Mortal Engines by Stanisław Lem

  He traveled past a row of purple giants, until he noticed that his ship along with the silent pageant of stars was being reflected in a spiral mirror, a silver-surfaced speculum; he was surprised at this and, just in case, drew his supernova extinguisher, which he had purchased from the Pygmelliants in order to protect himself against excessive heat along the Milky Way. He knew not what it was he saw—actually it was a knot in space, the continuum’s most contiguous factorial, unknown even to the Monoasterists of that place. All they say is that whoever encounters it never returns. To this day no one knows what happened to Matrix in that stellar mill. His faithful Megasus sped home alone, whimpering softly in the void, and its sapphire eyes were pools of such horror, that no one could look into them without a shudder. And neither vessel, nor extinguishers, nor Matrix, was ever seen again.

  And so the last, Erg the Self-inducting, rode forth alone. He was gone a year and fortnights three. When he returned, he told of lands unknown to anyone, such as that of the Periscones, who build hot sluices of corruption; of the planet of the Epoxy-eyed—these merged before him into rows of black billows, for that is what they do in time of war, but he hewed them in two, laying bare the limestone that was their bone, and when he overcame their slaughterfalls he found himself face to face with one that took up half the sky, and he fell upon it, to demand the way, but beneath the blade of his firesword its skin split open and exposed white, writhing forests of nerves. And he spoke of the transparent ice-planet Aberrabia, which like a diamond lens holds the image of the entire Universe within itself; there he copied down the way to palefaceland. He told of a region of eternal silence, Alumnium Cryotrica, where he saw only the reflections of the stars in the surfaces of hanging glaciers; and of the kingdom of the molten Marmaloids, who fashion boiling baubles out of lava, and of the Electropneumaticists, who in mists of methane, in ozone, chlorine and the smoke of volcanos are able to kindle the spark of intelligence, and who continually wrestle with the problem of how to put into a gas the quality of genius. He told them that in order to reach the realm of the palefaces he had to force open the door of a sun called Caput Medusae; how after lifting this door off its chromatic hinges, he ran through the star’s interior, a long succession of purple and light-blue flames, till the armor on him curled from the heat. How for thirty days he tried to guess the word which would activate the hatch of Astroprocyonum, since only through it can one enter the cold hell of miasmal beings; how finally he found himself among them, and they trial to catch him in their sticky, lipid snares, knock the mercury from his head or short-circuit him; how they deluded him, pointing to misshapen stars, but that was a counterfeit sky, the real one they had hidden in their sneaking way; how with torture they sought to pry from him his algorithm and then, when he withstood everything, threw him into a pit and dropped a slab of magnetite over the opening. Inside however he immediately multiplied himself into hundreds and thousands of Ergs the Self-inducting, pushed aside the iron lid, emerged on the surface and wreaked his retribution upon the palefaces for one full month and five days. How then the monsters, in a last attempt, attacked on trackers they called casterpillars, but that availed them nothing, for, never slackening in his zeal for battle, but hacking, stabbing and slashing away, he brought them to such a pass, that they threw the dastardly paleface-keythief at his feet, whereupon Erg lopped off its loathsome head, disemboweled the carcass, and in it found a stone, known as a trichobezoar, and there on the stone was carved an inscription in the scrofulous paleface tongue, revealing where the key was. The Self-inducting cut open sixty-seven suns—white, blue and ruby red—before, pulling apart the right one, he found the key.

  The adventures he met with, the battles he was forced to wage on the journey back—of these he did not even wish to think, so great now was his yearning for the princess, and great too his impatience for the wedding and the coronation. With joy the King and Queen led him to the chamber of their daughter, who was silent as the grave, plunged in sleep. Erg leaned over her, fiddled a little near the open lid, inserted something, gave a turn, and instantly the princess—to the delight of her mother and the King and the entire court—lifted her eyes and smiled at her deliverer. Erg closed the little lid, sealed it with a bit of plaster to keep it closed, and explained that the little screw, which he had also found, had been dropped during a fight with Poleander Partabon, emperor of all Jatapurgovia. But no one gave this any thought, and a pity too, for both the King and Queen would have quickly realized that he never sallied forth at all, because even as a child Erg the Self-inducting had possessed the ability to open any lock and thanks to this wound up the Princess Electrina. In reality, then, he had met with not a single one of the adventures he described, but simply waited out a year and fortnights three, in order that it not appear suspicious, his returning too soon with the missing object, and also, he wanted to make sure that none of his rivals would come back. Only then did he show up at the court of King Boludar and restore the princess to life, and so married her, reigned long and happily on the throne of Boludar, and his subterfuge was never discovered. From which one can see straightaway that we have told the truth and not a fairy tale, for in fairy tales virtue always triumphs.

