The slaves regrouped on new jobs, and Hanson found himself in a bunch of a dozen or so. They were lashing the hauling ropes around a twelve-foot block of stone; the rollers were already in place, with the crudely plaited ropes dangling loosely. Hanson found himself being lifted by a couple of the other slaves to the shoulders of a third. His clawing hands caught the top of the block and the slaves below heaved him upward. He scrambled to the top and caught the ropes that were flung up to him.
From his vantage point he saw what he had not seen before--the amazing size of the construction project. This was no piffling little Gizeh pyramid, no simple tomb for a king. Its base was measured in kilometers instead of yards, and its top was going to be proportionally high, apparently. It hardly seemed that there could be enough stone in the whole world to finish the job. As far as Hanson could see, over the level sand, the ground was black with the suffering millions of slaves in their labor gangs.
The idiots must be trying to reach the sky with their pyramid. There could be no other answer to the immense bulk planned for this structure. Like the pride-maddened men of Babel, they were building a sky-high thing of stone. It was obviously impossible, and even Menes must be aware of that. Yet perhaps it was no more impossible than all the rest of the things in this impossible world.
When the warlocks of this world had discovered that they could not solve the problem of the sky, they must have gone into a state of pure hysteria, like a chicken dashing back and forth in front of a car. They had sought through other worlds and ages for anyone with a reputation as a builder, engineer or construction genius, without screening the probability of finding an answer. The size of the ancient pyramid must have been enough to sway them. They had used Hanson, Menes, Einstein, Cagliostro--for some reason of their own, since he'd never been a builder--and probably a thousand more. And then they had half-supplied all of them, rather than picking the most likely few and giving full cooperation. Magic must have made solutions to most things so easy that they no longer had the guts to try the impossible themselves. A pyramid seemed like a ridiculous solution, but for an incredible task, an impossible solution had to be tried.
And maybe, he thought, they'd overlooked the obvious in their own system. The solution to a problem in magic should logically be found in magic, not in the methods of other worlds. His mind groped for something that almost came into his consciousness--some inkling of what should have been done, or how they had failed. It was probably only an idle fancy, but-- "Hey!" One of the slaves below was waving at him. While Hanson looked down, the slave called to another, got a shoulder to lean on, and walked his way up the side of the block, pushed from below and helped by Hanson's hands above. He was panting when he reached the top, but he could still talk. "Look, it's your skin, but you're going to be in trouble if you don't get busy. Look out for that overseer up there. Don't just stand around when he's in sight." He picked up a loop of rope and passed it to Hanson, making a great show of hard work.
Hanson stared up at the overseer who was staring back at him. "Why is he any worse than the rest of this crowd?"
The slave shuddered as the dour, slow-moving overseer began walking stiffly toward them. "Don't let the fact that he's an overseer fool you. He's smarter than most of his kind, but just as ugly. He's a mandrake, and you can't afford to mess with him."
Hanson looked at the ancient, wrinkled face of the mandrake and shuddered. There was the complete incarnation of inhumanity in the thing's expression. He passed ropes around the corners until the mandrake turned and rigidly marched away, the blows of his whip falling metronome-like on the slaves he passed. "Thanks," Hanson said "I wonder what it's like, being a true mandrake?"
"Depends," the slave said easily. He was obviously more intelligent than most, and better at conserving himself. "Some mandrake-men are real. I mean, the magicians want somebody whom they can't just call back--direct translation of the body usually messes up the brain patterns enough to make the thinkers hard to use, especially with the sky falling. So they get his name and some hold on his soul and then rebuild his body around a mandrake root. They bind his soul into that, and in some ways he's almost human. Sometimes they even improve on what he was. But the true mandrake--like that one--never was human. Just an ugly, filthy simulacrum. It's bad business. I never liked it, even though I was in training for sersa rating."
"You're from this world?" Hanson asked in surprise. He'd been assuming that the man was one of the things called back.
"A lot of us are. They conscripted a lot of the people they didn't need for these jobs. But I was a little special. All right, maybe you don't believe me--you think they wouldn't send a student sersa here now. Look, I can prove it. I managed to sneak one of the books I was studying back with me. See?"
