Stanislav Lem

The Fifth Sally (A) Or Trurl’s Prescription


Not far from here, by a white sun, behind a green star, lived the Steelypips, illustrious, industrious, and they hadn’t a care: no spats in their vats, no rules, no schools, no gloom, no evil influence of the moon, no trouble from matter or antimatter – for they had a machine, a dream of a machine, with springs and gears and perfect in every respect. And they lived with it, and on it, and under it, and inside it, for it was all they had- first they saved up all their atoms, then they put them all together, and if one didn’t fit, why they chipped at it a bit, and everything was just fine. Each and every Steelypip had its own little socket and its own little plug, and each was completely on its own. Though they didn’t own the machine, neither did the machine own them, everybody just pitched in. Some were mechanics, other mechanicians, still others mechanists: but all were mechanically minded. They had plenty to do, like if night had to be made, or day, or an eclipse of the sun – but that not too often, or they’d grow tired of it. One day there flew up to the white sun behind the green star a comet in a bonnet, namely a female, mean as nails and atomic from her head to her four long tails, awful to look at, all blue from hydrogen cyanide and, sure enough, reeking of bitter almonds. She flew up and said, “First, I’ll burn you to the ground, and that’s just for starters.”

            The Steelypips watched – the fire in her eye smoked up half the sky, she drew on her neutrons, mesons like caissons, pi- and mu- and neutrinos too-“Fee-fi-fo-fum plu-to-ni-um.” And they reply: “One moment, please, we are the Steelypips, we have no fear, no spats in our vats, no rules, no schools, no gloom, no evil influence on the moon, for we have a machine, a dream of a machine, with springs and gears and perfect in every respect, so go away, lady comet, or you’ll be sorry.”

            But she already filled up the sky, burning, scorching, roaring, hissing, until their moon shriveled up, singed from horn to horn, and even if it had been a little cracked, old, and on the small side to begin with, still that was a shame. So wasting no more words, they took their strongest fields, tied them around each horn with a good knot, then threw the switch: try that on for size, you old witch. It thundered, it quaked, it groaned, the sky cleared up in a flash, and all that remained of the comet was a bit of ash- and peace reigned once more.

            After an undetermined amount of time something appears, what it is nobody knows, except that its hideous and no matter from which angle you look at it, it’s even more hideous. Whatever it is flies up, lands on the highest peak, so heavy you can’t imagine, makes itself comfortable and doesn’t budge. But it’s an awful nuisance, all the same.

            So those who are in the proximity say: “Excuse us, but we are the Steelypips, we have no dread, we don’t live on a planet but in a machine instead, and it’s no ordinary machine but a dream of a machine, with springs and gears and perfect in every respect, so beat it, nasty thing, or you’ll be sorry.”

            But that just sits there.

            So, not to go to any great expense, they send not a very big, actually a rather small scarechrome: it’ll go and frighten that off, and peace will reign once more.

            The scarechrome sets off, and all you can hear inside are its programs whirring, one more frightening than the next. It approaches- how it hisses, how its pits! It even scares itself a little- but that just sits there. The scarechrome tries once more, but this time on a different frequency, but by now it just doesn’t have its heart in it.

            The Steelypips see that something else is needed. They say: “Let’s take a higher caliber, hydraulic, differential-exponential, plastic, stochastic, and with plenty of muscle. It won’t cower if it has nuclear power.”

            So they sent it off, universal, reversible, double-barreled, feedback on every track, all systems go heigh-ho, and inside on mechanic and one mechanist, and that’s not all because just to be on the safe side they stuck a scarechrome on top. It arrived, so well-oiled you could hear a pin drop-it winds up for the swing and counts down: four quarters, three quarters, two quarters, one quarter, no quarter! Ka-boom! What a blow! See the mushroom grow! The mushroom with the radioactive glow! And the oil bubbles, the gears chatter, the mechanic and the mechanist peer out the hatch: can you imagine, not even a scratch.

            The Steelypips held a council of war and then built a mechanism which in turn built a metamechanism which in turn built such a megalomechanism that the closest stars had to step back. And in the middle of it was a machine with cogs and wheels and in the middle of that a servospook, because they really meant business now.

