Against his will, his eyes closed, and his lips refused to obey his desire to protest. Fatigue dulled his thoughts. But for a moment, he went on pondering. Somebody from the future--this could never be the past--had somehow pulled him out just ahead of the accident, apparently; or else he'd been deep frozen somehow to wait for medical knowledge beyond that of his own time. He'd heard it might be possible to do that.
It was a cockeyed future, if this were the future. Still, if scientists had to set up some, sort of a religious mumbo-jumbo....
Sickness thickened in him, until he could feel his face wet with perspiration. But with it had come a paralysis that left him unable to move or groan. He screamed inside himself.
"Poor mandrake-man," the girl said softly. "Go back to Lethe. But don't cross over. We need you sorely."
Then he passed out again.
Whatever they had done to patch him up hadn't been very successful, apparently. He spent most of the time in a delirium; sometimes he was dead, and there was an ultimate coldness like the universe long after the entropy death. At other times, he was wandering into fantasies that were all horrible. And at all times, even in unconsciousness, he seemed to be fighting desperately to keep from falling apart painfully within himself.
When he was awake, the girl was always beside him. He learned that her name was Nema. Usually there was also the stout figure of Ser Perth. Sometimes he saw Sather Karf or some other older man working with strange equipment, or with things that looked like familiar hypodermics and medical equipment. Once they had an iron lung around him and there was a thin wisp over his face.
He started to brush it aside, but Nema's hand restrained him. "Don't disturb the sylph," she ordered.
Another semirational period occurred during some excitement or danger that centered around him. He was still half delirious, but he could see men working frantically to build a net of something around his bed, while a wet, thick thing flopped and drooled beyond the door, apparently immune to the attacks of the hospital staff. There were shouting orders involving the undine. The salamander in Dave's chest crept deeper and seemed to bleat at each cry of the monstrous thing beyond the door.
Sather Karf sat hunched over what seemed to be a bowl of water, paying no attention to the struggle. Something that he seemed to see there held his attention. Then he screamed suddenly.
"The Sons of the Egg. It's their sending!"
He reached for a brazier beside him, caught up the fire and plunged it deep into the bowl of water, screaming something. There was the sound of an explosion from far away as he drew his hands out, unwet by the water. Abruptly the undine began a slow retreat. In Dave's chest, the salamander began purring again, and he drifted back into his coma.
He tried to ask Nema about it later when she was feeding him, but she brushed it aside.
"An orderly let out the news that you are here," she said. "But don't worry. We've sent out a doppelganger to fool the Sons, and the orderly has been sentenced to slavery under the pyramid builder for twenty lifetimes. I hate my brother! How dare he fight us with the sky falling?"
Later, the delirium seemed to pass completely, but Dave took no comfort from that. In its place came a feeling of gloom and apathy. He slept most of the time, as if not daring to use his little strength even to think.
Ser Perth stayed near him most of the time now. The man was obviously worried, but tried not to show it. "We've managed to get some testosterone from a blond homunculus," he reported. "That should put you on your feet in no time. Don't worry, young man we'll keep you vivified somehow until the Sign changes." But he didn't sound convincing.
"Everyone is chanting for you," Nema told him. "All over the world, the chants go up."
It meant nothing to him, but it sounded friendly. A whole world hoping for him to get well! He cheered up a bit at that until he found out that the chants were compulsory, and had nothing to do with goodwill.
The iron lung was back the next time he came to, and he was being tugged toward it. He noticed this time that there was no sylph, and his breathing seemed to be no worse than usual. But the sight of the two orderlies and the man in medical uniform beside the lung reassured him. Whatever their methods, he was convinced that they were doing their best for him here.
He tried to help them get him into the lung, and one of the men nodded encouragingly. But Dave was too weak to give much assistance. He glanced about for Nema, but she was out on one of her infrequent other duties. He sighed, wishing desperately that she were with him. She was a lot more proficient than the orderlies.
The man in medical robe turned toward him sharply. "Stop that!" he ordered.