He drew a thin volume from his breechclout cautiously, then slipped it back again. "You don't get such books unless you're at least of student rating." He sighed, then shrugged. "My trouble is that I could never keep my mouth shut. I was attendant at one of the revivatoria, and I got drunk enough to let out some information about one of the important revival cases. So here I am."
"Umm." Hanson worked silently for a minute, wondering how far coincidence could go. It could go a long ways here, he decided. "You wouldn't have been sentenced to twenty lifetimes here by the Sather Karf, would you?"
The slave stared at him in surprise. "You guessed it. I've died only fourteen times so far, so I've got six more lives to go. But--hey, you can't be! They were counting on you to be the one who really fixed things. Don't tell me my talking out of turn did this to you."
Hanson reassured him on that. He recognized the man now for another reason. "Aren't you the one I saw dead on his back right next to me this morning?"
"Probably. Name's Barg." He stood up to take a careful look at the net of cording around the stone. "Looks sound enough. Yeah, I died this morning, which is why I'm fairly fresh now. Those overseers won't feed us because it takes time and wastes food; they let us die and then have us dragged back for more work. It's a lot easier on the ones they dragged back already dead; dying doesn't matter so much without a soul."
"Some of them seem to be Indians," Hanson noted. He hadn't paid too much attention, but the slaves seemed to be from every possible background.
Barg nodded. "Aztecs from a place called Tenochtitlan. Twenty thousand of them got sacrificed in a bunch for some reason or other. Poor devils. They think this is some kind of heaven. They tell me this is easy work compared to the type they had to undergo. The Satheri like to get big bunches through in one conjuration, like the haul they made from the victims of somebody named Tamerlane." He tested a rope, then dropped to a sitting position on the edge of the block. "I'll let you stay up to call signals from here. Only watch it. That overseer has his eyes on you. Make sure the ropes stay tight while we see if the thing can be moved."
He started to slip over the side, hanging by his fingertips. Something caught, and he swore. With one hand, he managed to free his breechclout and drag out the thin volume that was lodged between his groin and the block. "Here, hold this for me until we meet tonight. You've got more room to hide it in your cloth than I have." He tossed it over quickly, then dropped from sight to land on the ground below.
Hanson shoved the book out of sight and tried to act busy again. The mandrake overseer had started ponderously toward him. But in a moment the thing's attention was directed to some other object of torture.
Hanson braced himself as the lines of slaves beneath him settled themselves to the ropes. There was a loud cracking of whips and a chorus of groans. A small drum took up a beat, and the slaves strained and tugged in unison. Ever so slowly, the enormous block of stone began to move, while the ropes drew tighter.
Hanson checked the rigging with half his mind, while the other half raced in a crazy circle of speculation. Mandrakes and mandrake-men, zombie-men, from the past and multiple revivals! A sky that fell in great chunks. What came next in this ridiculous world in which he seemed to be trapped?
As if in answer to his question, there was a sudden, coruscating flare from above.
Hanson's body reacted instinctively. His arm came up over his eyes, cutting off the glare. But he managed to squint across it, upwards toward what was happening in the cracked dome. For a split second, he thought that the sun had gone nova.
He was wrong, but not by too much. Something had happened to the sun. Now it was flickering and flaming, shooting enormous jets of fire from its rim. It hovered at the edge of a great new hole and seemed to be wobbling, careening and losing its balance.
There was a massive shriek of fear and panic from the horde of slaves. They began bellowing like the collective death-agony of a world. Most of them dropped their ropes and ran in blind panic, trampling over each other in their random flight for safety. The human overseers were part of the same panic-stricken riot. Only the mandrakes stood stolidly in place, flicking each running man who passed them.
Hanson flung himself face down on the stone. There was a roar of tortured air from overhead and a thundering sound that was unlike anything except the tearing of an infinity of cloth combined with a sustained explosion of atomic bombs. Then it seemed as if the thunderbolt of Thor himself had blasted in Hanson's ears.
The sky had ripped again, and this time the entire dome shook with the shock. But that wasn't the worst of it.
The sun had broken through the hole and was falling!
The fall of the sun was seemingly endless. It teetered out of the hole and seemed to hover, spitting great gouts of flame as it encountered the phlogiston layer. Slowly, agonizingly, it picked up speed and began its downward rush. Unlike the sky, it seemed to obey the normal laws of inertia Hanson had known. It swelled bit by bit, raging as it drew nearer. And it seemed to be heading straight for the pyramid.
