Read The Fabulous Riverboat Online

Authors: Philip Jose Farmer

Tags: #sf

The Fabulous Riverboat (22 page)

"As the block begins to move backward, the camming lugs move in the camming slots and turn the bolt a quarter turn to the left, thus shutting off the steam. Then the breech block returns to its original position. If the trigger is still held back, the operation is repeated indefinitely."
Firebrass said, "I'm impressed, but won't the gun operate most efficiently if its temperature is the same as the incoming high-pressure steam? That way, less of the steam's energy would be used to heat the gun and this means more steam to propel the bullet. Ah, I see! You do have a hollow jacket around the barrel. The steam travels through that before it enters the weapon itself, right?"
"Yes. There's an insulating jacket of plaster encased in wood. Note that bleeder valve. It permits the gun to be heated up before use—a few seconds before it's fired. If that isn't done, the gun might jam. And since the gun's maximum temperature is the same as the steam in the boiler, there's no danger of burning up the barrel. You can use the gun like a fire hose. In fact, that'll be about the only way it'll be effective. The accuracy of a light plastic bullet with such comparatively low muzzle velocity isn't high."
Firebrass was far from being depressed because of the military superiority the amphibian would give Parolando. This probably was because he was planning on building one for Soul City. Or, if Parolando had one, then perhaps he might build two. In which case, Parolando would have to build three.
Soul City could not outbuild Parolando. But Parolando could not cut the supplies off, because then Soul City would cut off the bauxite, cryolite, platinum and indium.
The exhilaration from showing off his deadly invention whistled out almost audibly from Sam. The only solution to the problem, if Soul City did start a weapons race, would be to smash Soul City and take direct control of the minerals. This meant putting off the building of the Riverboat. And it also meant offending the two states, Publiujo and Tifonujo, that lay between Parolando and Soul City. And if those two states got together, they would be formidable, what with the weapons that Parolando had to give them in exchange for their wood.
Sam had thought that that potentiality was bad enough. But a few days later Iyeyasu completed his conquest of his neighboring states and sent a mission to Parolando. He made no demands that could not be met. In fact, in one way his proposals were helpful. He said that his nation had lost enough trees, and he would like to give them a chance to grow again—but for an increase in the number of weapons from Parolando, he was willing to provide a large quantity of wood and of excrement for their gunpowder industry. He would invade the territories across The River and take their wood from them.
What it amounted to was that Parolando would be paying Iyeyasu to collect the wood forcibly from its neighbors. It would be cheaper and also a lot less painful for Parolandoj, who would not have to do their own killing, enslaving or raiding.
And Sam Clemens would have one more thing to rob him of sleep.
John Lackland thought the proposal excellent. "Our factories are turning out weapons efficiently," he said. "We can afford to export more. And we must build a fleet of Firedragons so that the swords we give these people will be easily overpowered by our machines."
"When are we going to start building the Riverboat?" Sam asked.
No one gave him an answer, but the next day Van Boom, Velitsky, and O'Brien, his chief engineers, brought him the first rough overall sketches. They were drawn in black on white plastic boards with a pencil connected to a fuel cell. The magnetic field at the tip of the pencil rearranged the loose and very thin covering of particles within its range. The lines remained polarized until a reverse field was passed over them. Thus, the demand for paper for drawings was greatly cut down, and the plans could be changed as desired.
Firebrass said he would like to help build the boat. Permission was given, though John objected at first. Sam replied that the more help they had, the faster the work would move. And he did not see how any amount of knowledge on Firebrass' part would enable him to steal the boat. Though Sam did not tell John, he had an idea about Firebrass. That was to get him so involved, so "het up" about the boat that he would take an offer of a berth on the vessel.
The machinery necessary to roll out the first plates for the hull was almost finished. The dam had been finished a week ago, and the water from the cataract was filling it up. The aluminum wires of the generators, which would be turned by the waterfall from the dam, were being wound. The prototype batacitor, which would be four stories high, would be finished in a month, if enough materials were available.
