The Gunslinger

It happened. He drifted over endless seas. Above, the stars twinkled endlessly, yet he saw none of the constellations which had guided him across his long life.

"Land," the man in black invited, and there was; it heaved itself out of the water in endless, galvanic convulsions. It was red, arid, cracked and glazed with sterility. Volcanoes blurted endless magma like giant pimples on some ugly adolescent's baseball head.

"Okay," the man in black was saying. "That's a start. Let's have some plants. Trees. Grass and fields."

There was. Dinosaurs rambled here and there, growling and whoofing and eating each other and getting stuck in bubbling, odiferous tarpits. Huge tropical rain-forests sprawled everywhere. Giant ferns waved at the sky with serrated leaves. Beetles with two heads crawled on some of them. All this the gunslinger saw. And yet he felt big.

"Now bring man," the man in black said softly, but the gunslinger was falling . . . falling up. The horizon of this vast and fecund earth began to curve. Yes, they had all said it curved, his teacher Vannay had claimed it had been proved long before the world had moved on. But this--

Further and further, higher and higher. Continents took shape before his amazed eyes, and were obscured with clocksprings of clouds. The world's atmosphere held it in a placental sac. And the sun, rising beyond the earth's shoulder--

He cried out and threw an arm before his eyes.

"Let there be light!"

The voice no longer belonged to the man in black. It was gigantic, echoing. It filled space, and the spaces between space.

"Light!"

Falling, falling.

The sun shrank. A red planet stamped with canals whirled past him, two moons circling it furiously. Beyond this was a whirling belt of stones and a gigantic planet that seethed with gases, too huge to support itself, oblate in consequence. Further out was a ringed world that glittered like a precious gem within its engirdlement of icy spicules.

"Light! Let there be--"

Other worlds, one, two, three. Far beyond the last, one lonely ball of ice and rock twirled in dead darkness about a sun that glittered no brighter than a tarnished penny.

Beyond this, darkness.

"No," the gunslinger said, and his word on it was flat and echoless in the black. It was darker than dark, blacker than black. Beside this, the darkest night of a man's soul was as noonday, the darkness under the mountains a mere smudge on the face of Light. "No more. Please, no more now. No more--"

"LIGHT!"

"No more. No more, please--"

The stars themselves began to shrink. Whole nebulae drew together and became glowing smudges. The whole universe seemed to be drawing around him.

"Please no more no more no more--"

The voice of the man in black whispered silkily in his ear: "Then renege. Cast away all thoughts of the Tower. Go your way, gunslinger, and begin the long job of saving your soul."

He gathered himself. Shaken and alone, enwrapt in the darkness, terrified of an ultimate meaning rushing at him, he gathered himself and uttered the final answer on that subject:

"NEVER!"

"THEN LET THERE BE LIGHT!"

And there was light, crashing in on him like a hammer, a great and primordial light. Consciousness had no chance of survival in that great glare, but before it perished, the gunslinger saw something clearly, something he believed to be of cosmic importance. He clutched it with agonized effort and then went deep, seeking refuge in himself before that light should blind his eyes and blast his sanity.

He fled the light and the knowledge the light implied, and so came back to himself. Even so do the rest of us; even so the best of us.





IV


It was still night--whether the same or another, he had no immediate way of knowing. He pushed himself up from where his demon spring at the man in black had carried him and looked at the ironwood where Walter o' Dim (as some along Roland's way had named him) had been sitting. He was gone.

A great sense of despair flooded him--God, all that to do over again--and then the man in black said from behind him: "Over here, gunslinger. I don't like you so close. You talk in your sleep." He tittered.

The gunslinger got groggily to his knees and turned around. The fire had burned down to red embers and gray ashes, leaving the familiar decayed pattern of exhausted fuel. The man in black was seated next to it, smacking his lips with unlovely enthusiasm over the greasy remains of the rabbit.

"You did fairly well," the man in black said. "I never could have sent that vision to your father. He would have come back drooling."

