THE SKY IS FALLING
By LESTER DEL REY
Transcriber note: Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the copyright on this publication was renewed.
* * * * *
Dave stared around the office. He went to the window and stared upwards at the crazy patchwork of the sky. For all he knew, in such a sky there might be cracks. In fact, as he looked, he could make out a rift, and beyond that a ... hole ... a small patch where there was no color, and yet the sky there was not black. There were no stars there, though points of light were clustered around the edges, apparently retreating.
* * * * *
THE SKY IS FALLING
By LESTER DEL REY
A Division of Charter Communications Inc. 1120 Avenue of the Americas New York, N.Y. 10036
Copyright (C) 1954, 1963 by Galaxy Publishing Corp.
A shorter and earlier version of this story appeared as "No More Stars" under the pseudonym of Charles Satterfield in Beyond Fantasy Fiction for July, 1954
First Ace printing: January, 1973
* * * * *
THE SKY IS FALLING
"Dave Hanson! By the power of the true name be summoned cells and humors, ka and id, self and—"
Dave Hanson! The name came swimming through utter blackness, sucking at him, pulling him together out of nothingness. Then, abruptly, he was aware of being alive, and surprised. He sucked in on the air around him, and the breath burned in his lungs. He was one of the dead—there should be no quickening of breath within him!
He caught a grip on himself, fighting the fantasies of his mind, and took another breath of air. This time it burned less, and he could force an awareness of the smells around him. But there was none of the pungent odor of the hospital he had expected. Instead, his nostrils were scorched with a noxious odor of sulfur, burned hair and cloying incense.
He gagged on it. His diaphragm tautened with the sharp pain of long-unused muscles, and he sneezed.
"A good sign," a man's voice said. "The followers have accepted and are leaving. Only a true being can sneeze. But unless the salamander works, his chances are only slight."
There was a mutter of agreement from others, before an older voice broke in. "It takes a deeper fire than most salamanders can stir, Ser Perth. We might aid it with high-frequency radiation, but I distrust the effects on the prepsyche. If we tried a tamed succubus—"
"The things are untrustworthy," the first voice answered. "And with the sky falling, we dare not trust one."
The words blurred off in a fog of semiconsciousness and half-thoughts. The sky was falling? Who killed Foxy Loxy? I, said the spider, who sat down insider, I went boomp in the night and the bull jumped over the moon....
"Bull," he croaked. "The bull sleeper!"
"Delirious," the first voice muttered.
"I mean—bull pusher!" That was wrong, too, and he tried again, forcing his reluctant tongue around the syllables. "Bull dosser!"
Damn it, couldn't he even pronounce simple Engaliss?
The language wasn't English, however. Nor was it Canadian French, the only other speech he could make any sense of. Yet he understood it—had even spoken it, he realized. There was nothing wrong with his command of whatever language it was, but there seemed to be no word for bulldozer. He struggled to get his eyes open.
The room seemed normal enough, in spite of the odd smells. He lay on a high bed, surrounded by prim white walls, and there was even a chart of some kind at the bottom of the bedframe. He focused his eyes slowly on what must be the doctors and nurses there, and their faces looked back with the proper professional worry. But the varicolored gowns they wore in place of proper clothing were covered with odd designs, stars, crescents and things that might have been symbols for astronomy or chemistry.
He tried to reach for his glasses to adjust them. There were no glasses! That hit him harder than any other discovery. He must be delirious and imagining the room. Dave Hanson was so nearsighted that he couldn't have seen the men, much less the clothing, without corrective lenses.
The middle-aged man with the small mustache bent over the chart near his feet. "Hmm," the man said in the voice of the first speaker. "Mars trines Neptune. And with Scorpio so altered ... hmm. Better add two cc. of cortisone to the transfusion."
Hanson tried to sit up, but his arms refused to bear his weight. He opened his mouth. A slim hand came to his lips, and he looked up into soothing blue eyes. The nurse's face was framed in copper-red hair. She had the transparent skin and classic features that occur once in a million times but which still keep the legend of redheaded enchantresses alive. "Shh," she said.
He began to struggle against her hand, but she shook her head gently. Her other hand began a series of complicated motions that had a ritualistic look about them.
"Shh," she repeated. "Rest. Relax and sleep, Dave Hanson, and remember when you were alive."
There was a sharp sound from the doctor, but it began to blur out before Hanson could understand it. He fought to remember what he'd heard the nurse say—something about when he was alive—as if he'd been dead a long time.... He couldn't hold the thought. At a final rapid motion of the girl's hand his eyes closed, the smell faded from his nose and all sounds vanished. Once there was a stinging sensation, as if he were receiving the transfusion. Then he was alone in his mind with his memories—mostly of the last day when he'd still been alive. He seemed to be reliving the events, rethinking the thoughts he'd had then.
It began with the sight of his uncle's face leering at him. Uncle David Arnold Hanson looked like every man's dream of himself and every woman's dreams of manliness. But at the moment, to Dave, he looked more like a personal demon. His head was tilted back and nasty laughter was booming through the air of the little office.
"So your girl writes that your little farewell activity didn't fare so well, eh?" he chortled. "And you come crawling here to tell me you want to do the honorable thing, is that it? All right, my beloved nephew, you'll do the honorable thing! You'll stick to your contract with me."
"But—" Dave began.
"But if you don't, you'd better read it again. You don't get one cent except on completion of your year with me. That's what it says, and that's what happens." He paused, letting the fact that he meant it sink in. He was enjoying the whole business, and in no hurry to end it. "And I happen to know, Dave, that you don't even have fare to Saskatchewan left. You quit and I'll see you never get another job. I promised my sister I'd make a man of you and, by jumping Jupiter, I intend to do just that. And in my book, that doesn't mean you run back with your tail between your legs just because some silly young girl pulls that old chestnut on you. Why, when I was your age, I already had...."
Dave wasn't listening any longer. In futile anger, he'd swung out of the office and gone stumbling back toward the computer building. Then, in a further burst of anger, he swung off the trail. To hell with his work and blast his uncle! He'd go on into town, and he'd—he'd do whatever he pleased.
The worst part of it was that Uncle David could make good on his threat of seeing that Dave got no more work anywhere. David Arnold Hanson was a power to reckon with. No other man on Earth could have persuaded anyone to let him try his scheme of building a great deflection wall across northern Canada to change the weather patterns. And no other man could have accomplished the impossible task, even after twelve countries pooled their resources to give him the job. But he was doing it, and it was already beginning to work. Dave had noticed that the last winter in Chicago had definitely shown that Uncle David's predictions were coming true.
Like most of the world, Dave had regarded the big man who was his uncle with something close to worship. He'd jumped at the chance to work under Uncle David. And he'd been a fool. He'd been doing all right in Chicago. Repairing computers didn't pay a fortune, but it was a good living, and he was good at it. And there was Bertha—maybe not a movie doll, but a sort of pretty girl who was also a darned good cook. For a man of thirty who'd always been a scrawny, shy runt like the one in the "before" pictures, he'd been doing all right.