Before Dave could ask what he was to stop, Nema came rushing into the room. Her face paled as she saw the three men, and she gasped, throwing up her hand in a protective gesture.
The two orderlies jumped for her, one grabbing her and the other closing his hands over her mouth. She struggled violently, but the men were too strong for her.
The man in doctor's robes shoved the iron lung aside violently and reached into his clothing. From it, he drew a strange, double-bladed knife. He swung toward Dave, raising the knife into striking position and aiming it at Dave's heart.
"The Egg breaks," he intoned hollowly. It was a cultured voice, and there was a refinement to his face that registered on Dave's mind even over the horror of the weapon. "The fools cannot hold the shell. But neither shall they delay its breaking. Dead you were, mandrake son, and dead you shall be again. But since the fault is only theirs, may no ill dreams follow you beyond Lethe!"
The knife started down, just as Nema managed to break free. She shrieked out a phrase of keening command. The salamander suddenly broke from Dave's chest, glowing brighter as it rose toward the face of the attacker. It was like a bit from the center of a star. The man jumped back, beginning a frantic ritual. He was too late. The salamander hit him, sank into him and shone through him. Then he slumped, steamed ... and was nothing but dust falling toward the carpet. The salamander turned, heading toward the others. But it was to Nema it went, rather than the two men. She was trying something desperately, but fear was thick on her face, and her hands were unsure.
Abruptly, Sather Karf was in the doorway. His hand lifted, his fingers dancing. Words hissed from his lips in a stream of sibilants too quick for Dave to catch. The salamander paused and began to shrink doubtfully. Sather Karf turned, and again his hands writhed in the air. One hand darted back and forward, as if he were throwing something. Again he made the gesture. With each throw, one of the false orderlies dropped to the floor, clutching at a neck where the skin showed marks of constriction as if a steel cord were tightening. They died slowly, their eyes bulging and faces turning blue. Now the salamander moved toward them, directed apparently by slight motions from Sather Karf. In a few moments, there was no sign of them.
The old man sighed, his face slumping into lines of fatigue and age. He caught his breath. He held out a hand to the salamander, petted it to a gentle glow and put it back over Dave's chest.
"Good work, Nema," he said wearily. "You're too weak to control the salamander, but this was done well in the emergency. I saw them in the pool, but I was almost too late. The damned fanatics. Superstition in this day and age!"
He swung to face Dave, whose vocal cords were still taut with the shock of the sight of the knife. "Don't worry, Dave Hanson. From now on, every Ser and Sather will protect you with the lower and the upper magic. The House changes tomorrow, if the sky permits, and we shall shield you until then. We didn't bring you back from the dead, piecing your scattered atoms together with your scattered revenant particle by particle, to have you killed again. Somehow, we'll incarnate you fully! You have my word for that."
"Dead?" Dave had grown numbed to his past during the long illness, but that brought it back afresh. "Then I was killed? I wasn't just frozen and brought here by some time machine?"
Sather Karf stared at him blankly. "Time machine? Impossible. Of course not. After the tractor killed you, and you were buried, what good would such fantasies be, even if they existed? No, we simply reincarnated you by pooling our magic. Though it was a hazardous and parlous thing, with the sky falling...."
He sighed and went out, while Dave went back to his delirium.
There was no delirium when he awoke in the morning. Instead, there was only a feeling of buoyant health. In fact, Dave Hanson had never felt that good in his life--or his former life. He reconsidered his belief that there was no delirium, wondering if the feeling were not itself a form of hallucination. But it was too genuine. He knew without question that he was well.
It shouldn't have been true. During the night, he'd partially awakened in agony to find Nema chanting and gesturing desperately beside him, and he'd been sure he was on the verge of his second death. He could remember one moment, just before midnight, when she had stopped and seemed to give up hope. Then she'd braced herself and begun some ritual as if she were afraid to try it. Beyond that, he had no memory of pain.
Nema came into the room now, touching his shoulder gently. She smiled and nodded at him. "Good morning, Sagittarian. Get out of bed."