"What was it?" the gunslinger asked. His words were blurred and shaky. He felt that if he tried to rise, his legs would buckle.

"The universe," the man in black said carelessly. He burped and threw the bones into the fire where they first glistened and then blackened. The wind above the cup of the golgotha keened and moaned.

"Universe?" the gunslinger said blankly. It was a word with which he was unfamiliar. His first thought was that the other was speaking poetry.

"You want the Tower," the man in black said. It seemed to be a question.

"Yes."

"Well, you shan't have it," the man in black said, and smiled with bright cruelty. "No one cares in the counsels of the great if you pawn your soul or sell it outright, Roland. I have an idea of how close to the edge that last pushed you. The Tower will kill you half a world away."

"You know nothing of me," the gunslinger said quietly, and the smile faded from the other's lips.

"I made your father and I broke him," the man in black said grimly. "I came to your mother as Marten--there's a truth you always suspected, is it not?--and took her. She bent beneath me like a willow . . . although (this may comfort you) she never broke. In any case it was written, and it was. I am the furthest minion of he who now rules the Dark Tower, and Earth has been given into that king's red hand."

"Red? Why do you say red?"

"Never mind. We'll not speak of him, although you'll learn more than you cared to if you press on. What hurt you once will hurt you twice. This is not the beginning but the beginning's end. You'd do well to remember that . . . but you never do."

"I don't understand."

"No. You don't. You never did. You never will. You have no imagination. You're blind that way."

"What did I see?" the gunslinger asked. "What did I see at the end? What was it?"

"What did it seem to be?"

The gunslinger was silent, thoughtful. He felt for his tobacco, but there was none. The man in black did not offer to refill his poke by either black magic or white. Later he might find more in his grow-bag, but later seemed very far away now.

"There was light," the gunslinger said finally. "Great white light. And then--" He broke off and stared at the man in black. He was leaning forward, and an alien emotion was stamped on his face, writ too large for lies or denial. It was awe or wonder. Perhaps they were the same.

"You don't know," he said, and began to smile. "O great sorcerer who brings the dead to life. You don't know. You're a fake!"

"I know," the man in black said. "But I don't know . . . what."

"White light," the gunslinger repeated. "And then--a blade of grass. One single blade of grass that filled everything. And I was tiny. Infinitesimal."

"Grass." The man in black closed his eyes. His face looked drawn and haggard. "A blade of grass. Are you sure?"

"Yes." The gunslinger frowned. "But it was purple."

"Hear me now, Roland, son of Steven. Would you hear me?"

"Yes."

And so the man in black began to speak.





V


The universe (he said) is the Great All, and offers a paradox too great for the finite mind to grasp. As the living brain cannot conceive of a nonliving brain--although it may think it can--the finite mind cannot grasp the infinite.

The prosaic fact of the universe's existence alone defeats both the pragmatist and the romantic. There was a time, yet a hundred generations before the world moved on, when mankind had achieved enough technical and scientific prowess to chip a few splinters from the great stone pillar of reality. Even so, the false light of science (knowledge, if you like) shone in only a few developed countries. One company (or cabal) led the way in this regard; North Central Positronics, it called itself. Yet, despite a tremendous increase in available facts, there were remarkably few insights.

"Gunslinger, our many-times-great grandfathers conquered the-disease-which-rots, which they called cancer, almost conquered aging, walked on the moon--"

"I don't believe that," the gunslinger said flatly.

To this the man in black merely smiled and answered, "You needn't. Yet it was so. They made or discovered a hundred other marvelous baubles. But this wealth of information produced little or no insight. There were no great odes written to the wonders of artificial insemination--having babies from frozen mansperm--or to the cars that ran on power from the sun. Few if any seemed to have grasped the truest principle of reality: new knowledge leads always to yet more awesome mysteries. Greater physiological knowledge of the brain makes the existence of the soul less possible yet more probable by the nature of the search. Do you see? Of course you don't. You've reached the limits of your ability to comprehend. But never mind--that's beside the point."