Then came the letter from his uncle, offering him triple salary as a maintenance man on the computers used for the construction job. There was nothing said about romance and beauteous Indian maids, but Dave filled that in himself. He would need the money when he and Bertha got married, too, and all that healthy outdoor living was just what the doctor would have ordered.
The Indian maids, of course, turned out to be a few fat old squaws who knew all about white men. The outdoor living developed into five months of rain, hail, sleet, blizzard, fog and constant freezing in tractors while breathing the healthy fumes of diesels. Uncle David turned out to be a construction genius, all right, but his interest in Dave seemed to lie in the fact that he was tired of being Simon Legree to strangers and wanted to take it out on one of his own family. And the easy job turned into hell when the regular computer-man couldn't take any more and quit, leaving Dave to do everything, including making the field tests to gain the needed data.
Now Bertha was writing frantic letters, telling him how much he'd better come back and marry her immediately. And Uncle David thought it was a joke!
Dave paid no attention to where his feet were leading him, only vaguely aware that he was heading down a gully below the current construction job. He heard the tractors and bulldozers moving along the narrow cliff above him, but he was used to the sound. He heard frantic yelling from above, too, but paid no attention to it; in any Hanson construction program, somebody was always yelling about something that had to be done day before yesterday. It wasn't until he finally became aware of his own name being shouted that he looked up. Then he froze in horror.
The bulldozer was teetering at the edge of the cliff as he saw it, right above him. And the cliff was crumbling from under it, while the tread spun idiotically out of control. As Dave's eyes took in the whole situation, the cliff crumbled completely, and the dozer came lunging over the edge, plunging straight for him. His shout was drowned in the roar of the motor. He tried to force his legs to jump, but they were frozen in terror. The heavy mass came straight for him, its treads churning like great teeth reaching for him.
Then it hit, squarely on top of him. Something ripped and splattered and blacked out in an unbearable welter of agony.
Dave Hanson came awake trying to scream and thrusting at the bed with arms too weak to raise him. The dream of the past was already fading. The horror he had thought was death lay somewhere in the past.
Now he was here—wherever here was.
The obvious answer was that he was in a normal hospital, somehow still alive, being patched up. The things he seemed to remember from his other waking must be a mixture of fact and delirium. Besides, how was he to judge what was normal in extreme cases of surgery?
He managed to struggle up to a sitting position in the bed, trying to make out more of his surroundings. But the room was dark now. As his eyes adjusted, he made out a small brazier there, with a cadaverous old man in a dark robe spotted with looped crosses. On his head was something like a miter, carrying a coiled brass snake in front of it. The old man's white goatee bobbed as he mouthed something silently and made passes over the flame, which shot up prismatically. Clouds of white fire belched up.
Dave reached to adjust his glasses, and found again that he wasn't wearing them. But he'd never seen so clearly before.
At that moment, a chanting voice broke into his puzzled thoughts. It sounded like Ser Perth. Dave turned his head weakly. The motion set sick waves of nausea running through him, but he could see the doctor kneeling on the floor in some sort of pantomime. The words of the chant were meaningless.
A hand closed over Dave's eyes, and the voice of the nurse whispered in his ear. "Shh, Dave Hanson. It's the Sather Karf, so don't interrupt. There may be a conjunction."
He fell back, panting, his heart fluttering. Whatever was going on, he was in no shape to interrupt anything. But he knew that this was no delirium. He didn't have that kind of imagination.
The chant changed, after a long moment of silence. Dave's heart had picked up speed, but now it missed again, and he felt cold. He shivered. Hell or heaven weren't like this, either. It was like something out of some picture—something about Cagliostro, the ancient mystic. But he was sure the language he somehow spoke wasn't an ancient one. It had words for electron, penicillin and calculus, for he found them in his own mind.
The chant picked up again, and now the brazier flamed a dull red, showing the Sather Karf's face changing from some kind of disappointment to a businesslike steadiness. The red glow grew white in the center, and a fat, worm-like shape of flame came into being. The old man picked it up in his hand, petted it and carried it toward Dave. It flowed toward his chest.
He pulled himself back, but Ser Perth and the nurse leaped forward to hold him. The thing started to grow brighter. It shone now like a tiny bit of white-hot metal; but the older man touched it, and it snuggled down into Dave's chest, dimming its glow and somehow purring. Warmth seemed to flow from it into Dave. The two men watched for a moment, then picked up their apparatus and turned to go. The Sather Karf lifted the fire from the brazier in his bare hand, moved it into the air and said a soft word. It vanished, and the two men were also gone.
"Magic!" Dave said. He'd seen such illusions created on the stage, but there was something different here. And there was no fakery about the warmth from the thing over his chest. Abruptly he remembered that he'd come across something like it, called a salamander, in fiction once; the thing was supposed to be a spirit of fire, and dangerously destructive.
The girl nodded in the soft glow coming from Dave's chest. "Naturally," she told him. "How else does one produce and control a salamander, except by magic? Without, magic, how can we thaw a frozen soul? Or didn't your world have any sciences, Dave Hanson?"
Either the five months under his uncle had toughened him, or the sight of the bulldozer falling had knocked him beyond any strong reaction. The girl had practically told him he wasn't in his own world. He waited for some emotion, felt none, and shrugged. The action sent pain running through him, but he stood it somehow. The salamander ceased its purring, then resumed.
"Where in hell am I?" he asked. "Or when?"
She shook her head. "Hell? No, I don't think so. Some say it's Earth and some call it Terah, but nobody calls it Hell. It's—well, it's a long—time, I guess—from when you were. I don't know. In such matters, only the Satheri know. The Dual is closed even to the Seri. Anyhow, it's not your space-time, though some say it's your world."
"You mean dimensional travel?" Dave asked. He'd seen something about that on a science-fiction television program. It made even time travel seem simple. At any event, however, this wasn't a hospital in any sane and normal section of Canada during his time, on Earth.
"Something like that," she agreed doubtfully. "But go to sleep now. Shh." Her hands came up in complicated gestures. "Sleep and grow well."
"None of that hypnotism again!" he protested.
She went on making passes, but smiled on him kindly. "Don't be superstitious—hypnotism is silly. Now go to sleep. For me, Dave Hanson. I want you well and true when you awake."
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.
"In your world, Dave Hanson, you were versed in the engineering arts—you more than most. That you should be so ignorant, though you were considered brilliant is a sad commentary on your world. But no matter. Perhaps you can at least learn quickly still. Even you must have had some idea of the composition of the sky?"
Dave frowned as he tried to answer. "Well, I suppose the atmosphere is oxygen and nitrogen, mostly; then there's the ionosphere and the ozone layer. As I remember, the color of the sky is due to the scattering of light—light rays being diffracted in the air."
"Beyond the air," Ser Perth said impatiently. "The sky itself!"