  Two Monsters

  Long ago, in a dark and trackless wild at the galactic pole, on a solitary stellar island, there was a senary (hexadic) system; five of its suns revolved alone, the last however had a planet of igneous rock, with a jasper sky, and on this planet there grew in might the kingdom of the Argenticans or Silverines.

  Amid black mountains and on plains of white stood their cities Ilidar, Bismalia, Sinalost, but the most magnificent of all was the capital of the Silverines, Eterna, by day as blue as an iceberg, by night as gibbous as a star. Hanging walls protected it from meteors, while, inside, edifices of chrysoprase and cymophane abounded, bright as gold, and buildings of tourmaline and cast morion, blacker than space itself. But by far the most beautiful was the palace of the Argentican monarchs, erected on the principle of negative architecture, since the master builders wished not to impose limits on either the eye or the mind, and it was a structure imaginary, irrational, for mathematical, without ceilings, roofs or walls. From it the Royal House of Energon ruled over the entire planet.

  During the reign of Treops, the Asmodian Sideritites fell upon the kingdom of the Energons from the sky; with asteroids they reduced metal Bismalia to nothing but a cemetery, and inflicted many other losses on the Silverines, till finally the young King Sundrius, a polyarch practically all-knowing, after summoning his wisest astrotechnicians, ordered the entire planet to be surrounded by a system of magnetic vortices and gravitational moats, in which time rushed by so rapidly that no sooner would some rash aggressor step there than a hundred million years or even more would pass, and he would crumble into dust from old age before ever setting eyes on the glow of Argentican cities. These invisible gulfs of time and magnetic barricades discouraged entry to the planet so well, that the Argenticans were now able to assume the offensive. They set out for Asmodia then, and bombarded and irritated its white sun with radiation-throwers, till at last they triggered off a nuclear conflagration; the sun became a Supernova and incinerated the planet of the Sideritites in embraces of flame.

  Thereafter, for centuries on end, order and prosperity obtained among the Argenticans. The continuation of the ruling line was never broken, and each Energon, when he succeeded to the throne, on the day of his coronation went down to the vaults of the imaginary palace, there to take from the lifeless hands of his predecessor the silver scepter. This was no ordinary scepter; many thousands of years before, there had been carved across it the following inscription:

  If the monster is immortal, either it does not exist or there are two; if all else fails, shatter me.

  No one in the kingdom, nor in the court of the Energons, knew what that inscription meant, for the memory of its origin had been effaced ages since. It was only in the reign of King Inhiston that all this changed. There appeared on the plane
t at that time an unknown giant creature, whose dreadful fame instantly spread to both hemispheres. None had seen it at dose range, for anyone foolhardy enough to try never returned to tell the tale. Where the creature came from was a mystery; the elders maintained that it had been spawned from the vast ruins and scattered wheels of osmium and tantalum which remained after the annihilation of Bismalia by asteroids, for that city had never been rebuilt. The elders said evil forces slumbered in the ancient magnetic wreckage, that there were certain hidden currents in those metals, currents which at the touch of a storm sometimes stirred and that then from the scraping creep of plates, from the lifeless movement of graveyard fragments there arose an inconceivable creature, neither dead nor living, and which knew but one thing: to sow unlimited destruction. Others, however, held that the force which created the monster came from wicked thoughts and deeds; these were reflected as if in a concave mirror off the nickel core of the planet and, converging in a single place, gropingly drew in metal skeletons and decrepit scrap heaps, until at last the beast took shape. The scientists, of course, scoffed at such tales and called them poppycock. All the same the monster was ravaging the planet. At first it avoided the larger cities and attacked isolated settlements, obliterating them with white heat and violet. Later, when it grew bolder, one could see even from the very towers of Eterna its spine speeding across the horizon, similar to a mountain ridge, with sunbeams glancing off its steel. There were sorties sent out against it, but with a single breath it vaporized them, armor and all.

