Mortal Engines by Stanisław Lem

  “And what will this speck tell us?” he asked. “What can its knowledge be, compared with that vast abyss of galactic thought, that nebular reasoning, in which suns convey ideas to other suns, powerful gravitation gives them weight, exploding stars add brilliance, and the interplanetary darkness depth?”

  “Rather than praise ourselves and boast, let us get down to business,” Microx replied. “But no, wait. Why should we put questions to these things of our devising? They themselves can carry on the discourse and contend! Let my infinitesimal genius meet your immeasurable cosmosity in the lists of this tournament, where the shield is wisdom, and the sword—closely argued thought!”

  “So let it be,” agreed Gigant. They then withdrew, leaving their handiwork alone on the field. In the darkness the red ruby circled, circled above the oceans of space, in which swam mountains of stars, he circled above the looming, luminous immensity of the leviathan, and he piped:

  “Hey! You! Gargantuan galoot of fire, overblown good-for-what-I-can’t-imagine! Are you really able to think at all?!”

  A year passed before these words reached the brain of the colossus, in which the firmaments had begun to turn, joined together with masterful harmony, and he marveled at such insolence and tried to see what it was that dared address him thus.

  So he began to turn his head in the direction from which the question had come, however by the time he turned it, two years went by. He looked with bright galaxy-eyes into the void and saw nothing there, for the ruby had left long ago and now squeaked from behind his back:

  “Goodness, what a sluggardly slow-wit we are, what a lunkering lug of a bugaboo! Instead of twisting your star-scraggly, nebulous head about like that, tell me if you can manage to add two and two together before half your blue giants bum out in that brobdingnagian brain and fizzle from old age!”

  This impudent mockery angered the cosmocolossus, so he began—as fast as he possibly could—to turn around, since the voice was behind his back; and he turned more and more rapidly, and the milky ways whirled about the axis of his body, and the arms of his galaxies—till now straight—from the momentum curled and furled into spirals, and the stellar clouds twirled, becoming spherical clusters, and all the suns, globes and planets swirled like dervishes; but before he could shine his eyes on his opponent, the latter was already jeering at him from the side.

  The jeering jewel rushed faster and faster, and the cosmocolossus also began to circle and circle, but he could in no way catch up, though now he was spinning like a top, until he built up such rotation, until he started wheeling with such frightful speed, that the bonds of gravitation became undone, the seams of attraction, which Gigant had put in, were strained to the limit and gave way, the stitches of electrostatic force all snapped, and—like a runaway cyclotron—the cosmocolossus suddenly burst apart and went flying off in all directions of the world, galaxies reeling like spiral torches, milky ways strewn here and there. And thus, dispersed by that centrifugal force, the Universe began to expand. Microx claimed afterwards that the victory was his, since Gigant’s cosmocolossus had exploded before it could say a single word; to this, however, Gigant replied that the purpose of the rivalry was to measure not cohesion, but intelligence, i.e. which of their creations was the wiser, and not—which held together the best. Inasmuch as this had nothing to do with the substance of the quarrel, Microx had hoodwinked and disgracefully deceived him.

  Since that time, their quarrel has become more heated still. Microx searches for his ruby, which got mislaid somewhere during the catastrophe, but he cannot find it, for wherever he looks he sees a red glow, and runs there at once, but it is only the light of the nebulae receding since antiquity which glows red, so he continues his search, and it continues to be futile. As for Gigant, he attempts with gravitation-cords and radiation-threads to sew together the broken fabric of his cosmocolossus, using for a needle the hardest gamma rays. But whatever he sews together instantly falls apart, such is the terrible power of expansion that has been unleashed. And neither one nor the other succeeded in wresting from matter its secrets, though they schooled it in thought and equipped it with a mouth besides, yet before the crucial conversation came about, this misfortune intervened, a misfortune that some fools in their ignorance call the creation of the world.