Expecting the worst, he swung his feet over the side and sat up. After so much time in bed, even a well man should be rendered weak and shaky. But there was no dizziness, no sign of weakness. He had made a most remarkable recovery, and Nema didn't even seem surprised. He tentatively touched foot to floor and half stood, propping himself against the high bed.
"Come on," Nema said impatiently. "You're all right now. We entered your sign during the night." She turned her back on him and took something from a chest beside the bed. "Ser Perth will be here in a moment. He'll want to find you on your feet and dressed."
Hanson was beginning to feel annoyance at the suddenly cocksure and unsympathetic girl, but he stood fully erect and flexed his muscles. There wasn't even a trace of bedsoreness, though he had been flat on his back long enough to grow callouses. And as he examined himself, he could find no scars or signs of injuries from the impact of the bulldozer--if there had ever really been a bulldozer.
He grimaced at his own doubts. "Where am I, anyhow, Nema?"
The girl dumped an armload of clothing on his bed and looked at him with controlled exasperation. "Dave Hanson," she told him, "don't you know any other words? That's the millionth time you've asked me that, at least. And for the hundredth time, I'll tell you that you're here. Look around you; see for yourself. I'm tired of playing nursemaid to you." She picked up a shirt of heavy-duty khaki from the pile on the bed and handed it to him. "Get into this," she ordered. "Dress first, talk later."
She stalked out of the room.
Dave did as she had ordered, busy with his own thoughts as he discovered what he was to wear. He was still wearing something with a vague resemblance to a short hospital gown, with green pentacles and some plant symbol woven into it, and with a clasp to hold it together shaped into a silver crux ansata. He took it off and hurled it into a corner disgustedly.
He picked up the khaki shirt and put it on; then, with growing curiosity, the rest of the garments, until he came to the shoes. Khaki shirt, khaki breeches, a wide, webbed belt, a flat-brimmed hat. And the shoes--they weren't shoes, but knee-length leather boots, like a dressy version of lumberman's boots or a rougher version of riding boots. He hadn't seen even pictures of such things since the few silent movies run in some of the little art theaters. He struggled to get them on. They were an excellent fit, and comfortable enough, but he felt as if his legs were encased in hardened concrete when he was through. He looked down at himself in disgust. He was in all respects costumed as the epitome of the Hollywood dream of a heroic engineer-builder, ready to drive a canal through an isthmus or throw a dam across a raging river--the kind who'd build the dam while the river raged, instead of waiting until it was quiet, a few days later. He was about as far from the appearance of the actual blue-denim, leather-jacket engineers he had worked with as Maori in ancient battle array.
He shook his head and went looking for the bathroom, where there might be a mirror. He found a door, but it led into a closet, filled with alembics and other equipment. There was a mirror hung on the back of it, however, with a big sign over it that said "Keep Out." He threw the door wide and stared at himself. At first, in spite of the costume, he was pleased. Then the truth began to hit him, and he felt abruptly sure he was still raging with fever and delirium.
He was still staring when Nema came back into the room. She pursed her lips and shut the door quickly. But he'd already seen enough.
"Never mind where I am," he said. "Tell me, who am I?"
She stared at him. "You're Dave Hanson."
"The hell I am," he told her. "Oh, that's what I remember my father having me christened as. He hated long names. But take a good look at me. I've been shaving my face for years now, and I should know it. That face in the mirror wasn't it! There's a resemblance. But a darned faint one. Change the chin, lengthen my nose, make the eyes brown instead of blue, and it might be me. But Dave Hanson's at least five inches shorter and fifty pounds lighter, too. Maybe the face is plastic surgery after the accident--but this isn't even my body."
The girl's expression softened. "I'm sorry, Dave Hanson," she said gently. "We should have thought to warn you. You were a difficult conjuration--and even the easier ones often go wrong these days. We did our best, though it may be that the auspices were too strong on the soma. I'm sorry if you don't like the way you look. But there's nothing we can do about it now."
Hanson opened the door again, in spite of Nema's quick frown, and looked at himself. "Well," he admitted, "I guess it could be worse. In fact, I guess it was worse--once I get used to looking like this, I think I'll get to like it. But seeing it was a heck of a thing to take for a sick man."