"Oh—space. We were just getting out there with manned ships. Mostly vacuum, of course. Of course, we're still in the solar atmosphere, even there, with the Van Allen belts and such things. Then there are the stars, like our sun, but much more distant. The planets and the moon—"
"Ignorance was bad enough," Ser Perth interrupted in amazement. He stared at Dave, shaking his head in disgust. "You obviously come from a culture of even more superstition than ignorance. Dave Hanson, the sky is no such thing. Put aside the myths you heard as a child. The sky is a solid sphere that surrounds Earth. The stars are no more like the sun than the glow of my cigarette is like a forest fire. They are lights on the inside of the sphere, moving in patterns of the Star Art, nearer to us than the hot lands to the south."
"Fort," Dave said. "Charles Fort said that in a book."
Ser Perth shrugged. "Then why make me say it again? This Fort was right. At least one intelligent man lived in your world, I'm pleased to know. The sky is a dome holding the sun, the stars and the wandering planets. The problem is that the dome is cracking like a great, smashed eggshell."
"What's beyond the dome?"
Ser Perth shuddered slightly. "My greatest wish is that I die before I learn. In your world, had you discovered that there were such things as elements? That is, basic substances which in combination produce—"
"Of course," Dave interrupted.
"Good. Then of the four elements—" Dave gulped, but kept silent, "—of the four elements the universe is built. Some things are composed of a single element; some of two, some of three. The proportions vary and the humors and spirits change but all things are composed of the elements. And only the sky is composed of all four elements—of earth, of water, of fire and of air—in equal proportions. One part each, lending each its own essential quality to the mixture, so that the sky is solid as earth, radiant as fire, formless as water, insubstantial as air. And the sky is cracking and falling, as you have seen for yourself. The effects are already being felt. Gamma radiation is flooding through the gaps; the quick-breeding viruses are mutating through half the world, faster than the Medical Art can control them, so that millions of us are sneezing and choking—and dying, too, for lack of antibiotics and proper care. Air travel is a perilous thing; just today, a stratosphere roc crashed head-on into a fragment of the sky and was killed with all its passengers. Worst of all, the Science of Magic suffers. Because the stars are fixed on the dome of the sky. With the crumbling of that dome, the course of the stars has been corrupted. It's pitiful magic that can be worked without regard to the conjunctions of the planets; but it is all the magic that is left to us. When Mars trines Neptune, the Medical Art is weak; even while we were conjuring you, the trine occurred. It almost cost your life. And it should not have occurred for another seven days."
There was silence, while Ser Perth let Dave consider it. But it was too much to accept at once, and Dave's mind was a treadmill. He'd agreed to admit anything, but some of this was such complete nonsense that his mind rejected it automatically. Yet he was sure Ser Perth was serious; there was no humor on the face of the prissy thin-mustached man before him. Nor had the Sather Karf considered it a joke, he was sure. He had a sudden vision of the latter strangling two men from a distance of thirty feet without touching them. That couldn't happen in a sane world, either.
Dave asked weakly, "Could I have a drink?"
"With a sylph around?" Ser Perth grimaced. "You wouldn't have a chance. Now, is all clear to you, Dave Hanson?"
"Sure. Except for one thing. What am I supposed to do?"
"Repair our sky. It should not be too difficult for a man of your reputation. You built a wall across a continent high and strong enough to change the air currents and affect all your weather—and that in the coldest, meanest country in your world. You come down to us as one of the greatest engineers of history, Dave Hanson, so great that your fame has penetrated even to our world, through the viewing pools of our wisest historians. There is a shrine and monument in your world. 'Dave Hanson, to whom nothing was impossible.' Well, we have a nearly impossible task: a task of engineering and building. If our Science of Magic could be relied upon—but it cannot; it never can be, until the sky is fixed. We have the word of history: no task is impossible to Dave Hanson."
Dave looked at the smug face and a slow grin crept over his own, in spite of himself. "Ser Perth, I'm afraid you've made a slight mistake."
"We don't make mistakes in such matters. You're Dave Hanson," Ser Perth said flatly. "Of all the powers of the Science, the greatest lies in the true name. We evoked you by the name of Dave Hanson. You are Dave Hanson, therefore."
"Don't try to deceive us," Nema suggested. Her voice was troubled. "Pray rather that we never have reason to doubt you. Otherwise the wisest of the Satheri would spend their remaining time in planning something unthinkable for you."
Ser Perth nodded vigorous assent. Then he motioned to the office. "Nema will show you to your quarters later. Use this until you leave. I have to report back."
Dave stared after him until he was gone, and then around at the office. He went to the window and stared upwards at the crazy patchwork of the sky. For all he knew, in such a sky there might be cracks. In fact, as he looked, he could make out a rift, and beyond that a ... hole ... a small patch where there was no color, and yet the sky there was not black. There were no stars there, though points of light were clustered around the edges, apparently retreating.
All he had to do was to repair the sky. Shades of Chicken Little!
Maybe to David Arnold Hanson, the famed engineer, no task was impossible. But quite a few things were impossible to that engineer's obscure and unimportant nephew, the computer technician and generally undistinguished man who had been christened Dave. They'd gotten the right man for the name, all right. But the wrong man for the job.
Dave Hanson could repair anything that contained electrical circuits or ran on tiny jeweled bearings, but he could handle almost nothing else. It wasn't stupidity or incapacity to learn, but simply that he had never been subjected to the discipline of construction engineering. Even on the project, while working with his uncle, he had seen little of what went on, and hadn't really understood that, except when it produced data that he could feed into his computer. He couldn't drive a nail in the wall to hang a picture or patch a hole in the plaster.
But it seemed that he'd better put on a good show of trying if he wanted to continue enjoying good health.
"I suppose you've got a sample of the sky that's fallen?" he asked Nema. "And what the heck are you doing here, anyhow? I thought you were a nurse."
She frowned at him, but went to a corner where a small ball of some clear crystalline substance stood. She muttered into it, while a surly face stared out. Then she turned back to him, nodding. "They are sending some of the sky to you. As to my being a nurse, of course I am. All student magicians take up the Medical Art for a time. Surely one so skilled can also be a secretary, even to the great Dave Hanson? As to why I'm here—" She dropped her eyes, frowning, while a touch of added color reached her cheeks. "In the sleep spell I used, I invoked that you should be well and true. But I'm only a bachelor in magic, not even a master, and I slipped. I phrased it that I wanted you well and true. Hence, well and truly do I want you."
"Huh?" He stared at her, watching the blush deepen. "You mean—?"
"Take care! First you should know that I am proscribed as a duly registered virgin. And in this time of need, the magic of my blood must not be profaned." She twisted sidewise, and then turned toward the door, avoiding him. Before she reached it, the door opened to show a dull clod, entirely naked, holding up a heavy weight of nothing.
"Your sample of sky," she said as the clod labored over to the desk and dropped nothing with a dull clank. The desk top dented slightly.
Dave could clearly see that nothing was on the desk. But if nothing was a vacuum, this was an extremely hard and heavy one. It seemed to be about twelve inches on a side, in its rough shape, and must have weighed two hundred pounds. He tapped it, and it rang. Inside it, a tiny point of light danced frantically back and forth.