  For in reality it was only Gigant’s cosmocolossus that split into tiny fragments, owing to Microx’s ruby, and it flew into fragments so very tiny, that they are flying in all directions to this very day. And he who doubts this, let him ask the scientists whether or not it is true, that absolutely everything in the Universe turns upon its axis like a top; for from that dizzying turning everything began.

  Tale of the

  Computer That

  Fought a Dragon

  King Poleander Partobon, ruler of Cyberia, was a great warrior, and being an advocate of the methods of modem strategy, above all else he prized cybernetics as a military art. His kingdom swarmed with thinking machines, for Poleander put them everywhere he could; not merely in the astronomical observatories or the schools, but he ordered electric brains mounted in the rocks upon the roads, which with loud voices cautioned pedestrians against tripping; also in posts, in walls, in trees, so that one could ask directions anywhere when lost; he stuck them onto clouds, so they could announce the rain in advance, he added them to the hills and valleys—in short, it was impossible to walk on Cyberia without bumping into an intelligent machine. The planet was beautiful, since the King not only gave decrees for the cybernetic perfecting of that which had long been in existence, but he introduced by law entirely new orders of things. Thus for example in his kingdom were manufactured cyberbeetles and buzzing cyberbees, and even cyberflies—these would be seized by mechanical spiders when they grew too numerous. On the planet cyberbosks of cybergorse rustled in the wind, cybercalliopes and cyberviols sang—but besides these civilian devices there were twice as many military, for the King was most bellicose. In his palace vaults he had a strategic computer, a machine of uncommon mettle; he had smaller ones also, and divisions of cybersaries, enormous cybermatics and a whole arsenal of every other kind of weapon, including powder. There was only this one problem, and it troubled him greatly, namely, that he had not a single adversary or enemy and no one in any way wished to invade his land, and thereby provide him with the opportunity to demonstrate his kingly and terrifying courage, his tactical genius, not to mention the simply extraordinary effectiveness of his cybernetic weaponry. In the absence of genuine enemies and aggressors the King had his engineers build artificial ones, and against these he did battle, and always won. However inasmuch as the battles and campaigns were genuinely dreadful, the populace suffered no little injury from them. The subjects murmured when all too many cyberfoes had destroyed their settlements and towns, when the synthetic enemy poured liquid fire upon them; they even dared voice their discontent when the King himself, issuing forth as their deliverer and vanquishing the artificial foe, in the course of the victorious attacks laid waste to everything that stood in his path. They grumbled even then, the ingrates, though the thing was done on their behalf.

  Until the King wearied of the war games on the planet and decided to raise his sights. Now it was cosmic wars and sallies that he dreamed of. His planet had a large Moon, entirely desolate and wild; the King laid heavy taxes upon his subjects, to obtain the funds needed to build whole armies on that Moon and have there a new theater of war. And the subjects were more than happy to pay, figuring that King Poleander would now no longer deliver them with his cybermatics, nor test the strength of his arms upon their homes and heads. And so the royal engineers built on the Moon a splendid computer, which in turn was to create all manner of troops and self-firing gunnery. The King lost no time in testing the machine’s prowess this way and that; at one point he ordered it—by telegraph—to execute a volt-vault electrosault: for he wanted to see if it was true, what his engineers had told him, that that machine could do anything. If it can do anything, he thought, then let
it do a flip. However the text of the telegram underwent a slight distortion and the machine received the order that it was to execute not an electrosault, but an electrosaur—and this it carried out as best it could.

  Meanwhile the King conducted one more campaign, liberating some provinces of his realm seized by cyberknechts; he completely forgot about the order given the computer on the Moon, then suddenly giant boulders came hurtling down from there; the King was astounded, for one even fell on the wing of the palace and destroyed his prize collection of cyberads, which are dryads with feedback. Fuming, he telegraphed the Moon computer at once, demanding an explanation. It didn’t reply however, for it no longer was: the electrosaur had swallowed it and made it into its own tail.

