Wizard and Glass dt-4, Page 2Stephen King
“You said you wanted them right now” the gunslinger replied. “That was what I was refusing. Your eagerness has made you unseemly.”
“I DON’T UNDERSTAND.”
“It has made you rude. Do you understand that?”
There was a long, thoughtful silence. Centuries had passed since the computer had experienced any human responses other than ignorance, neglect, and superstitious subservience. It had been eons since it had been exposed to simple human courage. Finally: “IF WHAT I SAID STRUCK YOU AS RUDE, I APOLOGIZE.”
“It is accepted, Blaine. But there is a larger problem.”
“Close the carriage again and I will.” Roland sat down as if further argument-and the prospect of immediate death-was now unthinkable.
Blaine did as he was asked. The walls filled with color and the nightmare landscape below was once more blotted out. The blip on the route-map was now blinking close to the dot marked Candleton.
“All right,” Roland said. “Rudeness is forgivable, Blaine; so I was taught in my youth. But I was also taught that stupidity is not.”
“HOW HAVE I BEEN STUPID, ROLAND OF GILEAD?” Blame’s voice was soft and ominous. Susannah thought of a cat crouched outside a mouse-hole, tail swishing back and forth, green eyes shining with malevolence.
“We have something you want,” Roland said, “but the only reward you offer if we give it to you is death. That’s very stupid.”
There was a long, long pause as Blaine thought this over. Then: “WHAT YOU SAY IS TRUE, ROLAND OF GILEAD, BUT THE QUALITY OF YOUR RIDDLES IS NOT PROVEN. I WILL NOT REWARD YOU WITH YOUR LIVES FOR BAD RIDDLES.”
Roland nodded. “I understand, Blaine. Listen, now, and take understanding from me. I have told some of this to my friends already. When I was a boy in the Barony of Gilead, there were seven Fair-Days each year-Winter, Wide Earth, Sowing, Mid-Summer, Full Earth, Reaping, and Year’s End. Riddling was an important part of every Fair-Day, but it was the most important event of the Fair of Wide Earth and that of Full Earth, for the riddles told were supposed to augur well or ill for the success of the crops.”
“THAT IS SUPERSTITION WITH NO BASIS AT ALL IN FACT,” Blaine said. “I FIND IT ANNOYING AND UPSETTING.”
“Of course it was superstition,” Roland agreed, “but you might be surprised at how well the riddles foresaw the crops. For instance, riddle me this, Blaine: What is the difference between a grandmother and a granary?”
“THAT IS OLD AND NOT VERY INTERESTING,” Blaine said, but he sounded happy to have something to solve, just the same. “ONE IS ONE’S BORN KIN; THE OTHER IS ONE’S CORN-BIN. A RIDDLE
BASED ON PHONETIC COINCIDENCE. ANOTHER OF THIS TYPE, ONE TOLD ON THE LEVEL WHICH CONTAINS THE BARONY OF NEW YORK, GOES LIKE THIS: WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A CAT AND A COMPLEX SENTENCE?”
Jake spoke up. “I know. A cat has claws at the end of its paws, and a complex sentence has a pause at the end of its clause.”
“YES,” Blaine agreed. “A VERY SILLY OLD RIDDLE, USEFUL ONLY AS A MNEMONIC DEVICE.”
“For once I agree with you, Blaine old buddy,” Eddie said.
“I AM NOT YOUR BUDDY, EDDIE OF NEW YORK.”
“Well, jeez. Kiss my ass and go to heaven.”
“THERE IS NO HEAVEN.”
Eddie had no comeback for that one.
“I WOULD HEAR MORE OF FAIR-DAY RIDDLING IN GILEAD, ROLAND SON OF STEVEN.”
“At noon on Wide Earth and Full Earth, somewhere between sixteen and thirty riddlers would gather in the Hall of the Grandfathers, which was opened for the event. Those were the only times of year when common folk-merchants and farmers and ranchers and such-were allowed into the Hall of the Grandfathers, and on that day they all crowded in.”
The gunslinger’s eyes were far away and dreamy; it was the expression Jake had seen on his face in that misty other life, when Roland had told him of how he and his friends, Cuthbert and Jamie, had once sneaked into the balcony of that same Hall to watch some sort of dance-party. Jake and Roland had been climbing into the mountains when Roland had told him of that time, close on the trail of Walter.