"What is the point, then?"

"The greatest mystery the universe offers is not life but size. Size encompasses life, and the Tower encompasses size. The child, who is most at home with wonder, says: Daddy, what is above the sky? And the father says: The darkness of space. The child: What is beyond space? The father: The galaxy. The child: Beyond the galaxy? The father: Another galaxy. The child: Beyond the other galaxies? The father: No one knows.

"You see? Size defeats us. For the fish, the lake in which he lives is the universe. What does the fish think when he is jerked up by the mouth through the silver limits of existence and into a new universe where the air drowns him and the light is blue madness? Where huge bipeds with no gills stuff it into a suffocating box and cover it with wet weeds to die?

"Or one might take the tip of a pencil and magnify it. One reaches the point where a stunning realization strikes home: The pencil-tip is not solid; it is composed of atoms which whirl and revolve like a trillion demon planets. What seems solid to us is actually only a loose net held together by gravity. Viewed at their actual size, the distances between these atoms might become leagues, gulfs, aeons. The atoms themselves are composed of nuclei and revolving protons and electrons. One may step down further to subatomic particles. And then to what? Tachyons? Nothing? Of course not. Everything in the universe denies nothing; to suggest an ending is the one absurdity.

"If you fell outward to the limit of the universe, would you find a board fence and signs reading DEAD END? No. You might find something hard and rounded, as the chick must see the egg from the inside. And if you should peck through that shell (or find a door), what great and torrential light might shine through your opening at the end of space? Might you look through and discover our entire universe is but part of one atom on a blade of grass? Might you be forced to think that by burning a twig you incinerate an eternity of eternities? That existence rises not to one infinite but to an infinity of them?

"Perhaps you saw what place our universe plays in the scheme of things--as no more than an atom in a blade of grass. Could it be that everything we can perceive, from the microscopic virus to the distant Horsehead Nebula, is contained in one blade of grass that may have existed for only a single season in an alien time-flow? What if that blade should be cut off by a scythe? When it begins to die, would the rot seep into our own universe and our own lives, turning everything yellow and brown and desiccated? Perhaps it's already begun to happen. We say the world has moved on; maybe we really mean that it has begun to dry up.

"Think how small such a concept of things makes us, gunslinger! If a God watches over it all, does He actually mete out justice for a race of gnats among an infinitude of races of gnats? Does His eye see the sparrow fall when the sparrow is less than a speck of hydrogen floating disconnected in the depth of space? And if He does see . . . what must the nature of such a God be? Where does He live? How is it possible to live beyond infinity?

"Imagine the sand of the Mohaine Desert, which you crossed to find me, and imagine a trillion universes--not worlds but universes--encapsulated in each grain of that desert; and within each universe an infinity of others. We tower over these universes from our pitiful grass vantage point; with one swing of your boot you may knock a billion billion worlds flying off into darkness, in a chain never to be completed.

"Size, gunslinger . . . size . . .

"Yet suppose further. Suppose that all worlds, all universes, met in a single nexus, a single pylon, a Tower. And within it, a stairway, perhaps rising to the Godhead itself. Would you dare climb to the top, gunslinger? Could it be that somewhere above all of endless reality, there exists a Room? . . .

"You dare not."

And in the gunslinger's mind, those words echoed: You dare not.





VI


"Someone has dared," the gunslinger said.

"Who would that be?"

"God," the gunslinger said softly. His eyes gleamed. "God has dared . . . or the king you spoke of . . . or . . . is the room empty, seer?"

"I don't know." Fear passed over the man in black's bland face, as soft and dark as a buzzard's wing. "And, furthermore, I don't ask. It might be unwise."

"Afraid of being struck dead?"

"Perhaps afraid of . . . an accounting."

