Mortal Engines by Stanisław Lem
of King Hydrops
The Argonautians were the first of the stellar tribes to tame for metaldom the planetary ocean depths, a realm thought by robots of little courage to be closed to intelligence forever. One of the emerald links of their empire is Aqueon, which shines in the northern sky like a great sapphire in a necklace of topazes. On this underwater planet there reigned, many a year ago, His Supreme Fishiness King Hydrops. One morning he summoned to the throne room his four royal ministers, and, when they had floated down before him on their faces, he spoke to them thus, during which his Lord High Gillard, all in emeralds, moved above him a broad and finsome fan:
“Never-rusting Worthies! For fifteen centuries now have I ruled Aqueon, its underwater cities and blue-meadowed settlements; in that time I did expand the borders of our kingdom, inundating numerous continents, yet in this never sullied the waterproof standard handed down to me by my sire, Ichthyocrates. Indeed, in battles against the ever hostile Microcytes I won a string of victories, whose glory it would ill beseem me to describe. I feel, however, that the crown for me becomes a cheerless burden, and therefore have resolved to acquire a son, one who will with dignity continue my just rule upon the throne of the Innocuids. And so I turn to you, my faithful Hydrocyber Amassid, to you, great programmist Dioptricus, and to you, Philonaut and Minogar, who are my court contrivancers, that you invent for me a son. He must be wise, yet not overly given to books, for too much knowledge numbs the will for action. He must be good, but again not to excess. I would have him be brave as well, yet not audacious, sensitive yet not tender-hearted; and finally, let him resemble me, let his sides be covered by the same tantalum shell, and the crystals of his mind, let them be as transparent as this water that surrounds us, strengthens us, sustains us! And now set ye to work, in the name of the Great Matrix!”
Dioptricus, Minogar, Philonaut and Amassid bowed low and swam away in silence, and each in his heart pondered the King’s words, though not entirely as the mighty Hydrops would have liked. For Minogar above all wished to seize the throne, Philonaut secretly sided with the enemies of the Argonautians, the Microcytes, while Amassid and Dioptricus were mortal enemies and each more than anything longed for the downfall of the other, and of the remaining dignitaries as well.
“It is the King’s desire that we design him a son,” thought Amassid. “What could be simpler, therefore, than to imprint upon the micromatrix of the prince a loathing for Dioptricus, that misbegotten knave inflated like a bladder? Then, after assuming power, the prince would immediately order him smothered, by having his head help up in air. That would be perfect. However,” thought further the illustrious Hydrocyber, “Dioptricus is doubtless hatching some similar intrigue, and as a programmist he has—unfortunately—a number of opportunities to imbue the future prince with hatred of me. A nasty business, this! I must keep my eyes wide open when together we put the matrix into the baby kiln!”
“The simplest thing would be,” at the same time mused the worthy Philonaut, “to implant in the prince sympathy towards the Microcytes. But this would be noticed at once and the King would have me disconnected. One might then only instill in the prince love for small forms—that would be a great deal safer. If they subject me to interrogation I can say that it was of course only underwater minutiae I had in mind, and simply forgot to safeguard the son’s program with the qualification that whatever is not underwater should not be loved. At the very worst the King will relieve me—for this—of my Order of the Great Fluvium, but will not relieve me of my head, which is a thing most precious to me and could not later be restored, not even by Nanoxerus himself, ruler of the Microcytes!”
“Wherefore are you silent, worthy lords?” Minogar now spoke. “We should, I trow, begin our work at once, for surely there can be nothing more sacred than the King’s command!”
“For that very reason do I think upon it,” said Philonaut quickly, and Dioptricus and Amassid added in a single voice:
“We are ready!”
