Read The Fabulous Riverboat Online

Authors: Philip Jose Farmer

Tags: #sf

The Fabulous Riverboat (4 page)

"The meteorite must have smashed some of the grailstones on the west bank," Sam Clemens said. "And so it broke the circuit. My God, what a circuit! There must be at least twenty million stones hooked together, if the calculations of some are correct."
"There will be a terrible conflict raging up and down The River," Lothar said. "The west bankers will attack the east bankers so they can charge their grails. What a war! There must be about thirty-five to thirty-seven billion people in this Rivervalley. All battling to the death for food."
"The hell of it ith," Joe Miller said, "that if half get kilt and tho there'th enough room on the grailstoneth, it von't do no good. Tventy-four hourth later, the dead vill all be alive again, and it'll all thtart over again."
Sam said, "I'm not so sure. I think it's been established that the stones have something to do with the resurrections. And if half of them are out of commission, there may be a considerable cut in production on the Lazarus line. This meteorite is a saboteur from the skies."
"I've thought for a long time that this world, and our resurrection, are not the work of supernatural beings," von Richthofen said. "Have you heard the wild tale that's been going up and down The River? There's a story that one man woke up before Resurrection Day and found himself in a very weird place. There were millions of bodies around him, floating in the air, nude men, women and children, their heads shaved, all slowly rotating under some invisible force. This man, an Englishman named Perkin, or Burton, some say, had died on Earth around 1890. He got loose but was intercepted by two beings—human—who put him back to sleep. Then, he awoke, like the rest of us, on the banks of The River.
"Whoever is behind all this isn't infallible. They made a mistake with Burton. He got a glimpse into preResurrection, a stage somewhere between our death on Earth and preparation for life on this world. It sounds fantastic, like a wish-fulfillment story. But then again... ."
"I've heard it," Sam Clemens said. He thought of telling about seeing Burton's face through the telescope just before he spotted Livy's. But the pain of thinking about her was too much for him.
He sat up and cursed and shook his fist at the stars and then began to weep. Joe Miller, squatting behind him, reached a gigantic hand out and touched him softly on the shoulder. Von Richthofen, embarrassed, looked the other way. Presently, he said, "I'll be glad when our grails are charged. I'm itching for a smoke."
Clemens laughed and dried his tears and said, "I don't cry easily. But I've gotten over being ashamed about it when I do.
"It's a sad world, just as sad, in most ways, as the old Earth. Yet we have our youthful bodies again, we don't have to work for food or worry about paying bills, making our women pregnant, catching diseases. And if we're killed we rise up the following day, whole and hearty, although thousands of miles from where we died.
"But it's nothing like what the preachers said it would be. Which isn't, of course, surprising. And maybe it's just as well. Who'd want to fly around on aerodynamically unstable wings or stand around all day playing harps badly and screeching out hosannas?"
Lothar laughed and said, "Ask any Chinese or Indian coolie if this isn't a hell of a better world than the last world. It's just us spoiled modern Westerners who grumble and look for first and latest causes. We didn't know much about the operation of our Earthly cosmos, and we know less about this. But we're here, and we may eventually find out who put us here and why. Meanwhile, as long as there are beautiful and willing women—and there are—cigars, dreamgum, wine and a good fight, who cares? I'll enjoy this valley of bright shadows until the good things of life are once more taken from me. Lust to lust until it's dust to dust."
They were silent after a while, and Clemens could not get to sleep until just before the rains. He got down under the mushroom until the downpour ceased. Back on top of the stone, he shivered and turned for several hours, although he was covered with long heavy towels. Dawn came with Miller's ponderous hand shaking him. Hastily, he climbed down off the stone and got a safe distance from it. Five minutes later, the stone gave forth a blue flame that leaped thirty feet into the air and roared like a lion. At the same time, the stones across the river bellowed.
Clemens looked at Lothar. "Somebody repaired the break."
Lothar said, "I've got goose pimples. Who is somebody?" He was silent for a while, but before they had reached the west bank, he was laughing and chattering like a guest at a cocktail party. Too cheerful, Clemens thought.
"They've never shown their hand before, that I know of," Sam said. "But this tune I guess they had to."

