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.
Not all the slaves got up. Two beside him didn't move at all. Sleeping through that brutal awakening seemed impossible. When Hanson looked closer, he saw that they weren't asleep; they were dead.
The overseer raged back along the line and saw them. He must be one of those conjured into existence here from the real Egypt of the past. He might have no soul, but a lifetime of being an overseer had given him habits that replaced the need for what had been a pretty slim soul to begin with.
"Quitters!" he yelled. "Lazy, worthless, work-dodging goldbrick artists!" He knelt in fury, thumbing back the eyelids of the corpses. There was little need for the test. They were too limp, too waxen to be pretending.
The overseer cut them out of the chain and kicked at Hanson. "Move along!" he bellowed. "Menes himself is here, and he's not as gentle as I am."
Hanson joined the long line, wondering what they were going to do about breakfast. How the devil did they expect the slaves to put in sixteen hours of work without some kind of food? There had been nothing the night before but a skin of water. There was not even that much this morning. No wonder the two beside him had died from overwork, beatings and plain starvation.
Menes was there, all right. Hanson saw him from the distance, a skinny giant of a man in breechclout, cape and golden headdress. He bore a whip like everyone else who seemed to have any authority at all, but he wasn't using it. He was standing hawklike on a slight rise in the sandy earth, motionless and silent. Beside him was a shorter figure: a pudgy man with a thin mustache, on whom the Egyptian headdress looked strangely out of place. It could only be Ser Perth!
Hanson's staring came to an end as the lash cut down across his shoulders, biting through to the shoulder-bone. He stumbled forward, heedless of the overseers' shouting voices. Someday, if he had the chance, he'd flay his own overseer, but that could wait. Even the agony of the cut couldn't take his mind from Ser Perth's presence. Had Bork slipped up—did the Satheri know that Hanson was still alive, and had they sent Ser Perth here to locate him? It seemed unlikely, however. The man was paying no attention to the lines of slaves. It would be hard to spot one among three million, anyhow. More likely, Hanson decided, Ser Perth was supervising the supervisors, making an inspection tour of all this.
Of all what? Apparently then this must be another of their frenzied efforts to find a way to put back the sky. He'd heard that they had called up the pyramid builder, but hadn't fully realized it would lead to this type of activity.
He looked around him appraisingly. The long lines of slaves that had been carrying rock and rubble the day before now were being formed into hauling teams. Long ropes were looped around enormous slabs of quarried rock. Rollers underneath them and slaves tugging and pushing at them were the only means of moving them. The huge stones slid remorselessly forward onto the prepared beds of rubble. Casting back in his memory, Hanson could not recall seeing the rock slabs the night before. They had appeared as if by magic—
Obviously, they had really been conjured up by magic. But if the rocks could be conjured, what was the need of all the slaves and the sadistic overseers? Why not simply magic the entire construction, whatever it was to be?
The whip hit him again, and the raging voice of the overseer ranted in his ears. "Get on, you blundering slacker. Menes himself is looking at you. Ho there—what the devil?"
The overseer's hand spun Hanson around. The man's eyes, large and opaque, stared at Hanson. He frowned cruelly. "Yeah, you're the same one! Didn't I take the hide off your back twice already? And now you stand there without a scar or a drop of blood!"
Hanson grunted feebly. He didn't want attention called to himself while Ser Perth was around. "I—I heal quickly." It was no more than the truth. Either the body they'd given him or the conjuring during the right split second had enabled him to heal almost before a blow was struck.
"Magic!" The overseer scowled and gave Hanson a shove that sent him sprawling. "Blithering magic again! Magic stones that melt when you get them in place—magic slaves that the whip won't touch! And they expect us to do a job of work such as not even Thoth could dream up! They won't take honest work. No, they have to come snooping and conjuring and interfering. Wheels on rollers! Tools of steel and the gods know what instead of honest stone. Magic to lift things instead of honest ropes that shrink and wood that swells. Magic that fails, and rush, rush, rush until I'm half ready to be tortured for falling behind, and—you! You would, would you!" His voice trailed off into a fresh roar of rage as he caught sight of other slaves taking advantage of his attention to Hanson to relax. He raced off, brandishing the whip.
Hanson tried to make himself inconspicuous after that. The wounds would heal, and the beatings could never kill him; but there had been no provision in his new body for the suppression of pain. He hungered, thirsted and suffered like anyone else. Maybe he was learning to take it, here, but not to like it.
At the expense of a hundred slaves and considerable deterioration of the whips, one block of stone was in place before the sun was high overhead in the coppery, mottled sky. Then there was the blessing of a moment's pause. Men were coming down the long lines, handing something to the slaves. Food, Hanson anticipated.
