Read The Fabulous Riverboat Online

Authors: Philip Jose Farmer

Tags: #sf

The Fabulous Riverboat (9 page)

Von Richthofen, of course, pooh-poohed it, but the Norsemen believed in revelation via dream. Rather, most of them did. Among the inevitable sceptics, unfortunately, was Erik Bloodaxe.
"You want us to go traipsing ten miles and dig just because you had a wild nightmare?" he bellowed. "I've always thought you had a mind as weak as your courage, Clemens, and now I know it! Forget about it!"
Sam had been sitting down while eating. He rose to his feet and, glaring beneath the heavy brows, said, "Joe and I will go our own way then. We'll organize the locals to help us dig, and when we find the iron—as we surely will—you won't be able to buy your way into the organization for love or money. The first of which, by the way, you've never had on Earth or here, and the second of which just doesn't exist."
Bloodaxe, bread and steak spewing from his mouth, shouted and swung his ax. "No miserable thrall speaks to me like that! You'll dig nothing but your grave, wretch!"
Joe, who had already risen to stand by Clemens, growled and pulled his huge stone ax from his belt sheath. The Vikings stopped eating and walked away to arrange themselves a little behind their chief. Von Richtofen had been grinning while Clemens was describing his dream. The grin remained frozen, and he was quivering. The shaking was not from fright. Now he arose and without a word stood by Clemens' right side.
He said to Bloodaxe, "You have sneered at the fighting ability and courage of Germans, my Norse friend. Now you will have that sneer shoved down your throat." Bloodaxe laughed loudly. "Two gamecocks and an ape!
ou won't die easy deaths; I'll see that it takes you days to find the joy of death! Before I'm done, you'll be begging me to end your pain!"
"Joe!" Clemens said. "Make sure you kill Bloodaxe first. Then you can get up a little sweat knocking off the rest."
Joe raised the 50-pound weight of the flint head above his shoulder and rotated it through a 45-degree arc, back and forth, as easily as if it weighed an ounce. He said, "I can break hith breathtbone vith one throw and probably knock down theveral behind him."
The Norsemen knew that he was not bragging; they had seen him smash too many skulls. He was capable of killing half of them before they killed him, maybe of smashing all of them and still be standing. But they had sworn to defend Bloodaxe to the death and, much as many of them disliked him, they would not break their oath.
There should have been no cowards in the Rivervalley; courage should have become universal. Death was not permanent; a man was killed only to rise again. But those who had been brave on Earth were usually brave here, and those cowardly on Earth were cowardly here. The mind might know that death lasted only a day, but the cells of the body, the unconscious, the configurations of emotion, or whatever it was that made up a man's character, these did not recognize the fact. Sam Clemens dodged violence and the resultant pain—which he feared more than violent death—as long as he could. He had fought with the Vikings, swung an ax, wielded a spear, wounded and been wounded and once even killed a man, though it had been more by accident than skill. But he was an ineffectual warrior. In battle the valves of his heart were turned full open, and his strength poured out.
Sam knew this well, but about this he had no selfreproach or shame.
Erik Bloodaxe was furious and not at all afraid. But if he died, and he probably would, he would never be able to take part in Clemens' dream of the great riverboat or storm the citadels of the north pole. And, though he had scoffed at the dream, he still believed in a part of him that dreams could be revelations sent by the gods. Perhaps he was robbing himself of a glorious future.
Sam Clemens knew his man and was betting that his ambitions would overcome his anger. So they did. The king lowered the ax and forced a smile.
"It is not good to question what the gods send until you look into it," he said. "I have known priests who were given the truth in dreams by Odin and Heimdall, yet they had no hearts for battle and spoke lies except when they spoke for the gods. So we will dig for the iron. If there is iron, good. If not... then we will take up the matter where we left off."
