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The Magic Labyrinth
By Philip José Farmer
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 1980 Philip José Farmer
All rights reserved.
"Everybody should fear only one person, and that person should be himself."
That was a favorite saying of the Operator.
The Operator had also spoken much of love, saying that the person most feared should also be much loved.
The man known to some as X or the Mysterious Stranger neither loved nor feared himself the most.
There were three people he had loved more than he loved anybody else.
His wife, now dead, he had loved but not as deeply as the other two.
His foster mother and the Operator he loved with equal intensity or at least he had once thought so.
His foster mother was light-years away, and he did not have to deal with her as yet and might never. Now, if she knew what he was doing, she would be deeply ashamed and grieved. That he couldn't explain to her why he was doing this, and so justify himself, deeply grieved him.
The Operator he still loved but at the same time hated.
Now X waited, sometimes patiently, sometimes impatiently or angrily, for the fabled but real Riverboat. He had missed the Rex Grandissimus. His only chance now was the Mark Twain.
If he didn't get aboard that boat ... no, the thought was almost unendurable. He must.
Yet, when he did get on it, he might be in the greatest peril he'd ever been in, bar one. He knew that the Operator was downRiver. The surface of his grail had shown him the Operator's location. But that had been the last information he would get from the map. The satellite had kept track of the Operator and the Ethicals, except for himself, and the agents in The Rivervalley, beaming its messages to the grail which was more than a grail. Then the map had faded from the gray surface, and X had known that something had malfunctioned in the satellite. From now on he could be surprised by the Operator, by the agents, and by the other Ethical.
Long ago, X had made arrangements to track all those from the tower and the underground chambers. He had secretly installed the mechanism in the satellite. The others would have put in a device to track him, of course. But his aura-distorter had fooled the mechanism. The distorter had also enabled him to lie to the council of twelve.
Now, he was as ignorant and helpless as the others.
However, if anybody on this world would be taken aboard by Clemens, even if the complement was full, it would be the Operator. One look at him, and Clemens would stop the boat and hail him aboard.
And when the Mark Twain came along, and he, X, managed to become a crew member, he would have to avoid the Operator until he could take him by surprise.
The disguise, good enough to fool even the other stranded Ethical, would not deceive that great intelligence. He would recognize X instantly, and then he, X, would have no chance. Strong and quick as he was, the Operator was stronger and quicker.
Moreover, the Operator would have a psychological advantage. X, face-to-face with the being he loved and hated, would be inhibited and might not be able to attack the Operator with the fury and vigor demanded.
Cowardly though it was, a detestable act, he would have to take the Operator from behind. But his detestable deeds had been many since he had set himself against the others, and he could do this. Though taught from early childhood to loathe violence, he had also been taught that violence was justified if his life was in peril. The resurrecting force which for all practical purposes made everyone on the Riverworld indestructible just did not enter into it. Resurrection no longer worked but even when it had he'd still forced himself to be violent. Despite what his mentors said, the end did justify the means. Besides, all those he'd killed would not be dead forever. At least, he'd thought so. But he'd not foreseen this situation.
The Ethical was living in a bamboo leaf-thatched hut on the bank of The River, the right bank if you faced upstream. He hadn't been there long. Now he sat on the thick short grass of the plain near the shore. There were approximately five hundred others around him, all waiting for lunchtime. At one time, there would have been seven hundred here, but, since the resurrections had ceased, the population had lessened. Accidents, mostly from encounters with the gigantic human-eating boat-smashing riverdragon fish, suicide, and murder, had accounted for most fatalities. Once, war had been the greatest death-maker, but there had been none in this area for many years. The would-be conquerors had been killed off, and now they would not be translated elsewhere along The River to make more trouble.
Also, the spread of the Church of the Second Chance, the Nichirenites, the Sufis, and other pacifistic religions and disciplines had had great effect in bringing peace.
Near the crowd was a mushroom-shaped structure of a red-flecked granite material. It was called a grailstone, though actually it was a highly electrically conductive metal. It had a broad base five feet high, and the top had a diameter of approximately fifty feet. On the surface of this were seven hundred depressions. In each one was a cylinder of gray metal, a device which converted energy discharged by the grailstone into food, liquor, and other items. The containers kept the vast population of the Riverworld, estimated to have been thirty-five to thirty-six billion at one time, from starving to death. Though the grail-provided food could be augmented by fish and acorn bread and the tips of young bamboo shoots, these were not enough to feed the dwellers of the narrow Valley, a valley which enclosed The River, ten million miles long.
