Mortal Engines by Stanisław Lem


  “Not words, but action do we need, the last!” answered Inhiston.

  The council trembled, but in a single voice replied:

  “Thou hast spoken!”

  “So be it then!” said the King. “Now that it is decided, I shall say the name of the being that has driven us to this; I heard it upon ascending the throne. Is it not man?”

  “Thou hast spoken!” replied the council.

  Inhiston then turned to the Great Abstractionist:

  “Do you your duty!”

  The latter answered:

  “I hear and I obey!”

  Whereupon he uttered The Word, whose vibrations descended by rifts of air into the bosom of the planet; and then the jasper heavens cracked, and ere the faces of the falling towers could reach the ground, all seventy-seven Argentican cities yawned open into seventy-seven white craters, and amid the splitting plates of the continents crushed by branching fire the Silverines perished, and the great sun shone no longer on a planet, but on a ball of black clouds, which dwindled slowly, swept by a gale of oblivion. The void, having been pushed back by radiation harder than stone, converged now into a single quivering spark, and that spark died. The shock waves, after traveling seven days, reached a place where spaceships black as night were waiting.

  “It is done!” said the creator of the monsters, who kept watch, to his comrades. “The kingdom of the Silverines Has ceased to be. We can move on.” The darkness at the stem of their vessels blossomed into flame and off they sped on the trail of vengeance. The Universe is infinite and has no bounds, but their hatred also has no bounds, and any day, at any hour, it can overtake us too.

  The White Death

  Aragena was a planet built up on the inside, because its ruler, Metameric—who in the equatorial plane extended three hundred and sixty degrees and thereby encircled his kingdom, being not only its lord but also its shield—wishing to protect his devoted subjects, the Enterites, against cosmic invasion, forbade the moving of anything whatever, even of the smallest pebble, upon the surface of the globe. Therefore the continents of Aragena lay wild and barren, and only the ax-blows of lightning hewed its flint mountain ridges, while meteors carved the land with craters. But ten miles beneath the surface unfolded a region of exuberant industry; the Ententes, hollowing out their mother planet, filled its interior with crystal gardens and cities of silver and gold; they raised up, inside-out, houses in the shape of dodecahedrons and icosahedrons, and also hyperboloid palaces, in whose shining cupolas you could see yourself magnified twenty thousand times, as in a hall of giants—for the Enterites were fond of splendor and geometry, and were topnotch builders besides. With a system of pipes they pumped light into the heart of the planet, filtering it now through emeralds, now diamonds, and now rubies, and thanks to this they had their choice of dawn, or noon, or rosy dusk; and so enamored were they of their own forms, that their whole world served them as a mirror. They had vehicles of crystal, set in motion by the breath of heated gases, windowless, since entirely transparent, and while they traveled they beheld themselves reflected in the walls of palaces and temples as marvelously multiple projections, gliding, touching, iridescent. They even had their own sky, where in webs of molybdenum and vanadium flashed spinels and rock crystal, which they cultivated in fire.

  The hereditary and at the same time perpetual ruler was Metameric, for he possessed a cold, beautiful and many-membered frame, and in the first of his members resided the mind; when that grew old, after thousands of years, when the crystal networks had been worn away from much administrative thinking, its authority was taken over by the next member, and thus it went, for of these he had ten billion. Metameric himself descended from the Aurigens, whom he had never seen, and all he knew of them was that when they were faced with doom at the hands of certain dreadful beings—beings that engaged in cosmonautics and for it had abandoned their native suns—the Aurigens locked all their knowledge and hunger for existence into microscopic atom seeds, and with them fertilized the rocky soil of Aragena. They gave it that name, a name like their own, but never set armored foot upon its rocks, so as not to put their cruel pursuers on the scent; they perished, every last one, having this consolation only, that their enemies—-called the pale race—did not even suspect that the Aurigens had not been totally wiped out. The Ententes, who sprang from Metameric, did not share his knowledge of their own uncommon origin: the history of the terrible demise of the Aurigens, as well as that of the rise of the Ententes, was recorded in a black vesuvian protocrystal hidden at the very core of the planet. So much the better was this history known and remembered by their ruler.

  Out of the stony and magnetic ground that the resourceful builders cut away in expanding their subterranean kingdom, Metameric ordered made a row of reefs, which were cast into space. These orbited the planet in infernal circles, closing off all access to it. Cosmic mariners therefore avoided that region, known as the Black Rattler, for there enormous chunks of flying basalt and porphyry collided continually, giving rise to whole swarms of meteors, and the place was the breeding ground for all the comet heads, all the bolides and rock asteroids that today clutter the entíre system of the Scorpion.

  The meteors also pounded in waves of stone the ground of Aragena, bombarded it, furrowed and plowed it; with fountains of fire-spouting impacts they turned night into day, and day—with thick clouds of dust—into night. But not the least vibration reached the realm of the Ententes. Anyone who dared approach their planet would have seen, if first he did not dash his ship against the vortices of stone, a craggy globe, rather like a skull all crater-eaten. Even the gate that led to the underground levels was given by the Enterites the appearance of a sundered stone.