The heat was already rising. It began to sear the skin long before the sun struck the normal atmosphere. Hanson could feel that he was being baked alive. The blood in his arteries seemed to bubble and boil, though that must have been an illusion. But he could see his skin rise in giant blisters and heal almost at once to blister again. He screamed in agony, and heard a million screams around him. Then the other screams began to decrease in numbers and weaken in volume, and he knew that the slaves were dying.
Through a slit between two fingers, he watched the ponderous descent. The light was enough to sear his retinas, but even they healed faster than the damage. He estimated the course of the sun, amazed to find that there was no panic in him, and doubly amazed that he could think at all over the torture that wracked his body.
Finally, convinced that the sun would strike miles to the south, he rolled across the scorching surface of the stone block and dropped to the north side of it. The shock of landing must have broken bones, but a moment later he could begin to breathe again. The heat was still intense, even behind the stone block, but it was bearable--at least for him.
Pieces were breaking off the sun as it fell, and already striking the ground. One fell near, and its heat seared at him, giving him no place of shelter. Then the sun struck, sending up earth tremors that knocked him from his feet. He groped up and stared around the block.
The sun had struck near the horizon, throwing up huge masses of material. Its hissing against the ground was a tumult in his ears, and superheated ash and debris began to fall.
So far as he could see, there were no other survivors in the camp. Three million slaves had died. Those who had found some shelter behind the stonework had lived longer than the others, but that had only increased their suffering. And even his body must have been close to its limits, if it could be killed at all.
He was still in danger. If a salamander could destroy even such a body as his, then the fragments of sun that were still roiling across the landscape would be fatal. The only hope he had was to get as far away from the place where the sun had struck as he could.
He braced himself to leave even the partial shelter. There was a pile of water skins near the base of the block, held in the charred remains of an attendant's body. The water was boiling, but there was still some left. He poured several skins together and drank the stuff, forcing himself to endure the agony of its passage down his throat. Without it, he'd be dehydrated before he could get a safe distance away.
Then he ran. The desert was like molten iron under his bare feet, and the savage radiation on his back was worse than any overseer's whip. His mind threatened to blank out with each step, but he forced himself on. And slowly, as the distance increased, the sun's pyre sank further and further over the horizon. The heat should still have been enough to kill any normal body in fifteen minutes, but he could endure it. He stumbled on in a trot, guiding himself by the stars that shone in the broken sky toward a section of this world where there had been life and some measure of civilization before. After a few hours, the tongues of flame no longer flared above the horizon, though the brilliant radiance continued. And Hanson found that his strong and nearly indestructible body still had limits. It could not go on without rest forever. He was sobbing with fatigue at every step.
He managed to dig a small hollow in the sand before dropping off to sleep. It was a sleep of total exhaustion, lacking even a sense of time. It might have been minutes or hours that he slept, and he had no way of knowing which. With the sun gone and the stars rocking into dizzy new configurations, there was no night or day, nor any way to guess the passage of time.
He woke to a roaring wind that sent cutting blasts of sand driving against him. He staggered up and forced himself against it, away from the place where the sun had fallen. Even through the lashing sandstorm, he could see the glow near the horizon. Now a pillar of something that looked like steam but was probably vapor from molten and evaporated rocks was rising upwards, like the mushroom clouds of his own days. It was spreading, apparently just under the phlogiston layer, reflecting back the glare. And the wind was caused by the great rising column of superheated gases over the sun.
He staggered on, while the sand gave way slowly to patches of green. With the sun gone and the sky falling into complete shreds, this world was certainly doomed. He'd assumed that the sun of this world must be above the sky, but he'd been wrong; like the other heavenly bodies, it had been embedded inside the shell. He had discovered that the sky material resisted any sudden stroke, but that other matter could be interpenetrated into it, as the stars were. He had even been able to pass his hand and arm completely through the sample. Apparently the sun had passed through the sky in a similar manner.
Then why hadn't the shell melted? He had no real answer. The sun must have been moving fast enough so that no single spot became too hot, or else the phlogiston layer somehow dissipated the heat.