The people by the stone chattered and laughed and kidded around. The Ethical did not speak to those near him; he was occupied with his thoughts. It had occurred to him that perhaps the malfunction of the satellite was not natural. Its tracking mechanism was designed to function for over a thousand years without breakdown. Had it failed because Piscator, the Japanese once named Ohara, had messed up something in the tower? Theoretically Piscator should have been destroyed by the various traps that he, X, had placed in the tower or been caught in a stasis field installed by the Operator. But Piscator was a Sufi, and he might have had the intelligence and perceptive powers to avoid these. That he could enter the tower showed that he was very ethically advanced. Not one in five million of the candidates, the resurrected Terrestrials, could have gone through the entrance on top. As for the one at the base, only that had been prepared by X, and only two knew about it until the expedition of ancient Egyptians had gotten to it. He'd been surprised and upset when he'd found their bodies in the secret room. Nor had he known then that one Egyptian had escaped and had been drowned and then translated back to The Valley until he'd heard the survivor's story, somewhat distorted and via who knew how many tellers? Apparently no agents had heard it until it was too late for them to transmit the news to the Ethicals in the tower.
What worried him now was that if Piscator had indeed been responsible for accidentally causing the tracker to malfunction, then he might somehow bring the Ethicals back to life. And if he did that ... he, X, was done for.
He stared across the plain at the foothills covered with the long-bladed grass and trees of various kinds and the gloriously colored blooms of the vines on the ironwood trees and then past them to the unscalable mountains walling in The Valley. His fear and frustration made him angry again, but he quickly used the mental techniques to dissipate his anger. The energy, he knew, made his skin temperature rise for a hundredth of a degree Celsius for a few seconds. He felt somewhat relieved, though he knew that he'd be angry again. The trouble with the technique was that it didn't dissipate the source of his anger. He'd never be able to get rid of that, though he had appeared to do so to his mentors.
He shaded his eyes and glanced at the sun. Within a few minutes, the stone would vomit lightning and thunder along with the millions of others on both banks. He moved away from the stone and put the tips of his fingers in his ears. The noise would be deafening, and the sudden discharge still made one jump though you knew it was coming.
The sun reached its zenith.
There was an enormous roar and flashing upward of ravening blue-white-shot electricity.
On the left bank, not the right.
Once before, the right-bank grailstones had failed to function.
Those on the right bank waited with apprehension and then increasing fear when the stones failed to spout their energy for dinnertime. And when they failed again at breakfast time, the consternation and anxiety became panic.
By the next day, the hungry people invaded the left bank en masse.CHAPTER 2
The first time that Sir Thomas Malory died was on Earth in A.D. 1471.
The English knight got through the terrible weeks after Resurrection Day without too many body wounds, though he suffered grievously from spiritual shock. He found the food in his "littel greal" fascinating. It reminded him of what he had written in The Book of King Arthur concerning Galahad and his fellow knights when they ate of the food provided by the Sangreal: "... ye shall be fed afore this table with sweetmeats that never knights tasted."
There were times when Malory thought he'd go mad. He'd always been tempted by madness, a state in which a person was both touched with holiness by God and invulnerable to the cares and woes of the world, not to mention his own. But a man who'd spent so many years in prison on Earth without going crazy had to be basically tough. One of the things that had kept his mind unclouded in prison had been his writing of the first English prose epic. Though he knew that his readers would be very few, and most of them would probably not like it, he did not care one whit. Unlike his first work, which had been based on the great French writers of the cycles about King Arthur of ancient Britain, this was about the rejections but final triumph of his sweet Jesu. Unlike so many once-devout Christians, Malory clung to his faith with fierce obliviousness to "facts" — in itself an indication that he had gone mad, if his critics were to be believed.
Twice slain by savage infidels, Malory ended up in an area inhabited on one side by Parthians and on the other by Englishmen.
The Parthians were ancient horsemen who got their name from their habit of shooting backwards from their steeds as they retreated. In other words, they always got in a parting shot. At least, that was the explanation for their name according to one informant. Malory suspected that the grinning fellow was pulling his leg, but it sounded good, so why not accept it.
The Englishmen were chiefly of the seventeenth century and spoke an English which Malory had trouble understanding. However, after all these years, they also spoke Esperanto, that tongue which the missionaries of the Church of the Second Chance used as a universal medium of communication. The land, now known as New Hope, was peaceful, though it had not always been so. Once it had been a number of small states which had had a savage battle with the medieval German and Spanish states up north. These had been led by a man called Kramer, nicknamed the Hammer. After he had been killed, a long peace had come to the land, and the states eventually became one. Malory settled down there and took as his hutmate Philippa Hobart, daughter of Sir Henry Hobart. Though there was no longer a giving in marriage, Malory insisted that they be married, and he got a friend who had been a Catholic priest to perform the old ceremony. Later, he reconverted both his wife and the priest to their native faith.