            The megalomechanism gathered up all its strength and let go! Thunder, rumbling, clatter, a mushroom so huge you’d need an ocean to make soup out of it, the clenching of teeth, darkness, so much darkness, you can’t even tell what’s what. The Steelypips look-nothing, not a thing, just all their mechanisms lying around like so much scrap metal and without a sign of life.

            Now they rolled up their sleeves. “After all,” they say, “we are mechanics and mechanists, “ all mechanically minded, and we have a machine, a dream of a machine, with springs and gears and perfect in every respect, so how can this nasty thing just sit there and not budge?”

            This time they make nothing less than an enormous cyberivy-bushwhacker: it’ll creep up casually, as if minding its own business, glance over its shoulder, grow a little bolder, send out a root or two, grow up from behind, taking its time, and then when it closes in, that’ll be the end of that. And truly, everything happened exactly as predicted, except when it was over, that wasn’t exactly the end of that, not at all. They fell into despair, and they didn’t even know what to think because this had never happened to them before, so they mobilized and analyzed, made nets and glues, lariats and screws, traps and contraptions to make it drown, break it down, make it fall, or maybe wall it up- they try this way and that and the other, but one is as poor as another. They turn everything upside down, but nothing helps. They’re about ready to give up hope when suddenly they see-someone’s coming: he’s on horseback, but no, horses don’t have wheels- it must be a bicycle, but wait, bicycles don’t have prows, so maybe it’s a rocket, but rockets don’t have saddles. What he’s riding no one can tell, but who’s in the saddle we all known well: it’s Trurl himself, the constructor, out on a spree, or maybe on one of his famous sallies, serene and smiling, coming closer, flying by-but even from a distance you’d know that this wasn’t just anybody.

            He lowers, he hovers, so they tell him the whole story: “We are the Steelypips, we have a machine, a dream of a machine, with springs and gears and perfect in every respect, we saved up all our atoms, put them all together ourselves, we hadn’t a care, no spats in our vats, no rules, no schools, until something flew up, landed, sat down and won’t budge.”

            “Did you try scaring it off?” Trurl asks with a kindly smile.

            “We tried a scarechrome and a servospook and a megalomechanism, all hydraulic and high caliber, spouting mesons like caissons, pi- and mu- and neutrinos too, protons and photons, but nothing worked.

            “No machine, you say?”

            “No sir, no machine.”

            “H’m, interesting. And what exactly is it?”

“That we don’t know. It appeared, flew here, what it is nobody knows, except that it’s hideous and no matter from which angle you look at it, it’s even more hideous. It flew up, landed, so heavy you can’t imagine, and just sits there. But it’s an awful nuisance, all the same.”

            “Well, I really don’t have much time,” says Trurl. “The most I can do is stay here for a while, in an advisory capacity. Is that agreeable with you?”

            It certainly is and the Steelypips immediately ask what he wants them to bring – photons, screws, hammers, artillery, or how about some dynamite, or TNT? And would our guest like coffee or tea? From a vending machine, of course.

            “Coffee’s fine,” agrees Trurl, “not for me, but for the business at hand. As for the rest of it, I don’t think so. You see, if neither scarechrome, nor servospook, nor cyberivy-bushwhacker will do the job, then other methods are indicated: archaic and archival, legalistic hence sadistic. I’ve yet to see the remittance due and payable in full fail.”

            “Come again?” ask the Steelypips, but Trurl, rather than explain, continues:

            “It’s quite simple, really. All you need is paper, ink, stamps and seals, sealing wax and thumbtacks, sand to sprinkle, blotters, a teller window, a zinc teaspoon, a saucer-the coffee we already have-and a mailman. And something to write with-do you have that?

            “We’ll get it!” And they take off.