Marten sat next to my mother and father, Roland had said. I knew them even from so high above-and once she and Marten danced, slowly and revolvingly, and the others cleared the floor for them and clapped when it was over. But the gunslingers did not clap…
Jake looked curiously at Roland, wondering again where this strange man had come from… and why.
“A great barrel was placed in the center of the floor,” Roland went on, “and into this each riddler would toss a handful of bark scrolls with riddles writ upon them. Many were old, riddles they had gotten from the elders-even from books, in some cases-but many others were new, made up for the occasion. Three judges, one always a gunslinger, would pass on these when they were told aloud, and they were accepted only if the judges deemed them fair.”
“YES, RIDDLES MUST BE FAIR,” Blaine agreed.
“So they riddled,” the gunslinger said. A faint smile touched his mouth as he thought of those days, days when he had been the age of the bruised boy sitting across from him with the billy-bumbler in his lap. “For hours on end they riddled. A line was formed down the center of the Hall of the Grandfathers. One’s position in this line was determined by lot, and since it was much better to be at the end of the line than at the head, everyone hoped for a high draw, although the winner had to answer at least one riddle correctly.
“Each man or woman-for some of Gilead’s best riddlers were women-approached the barrel, drew a riddle, and if the riddle was still unanswered after the sands in a three-minute glass had run out, that contestant had to leave the line.”
“AND WAS THE SAME RIDDLE ASKED OF THE NEXT PERSON IN THE LINE?”
“SO THE NEXT PERSON HAD EXTRA TIME TO THINK.”
“I SEE. IT SOUNDS PRETTY SWELL.”
Roland frowned. “Swell?”
“He means it sounds like fun,” Susannah said quietly.
Roland shrugged. “It was fun for the onlookers, I suppose, but the contestants took it very seriously. Quite often there were arguments and fistfights after the contest was over and the prize awarded.”
“WHAT PRIZE WAS THAT, ROLAND SON OF STEVEN?”
“The largest goose in Barony. And year after year my teacher, Cort, carried that goose home.”
“I WISH HE WERE HERE,” Blaine said respectfully. “HE MUST HAVE BEEN A GREAT RIDDLER.”
“Indeed he was,” Roland said. “Are you ready for my proposal, Blaine?”
“OF COURSE. I WILL LISTEN WITH GREAT INTEREST, ROLAND OF GILEAD.”
“Let these next few hours be our Fair-Day. You will not riddle us, for you wish to hear new riddles, not tell some of those millions you already know-”
“We couldn’t solve most of them, anyway,” Roland went on. “I’m sure you know riddles that would have stumped even Cort, had they been pulled out of the barrel.” He was not sure of it at all, but the time to use the fist had passed and the time to use the feather had come.
“OF COURSE,” Blaine agreed.
“Instead of a goose, our lives shall be the prize,” Roland said. “We will riddle you as we run, Blaine. If, when we come to Topeka, you have solved every one of our riddles, you may carry out your original plan and kill us. That is your goose. But if we pose you-if there is a riddle in either Jake’s book or one of our heads which you don’t know and can’t answer-you must take us to Topeka and then free us to pursue our quest. That is our goose.”
“Do you understand?”
“Do you agree?”
More silence from Blaine the Mono. Eddie sat stiffly with his arm around Susannah, looking up at the ceiling of the Barony Coach. Susannah’s left hand slipped across her belly, stroking the secret which might be hidden there. Jake str
oked Oy’s fur lightly, avoiding the bloody tangles where the bumbler had been stabbed. They waited while Blaine-the real Blaine, now far behind them, living his quasi-life beneath a city where all the inhabitants lay dead by his hand-considered Roland’s proposal.
“YES,” Blaine said at last. “I AGREE. IF I SOLVE ALL THE RIDDLES YOU ASK ME, I WILL TAKE YOU WITH ME TO THE PLACE WHERE THE PATH ENDS IN THE CLEARING. IF ONE OF YOU TELLS A RIDDLE I CANNOT SOLVE, I WILL SPARE YOUR LIVES AND LEAVE YOU IN TOPEKA, FROM WHENCE YOU MAY CONTINUE YOUR QUEST FOR THE DARK TOWER, IF YOU SO CHOOSE. HAVE I UNDERSTOOD THE TERMS AND LIMITS OF YOUR PROPOSAL CORRECTLY, ROLAND SON OF STEVEN?”