He was set back somewhat, though, when he heard that the true Jesu Christ had appeared in this area with a Hebrew woman who had known Moses in Egypt and during the exodus. Jesu had also been accompanied by a man named Thomas Mix, an American, the descendant of Europeans who had emigrated to the continent discovered only twenty-one years after Malory had died. Jesu and Mix had burned to death together in bonfires ignited by Kramer.
At first, Malory had denied that the man calling himself Yeshua could be the real Christ. He might be a Hebrew of Christ's time, but he was a fake.
Then Malory, after tracking down all the evidence he could of Yeshua's statements and the events of his martyrdom, decided that perhaps Christ had truly been present. So he incorporated the tale told by the locals into the epic he was now writing with ink and a pen formed from the bone of a fish on bamboo paper. Malory also decided to canonize the American, and so Mix became Saint Thomas the Steadfast of the White Hat.
After a while Malory and his disciples forgot that the sainthood was a fiction and came to believe that Saint Thomas was indeed roaming The Valley in quest of his master, sweet Jesu, in this world which was purgatory, though not exactly the middle state between earth and heaven portrayed by the priests of lost Earth.
The ex-priest who'd married Thomas and Philippa, as a bishop ordained on Earth and so in the direct line of priesthood from Saint Peter, was able to instruct others and to make priests of them. The little group of Roman Catholics, however, had a different attitude in one respect from that they'd had in their Terrestrial days. They were tolerant; they did not attempt to bring back the Inquisition nor did they burn suspected witches. If they had insisted on these old customs, they would have quickly been exiled or perhaps even killed.
Late one night, Thomas Malory was lying in bed and pondering on the next chapter of his epic. Suddenly, there was a great shouting outside and a noise as of many running. He sat up and called to Philippa, who awoke frightened and trembling. They went out then to ask what the commotion was about. The people questioned pointed upward into the cloudless sky made bright as a full moon by the packed stars and flaming cosmic-gas sheets.
High up were two strange objects silhouetted against the celestial blaze. One, much smaller, was composed of two parts, a larger sphere above the other. Though those on the ground could not see any linkage between the two, they got the impression that the two were connected because they moved at the same speed. Then a woman who knew of such things said that it looked like a balloon. Malory had never seen one, but he had heard descriptions of them from nineteenth- and twentieth-centurians, and this did indeed look like the description.
The other object, far greater, resembled a gigantic cigar.
The same woman said that this was an airship or dirigible or perhaps was a vessel of the unknowns who'd made this planet.
"Angels?" Malory muttered. "Why would they have to use an airship? They have wings."
He forgot about that and cried out with the others as the huge vessel of the air suddenly dived. And then he screamed with the others when the vessel exploded. Burning, it fell toward The River.
The balloon continued to travel northeastwards, and after a while it was gone. Long before that, the flaming airship struck the water. Its skeletal framework sank almost at once, but some pieces of its skin burned for a few minutes before they, too, were extinguished.CHAPTER 3
Neither angels nor demons had voyaged in that vessel of the sky. The man whom Malory and his wife pulled out of the water and rowed to shore in their boat was no more and no less human than they. He was a tall, dark, rapier-thin man with a big nose and a weak chin. His large black eyes stared at them in the torchlight, and he said nothing for a long while. After he had been carried into the community hall, dried off and covered with thick cloths, and had drunk some hot coffee, he said something in French and then spoke in Esperanto.
"How many survived?"
Malory said, "We don't know yet."
A few minutes later, the first of twenty-two corpses, some very charred, were brought to the bank. One of them was a woman's. Though the search continued through the night and part of the morning, these were all that were found. The Frenchman was the single survivor. Though he was weak and still in shock, he insisted on getting up and taking part in the search. When he saw the bodies by a grailstone, he burst into tears and sobbed for a long time. Malory took this as a good indication of the man's health. At least he wasn't in such deep trauma that he was unable to express his grief.
"Where have the others gone?" the stranger demanded.
Then his sorrow became rage, and he shook his fist at the skies and howled damnation at someone named Thorn. Later, he asked if anyone had seen or heard another aircraft, a helicopter. Many had.
"Which way did it go?" he said.
Excerpted from The Magic Labyrinth by Philip José Farmer. Copyright © 1980 Philip José Farmer. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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