Mortal Engines


  “In the bag! Just keep it up!” said Quartz, and tore from the fallen warrior jewels of wondrous beauty: rings set with hydrogen, clasps and medallions that shone like diamonds, though cut from the trio of noble gases—argon, krypton and xenon. When however he admired them, the warmth of that emotion warmed him, consequently the diamonds and sapphires evaporated with a hiss beneath his touch, so that he held nothing—save a few droplets of dew, which also quickly vanished.

  “Uh-oh! Can’t admire either! No matter! Just don’t think!” he said to himself and forged on into the heart of the conquered city. In the distance he saw a mighty figure approaching. This was Albucid the White, General-Mineral, whose massive breast was crisscrossed with rows of icicle medals and the Great Star of Rime upon a glacial ribbon; that keeper of the royal treasures barred the way to Quartz, who bore down on him like a storm and smote him in a thunderclap of ice. Then Prince Astrobert, Lord of the Black Hail, came to the aid of Albucid; this time the electroknight had met his match, for the Prince had on his costly nitrogen armor, tempered in helium. So fierce was the cold that he gave off, it robbed Quartz of his impetus, weakened his movements, and even the polar lights grew pale, such was the breath of Absolute Zero that spread about. Quartz pulled up and thought: “Yipes! What’s going on?”—and from that great astonishment his brain heated, the Absolute Zero grew summery, and before his eyes Astrobert himself began to break up into chunks, with thunder accompanying the death throes, till only a heap of black ice, dripping drops like tears, remained in a puddle on the battlefield.

  “In the bag!” said Quartz to himself. “Just don’t think, but if you have to think, then think! Either way you win!” And he pressed on, and his steps rang, as though someone were hammering at crystals; and as he pounded through the streets of Frigida, its inhabitants peered out at him from under the white eaves, despair in their hearts. He was hurtling along like a mad meteor across the Milky Way, when in the distance he noticed a small and solitary figure. This was none other than Baryon, known as the Brrr, the greatest sage among the Cryonids. Quartz built up speed, intending to crush him in a single blow, but the other stepped out of the way and raised two fingers; Quartz had no idea what this might mean, but he turned and went full lilt at his opponent, yet once again at the last moment Baryon stepped aside and quickly raised one finger. Quartz was somewhat surprised at this and slowed his pace, though he had already turned around and was about to charge. He wondered, and water began to pour from the neighboring homes, but he did not see this, for now Baryon was showing him a circle with his fingers and swiftly moving the thumb of the other hand back and forth through it. Quartz thought and thought of what those silent gestures were supposed to represent, while a chasm opened up beneath his feet, black water gushed forth, and he sank like a stone, and before he had time to say, “That’s all right, just don’t think! ”—he was no more among the living. Later the Cryonids, grateful to Baryon for their deliverance, asked him what it was he had intended to convey through the signs he made to the terrible rogue electroknight.

  “It’s quite simple, really,” replied the sage. “Two fingers meant that there were two of us, he and I together. One finger, that soon only I would be left. Then I showed him the circle, indicating that the ice was opening around him and the ocean’s black abyss would swallow him forever. He failed to understand the first, and likewise the second and the third.”

  “O great wise one!” exclaimed the astonished Cryonids. “How could you have given such signs to the dread invader?! Think what would have happened had he comprehended and disdained surprise! Surely then his mind would not have heated, nor would he have plunged into the bottomless abyss…”

  “Pooh, I had no fear of that,” said Baryon the Brrr with an icy smile. “I knew all along he would not understand. If he’d had a grain of sense to begin with, he never would have come here. For what use to a being that lives beneath a sun are jewels of gas and silver stars of ice?”

  And they in turn marveled at the wisdom of the sage and so departed, satisfied, each to the comforting chill of his own hearth. After this no one ever again attempted to invade Cryonia, the entire Universe not having any more such fools, though some say there are plenty still, they merely do not know the way.