"A star," she said sadly.
"I'm going to need some place to experiment with this," he suggested. He expected to be sent to the deepest, dankest cave of all the world as a laboratory, and to find it equipped with pedigreed bats, dried unicorn horns and whole rows of alembics that he couldn't use.
Nema smiled brightly. "Of course. We've already prepared a construction camp for you. You'll find most of the tools you used in your world waiting there and all the engineers we could get or make for you."
He'd been considering stalling while he demanded exactly such things. He was reasonably sure by now that they had no transistors, signal generators, frequency meters or whatever else he could demand. He could make quite an issue out of the need to determine the characteristic impedance of their sky. That might even be interesting, at that; would it be anywhere near 300 ohms here? But it seemed that stalling wasn't going to work. They'd given him what they expected him to need, and he'd have to be careful to need only what they expected, or they might just decide he wasn't Dave Hanson.
"I can't work on this stuff here," he said.
"Then why didn't you say so?" she asked sharply. She let out a cry and a raven came flying in. She whispered something to it, frowned, and then ordered it off. "There's no surface transportation available, and all the local rocs are in use. Well, we'll have to make do with what we have."
She darted for the outer office, rummaged in a cabinet, and came back with a medium-sized rug of worn but gaudy design. Bad imitation Sarouk, Dave guessed. She tossed it onto the largest cleared space, gobbled some outlandish noises, and dropped onto it, squatting near one end. Behind her, the dull clod picked up the sample of sky and fell to his face on the rug. At her vehement signal, Dave squatted down beside her, not daring to believe what he was beginning to guess.
The carpet lifted uncertainly. It seemed to protest at the unbalanced weight of the sky piece. She made the sounds again, and it rose reluctantly, curling up at the front, like a crazy toboggan. It moved slowly, but with increasing speed, sailed out of the office through the window and began gaining altitude. They went soaring over the city at about thirty miles an hour, heading toward what seemed to be barren land beyond. "Sometimes they fail now," she told him. "But so far, only if the words are improperly pronounced."
He gulped and looked gingerly over at the city below. As he did, she gasped. He heard a great tearing sound of thunder. In the sky, a small hole appeared. There was a scream of displaced air, and something went zipping downwards in front of them, setting up a wind that bounced the carpet about crazily. Dave glanced over the edge again to see one of the tall buildings crumple under the impact. The three top stories were ripped to shreds. Then the whole building began to change. It slowly blossomed into a huge cloud of pink gas that rifted away, to show people and objects dropping like stones to the ground below. Nema sighed and turned her eyes away.
"But—it's ridiculous!" Dave protested. "We heard the rip and less than five seconds later, that piece fell. If your sky is even twenty miles above us, it would take longer than that to fall."
"It's a thousand miles up," she told him. "And sky has no inertia until it is contaminated by contact with the ground. It took longer than usual for that piece to fall." She sighed. "It gets worse. Look at the signs. That break has disturbed the planets. We're moving retrograde, back to our previous position, out of Sagittarius! Now we'll go back to the character we had before—and just when I was getting used to the change."
He jerked his eyes off the raw patch of emptiness in the sky, where a few stars seemed to be vanishing. "Your character? Isn't anything stable here?"
"Of course not. Naturally, in each House we have a differing of character, as does the world itself. Why else should astrology be the greatest of the sciences?"
It was a nice world, he decided. And yet the new factor explained some things. He'd been vaguely worried about the apparent change in Ser Perth, who'd turned from a serious and helpful doctor into a supercilious, high-handed fop. But—what about his recovery, if that was supposed to be determined by the signs of the zodiac?
He had no time to ask. The carpet bucked, and the girl began speaking to it urgently. It wavered, then righted itself, to begin sliding downwards.
"There is a ring of protection around your camp," Nema explained. "It is set to make entry impossible to one who does not have the words or who is unfriendly. The carpet could not go through that, anyway. The ring negates all other magic trying to pass it. And of course we have basilisks mounted on posts around the grounds. They're trained to hood their eyes, except when they sense anyone trying to enter who should not. You can't be turned to stone looking at one, you know—only by having one look at you."
"You're cheering me up no end," he assured her.
She smiled pleasantly and began setting the carpet down. Below, he could see a camp that looked much like the camps he had seen in the same movies from which all his clothes had been copied. There were well laid-out rows of sheds, beautiful lines of construction equipment and everything in order, as it could never be in a real camp. As he began walking with the girl toward a huge tent that should have belonged to a circus, he could see other discrepancies. The tractors were designed for work in mud flats and the haulers had the narrow wheels used on rocky ground. Nothing seemed quite as it should be. He spotted a big generator working busily—and then saw a gang of about fifty men, or mandrakes, turning a big capstan that kept it going. Here and there were neat racks of miscellaneous tools. Some were museum pieces. There was even a gandy cart, though no rails for it to run on.
They were almost at the main tent when a crow flew down and yelled something in Nema's ear. She scowled, and nodded. "I'm needed back," she said. "Most of the men here—" She pointed to the gangs that moved about busily doing nothing, all in costumes similar to his, except for the boots and hat. "They're mandrakes, conjured into existence, but without souls. The engineers we have are snatched from Duality just after dying and revived here while their brains still retain their knowledge. They have no true souls either, of course, but they don't know it. Ah. The short man there—he's Garm. Sersa Garm, an apprentice to Ser Perth. He's to be your foreman, and he's real."
She headed back to the outskirts, then turned to shout back. "Sather Karf says you may have ten days to fix the sky," she called. Her hand waved toward him in friendly good-bye. "Don't worry, Dave Hanson. I have faith in you."
Then she was running toward her reluctant carpet.
Dave stared up at the mottled dome above him and at the dull clod—certainly a mandrake—who was still carrying the sample. With all this preparation and a time limit, he couldn't even afford to stall. He'd never fully understood why some plastics melted and others turned hard when heated, but he had to find what was wrong with the dome above and how to fix it. And maybe the time limit could be stretched a little, once he came up with the answer. Maybe. He'd worry about that after he worried about the first steps.
Sersa Garm proved to be a glum, fat young man, overly aware of his importance in training for serhood. He led Dave through the big tent, taking pride in the large drafting section—under the obvious belief that it was used for designing spells. Maybe it could have been useful for that if there had been a single man who knew anything about draftsmanship. There were four engineers, supposedly. One, who had died falling off a bridge while drunk, was curing himself of the shock by remaining dead drunk. One had been a chemical engineer specializing in making yeast and dried soya meal into breakfast cereals. Another knew all about dredging canals and the last one was an electronics engineer—a field in which Dave was far more competent.
He dismissed them. Whatever had been done to them—or perhaps the absence of a true soul, whatever that was—left them rigidly bound to their past ideas and totally incapable of doing more than following orders by routine now. Even Sersa Garm was more useful.
That young man could offer little information, however. The sky, he explained pompously, was a great mystery that only an adept might communicate to another. He meant that he didn't know about it, Dave gathered. Everything, it turned out, was either a mystery or a rumor. He also had a habit of sucking his thumb when pressed too hard for details.