Nema said sharply, "Are you sick?"
"Well--I guess not."
"Then why say you are? You shouldn't be; I told you we've entered the House of Sagittarius now. You can't be sick in your own sign. Don't you understand even that much elementary science?"
Hanson didn't get a chance to answer. Ser Perth was suddenly in the doorway, dressed in a different type of robe. This was short and somehow conservative--it had a sincere, executive look about it. The man seemed changed in other ways, too. But Dave wasn't concerned about that. He was growing tired of the way people suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Maybe they all wore rubber-soled shoes or practiced sneaking about; it was a silly way for grown people to act.
"Come with me, Dave Hanson," Ser Perth ordered, without wasting words. He spoke in a clipped manner now.
Dave followed, grumbling in his mind. It was even sillier than their sneaking about for them to expect him to start running around before they bothered to check the condition of a man fresh out of his death bed. In any of the hospitals he had known, there would have been hours or days of X-rays and blood tests and temperature taking before he would be released. These people simply decided a man was well and ordered him out.
To do them justice, however, he had to admit that they seemed to be right. He had never felt better. The twaddle about Sagittarius would have to be cleared up sometime, but meanwhile he was in pretty good shape. Sagittarius, as he remembered it, was supposed to be one of the signs of the Zodiac. Bertha had been something of a sucker for astrology and had found he was born under that sign before she agreed to their little good-by party. He snorted to himself. It had done her a heck of a lot of good, which was to be expected of such nonsense.
They passed down a dim corridor and Ser Perth turned in at a door. Inside there was a single-chair barber shop, with a barber who might also have come from some movie-casting office. He had the proper wavy black hair and rat-tailed comb stuck into a slightly dirty off-white jacket. He also had the half-obsequious, half-insulting manner Dave had found most people expected from their barbers. While he shaved and trimmed Dave, he made insultingly solicitous comments about Dave's skin needing a massage, suggested a tonic for thinning hair and practically insisted on a singe. Ser Perth watched with a mixture of intentness and amusement. The barber trimmed the tufts from over Dave's ears and clipped the hair in his nose, while a tray was pushed up and a slatternly blonde began giving him a manicure.
He began noticing that she carefully dumped his fingernail parings into a small jar. A few moments later, he found the barber also using a jar to collect the hair and shaving stubble. Ser Perth was also interested in that, it seemed, since his eyes followed that part of the operation. Dave frowned, and then relaxed. After all, this was a hospital barber shop, and they probably had some rigid rules about sanitation, though he hadn't seen much other evidence of such care.
The barber finally removed the cloth with a snap and bowed. "Come again, sir," he said.
Ser Perth stood up and motioned for Dave to follow. He turned to look in a mirror, and caught sight of the barber handing the bottles and jars of waste hair and nail clippings to a girl. He saw only her back, but it looked like Nema.
Something stirred in his mind then. He'd read something somewhere about hair clippings and nail parings being used for some strange purpose. And there'd been something about spittle. But they hadn't collected that. Or had they? He'd been unconscious long enough for them to have gathered any amount they wanted. It all had something to do with some kind of mumbo-jumbo, and....
Ser Perth had led him through the same door by which they'd entered--but not into the same hallway. Dave's mind dropped the other thoughts as he tried to cope with the realization that this was another corridor. It was brightly lit, and there was a scarlet carpet on the floor. Also, it was a short hall, requiring only a few steps before they came to a bigger door, elaborately enscrolled. Ser Perth bent before it, and the door opened silently while he and Dave entered.
The room was large and sparsely furnished. Sitting cross-legged on a cushion near the door was Nema, juggling something in her hands. It looked like a cluster of colored threads, partly woven into a rather garish pattern. On a raised bench between two windows sat the old figure of Sather Karf, resting his chin on hands that held a staff and staring at Dave intently.
Dave stopped as the door closed behind him. Sather Karf nodded, as if satisfied, and Nema tied a complex knot in the threads, then paused silently.