And so, in accordance with the ancient custom, they gave orders for themselves to be locked inside a room with walls of emerald scales, its door sealed seven times from without with undersea resin, and Megacystes himself, Lord of Planetary Floods, stamped upon the seals his crest of the Still Water. No one now could interfere with their work, until such time as, at the signal of its completion, when in a deliberate whirlpool they flushed their aborted efforts out the hatch, the seals would be broken and the great ceremony of filial inauguration begun.
The four dignitaries then settled down to the task at hand, but made little progress withal. For they thought not of how to embody in the prince those virtues which Hydrops desired, but rather how to outwit both the King and each of his three never-rusting rivals in this difficult creative enterprise.
The King grew impatient, eight days and nights had now passed with his son designers behind locked doors, and they gave no sign that the matter was nearing a successful conclusion. They were in fact trying to outlast one another, each waiting for the others to be exhausted, that he might then quickly write into the crystal lattice of the matrix that which in the prince could be turned to his own advantage.
For Minogar was spurred by the thirst for power, Philonaut by the lure of mammon, which the Microcytes had promised him, and Amassid and Dioptricus by their mutual enmity.
Having in this way exhausted more his patience than his strength, the wily Philonaut said:
“I cannot understand, my worthy lords, why our work drags on so. The King, after all, gave us most precise instructions; had we followed them, the prince would by now be finished. I begin to suspect that your delay is occasioned by something connected with the royal son-incepting in a way other than that which would be dear to the heart of our sovereign. If things continue thus, I shall with the deepest regret feel compelled to submit a votum separatum, in other words…”
“To inform! ’Tis of this that you speak, Your Worthiness,” hissed Amassid, furiously moving his shining gills till all the buoys of his medals began to tremble. “By all means, by all means! And it please Your Worthiness, I too have a mind to write the King about how Your Grace, suddenly and mysteriously afflicted with the shakes, ruined as many as eighteen pearly matrices, which we had to discard, since in the formula for the love of objects small you left no room whatever to forbid the love of objects not underwater! You sought to assure us, noble Philonaut, that this was an oversight—but repeated eighteen times, it suffices to have you put away in a home for either lunatics or traitors, your freedom limited to a choice between the two!”
Philonaut, seen through and through, was about to defend himself, but Minogar forestalled him, saying:
“One would think, O noble Amassid, that in our gathering you were like the jellyfish without stain and altogether crystal pure. And yet unaccountably you also, a dozen times, in the part of the matrix devoted to all those things the prince is to loathe, added now triple tailedness, now blue-enameled backedness, and twice—bulging eyes, also double-bellied armor and three red sparks, as if you did not know that all these attributes apply to Dioptricus here, fellow midwife to the throne, and therewith you would be kindling in the prince’s soul hatred towards that personage…”
“And why does Dioptricus at the close of the matrix continually include contempt for beings with names that end in ‘id’?” demanded Amassid. “And while we are on the subject, why do you yourself, my good Minogar, in the list of objects the prince is to detest, stubbornly and for no apparent reason put a pentagonal seat with a back befinned and diamond-studded? Can it be you do not know that that fits exactly the description of the throne?”
An awkward silence followed, broken only by his faint swish-swashing. For a long time the worthy dignitaries toiled, tom by conflicting interests, till finally coalitions formed among them—Philonaut and Minogar reached an understanding, to wit, that the filial matrix should provide for a fondness of all things small, as well as for the desire t
Now they speedily completed the filial matrix, threw all the invalidated remnants out the hatch, and the great ceremony of royal besonification got under way.
Just as soon as the matrix with the prince program was put in to bake, and the honor guard lined up before the baby kiln, from which the future ruler of the Argonautians was soon to emerge, Amassid set about his treachery. The royal cobbler, whom he had bribed, began fastening more and more tantalum plates to the soles of Dioptricus. The prince was already developing under the supervision of the younger metallurgists, when Dioptricus, catching sight of himself one day in the great palace mirror, discovered with horror that he was now taller than his enemy, and the prince had been programmed to be fond only of things and persons that were small!