Sam sighed with relief and wished he could quit shaking. His bladder and bowels pained him with their urgency to evacuate, but he did not dare to excuse himself at that moment. He had to play the role of the man who had the upper hand. Ten minutes later, unable to bear it any longer, he walked off toward his hut.
X, the Mysterious Stranger, had said that digging could take place anywhere near the tenth grailstone upRiver from their present position. However, the would-be diggers first had to straighten out the locals on who was running things. A Chicago gangster of the 20's and 30's, Alfonso Gilbretti, had allied himself with a Belgian coalmine and steel-mill magnate of the late nineteenth century and a Turkish sultan of the mid-eighteenth. This triumvirate had followed the by-now classical pattern of organizing a nuclear gang from those who had been merciless exploiters of their fellow men in crime, business, and other terrestrial activities. Those who objected to the newly self-constituted rulers had been disposed of the day before, and the gang had determined what share of the grails' output each "citizen" would pay for "protection." Gilbretti had picked out a harem of five women, of whom two were willing and one had died already because she had tried to break his head with a grail when he entered her hut the night before. Clemens knew all this because of the grapevine. He
ealized that the Vikings would be faced with two hundred toughs and at least a thousand of the so-called militia. Against them would be forty men and twenty women. But the locals were armed only with bamboo spears with firehardened tips while the invaders had Riverdragon-armor, flint axes and flint-tipped spears and arrows. And there was Joe Miller.
Bloodaxe announced from the ship what the Norsemen intended to do. If the locals wanted to participate, they could do so under the rulership of the Norsemen. However, no one would have to "contribute" any of his grail output and no woman would be taken by force.
Gilbretti hurled a spear and a Sicilian oath at Erik. The Norsemen escaped the effects of both and threw his ax. Its edge buried itself in Gilbretti's chest, and Bloodaxe was down off the ship and on the land and racing after his precious iron weapon, a flint-studded club in hand, before anybody could move. After him came Joe Miller and thirty men. The women shot arrows while a crew launched the last rocket into the toughs. It struck exactly on target, near the rear ranks of the closely arranged Gilbrettians. About forty were either killed, wounded or stunned.
Within seventy seconds, the Belgian magnate and the Turk were dead, their heads pulped by Joe's ax, and the others were either casualties or running for their lives.
None got away. The militia saw their chance to get revenge and either beat or stabbed most of them to death. The ten left alive were spread-eagled, and burning bamboo splints were thrust into them. Sam Clemens stood the screaming as long as he was able. He did not want to make himself unpopular by cutting the fun too short and so he tried to ignore the spectacle. Lothar von Richthofen said that he certainly understood the desire to hurt by those who had been hurt. But he would not put up with this barbarity a moment longer. He strode up to the nearest sufferer and silenced him with a single chop of his axe. He then ordered the others done away with immediately. Erik Bloodaxe might have interfered with this order, since he thought it proper that one's enemies should be put through some torture to teach them and others a lesson. But he had been stunned by a piece of the rock-shrapnel thrown by the rocket explosion and was out of the picture for a while. Reluctantly, the militia obeyed, although in their own fashion. They threw the nine survivors into The River, where the fire was certainly put out but not the pain of the splinters themselves. Some thrashed around for several minutes before drowning. And this was strange, since they could have killed the agony in their bowels by killing themselves, knowing they would be alive again and whole again in a short time. Such was the drive of their instincts for survival, they fought to keep their heads above water as long as possible.

