Mortal Engines by Stanisław Lem
“See here, tinker, in this can is a metal scorpion, which was caught in the cellar of my palace. Take it and discard it outside the city, there where lies the great garbage dump, you know? And to be safe, wedge the can in tightly with a stone, in order that the scorpion not free itself in time. And, by the Great Matrix, do not open the can, or you will perish on the spot!”
“I will do as you say, Sire,” said Froton, and he took the can, the coin, and departed.
This business perplexed him, he did not know what to make of it; he shook the can, and something rattled inside.
“That cannot be a scorpion,” he thought, “there are no scorpions that small… We shall see what sort of thing it is, but not just now…”
He returned home, hid the can in the attic, threw over it some old metal sheets, so his wife would not find it, and went to bed. But his wife had observed him concealing something in the garret, so when he left the house the following day to walk the streets as always, calling: “Heads wired! Tails welded!”—she quickly ran upstairs, found the can and, giving it a shake, heard the clink of metal. “Ah that rascal, oh that scoundrel!” she muttered, meaning Froton. “It’s come to this, then. He hides treasures from me!” Losing no time, she made a hole in the can, but saw nothing, so she pried at the tin with a chisel. And when she had bent it back just a little, she beheld the glimmer of gold, for the medals of Dioptricus were of the purest ore; trembling with greed, she ripped away the entire lid, and then Dioptricus—who till now had lain as one dead, for the tin shielded him from his brain, which sat in the cupboard of his palace—suddenly awoke, regained contact with his intelligence and exclaimed: “What is this?! Where am I?! Who dared to attack me?! And who are you, disgusting creature? Know, that you will perish most miserably, bolted down and quartered, if you do not this instant restore to me my freedom!”
The tinker’s wife, seeing the three ducat-medals, how they flew in her face, bellowing and shaking their tiny tail at her, was so frightened that she tried to flee; she jumped to the attic trapdoor but—because Dioptricus still swam above her and threatened, cursing for all he was worth—she tripped on the top rung of the ladder and came crashing down, ladder and all, from the attic. Falling, she broke her neck, while the ladder, overturned, no longer supported the attic trapdoor—which slammed shut. In this way Dioptricus became imprisoned in the attic, where he swam from wall to wall, calling in vain for help.
That evening Froton returned home and was surprised not to find his wife waiting with her crowbar at the door. But upon entering the house he saw her, and even felt a little sorry, for his was a noble soul; nevertheless it soon occurred to him that this misfortune could be turned to his advantage, particularly as he could use his wife for spare parts, which would pay extremely well. So he sat on the floor, took out his screwdriver and set about dismantling his late missus—when high, piping cries came floating down to him from overhead.
“Ah!” he said to himself. “I know that voice—yes, it’s the great royal programmist, who yesterday ordered me thrown from his palace and paid me nothing besides—but how did he find his way into my attic?”
He set the ladder to the trapdoor, climbed up to it and asked:
“Is that you, Your Magnitude?”
“Yes, yes!” howled Dioptricus. “It is I, someone abducted me, waylaid me, sealed me in a can, some female opened it, took fright and fell from the attic, the trapdoor closed, I am trapped here, let me out, whoever you are—by the Great Matrix!—and I will give you all that you desire!”
“I have heard these words before, begging Your Magnitude’s pardon, and know what they are worth,” replied Froton. “For I am the tinker whom you had thrown out—” And he told him the entire story, how some unknown magnate had summoned him, ordered the can to be soldered shut and left on the garbage dump outside the city. Dioptricus understood that this must have been one of the King’s ministers, most likely Amassid. He immediately began to plead with Froton to release him from the attic, but Froton asked how he could now trust Dioptricus’s word?
Only after Dioptricus had sworn by all things sacred that he would grant him his daughter’s hand in marriage, did the tinker open the trapdoor and, taking the dignitary between two fingers, medals-up, carried him to his palace. Just then the clocks splashed twelve noon and the grand ceremony of removing the King’s son from the kiln commenced; as fast as he could Dioptricus pinned onto the three medals of which he was made the great All-marine Star, with its billow-embroidered ribbon, and swam full speed to the palace of the Innocuids. Froton meanwhile hastened to the chambers where among her maidens sat Aurentine, playing upon the electrocomb; and they took a great liking to one another. Fanfares resounded from the palace towers as Dioptricus swam up to the main entrance, for the ceremony had already begun. The doorkeepers at first refused to let him in, but then they recognized him by his medals and opened the gates.