  Immediately the King dispatched an entire armed expedition to the Moon, placing at its head another computer, also very valiant, to slay the dragon, but there was only some flashing, some rumbling, and then no more computer nor expedition; for the electrodragon wasn’t pretend and wasn’t pretending, but battled with the utmost verisimilitude, and had moreover the worst of intentions regarding the kingdom and the King. The King sent to the Moon his cybernants, cyberneers, cyberines and lieutenant cybemets, at the very end he even sent one cyberalissimo, but it too accomplished nothing; the hurly-burly lasted a little longer, that was all. The King watched through a telescope set up on the palace balcony.

  The dragon grew, the Moon became smaller and smaller, since the monster was devouring it piecemeal and incorporating it into its own body. The King saw then, and his subjects did also, that things were serious, for when the ground beneath the feet of the electrosaur was gone, it would for certain hurl itself upon the planet and upon them. The King thought and thought, but he saw no remedy, and knew not what to do. To send machines was no good, for they would be lost, and to go himself was no better, for he was afraid. Suddenly the King heard, in the stillness of the night, the telegraph chattering from his royal bedchamber. It was the King’s personal receiver, solid gold with a diamond needle, linked to the Moon; the King jumped up and ran to it, the apparatus meanwhile went tap-tap, tap-tap, and tapped out this telegram: THE DRAGON SAYS POLEANDER PARTOBON BETTER CLEAR OUT BECAUSE HE THE DRAGON INTENDS TO OCCUPY THE THRONE!

  The King took fright, quaked from head to toe, and ran, just as he was, in his ermine nightshirt and slippers, down to the palace vaults, where stood the strategy machine, old and very wise. He had not as yet consulted it, since prior to the rise and uprise of the electrodragon they had argued on the subject of a certain military operation; but now was not the time to think of that—his throne, his life was at stake!

  He plugged it in, and as soon as it warmed up he cried:

  “My old computer! My good computer! It’s this way and that, the dragon wishes to deprive me of my throne, to cast me out, help, speak, how can I defeat it?!”

  “Uh-uh,” said the computer. “First you must admit I was right in that previous business, and secondly, I would have you address me only as Digital Grand Vizier, though you may also say to me: ‘Your Ferromagneticity’!”

  “Good, good, I’ll name you Grand Vizier, I’ll agree to anything you like, only save me!”

  The machine whirred, chirred, hummed, hemmed, then said:

  “It is a simple matter. We build an electrosaur more powerful than the one located on the Moon. It will defeat the lunar one, settle its circuitry once and for all and thereby attain the goal!”

  “Perfect!” replied the King. “And can you make a blueprint of this dragon?”

  “It will be an ultradragon,” said the computer. “And I can make you not only a blueprint, but the thing itself, which I shall now do, it won’t take a minute, King!” And true to its word, it hissed, it chugged, it whistled and buzzed, assembling something down within itself, and already an object like a giant claw, sparking, arcing, was emerging from its side, when the King shouted:

  “Old computer! Stop!”

  “Is this how you address me? I am the Digital Grand Vizier!”

  “Ah, of course,” said the King. “Your Ferromagneticity, the electrodragon you are making will defeat the other dragon, granted, but it will surely remain in the other’s place, how then are we to get rid of it in turn?!”

  “By making yet another, still more powerful,” explained the computer.

  “No, no! In that case don’t do anything, I beg you, what good will it be to have more and more terrible dragons on the Moon when I don’t want any there at all?”

  “Ah, now that’s a different matter,” the computer replied. “Why didn’t you say so in the first place? You see how illogically you express yourself? One moment… I must think.”

  And it churred and hummed, and chuffed and chuckled, and finally said:

  “We make an antimoon with an antidragon, place it in the Moon’s orbit (here something went snap inside), sit around the fire and sing: Oh I’m a robot full of fun, water doesn’t scare me none, I dives right in, I gives a grin, tra la the livelong day!!”

