‘What did you do that for?’ said Ptraci, spitting out sand.
‘Someone fired at us!’
‘I shouldn’t think so. I mean, they didn’t know we were here, did they? You needn’t have pulled me off like that.’
Teppic conceded this, rather reluctantly, and eased himself cautiously up the sliding surface of the dune. The voices were arguing again
‘We simply haven’t got all the parameters right.’
‘I know what we haven’t got all right.’
‘What is that, pray?’
‘We haven’t got any more bloody tortoises. That’s what we haven’t got.’
Teppic carefully poked his head over the top of the dune. He saw a large cleared area, surrounded by complicated ranks of markers and flags. There were one or two buildings in it, mostly consisting of cages, and several other intricate constructions he could not recognise. In the middle of it all were two men – one small, fat and florid, the other tall and willowy and with an indefinable air of authority. They were wearing sheets. Clustered around them, and not wearing very much at all, was a group of slaves. One of them was holding a bow.
Several of them were holding tortoises on sticks. They looked a bit pathetic, like tortoise lollies.
‘Anyway, it’s cruel,’ said the tall man. ‘Poor little things. They look so sad with their little legs waggling.’
‘It’s logically impossible for the arrow to hit them!’ The fat man threw up his hands. ‘It shouldn’t do it! You must be giving me the wrong type of tortoise,’ he added accusingly.
‘We ough to try again with faster tortoises.’
‘Or slower arrows?’
Teppic was aware of a faint scuffling by his chin. There was a small tortoise scurrying past him. It had several ricochet marks on its shell.
‘We’ll have one last try,’ said the fat man. He turned to the slaves. ‘You lot – go and find that tortoise.’
The little reptile gave Teppic a look of mingled pleading and hope. He stared at it, and then lifted it up carefully and tucked it behind a rock.
He slid back down the dune to Ptraci.
‘There’s something really weird going on over there,’ he said. ‘They’re shooting tortoises.’
‘Search me. They seem to think the tortoise ought to be able to run away.
‘What, from an arrow?’
‘Like I said. Really weird. You stay here. I’ll whistle if it’s safe to follow me.’
‘What will you do if it isn’t safe?’
He climbed the dune again and, after brushing as much sand as possible off his clothing, stood up and waved his cap at the little crowd. An arrow took it out of his hands.
‘Oops!’ said the fat man. ‘Sorry!’
He scurried across the trampled sand to where Teppic was standing and staring at his stinging fingers.
‘Just had it in my hand,’ he panted. ‘Many apologies, didn’t realise it was loaded. Whatever will you think of me?’
Teppic took a deep breath.
‘Xeno’s the name,’ gasped the fat man, before he could speak. ‘Are you hurt? We did put up warning signs, I’m sure. Did you come in over the desert? You must be thirsty. Would you like a drink? Who are you? You haven’t seen a tortoise up there, have you? Damned fast things, go like greased thunderbolts, there’s no stopping the little buggers.’
Teppic deflated again.
‘Tortoises?’ he said. ‘Are we talking about those, you know, stones on legs?’
‘That’s right, that’s right,’ said Xeno. ‘Take your eyes off them for a second, and vazoom!’
‘Vazoom?’ said Teppic. He knew about tortoises. There were tortoises in the Old Kingdom. They could be called a lot of things – vegetarians, patient, thoughtful, even extremely diligent and persistent sex-maniacs – but never, up until now, fast. Fast was a word particularly associated with tortoises because they were not it.
‘Are you sure?’ he said.
‘Fastest animal on the face of the Disc, your common tortoise,’ said Xeno, but he had the grace to look shifty.
‘Logically, that is,’ he added.
The tall man gave Teppic a nod.
‘Take no notice of him, boy,’ he said. ‘He’s just covering himself because of the accident last week.’
‘The tortoise did beat the hare,’ said Xeno sulkily.
‘The hare was dead, Xeno,’ said the tall man patiently.
‘Because you shot it.’
‘I was aiming at the tortoise. You know, trying to combine two experiments, cut down on expensive research time, make full use of available-‘ Xeno gestured with the bow, which now had another arrow in it.
‘Excuse me,’ said Teppic. ‘Could you put it down a minute? Me and my friend have come a long way and it would be nice not to be shot at again.’
These two seem harmless, he thought, and almost believed it.
He whistled. On cue, Ptraci came around the dune, leading You Bastard. Teppic doubted the capability of her costume to hold any pockets whatsoever, but she seemed to have been able to repair her make-up, re-kohl her eyes and put up her hair. She undulated towards the group like a snake in a skid, determined to hit the strangers with the full force of her personality. She was also holding something in her other hand.
‘She’s found the tortoise!’ said Xeno. ‘Well done!’
The reptile shot back into its shell. Ptraci glared. She didn’t have much in the world except herself, and didn’t like to be hailed as a mere holder of testudinoids.
The tall man sighed. ‘You know, Xeno,’ he said, ‘I can’t help thinking you’ve got the wrong end of the stick with this whole tortoise-and-arrow business.’
The little man glared at him.
‘The trouble with you, Ibid,’ he said, ‘is that you think you’re the biggest bloody authority on everything.’
The Gods of the Old Kingdom were awakening.
Belief is a force. It’s a weak force, by comparison with gravity; when it comes to moving mountains, gravity wins every time. But it still exists, and now that the Old Kingdom was enclosed upon itself, floating free of the rest of the universe, drifting away from the general consensus that is dignified by the name of reality, the power of belief was making itself felt.