Returning home, Dioptricus examined himself carefully and tapped here and there with a silver mallet, until he found the metal sheets bolted to his feet and understood immediately whose work this was. “Oh, the villain!!” he muttered, meaning Amassid. “But what should I do now?!” After a little thought he decided to reduce himself. He called his loyal servant and ordered him to bring to the palace a good locksmith. But the servant, not fully grasping the instructions, swam out into the street and brought back a certain impoverished tinker by the name of Froton, who all day went about the city crying: “Heads soldered! Bellies wired and welded! Get your tails polished here!” This tinker had an ill-tempered wife, who always waited for him at the door with crowbar in hand, and whenever he came home the whole street rang with her fierce clanging; she would take everything he earned and continue to dent his head and shoulders with relentless blows.
Froton, trembling, stood before the great programmist, who said to him:
“Look here, do you think you can reduce me? I find that I am, well, too large … but no matter! You are to reduce me, but in such a way that I do not suffer in appearance! If you do this well, I shall reward you generously, but you must forget everything immediately afterwards. Let not a bubble escape your lips—otherwise I shall order you dismantled!”
Froton was astonished, but did not show it; the mighty had all sorts of whims—so he examined Dioptricus carefully, looked inside, tapped here, rapped there, and said:
“Your Magnitude, I could unscrew the middle segment of your tail…”
“Absolutely not!” Dioptricus said quickly. “I can’t part with my tail! It’s too beautiful!”
“Then might we screw off the legs?” asked Froton. “They are, after all, completely unnecessary.” For indeed, the Argonautians do not employ their legs, which are a vestige from ancient times, back when their ancestors still dwelled upon dry land. But this only angered Dioptricus:
“Ah, you iron dolt! Are you not aware that only we, the highborn, are permitted to have legs?! How dare you deprive me of those marks of my nobility!!”
“I most humbly beg Your Magnitude’s pardon… But in that case what can I unscrew?”
Dioptricus saw that such resistance would gain him nothing. So he said with a growl:
“Do as you see fit…”
Froton measured him, rapped there, tapped here, and said:
“With Your Magnitude’s permission, I could unscrew the head…”
“Surely you are mad! How can I remain without a head? What shall I think with?”
“No problem, my lord! The esteemed mind of Your Magnitude I will place in the belly—there is ample room there…”
Dioptricus agreed, and the tinker nimbly removed his head, put the hemispheres of crystal intelligence inside the belly, riveted and clinched everything in place, received five ducats, and the servant escorted him from the palace. On the way out, however, in one of the chambers he saw Aurentine, daughter of Dioptricus, all silvery and golden, saw her slender waist, that gave the sound of tinkling bells at every step, and she seemed to him more beautiful than anything he had ever seen. He returned home, where his wife stood waiting with her crowbar, and soon a great racket could be heard throughout the street, and the neighbors said:
“Oho! That witch, Froton’s missus, is putting dents in her husband again!” Dioptricus meanwhile, greatly pleased with what he had done, repaired to the palace.
The King was not a little surprised at the sight of his minister without a head, but the latter quickly explained that this was now the fashion. Amassid however took alarm, for his entire scheme had gone for naught, and as soon as he got home he followed the suit of his enemy. Thus began a miniaturization race between the two; they screwed off their fins, their gills, their metal necks, so that after a week each of them could, without stooping, walk under the table. But then the two remaining ministers were well aware that the future king would favor only the tiniest of them; like it or not, they also began to reduce themselves. It came about finally that there was nothing left to unscrew; in despair, Dioptricus sent his servant to fetch the tinker.
Froton was astonished when ushered into the presence of the magnate, for so little remained of that dignitary, and yet he stubbornly insisted that he be diminished even more!
