes slew him before me. The how, why and when of it never crossed my mind, for the fact that I was alone with him, and he alive, in this empty house, that there were now only the two of us, hit me like a thunderbolt. I trembled—bride and butcher—noting at the same time with an unblinking eye the rhythmic twitches of that large body as it breathed its last. If I could only leave now, steal softly away into the world of snow and mountains, anything rather than remain with him face to face—face to feeler, that is—I added, doomed to the monstrous and the comic no matter what I did, and the sense of being mocked and jeered at tipped the scale, pushed me so that I slid down, still suspended headfirst like a wary spider and, no longer caring about the screech of my ventral plates across the sill, in a nimble arc leaped over the corpse, and was at the door.

  I don’t know how or when I broke it down. Across the threshold were winding stairs and on them, on his back, Arrhodes, the head twisted back and propped against worn stone, they must have fought on these stairs, that was the reason almost nothing of it had reached me, so here at my feet he lay, his ribs were moving, I saw—yes—his nakedness, the nakedness I had not known, but imagined only, that first night at the ballroom.

  He gave a rattle, I watched as he tried to lift his lids, they opened, first the whites, and I, rearing, with a bent abdomen, I gazed down into his upturned face, not daring to touch him nor retreat, for while he lived I could not be certain of myself, though the blood was leaving him with every breath, yet I clearly saw that my duty extended up until the very last, because the King’s sentence must be executed even in the throes of death, therefore I could not take the risk, inasmuch as he was still alive, nor indeed did I know if I truly desired him to wake. Had he opened his eyes and been conscious, and—in an inverted view—taken me in entirely, exactly as I stood over him, stood now powerlessly carrying death, in a gesture of supplication, pregnant but not from him, would that have been a wedding—or its unmercifully arranged parody?

  But he did not open his eyes in consciousness and when dawn entered between us in puffs of finely sparkling snow from the windows, through which the whole house howled with the mountain blizzard, he groaned once more and ceased to breathe, and only then, my mind at rest, did I lie down beside him, and wrapped him tightly in my arms, and I lay thus in the light and in the darkness through two days of snowstorm, which covered our bed with a sheet that did not melt. And on the third day the sun came up.

 


 

  Stanisław Lem, Mortal Engines

 


 

 
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