            Trurl pulls up a chair and dictates: “Notice is hereby given that in re hindrance of tenant, as stated under Rev. Stat. c. 117(e) dash 2 dash KKP4 of the CTSP Comm. Code, in clear violation of paragraph 199, thereby constituting a most reprehendable offense, we do declare the termination, desummation and full cessation of all services accruing thereunto, by authority of Ordinance 67 DPO No. 14(j) 1101 et seq., on this the 19th day of the 17th month of the current year, aff’g 77 F. Supp. 301. The Tenant may appeal said action by extraordinary procedure to the Chairman of the Board within twenty-four hours.”

            Trurl attaches the seal, affixes the stamp, has it entered in the Central Ledger, consults the Official Register, and says:

            “Now let the mailman deliver it.”

            The mailman takes it, they wait, they wait, and the mailman returns.

            “Did you deliver it?” asks Trurl.

            “I did.”

            “And the return receipt?”

            “Here it is, signed on this line. And here’s the appeal.”

            Trurl takes the appeal and, without reading it at all, orders it returned to sender and writes diagonally across it: “Unacceptable-Proper Forms Not Attached.” And he signs his name illegibly.

            “And now,” he says, “to work!”

            He sits and writes, while those who are curious look on and, understanding nothing, ask what this is and what it’s supposed to do.

“Official business,” answers Trurl. “And things will go well, now that it’s under way.”

            The mailman runs back and forth all day like one possessed; Trurl notarizes, issues directives, the typewriter chatters, and little by little an entire office takes shape, rubber stamps and rubber bands, paper clips and paper wads, portfolios and pigeonholes, foolscap and scrip, teaspoons, signs that say “No Admittance,” inkwells, forms on file, writing all the while, the typewriter chattering, and everywhere you look you see coffee stains, wastepaper, and bits of gum eraser. The Steelypips are worried, they don’t understand a thing, meanwhile Trurl uses special delivery registered C.O.D., certified with return receipt, or, best of all, remittance due and payable in full- he sends out no end of dunning letters, bills of lading, notices, injunctions, and there are already special accounts set up, no entries at the moment but he says that’s only temporary. After a while, you can see that that is not quite so hideous, especially in profile-it’s actually gotten smaller!-yes, yes, it is smaller! The Steelypips ask Trurl, what now?

            “No idle talk permitted on the premises,” is his answer. And he staples, stamps, inspects vouchers, revokes licenses, dots an I, loosens his tie, asks who’s next, I’m sorry, the office I closed, come back in an hour, the coffee is cold, the cream sour, cobwebs from ceiling to floor, an old pair of nylons in the secretary’s drawer, install four new file cabinets over here, and there’s an attempt to bribe an official, a pile of problems and a problem with piles, a writ of execution, incarceration for miscegenation, and appeals with seven seals. And the typewriter chatters: “Whereas, pursuant to the Tenant’s failure to, quit and surrender the demised premises in compliance with the warrant served habee facias posessionem, by Div. of Rep. Cyb. Gt. KRS thereof, the Court of Third Instance, in vacuo and ex nihilo, herewith orders the immediate vacuation and vacation thereunder. The Tenant may not appeal this ruling.

            Trurl dispatches the messenger and pockets the receipts. After which, he gets up and methodically hurls the desks, chairs, rubber stamps, seals, pigeonholes, etc., out into deep space. Only the vending machine remains.

            “What on earth are you doing??” cry the Steelypips in dismay, having grown accustomed to it all. “How can you?”

            “Tut-tut, my dears,” he replies. “Better you take a look instead!”

            And indeed, they look and gasp-why, there’s nothing there, it’s gone, as if it had never been! And where did it go, vanished into thin air? It beat a cowardly retreat, and grew so small, so very small, you’d need a magnifying glass to see it. They root around, but all they can find is one little spot, slightly damp, something must have dipped there, but what or why they cannot say, and that’s all.

            “Just as I thought,” Trurl tells them. “Basically, my dears, the whole thing was quite simple: the moment it accepted the first dispatch and signed for it, it was done for. I employed a special machine, the machine with a big B, for, as the Cosmos in the Cosmos, no one’s licked it yet!”

            “All right, but why throw out the documents and pour out the coffee?” they ask

            “So that it wouldn’t devour you in turn!” Trurl replies. And he flies off, nodding to them kindly – and his smile is like the stars.