Five hundred missionaries of the Church of the Second Chance asked for sanctuary in Parolando a few days later, Iyeyasu had kicked them out of his new state, promising various exquisite tortures if they tried to sneak back. Sam did not hear about them immediately because he was up at the dam.
The Chancers refused to go when John sent word to them to leave immediately. John Lackland, hearing this, smiled grimly, tugged at his lion-colored hair, and swore his favorite oath, "By the teeth of God!"
Sam was at the dam to supervise the installation of tons of dynamite inside the hollow walls. This was to be one more trick up his sleeve, a last-ditch operation—and perhaps a suicidal one—if ever an enemy were about to make a successful invasion.
Von Richthofen, red-faced and blowing hard from his run up the hill, told him of the arrival of the Chancers and their refusal to move. He did not mention John.
Sam told Lothar to tell the Chancers that he would be down in the evening. They could wait for him but were not to move outside a radius of twenty yards from the grailstone near which they had landed. For a moment, he considered ordering them to leave at once and telling the soldiers that they could pound them a little with the flats of their swords if they wished. He was hot and sweating and covered with cement dust, and he felt an especial animosity toward the Chancers. Here was a world blessed by the absence of flies and mosquitoes—and humans, the Chancers, were trying to fill the gap.
The rumbling and splash of giant mortars pouring out concrete, the yells of the straw bosses and the scraping of shovels and clatter of iron wooden-wheeled barrows kept Sam from hearing the explosions that came a half hour later. He knew nothing of what had happened until von Richthofen came running toward him again. Sam felt as if he would come loose at the joints and
lump into a puddle. John had tested out the new guns on the Chancers. A hundred Mark I flintlocks had killed almost five hundred men and women in three minutes. John himself had fired and loaded ten times, using the last five bullets to finish off the wounded.
About thirty women, the most beautiful, had been spared. These had been taken to John's palace.
Long before he reached the water's edge, Sam saw the big crowd gathered around the grailstone. He sent Lothar ahead of him to clear the way. The crowd parted before them, like the Red Sea before Moses, he thought, but the Red Sea was before him after he got through the parting. The bodies were piled against each other, covered with blood, their flesh torn, bones shattered by the big-caliber bullets. In his ninety-seven years of life Sam had never grown accustomed to the silence of the dead. It seemed to hang over them like an invisible and chilling cloud. The mouth that would not speak again, the brain that could not think...
It did no good to remember that tomorrow these same people, in fresh and healthy bodies, would be up and doing somewhere along the banks. The effect of death could not be diluted with intellectualizing.
John was issuing orders about the disposal of the bodies to the soap and skin factories. He grinned at Sam like a bad boy caught pulling the cat's tail.
"This is a massacre!" Sam shouted. "A massacre! Unjustified! Unforgivable! There was no reason for it, you bloody-minded, killing beast! That's all you ever have been, you murdering dog, all you ever will be! Swine! Swine! Swine!"
John lost his smile and took a step back as Sam, his hands clenched, moved close to him. The huge massiveboned Zaksksromb, holding a big club of oak with steel spikes set in its end, started toward Sam.
Lothar von Richthofen shouted, "None of that—leave him alone or I call Joe Miller! And I'll shoot the first man who makes a move toward Sam." Sam looked behind him. Lothar was holding a big pistol
n his hands, and it was pointed at John.
John's dark skin paled, and his eyes opened wide. Even the light-blue irises seemed to become paler.
Later Sam wished that he had told Lothar to fire. Even though the hundred pistoleers were John's men, they might have hesitated if John had been killed at the first shot. They were surrounded by armed men and women, most of whom were not fond of John and almost all of whom were shocked by the slaughter. They might have withheld their fire. Even if they had not, Sam could have thrown himself down to the ground and the first shots might have missed. After that, who knew what would have happened?
But it was no good fantasizing. He had not given the order.
