Set in the not-too-distant future, when space flight has evolved to the point where humanity is ready to colonize the solar system, Tales of Pirx the Pilot follows one somewhat-hapless explorer as he struggles though his training as a cadet, his career as a pilot, and his tenure as captain of a merchant ship.
In these collected stories, Pirx stumbles his way through various exploits: traveling to the moon; battling mechanical malfunctions; encountering robots; and confronting questions of ambition, evolution, exploration, experimentation, and the nature of humanity itself. And in classic Pirx fashion, he faces down each dilemma with charm, curiosity, courage, and intuition.
These early works by revered speculative fiction author Stanislaw Lem are filled with both the sharp insight for which he is known and a childlike innocence, making them an entertaining and thought-provoking read for science fiction fans of all ages.
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Bullpen's voice snapped him out of his daydreaming. He had just had visions of a two-crown piece lying tucked away in the fob pocket of his old civvies, the ones stashed at the bottom of his locker. A jingling, shiny silver coin — all but forgotten. A while ago he could have sworn nothing was there, an old mailing stub at best, but the more he thought about it, the more plausible it seemed that one might be there, so that by the time Bullpen called out his name, he was absolutely sure of it. The coin was now sufficiently real that he could feel it bulging in his pocket, so round and sleek to the touch. There was his ticket to the movies, he thought, with half a crown to spare. And if he settled for some newsreel shorts, that would leave a crown and a half, of which he'd squirrel away a crown and the rest blow on the slot machines. Oh, what if the machine suddenly went haywire and coughed up so many coins into his waiting hands that he couldn't stuff his pockets fast enough ...? Well, why not — it happened to Smiga, didn't it? He was already reeling under the burden of his unexpected windfall when Bullpen roused him with a bang.
Folding his hands behind his back and shifting his weight to his good leg, his instructor asked:
"Cadet Pirx, what would you do if you were on patrol and encountered a ship from an alien planet?"
Pirx opened his mouth wide, as if the answer were there and all he had to do was to force it out. He looked like the last person on Earth who knew what to do when meeting up with a vessel from an alien planet.
"I would maneuver closer," he answered, his voice muted and strangely hoarse.
The class froze in welcome anticipation of some comic relief.
"Very good," Bullpen said in a fatherly sort of way. "Then what would you do?"
"I would stop," Pirx blurted out, sensing that he was drifting off into realms that lay vastly beyond his competence. Furiously he racked his empty brains in search of the appropriate paragraphs from his Space Manual, but it was as if he had never laid eyes on it. Sheepishly he lowered his gaze, and as he did so, he noticed that Smiga was trying to prompt him — with his lips only. One by one he deciphered Smiga's words and repeated them out loud, before he had a chance to fully digest them.
"I'd introduce myself."
A howl went up from the class. Bullpen struggled for a moment; then he, too, exploded with laughter, only to assume a serious expression again.
"Cadet Pirx, you will report to me tomorrow with your navigation book. Cadet Boerst!"
Pirx sat down at his desk as if it were made of uncongealed glass. He wasn't even sore at Smiga — that's the kind of guy he was, always good for a gag. He didn't catch a word of what Boerst was saying; Boerst was trying to plot a graph while Bullpen was up to his old trick of turning down the electronic computer, leaving the cadet to get bogged down in his computations. School regs permitted the use of a computer, but Bullpen was of a different mind. "A computer is only human," he used to say. "It, too, can break down." Pirx wasn't sore at Bullpen, either. Fact is, he wasn't sore at anyone. Hardly ever. Five minutes later he was standing in front of a shopwindow on Dyerhoff Street, his attention caught by a display of gas pistols, good for firing blanks or live ammo, a set consisting of one pistol and a hundred cartridges priced at six crowns. Needless to say, he only imagined he was window-browsing on Dyerhoff Street.
The bell rang and the class emptied, but without all that yelling and stampeding of lowerclassmen. No sir, these weren't kids anymore! Half of the class meandered off in the direction of the cafeteria because, although no meals were being served at that time, there were other attractions to be had — a new waitress, for example (word had it she was a knockout). Pirx strolled leisurely past the glass cabinets where the stellar globes were stored, and with every step saw his hopes of finding a two-crown piece in the pocket of his civvies dwindle a little more. By the time he reached the bottom of the staircase, he realized the coin was just a figment of his imagination.
Hanging around the lobby were Boerst, Smiga, and Payartz. For a semester he and Payartz had been deskmates in cosmodesy, and he had him to thank for all the ink blots in his star atlas.
"You're up for a trial run tomorrow," Boerst let drop just as Pirx was about to overtake them.
"No sweat," came his lackadaisical reply. He was nobody's fool.
"Don't believe me? Read for yourself," said Boerst, tapping his finger on the glass pane of the bulletin board.
He had a mind to keep going, but his head involuntarily twisted around on its axis. The list showed only three names — and there it was, right at the top, as big as blazes: Cadet Pirx.