"But you must have heard some guesses about what started the cracks in the sky?" Dave suggested.
"Oh, indeed, that is common knowledge," Sersa Garm admitted. He changed thumbs while he considered. "'Twas an experiment most noble, but through mischance going sadly awry. A great Sather made the sun remain in one place too long, and the heat became too great. It was like the Classic experiment—"
"How hot is your sun?"
There was a long pause. Then Sather Germ shrugged. "'Tis a great mystery. Suffice to say it has no true heat, but does send forth an activating principle against the phlogiston layer, which being excited grows vengeful against the air ... but you have not the training to understand."
"Okay, so they didn't tell you, if they knew." Dave stared up at the sun, trying to guess. The light looked about like what he was used to, where the sky was still whole. North light still was like what a color photographer would consider 5500 deg. Kelvin, so the sun must be pretty hot. Hot enough to melt anything he knew about. "What's the melting point of this sky material?"
He never did manage to make Sather Garm understand what a melting point was. But he found that one of the solutions tried had been the bleeding of eleven certified virgins for seven days. When the blood was mixed with dragonfeathers and frogsdown and melded with a genuine philosopher's stone, they had used it to ink in the right path of the planets of a diagram. It had failed. The sky had cracked and a piece had fallen into the vessel of blood, killing a Sather who was less than two thousand years old.
"Two thousand?" Dave asked. "How old is Sather Karf?"
"None remembers truly. He has always been the Sather Karf—at least ten thousand years or more. To attain the art of a Sather is the work of a score of centuries, usually."
That Sather had been in sad shape, it seemed. No one had been able to revive him, though bringing the dead back to life when the body was reasonably intact was routine magic that even a sersa could perform. It was after that they'd begun conjuring back to Dave's world for all the other experts.
"All whose true names they could find, that is," Garm amended. "The Egyptian pyramid builder, the man who discovered your greatest science, dianetics, the great Cagliostro—and what a time we had finding his true name! I was assigned to the helping of one who had discovered the secrets of gravity and some strange magic which he termed relativity—though indeed it had little to do with kinship, but was a private mystery. But when he was persuaded by divers means to help us, he gave up after one week, declaring it beyond his powers. They were even planning what might best be done to chastise him when he discovered in some manner a book of elementary conjuration and did then devise some strange new formula from the elements with which magic he disappeared."
It was nice to know that Einstein had given up on the problem, Dave thought bitterly. As nice as the discovery that there was no fuel for the equipment here. He spent an hour rigging up a portable saw to use in attempting to cut off a smaller piece of the sky, and then saw the motor burn out when he switched it on. It turned out that all electricity here was d.c., conjured up by commanding the electrons in a wire to move in one direction, and completely useless with a.c. motors. It might have been useful for welding, but there was no electric torch.
"'Tis obviously not a thing of reason," Garm told him severely. "If the current in such a form moves first in one direction and then in the other, then it cancels out and is useless. No, you must be wrong."
As Dave remembered it, Tesla had been plagued by similar doubts from such men as Edison. He gave up and settled finally for one of the native welding torches, filled with a dozen angry salamanders. The flame or whatever it was had enough heat, but it was hard to control. By the time he learned to use it, night had fallen, and he was too tired to try anything more. He ate a solitary supper and went to sleep.
During the next three days he learned a few things the hard way, however. In spite of Garm's assurance that nothing could melt the sky, he found that his sample would melt slowly under the heat of the torch. In the liquid state, it was jet black, though it cooled back to complete transparency. It was also without weight when in liquid form—a fact he discovered when it began rising through the air and spattering over everything, including his bare skin. The burns were nasty, but somehow seemed to heal with remarkable speed. Sersa Garm was impressed by the discoveries, and went off to suck his thumbs and brood over the new knowledge, much to Dave's relief.
More work established the fact that welding bits of the sky together was not particularly difficult. The liquid sky was perfectly willing to bond onto anything, including other bits of itself.
Now, if he could get a gang up the thousand miles to the sky with enough torches to melt the cracks, it might recongeal as a perfect sphere. The stuff was strong, but somewhat brittle. He still had no idea of how to get the stars and planets back in the right places.
"The mathematician thought of such an idea," Sersa Garm said sourly. "But 'twould never work. Even with much heat, it could not be done. For see you, the upper air is filled with phlogiston, which no man can breathe. Also, the phlogiston has negative weight, as every school child must know. Your liquid sky would sink through it, since negative weight must in truth be lighter than no weight, while nothing else would rise through the layer. And phlogiston will quench the flame of a rocket, as your expert von Braun discovered."
The man was a gold mine of information, all bad. The only remaining solution, apparently, was to raise a scaffolding over the whole planet to the sky, and send up mandrakes to weld back the broken pieces. They wouldn't need to breathe, anyhow. With material of infinite strength—and an infinite supply of it—and with infinite time and patience, it might have been worth considering.
Nema came out the next day with more cheering information. Her multi-times great grandfather, Sather Karf, regretted it, but he must have good news to release at once; the populace was starving because the food multipliers couldn't produce reliable supplies. Otherwise, Dave would find venom being transported into his blood in increasing amounts until the pain drove him mad. And, just incidentally, the Sons of the Egg who'd attacked him in the hospital had tried to reach the camp twice already, once by interpenetrating into a shipment of mandrakes, which indicated to what measures they would resort. They meant to kill him somehow, and the defense of him was growing too costly unless there were positive results.
Dave hinted at having nearly reached the solution, giving her only a bit of his wild idea of welding the sky. She took off with that, but he was sure it wouldn't satisfy the Sather. In that, he was right. By nightfall, when she came back from the city, he was groaning in pain. The venom had arrived ahead of her, and his blood seemed to be on fire.
She laid a cool hand on his forehead. "Poor Dave," she said. "If I were not registered and certified, sometimes I feel that I might ... but no more of that. Ser Perth sends you this unguent which will hold back the venom for a time, cautioning you not to reveal his softness." Ser Perth, it seemed, had reverted to his pre-Sagittarian character as expected. "And Sather Karf wants the full plans at once. He is losing patience."
He began rubbing on the ointment, which helped slightly. She peeled back his shirt and began helping, apparently delighted with the hair which he'd sprouted on his chest since his reincarnation. The unguent helped, but it wasn't enough.
"He never had any patience to lose. What the hell does he expect me to do?" Dave asked hotly. "Snap my fingers thus, yell abracadabra and give him egg in his beer?"
He stopped to stare at his hand, where a can of beer had suddenly materialized!
Nema squealed in delight. "What a novel way to conjure, Dave. Let me try it." She began snapping her fingers and saying the word eagerly, but nothing happened. Finally she turned back to him. "Show me again."
He was sure it wouldn't work twice, and he hesitated, not too willing to have his stock go down with her. Then he gave in.
"Abracadabra!" he said, and snapped his fingers.