He was wrong. When the slave with the wicker basket came closer he could see that the contents were not food but some powdery stuff that was dipped out with carved spoons into the eager hands of the slaves. Hanson smelled his portion dubiously. It was cloying, sickly sweet.
Hashish! Or opium, heroin, hemp—Hanson was no expert. But it was certainly some kind of drug. Judging by the avid way the other slaves were gulping it down, each one of them had been exposed to it before. Hanson cautiously made the pretense of swallowing his before he allowed it to slip through his fingers to mingle with the sand. Drug addiction was obviously a convenient way to make the slaves forget their aches and fears, to keep them everlasting anxious to please whatever was necessary to make sure the precious, deadly ration never stopped.
There was still no sign of food. The pause in the labor was only for the length of time it took the drug-bearing slaves to complete their task. Ten minutes, or fifteen at the outside; then the overseers were back with the orders and the lashes.
The slaves regrouped on new jobs, and Hanson found himself in a bunch of a dozen or so. They were lashing the hauling ropes around a twelve-foot block of stone; the rollers were already in place, with the crudely plaited ropes dangling loosely. Hanson found himself being lifted by a couple of the other slaves to the shoulders of a third. His clawing hands caught the top of the block and the slaves below heaved him upward. He scrambled to the top and caught the ropes that were flung up to him.
From his vantage point he saw what he had not seen before—the amazing size of the construction project. This was no piffling little Gizeh pyramid, no simple tomb for a king. Its base was measured in kilometers instead of yards, and its top was going to be proportionally high, apparently. It hardly seemed that there could be enough stone in the whole world to finish the job. As far as Hanson could see, over the level sand, the ground was black with the suffering millions of slaves in their labor gangs.
The idiots must be trying to reach the sky with their pyramid. There could be no other answer to the immense bulk planned for this structure. Like the pride-maddened men of Babel, they were building a sky-high thing of stone. It was obviously impossible, and even Menes must be aware of that. Yet perhaps it was no more impossible than all the rest of the things in this impossible world.
When the warlocks of this world had discovered that they could not solve the problem of the sky, they must have gone into a state of pure hysteria, like a chicken dashing back and forth in front of a car. They had sought through other worlds and ages for anyone with a reputation as a builder, engineer or construction genius, without screening the probability of finding an answer. The size of the ancient pyramid must have been enough to sway them. They had used Hanson, Menes, Einstein, Cagliostro—for some reason of their own, since he'd never been a builder—and probably a thousand more. And then they had half-supplied all of them, rather than picking the most likely few and giving full cooperation. Magic must have made solutions to most things so easy that they no longer had the guts to try the impossible themselves. A pyramid seemed like a ridiculous solution, but for an incredible task, an impossible solution had to be tried.
And maybe, he thought, they'd overlooked the obvious in their own system. The solution to a problem in magic should logically be found in magic, not in the methods of other worlds. His mind groped for something that almost came into his consciousness—some inkling of what should have been done, or how they had failed. It was probably only an idle fancy, but—
"Hey!" One of the slaves below was waving at him. While Hanson looked down, the slave called to another, got a shoulder to lean on, and walked his way up the side of the block, pushed from below and helped by Hanson's hands above. He was panting when he reached the top, but he could still talk. "Look, it's your skin, but you're going to be in trouble if you don't get busy. Look out for that overseer up there. Don't just stand around when he's in sight." He picked up a loop of rope and passed it to Hanson, making a great show of hard work.
Hanson stared up at the overseer who was staring back at him. "Why is he any worse than the rest of this crowd?"
The slave shuddered as the dour, slow-moving overseer began walking stiffly toward them. "Don't let the fact that he's an overseer fool you. He's smarter than most of his kind, but just as ugly. He's a mandrake, and you can't afford to mess with him."
Hanson looked at the ancient, wrinkled face of the mandrake and shuddered. There was the complete incarnation of inhumanity in the thing's expression. He passed ropes around the corners until the mandrake turned and rigidly marched away, the blows of his whip falling metronome-like on the slaves he passed. "Thanks," Hanson said "I wonder what it's like, being a true mandrake?"
"Depends," the slave said easily. He was obviously more intelligent than most, and better at conserving himself. "Some mandrake-men are real. I mean, the magicians want somebody whom they can't just call back—direct translation of the body usually messes up the brain patterns enough to make the thinkers hard to use, especially with the sky falling. So they get his name and some hold on his soul and then rebuild his body around a mandrake root. They bind his soul into that, and in some ways he's almost human. Sometimes they even improve on what he was. But the true mandrake—like that one—never was human. Just an ugly, filthy simulacrum. It's bad business. I never liked it, even though I was in training for sersa rating."