 

5

 

The next five days were occupied in getting the ship down to the bank. Two weeks more were spent in repairing the Dreyrugr. All that time a watch was kept, but no one came into the area. When the ship was finally launched, still minus masts and sails, and was rowed down The River, there was not a live human in sight.
The crew, accustomed to seeing the plains thronged with men and women, were uneasy. The silence was unnerving. There were no animals on this world except for the fish in The River and earthworms in the soil, but the humans had always made enough noise.
"The hyenas'll be here soon enough," Clemens said to Bloodaxe. "That iron is far more precious than gold ever was on Earth. You want battle? You'll get enough down your throat to make you vomit."
The Norseman, swinging his ax, winced at the pain in his ribs. "Let them come! They'll know they've been in a fight to bring joy to the hearts of the Valkyrie!"
"Bull!" Joe Miller said. Sam smiled but walked to a position behind the titanthrop. Bloodaxe was afraid of only one being in the world, but he might lose his never easily controlled temper and go berserk. However, he needed Miller, who was worth twenty human warriors.
The ship traveled steadily for two days during the sunlit hours. At night, one man steered and the crew slept. Early in the evening of the third day, the titanthrop, Clemens and von Richthofen were sitting on the foredeck, smoking cigars and sipping at the whiskey their grails had given them at the last stop. "Why do you call him Joe Miller?" Lothar asked.
"His real name is a rattling jawbreaker, longer than any technical term of a German philosopher," Clemens said. "I couldn't pronounce it when I first met him, I never did. After he learned enough English to tell me a joke—he was so eager he could hardly wait—I decided to call him Joe Miller. He told me a tale so hoary I couldn't believe it. I knew it'd been around a long time; I first heard it, in a slightly different form, when I was a boy in Hannibal, Missouri. And I was still hearing it, much to my disgust, for the hundred thousand'th time, when I was an old man. But to have to listen to that story from the lips of a man who'd died one hundred thousand years, maybe a million, before I was born!" "And the story?"
"Well, there was this traveling hunter who'd been tracking a wounded deer all day. Night came and with it a violent storm. Seeing the light of a fire, the hunter stopped off at a cave. He asked the old medicine man who lived in it if he could spend the night there. And the old medicine man said, 'Sure, but we're pretty crowded here. You'll have to sleep with my daughter.' Need I go any further?"
"Tham didn't laugh," Joe rumbled. "Thometimeth I think he ain't got a thenthe of humor."
Clemens tweaked Joe's projectile-shaped nose affectionately. He said, "Thometimeth I think you're right. But actually I'm the most humorous man in the world because I'm the most sorrowful. Every laugh is rooted in pain."
He puffed on his cigar for a while and stared at the shore. Just before dusk, the ship had entered the area where the last of the intense heat from the meteorite had struck. Aside from the few irontrees, everything had been whistled off in a shock of searing flame. The irontrees had given up their huge leaves to the flames, and even the enormously resistant bark had burned off and the wood beneath, harder than granite, had become charred. Moreover, the blast had tilted or leveled many of these, snapping them off at the base. The grailstones had been blackened and were out of plumb but had retained their shape.
Finally, he said, "Lothar, now is as good a time as any for you to learn something of why we're on this quest. Joe can tell it in his way; I'll explain anything you don't understand. It's a strange tale, but no stranger, actually, than anything that's happened here since we all woke up from the dead."
"I'm thirthty," Joe said. "Let me get a drink firtht."
The dark-blue eyes, shadowed in the bone rings, focused upon the hollow of the cup. He seemed to peer therein as if he were trying to conjure up the scenes he was about to describe. Guttural, his tongue hitting certain consonants harder than others, thus giving his English a clanging quality, yet comical with its lisping, voice rising up from a chest deep and resonant as the well of the Delphian oracle, he told of the Misty Tower.
"Thomevhere upon The River, I avoke, naked ath I am now. I vath in a plathe that mutht be far north on thith planet, because it vath colder and the light vath not ath bright. There vere no humanth, yutht uth... uh, titantropth, ath Tham callth uth. Ve had grailth, only they vere much larcher than yourth, ath you can thee. And ve got no beer and vithkey. Ve had never known about alcohol, tho ve had none in our grailth. Ve drank The River vater.
