Mortal Engines by Stanisław Lem

  “Yes, Your Royal Highness, and in addition, into this same opening the Homos stuffs various objects, then moves the lower portion of the head, which is fastened by hinges to the upper portion, wherewith the objects are broken up and it draws them into its interior.”

  “A peculiar custom, of which I’ve heard,” said the King. “But tell me, my wise ones, for what purpose does it do this?”

  “On that particular subject there are four theories, Your Royal Highness,” replied the homologists. “The first, that it does this to rid itself of excess venom (for it is venomous to an extreme). The second, that this act is performed for the sake of destruction, which it places above all other pleasures. The third—out of greed, for it would consume everything if it were able, and the fourth, that…”

  “Fine, fine!” said the King. “Is it true the thing is made of water, and yet nontransparent, like that puppet of mine?”

  “This too is true! It has, Sire, a multitude of slimy tubes inside, through which waters circulate; some are yellow, some pearl gray, but most are red—the red carry a dreadful poison called phlogiston or oxygen, which gas turns everything it touches instantly to rust or else to flame. The Homos itself therefore changes color, pearly, yellow, and pink. Nevertheless, Your Royal Highness, we humbly beseech you to abandon your idea of bringing here a live Homos, for it is a powerful creature and malicious as no other…”

  “This you must explain to me more fully,” said the King, as though he were ready to accede to the wise ones. In reality however he only wished to feed his enormous curiosity.

  “The beings to which the Homos belongs are called miasmals, Sire. To these belong the silicites and the proteids; the first are of thicker consistency, thus we call them gelatinoids or aspics; the others, more rare, are given different names by different authors, as for example—gummids or mucilids by Pollomender, quag-backed pasties or bogheads by Tricephalos of Arboran, and finally Analcymander the Brazen dubbed them fenny-eyed slubber-yucks…”

  “Is it true, then, that even their eyes are full of scum?” King Boludar asked eagerly.

  “It is, Sire. These creatures, outwardly weak and frail, so that a drop of sixty feet is all it takes to make one splat into a liquid red, by their native cunning represent a danger worse than all the whirlpools and reefs of the Great Asteroid Noose together! And so we beg of you, Sire, for the good of the kingdom…”

  “Yes, yes, fine,” interrupted the King. “You may go now, my dears, and we shall arrive at our decision with all due deliberation.”

  The wise homologists bowed low and departed uneasy in their minds, fearing that King Boludar had not forsaken his dangerous plan.

  By and by a stellar vessel came in the night and brought enormous crates. These were conveyed immediately to the royal garden. Before long the gold gates were opened wide for all the royal subjects; there among the diamond groves, the gazebos of carved jasper and the marble prodigies, they saw an iron cage and—in it—a pale thing, and flabby, that sat upon a small barrel before a saucer filled with something strange—true, the substance did give off the smell of oil, but of oil burnt over a flame, therefore spoiled and totally unfit for use. Yet the creature calmly dipped a kind of shovel in the saucer and, lifting up the oily goo, deposited it into its facial opening.

  The spectators were speechless with horror when they read the sign on the cage, which said that they had before them an Anthropos, Homos, a living paleface. The mob began to taunt it, but then the Homos rose, scooped up something from the barrel on which it had been sitting, and sprayed the gaping crowd with a lethal water. Some fled, others seized stones to smite the abomination, but the guards dispersed everyone at once.

  These events reached the ear of the King’s daughter, Electrina. It would seem she had inherited her father’s curiosity, for she was not afraid to approach the cage in which the monster spent its time scratching itself or imbibing enough water and rancid oil to kill a hundred royal subjects on the spot.

  The Homos quickly learned intelligent speech and was so bold as to engage Electrina in conversation.

  The princess asked it once what that white stuff was which glittered in its maw.

  “That I call teeth,” it said.

  “Oh let me have one!” requested the princess.

  “And what will you give me for it?” it asked.

  “I’ll give you my little golden key, but only for a moment.”

  “What kind of key is it?”

  “My personal key, I use it every evening to wind up my mind. You must have one too.”

  “My key is different from yours,” it answered evasively. “And where do you keep it?”

