Mortal Engines by Stanisław Lem


  “Indeed yes!” Alfred replied. “I’m not a bit mad, madness doesn’t lie within my capabilities. I never lose my mental balance. All the more unpleasant would it then be for me, dear friend, to be there while you found yourself losing yours and slowly perished in the rays of this scorching sun. I assure you, I have carefully analyzed the entire situation and one by one ruled out every possibility of rescue. You will not make a boat or raft, you haven’t the materials for that; no ship will come and save you, as has been already pointed out; neither do airplanes fly over the island, and you in turn cannot build yourself a flying machine. You could, of course, choose a slow death over one that is swift and easy, but as your closest friend I strongly advise you against so foolish a decision. If you would only take a good, deep breath of water…”

  “Your good, deep breath of water be damned!!” screamed Automatthew, quivering with rage. “And to think that for a friend like this I parted with a beautifully cut diamond! You know what your inventor is? A common thief, a swindler, a fraud!”

  “You’ll surely retract those words when you have heard me out,” said Alfred quietly.

  “You mean there’s more? What now, do you intend regaling me with tales of the afterlife that waits in store? Just what I need!”

  “There is no life after death,” said Alfred. “I shall not attempt to deceive you, for I neither wish nor indeed am able to do so. This is not how I understand the duty of a friend. Only listen to me carefully, dear Automatthew! As you are aware, though in general one gives no thought to it, the world is a place of infinite variety and richness. In it you have magnificent cities, filled with mingled voices and fabled treasures, you have royal palaces, hovels, mountains enchanting and drear, murmuring groves, tranquil lakes, torrid deserts and the endless snows of the North. Being what you are, however, you cannot experience at a time more than one single, solitary place among those I have mentioned and the millions I have not. It can therefore be said—without exaggeration—that for the places in which you are not present you represent, as it were, one who is dead, for you are not enjoying the pleasures of palace wealth, nor taking part in the dances of the countries of the South, neither are you feasting your eyes upon the rainbow ices of the North. They do not exist for you, in exactly the same way that they do not exist in death. By the same token, if you use your mind and ponder well what I am telling you, you will realize that in not being everywhere, that is, in all those fascinating places, you are nearly nowhere at all. For there are, as I said, millions upon millions of places to be, while you are able to experience this one place only, an uninteresting place, unpleasant even, in its monotony, bah—repulsive, this little island here of rocks. Now between ‘everywhere’ and ‘nearly nowhere’ the difference is enormous and it constitutes your normal lot in life, for you always have been in only one, single, solitary place at a given time. On the other hand between ‘nearly nowhere’ and ‘nowhere’ the difference is, quite honestly, microscopic. And so the mathematics of sensations proves that even now you can barely be considered alive, for your absence is everywhere, like one departed! That is the first thing. Secondly: gaze upon this sand mixed with gravel, which digs into your tender feet—do you consider it invaluable? Assuredly not. Behold this great quantity of salt water, its revolting abundance—is it of use to you? Hardly! Here are some rocks and there, above you, a broiling sky that dries up the joints in your limbs. Do you need this unendurable heat, these lifeless, burning boulders? Of course you don’t! And therefore you have absolutely no need of all the things surrounding you, of that on which you stand, of that which spreads above you from horizon to horizon. What will remain, if one takes this away? A little hum in the head, a pressure in the temples, a pounding in the chest, some trembling at the knees, and other such chaotic agitations. Do you need, in turn, this hum, pressure, pounding and trembling? Not one whit, dear Automatthew! And if this also is relinquished, what then remains? A few racing thoughts, those expressions—very like curses—which in your heart you are hurling at me now, your own friend, and in addition to this a choking anger and a sickening fear. Do you need—I ask you finally—this wretched terror and this futile rage? Obviously you can do without them. If then we take away those useless feelings as well, what is left is nothing, nothing, I tell you, zero, and it is precisely this zero, this state of infinite patience, unbroken silence and perfect peace, that I wish for you, as your true friend, to have!”