The cloud of glowing stuff from the rising air column was spreading out now, reflecting the light and heat back to the earth. There was a chance that most of one hemisphere might retain some measure of warmth, then. At least there was still light enough for him to travel safely.
By the time he was too tired to go on again, he had come to the beginnings of fertile land. He passed a village, but it had been looted, and he skirted around it rather than stare at the ghastly ghoul-work of the looters. The world was ending, but civilization seemed to have ended already. Beyond it, he came to a rude house, now abandoned. He staggered in gratefully.
For a change, he had one piece of good luck. His first attempt at magic produced food. At the sound of the snapping fingers and his hoarse-voiced "abracadabra," a dirty pot of hot and greasy stew came into existence. He had no cutlery, but his hands served well enough. When it was gone, he felt better. He wiped his hands on the breechclout. Whatever the material in the cloth, it had stood the sun's heat almost as well as he had.
Then he paused as his hand found a lump under the cloth. He drew out the apprentice magician's book. The poor devil had never achieved his twenty lifetimes, and this was probably all that was left of him. Hanson stared at it, reading the title in some surprise.
He propped himself up and began to scan it, wondering what it had to do with magic. He'd had a course of semantics in college and could see no relationship. But he soon found that there were differences.
This book began with the axiomatic statement that the symbol is the thing. From that it developed in great detail the fact that any part of a whole bearing similarity to the whole was also the whole; that each seven was the class of all sevens; and other details of the science of magical similarity followed quite logically from the single axiom. Hanson was surprised to find that there was a highly developed logic to it. Once he accepted the axiom--and he was no longer prepared to doubt it here--he could follow the book far better than he'd been able to follow his own course in semantics. Apparently this was supposed to be a difficult subject, from the constant efforts of the writer to make his point clear. But after learning to deal with electron holes in transistors, this was elementary study for Hanson.
The second half of the book dealt with the use of the true name. That, of course, was the perfect symbol, and hence the true whole. There was the simple ritual of giving a secret name. Apparently any man who discovered a principle or device could use a name for it, just as parents could give one to their children. And there were the laws for using the name. Unfortunately, just when Hanson was beginning to make some sense of it, the book ended. Obviously, there was a lot more to be covered in later courses.
He tossed the book aside, shivering as he realized that his secret name was common knowledge. The wonder was that he could exist at all. And while there was supposed to be a ritual for relinquishing one name and taking another, that was one of the higher mysteries not given.
In the morning, he stopped to magic up some more food and the clothing he would need if he ever found the trace of civilized people again. The food was edible, though he'd never particularly liked cereal. He seemed to be getting the hang of abracadabraing up what was in his mind. But the clothing was a problem. Everything he got turned out to be the right size, but he couldn't see himself in hauberk and greaves, nor in a filmy nightgown. Finally, he managed something that was adequate, if the brilliant floral sportshirt could be said to go with levi pants and a morning frock. But he felt somewhat better in it. He finally left the frock behind, however. It was still too hot for that.
He walked on briskly, watching for signs of life and speculating on the principles of applied semantics, name magic and similarity. He could begin to understand how an Einstein might read through one of the advanced books here and make leaps in theory beyond what the Satheri had developed. They'd had it too easy. Magic that worked tended to overcome the drive for the discipline needed to get the most out of it. Any good theoretician from Hanson's world could probably make fools of these people. Maybe that was why the Satheri had gone scrounging back through other worlds to find men who had the necessary drive to get things done when the going was tough.
Twice he passed abandoned villages, but there was nothing there for him. He was coming toward forested ground now, something like the country in which the Sons of the Egg had found refuge. The thought of that made him go slower. But for a long time, there was no further sign of life. The woods thinned out to grasslands, and he went on for hours more before he spotted a cluster of lights ahead.
As he drew nearer, he saw that the lights seemed to be fluorescents. They were coming from corrugated iron sheds that looked like aircraft hangars strung together. There was a woven-wire fence around the structures, and a sign that said simply: Project Eighty-Five. In the half-light from the sky, he could see a well-kept lawn, and there were a few groups of men standing about idly. Most wore white coveralls, though two were dressed in simple business suits.
Hanson moved forward purposefully, acting as if he had urgent business. If he stopped, there would be questions, he suspected; he wanted to find answers, not to answer idle questions.