There were results at once. This time an egg appeared in his hand, to the delighted cry of Nema. He bent to look at it uncertainly. It was a strange looking egg—more like one of the china eggs used to make hens think they were nesting when their eggs were still being taken from them.
Abruptly Nema sprang back. But she was too late. The egg was growing. It swelled to the size of a football, then was man-sized, and growing to the size of a huge tank that filled most of the tent. Suddenly it split open along one side and a group of men in dull robes and masks came spilling out of it.
"Die!" the one in front yelled. He lifted a double-bladed knife, charged for Dave, and brought the knife down.
The blades went through clothing, skin, flesh and bones, straight for Dave's heart.
The knife had pierced Dave's chest until the hilt pressed against his rib cage. He stared down at it, seeing it rise with the heaving of his lungs. Yet he was still alive!
Then the numbness of shock wore off and the pain nerves carried their messages to his brain. He still lived, but there was unholy agony where the blade lay. Coughing and choking on what must be his own blood, he scrabbled at the knife and ripped it out. Blood jetted from the gaping rent in his clothing. It gushed forth—and slowed; it frothed—trickled—and stopped entirely.
As he ripped his shirt back to look, the wound was closed already. But there was no easing of the pain that threatened to make him black out at any second.
He heard shouting, quarreling voices, but nothing made sense through the haze of his agony. He felt someone grab at him—more than one person—and they were dragging him willy-nilly across the ground. Something was clutched around his throat, almost choking him. He opened his eyes just as something clicked behind him.
The huge, translucent walls of the monstrous egg were all around him and the opened side was closing.
The pain began to abate. The bleeding had already stopped entirely and his lungs seemed to have cleared themselves of the blood and froth in them. Now with the ache of the wound ceasing, Dave could still feel the venom burning in his blood, and the constriction around his throat was still there, making it hard to breathe. He sat up, trying to free himself. The constriction came from an arm around his neck, but he couldn't see to whom it belonged, and there was no place to move aside in the corner of the egg.
From inside, the walls of the egg were transparent enough for him to see cloudy outlines of what lay beyond. He could see the ground sweeping away beneath them from all points. A man had run up and was standing beside the egg, beating at it. The man suddenly shot up like a fountain, growing huge; he towered over them, until he seemed miles high and the giant structures Dave could see were only the turned-up toes of the man's shoes. One of those shoes was lifting, as if the man meant to step on the egg.
They must be growing smaller again.
A voice said tightly: "We're small enough, Bork. Can you raise the wind for us now?"
"Hold on." Bork's voice seemed sure of itself.
The egg tilted and soared. Dave was thrown sidewise and had to fight for balance. He stared unbelievingly through the crystal shell. They rose like a Banshee jet. There was a shaggy, monstrous colossus in the distance, taller than the Himalayas—the man who had been beside them. Bork grunted. "Got it! We're all right now." He chanted something in a rapid undertone "All right, relax. That will teach them not to work resonance magic inside a protective ring; the egg knows how we could have got through otherwise. Lucky we were trying at the right time, though. The Satheri must be going crazy. Wait a minute, this tires the fingers."
The man called Bork halted the series of rapid passes he had been making, flexing his fingers with a grimace. The spinning egg began to drop at once, but he let out a long, keening cry, adding a slight flip of his other arm. Outside, something like a mist drew near and swirled around them. It looked huge to Dave, but must have been a small thing in fact. Now they began speeding along smoothly again. The thing was probably another sylph, strong enough to move them in their present reduced size.
Bork pointed his finger. "There's the roc!" He leaned closer to the wall of the tiny egg and shouted. The sylph changed direction, and began to bob about.
It drifted gently, while Bork pulled a few sticks with runes written on them toward him and made a hasty assembly of them. At once, there was a feeling of growing, and the sylph began to shrink away from them. Now they were falling swiftly, growing as they dropped. Dave felt his stomach twist, until he saw they were heading toward a huge bird that was cruising along under them, drawing closer. It looked like a cross between a condor and a hawk, but its wing span must have been over three hundred feet. It slipped under the egg, catching the falling object deftly on a cushion-like attachment between its wings, and then struck off briskly toward the east.
Bork snapped the side of the egg open and stepped out while the others followed. Dave tried to crawl out, but something held him back. It wasn't until Bork's big hand reached in to help him that he made it. When all were out, Bork tapped the egg-shaped object and caught it as it shrank. When it was small enough, he pocketed it.
Dave sat up again, examining himself, now that he had more room. His clothing was a mess, spattered with drying blood, but he seemed unharmed now. Even the burning of the venom was gone. He reached for the arm around his neck and began breaking it free from its stranglehold.
From behind an incredulous cry broke out. Nema sprawled across him, staring at his face and burying her head against his shoulder. "Dave! You're not dead! You're alive!"
Dave was still amazed at that himself. But Bork snorted. "Of course he is. Why'd we take him along with you hanging on in a faint if he were dead? When the snetha-knife kills, it kills completely. They stay dead, or they don't die. Sagittarian?"
She nodded, and the big man seemed to be doing some calculations in his head.
"Yeah," he decided. "It would be. There was one second there around midnight when all the signs were at their absolute maximum favorableness. Someone must have said some pretty dangerous health spells over him then." He turned to Dave, as if aware that the other was comparatively ignorant of such matters. "Happened once before, without this mess-up of the signs. They revived a corpse and found he was unkillable from then on. He lasted eight thousand years, or something like that, before he got burned trying to control a giant salamander. They cut off his head once, but it healed before the axe was all the way through. Woops!"
The bird had dipped downward, rushing toward the ground. It landed at a hundred miles an hour and managed to stop against a small entrance to a cave in the hillside. Except for the one patch where the bird had lighted, they were in the middle of a dense forest.
Dave and Nema were hustled into the cave, while the others melted into the woods, studying the skies. She clung to Dave, crying something about how the Sons of the Egg would torture them.
"All right," he said finally. "Who are these sons of eggs? And what have they got against me?"
"They're monsters," she told him. "They used to be the antimagic individualists. They wanted magic used only when other means wouldn't work. They fought against the Satheri. While magic produced their food and made a better world for them, they hated it because they couldn't do it for themselves. And a few renegade priests like my brother joined them."
"She means me," Bork said. He came in to drop on his haunches and grin at Dave. There was no sign of personal hatred in his look. "I used to be a stooge for Sather Karf, before I got sick of it. How do you feel, Dave Hanson?"
Dave considered it, still in wonder at the truth. "I feel good. Even the venom they were putting in my blood doesn't seem to hurt any more."
"Fine. Means the Sather Karf must believe we killed you—he must have the report by now. If he thinks you're dead, there's no point in his giving chase; he knows I wouldn't let them kill Nema, even if she is a little fool. Anyhow, he's not really such a bad old guy, Dave—not, like some of those Satheri. Well, you figure how you'd like it if you were just a simple man and some priest magicked her away from you—and then sent her back with enough magic of her own to be a witch and make life hell for you because she'd been kicked out by the priest, but he hadn't pulled the wanting spell off her. Or anything else you wanted and couldn't keep against magic. Sure, they fed us. They had to, after they took away our fields and the kine, and got everyone into the habit of taking their dole instead of earning our living in the old way. They made slaves of us. Any man who lets another be responsible for him is a slave. It's a fine world for the Satheri, if they can keep the egg from breaking."