And when the gates were opened, an underwater draft passed through the entire coronation hall, grabbed up Amassid, Minogar and Philonaut, miniaturized as they were, and swept them into the kitchen, where they circled a while—calling in vain for help—above the sink, into which they then fell and after many subterranean bends and turns ended up outside the city; and by the time they had crawled out from under all the mud, ooze and slime, cleaned themselves off and returned to court, the ceremony was long over. The same underwater draft that had brought the three ministers to such a sorry pass seized Dioptricus also and whirled him about the throne with such force, his gold wire belt snapped and his medals and All-marine Star went flying off in every direction, while the little receiver, carried by the momentum, landed on the forehead of King Hydrops, who was much confounded, for from that tiny mote there came a squeak:
“Your Royal Highness! Forgive me! Unintentional! ’Tis I, Dioptricus, the great programmist…”
“Practical jokes at a time like this?” cried the King, and brushed aside the little receiver, which drifted to the floor, and the Lord High Gillard, in opening the ceremony with three blows of his golden staff, accidentally dashed it to smithereens. The prince emerged from the filial kiln and his gaze fell upon the little electric fish that swam in the silver cage beside the throne, his face lit up and his heart went out to that creature. The ceremony concluded successfully, the prince ascended the throne and took the place of Hydrops. From that time on he was the ruler of the Argonautians and became a great philosopher, for he devoted himself to the study of nothingness, there being nothing less than this to meditate upon; and he governed justly, having taken the name of Neantophil, and small electric fish were his favorite dish. As for Froton, he was wed to Aurentine, at whose request he restored the emerald body of Dioptricus, that lay in the cellar, and installed in it the brain taken from the cupboard. Seeing that there was no help for it, the great programmist and the other ministers faithfully served the new King from then on and ever after. And Aurentine and Froton, who was made Lord High Platesmith, lived long and happily.
A certain robot, planning to go on a long and dangerous voyage, heard of a most useful device which its inventor called an electric friend. He would feel better, he thought, if he had a companion, even a companion that was only a machine, so he went to the inventor and asked to be shown an artificial friend.
“Sure,” replied the inventor. (As you know, in fairy tales no one says “sir” or “ma’am” to anyone else, not even to dragons, it’s only with the kings that you have to stand on ceremony.) With this he pulled from his pocket a handful of metal granules, that looked like fine shot.
“What is that?” said the robot in surprise.
“Tell me your name, for I forgot to ask it in the proper place of this fairy tale,” said the inventor.
“My name is Automatthew.”
“That’s too long for me, I’ll call you Autom.”
“Autom’s from Automatom, but have it your way,” replied the other.
“No, one will do for now,” said Automatthew. “But I’d like some idea of what I can expect of it. Will it be able to help me in a difficult situation?”
“But of course, that’s what it’s for, after all!” replied the inventor good-humoredly. He shook out on his palm a bunch of the granules, which glittered metallically, being made of rare metals, and continued: “Obviously you can’t count on help in the physical sense, but we are not speaking of that, I think. Helpful hints, suggestions, cogent comments, sensible recommendations, good observations, admonitions, warnings, words of caution, as well as comfort, solace, encouragement, maxims to restore your faith in yourself, and deep insights that will enable you to cope with any situation, no matter how serious or even grave—this is only a small part of the repertoire of my electrofriends. They are wholly devoted, staunch, true, ever vigilant, because they never sleep; they are also unbelievably durable, esthetic, and you can see for yourself how very handy! So then, you are taking only one?”
“Yes,” said Automatthew. “But there’s another thing: could you tell me what happens if someone steals it from me? Will it return? Or bring about the thief’s destruction?”
“As for that, no,” answered the inventor. “It will serve him just as diligently and faithfully as it did you. You can’t ask too much, my dear Autom, it will not desert you in your hour of need if you do not desert it. But there is little chance of that—if you will just place it in your ear and always keep the ear plugged up with cotton…”
“Very well,” agreed Automatthew. “And how am I to speak to it?”
“You needn’t speak at all, whisper subvocally and it will hear you perfectly. As for its name, I call it Alfred. Alf or Alfie will do.”
“Good,” said Automatthew.
They weighed Alfred, the inventor received for it a lovely little diamond, and the robot, content that he now had a companion, a fellow soul for the distant journey, proceeded on his way.
It was most pleasant traveling with Alfred, which, if he so desired it, would wake him each morning by whistling inside his head a soft and cheerful reveille; it also told him various amusing anecdotes, however Automatthew soon forbade it to do this when he was in the presence of others, for they began to suspect him of lunacy, seeing how every now and then he would burst into laughter for no apparent reason. In this manner Automatthew traveled first by land, then reached the seashore, where a beautiful white ship awaited him. He had few possessions, thus in no time at all was ensconced in a cozy little cabin and listening with satisfaction to the clatter that announced the raising of the anchor and the start of a great sea voyage. For several days the white ship merrily sailed the waves beneath a beaming sun, and at night, all silvered by the moon, it rocked him to sleep, till early one morning a terrible storm broke. Waves three times higher than the masts buffeted the ship, which creaked and groaned in all its joints, and the din was so dreadful that Automatthew did not hear a single word of the many comforting things Alfred was no doubt whispering to him during those unpleasant moments. Suddenly there was an ungodly crash, salt water burst into the cabin, and before the horrified eyes of Automatthew the ship began to come apart.