There was no one at the desk in the little reception alcove, but he heard the sound of voices through a side door leading out. He went through it, to find a larger yard with more men idling. There should be someone here who knew more of what was going on in this world than he did now.
His choice, in the long run, seemed to lie between Bork and the Satheri, unless he could find some way of hiding himself from both sides. At the moment, he was relatively free for the first time since they had brought him here, and he wanted to make sure that he could make the most use of the fact.
Nobody asked anything. He slowed, drifting along the perimeter of the group of men, and still nobody paid him any attention. Finally, he dropped onto the ground near a group of half a dozen men who looked more alert than the rest. They seemed to be reminiscing over old times.
"--two thirty-eight an hour with overtime--and double time for the swing shift. We really had it made then! And every Saturday, never fail, the general would come out from Muroc and tell us we were the heros of the home front--with overtime pay while we listened to him!"
"Yeah, but what if you wanted to quit? Suppose you didn't like your shift boss or somebody? You go down and get your time, and they hand you your draft notice. Me, I liked it better in '46. Not so much pay, but--"
Hanson pricked up his ears. The conversation told him more than he needed to know. He stood up and peered through the windows of the shed. There, unattended under banks of lights, stood half-finished aircraft shapes.
He wouldn't get much information here, it seemed. These were obviously reanimates, men who'd been pulled from his own world and set to work. They could do their duties and their memories were complete, but they were lacking some essential thing that had gone out of them before they were brought here. Unless he could find one among them who was either a mandrake-man housing a soul or one of the few reanimates who seemed almost fully human, he'd get little information. But he was curious as to what the Satheri had expected to do with aircraft. The rocs had better range and altitude than any planes of equal hauling power.
He located one man who seemed a little brighter than the others. The fellow was lying on the ground, staring at the sky with his hands clasped behind his head. From time to time, he frowned, as if the sight of the sky was making him wonder. The man nodded as Hanson dropped down beside him. "Hi. Just get here, Mac?"
"Yeah," Hanson assented. "What's the score?"
The man sat up and made a disgusted noise. "Who knows?" he answered. There was more emotion in his voice than might be expected from a reanimate; in real life on his own world, he must have had an amazing potential for even that much to carry over. "We're dead. We're dead, and we're here, and they tell us to make helicopters. So we make them, working like dogs to make a deadline. Then, just as the first one comes off the line, the power fails. No more juice. The head engineer took off in the one we finished. He was going to find out what gives, but he never came back. So we sit." He spat on the ground. "I wish they'd left me dead after the plant blew up. I'm not myself since then."
"What in hell would they need with helicopters?" Hanson asked.
The man shrugged. "Beats me. But I'm beginning to figure some things out. They've got some kind of trouble with the sky. I figure they got confused in bringing us here. This shop is one that made those big cargo copters they call 'Sky Hooks' and maybe they thought the things were just what they're called. All I know is they kept us working five solid weeks for nothing. I knew the power was going to fail; they had the craziest damn generating plant you ever saw, and it couldn't last. The boilers kept sizzling and popping their safety valves with no fire in the box! Just some little old man sitting in a corner, practicing the Masonic grip or something over a smudgepot."
Hanson gestured back to the sheds. "If there's no power, what are those lights?"
"Witch lights, they told us," the man explained. "Saved a lot of wiring, or something. They--hey, what's that?"
He was looking up, and Hanson followed his gaze. There was something whizzing overhead at jet-plane speed. "A piece of the sky falling?" he said.
The man snorted. "Falling sidewise? Not likely, even here. I tell you, pal, I don't like this place. Nothing works right. There was no fuel for the 'copter we finished--the one we called Betsy Ann. But the little geezer who worked the smudgepot just walked up to it and wiggled his finger. 'Start your motor going, Betsy Ann,' he ordered with some other mumbo-jumbo. Then the motor roared and he and the engineer, took off at double the speed she could make on high-test gas. Hey, there it is again! Doesn't look like the Betsy Ann coming back, either."
The something whizzed by again, in the other direction, but lower and slower. It made a gigantic but erratic circle beyond the sheds and swooped back. It looked nothing like a helicopter. It looked like a Hallowe'en decoration of a woman on a broomstick. As it came nearer, Hanson saw that it was a woman on a broomstick, flying erratically. She straightened out in a flat glide.