  “Here, on my breast, beneath this little golden lid.”

  “Hand it over…”

  “And you’ll give me a tooth?”


  The princess turned a little golden screw, opened the lid, took out a little golden key and passed it through the bars. The paleface grabbed it greedily and, chuckling with glee, retreated to the center of the cage. The princess implored and pleaded with it to return the key, but all in vain. Afraid to let anyone find out what she had done, Electrina went back to her palace chambers with a heavy heart. She acted foolishly perhaps, but then she was still practically a child. The next day her servants found her senseless in her crystal bed. The King and Queen came running, and the whole court after them. She lay as if asleep, but it was not possible to waken her. The King summoned the court physicians-electricians, his medics, techs and mechanicians, and these, examining the princess, discovered that her lid was open—no little screw, no little key! The alarm was sounded in the castle, pandemonium reigned, everyone rushed here and there looking for the little key, but to no avail. The next day the King, deep in despair, was informed that his paleface wished to speak with him on the matter of the missing key. The King went himself to the park without delay, and the monstrosity told him that it knew where the princess had lost her key, but would reveal this only when the King had given his royal word to restore to it its freedom and, moreover, supply a spacefaring vessel so it could return to its own kind. The King stubbornly refused, he ordered the park searched up and down, but at last agreed to these terms. Thus a spacecraft was readied for flight, and guards escorted the paleface from its cage. The King was waiting by the ship; the Anthropos however promised to tell him where the key lay as soon as it was on board and not before.

  But once on board, it stuck its head out a vent hole and, holding up the bright key in its hand, shouted:

  “Here is the key! I’m taking it with me, King, so that your daughter will never wake again, because I crave revenge, in that you humiliated me, keeping me in an iron cage as a laughingstock!!”

  Flame shot from under the stern of the spacecraft and the vessel rose into the sky while everyone stood dumbfounded. The King sent his fastest steel cloudscorchers and whirlyprops in pursuit, but their crews all came back empty-handed, for the wily paleface had covered its tracks and given its pursuers the slip.

  King Boludar now understood how wrong it had been of him not to heed the wise homologísts, but the damage had been done. The foremost electrical locksmiths worked to fashion a duplicate key, the Great Assembler to the Throne, royal artisans, armorers and artefactotums, Lord High steelwrights and master goldforgers, and cybercounts and dynamargraves—all came to try their skill, but in vain. The King realized he would have to recover the key taken by the paleface, otherwise darkness would forever lie upon the sense and senses of the princess.

  He proclaimed therefore throughout the realm that this, that and the other had taken place, the anthropic paleface Homos absconded with the golden key, and whosoever captured it, or even if only he retrieved the life-giving jewel and woke the princess, would have her hand in marriage and ascend the throne.

  Straightway there appeared in droves daredevils of various cuts and sizes. Among these were electroknights of great renown as well as charlatan-swindlers, astrothieves, star drifte
rs. To the castle came Demetricus Megawatt, the celebrated fencer-oscillator, possessing such feedback and speedback that no one could hold the field against him in single combat; and self-motes came from distant lands, like the two Automatts, vector-victors in a hundred battles, or like Prostheseus, constructionist par excellence, who never went anywhere without two spark absorbers, one black, the other silver; and there was Arbitron Cosmoski, all built of protocrystals and svelte as a spire, and Cyfer of Agrym the intellectrician, who on forty andromedaries in eighty boxes brought with him an old digital computer, rusted from much thinking yet still mighty of mind. Three champions from the race of the Selectivitites arrived, Diodius, Triodius and Heptodius, who possessed such a perfect vacuum in their heads, their black thought was like the starless night. And Perpetuan came too, all in Leyden armor, with his commutator covered with verdigris from three hundred encounters, and Matrix Perforatem, who never went a day that he did not integrate someone—the latter brought to the palace his invincible cybersteed, a supercharger he called Megasus. They all assembled, and when the court was full, a barrel rolled up to the threshold and out of it spilled, in the shape of mercury, Erg the Self-inducting, who could assume whatever aspect he desired.