"What's all this egg nonsense?"
Bork shrugged. "Plain good sense. Why should there be a sky shell around the planet? Look, there's a legend here. You should know it, since for all I know it has some meaning for you. Long ago—or away, or whatever—there was a world called Thare and another called Erath. Two worlds, separate and distinct, on their own branching time paths. They must have been that way since the moment of creation. One was a world of rule and law. One plus one might not always equal two, but it had to equal something. There seems to be some similarity to your world in that, doesn't there? The other was—well, you'd call it chaos, though it had some laws, if they could be predicted. One plus one there depended—or maybe there was no such thing as unity. Mass-energy wasn't conserved. It was deserved. It was a world of anarchy, from your point of view. It must have been a terrible place to live, I guess."
He hesitated somberly. "As terrible as this one is getting to be," he said at last. "Anyway, there were people who lived there. There were the two inhabited worlds in their own time lines, or probability orbits, or whatever. You know, I suppose, how worlds of probability would separate and diverge as time goes on? Of course. Well, these two worlds coalesced."
He looked searchingly at Dave. "Do you see it? The two time lines came together. Two opposites fused into one. Don't ask me to explain it; it was long ago, and all I know for sure is that it happened. The two worlds met and fused, and out of the two came this world, in what the books call the Dawnstruggle. When it was over, our world was as it has been for thousands of centuries. In fact, one result was that in theory, neither original world could have a real past, and the fusion was something that had been—no period of change. It's pretty complicated."
"It sounds worse than that," Dave grumbled. "But while that might explain the mystery of magic working here, it doesn't explain your sky."
Bork scratched his head. "No, not too well," he admitted. "I've always had some doubts about whether or not all the worlds have a shell around them. I don't know. But our world does, and the shell is cracking. The Satheri don't like it; they want to stop it. We want it to happen. For the two lines that met and fused into one have an analogue. Doesn't the story of that fusion suggest something to you, Dave Hanson? Don't you see it, the male principle of rule and the female principle of whim; they join, and the egg is fertile! Two universes join, and the result is a nucleus world surrounded by a shell, like an egg. We're a universe egg. And when an egg hatches, you don't try to put it back together!"
He didn't look like a fanatic, Dave told himself. Crazy or not, he took this business of the hatching egg seriously. But you could never be sure about anyone who joined a cult. "What is your egg going to hatch into?" he asked.
The big man shrugged. "Does an egg know it is going to become a hen—or maybe a fish? We can't possibly tell, of course."
Dave considered it. "Don't you even have a guess?"
Bork answered shortly, "No." He looked worried, Dave thought, and guessed that even the fanatics were not quite sure they wanted to be hatched. Bork shrugged again.
"An egg has got to hatch," he said. "That's all there is to it. We prophesied this, oh, two hundred years ago. The Satheri laughed. Now they've stopped laughing, but they want to stop it. What happens to a chick when it is stopped from hatching? Does it go on being a chick, or does it die? It dies, of course. And we don't want to die. No, Dave Hanson, we don't know what happens next—but we do know that we must go through with it. I have nothing against you personally—but I can't let you stop us. That's why we tried to kill you. If I could, I'd kill you now, with the snetha-knife so they couldn't revive you."
Dave said reasonably, "You can't expect me to like it, you know. The Satheri, at least, saved my life—" He stopped in confusion. Bork was staring at him in hilarious incredulousness that broke into roars of laughter.
"You mean ... Dave Hanson, do you believe everything they tell you? Don't you know that the Satheri arranged to kill you first? They needed a favorable death conjunction to bring you back to life; they got it—by arranging an accident!"
Nema cried out in protest. "That's a lie!"
"Of course," Bork said mildly. "You always were on their side, little sister. You were also usually a darned nuisance, fond as I was of you. Come here."
He caught her and yanked a single hair out of her head. She screamed and tried to claw him, then fought for the hair. Bork was immovable. He held her off easily with one hand while the fingers of the other danced in the air. He spoke what seemed to be a name, though it bore no resemblance to Nema. She quieted, trembling.
"You'll find a broom near the entrance, little sister. Take it and go back, to forget that Dave Hanson lives. You saw him die and were dragged off with us and his body. You escaped before we reached our hideaway. By the knot I tie in your true hair and by your secret name, this I command."
She blinked slowly and looked around as Bork burned the knotted hair. Her eyes swept past Bork and Dave without seeing them and centered on the broom one man held out to her, without appearing to see him, either. She seized the broom. A sob came to her throat. "The devil! The renegade devil! He didn't have to kill Dave! He didn't—"
Her voice died away as she ran toward the clearing. Dave made no protest. He suspected Bork was putting the spell on her for her own good, and he agreed that she was better out of all this.
"Now where were we?" Bork asked. "Oh, yes, I was trying to convert you and knowing I'd failed already. Of course, I don't know that they killed you first—but those are their methods. Take it from me, I know. I was the youngest Ser ever to be accepted for training as a Sather. They wanted you, so they got you."
Dave considered it. It seemed as likely as anything else. "Why me?" he asked.
"Because you can put back the sky. At least, the Satheri think so, and I must admit that in some ways they are smarter than we."
Dave started to protest, but Bork cut him off.
"I know all about your big secret. You're not the engineer, whose true name was longer. We know all that. Our pools are closer to perfection than theirs, not being contaminated by city air, and we see more. But there is a cycle of confirmation; if prophecy indicates a thing will happen, it will happen—though not always as expected. The prophecy fulfills itself, rather than being fulfilled. Then there are the words on the monument—a monument meant for your uncle, but carrying your true name, because his friends felt the short form sounded better. It was something of a coincidence that they had the wrong true name. But prophecy is always strongest when based on coincidence—that is a prime rule. And those words coupled with our revelations prophesy that you—not your uncle—can do the impossible. So what are we going to do with you?"
Bork's attitude was reassuring, somehow. It was nearer his own than any Dave had heard on this world. And the kidnapping was beginning to look like a relief. The Sons of the Egg had gotten him off the hook with Sather Karf. He grinned and stretched back. "If I'm unkillable, Bork, what can you do?"
The big man grinned back. "Flow rock around you up to your nose and toss you into a lake. You'd live there—but you'd always be drowning and you'd find it slightly unpleasant for the next few thousand years! It's not as bad as being turned into a mangrove with your soul intact, but it would last longer. And don't think the Satheri can't pull a lot worse than that. They have your name—everyone has your secret name here—and parts of you."
The conversation was suddenly less pleasant. Dave thought it over. "I could stay here and join your group. I might as well, since I can't really help the Satheri anyhow."