  Uranium

  Earpieces

  Once there lived a certain engineer-cosmogonist who lit stars to dispel the dark. He arrived at the nebula of Andromeda when it was still filled with black clouds. He immediately cranked up a great vortex, and as soon as it began to move, the cosmogonist reached for his beams. He had three of these: red, violet, and invisible. With the first he ignited a stellar sphere, and instantly it became a red giant, but the nebula grew no lighter. He pricked the star with the second beam, until it whitened. Then he said to his apprentice, “Keep an eye on it!,” and himself went off to kindle others. The apprentice waited a thousand years, then another thousand, but the engineer did not return. The apprentice grew weary of this waiting. He turned up the star, and from white it changed to blue. That pleased him, and he thought he could do everything now. He tried to turn it up some more, but it burnt. He searched in the box the cosmogonist had left behind, but there was nothing there, less than nothing it seemed; he looked and could not even see the bottom. The invisible beam, he thought. He wanted to jolt the star with it, but the question was—how? He took the box and hurled it, beam and all, into the fire. All the clouds of Andromeda flared up then, as if a hundred thousand suns were lit at once, and in the whole nebula it grew bright as day. Great was the joy of the apprentice, but it did not last long, for the star burst. The cosmogonist flew up then, seeing the damage, and since he did not like to waste anything, he seized the beams and made planets of them. The first he fashioned out of gas, the second—out of carbon, but for the third planet only the heavier metals were left, so what resulted was a sphere of the actinide series. The cosmogonist packed it tight, sent it flying, and said: “In a hundred million years I’ll return—we’ll see what becomes of it.” And he hurried off to find the apprentice, who had fled in fear of him.

  And on that third planet, Actinuria, there arose the great kingdom of the Pallatinids. Each of them was so heavy, he could walk only on Actinuria, for on the other planets the ground gave way beneath him, and when he shouted, the mountains fell. But at home they all stepped softly and dared not raise their voices, because their ruler, Archithorius, knew no bounds when it came to cruelty. He lived in a palace carved out of a mountain of platinum, in which there were six hundred mighty halls, and in each hall lay one of his hands, he was so large. He could not leave the palace, but had spies everywhere, so suspicious was he, and he tormented his subjects also with his greed.

  The Pallatinids had need of neither lamps nor fires at night, for all the mountains of their planet were radioactive, so that during the new moon you could thread a needle. In the day, when the sun was too much for comfort, they slept in the depths of their mountains; only at nighttime did they assemble in the metal valleys. But cruel Archithorius ordered lumps of uranium to be thrown into the kettles used to melt palladium with platinum, and issued a proclamation throughout the land. Each Pallatinid was to come to the royal palace, where his measurements would be taken for a new suit of armor, and pauldrons and breastplates were made, gauntlets and greaves, a visor and helmet, with everything glowing, for that garb was of uranium alloy, and brightest of all shone the earpieces.

  After this the Pallatinids could no longer come together and hold council, for if a gathering grew too numerous, it exploded. Thus they had to lead their lives apart, passing one another at a distance, fearful of a chain reaction; Archithorius meanwhile delighted in their sorrow and burdened them with ever newer levies. His mints in the heart of the mountains hammered out ducats of lead, for lead was scarce on Actinuria and had the highest value.

  Evil days fell upon the subjects of the cruel ruler. Some wished to foment rebellion against Archithorius and for this purpose communicated in pantomime, but nothing c
ame of that, since there was always someone slow of understanding, who approached the others to ask them what they meant, and as a result of his obtuseness the conspiracy immediately blew up.