  The heroes banqueted, lighting up the castle halls, so that the marble of the ceilings glowed pink like a cloud at sunset, and then off they set, each his separate way, to seek out the paleface, challenge it to mortal combat and regain the key, and thereby win the princess and the throne of Boludar. The first, Demetricus Megawatt, flew to Koldlea, where live the Jellyclabbers, for he thought to find out something there. And thus he dove into their ooze, carving out the way with blows from his remote-control saber, but nothing did he achieve, for when he waxed too warm his cooling system went and the incomparable warrior found his grave on foreign soil, and the unclean ooze of the Jellyclabbers closed over his dauntless cathodes forever.

  The two Automatts Vectorian reached the land of the Radomants, who raise up edifices out of luminescent gas, dabbling in radioactivity, and are such misers that each evening they count the atoms on their planet. Ill was the reception the grasping Radomants gave the Automatts, for they showed them a chasm full of onyxes, chrysolites, chalcedonies and spinels, and when the electroknights yielded to the temptation of the jewels, the Radomants stoned them to death, setting off from above an avalanche of precious stones, which, as it moved, blazed like a falling comet of a hundred colors. For the Radomants were allied to the palefaces by a secret pact, about which no one knew.

  The third, Prostheseus the Constructionist, after along voyage through the interstellar dark, arrived at the land of the Algoncs. There meteors move in blizzards of rock. The schooner of Prostheseus ran into their inexorable wall and with a broken rudder he drifted through the deep, and when at last he neared some distant suns, their light played across that poor adventurer’s sightless eyes. The fourth, Arbitron Cosmoski, had better luck at first. He made it through the Andromeda straits, crossed the four spiral whirlpools of the Hunting Dogs, after that came out into quiet space, favorable for photon sailing, and like a nimble beam he took the helm and, leaving a trail of sweeping fire, reached the shores of the planet Maestricia, where amid meteorite boulders he spied the shattered wreck of the schooner on which Prostheseus had embarked. The body of the constructionist, powerful, shiny and cold as in life, he buried beneath a basalt heap, but took from him both spark-absorbers, the silver and the black, to serve as shields, and proceeded on his way. Wild and craggy was Maestricia, avalanches of stone roared across it, with a silver tangle of lightning in the clouds, above the precipices. The knight came to a region of ravines and there the Palindromides fell upon him in a canyon of malachite, all green. With thunderbolts they lashed him from above, but he parried these with his spark-absorbing buckler, till they moved up a volcano, set the crater on its side and, taking aim, belched fire at him. The knight fell and bubbling lava entered his skull, from which flowed all the silver. The fifth, Cyfer of Agrym the intellectrician, went nowhere. Instead, halting right outside the borders of Boludar’s kingdom, he released his andromedaries to graze in stellar pastures, and himself connected the machine, adjusted it, programmed it, bustled about its eighty boxes, and when all were brimming with current, so that it swelled with intelligence, he began putting to it precisely formulated questions: Where did the paleface live? How could one find the way? How could it be tricked? Trapped? How forced to give up the key? The answers, when they came, were vague and noncommital. In a fury he whipped the machine, until it began to smell of heated copper, and he continued to belabor it, crying, “The truth now, out with it, you blasted old digital computer!”—until at last its joints melted, tin trickled from them in silvery tears, the overheated pipes split open with a bang, and he was left standing over a fused junkheap, incensed and with a cudgel in his hand.

  Shamefaced, he had to return home. He ordered a new machine, but did not see it until four hundred years later.