"They'd spot your aura eventually. They'll be checking around here for us for a while. Of course, we might do something about it, if you really converted. But I don't think you would, if you knew more." Bork got up and headed for the entrance. "I wasn't going to let you see the risings, but now maybe I will. If you still want to join, it might be worked. Otherwise, I'll think of something else."
Dave followed the man out into the clearing. A few men were just planning to leave, and they looked at Dave suspiciously, but made no protest. One, whom Dave recognized as the leader with the snetha-knife, scowled.
"The risings are almost due, Bork," he said.
Bork nodded. "I know, Malok. I've decided to let Dave Hanson watch. Dave, this is our leader here, Res Malok."
Dave felt no strong love for his would-be murderer, and it seemed to be mutual. But no protest was lodged. Apparently Bork was their top conjurer, and privileged. They crossed the clearing and went through the woods toward another, smaller one. Here a group of some fifty men were watching the sky, obviously waiting. Others stood around, watching them and avoiding looking up. Almost directly overhead, there was a rent place where the strange absence of color or feature indicated a hole in the dome over them. As it drew nearer true vertical, a chanting began among the men with up-turned faces. Their hands went upwards, fingers spread and curled into an unnatural position. Then they stood waiting.
"I don't like it," Bork whispered to Dave. "This is one of the reasons we're growing too weak to fight the Satheri."
"What's wrong with a ceremony of worship, if you must worship your eggshell?" Dave asked.
"You'll see. That was all it was once—just worship. But now for weeks, things are changing. They think it's a sign of favor, but I don't know. There, watch!"
The hole in the sky was directly overhead now, and the moaning had risen in pitch. Across the little clearing, Malok began backing quietly away, carefully not looking upwards. Nobody but Dave seemed to notice his absence. There was a louder moan.
One of the men in the clearing began to rise upwards slowly. His body was rigid as it lifted a foot, ten feet, then a hundred above the ground. Now it picked up speed, and rushed upwards. Another began to rise, and another. In seconds, more than half of those who had waited were screaming upwards toward the hole in the sky. They disappeared in the distance.
Those who had merely stood by and those who had worshipped waited a few seconds more, but no more rose. The men sighed and began moving out of the clearing. Dave arose to follow, but Bork gestured for him to wait.
"Sometimes—" he said.
They were alone now. Still Bork waited, staring upwards. Then Dave saw something in the sky. A speck appeared and came hurtling down. In seconds, it was the body of one of the men who had risen. Dave felt his stomach tighten and braced himself. There was no slowing as the body fell. It landed in the center of the clearing, without losing speed, but with less noise than he had expected.
When they reached the shattered body, there could be no question of its being dead.
Bork's face was solemn. "If you're thinking of joining, you'd better know the worst. You're too easily shocked to make a good convert unless you're prepared. The risings have been going on for some time. Malok swears it proves we are right. But I've seen five other bodies come down like this. What does it mean? Are they stillborn? We don't know. Shall I revive him for you?"
Dave felt sick as he stared at the ghastly terror on the face of the corpse. The last thing he wanted to see was its revival, but his curiosity about the secret in the sky could not be denied. He nodded.
Bork drew a set of phials and implements in miniature size from under his robe. "This is routine," he said. He snapped his fingers and produced a small flame over the heart of the corpse. Into that he began dusting powders, mixing them with something that looked like blood. Finally he called a name and a command. There was a sharp explosion, a hissing, and Bork's voice calling.
The dead man flowed together and was whole. He stood up woodenly, with his face frozen. "Who calls?" he asked in an uninflected, hollow voice. "Why am I called? I have no soul."
"We call," Bork answered. "Tell us what you saw at the hole in the sky."
A scream tore from the throat of the thing, and its hands came up to its eyes, tearing at them. Its mouth worked soundlessly, and breath sucked in. Then a single word came out.
It fell onto the grass, distorted in death again. Bork shuddered.
"The others were the same," he said. "And he can't be revived again. Even the strongest spell can't bring back his soul. That is gone, somehow."
Dave shivered. "And knowing that, you'd still fight against repairing the sky?"
"Hatching is probably always horrible from inside the shell," Bork answered. "Do you still want to join us? No, I thought not. Well, then, let's go back. We might as well try to eat something while I think about what to do with you."
Malok and most of the others were gone when they reached the cave again. Bork fell to work with some scraps of food, cursing the configurations of the planets as his spell refused to work. Then suddenly the scraps became a mass of sour-smelling stuff. Bork made a face as he tasted it, but he ate it in silence. Dave couldn't force himself to put it in his mouth, though he was hungry by then.
He considered, and then snapped his fingers. "Abracadabra," he cried. He swore as something wet and slimy that looked like seaweed plopped into his hand. The next time he got a limp fish that had been dead far too long. But the third try worked better. This time, a whole bunch of bananas appeared. They were a little riper than he liked, but some of them were edible enough. He handed some to the other man, who quickly abandoned his own creation.
Bork was thoughtful as he ate. Finally he grimaced. "New magic!" he said. "Maybe that's the secret of the prophecy. I thought you knew no magic."
"I didn't," Dave admitted. He was still tingling inside himself at this confirmation of his earlier discovery. It was unpredictable magic, but apparently bore some vague relationship to what he was wishing for.
"So the lake's out," Bork decided. "With unknown powers at your command, you might escape in time. Well, that settles it. There's one place where nobody will look for you or listen to you. You'll be nothing but another among millions, and that's probably the best hiding place for you. With the overseers they have, you couldn't even turn yourself back to the Satheri, though I'll admit I'm hoping you don't want them to find you."
"And I was beginning to think you liked me," Dave commented bitterly.
Bork grinned. "I do, Dave Hanson. That's why I'm picking the easiest place to hide you I can think of. It will be hell, but anything else would be worse. Better strip and put this cloth on."
The thing he held out was little more than a rag, apparently torn from one of the robes. "Come on, strip, or I'll burn off your clothes with a salamander. There, that's better. Now wrap the cloth around your waist and let it hang down in front. It'll be easier on you if you don't attract much attention. The sky seems to indicate the planets favor teleportation now. Be quick before I change my mind and think of something worse!"
Dave didn't see what he did this time, but there was a puff of flame in front of his eyes.
The next second, he stood manacled in a long line of men loaded with heavy stones. Over their backs fell the cutting lashes of a whip. Far ahead was a partially finished pyramid. Dave was obviously one of the building slaves.
Sunrise glared harshly over the desert. It was already hot enough to send heat waves dancing over the sand as Hanson wakened under the bite of a lash. The overseers were shouting and kicking the slaves awake. Overhead the marred sky shone in crazy quilt patterns.
Hanson stood up, taking the final bite of the whip without flinching. He glanced down at his body, noticing that it had somehow developed a healthy deep tan during the few hours of murderous labor the day before. He wasn't particularly surprised. Something in his mind seemed also to have developed a "tan" that let him face the bite of chance without flinching. He'd stopped wondering and now accepted; he meant to get away from here at the first chance and he was somehow sure he could.
It was made easier by the boundless strength of his new body. He showed no signs of buckling under physical work that would have killed him on his own world.