Read The Fabulous Riverboat Online

Authors: Philip Jose Farmer

Tags: #sf

The Fabulous Riverboat (6 page)

Something had happened to him. He would not have left the grail there unless he had been killed or had been so frightened he had run away without it. At this thought, Joe's skin chilled.
He went around the outcropping that was sitting at a point where the ledge went around a shoulder of granite. For a moment, his view of the sea was blocked. He went around the outcropping—and he cried out.
he men called and asked what troubled him.
He could not tell them because the shock had taken away his newly learned speech, and he spoke in his native tongue.
The clouds in the middle of the sea had roiled away for a few seconds. The top of a structure projected from the clouds. It was cylindrical and gray, like the top of a monster grail.
Mists rose and fell around it, now revealing, now veiling.
Somewhere in the mountains ringing the" polar sea, a break existed. At that moment, the low sun must have passed this notch in the range. A ray of light fell through the notch and struck the top of the tower.
Joe squinted his eyes and tried to see into the brightness of the reflection.
Something round had appeared just above the top of the tower and was settling down toward it. It was egg-shaped and white, and it was from this that the sun was sparkling. The next instant, as the sun passed by the notch, the sparkle died. The tower and the object above it faded into darkness and mist. Joe, crying out at the sight of the flying object, stepped back. His leg struck the grail left by the unknown pilgrim.
He swung his arms to regain his balance, but not even his apelike agility could save him. He toppled backward, bellowing horror as he turned over and over. Once he glimpsed the faces of his companions, a row of dark brown objects with the darker O's of mouths, watching his descent to the clouds and waters beneath.
"I don't remember hitting the vater," Joe said. "I avoke translated about tventy mileth from where Tham Clementh vath. Thith vath a plathe vhere Northmen of the tenth thentury A.D. lived. I had to thtart learning a new language all over again. The little nothelethth people vere thcared of me, but they vanted me to fight for them. Then I met Tham, and ve became buddieth."
They were silent for a while. Joe lifted his glass to his thin and chimpanzee-flexible lips and poured out the rest of the liquor. Somber, the other two watched him. The only sign of brightness about them was the glow of their cigar ends.
Von Richthofen said, "This man who wore a glass circlet with a sunburst. What did you say his name was?" "I didn't." "Well, then, what was it?"
"Ikhnaton. Tham knowth more about him than I do, and I lived for four yearth with him. At leatht, that'th vhat Tham thayth. But—" here Joe looked smug—"I know the man and all Tham knowth ith a few hithtorical factth, thocalled."

 

7

 