“VERY WELL, ROLAND OF GILEAD.
“VERY WELL, EDDIE OF NEW YORK.
“VERY WELL, SUSANNAH OF NEW YORK.
“VERY WELL, JAKE OF NEW YORK.
“VERY WELL, OY OF MID-WORLD.”
Oy looked up briefly at the sound of his name.
“YOU ARE KA-TET; ONE MADE FROM MANY. SO AM I. WHOSE KA-TET IS THE STRONGER IS SOMETHING WE MUST NOW PROVE.”
There was a moment of silence, broken only by the hard steady throb of the slo-trans turbines bearing them on across the waste lands, bearing them along the Path of the Beam toward Topeka, where Mid-World ended and End-World began.
“SO,” cried the voice of Blaine. “CAST YOUR NETS, WANDERERS! TRY ME WITH YOUR QUESTIONS, AND LET THE CONTEST BEGIN.”
BENEATH THE DEMON MOON (I)
The town of Candleton was a poisoned and irradiated ruin, but not dead; after all the centuries it still twitched with tenebrous life-trundling beetles the size of turtles, birds that looked like small, misshapen dragonlets, a few stumbling robots that passed in and out of the rotten buildings like stainless steel zombies, their joints squalling, their nuclear eyes flickering.
“Show your pass, pard!” cried the one that had been stuck in a corner of the lobby of the Candleton Travellers’ Hotel for the last two hundred and thirty-four years. Embossed on the rusty lozenge of its head was a six-pointed star. It had over the years managed to dig a shallow concavity in the steel-sheathed wall blocking its way, but that was all.
“Show your pass, pard! Elevated radiation levels possible south and east of town! Show your pass, pard! Elevated radiation levels possible south and east of town!”
A bloated rat, blind and dragging its guts behind it in a sac like a rotten placenta, struggled over the posse robot’s feet. The posse robot took no notice, just went on butting its steel head into the steel wall. “Show your pass, pard! Elevated radiation levels possible, dad rattit and gods cuss it!” Behind it, in the hotel bar, the skulls of men and women who had come in here for one last drink before the cataclysm caught up with them grinned as if they had died laughing. Perhaps some of them had.
When Blaine the Mono blammed overhead, running up the night like a bullet running up the barrel of a gun, windows broke, dust sifted down, and several of the skulls disintegrated like ancient pottery vases. Outside, a brief hurricane of radioactive dust blew up the street, and the hitching post in front of the Elegant Beef and Pork Restaurant was sucked into the squally updraft like smoke. In the town square, the Candleton Fountain split in two, spilling out not water but only dust, snakes, mutie scorpions, and a few of the blindly trundling turtle-beetles.
Then the shape which had hurtled above the town was gone as if it had never been, Candleton reverted to the mouldering activity which had been its substitute for life over the last two and a half centuries… and then the trailing sonic boom caught up, slamming its thunderclap above the town for the first time in seven years, causing enough vibration to tumble the mercantile store on the far side of the fountain. The posse robot tried to voice one final warning: “Elevated rad-” and then quit for good, facing into its corner like a child that has been bad.
Two or three hundred wheels outside Candleton, as one travelled along the Path of the Beam, the radiation levels and concentrations of DEP3 in the soil fell rapidly. Here the mono’s track swooped down to less than ten feet off the ground, and here a doe that looked almost normal walked prettily from piney woods to drink from a stream in which the water had three-quarters cleansed itself.
The doe was not normal-a stumpish fifth leg dangled down from the center of her lower belly like a teat, waggling bonelessly to and fro when she walked, and a blind third eye peered milkily from the left side of her muzzle. Yet she was fertile, and her DNA was in reasonably good order for a twelfth-generation mutie. In her six years of life she had given birth to three live young. Two of these fawns had been not just viable but normal-threaded stock, Aunt Talitha of River Crossing would have called them. The third, a skinless, bawling horror, had been killed quickly by its sire.
The world-this part of it, at any rate-had begun to heal itself.