For a second, his mind was a total blank.
Then he heard a distant voice, which turned out to be his own.
"Like I said, no sweat."
Leaving them, he headed down a walkway lined with flower beds. That year the beds were planted with forget-me-nots, artfully arranged in the pattern of a descending rocket ship, with streaks of now faded buttercups suggesting the exhaust flare. But right now Pirx was oblivious of everything — the flower beds, the pathway, the forget-me-nots, and even of Bullpen, who at that very instant was hurriedly ducking out of the Institute by a side entrance, and whom he narrowly missed bumping into on his way out. Pirx saluted as they stood cheek to jowl.
"Oh, it's you, Pirx!" said Bullpen. "You're flying tomorrow, aren't you? Well, have a good takeoff! Maybe you'll be lucky enough to ... er ... meet up with those people from alien planets."
The dormitory was situated behind a wall of sprawling weeping willows on the far side of the park. It stood overlooking a pond, and its side wings, buttressed by stone columns, towered above the water. The columns were rumored to have been shipped back from the Moon, which was blatant nonsense, of course, but that hadn't stopped the first-year students from carving their initials and class dates on them with an air of sacrosanct emotion. Pirx's name was likewise among them, four years having gone by since the day he had diligently inscribed it.
Once inside his room — it was too cramped to serve as anything but a single — he debated whether or not to open the locker. He knew exactly where his old pants were stashed. He had held on to them, despite the fact that it was against the rules — or maybe because of that — and even though he had hardly any use for them now. Closing his eyes, he crouched down, stuck his hand through the crack in the door, and gave the pocket a probing pat. Sure enough — empty.
He was standing in his unpressurized suit on the metal catwalk, just under the hangar ceiling, and, with neither hand free, was bracing himself against the cable railing with his elbow. In one hand he held his navigation book, in the other the cribsheet Smiga had lent him. The whole school was alleged to have flown with this pony, though how it managed to find its way back every time was a mystery, all the more so since, after completing the flight test, the cadets were immediately transferred from the Institute to the north, to the Base Camp, where they began cramming for their final exams. Still, the fact remained: it always came back. Some claimed that it was parachuted down. Facetiously, of course.
To kill time while he stood on the catwalk, suspended above a forty-meter drop, he wondered whether he would be frisked — sad to say, such things were still a common practice. The cadets were known for sneaking aboard the weirdest assortment of trinkets, including such strenuously forbidden things as whiskey flasks, chewing tobacco, and pictures of their girl friends. Not excluding cribsheets, of course. Pirx had already exhausted a dozen or so hiding places — in his shoes, between his stocking legs, in the inner pocket of his space suit, in the mini-atlas the cadets were allowed to take aboard. ... An eyeglass case ... now that would have done the trick, he thought, but, first of all, it would have had to be a fair-sized one, and secondly — he didn't wear glasses. A few seconds later it occurred to him that if he had worn glasses he never would have been admitted to the Institute.
So Pirx stood on the metal catwalk and waited for the CO to show up in the company of both instructors. What was keeping them? he wondered. Lift-off was scheduled for 1940 hours, and it was already 1927. Then it dawned on him that he might have taped the cribsheet under his arm, the way little Yerkes did. The story went that as soon as the flight instructor went to frisk him, Yerkes started squealing he was ticklish, and got away with it. But Pirx had no illusions; he didn't look like the ticklish type. And so, not having any adhesive tape with him, he went on holding the pony in his right hand, in the most casual way possible, and only when he realized that he would have to shake hands with all three did he switch, shifting the pony from his right to his left hand and the navigation book from left to right. While he was juggling things around, he managed to make the catwalk sway up and down like a diving board. Suddenly he heard footsteps approaching from the other end, but in the dark under the hangar ceiling it took him a while to make out who it was.
All three were looking very spiffy — as was customary on such occasions, they were decked out in full uniform — especially the CO. Even uninflated, however, Pirx's space suit looked as graceful as twenty football uniforms stuck together, not to mention the long intercom and radiophone terminals dangling from either side of his neck ring disconnect, the respirator hose bobbing up and down in the region of his throat, and the reserve oxygen bottle strapped tightly to his back — so tightly that it pinched. He felt hotter than blazes in his sweat-absorbent underwear, but most bothersome of all was the gadget making it unnecessary for him to get up to relieve himself — which, considering the sort of single-stage rockets used on such trial flights, would have posed something of a problem.
Suddenly the whole catwalk began to undulate as someone came up from behind. It was Boerst, suited up in the same, identical space suit, who gave him a stiff salute, mammoth glove and all, and who went on standing in this position as if just aching to knock Pirx overboard.
When the others had gone ahead, Pirx asked, somewhat bewilderedly:
"What're you doing here? Your name wasn't on the flight list."
"Brendan got sick. I'm taking his place."