The man in black was silent for a while. The night was very long. The Milky Way sprawled above them in great splendor, yet terrifying in the emptiness between its burning lamps. The gunslinger wondered what he would feel if that inky sky should split open and let in a torrent of light.

"The fire," he said. "I'm cold."

"Build it up yourself," said the man in black. "It's the butler's night off."





VII


The gunslinger drowsed awhile and awoke to see the man in black regarding him avidly, unhealthily.

"What are you staring at?" An old saying of Cort's occurred to him. "Do you see your sister's bum?"

"I'm staring at you, of course."

"Well, don't." He poked up the fire, ruining the precision of the ideogram. "I don't like it." He looked to the east to see if there was the beginning of light, but this night went on and on.

"You seek the light so soon."

"I was made for light."

"Ah, so you were! And so impolite of me to forget the fact! Yet we have much to discuss yet, you and I. For so has it been told to me by my king and master."

"Who is this king?"

The man in black smiled. "Shall we tell the truth then, you and I? No more lies?"

"I thought we had been."

But the man in black persisted as if Roland hadn't spoken. "Shall there be truth between us, as two men? Not as friends, but as equals? There is an offer you will get rarely, Roland. Only equals speak the truth, that's my thought on't. Friends and lovers lie endlessly, caught in the web of regard. How tiresome!"

"Well, I wouldn't want to tire you, so let us speak the truth." He had never spoken less on this night. "Start by telling me what exactly you mean by glammer."

"Why, enchantment, gunslinger! My king's enchantment has prolonged this night and will prolong it until our palaver is done."

"How long will that be?"

"Long. I can tell you no better. I do not know myself." The man in black stood over the fire, and the glowing embers made patterns on his face. "Ask. I will tell you what I know. You have caught me. It is fair; I did not think you would. Yet your quest has only begun. Ask. It will lead us to business soon enough."

"Who is your king?"

"I have never seen him, but you must. But before you meet him, you must first meet the Ageless Stranger." The man in black smiled spitelessly. "You must slay him, gunslinger. Yet I think it is not what you wished to ask."

"If you've never seen your king and master, how do you know him?"

"He comes to me in dreams. As a stripling he came to me, when I lived, poor and unknown, in a far land. A sheaf of centuries ago he imbued me with my duty and promised me my reward, although there were many errands in my youth and the days of my manhood, before my apotheosis. You are that apotheosis, gunslinger. You are my climax." He tittered. "You see, someone has taken you seriously."

"And this Stranger, does he have a name?"

"O, he is named."

"And what is his name?"

"Legion," the man in black said softly, and somewhere in the easterly darkness where the mountains lay, a rockslide punctuated his words and a puma screamed like a woman. The gunslinger shivered and the man in black flinched. "Yet I do not think that is what you wished to ask, either. It is not your nature to think so far ahead."

The gunslinger knew the question; it had gnawed him all this night, and he thought, for years before. It trembled on his lips but he didn't ask it . . . not yet.

"This Stranger is a minion of the Tower? Like yourself?"

"Yar. He darkles. He tincts. He is in all times. Yet there is one greater than he."

"Who?"

"Ask me no more!" the man in black cried. His voice aspired to sternness and crumbled into beseechment. "I know not! I do not wish to know. To speak of the things in End-World is to speak of the ruination of one's own soul."

"And beyond the Ageless Stranger is the Tower and whatever the Tower contains?"

"Yes," whispered the man in black. "But none of these things are what you wish to ask."

True.

"All right," the gunslinger said, and then asked the world's oldest question. "Will I succeed? Will I win through?"

"If I answered that question, gunslinger, you'd kill me."

"I ought to kill you. You need killing." His hands had dropped to the worn butts of his guns.

"Those do not open doors, gunslinger; those only close them forever."

"Where must I go?"

"Start west. Go to the sea. Where the world ends is where you must begin. There was a man who gave you advice . . . the man you bested so long ago--"

"Yes, Cort," the gunslinger interrupted impatiently.

"The advice was to wait. It was
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