Nevertheless, he had to take some strong and immediate action. If he let John get away with this, he would lose everybody's respect, not to mention his own. And he might as well resign his Consulship. In which case, he would lose the Riverboat.
He turned his head slightly, though not so much that he could not keep an eye on John. He saw Livy's white face and big dark eyes; she looked as if she were going to vomit. He ignored her and called to Cyrano de Bergerac, who was standing on the edge of the inner circle, his long rapier in his hand.
"Captain de Bergerac!" Sam pointed at John. "Arrest the co-Consul."
John was holding a pistol in one hand, but he did not bring up its muzzle.
He said in a mild voice, "I protest. I told them to get out at once and they refused to go. I warned them and they still refused—so I ordered them shot. What difference does it make, really? They will be alive tomorrow."
Cyrano marched straight to John, stopped, saluted, and said, "Your weapons, sire." Zaksksromb growled and lifted his spiked club.
"No, Zak," John Lackland said. "According to the Carta, one Consul can arrest the other if he thinks the other is acting contrary to the Carta. I won't be under arrest long."
He handed Cyrano his gun, butt first, unbuckled his belt, and gave it to Cyrano. Its sheaths held a long knife and short sword.
"I will return to my palace while you and the Council decide my fate," he said. "According to the Carta, you must convene within an hour after the arrest and have a decision in two hours, as long as no national emergency interferes."
He walked away, Cyrano behind him. John's men hesitated a moment and then, at the thundered orders of Zaksksromb, followed John to the palace. Sam stared after them. He had expected more resistance. And then it occurred to him that John knew very well that Sam Clemens had to do just what he did or lose face. And John knew Sam well enough to know that Sam might want to avoid a decision that could lead to civil war, but he would not if he thought his Riverboat endangered.
So John had gone along with him. John did not want to force a showdown. Not now. He had satisfied his bloodlust for the moment. The Councilmen would meet and find that, legally, John was within his rights. Morally, he was not. But then his supporters would argue that even there he was justified. After all, the dead would be alive again and the lesson to the Second Chancers would be invaluable. They would steer clear of Parolando for a long time. And surely Sam Clemens would have to admit that this was desirable. If the Chancers continued to make converts, the Riverboat would never be built. Moreover, other states, less weakened with the Chancer philosophy, would invade Parolando.
And he, Sam Clemens, would say that next John's supporters would be claiming that it was all right to torture people. After all, the pain could last only so long, and any injury would be healed just by killing the victim. Then rape would be justified, because, after all, the woman wasn't going to be made pregnant or diseased—and if she got hurt, too bad. Kill her and she'd be all right in the morning. Never mind the mental damage. A little dreamgum would cure that.
No, Sam would say, it's a question, not of murder, but of rights. If you killed a man, you removed him without his consent to a place so far away he could walk a thousand years along the Riverbank and never get back. You took him away from his love, his friends, his home. Force was force and it was always ... Oh, oh! He'd better watch himself! "Sam!" a lovely voice said.
He turned. Livy was still pale, but her eyes looked as if they were normal, "Sam! What about the women he carried off?"
"Where's my head?" he said aloud. "Come on, Lothar!" Seeing the ten-foot-high Miller halfway across the plain, he waved at him and the titanthrop turned to intercept them. Lothar ordered a hundred archers who had just arrived to follow them.
Near the great log building, he slowed down. John knew that his co-Consul had forgotten about the abducted women, but that he would soon remember them. And John might be prepared to submit himself to the Council's judgment of the massacre, because, legally, he was within his rights. But surrendering the women to Sam might be just a little too much for John. His infamous temper might betray him, and then civil war would explode in Parolando.

 

22

 

Sam saw thirty or so women walking out through the open gates, and he knew that John had decided to rectify his mistake. Even so, he could be accused of kidnapping, a graver crime than murder in this topsyturvy world. But if the women were unharmed, it would be too much trouble to push the charge.
He stopped, and this time he thought his heart would stop. Gwenafra was with the women!
Lothar, crying her name, ran to her. She ran to him with her arms out, and they embraced.

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