Sather Karf looked far less well than when Dave had last seen him. He seemed older and more shriveled, and there was a querulous, pinched expression in place of the firmness and almost nobility Dave had come to expect. His old eyes bored into the younger man, and he nodded. His voice had a faint quaver now. "All right. You're not much to look at, but you're the best we could find in the Ways we can reach. Come here, Dave Hanson."
The command was still there, however petty the man seemed now. Dave started to phrase some protest, when he found his legs taking him forward to stop in front of Sather Karf, like some clockwork man whose lever has been pushed. He stood in front of the raised bench, noticing that the spot had been chosen to highlight him in the sunset light from the windows. He listened while the old man talked.
Sather Karf began without preamble, stating things in a dry voice as if reading off a list of obvious facts.
"You were dead, Dave Hanson. Dead, buried, and scattered by time and chance until even the place where you lay was forgotten. In your own world, you were nothing. Now you are alive, through the effort of men here whose work you could not even dream of. We have created you, Dave Hanson. Remember that, and forget the ties to any other world, since that world no longer holds you."
Dave nodded slowly. It was hard to swallow, but there were too many things here that couldn't be in any world he had known. And his memory of dying was the clearest memory he had. "All right," he admitted. "You saved my life--or something. And I'll try to remember it. But if this isn't my world, what world is it?"
"The only world, perhaps. It doesn't matter." The old man sighed, and for a moment the eyes were shrouded in speculation, as if he were following some strange by-ways of his own thoughts. Then he shrugged. "It's a world and culture linked to the one you knew only by theories that disagree with each other. And by vision--the vision of those who are adept enough to see through the Ways to the branches of Duality. Before me, there was nothing. But I've learned to open a path--a difficult path for one in this world--and to draw from it, as you have been drawn. Don't try to understand what is a mystery even to the Satheri, Dave Hanson."
"A reasonably intelligent man should be able--" Dave began.
Ser Perth cut his words off with a sharp laugh. "Maybe a man. But who said you were a man, Dave Hanson? Can't you even understand that? You're only half human. The other half is mandrake--a plant that is related to humanity through shapes and signs by magic. We make simulacra out of mandrakes--like the manicurist in the barber shop. And sometimes we use a mandrake root to capture the essence of a real man, in which case he's a mandrake-man, like you. Human? No. But a very good imitation, I must admit."
Dave turned from Ser Perth toward Nema, but her head was bent over the cords she was weaving, and she avoided his eyes. He remembered now that she'd called him a mandrake-man before, in a tone of pity. He looked down at his body, sick in his mind. Vague bits of fairy tales came back to him, suggesting horrible things about mandrake creatures--zombie-like things, only outwardly human.
Sather Karf seemed amused as he looked at Ser Perth. Then the old man dropped his eyes toward Dave, and there was a brief look of pity in them. "No matter, Dave Hanson," he said. "You were human, and by the power of your true name, you are still the same Dave Hanson. We have given you life as precious as your other life. Pay us for that with your service, and that new life will be truly precious. We need your services."
"What do you want?" Dave asked. He couldn't fully believe what he'd heard, but there had been too many strange things to let him disbelieve, either. If they had made him a mandrake-man, then by what little he could remember and guess, they could make him obey them.
"Look out the window--at the sky," Sather Karf ordered.
Dave looked. The sunset colors were still vivid. He stepped forward and peered through the crystalline glass. Before him was a city, bathed in orange and red, towering like the skyline of a dozen cities he had seen--and yet; not like any. The buildings were huge and many-windowed. But some were straight and tall, some were squat and fairy-colored and others blossomed from thin stalks into impossibly bulbous, minareted domes, like long-stemmed tulips reproduced in stone. Haroun-al-Rashid might have accepted the city, but Mayor Wagner could never have believed in it.
"Look at the sky," the old man suggested again, and there was no mockery in his voice now.
Dave looked up obediently.