Von Richthofen said good night and went belowdecks. Sam paced back and forth, stopping once to light a cigarette for the helmsman. He wanted to sleep but could not. Insomnia had been skewering him for years; it drove through the middle of his brain, which spun on it like a wild gear, disengaged from his body's need for rest.
Joe Miller sat hunched against the railing and waited for his friend—the only man he trusted and loved—to go belowdecks. Presently his head drooped, the bludgeonnose describing a weary arc, and he snored. The noise was like that of trees being felled in the distance. Sequoias split, screeched, cracked. Vast sighings and bubblings alternated with the woodchoppers' activities.
"Thleep veil, little chum," Sam said, knowing that Joe dreamed of that forever-lost Earth where mammoths and giant bears and lions roamed and where beautiful—to him—females of his own species lusted after him. Once he groaned and then whimpered, and Sam knew that he was dreaming again of being seized by a bear which was chomping on his feet. Joe's feet hurt day and night. Like all of his kind, he was too huge and heavy for bipedal locomotion. Nature had experimented with a truly giant subhuman ^species and then she had dismissed them as failures.
"The Rise and Fall of the Flatfeet," Sam said. "An article I shall never write."
Sam gave a groan, a weak echo of Joe's. He saw Livy's half smashed body, given him briefly by the waves, then taken away. Or had she really been Livy? Had he not seen her at least a dozen times before while staring through the telescope at the multitudes on the banks? Yet, when he had been able to talk Bloodaxe into putting ashore just to see if the face was Livy's, he had always been disappointed. Now there was no reason to believe the corpse had been his wife's.
He groaned again. How cruel if it had been Livy! How like life! To have been so close and then to have her taken away a few minutes before he would have been reunited with her. And to have her cast upon the decks as if God—or whatever sneering forces ran the universe—were to laugh and to say, "See how close you came! Suffer, you miserable conglomeration of atoms! Be in pain, wretch! You must pay with tears and agony!"
"Pay for what?" Sam muttered, biting on his cigar. "Pay for what crimes? Haven't I suffered enough on Earth, suffered for what I did do and even more for what I didn't do?"
Death had come to him on Earth, and he had been glad because it meant the end forever to all sorrow. He would no longer have to weep because of the sickness and deaths of his beloved wife and daughters nor gloom because he felt responsible for the death of his only son, the death caused by his negligence. Or was it carelessness that had made his son catch the disease that killed him? Hadn't his unconscious mind permitted the robe to slip from little Langdon, while taking him for a carriage ride that cold winter day?" -
"No!" Sam said so loudly that Joe stirred and the helmsman growled something in Norse.
He smacked his fist against his open palm, and Joe muttered again.
"God, why do I have to ache now with guilt for anything I've done?" Sam cried. "It doesn't matter now! It's all been wiped out; we've started with clean souls."
But it did matter. It made no difference that all the dead were once more alive and the sick were healthy and the bad deeds were so remote in time and space that they should be forgiven and forgotten. What a man had been and had thought on Earth, he still was and thought here.
Suddenly, he wished he had a stick of dreamgum. That might remove the clenching remorse and make him wildly happy.
But then it might intensify the anguish. You never knew if a horror so terrifying would come that you wanted to die. The last time he had taken the gum, he had been so menaced by monsters that he had not dared try the gum again. But maybe this tune... no!
Little Langdon! He would never see him again, never! His son had been only twenty-eight months old when he had died, and this meant that he had not been resurrected in the Rivervalley. No children who had died on Earth before the age of five had been raised again. At least, not here. It was to be presumed that they were alive somewhere, probably on another planet. But for some reason, whoever was responsible for this had chosen not to place the infant dead here. And so Sam would never find him and make amends.
Nor would he ever find Livy or his daughters, Sarah, Jean, and Clara. Not on a River said to be possibly twenty million miles long with possibly thirty-seven billion people on its banks. Even if a man started at one end and walked up one bank and looked at every person on that side and then, on reaching the end, walked back down the other side and did not miss a person, he would take—how long? A square mile a day would mean a round trip of, say 365 into 40,000,000,—what was that? He wasn't any good at doing sums in his head, but it must be over 109,000 years.
And even if a man could do this, could walk all those weary miles and make sure he never missed a face, at the end of over 100,000 years he still might not find the face. The longed-for person might have died somewhere ahead of the searcher and been translated back down The River, behind the searcher. Or the searchee may have passed by the searcher during the night, perhaps while the searchee was looking for the searcher. Yet there might be another way to do this. The beings responsible for this Rivervalley and the resurrection might have the power to locate anybody they wished to. They must have a central file or some means of ascertaining the identity and location of the valley dwellers.
Or, if they did not, they could at least be made to pay for what they had done.

 