  “But I want to live!” howled Automatthew. “To live! To live!! Do you hear me?!”

  “Ah, we are speaking now not of what you experience, but of what you desire,” answered Alfred calmly. “You wish to live, in other words to possess a future which will become your present, for this—after all—is what living amounts to. There is nothing more to it than that. But live you will not, for you cannot, as we already determined. The only question then is in what manner you will cease to live—whether in protracted agony or, instead, easily, when with one quick gulp of water…”

  “Enough! No more! Go away! Get out!!” screamed Automatthew with all his might, jumping up and down with his fists clenched.

  “Now what is this?” returned Alfred. “Putting aside for the moment the insulting form of that command, which does bring to mind our declaration of friendship, really, how can you express yourself so unreasonably? How can you say to me ‘Get out’? Do I have legs, on which I might depart? Or even arms, to crawl away? You know perfectly well that such is not the case. If you wish to be rid of me, then kindly remove me from your ear, which—I assure you—is not the most convenient place in the world to be, and throw me somewhere!”

  “Fine!” yelled Automatthew in a fury. “I’ll do it right now!” But in vain did he dig and poke in his ear, using his finger. His friend had been too carefully wedged within and in no way could he extract it, though he shook his head in all directions like one insane.

  “That evidently isn’t going to work,” Alfred observed after a long pause. “It would appear that we shall not part, though this is neither to your liking nor to mine. If so, then it is a fact we must accept, for facts have this about them, that the truth is always on their side. Which applies equally—I note in passing—to your current situation. You wish to have a future, and at any price. This seems to me the height of folly, but very well, so be it. Permit me then to depict this future for you in rough outline, since the known is always preferable to the unknown. The anger which presently convulses you will shortly give way to a feeling of helpless despair, and this, after a series of efforts—as violent as they will be unavailing—to find some avenue of escape, will yield in turn to a mindless stupor. Meanwhile the driving heat of the sun, which reaches even me in this shaded portion of your person, will, in accordance with the unrelenting laws of physics and chemistry, dry out more and more your entire being. First the oil in your joints will evaporate off, and the least movement will cause you to squeak and creak dreadfully, poor devil! Next, as your skull begins to bake in the searing heat, you will see whirling circles of various colors, but this will bear no similarity to a rainbow, because…”

  “Will you be quiet, you intolerable pest?!” cried Automatthew. “I don’t want to hear what’s going to happen to me! Silence, not another word, do you understand?!”

  “You needn’t shout. You know perfectly well that your every whisper, however low, can reach me. And so you do not wish to learn of the torments that your future holds? Yet on the other hand you wish to have that future? How illogical! Very well, in that case I will be silent. I only point out that it is inappropriate for you to be concentrating your anger on me, as though I were to blame for this highly regrettable situation you are in. The cause of the misfortune was, of course, the storm, while I am your friend and my participation in the tortures that await you, that entire spectacle—divided into acts—of suffering and slow death, even now it grieves me to think upon it, yes, the horrifying prospect of what will happen when your oil…”

  “So you won’t stop then? Or is
it that you can’t, you little monster?!” bellowed Automatthew, and struck himself a blow in the ear that housed his friend. “Oh, if only I had here, in my hand, a stick of some sort, a piece of a twig, which I could use to pry you out, I’d do it and grind you beneath my heel in no time!”

  “You dream of destroying me?” said Alfred, saddened. “Truly, you do not deserve an electrofriend, nor any other sympathizing fellow creature!”

  Automatthew flared up anew at this and so they quarreled, argued and disputed till the day was almost over, and the poor robot, exhausted from all his screaming, jumping and fist-waving, and suddenly feeling very weak, sat down on a stone where, heaving sighs of hopelessness every now and then, he stared out at the empty ocean. A couple of times he took the edge of a small cloud peering out over the horizon for the smoke of a steamship, but these illusions Alfred quickly dispelled, reminding him of the one-in-four-hundred-thousand probability, which again drove Automatthew to paroxysms of despair and rage, all the more in that each time, as it turned out, Alfred was right. Finally a long silence fell between them. The castaway now gazed at the lengthening shadows of the rocks, which stretched across the white sand of the beach, when Alfred spoke:

  “Why do you say nothing? Can it be that those circles I mentioned are even now swimming before your eyes?”