"You're from this world?" Hanson asked in surprise. He'd been assuming that the man was one of the things called back.
"A lot of us are. They conscripted a lot of the people they didn't need for these jobs. But I was a little special. All right, maybe you don't believe me—you think they wouldn't send a student sersa here now. Look, I can prove it. I managed to sneak one of the books I was studying back with me. See?"
He drew a thin volume from his breechclout cautiously, then slipped it back again. "You don't get such books unless you're at least of student rating." He sighed, then shrugged. "My trouble is that I could never keep my mouth shut. I was attendant at one of the revivatoria, and I got drunk enough to let out some information about one of the important revival cases. So here I am."
"Umm." Hanson worked silently for a minute, wondering how far coincidence could go. It could go a long ways here, he decided. "You wouldn't have been sentenced to twenty lifetimes here by the Sather Karf, would you?"
The slave stared at him in surprise. "You guessed it. I've died only fourteen times so far, so I've got six more lives to go. But—hey, you can't be! They were counting on you to be the one who really fixed things. Don't tell me my talking out of turn did this to you."
Hanson reassured him on that. He recognized the man now for another reason. "Aren't you the one I saw dead on his back right next to me this morning?"
"Probably. Name's Barg." He stood up to take a careful look at the net of cording around the stone. "Looks sound enough. Yeah, I died this morning, which is why I'm fairly fresh now. Those overseers won't feed us because it takes time and wastes food; they let us die and then have us dragged back for more work. It's a lot easier on the ones they dragged back already dead; dying doesn't matter so much without a soul."
"Some of them seem to be Indians," Hanson noted. He hadn't paid too much attention, but the slaves seemed to be from every possible background.
Barg nodded. "Aztecs from a place called Tenochtitlan. Twenty thousand of them got sacrificed in a bunch for some reason or other. Poor devils. They think this is some kind of heaven. They tell me this is easy work compared to the type they had to undergo. The Satheri like to get big bunches through in one conjuration, like the haul they made from the victims of somebody named Tamerlane." He tested a rope, then dropped to a sitting position on the edge of the block. "I'll let you stay up to call signals from here. Only watch it. That overseer has his eyes on you. Make sure the ropes stay tight while we see if the thing can be moved."
He started to slip over the side, hanging by his fingertips. Something caught, and he swore. With one hand, he managed to free his breechclout and drag out the thin volume that was lodged between his groin and the block. "Here, hold this for me until we meet tonight. You've got more room to hide it in your cloth than I have." He tossed it over quickly, then dropped from sight to land on the ground below.
Hanson shoved the book out of sight and tried to act busy again. The mandrake overseer had started ponderously toward him. But in a moment the thing's attention was directed to some other object of torture.
Hanson braced himself as the lines of slaves beneath him settled themselves to the ropes. There was a loud cracking of whips and a chorus of groans. A small drum took up a beat, and the slaves strained and tugged in unison. Ever so slowly, the enormous block of stone began to move, while the ropes drew tighter.
Hanson checked the rigging with half his mind, while the other half raced in a crazy circle of speculation. Mandrakes and mandrake-men, zombie-men, from the past and multiple revivals! A sky that fell in great chunks. What came next in this ridiculous world in which he seemed to be trapped?
As if in answer to his question, there was a sudden, coruscating flare from above.
Hanson's body reacted instinctively. His arm came up over his eyes, cutting off the glare. But he managed to squint across it, upwards toward what was happening in the cracked dome. For a split second, he thought that the sun had gone nova.
He was wrong, but not by too much. Something had happened to the sun. Now it was flickering and flaming, shooting enormous jets of fire from its rim. It hovered at the edge of a great new hole and seemed to be wobbling, careening and losing its balance.
There was a massive shriek of fear and panic from the horde of slaves. They began bellowing like the collective death-agony of a world. Most of them dropped their ropes and ran in blind panic, trampling over each other in their random flight for safety. The human overseers were part of the same panic-stricken riot. Only the mandrakes stood stolidly in place, flicking each running man who passed them.
Hanson flung himself face down on the stone. There was a roar of tortured air from overhead and a thundering sound that was unlike anything except the tearing of an infinity of cloth combined with a sustained explosion of atomic bombs. Then it seemed as if the thunderbolt of Thor himself had blasted in Hanson's ears.
The sky had ripped again, and this time the entire dome shook with the shock. But that wasn't the worst of it.
The sun had broken through the hole and was falling!