Now Burton and Clemens, who have traveled for more than thirty years on two great ships, are about to reach the end of the River. But there is a religion, The Church of the Second Chance, that has grown up along the River and its adherents, possibly inspired by aliens, are determined to destroy the riverboats. A coming battle may destroy Burton and Clemens, but even if they survive, how can they penetrate the alien tower of the Ethicals, who created this astonishing world? What can humans do against a race capable of creating a world and resurrecting the entire human race on it?
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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.
THE MAGIC LABYRINTH Copyright © 1980 by Philip José Farmer