For seven thousand years the people of Djelibeybi had believed in their gods.
Now their gods existed. They had, as it were, the complete Set.
And the people of the Old Kingdom were learning that, for example, Vut the Dog-Headed God of the Evening looks a lot better painted on a pot than he does when all seventy feet of him, growling and stinking, is lurching down the Street outside.
Dios sat in the throne room, the gold mask of the king on his knees, staring out across the sombre air. The cluster of lesser priests around the door finally plucked up the courage to approach him, in the same general frame of mind as you would approach a growling lion. No-one is more worried by the actual physical manifestation of a god than his priests; it’s like having the auditors in unexpectedly.
Only Koomi stood a little aside from the others. He was thinking hard. Strange and original thoughts were crowding along rarely-trodden neural pathways, heading in unthinkable directions. He wanted to see where they led.
‘O Dios,’ murmured the high priest of Ket, the This-Headed God of Justice. ‘What is the king’s command? The gods are striding the land, and they are fighting and breaking houses, O Dios. Where is the king? What would he have us do?’
‘Yea,’ said the high priest of Scrab, the Pusher of the Ball of the Sun. He felt something more was expected of him. ‘And verily,’ he added. ‘Your lordship will have noticed that the sun is wobbling, because all the Gods of the Sun are fighting for it and-‘ he shuffled his feet – ‘the blessed Scrab made a strategic withdrawal and has, er, made an unscheduled landing on the town of Hort. A number of buildings broke his fall.’
‘And rightly so,’ said the high priest of Thrrp, the Charioteer of the Sun. ‘For, as all know, my master is the true god of the-‘
His words tailed off.
Dios was trembling, his body rocking slowly back and forth. His eyes stared at nothing. His hands gripped the mask almost hard enough to leave fingerprints in the gold, and his lips soundlessly shaped the words of the Ritual of the Second Hour, which had been said at this time for thousands of years.
‘I think it’s the shock,’ said one of the priests. ‘You know, he’s always been so set in his ways.’
The others hastened to show that there was at least something they could advise on.
‘Fetch him a glass of water.’
‘Put a paper bag over his head.’
‘Sacrifice a chicken under his nose.’
There was a high-pitched whistling noise, the distant crump of an explosion, and a long hissing. A few tendrils of steam curled into the room.
The priests rushed to the balcony, leaving Dios in his unnerving pool of trauma, and found that the crowds around the palace were staring at the sky.
‘It would appear,’ said the high priest of Cephut, God of Cutlery, who felt that he could take a more relaxed view of the immediate situation, ‘that Thrrp has fumbled it and has fallen to a surprise tackle from Jeht, Boatman of the Solar Orb.’
There was a distant buzzing, as of several billion bluebottles taking off in a panic, and a huge dark shape passed over the palace.
‘But,’ said the high priest of Cephut, ‘here comes Scrab again . . . yes, he’s gaining height . . . Jeht hasn’t seen him yet, he’s progressing confidently towards the meridian, and here comes Sessifet, Goddess of the Afternoon! This is a surprise! What a surprise this is! A young goddess, yet to make her mark, but my word, what a lot of promise there, this is an astonishing bid, eunuchs and gentlemen, and . . yes . . . Scrab has fumbled it! He’s fumbled it! . . .’
The shadows danced and spun on the stones of the balcony.
‘. . . and . . . what’s this? The elder gods are, there’s no other word for it, they’re co-operating against these brash newcomers! But plucky young Sessifet is hanging in there, she’s exploiting the weakness. . . she’s in! . . . and pulling away now, pulling away, Gil and Scrab appear to be fighting, she’s got a clear sky and, yes, yes . . . yes! . . . it’s noon! It’s noon! It’s noon!’
Silence. The priest was aware that everyone was staring at him.
Then someone said, ‘Why are you shouting into that bulrush?’
‘Sorry. Don’t know what came over me there.’
The priestess of Sarduk, Goddess of Caves, snorted at him.
‘Suppose one of them had dropped it?’ she snapped.
‘But . . . but . . .’ He swallowed. ‘It’s not possible, is it? Not really? We all must have eaten something, or been out in the sun too long, or something. Because, I mean, everyone knows that the gods aren’t . . . I mean, the sun is a big flaming ball of gas, isn’t it, that goes around the whole world every day, and, and, and the gods… well, you know, there’s a very real need in people to believe, don’t get me wrong here-‘
Koomi, even with his head buzzing with thoughts of perfidy, was quicker on the uptake than his colleagues.
‘Get him, lads!’ he shouted.
Four priests grabbed the luckless cutlery worshipper by his arms and legs and gave him a high-speed run across the stones to the edge of the balcony, over the parapet and into the mud-coloured waters of the Djel.
He surfaced, spluttering.
‘What did you go and do that for?’ he demanded. ‘You all know I’m right. None of you really-‘
The waters of the Djel opened a lazy jaw, and he vanished, just as the huge winged shape of Scrab buzzed threateningly over the palace and whirred off towards the mountains.
Koomi mopped his forehead.
‘Bit of a close shave there,’ he said. His colleagues nodded, staring at the fading ripples. Suddenly, Djeibeybi was no place for honest doubt. Honest doubt could get you seriously picked up and your arms and legs torn off.
‘Er,.’ said one of them. ‘Cephut’s going to be a bit upset, though, isn’t he?’
‘All hail Cephut,’ they chorused. Just in case.