Read The Fabulous Riverboat Online

Authors: Philip Jose Farmer

Tags: #sf

The Fabulous Riverboat (8 page)

He could see his mother lying on the bed, hair tangled, skin pale, eyelids half-opened, jaw dropped. The doctor was working on the baby—himself, Sam—while he smoked a cigar. He was saying out of the corner of his mouth to Sam's father, "Hardly seems worth saving."
His father said, "You had a choice between saving that and saving Jane?"
The doctor had a shock of bright red hair, a thick drooping red moustache, and pale blue eyes. His face was strange and brutal. He said, "I bury my mistakes. You worry too much. I'll salvage this bit of flesh, though it's really not worth doing, and save her, too."
The doctor wrapped him up and put him on the bed, and then the doctor sat down and began writing in a little black book. Sam's father said, "Must you write at a time like this?"
The doctor said, "I must write, though I'd get more writing done if I didn't talk so much. This is a log I keep on all the souls I bring into the world. I intend some day to write a big case history of the infants, find out if any ever amounted to anything. If I can bring one genius, one, into this vale of heavy tears, I will think my life worthwhile. Otherwise, I've been wasting my time bringing thousands of idiots, hypocrites, dogs in the mangers, etc. into this sad place."
Little Sam wailed, and the doctor said, "Sounds as if he's a lost soul before he's dead, don't he? As if he's bearing the blame for all the sins of the world on his tiny shoulders."
His father said, "You're a strange man. Evil, I think. Certainly not God-fearing."
"I pay tribute to the Prince of Darkness, yes," the doctor said.
The room was filled with the odor of blood, the doctor's boozy breath and cigar and sweat.
"What're you going to call him? Samuel? That's my name, too! It means 'name of God.' That's a joke. Two Samuels, heh? Sickly little devil, I don't think he'll live. If he does, he'll wish he hadn't"
His father roared, "Get out of my house, you devil's spawn! What kind of a man are you? Get out! I'll call in another doctor! I won't even let it be known that you attended my wife or had anything to do with this or was even in this bouse. I'll rid this house of your evil odor."
The doctor, swaying, threw his dirty instruments into the bag and snapped it shut.
"Very well. But you have delayed my passage through this miserable village of asses. I'm on my way to bigger and better things, my provincial friend. It was only out of the kindness of my heart that I took pity upon you because the quacks that serve this mudhole were out of town. I left the comforts of the tavern to come here and save an infant who would be better off dead, infinitely better. Which reminds me, though I don't know why, that you must pay my fee."
"I should throw you out of the house and pay you with nothing but curses!" Sam's father said. "But a man has to pay his debts no matter what the circumstances. Here's your thirty pieces of silver."
"Looks more like paper to me," the doctor said. "Well you can call in your dispenser of pills, folly and death, but just remember that it was Doctor Ecks that dragged your wife and baby from the jaws of death. Ecks, the unknown quantity, the eternal passer-through, the mysterious stranger, the devil dedicated to keeping other poor devils alive, also dedicated to the demon whiskey, since I can't abide rum."
"Out! Out!" Sam's father shouted. "Out before I kill you!"
"There's no gratitude in this world," Doctor Ecks mumbled. "Out of nothing I come, through a world populated by asses I pass, and into nothing I go. Ecks equals nothing."
Sweating, eyes open and rigid as those of a stone Apollo, Sam watched the drama. The scene and the actors were enclosed in a ball of pale yellow light through which veins of red shot like lightning and then faded out. The doctor turned his face once before he walked through the door of the house in Florida, Missouri, on November 30, 1835. He took the cigar from his mouth and grinned mockingly, revealing long yellow teeth with two abnormally white, abnormally long canines.
As if the scene were a film being shut off, it blinked out Through the door which had been in Sam's birthplace and now was the door of the bamboo hut, another figure entered. It was momentarily silhouetted by the bright starlight, then slid into the shadows. Sam closed his eyes and steeled himself for another frightening experience. He groaned and wished he had not taken the dreamgum. Yet he knew that under the terror was a thread of delight. He hated and enjoyed this. The birth-drama was a fantasy, created by him to explain why he was the kind of man he was. But what was this shadowy figure moving silently and intently as death? From what deep cavern in his mind came this creature?
A baritone voice spoke. "Sam Clemens! Do not be alarmed! I am not here to harm you! I come to help you!"
"And what do you want in repayment for your help?" Sam said.
The man chuckled and said, "You're the kind of human being I like. I chose well." "You mean I chose you to choose me," Sam replied.