Pirx was momentarily flustered. This was the one area — the one and only area — in which he was able to climb just a millimeter higher, to those empyreal realms that Boerst seemed to inhabit so effortlessly. Not only was he the brightest in the program, for which Pirx could fairly easily have forgiven him — he could even muster some respect for the man's mathematical genius, ever since the time he had watched Boerst take on the computer, faltering only when it came to roots of the fourth power — not only were his parents sufficiently well-heeled that he didn't have to bother dreaming about two-crown pieces lying tucked away in the pocket of his civvies, but he was also a top scorer in gymnastics, a crackerjack of a jumper, a terrific dancer, and, like it or not, he was handsome to boot — very handsome in fact, something that could not exactly be said of Pirx.
They walked the distance of the catwalk, threading their way between the girders, filing past the rockets parked next to each other in a row, before emerging in the shaft of light that fell vertically through a 200-meter sliding panel in the ceiling. Two cone-shaped giants — somehow they always reminded Pirx of giants — each measuring 48 meters in height and 11 meters in diameter, in the first-stage booster section, stood side by side on an assembly of concrete exhaust deflectors.
The hatch covers were open and the gangways already in place for boarding. At about the midway point, the gangways were blocked by a lead stand, planted with a little red pennon on a flexible staff. He knew the ritual. Question: "Pilot, are you ready to carry out your mission?" Answer: "Yes, sir, I am" — and then, for the first time in his life, he would proceed to move aside the pennon. Suddenly he had a premonition: during the boarding ceremony he saw himself tripping over the railing and taking a nose dive all the way to the bottom — accidents like that happened. And if such accidents happened to anyone, they were bound to happen to Pirx. In fact, there were times when he was apt to think of himself as a born loser, though his instructors were of a different opinion. To them he was just a moron and a bumbler, whose mind was never on the right thing at the right moment. Granted, he had no easy time of it when it came to words; between his thoughts and his deeds there yawned ... well, if not an abyss, then at least an obstruction, some obstacle that was forever making life difficult for him. It never occurred to Pirx's instructors — or to anyone else, for that matter — that he was a dreamer, since he was judged to be a man without a brain or a thought in his head. Which wasn't true at all.
Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that Boerst had stationed himself in the prescribed place, a step away from the gangway, and that he was standing at attention, his hands pressed flat against the rubber air pouches of his space suit.
On him that wacky costume looks tailor-made, thought Pirx, and on me it looks like a bunch of soccer balls. How come Boerst's looked uninflated and his own all puffy in places? Maybe that's why he had so much trouble moving around, why he had to keep his feet spread apart all the time. He tried bringing them together, but his heels refused to cooperate. Why were Boerst's so cooperative and not his own? But if it weren't for Boerst, it would have slipped his mind completely that he was supposed to stand at attention, with his back to the rocket, facing the three men in uniform. Boerst was the first to be approached. Maybe it was a fluke, and maybe it wasn't, or maybe it was simply because his name began with a B. But even if accidental, it was sure to be at Pirx's expense. He was always having to sweat out his turn, which made him nervous, because anything was better than waiting. The quicker the better — that was his motto.
He caught only snatches of what was said to Boerst, and, ramrod-stiff, Boerst fired off his answers so quickly that Pirx didn't stand a chance. Then it was his turn. No sooner had the CO started addressing him than he suddenly remembered something: there were supposed to be three of them flying. Where was the third? Luckily for him, he caught the CO's last words and managed to blurt out, just in the nick of time:
"Cadet Pirx, ready for lift-off."
"Hm ... I see," said the CO. "And do you declare that you are fit, both physically and mentally ... ahem ... within the limits of your capabilities?"
The CO was fond of lacing routine questions with such flourishes, something he could allow himself as the CO.
Pirx declared that he was fit.
"Then I hereby designate you as pilot for the duration of the flight," said the CO, repeating the sacred formula, and he went on.
"Mission: vertical launch at half booster power. Ascent to ellipsis B68. Correction to stable orbital path, with orbital period of four hours and twenty-six minutes. Proceed to rendezvous with shuttlecraft vehicles of the JO-2 type. Probable zone of radar contact: sector III, satellite PAL, with possible deviation of six arc seconds. Establish radio contact for the purpose of maneuver coordination. The maneuver: escape orbit at sixty degrees twenty-four minutes north latitude, one hundred fifteen degrees three minutes eleven seconds east longitude. Initial acceleration: 2.2g. Terminal acceleration: zero. Without losing radio contact, escort both JO-2 ships in tri-formation to Moon, commence lunar insertion for temporary equatorial orbit as per LUNA PATHFINDER, verify orbital injection of both piloted ships, then escape orbit at acceleration and course of your own discretion, and return to stationary orbit in the radius of satellite PAL. There await further instructions."
Excerpted from "Tales Of Prix The Pilot"
Copyright © 2013 Stanislaw Lem.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
The Conditioned Reflex,
About the Author,