  There lived on Actinuria a young inventor by the name of Pyron, who learned to pull wires of platinum so thin, you could make nets with them for catching clouds. Pyron invented the wire telegraph, and then he pulled the wire out so fine, it wasn’t there, and in this fashion he obtained the wireless. Hope entered the hearts of the inhabitants of Actinuria, for they thought it would now be possible to establish a conspiracy. But the cunning Archithorius monitored their conversations, holding in each of his six hundred hands a platinum conductor, whereby he knew what his subjects were saying, and at the first mention of the word “revolt” or “coup” he instantly dispatched ball lightning, which reduced the conspirators to a flaming puddle.

  Pyron decided to outwit the wicked ruler. When he spoke to his friends, instead of “rebelling” he said “reheeling,” instead of “insurrection”—“instep,” and in this way he planned the overthrow. Archithorius meanwhile was puzzled why his subjects had taken such a sudden interest in shoe repair, for he did not know that when they said “thread the laces,” by this they meant “run him through and through,” and boots too tight signified his tyranny. But those to whom Pyron addressed himself did not always understand him rightly, as he could explain his schemes only in the cobbler’s jargon. He put it this way and that, and when they failed to comprehend, he once was careless enough to telegraph: “Cut the plutonium down to size”—as if fitting a sole. But here the King took fright, for plutonium is most closely related to uranium, and uranium—to thorium, and Archithorius after all was his own name. So he sent out an armored guard, which seized Pyron and hurled him on the leaden floor before the face of the King. Pyron admitted to nothing, but the King imprisoned him in his palladium tower.

  All hope left the Pallatinids. However the time had now come when the cosmogonist, the creator of the three planets, returned to their vicinity.

  From afar he observed the state of affairs on Actinuria and said to himself: “This must not be!” Whereupon he spun the thinnest and hardest radiation into a cocoon, placed his own body inside, there to wait until his return, and he himself assumed the form of an indigent almoner and went down to the planet.

  When darkness fell and only the distant mountains in a cold ring threw light upon the platinum valley, the cosmogonist sought to approach the subjects of King Archithorius, but they avoided him in great alarm, for they feared a uranium explosion. In vain did he pursue now this one, now that, not knowing the reason that they fled. So he roamed the hills, hills like the shields of warriors, his footsteps clanging, until he came to the foot of the very tower where Archithorius held Pyron chained. Pyron saw him through the bars and noticed that the cosmogonist, albeit in the form of a simple robot, was different from all other Pallatinids: he did not glow in the dark, but was as murky as a corpse, for in his armor there was not a single atom of uranium. Pyron desired to call out to him, but his lips had been bolted shut, so he struck sparks by beating his head against the walls of the cell; the cosmogonist, observing this light, approached the tower and peered through the grating of a small window. Pyron was unable to speak, but could rattle his chains, and thus rattled out the whole truth to the cosmogonist.

  “Have patience and wait,” the latter told him, “and you shall not wait in vain.”

  The cosmogonist repaired to the wildest mountains of Actinuria and spent three days searching for crystals of cadmium, and when he found them he hammered them into metal sheets, using boulders of palladium. From this cadmium metal he cut earmuffs and laid them on the doorstep of every home. The Pallatinids, when they discovered them, were astonished, but put them on at once, it being winter.

  That night the cosmogonist appeared among them and swung an incandescent rod so rapidly, that from it fiery lines were formed. In this manner he wrote to them in the darkness: “You may now approach each other safely, the cadmium will protect you.” But they took him for one of the King’s spies and would not trust his counsel. The cosmogonist grew angry, seeing that they believed him not, and he went into the mountains, and gathered uranium ore, and with it smelted a silvery metal, and beat out gleaming ducats. On one side of the ducats was stamped the radiant profile of Archithorius, on the other—an image of his six hundred arms.

  Weighed down with uranium ducats, the cosmogonist returned to the valley and showed the Pallatinids a wondrous thing: he threw the ducats far from himself, one at a time, till he made of them a ringing pile, and when he tossed on yet one more ducat above the limit, the air shuddered, light burst from the ducats and they turned into a ball of white flame. When the wind blew everything away, only a crater remained, melted into the rock.