The deer slipped her mouth into the water, began to drink, then looked up, eyes wide, muzzle dripping. Off in the distance she could hear a low humming sound. A moment later it was joined by an eyelash of light. Alarm flared in the doe’s nerves, but although her reflexes were fast and the light when first glimpsed was still many wheels away across the desolate countryside, there was never a chance for her to escape. Before she could even begin to fire her muscles, the distant spark had swelled to a searing wolf’s eye of light that flooded the stream and the clearing with its glare. With the light came the maddening hum of Blaine’s slo-trans engines, running at full capacity. There was a blur of pink above the concrete ridge which bore the rail; a rooster-tail of dust, stones, small dismembered animals, and whirling foliage followed along after. The doe was killed instantly by the concussion of Blaine’s passage. Too large to be sucked in the mono’s wake, she was still yanked forward almost seventy yards, with water dripping from her muzzle and hoofs. Much of her hide (and the boneless fifth leg) was torn from her body and pulled after Blaine like a discarded garment.
There was brief silence, thin as new skin or early ice on a Year’s End pond, and then the sonic boom came rushing after like some noisy creature late for a wedding-feast, tearing the silence apart, knocking a single mutated bird-it might have been a raven-dead out of the air. The bird fell like a stone and splashed into the stream.
In the distance, a dwindling red eye: Blaine’s taillight.
Overhead, a full moon came out from behind a scrim of cloud, painting the clearing and the stream in the tawdry hues of pawnshop jewelry. There was a face in the moon, but not one upon which lovers would wish to look. It seemed the scant face of a skull, like those in the Candleton Travellers’ Hotel; a face which looked upon those few beings still alive and struggling below with the amusement of a lunatic. In Gilead, before the world had moved on, the full moon of Year’s End had been called the Demon Moon, and it was considered ill luck to look directly at it.
Now, however, such did not matter. Now there were demons everywhere.
Susannah looked at the route-map and saw that the green dot marking their present position was now almost halfway between Candleton and Rilea, Blaine’s next stop. Except who’s stopping? she thought.
From the route-map she turned to Eddie. His gaze was still directed up at the ceiling of the Barony Coach. She followed it and saw a square which could only be a trapdoor (except when you were dealing with futuristic shit like a talking train, she supposed you called it a hatch, or something even cooler). Stencilled on it was a simple red drawing which showed a man stepping through the opening. Susannah tried to imagine following the implied instruction and popping up through that hatch at over eight hundred miles an hour. She got a quick but clear image of a woman’s head being ripped from her neck like a flower from its stalk; she saw the head flying backward along the length of the Barony Coach, perhaps bouncing once, and then disappearing into the dark, eyes staring and hair rippling.
She pushed the picture away as fast as she could. The hatch up there was almost certain
ly locked shut, anyway. Blaine the Mono had no intention of letting them go. They might win their way out, but Susannah didn’t think that was a sure thing even if they managed to stump Blaine with a riddle.
Sorry to say this, but you sound like just one more honky motherfucker to me, honey, she thought in a mental voice that was not quite Detta Walker’s. I don’t trust your mechanical ass. You apt to be more dangerous beaten than with the blue ribbon pinned to your memory banks.
Jake was holding his tattered book of riddles out to the gunslinger as if he no longer wanted the responsibility of carrying it. Susannah knew how the kid must feel; their lives might very well be in those grimy, well-thumbed pages. She wasn’t sure she would want the responsibility of holding onto it, either.
“Roland!” Jake whispered. “Do you want this?”
“Ont!” Oy said, giving the gunslinger a forbidding glance. “Olan-ont-iss!” The bumbler fixed his teeth on the book, took it from Jake’s hand, and stretched his disproportionately long neck toward Roland, offering him Riddle-De-Dum! Brain-Twisters and Puzzles for Everyone!
Roland glanced at it for a moment, his face distant and preoccupied, then shook his head. “Not yet.” He looked forward at the route-map. Blaine had no face, so the map had to serve them as a fixing-point. The flashing green dot was closer to Rilea now. Susannah wondered briefly what the countryside through which they were passing looked like, and decided she didn’t really want to know. Not after what they’d seen as they left the city of Lud.
“Blaine!” Roland called.
“Can you leave the room? We need to confer.”
You nuts if you think he’s gonna do that, Susannah thought, but Blaine’s reply was quick and eager.
“YES, GUNSLINGER. I WILL TURN OFF ALL MY SENSORS IN THE BARONY COACH. WHEN YOUR CONFERENCE IS DONE AND YOU ARE READY TO BEGIN THE RIDDLING, I WILL RETURN.”