  Automatthew did not bother to reply.

  “Aha!” Alfred went on, in monologue. “So it’s not only the circles but, in all likelihood, also that mindless torpor which I so accurately predicted. Remarkable, really, the lack of sense displayed by an intelligent being, particularly when beset by circumstances. You trap it on a desert island, where it must perish, you prove as two and two are four that this is inescapable, you show it a way out of the situation, in the taking of which, it will be making the only use it can of its will and reason—and is it thankful? Oh no, it wants hope, and if there is none and can be none, it clings to false hope and would rather sink into madness than into the water which…”

  “Stop talking about the water!!” croaked Automatthew.

  “I was only demonstrating the irrationality of your motives,” answered Alfred. “I no longer urge anything upon you. That is, any action, for if you wish to die slowly, or rather, by wishing to do nothing in general, you undertake that type of dying, then one must think this through properly. Consider how erroneous and unwise it is to fear death, a state that deserves, rather, vindication! For what can equal the perfection of nonexistence? True, the agony leading up to it does not, in itself, present an especially attractive phenomenon, on the other hand there has never yet been one so feeble in mind or body that he could not endure it and proved unable to die his death completely, all the way and to the very end. It is not, then, a thing of much significance, if any dolt, weakling and good-for-nothing can do it. And if absolutely everyone can handle it (and you must admit that this is so, I at least have never heard of anyone unequal to the task), it is better to think with delight on the all-merciful nothingness that lies just beyond its threshold. Because, when one has passed away, it is impossible to think, inasmuch as death and thought are mutually exclusive, and therefore when else, if not while still in life, is it fitting to contemplate—sensibly and particularly—all those privileges, conveniences and pleasures which death will bestow so generously upon you?! Picture if you will: no struggles, no anxieties or apprehensions, no suffering of the body or the soul, no unhappy accidents, and this on what a scale! Why, even if all the world’s evil forces were to join and conspire against you, they would not reach you! Truly, nothing can compare with the sweet security of one who is no more! And if furthermore you consider that this security is not something transient, fleeting, impermanent, that nothing may repeal or intrude upon it, then with what boundless joy…”

  “Drop dead,” came the weak voice of Automatthew and, accompanying those laconic words, a short but pungent oath.

  “How I regret that I cannot!” Alfred instantly replied. “Not only feelings of egoistic envy (for there is nothing to compare with death, as I’ve just said), but the purest altruism inclines me to accompany you into oblivion. But alas, this is not possible, since my inventor made me indestructible, no doubt to serve his constructor’s pride. Truly, when I think of how I will remain inside your brine-encrusted, desiccated corpse, whose disintegration will go slowly, I am sure, and how I will sit there and converse with myself—it fills me with sorrow. And all the waiting there will be, afterwards, before at last that one-in-four-hundred-thousandth vessel, in keeping with the laws of probability, chances upon this little island…”

  “What?! You will not waste away here?!” exclaimed Automatthew, roused from his lethargy by these words of Alfred. “Then you will go on living, while I, while I… Oh no! Not a chance! Never! Never!! Never!!!”

  And with a dreadful roar he leaped to his feet and began to hop, jerk his head, dig in his ear with all his might, performing throughout the most amazing twists and tosses with his body—in vain, however. While all this went on, Alfred piped at the top of its voice:

  “Now really, stop! What, have you lost your mind already? It’s too soon for that! Careful, you’ll hurt yourself! You could break or maybe sprain something! Watch out for the neck! Come, this makes no sense! It would be a different thing if you could, well, get it over with all at once … but this way you’ll only injure yourself! I told you I’m indestructible and that’s that, it’s useless for you to go to all this trouble! Even if you were to shake me out, you still couldn’t do me any harm, that is, any good—I meant to say—since in accordance with what I have already expounded at such length, death is a thing to be envied, Ow! Stop, please! How can you jump about like that?”