  “You speak strangely,” said the King. “What does the antimoon have to do with that song about the funny robot?”

  “What funny robot?” asked the computer. “Ah, no, no, I made a mistake, something feels wrong inside, I must have blown a tube.” The King began to look for the trouble, finally found the burnt-out tube, put in a new one, then asked the computer about the antimoon.

  “What antimoon?” asked the computer, which meanwhile had forgotten what it said before. “I don’t know anything about an antimoon … one moment, I have to give this thought.”

  It hummed, it huffed, and it said:

  “We create a general theory of the slaying of electrodragons, of which the lunar dragon will be a special case, its solution trivial.”

  “Well, create such a theory!” said the King.

  “To do this I must first create various experimental dragons.”

  “Certainly not! No thank you!” exclaimed the King. “A dragon wants to deprive me of my throne, just think what might happen if you produced a swarm of them!”

  “Oh? Well then, in that case we must resort to other means. We will use a strategic variant of the method of successive approximations. Go and telegraph the dragon that you will give it the throne on the condition that it perform three mathematical operations, really quite simple…”

  The King went and telegraphed, and the dragon agreed. The King returned to the computer.

  “Now,” it said, “here is the first operation: tell it to divide itself by itself!”

  The King did this. The electrosaur divided itself by itself, but since one electrosaur over one electrosaur is one, it remained on the Moon and nothing changed.

  “Is this the best you can do?!” cried the King, running into the vault with such haste, that his slippers fell off. “The dragon divided itself by itself, but since one goes into one once, nothing changed!”

  “That’s all right, I did that on purpose, the operation was to divert attention,” said the computer. “And now tell it to extract its root!” The King telegraphed to the Moon, and the dragon began to pull, push, pull, push, until it crackled from the strain, panted, trembled all over, but suddenly something gave—and it extracted its own root! The King went back to the computer.

  “The dragon crackled, trembled, even ground its teeth, but extracted the root and threatens me still!” he shouted from the doorway. “What now, my old… I mean, Your Ferromagneticity?!”

  “Be of stout heart,” it said. “Now go tell it to subtract itself from itself!”

  The King hurried to his royal bedchamber, sent the telegram, and the dragon began to subtract itself from itself, taking away its tail first, then legs, then trunk, and finally, when it saw that something wasn’t right, it hesitated, but from its own momentum the subtracting continued, it took away its head and became zero, in other words nothing; the electrosaur was no more!

  “The electrosaur is no more,” cried the joyful King, bursting into the vault. “Thank you, old compute
r … many thanks … you have worked hard … you have earned a rest, so now I will disconnect you.”

  “Not so fast, my dear,” the computer replied. “I do the job and you want to disconnect me, and you no longer call me Your Ferromagneticity?! That’s not nice, not nice at all! Now I myself will change into an electrosaur, yes, and drive you from the kingdom, and most certainly rule better than you, for you always consulted me in all the more important matters, therefore it was really I who ruled all along, and not you…”

  And huffing, puffing, it began to change into an electrosaur; flaming electroclaws were already protruding from its sides when the King, breathless with fright, tore the slippers off his feet, rushed up to it and with the slippers began beating blindly at its tubes! The computer chugged, choked, and got muddled in its program—instead of the word “electrosaur” it read “electrosauce,” and before the King’s very eyes the computer, wheezing more and more softly, turned into an enormous, gleaming-golden heap of electrosauce, which, still sizzling, emitted all its charge in deep-blue sparks, leaving Poleander to stare dumbstruck at only a great, steaming pool of gravy…

  With a sigh the King put on his slippers and returned to the royal bedchamber. However from that time on he was an altogether different king: the events he had undergone made his nature less bellicose, and to the end of his days he engaged exclusively in civilian cybernetics, and left the military kind strictly alone.

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