  Sixth was the sally of the Selectivitites. Diodius, Triodius and Heptodius set about things differently. They had an inexhaustible supply of tritium, lithium and deuterium, and decided with explosions of heavy hydrogen to force open all the roads leading to the land of the palefaces. It was not known, however, where those roads began. They sought to ask the Pyropods, but the latter locked themselves behind the gold walls of their capital and hurled flame; the valiant-valent Selectivitites stormed the bastion, using both deuterium and tritium without stint, till an inferno of stripped atoms looked the sky boldly in its starry eye. The walls of the citadel shone gold, but in the fire they betrayed their true nature, turning into yellow clouds of sulfuric smoke, for they had been built of pyrites-marcasites. There Diodius fell, trampled by the Pyropods, and his mind burst like a bouquet of colored crystals, spraying his armor. In a tomb of black olivine they buried him, then pressed on, to the borders of the kingdom of Char, where the starkiller King Astrocida reigned. This king had a treasure house full of fiery nuclei plucked from white dwarfs, and which were so heavy, that only the terrible force of the palace magnets kept them from tearing clear through to the planet’s core. Whoever stepped upon its ground could move neither arms nor legs, for the prodigious gravitation clamped down better than bolts or chains. Triodius and Heptodius were hard set here, for Astrocida, catching sight of them beneath the castle ramparts, rolled out one white dwarf after another and loosed the fire-spouting masses in their faces. They defeated him however, and he revealed to them the way that led to the palefaces, wherein he deceived them, for he did not know the way himself, but wished only to be rid of the fearsome warriors. So they delved into the black heart of the void, where Triodius was shot by someone with an antimatter blunderbuss—it might have been one of the hunter-Cyberneers, or possibly a mine set for a tailless comet. In any case Triodius vanished, with barely time to shout, “Tikcuff!!,” his favorite word and the battle cry of his race. Heptodius stubbornly forged ahead, but a bitter end was in store for him as well. His vessel found itself between two vortices of gravitation called Bakhrida and Scintilla; Bakhrida speeds up time, Scintilla on the other hand slows it down, and between them lies a zone of stagnation, in which the present, becalmed, flows neither backward nor forward. There Heptodius froze alive, and remains to this day, along with the countless frigates and galleons of other astromariners, pirates and spaceswashers, not aging in the least, suspended in the silence and excruciating boredom that is Eternity.

  When thus had concluded the campaign of the three Selectivitites, Perpetuan, cybercount of Fud, who as the seventh was next to go, for the longest time did not set forth. Instead that electroknight made lengthy preparations for war, fitting himself with ever sharper conductors, with more and more striking spark plugs, mortars and tractors. Full of caution, he decided he would go at the head of a loyal retinue. Under his banner flocked conquistadors, also many rejects, robots who having nothing else to do wished to try their hand at soldiering. Out of these Perpetuan formed a galactic light cavalry
and an infantry, heavy, for ironclad and bullionheaded, plus several platoons of polydragoons and palladins. However at the thought that now he must go and meet his fate in some unknown land, and that in any puddle he might rust away utterly, the iron shanks buckled under him, he was seized with a terrible regret—and immediately headed home, in shame and sorrow shedding tears of topaz, for he was a mighty lord, with a soul full of jewels.

  As for the next to the last, Matrix Perforatem, he approached the matter sensibly. He had heard of the land of the Pygmelliants, robot gnomes whose race originated from this, that their constructor’s pencil had slipped on the drawing board, whereupon from the master mold they all came out, every last one of them, as hunchbacked deformities. Alteration didn’t pay and thus they remained. These dwarfs amass knowledge as others do treasure; for this reason they are called Hoarders of the Absolute.

  Their wisdom lies in the fact that they collect knowledge but never use it. To them went Perforatem, not in a military way but on galleons whose decks sagged beneath magnificent gifts; he intended to win the Pygmelliants over with garments aglitter with positrons and lashed by a rain of neutrons; he brought them atoms of gold as big as seven fists, and flagons swirling with the rarest ionospheres. But the Pygmelliants scorned even the noble vacuum embroidered with waves in exquisite astral spectra. In vain too did he rage and threaten to set upon them his snorting electricourser Megasus. They offered him at last a guide, but the guide was a myriaphalangeal thousand-hander and always pointed in all directions at once.

  Perforatem sent him packing and spurred Megasus on the trail of the palefaces, but the trail turned out to be false, for a comet of calcium hydroxide was wont to pass that way, and the simple-minded steed confused this with calcium phosphate, which is the basic ingredient of the paleface skeleton; Megasus mistook the lime for slime. Perforatem roamed long among suns that grew increasingly dim, for he had entered into a very ancient section of the Cosmos.

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