Joe Miller's story was no fantasy. It had some very puzzling aspects, but these hinted at something comforting. That was, that some nameless person—or being—wanted the valley dwellers to know about the tower in the mists of the north polar sea. Why? Sam did not know, and he could not guess. But that hole had been bored through the cliff to enable human beings to find out about the tower. And in that tower must be the light to scatter the darkness of ignorance. Of that Sam was sure. And then there was the widespread story of the Englishman, Burton or Perkin, probably Burton, who had awakened prematurely in the preresurrection phase. Was the awakening any more of an accident than the hole bored through the polar cliff?
And so Samuel Clemens had had his first dream, had nourished it until it had become The Great Dream. To make it real, he needed iron, much iron. It was this that had caused him to talk Erik Bloodaxe into launching the expedition in search of the source of the steel ax. Sam had not really expected that there would be enough of the metal to build the giant boat, but at least the Norse were taking him upRiver, closer to the polar sea.
Now, with a luck that he did not deserve—he really felt he deserved nothing good—he was within reach of more iron than he could possibly have hoped for. Not that that had kept him from hoping.
He needed men with knowledge. Engineers who would know how to treat the meteorite iron, get it out, melt it down, reshape it. And engineers and technicians for the hundred other things needed.
He toed Joe Miller's ribs and said, "Get up, Joe. It'll be raining soon."
The titanthrop grunted and rose like a tower out of a fog and stretched. Starlight glinted on his teeth. He followed Sam across the deck, the bamboo planks creaking under the eight hundred pounds. From below, somebody cursed in Norse.
The mountains on both sides were covered with clouds now, and the darkness was spreading over the valley and shutting off the insane glitter of twenty thousand giant stars and glowing gas sheets. Soon it would rain hard for half an hour, and then the clouds would disappear.
Lightning streaked on the eastern bank; thunder bellowed. Sam stopped. Lightning always made him afraid, or, rather, the child in him afraid. Lightning streaked through him and showed him the haunted and haunting faces of those he had injured or insulted or dishonored and behind them were blurred faces reproaching him for nameless crimes. Lightning twisted through him; then he believed in an avenging God out to burn him alive, to drown him in searing pain. Somewhere in the clouds was the Wrathful Retributor, and He was looking for Sara Clemens.
Joe said. "There'th thunder thomevhere farther down The River. No! It ain't thunder! Lithen! Can't you hear it! It'th thomething funny, like thunder but different."
Sam listened while his skin prickled with cold. There was a very faint rumble downRiver. He got even colder as he heard a louder rumble from upRiver. "What the hell is it?" "Don't get thcared, Tham," Joe said. "I'm vith you." But he was shivering, too.
Lightning spread a filamented whiteness on the east bank. Sam jumped and said, "Jesus! I saw something flicker!"
Joe moved next to him and said, "I thaw it! It'th the thyip! You know, the vun I thaw above the tower. But it'th gone!"
Joe and Sam stood silent, peering into the darkness. Lightning exploded again, and this tune there was no white eggshape high above The River.
"It flickered out of nothing and went back to nothing. Like a mirage," Sam said. "If you hadn't seen it, too, I'd have thought it was an illusion."
Sam awoke on the deck. He was stiff, cold and confused. He rolled over and squinted his eyes at the sun just clearing the eastern range.
Joe was on his back beside him, and the helmsman was sleeping beside the wheel.
But it was not this that brought him to his feet. The gold of the sun had faded out as he brought his gaze down; green was everywhere. The muddied plains and mountains, with straws and stubs of debris, were gone. There was short grass on the plains, tall grass and bamboo on the hill, and the giant pine, oak, yew and irontree everywhere on the hills.
"Business as usual," Sam muttered, wisecracking, though unconsciously, even in his shock. Something had put all aboard the Dreyrugr asleep, and while they were unconscious, the incredible work of clearing off the mud and replanting the vegetation had been done. This section of The River was reborn!

 

8

 

He felt insignificant, as weak and helpless as a puppy. What could he, or any human, do to combat beings with powers so vast they could perform this miracle?
Yet there had to be an explanation, a physical explanation. Science and the easy control of vast forces had done this; there was nothing supernatural about it.
There was one comforting hope. One of the unknown beings might be on the side of mankind. Why? In what mystical battle?
By then the entire ship was aroused. Bloodaxe and von Richthofen came up on deck at the same time. Bloodaxe frowned at seeing the German there because he had not authorized him to be on the poopdeck. But the sight of the vegetation shook him so much that he forgot to order him off.
The sun's rays struck down upon the gray mushroom shapes of the grailstones. They sparkled upon hundreds of little exhalations, mounds of seeming fog, that had suddenly appeared on the grass near the stones. The mounds shimmered like heat waves and abruptly coalesced into solidity. Hundreds of men and women lay upon the grass. They were naked, and near each was a pile of towels and a grail.

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