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.