He ran out on deck just as he was, and had barely leaped into the last lifeboat when a monstrous wave loomed up, fell upon the vessel and pulled it down into the churning ocean depths, Automatthew did not see a single member of the crew, he was alone in the lifeboat, alone in the midst of the raging sea, and he trembled, certain that the next roller would sink the little boat and him along with it. The wind howled, from the low clouds torrents lashed the heaving surface of the sea, and he still could not hear what Alfred had to say to him. Then in the confusion he observed some blurry shapes covered with a seething white; this was the shore of an unknown land, upon which the waves were breaking. With a loud scrape the boat ran aground on some rocks, and Automatthew, thoroughly drenched and dripping salt water, set off on shaky legs, with the last of his strength, seeking the refuge of the land’s interior, as far away as possible from the ocean waves. At the foot of a rock he sank to earth and fell into a dreamless sleep of exhaustion.
He was wakened by a tactful whistling. It was Alfred reminding him of its friendly presence.
“Ah, how splendid that you’re there, Alfred, only now do I see what a good thing it is to have you with, or rather, in me!” cried Automatthew, recovering his senses. He looked around. The sun was shining, the sea was still choppy, but the menacing high waves had disappeared, the thunderclouds, the rain. Unfortunately the boat had disappeared as well. The storm must have raged in the night with incredible force, sweeping up and carrying out to sea the boat that had saved Automatthew. He jumped to his feet and began running along the shore, only to return in ten minutes to the very same spot. He was on a desert island, and a small one in the bargain. Not a particularly encouraging state of affairs. But no matter, he had his Alfred with him! He quickly informed it of just how things stood and asked for some advice.
“Ha! Humph!” said Alfred. “A situation indeed! This will take a bit of thought. What exactly do you require?”
“Require? Why, everything: help, rescue, clothes, means of subsistence, there’s nothing here but sand and rocks!”
“H’m! Is that a fact? You’re quite sure? There are not lying about somewhere along the beach chests from the wrecked ship, chests filled with tools, utensils, interesting reading, garments for different occasions, as well as gunpowder?”
Automatthew searched the length and breadth of the beach, but found nothing, not so much as a splinter from the vessel, which apparently had sunk all in one piece, like a stone.
“Nothing at all, you say? Most peculiar. The considerable literature on life on desert islands proves irrefutably that a shipwrecked person always finds at close hand axes, nails, fresh water, oil, sacred books, saws, pliers, firearms, and a great number of other useful items. But if not, then not. Is there at least a cave in the rocks providing shelter?”
“No, there is no cave.”
“What, no cave? Whoo, this is unusual! Would you be so good as to climb onto the highest rock and cast an eye around?”
“I’ll do it right away!” cried Automatthew, and scrambled up a steep rock in the middle of the island, and froze: the little volcanic island was surrounded on all sides by limitless ocean!
In a faltering voice he conveyed this news to Alfred, adjusting with a shaky finger the cotton in his ear, so as not to lose his friend. “How lucky I am that it didn’t fall out when the ship went down,” he thought and, suddenly feeling fatigued, sat on a rock and waited impatiently for friendly assistance.
“Now pay attention, my friend! Here is the advice I hasten to give you in this difficult predicament!” finally came the tiny voice of Alfred, so eagerly awaited. “On the basis of the calculations I have made, I conclu
“Forget about the million years, what should I do now?!” exclaimed Automatthew.
“The island lies far from all lanes of navigation. The chance of a vessel accidentally appearing in the vicinity is one in four hundred thousand.”
“Good Lord!” cried the castaway, despairing. “This is terrible! What then do you advise me to do?”
“I’ll tell you in a minute, if you will just stop interrupting. Proceed to the edge of the sea and enter the water, more or less chest-high. In that way you will not have to bend over unnecessarily, which would be cumbersome. Next you immerse your head and take in as much water as you possibly can. The stuff is bitter, I realize, but that will not last long. Particularly if at the same time you continue marching forward. You’ll soon grow heavy, and the salt water, filling up your entrails, will in the twinkling of an eye halt all organic processes and thereby instantly terminate your existence. Thanks to this you will avoid the prolonged torment of life upon this island, also the eventual anguish of a lingering death, not to mention the likelihood of losing your sanity prior to that. You might, in addition, hold a heavy stone in each hand. This is not necessary, however…”
“You’re mad!” shouted Automatthew, jumping up. “So I’m to drown myself? You urge me to commit suicide? Some helpful advice, this! And you call yourself my friend?!”
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