 

11

 

Digging did not begin at once. First the locals had to be organized and definite administrative, judicial and legislative lines laid down and the military formed. The area constituting the new state had to be defined. Clemens and Bloodaxe argued about this for a while before deciding that three miles each way up and down The River from the site of the digging would make a manageable area. A sort of Maginot line was built on the borders; this consisted of a twenty-foot-wide strip of two-foot-long bamboo stakes, pointing at various angles, protruding from the ground. The line ran from the base of the mountains down to the bank of The River. Huts were built by the chevauxde-frise, and spearmen and women lived in these as the garrisons.
A third cheval-de-frise was built on the banks. When this was finished, the dragonship was dispatched to the point upRiver where there was a flint mine, if the Mysterious Stranger was to be believed. Bloodaxe stayed behind with about fifteen of his men. He put his lieutenant, Snorri Ragnarsson, in charge of the expedition. Snorri was to bargain with the locals for flint by promising them a share of the iron when it was dug up. If the locals refused to part with the flint, then he was to threaten them. Bloodaxe thought that Joe Miller should go with the ship because the titanthrop's huge size and grotesque features would awe the locals.
Sam Clemens agreed with the Norseman's logic on this point but he did not like the idea of being separated from Joe. Yet he did not want to go on the ship with Joe, because of what Bloodaxe might do in his absence. The king was bad-tempered and arrogant. If he affronted the newly conquered people, he might cause a revolution which could overwhelm the small number of Vikings.
Sam strode back and forth in front of his hut, while he smoked and thought furiously. There was iron under the grass, more than enough to realize The Dream, yet he could not even start to dig for it until a multitude of preparations were made. And every step he thought to take was balked because a dozen other problems came up. He was so frustrated, he almost bit through his cigar. The people who were sitting on the flint mine needed something like the sight of Joe to be softened up for cooperation. But if Joe were absent, Bloodaxe might take advantage of this to kill Sam. He would not do it openly, because he feared Joe, but he could easily arrange an accident.
Sam cursed and sweated. "If I die, I'll be resurrected somewhere else, so far from this place it might take a thousand years to get back on a canoe. Meanwhile, other men will mine the iron and build my Riverboat. Mine! Mine! Not theirs! Mine!"
At this moment, Lothar von Richthofen ran up to him. "I've located two of the kind of men you're looking for. Only one isn't a man! Imagine that, a female engineer!"
The man, John Wesley O'Brien, was a mid-twentiethcentury metallurgical engineer. The woman was half Mongolian, half Russian, and had spent most of her Me in mining communities in Siberia.
Sam Clemens shook hands with them and told them briefly what he had to do now and what he expected to do later.
O'Brien said, "If there is a big bauxite deposit near here, then we can probably build the kind of ship you want."
He was very excited, as any man would be who had given up any hope of carrying on his Terrestrial profession here. There were many like him, men and women who wanted to work if for no other reason than to kill time. There were doctors who had nothing to do but set an occasional broken bone, printers who had no type to set or paper to use, mailmen with no mail to deliver, smiths with no horses to shoe, farmers with no crops to grow, housewives with no children to raise, the food already cooked, housecleaning done in fifteen minutes and no marketing to do, salesmen with nothing to sell, preachers whose religion was thoroughly discredited by the existence of this world, bootleggers with no means of making grain alcohol, buttonmakers with no buttons, pimps and whores whose professions were ruined by an excess of amateurs, mechanics with no autos, admen with no ads, carpetmakers with only grass and bamboo fibers to work with, cowboys without horses or cattle, painters with no paint or canvas, pianists without pianos, railroad men with no iron, stockbrokers with no stocks to deal in, and so on.
O'Brien continued, "However, you want a steamboat, and that's not very realistic. You'd have to stop at least once a day to chop wood for fuel, which would mean a long delay even if the locals permitted you to take their limited supply of bamboo and pine trees. Moreover, your axes, the boilers and other parts would wear out long before you reached the end of your journey, and you wouldn't have enough space to carry enough iron for replacements parts. No, what you need are electric motors.
"Now, there's a man in this area I met shortly after translation here. I don't know where he is just now but he must be somewhere close. I'll find him for you. He's an electrical wizard, a late twentieth-century engineer who knows how to build the type of motors you'll need."
"Hold your horses!" Sam said. "Where would you get all the tremendous amounts of electrical power you'd need? Would we have to build our own Niagara Falls to carry along with us?"
O'Brien was a short, slight youth with a plume of almost orange hair and a face with features so delicate he looked effeminate. He had a crooked smile which managed nevertheless to be charming. He said, "It's available everywhere up and down The River."
He pointed at the mushroom shape of the nearest grailstone. "Three times a day, those stones output an enormous electrical power. What's to prevent us from hooking up power lines to a number of them and storing the discharges to run the boat's motors?"
Sam goggled for a moment, then said, "Strike me dumb! No, that's a redundant phrase. I am dumb! Right before my eyes, and I never thought of it! Of course!"

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