There was a pause of several seconds, and then the man said, "I see. You think I'm another fantasy inspired by the gum. I'm not. Touch me."
"What for?" Sam said. "As a gum-inspired fantasy, you should know that you can be felt as well as seen and heard. State your business."
"Entirely? That would take too long. And I don't dare take much time with you. There are others in this area who might notice. That would be too bad for me, since they are very suspicious. They know there is a traitor among them, but they don't have the slightest idea who it could be." "Others? They?" Sam answered. "They—we Ethicals—are doing field work in this area
ow," the figure said. "This is a unique situation, the first time that a completely unhomogenized assortment of humans has been thrown together. It presents a rare chance for study, and we are recording everything. I'm here as chief administrator, since I'm one of The Twelve."
"I'll have to figure you out after I wake up," Sam replied.
"You are awake, and I exist I have objective reality. And, I repeat, I don't have much time."
Sam started to sit up but was pushed back by a hand which somehow communicated a sense of great power, muscular and mental. Sam shivered upon feeling it. "You're one of Them," he whispered. "One of Them!"
He gave up his idea of seizing the man and calling for help.
"Of them, but not with them," the man said. "I'm with you human beings, and I intend to see that my people do not complete their filthy project. I have a plan, but a plan that will take much time, much patience, a slow and careful, devious development. I have contacted three humans now; you are the fourth. They are aware of parts of the plan but not all of it. If any one of them should be revealed and interrogated, he could tell the Ethicals only a little. The plan must unfold slowly and everything must appear accidental. "Just as the meteorite must appear accidental."
Sam did start to sit up then but caught himself before the hand touched him. "It was no accident?"
"No. I have known for some time of your dream of building a Riverboat and going to the end of The River. It would be impossible without iron. So I deflected the meteorite to bring its orbit within this planet's grip and cause it to crash near you. Not too near you, of course, otherwise you would have died and have been translated far from this area. There are safeguards to prevent such spatial matter from falling on the valley, but I managed to trip them out just long enough for the meteor to get through. Unfortunately, the guardians almost got to the repulsion system in time. When the system went back into action, its effect caused the meteorite to go off the course I'd planned. As a result, we—I mean you—almost got killed. It was just luck that you weren't. But then I've found out that what you call luck is on my side." "Then the falling star... ?" "Is a deliberately felled star, yes."
Sam thought, if he knows so much about me, he must be one of the crew of the Dreyrugr. Unless he's able to make himself invisible. That isn't impossible. That egg-shaped ship I saw in the air was invisible; I only saw it because it was for some reason made visible very briefly. Maybe the lightning interfered with the apparatus that makes the ship invisible.
Then, What am I thinking? This is just another dreamgum fantasy.
The man said, "One of their agents is nearby! Listen carefully! The meteorite wasn't removed because we didn't have time. At least, that was my decision. It's buried under the plains and foothills ten miles from here. Go ten grailstones downRiver.
"You'll be on the perimeter of the original crater, where several large masses and many small pieces are buried. Start digging. The rest is up to you. I'll help you when I can, but I can't do anything obvious."
Sam's heart was beating so hard his own voice sounded muted. "Why do you want me to build a boat?"
"You'll find out in time. For the present, be happy that you've been given what you need. Listen! There's a huge deposit of bauxite only five miles farther up, under the surface of the mountains, near the base. And near it is a small lode of platinum and two miles up from it, cinnabar." "Bauxite? Platinum?" "You fool!"
There was the sound of hard breathing. Sam could almost hear the man's internal struggle to control his disgust and fury. Then, calmly, "You'll need bauxite for aluminum and platinum for a catalyst for the many things you'll have in your boat. I haven't got time to explain. There are several engineers in this area who'll tell you what to do with the minerals. I must go. He's getting closer! Just do what I say. And, oh, yes, there's flint thirty miles upRiver!"
"But..." Sam said. The man was silhouetted briefly and was gone. Sam rose unsteadily and went to the door. Fires were still blazing on the banks, and small figures were capering in front of them. The stranger was gone. Sam went around to the back of the hut but there was no one there. He looked up at the sky, pale with great gas sheets and bright knots of white, blue, red and yellow stars. He had hopes he might catch a glimpse of a vehicle winking from visibility to invisibility. But there was nothing.