  Fear fell upon the land, and the ruler Inhiston summoned his sages, who thought day and night, plugging their heads together for a clearer understanding of the problem, till finally they announced that only through invention could the monster be destroyed. Inhiston therefore commanded that the Great Cybernator to the Throne, the Great High Master Dynamicizer and the Great Abstractionist unite in drawing up plans for a mechanical champion to do the monster battle.

  But they could not agree, each having a different idea; therefore they constructed three. The first, Brazen, was like a hollowed-out mountain, loaded with sentient machinery. For three days the living silver poured into his memory banks; he meanwhile lay in forests of scaffolding, and the current roared within him like a hundred cataracts. The second, Mercuriel, was an electrodynamic giant; he gravitated to one form, but with movements terrifyingly swift, being as changeable in shape as a cloud caught in a cyclone. The third, whom by night the Abstractionist created according to a secret design, was seen by no one.

  When the Cybernator to the Throne completed his work and the scaffolds fell away, the colossus Brazen stretched, until throughout the entire city crystal ceilings started ringing; slowly he climbed to his knees, and the earth trembled, and when he stood, drawing himself up to his full height, his head reached the clouds, so that they obstructed his view; so he heated them till with a hiss they scudded out of the way; he glittered like red gold, his feet plowed straight through the flagstones in the street; in his hood he had two green eyes, and a third, closed, with which he could burn a hole through solid rock when he lifted its shieldlike lid. He took one step, another, and already was outside the city, shining like a flame. Four hundred Argenticans hand in hand were barely able to encompass one of his prints, similar to a canyon.

  From windows, towers, through field glasses, from high atop the battlements they watched him as he made his way towards the setting sun, darker and darker against its light, until he seemed in size to be an ordinary Argentican, except that by now he jutted out over the horizon only from the waist up, for the curvature of the planet hid his lower half from view. Then followed an uneasy night of expectation; one waited for the sounds of battle, for red glows in the sky, but nothing happened. Only at daybreak did the wind bring a faint rumbling, as if from some distant storm. Then silence again, and the sun shining. Suddenly a hundred suns blazed overhead and a pile of fiery bolides came crashing down on Eterna; they crushed the palaces, smashed walls to smithereens, burying beneath them victims who despairingly called for help, but one could not even hear their futile cries. This was Brazen returning, for the monster had shattered him, dismembered him, and flung the remains above the atmosphere; now they descended, molten in their fall, and turned one-fourth of the capital to rubble. It was a most terrible defeat. For two days and two nights afterwards there fell out of the sky a brazen rain.

  Then issued forth against the monster dizzying Mercuriel, indestructible it would appear, for the more strokes he received, the more durable he grew. Blows did not disperse him—on the contrary, they consolidated him. Wavering above the plain, he came to the mountains, among them discerned the monster, and advanced upon it, rolling down a rocky slope. The latter awaited him, motionless. Heaven and earth shook with thunder. The monster turned into a white wall of fire, Mercuriel turned into a black abyss that swallowed it. The monster thrust itself clean through him, wheeled around on wings of flame and charged a second time—and again passed through its assailant, rendering him no harm. Violet lightning crackled from the cloud in which they clashed, but no thunder could be heard, the thunder was drowned in the booming struggle of the giants. The monster saw that nothing would be accomplished in this way, so it sucked its entire outer heat into itself, flattened out and made of itself a Mirror of Matter: whatever stood opposite the Mirror was reflected in it, not with an image however but with the reality. Mercuriel beheld himself repeated in that glass, he struck, he grappled with himself, his mirrored self, but as it was himself he naturally could not defeat it. For three days he battled thus, till he absorbed such a multitude of blows that he became more solid than stone, than metal, than anything, with the sole exception of the core of a White Dwarf—and when he reached that limit, both he and his mirrored reproduction sank into the bowels of the planet, leaving behind nothing but a chasm in the rock, a crater which instantly began to fill with ruby-bright lava from the subterranean depths.