  For thousands of years no one visited the planet, still Metameric did not relax his injunction of strict vigilance for an instant

  It happened however that one day a group of Enterites, who went up on the surface, came across what seemed to be a giant goblet, its stem embedded in a pile of boulders and its concave cup, which faced the sky, crushed and punctured in a dozen places. Immediately the polysage-astromariners were sent for, and they announced that what they had before them was the wreck of some foreign starcraft from unknown parts. The vessel was quite large. Only up close could one see that it had the shape of a slender cylinder, nose buried in the rock, that it was covered by a thick layer of soot and cinder; the construction of the rear, goblet-like section brought to mind the sweeping vaults of their vast subterranean palaces. Up from the depths crawled pincered machines, which with extreme care lifted the mysterious ship from where it lay and carried it back down to the interior. Afterwards a group of Enterites smoothed over the hole created by the nose of the vessel, in order that there be no trace of foreign presence on the planet’s surface, and the basalt gate was closed with a hollow boom.

  In the main research laboratory, sumptuous and full of luster, rested the black hulk, looking much like some charred log, but the scientists, familiar with this sort of thing, trained upon it the polished surfaces of their most radiant crystals, and with diamond bits they opened the first outer shell. Beneath it was another, of amazing whiteness, which disconcerted them somewhat, and when that shell too was pierced by carborundum drills, there appeared a third, impenetrable, and—set in it hermetically—a door, but they were unable to open it.

  The eldest scientist, Afinor, carefully examined the closing mechanism on that door; it turned out that for the lock to be released, one had to activate it with a spoken word. They did not know the word, they had no way of knowing it. For a long time they tried different ones, like “Universe,” “Stars,” “Eternal Flight,” but the door never moved.

  “Methinks we do wrong, attempting to open the vessel without the knowledge of King Metameric,” said Afinor at last. “As a child I heard a legend telling of white creatures who throughout the Universe hunt down all life born of metal, and annihilate it for the sake of vengeance, which…”

  Here he broke off and with the ot
hers stared in horror at the side of the ship, large as a wall, for at his last words the door, till now inert, suddenly stirred and rolled aside. The word that had opened it was “Vengeance.”

  The scientists cried for military assistance and, soon having it at hand, when the sparkthrowers were held in readiness, entered the still and stuffy darkness of the ship, lighting their way with crystals blue and white.

  The machinery was to a great extent shattered. For hours they wandered among its ruins, seeking a crew, but no crew did they find, nor any sign of one. They considered whether the ship itself might not be a thinking being, for such oftentimes were very large: in size their king exceeded the unknown vessel many thousandfold, yet he was an entity. However the junctures of electrical thought which they uncovered were all quite small and loosely connected; the foreign ship therefore could be nothing but a flying machine, and without a crew would be as dead as stone.

  In one of the corners of the deck, against the very armor-plated wall, the scientists came upon a puddle, a ruddy sort of spatter that colored their silver fingers when they drew near; from this puddle they extricated shreds of an unknown garment, wet and red, and in addition a few slivers of something not very hard, fairly chalky. They knew not why, but a feeling of dread came over them as they stood there in the dark, in the prickling light of their crystals. But now the king had learned of this event; his messengers arrived at once, with the strictest orders to destroy the foreign vessel including everything that was upon it, and in particular the king commanded that the foreign travelers be committed to atomic fire.

  The scientists replied that there was no one at all on board, only darkness and broken fragments, metal entrails and some dust speckled with tiny stains of red. The royal messenger started and immediately ordered the atomic piles to be ignited.

  “In the name of the King!” he said. “The red that you have found is the harbinger of doom! It carries the white death, which knows nothing but to wreak vengeance upon those whose only crime is their existence…”

  “If that was the white death, it can threaten us no longer, for the vessel is without life and whoever sailed it has perished in the ring of fortified reefs,” they answered.

  “Infinite is the power of those pallid beings, that if they die, they are reborn anew countless times, far from the mighty suns! Carry out your orders, O atomizers!”

  The wise ones and the scientists were greatly troubled when they heard these words. Still, they did not believe the prophecy of doom, for its likelihood seemed to them remote. Nevertheless they lifted the entire ship from its resting place, smashed it on anvils of platinum and, when it fell apart, immersed the pieces in heavy radiation, so that it was reduced to a myriad of flying atoms, which keep eternal silence, for atoms have no history, all are equal to each other, whether they come from the strongest of stars or from dead planets, or intelligent beings, both good and evil, because matter is the same throughout the Universe and no one need have fear of it.

  However they took even these atoms and froze them down into a single lump, and shot that lump out towards the stars, and only then did they say to themselves with relief: “We are saved. Nothing can happen now.”