 

10

 

On returning to the hut, he was startled by a huge figure standing dark and immobile before his door. His heart hammering, he said, "Joe?"
"Yeah," answered the bass drum voice. Joe advanced to nun and said, "There'th been thomone not human here. I can thmell him. He got a funny thtink, different than you humanth got. You know, it remindth me ..."
He was silent for a while. Sam waited, knowing that the ponderous stone wheels were grinding out the flour of thought. Then Joe said, "Veil, I'll be damned!" "What is it, Joe?"
"It'th been tho long ago, it happened on Earth, you know, thometime before I got killed there. No, it couldn't be. Jethuth Chritht, if vhat you thay ith true about how long ago I lived, it mutht've been maybe a hundred thouthand yearth ago!" "Come on, Joe, don't leave me hanging up in the air."
"Veil, you ain't going to believe thith. But you got to remember that my nothe hath a memory, too."
"It ought to, it's bigger than your brain," Sam said. "Out with it, or are you trying to kill me with frustrated curiosity?"
"All right, Tham. I vath on the track of a vifthangkruilth tribethman, they lived about ten mileth from uth on the other thide of a big hill that looked like ..." "Never mind the details, Joe," Sam snapped.
"Veil, it vath late in the day and I knew I vath getting clothe to my enemy becauthe hith printth were tho frethh. And then I heard a noithe that made me think maybe the guy I vath following had backtracked on me and I vath going to get hith club thyoved all the vay up instead of vithevertha. Tho I dropped to the ground and crawled tvardth the noithe. And gueth vhat I thaw? Great Thcott, vhy didn't I ever tell you thith before? Vat a dummy I am!"
"I'll go along with that. So... ?"
"Veil, the guy I vath trailing had gotten vind of me, though I don't know how, thinthe I'm ath thilent ath a veathel thneaking up on a bird, big ath I am. Anyvay, he had backtracked and might've come up behind me, maybe. But he vath lying on the ground, out cold ath a cavedigger'th ath. And there vere two humanth thtanding by him. Now, I'm ath brave ath the nektht guy and maybe braver, but thith vath the firtht time I ever thaw humanth, and it vath poththible I vath thcared. Cauthyiouth, anyvay.
"They vere dreththed up in clotheth, vat you've dethcribed to me ath clotheth. They had thome funny looking thingth in their handth, about a foot long, thick black thtickth that veren't vood, looked more like the thteel that Bloodakth'th akthe ith made of.
"I vath veil hidden but thothe bathtardth had thorne vay of knowing I vath there. One of them pointed the thtick at me, and I became unconthious. Paththed out. Vhen I came to, the two humanth and the vif vere gone. I got to hell out of there, but I never forgot that thmell." Sam said, "That's the whole story?"
Joe nodded. Sam said, "I'll be damned! Does that mean that these... these people... have been keeping an eye on us for half a million years? Or more? Or are they the same people?" "Vhat do you mean?"
Sam told Joe that he must never tell anybody else what he was going to hear. He knew that the titanthrop could be trusted, yet when he explained he felt misgivings. X had required him not to utter a word to anybody else.
Joe nodded so much that the silhouette of his nose was like a log rising and falling in a heavy sea. "It all tieth in. It'th quite a cointhidenthe, ain't it? Me theeing them on Earth, then being taken along on Ikhnaton'th ekthpedithion and theeing the tower and airthyip, and now you being picked by thith Ekth to build the thteamboat. How about that, huh?"

 

Sam was so excited that he could not fall asleep until shortly before dawn. He managed to rouse himself for breakfast, though he would have preferred to stay in bed. While the Vikings, the German, Joe, and he were eating the contents of their grails, he told them a heavily censored version of his experience. But he told it as if it had been a dream. If he had not had Joe's olfactory backing for the mysterious stranger's presence, he would have thought it was a dream.

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