Reborn Fugitives Fight for Their Lives on the Planet Riverworld

    After escaping from prison, three people from different centuries run from the religious zealot who pursues them.

    In the future, a different kind of humanity thrives on the planet Riverworld. Once Earthlings from 1,000,000 B.C. to the 21st century, its inhabitants were resurrected along the banks of its legendary river. Here, every man and woman is in perfect health: Their bodies do not age; harmful bacteria doesn't exist; they suffer from no genetic defects. The only thing that remains of their Terrestrial lives are the prejudices they clung to before their rebirths.

    In the story "Riverworld," these old prejudices land Tom Mix—a 20th century movie star—into a spot of trouble. While searching for people from his own time, Mix is taken captive by Kramer, a religious zealot from the 15th century. Upon refusing to convert to Kramer's faith, Mix and his fellow prisoners are jailed. There, Mix meets Yeshua and Bithniah, and the trio manages to escape in the night. Together, the three fugitives embark down the legendary river, only to be pursued by Kramer's henchmen once again...

    Read on for an excerpt from Philip José Farmer’s “Riverworld,” the titular novelette from his 1979 story collection.

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    Riverworld and Other Stories

    Riverworld and Other Stories

    Tom Mix had fled on Earth from furious wives, maddened bulls, and desperate creditors. He’d fled on foot, on horse, and in cars. But this was the first time, on his native planet or on the Riverworld, that he had fled in a boat.

    It sailed down-River and downwind swiftly, rounding a bend with the pursuer about fifty yards behind. Both craft, the large chaser and the small chased, were bamboo catamarans. They were well-built vessels, though there wasn’t a metal nail in them: double-hulled, fore-and-aft rigged and flourishing spinnakers. The sails were made of bamboo fiber.

    The sun had two hours to go before setting. People were grouped by the great mushroom-shaped stones lining the banks. It would be some time before the grailstones would roar and spout blue electricity, energy which would be converted in the cylinders on top of the stones into matter. That is, into the evening meal and also, liquor, tobacco, marijuana, and dreamgum. But they had nothing else to do at this time except to lounge around, talk, and hope something exciting might happen.

    They would soon be gratified.

    The bend which Mix’s boat had rounded revealed that the mile-wide River behind him had suddenly become a three-mile wide lake ahead. There were hundreds of boats there, all filled with fishers who’d set their cylinders on the stones and then put out to augment their regular diet with fish. So many were the craft that Mix suddenly found that there was even less room to maneuver than in the narrower stretch of water behind him.

    Tom Mix was at the tiller. Ahead of him on the deck were two other refugees, Bithniah and Yeshua. Both were Hebrew, tied together by blood and religion though separated by twelve hundred years and sixty generations. That made much difference. In some ways Bithniah was less a stranger to Mix than she was to Yeshua; in some ways, Yeshua was closer to Mix than to the woman.

    All three, at the moment, shared bruises and contusions given by the same man, Kramer. He wasn’t in the boat following their wake, but his men were. If they captured the three, they’d return them to “The Hammer,” as Kramer had been called on Earth and was here. If they couldn’t take the refugees alive, they’d kill them.

    riverworld_excerpt

    Mix glanced behind him. Every bit of sail on the two-masted catamaran was up. It was slowly gaining on the smaller craft. Mix’s boat should have been able to keep its lead, its crew was far lighter, but, during the escape, three spears had gone through the sail. The holes were small, but their effect had accumulated during the chase. In about fifteen minutes the prow of the chaser could be touching the stern of his craft. However, Kramer’s men wouldn’t try to board from the bow of their boat. They’d come up alongside, throw bone grappling hooks, draw the vessels together, and then swarm over the side.

    Ten warriors against three, one a woman, one a man who would run away but who refused on principle to fight, and one a man who’d been in many duels and mass combats but wouldn’t last long against such numbers.

    People in a fishing boat shouted angrily at him as he took the catamaran too near them. Mix grinned and swept from his head his ten-gallon white hat, made of woven straw fibers painted with a rare pigment. He saluted them with the hat and then donned it. He wore a long white cloak made of towels fastened together with magnetic tabs, a white towel fastened around his waist, and high-heeled cowboy boots of white River-serpent leather. The latter were, in this situation, both an affectation and a handicap. But now that fighting was close, he needed bare feet to get a better grip on the slippery deck.

    He called to Yeshua to take over the tiller. His face rigid, unresponsive to Mix’s grin, Yeshua hastened to him. He was five feet ten inches tall, exactly Mix’s height, but considered tall among the people of his time and place on Earth. His hair was black but with an undercoating which shone reddish in the sun. It was cut just below the nape of the neck. His body was thin but wiry, covered only by a black loincloth; his chest was matted with curly black hair. The face was long and thin, ascetic, that of a beardless scholarly-looking Jewish youth. His eyes were large and dark brown with flecks of green, inherited, he’d said, from Gentile ancestors. The people of his native land, Galilee, were much mixed since it had been both a trade route and a road for invaders for several thousand years.