She came in for a one-point landing a couple of yards away. The tip of the broom handle hit the ground, and she went sailing over it, to land on her hands and knees. She got up, facing the shed.
The woman was Nema. Her face was masklike, her eyes tortured. She was staring searchingly around her, looking at every man.
"Nema!" Hanson cried.
She spun to face him, and gasped. Her skin seemed to turn gray, and her eyes opened to double their normal size. She took one tottering step toward him and halted.
"Illusion!" she whispered hoarsely, and slumped to the ground in a faint.
She was reviving before he could raise her from the ground. She swayed a moment, staring at him. "You're not dead!"
"What's so wonderful about that around here?" he asked, but not with much interest. With the world going to pot and only a few days left, the girl's face and the slim young body under it were about all the reality left worth thinking about. He grabbed for her, pulling her to him. Bertha had never made him feel like that.
She managed to avoid his lips and slid away from him. "But they used the snetha-knife! Dave Hanson, you never died! It was only induced illusion by that--that Bork! And to think that I nearly died of grief while you were enjoying yourself here! You ... you mandrake-man!"
He grunted. He'd almost managed to forget what he was, and he didn't enjoy having the aircraft worker find out. He turned to see what the reaction was, and then stared open-mouthed at his surroundings.
There were no lights from the plane factory. In fact, there was no plane factory. In the half-light of the sky, he saw that the plant was gone. No men were left. There was only barren earth, with a tiny, limp sapling in the middle of empty acres.
Nema glanced around briefly and sighed. "It's happening all over. They created the plane plant by the law of identities from that little plane tree sapling, I suppose; it is a plane plant, after all. But with the conjunctions and signs failing, all such creations are returning to their original form, unless a spell is used continually over them. Even then, sometimes, we fail. Most of the projects vanished after the sun fell."
Hanson remembered the man with whom he'd been talking before Nema appeared. He'd have liked to know such a man before death and revivification had ruined him. It wasn't fair that anyone with character enough to be that human even as a zombie should be wiped out without even a moment's consideration. Then he remembered the man's own estimate of his current situation. Maybe he was better off returned to the death that had claimed him.
Reluctantly, he returned to his own problems. "All right, then, if you thought I was dead, what are you doing here, Nema?"
"I felt the compulsion begin even before I returned to the city. I thought I was going mad. I tried to forget you, but the compulsion grew until I could fight it no longer." She shuddered. "It was a terrible flight. The carpets will not work at all now, and I could hardly control the broom. Sometimes it wouldn't lift. Twice it sailed so high I could hardly breathe. And I had no hope of finding you, yet I went on. I've been flying when I could for three days now."
Bork, of course, hadn't known of her spell with which she'd forced herself to want him "well and truly." Apparently it had gone on operating even when she thought he was dead, and with a built-in sense of his direction. Well, she was here--and he wasn't sorry.
Hanson took another look across the plains toward the glowing hell of the horizon. He reached for her and pulled her to him. She was firm and sweet against him, and she was trembling in response to his urging.
At the last moment she pulled back. "You forget yourself, Dave Hanson! I'm a registered and certified virgin. My blood is needed for--"
"For spells that won't work anyhow," he told her harshly. "The sky isn't falling now, kid. It's down--or most of it."
"But--" She hesitated and then let herself come a trifle closer. Her voice was doubtful. "It's true that our spells are failing. Not even the surest magic is reliable. The world has gone mad, and even magic is no longer trustworthy. But--"
He was just pulling her close enough again and feeling her arms lift to his neck when the ground shook behind them and there was a sound of great, jarring, thudding steps.
Hanson jerked around to see a great roc making its landing run, heading straight for them. The huge bird braked savagely, barely stopping before they were under its feet.
From its back, a ladder of some flexible material snaked down and men began descending. The first were mandrakes in the uniform of the Satheri, all carrying weapons with evil-looking blades or sharp stickers.
The last man off was Bork. He came toward Hanson and Nema with a broad grin on his face. "Greetings, Dave Hanson. You do manage to survive, don't you? And my little virgin sister, without whose flight I might not have found you. Well, come along. The roc's growing impatient!"