  Automatthew however continued to hurl himself, heedless of everything, and finally took to ramming his head against the rock on which he had been sitting before. And he rammed and rammed, with sparks in his eyes and a cloud of powder in his nostrils, deafened by the force of his own blows, until Alfred popped suddenly from his ear and rolled between some stones with a faint cry of relief, that it had finally ended. Automatthew did not at first notice that his efforts had met with success. Sinking down upon a sun-scorched stone, he rested there awhile, and then, still unable to move his arms or legs, mumbled:

  “Don’t worry, it’s only a momentary weakness. I’ll shake you out yet, yes, then under the heel you go, my dear friend, do you hear? Do you hear? Hey! What’s this?!”

  He sat up quickly, aware of an emptiness in his ear. He looked around, his mind not altogether clear, and, getting down on his hands and knees, began feverishly hunting for Alfred in the gravel.

  “Alfred! Aaaal-fred!!! Where are you? Answer me!!” he hollered all the while. But Alfred, whether out of wariness or for some other reason, didn’t make a sound. Automatthew then began to lure it with the tenderest words, assured it that he had changed his mind, that his only desire was to follow the good advice of his electrofriend and drown himself, he only wanted first to hear it say once more how wonderful death was. But this didn’t work either, Alfred said nothing. Then the castaway, cursing up and down, systematically began to search inch by inch the surrounding area. Suddenly, in the middle of throwing away a handful of gravel, Automatthew raised it to his eyes and started trembling with evil delight, for among the pebbles he spotted Alfred, a dully gleaming, serenely shining tiny grain of metal.

  “Ah! There you are, my little chum! There you are, old speck! I have you now, my fine, forever-lasting friend!” he hissed, carefully squeezing between his fingers Alfred, which didn’t make so much as a peep. “And now we’ll see about that indestructibility of yours, yes, we’ll test it out right now. Take that!!!”

  These words were accompanied by a powerful concussion; having placed his electrofriend on the surface of a rock, Automatthew jumped upon it with all his weight, and for good measure pivoted on his steel heel until it made a screech. Alfred said nothing, only the rock seemed to complain beneath that grinding drill; bending over, Automatthew saw t
hat the tiny granule hadn’t been touched, only the rock under it was a trifle dented. Alfred now lay in that small depression.

  “Strong, are you? We’ll find a harder stone!” he growled, and began running back and forth across the island, looking for the toughest possible flints, basalts and porphyries, in older to crush Alfred upon them. And as he pounded it with his heels, he spoke to it with affected calm, or sometimes hurled insults at it, as if in the expectation that it would reply or perhaps even burst into pleas and entreaties. Alfred however said nothing. The air carried only the echoes of heavy thuds, trampling, the crumbling of stone and the panting and swearing of Automatthew. After a long time Automatthew came to the conclusion that the most terrible blows would in fact cause Alfred no harm, and, feverish and weak, he sat once more upon the shore, his electrofriend in his hand.

  “Even if I cannot smash you,” he said with seeming composure, though barely able to control his rage, “have no fear, I will take proper care of you. For that vessel of yours you will have to wait, my good friend, since I shall throw you to the bottom of the sea and there you will lie for an eternity or more. You will have abundant time for pleasant meditations in that so hermetic solitude! I will see to it you do not gain a new friend!”

  “My dear fellow,” said Alfred unexpectedly. “And what will it matter to me, to live on the ocean floor? You think in the categories of an impermanent being, hence your error. Understand that either the sea must someday dry up, or else first its entire bottom will rise like a mountain and become land. Whether this happens in a hundred thousand years or in a hundred million is of no consequence to me. Not only am I indestructible, but infinitely patient, as indeed you might have observed, if only by the calm with which I endured the manifestations of your blindness. I’ll tell you more: I did not respond to your calls, but rather let you search for me, for I wished to spare you unnecessary excitement. Also I was silent while you jumped on me, so as not to increase your fury with an inadvertent word, since this could have done you further injury.”

 
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