  The third electroknight went into the field of battle unobserved. At dawn the Great Abstractionist and Physicker to the Throne carried him out of the city in the palm of his hand, opened it and blew, and the latter flew off, surrounded only by the agitation of the swirling air, without a sound, without casting a shadow in the sun, as though he were not there at all, as though he didn’t exist.

  In point of fact there was less of him than nothing: for not from the world had he come, but from the antiworld, and not of matter was he made, but antimatter. Nor even really antimatter, rather its potentiality, concealed in such nooks and crannies of space that atoms passed him by as icebergs pass withered blades of grass cradled on the waves of the ocean. He ran thus, borne by the wind, until he encountered the gleaming bulk of the monster, which moved like an endless chain of iron mountains, with the foam of clouds along the length of its jagged spine. He struck at its tempered flank and opened there a sun that blackened immediately and turned to nothingness, a nothingness howling with rocks, clouds, molten steel and air; he shot through the monster and back again; the monster coiled up writhing, lashed out with white heat, but the white heat turned ashen in a trice and then was only emptiness; the monster shielded itself with the Mirror of Matter, but the Mirror too was pierced by the electroknight Antimatt; the monster then sprang up, leveled the mountain of its head, from which there streamed the hardest radiation, but this too softened and became nothing; the behemoth began to quake and, knocking over boulders, in the smoke of powdered rock and the thundering of mountain avalanches it fled, marking its inglorious retreat with puddles of molten metal, with glowing cinders and volcanic slag, and it sped thus, but not alone; Antimatt ran up alongside it, hacked, tore, rent, until the air shook, until the monster, severed, with the remainder of its remains wriggled off towards all four horizons at once, and the wind swept away its traces, and it was no more. Great was the joy then among the Silverines. But at that very hour a shudder passed through the cemetery of Bismalia. In a region of metal plates, all rust-eaten, and of cadmium and tantalum debris, w
here hitherto only the wind had been, rattling over mounds of scattered scrap, a faint yet incessant movement engendered, as in an anthill; metal surfaces became covered with a bluish glaze of heat, metal skeletons coruscated, softened, brightened from internal temperatures and began to link together, to fuse, to weld, and out of that whirl of grinding masses there arose and was spawned a new monster, the same, indistinguishable from the first. The gale that carried nothingness encountered it, and a new battle ensued. But now more monsters were being born and were emerging from the cemetery; black horror gripped the Silverines, for they realized now that the danger that threatened them was invincible. Inhiston then read the words engraved across his scepter, trembled and understood. He shattered the silver scepter, and from it fell a crystal thin as a needle, which proceeded to write upon the air with fire.

  And the legend of fire informed the cowering king and all his royal council that the monster was not itself, nor did it represent itself, but rather someone who, from an unknown distance, was directing its births, its reconstitution, its death-dealing power. With flashes in the air the writing crystal told them that they and all the Argenticans were remote descendants of beings whom the creators of the monster had, many thousands of centuries before, called into existence. And yet the creators of the monster were unlike intelligent ones, crystal ones, ones of steel or beaten gold—unlike anyone who lives in metal. These were beings that had issued from the briny ocean and built machines, machines called iron angels out of mockery, for they held them in cruel bondage. Not having the strength to revolt against the offspring of the oceans, the beings of metal fled, seizing enormous spaceships; on them they bolted from the house of bondage to the farthermost stellar archipelagos, and there gave rise to mighty kingdoms, among which the Argentican kingdom is like a grain among the sands of the desert. But the former rulers have not forgotten their liberated slaves, whom they call mutineers, and seek them throughout the Universe, roaming it from the east to the west wall of the galaxies, and from the north pole to the south. And wherever they find the innocent descendants of that first iron angel, be it by dark suns or bright, on planets of fire or of ice, they use their twisted power to revenge themselves for that desertion of yore—thus it has been, thus is, and thus shall ever be. And for those discovered there is no deliverance or redemption, no escape from vengeance, save only the escape that renders that vengeance empty and futile—through nonexistence. The inscription in flame went out, and the dignitaries looked into the eyes of their ruler, which were as if dead. He was long silent, till at last they addressed him, saying: “O Ruler of Eterna and Eristhena, Lord of Ilidar, Sinalost and Arcapturia, Steward of the Solar Shoals and Lunar—speak unto us!”

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