“My lord,” Froton said, scratching his head. “As I see it, there is only one way. With Your Magnitude’s permission, I will take out his brain…”
“No, you are mad!” flared Dioptricus, but the tinker explained:
“The brain will be concealed in your palace, in some safe place, say, in this cupboard here, and Your Magnitude will have inside him only a tiny receiver and tiny speaker; thanks to this Your Magnitude will be connected electromagnetically to his intelligence.”
“I understand!” said Dioptricus, to whom this idea appealed. “Very well then, do what you must!”
Froton removed the brain, laid it in a drawer in the cupboard, locked the cupboard with a key, handed the key to Dioptricus, and into his belly he inserted a minuscule receiver with a micromicrophone. Dioptricus had now become so small, he was almost impossible to see; his three rivals trembled at the sight of such reduction, and the King was surprised, but said nothing. Minogar, Amassid and Philonaut now resorted to desperate measures. Before one’s eyes they dwindled from day to day, and soon had done the same as the tinker with Dioptricus: they hid their brains—wherever they could, in a desk, under the bed—and themselves became nothing but tiny tins, gleaming, with tails and one or two rows of medals not much smaller than they were.
Once again Dioptricus sent his servants for the tinker; and when again Froton stood before him, he cried:
“You must do something! It is absolutely necessary for me to reduce more, no matter what, or things will go badly!”
“My lord,” answered the tinker, bowing low before the magnate, who was barely visible between the armrest and the back of the chair, “that would be extremely difficult and I am not sure it is even possible to…”
“Never mind! You will do as I tell you! You must! If you succeed in reducing me so much that I achieve the minimal shape, one that no one can surpass—I’ll grant your every wish!”
“If Your Magnitude gives me his highborn word that this will be so, I shall do what lies within my power,” replied Froton, in whose head suddenly a light went on, and it was as if someone had poured into his breast the purest gold—because for many days now he could think of nothing but the golden Aurentine and the crystal chimes that seemed to ring within her bosom.
Dioptricus gave his solemn word. Froton then took the last three medals that weighed down the minute chest of the great programmist, joined them together in a l
“It is ready, Your Magnitude! By these high decorations everyone will without difficulty recognize Your Exalted Person; with the aid of this tiny plate Your Magnitude will be able to swim, and the small receiver will permit contact with your intelligence, hidden in the cupboard…”
Dioptricus was overjoyed.
“What is it you wish? Speak, ask—nothing shall be denied you!”
“I wish to have in marriage the daughter of Your Magnitude, the golden Aurentine!”
This enraged Dioptricus greatly and, swimming about the face of Froton, he hurled imprecations upon him, rattled his medals at him, called him a shameless scoundrel, a good-for-nothing, a sneaking villain, then ordered him thrown from the palace. He himself immediately sailed off in an underwater boat-and-six to see the King.
When Minogar, Amassid and Philonaut caught sight of Dioptricus in his new form, and they knew him thanks only to the magnificent medals of which he now was made, not counting the tiny tail, they flew into a great fury. As worthies well versed in matters electrical, they realized it would be difficult indeed to go further in personal miniaturization, and the prince’s birth ceremony was to be held the very next day and there was not a moment to lose. Therefore Amassid plotted with Philonaut, that when Dioptricus left for his own palace they would fall upon him, carry him off and imprison him, which would not be hard, for who would notice the disappearance of one so small? As they planned it, so they did it, Amassid prepared an old tin can and lay in wait with it behind a coral reef past which the boat of Dioptricus would sail; and when it drew near, his servants—masked—leaped out across its path, and before the lackeys of Dioptricus could lift their fins in defense, their lord had been canned and borne away; Amassid immediately bent down the tin lid, so the great programmist could not escape, and, cruelly taunting him and jeering, he hurried home. Here however he thought that it would be unwise to keep the prisoner himself. Just then he heard a voice crying in the street: “Heads soldered! Bellies polished! Get your tails and necks wired here!” He rejoiced, called the tinker, who happened to be Froton, ordered him to seal the can hermetically, and when the latter had done this, he gave him a thaler and said:
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