    Yeshua could have been Mix’s twin, a double who’d not been eating or sleeping as well as his counterpart. There were slight differences between them. Yeshua’s nose was a trifle longer, his lips a little thinner, and Mix had no greenish flecks in his eyes nor red underpigment in his hair. The resemblance was still so great that it took people some time to distinguish between them—as long as they didn’t speak.

    It was this that had caused Mix to nickname Yeshua as “Handsome.”

    Now Mix grinned again. He said, “Okay, Handsome. You handle her while I get rid of these.”

    He sat down and took off his boots, then rose and crossed the deck to drop them and his cloak into a bag hanging from a shroud. When he took over the tiller, he grinned a third time.

    “Don’t look so grim. We’re going to have some fun.”

    Yeshua spoke in a deep baritone in a heavily accented English.

    Don't look so grim. We're going to have some fun.

    “Why don’t we go ashore? We’re far past Kramer’s territory now. We can claim sanctuary.”

    “Claiming’s one thing,” Mix drawled in a baritone almost as deep. “Getting’s another.”

    “You mean that these people’ll be too scared of Kramer to let us take refuge with them?”

    “Maybe. Maybe not. I’d just as soon not have to find out. Anyway, if we beach, so will they, and they’ll skewer as before the locals can interfere.”

    “We could run for the hills.”

    “No. We’ll give them a hard time before we take a chance on that. Get back there, help Bithniah with the ropes.”

    Yeshua and the woman handled the sail while Mix began zigzagging the boat. Glances over his shoulder showed that the pursuer was following his wake. It could have continued on a straight line in the middle of the River, and so gotten ahead of Mix’s craft. But its captain was afraid that one of the zigs or zags would turn out to be a straight line the end of which would terminate at the bank.

    Mix gave an order to slacken the sail a little. Bithniah protested.

    “They’ll catch us sooner!”

    Mix said, “They think they will. Do as I say. The crew never argues with the master, and I’m the captain.”

    He smiled and told her what he hoped to do. She shrugged, indicating that if they were going to be boarded, it might as well be sooner as later. It also hinted that she’d known all along that he was a little mad and this was now doubly confirmed.

    Yeshua, however, said, “I won’t spill blood.”

    “I know I can’t count on you in a fight,” Mix said. “But if you help handle the boat, you’re indirectly contributing to bloodshed. Put that in your philosophical pipe and smoke it.”

    Surprisingly, Yeshua grinned. Or perhaps his reaction wasn’t so unexpected. He delighted in Mix’s Americanisms, and he also liked to discuss subtleties in ethics. But he was going to be too busy to engage in an argument just now.

    riverworld_excerpt

    Mix looked back again. The fox—the chaser was the fox and he was the rabbit—was now almost on his tail. There was a gap of twenty feet between them, and two men at the bows of the double hull were poised, ready to hurl their spears. However, the rapid rise and fall of the decks beneath them would make an accurate cast very difficult.

    Mix shouted to his crew—some crew!—and swung the tiller hard over. The prow had been pointed at an angle to the righthand bank of the River. Now it turned away suddenly, the boat leaning, the boom of the sail swinging swiftly. Mix ducked as it sang past his head. Bithniah and Yeshua clung to ropes to keep from being shot off the deck. The righthand hull lifted up, clearing the water for a few seconds.

    For a moment, Mix thought the boat was going to capsize. Then it righted, and Bithniah and Yeshua were paying out the ropes. Behind him he heard shouting, but he didn’t look back. Ahead was more shouting as the crews of two small one-masted fishing boats voiced their anger and fear.

    Mix’s vessel ran between the two boats in a lane only thirty feet wide. That closed quickly as the two converged. Their steersmen were trying to turn them away, but they had been headed inward on a collision path. Normally, they would have straightened this out, but now the stranger was between them, and its prow was angling toward the boat on the port.

    Mix could see the twisted faces of the men and women on this vessel. They were anguished lest his prow crash into their starboard side near their bow. Slowly, it seemed too slowly, the prow of that boat turned. Then its boom began swinging as it was caught in the dead zone.

    A woman’s voice rose above the others, shrilling an almost unintelligible English at him. A man threw a spear at him, a useless and foolish action but one which would vent some of his anger. The weapon soared within a foot of Mix’s head and splashed into the water on the starboard.

    Mix glanced back. The pursuer had fallen into the trap. Now, if only he could keep from being caught in his own.

    His vessel slid by the boat to port, and the end of its boom almost struck the shrouds of the mast tied to the starboard edge of the deck. And then his boat was by.

    Behind him, the shouting and screaming increased. The crash of wood striking wood made him smile. He looked swiftly back. The big catamaran had smashed bows first into the side of the fishing boat on his right. It had turned the much smaller single-hulled bamboo vessel around at right angles to its former course. The crew of both boats had been knocked to the deck, including the steersmen. Three of Kramer’s men had gone over the side and were struggling in the water. Count them out. That left seven to deal with.

    Read the rest of Mix's adventure by downloading Riverworld and Other Stories today!

    Riverworld and Other Stories

    Featured images (top to bottom): Karsten Wurth / Unsplash; Anastasia Taioglou / Unsplash 

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