The sunset colors were not sunset. The sun was bright and blinding overhead, surrounded by reddish clouds, glaring down on the fairy city. The sky was--blotchy. It was daylight, but through the clouds bright stars were shining. A corner of the horizon was winter blue; a whole sweep of it was dead, featureless black. It was a nightmare sky, an impossible sky. Dave's eyes bulged as he looked at it.
He turned back to Sather Karf. "What--what's the matter with it?"
"What indeed?" There was bitterness and fear in the old man's voice. In the corner of the room, Nema looked up for a moment, and there was fear and worry in her eyes before she looked back to her weaving of endless knots. Sather Karf sighed in weariness. "If I knew what was happening to the sky, would I be dredging the muck of Duality for the likes of you, Dave Hanson!"
He stood up, wearily but with a certain ease and grace that belied his age, looking down at Dave. There was stern command in his words, but a hint of pleading in his expression.
"The sky's falling, Dave Hanson. Your task is to put it together again. See that you do not fail us!"
He waved dismissal and Ser Perth led Dave and Nema out.
The corridor down which they moved this time was one that might have been familiar even in Dave's Chicago. There was the sound of typewriters from behind the doors, and the floor was covered with composition tile, instead of the too-lush carpets. He began to relax a little until he came to two attendants busily waxing the floor. One held the other by the ankles and pushed the creature's hairy face back and forth, while its hands spread the wax ahead of it. The results were excellent, but Dave found it hard to appreciate.
Ser Perth shrugged slightly. "They're only mandrakes," he explained. He threw open the door of one of the offices and led them through an outer room toward an inner chamber, equipped with comfortable chairs and a desk. "Sit down, Dave Hanson. I'll fill you in on anything you need to know before you're assigned. Now--the Sather Karf told you what you were to do, of course, but--"
"Wait a minute," Dave suggested. "I don't remember being told any such thing."
Ser Perth looked at Nema, who nodded. "He distinctly said you were to repair the sky. I've got it down in my notes if you want to see them." She extended the woven cords.
"Never mind," Ser Perth said. He twiddled with his mustache. "I'll recap a little. Dave Hanson, as you have seen, the sky is falling and must be repaired. You are our best hope. We know that from a prophecy, and it is confirmed by the fact that the fanatics of the Egg have tried several times to kill you. They failed, though one effort was close enough, but their attempts would not have been made at all if they had not been convinced through their arts that you can succeed with the sky."
Dave shook his head. "It's nice to know you trust me!"
"Knowing that you can succeed," the other went on smoothly, "we know that you will. It is my unpleasant duty to point out to you the things that will happen if you fail. I say nothing of the fact that you owe us your life; that may be a small enough gift, and one quickly withdrawn. I say only that you have no escape from us. We have your name, and the true symbol is the thing, as you should know. We also have cuttings from your hair and your beard; we have the parings of your nails, five cubic centimeters of your spinal fluid and a scraping from your liver. We have your body through those, nor can you take it out of our reach. Your name gives us your soul." He looked at Hanson piercingly. "Shall I tell you what it would be like for your soul to live in the muck of a swamp in a mandrake root?"
Dave shook his head. "I guess not. I--look, Ser Perth. I don't know what you're talking about. How can I go along with you when I'm in the dark? Start at the beginning, will you? I was killed; all right, if you say I was, I was. You brought me to life again with a mandrake root and spells; you can do anything you want with me. I admit it; right now, I'll admit anything you want me to, because you know what's going on and I don't. But what's all this business of the sky falling? If it is and can be falling, what's the difference? If there is a difference, why should I be able to do anything about it?"
"Ignorance!" Ser Perth murmured to himself. He sighed heavily. "Always ignorance. Well, then, listen." He sat down on the corner of the desk and took out a cigarette. At least it looked like a cigarette. He snapped his fingers and lighted it from a little flame that sprang up, blowing clouds of bright green smoke from his mouth. The smoke hung lazily, drifting into vague patterns and then began to coalesce into a green houri without costume. He swatted at it negligently.
"Dratted sylphs. There's no controlling the elementals properly any more." He didn't seem too displeased, however, as he watched the thing dance off. Then he sobered.