"Ve thought ve vere in the plathe that you go to vhen you die, that the... uh . .'. godth had given uth thith plathe and all ve needed. Ve vere happy, ve mated and ate and thlept and fought our enemieth. And I vould have been happy there if it had not been for the thyip." "He means ship," Sam said.
"That'th vhat I thaid. Thyip. Pleathe don't interrupt, Tham. You've made me unhappy enough by telling me that there are no godth. Even if I've theen the godth." Lothar said, "Seen the gods?"
"Not egthactly. I thaw vhere they live. I did thee their thyip."
Von Richthofen said, "What? What're you talking about?"
Clemens waved his cigar. "Later. Let him talk. If you interrupt him too much, he gets confused."
"Vhere I come from, you don't talk vhile another ith talking. Othervithe, you get punched in the nothe."
Sam said, "With a nose as big as yours, Joe, that must hurt." Miller delicately stroked his proboscis.
"It ith the only vone I have, and I'm proud of it. Novhere in thith part of the valley hath any pigmy got a nothe like mine. Vhere I come from, your nothe indicateth the thithe of your—vhat'th your vord for it, Tham?" Sam choked and took the cigar from his lips. "You were telling us of the ship, Joe."
"Yeth. No! I vath not! I hadn't gotten to it yet. But ath I vath thaying, vun day I vath lying on the bank vatching the fith play. I vath thinking about getting up and making a hook and pole to catch thome. All of a thudden, I heard a thyout. I looked up. There, coming around the bend of The River vath thith terrible monthter.
"It vath awful. I jumped up, and I vath going to run avay vhen I thaw it had men on itth back. They looked like men, but vhen the monthter got clother, I thaw they were thpindly little runtth vith the mange and no notheth to thpeak of. I could have beat them all to death vith vone hand, and yet they were riding thith monthter Riverthnake like beeth on a bear'th back. Tho... ."
Clemens, listening, felt again as he had when he first heard the story. He felt as if he were standing by the side of this creature from the dawn of man. Despite the clanging and lisping and halting and slow groping after words, this Titan spoke impressively. Clemens could feel his panic and his wonder and almost overpowering urge to run away. Clemens could also feel the opposing urge, the primate's curiosity, the thing that made him, if not wholly a man, at least a near cousin. Behind the shelving brow lay the gray pulse that would not be content just to exist but must be fed on the shapes of unknown things, on patterns never before seen.
So Joe Miller stayed upon the bank, though his hand closed around the handle of the grail, ready to carry it with him if he had to flee.
The monster floated closer. Joe began to think that it might not be alive. But if it were not, why the great head poised at its front as if to strike? Yet it did not look alive. It gave a feeling of deadness. This did not mean much, of course. Joe had seen a wounded bear pretend death convincingly and then rise up and tear the arm off a fellow hunter.
Moreover, though he had seen the hunter die, he had also seen the hunter alive again, that day he awoke on the banks with others of his kind. And if he, and Joe, too, could come alive again, why couldn't this petrified snakelike head lose its dead woodenness and seize him in its teeth?
But he ignored his fears and, trembling, approached the monster. He was a Titan, older brother to man, fresh with the dawn and with the primate's have-to-know-what'sgoing-on.
A pygmy, mangy as the others but wearing on his brow a glass circlet with a stained-red flaming sun, beckoned to Joe Miller. The others upon the wooden beast stood behind the man with the glass circlet and held spears and strange devices that Joe learned later were bows and arrows. They did not seem frightened of the colossus, but that may have been because they were so tired from their seldom-ceasing rowing against the current that they did not care what happened.
It took a long time for the pygmy chief to get Joe aboard the ship. They came ashore to charge their grails while Joe backed away from them. They ate, and Joe ate also, but at a distance. His fellows had run for the hills, having been also panicked by the ship. Presently seeing that the Riversnake did not threaten Joe, they slowly approached it. The pygmies retreated to the ship.
And now the chief took a strange object from his grail and held a glowing wire to its tip, and smoke came from it and from the pygmy's mouth. Joe jumped at the first puff; his fellows scattered for the foothills again. Joe wondered if the noseless pygmies could be the brood of the dragon. Perhaps her children took this larval form, but, like their mother, they could breathe out fire and smoke?

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