  Then the cosmogonist began a second time to throw ducats from his sack, but now differently, for each ducat that he threw he covered first with a cadmium plate, and though the pile that rose was six times greater than the one before, nothing happened. The Pallatinids believed him then and, gathering together, lost no time but eagerly took to plotting against Archithorius. They wanted to unthrone the King, but didn’t know how, for the palace was surrounded by a dazzling wall and on the drawbridge stood a death machine—whomever failed to give the password it would chop to pieces.

  The time arrived to pay the new tribute, which the greedy Archithorius had decreed. The cosmogonist distributed uranium ducats among the King’s subjects and advised them to pay the tribute with these. And this they did.

  The King was pleased to see so many gleaming ducats come into his treasury, for he did not know that they were of uranium and not lead. That same night the cosmogonist melted the bars of the prison and freed Pyron, and as they walked through the valley in silence, in the light of the radioactive mountains, which was as though a ring of moons had fallen and encircled the horizon on every side, suddenly a terrible radiance poured forth, for the pile of uranium ducats in the royal treasury had grown too great, setting off a chain reaction. The detonation blew the palace and the metal hulk of Archithorius sky-high; its force was such, that the tyrant’s six hundred dismembered hands went flying into interstellar space. There was much rejoicing on Actinuria, Lord Pyron became its just ruler, and the cosmogonist, having departed into the darkness, retrieved his body from its energy cocoon and set off once more to kindle stars. As for the six hundred platinum hands of Archithorius, they rotate about the planet to this very day, like a ring, similar to Saturn’s, shining with a splendor that is a hundred times brighter than the glow of the radioactive mountains, and the happy Pallatinids say: “Look how Thorius lights our way!” It is indeed a handsome sight among the spectacles in our wide Galaxy, and serves moreover as a constant reminder of the virtues of disarmament.

  How Erg

  the Self-inducting

  Slew a Paleface

  The mighty king Boludar loved curiosities, and devoted himself wholly to the collecting of them, often forgetting about important affairs of state. He had a collection of clocks, and among them were dancing clocks, sunrise clocks and clock-clouds. He also had stuffed monsters from all four comers of the Universe, and in a special room, under a bell glass, the rarest of creatures—the Homos Anthropos, most wonderfully pale, two-legged, and it even had eyes, though empty. The King ordered two lovely rubies set in them, giving the Homos a red stare. Whenever he grew mellow with drink, Boludar would invite his favorite guests to this room and show them the frightful thing.

  One day there came to the King’s court an electrosage so old, that the crystals of his mind had grown somewhat confused with age, nevertheless this electrosage, named Halazon, possessed the wisdom of a galaxy. It was said that he knew ways of threading photons on a string, producing thereby necklaces of light, and even that he knew how to capture a living Anthropos. Aware of the old one’s weakness, the King ordered the wine cellars opened immediately; the electrosage, having taken one pull too many from the Leyden
jug, when the pleasant currents were coursing through his limbs, betrayed a terrible secret to the King and promised to obtain for him an Anthropos, which was the ruler of a certain interstellar tribe. The price he set was high—the weight of the Anthropos in fist-sized diamonds—but the King didn’t blink at it.

  Halazon then set off on his journey. The King meanwhile began to boast before the royal council of his expected acquisition, which he could not in any case conceal, having already ordered a cage to be built in the castle park, where the most magnificent crystals grew, a cage of heavy iron bars. The court was thrown into great consternation. Seeing that the King would not give in, the advisers summoned to the castle two erudite homologists, whom the King received warmly, for he was curious as to what these much-knowledged ones, Salamid and Thaladon, could tell him about the pale being that he did not already know.

  “Is it true,” he asked, as soon as they had risen from their knees, rendering him obeisance, “that the Homos is softer than wax?”

  “It is, Your Luminositude,” both replied.

  “And is it also true that the aperture it has at the bottom of its face can produce a number of different sounds?”

 
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