  But while the platinum hammers had been striking the ship and as it crumbled, from a scrap of cloth besmeared with blood, from a torn-out seam there dropped an invisible spore, a spore so small that even a hundred like it could have been covered by a single grain of sand. And from this spore there hatched—at night, in the dust and ashes among the stones of the cavern—a white bud. From it sprang a second, a third, a hundredth, and in a gust of air they gave off oxygen and moisture, wherewith rust attacked the flagstones of the mirror cities, and imperceptible threads wound and wove about, incubating in the cool bowels of the Enterites, so that by the time they rose, they carried with them their own deaths. And a year did not pass, and they were stricken down. In the caves machines stood still, the crystal fires went out, a brownish leprosy ate at the sparkling domes, and when the last atomic heat had leaked away, darkness fell, and in that darkness there grew, penetrating the brittle skeletons, invading the rusted skulls, filling the extinguished sockets—a downy, damp, white mold.

  How Microx

  and Gigant Made

  the Universe Expand

  Astronomers tell us that everything that is—the nebulae, the galaxies, the stars—is receding in all directions and as a result of this unending flight the Universe has been expanding now for billions of years.

  Many are confounded by such universal retreat, and, turning it over in their minds backward, come to the conclusion that very, but very long ago the entire Cosmos was concentrated in a single point, a sort of stellar droplet, and that for some unaccountable reason something somehow led to its explosion, which continues to the present day.

  And when they reason thus, their curiosity is roused as to what then could have been before, and they cannot solve that riddle. But here is how it happened.

  In the previous Universe lived two constructors, masters without peer in the cosmogonic art, there being not a thing they could not put together. In order however to construct a thing, first a plan of it is needed, and a plan must be conceived, for where else is one to obtain it? And so both these constructors, Microx and Gigant, continually pondered the question of how to discover what it was possible to construct beyond the prodigies that occurred to them.

  “I can assemble anything that enters my head,” said Microx. “But on the other hand not everything enters it. This limits me, as it does you—for we are unable to think of everything there is to think of, and it may well be that some other thing, not the thing which we think up and which we make, is worthier of execution! What say you to this?”

  “You are right, of course,” Gigant replied. “Yet what can we do about it?”

  “Whatever we create, we create from matter,” answered Microx, “and in it are contained all possibilities. If we contemplate a house, we build a house, if a crystal palace—then a palace we fashion, if a thinking star, we design a brain of flame—and this too we are able to construct. However there are more possibilities in matter than in our heads; the thing to do, then, is provide matter with a mouth, that it may tell us itself what else can be created from it, which would never cross our minds!”

  “A mouth is necessary,” agreed Gigant. “But a mouth alone is not sufficient, for it expresses what the intellect within conceives. Therefore we must not only give matter a mouth, but implant in it intelligence as well, and then it will surely tell us all its secrets!”

  “Well spoken,” said Microx. “The thing is worth attempting. I understand it thus: since everything that is, is energy, from energy we must fashion thought, beginning with the smallest, that is, the quantum. This quantum thought we must confine in a tiny cage built of atoms, that being the smallest, in other words we ought attack the problem as engineers of atoms, with a constant eye to miniaturization. When I can pour a hundred million geniuses into my pocket, and have room to spare—the goal will be attained: those geniuses will multiply and then any handful of intelligent sand will tell you, like a council composed of countless beings, what to do and how to go about it!”

  “No, that’s not the way!” objected Gigant. “We must proceed from the other end, since everything that is, is mass. Out of the entire mass of the Universe, therefore, we must build a single brain, a brain of positively extraordinary magnitude, brimming with thought; when I question it, it will reveal to me the secrets of Creation—it alone. Your thinking powder is a useless oddity, for if each grain of genius says something different, you will lose and not gain in knowledge!”

  Word led to word, the constructors quarreled, the quarrel grew heated, till it was quite out of the question that they undertake the task together. And so they parted, jeering at one another, and each got down to work in his own way. Microx took to catching quanta and locking them in atom cages, and since they could be packed most tightly into crystals, he then trained diamonds how to think,
chalcedonies, rubies. The rubies worked best, and he imprisoned in them so much reasoning energy, that they gleamed. He also had a number of other self-thinking mineral minutiae, such as emeralds, greenly perspicacious, and topazes, sage in yellowness, yet the red mentality of the rubies pleased him most of all. As Microx labored thus among a host of piping diminutives, Gigant meanwhile devoted his time to augmentation; with tremendous effort he hauled together suns and whole galaxies, melted them down, mixed, welded, cemented, and, working his fingers to the bone, created a cosmocolossal macromegalopican, of such all-encompassing girth, that apart from it hardly anything remained, only a tiny crevice and—in it—Microx and his gems.

  When both were finished, by then they did not care which of them would learn the more secrets from his creation, but rather which of them was right and had chosen well. Therefore they challenged one another to a contest, a competition. Gigant awaited Microx at the side of his cosmocolossus, which extended for endless light-years up, down and sideways, which had a corpus of dark stellar clouds, a breath of solar clusters, arms and legs of galaxies (fastened on with gravitation), a head of a hundred trillion iron globes, and on top a shaggy cap, aflame, a solar mane. When adjusting his cosmocolossus, Gigant flew from its ear to its mouth, and each such journey lasted seven months. Microx meantime appeared upon the field of battle by his solitary self, with empty hands; in his pocket he had a tiny ruby, which he wished to set against the titan. At the sight of it Gigant burst into laughter.

 
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