From the author: Khufu, Pharaoh of Egypt, is visited by a mysterious alien robot who offers him technological wonders. It is up to the Pharaoh to choose which gift to accept. What does he really want?
The forcebeams were almost invisible, thin shafts of gleaming air. As they cut into the limestone, a slight spray of dust erupted at the point of contact. The beams outlined a block, each side taller than a man, and then the huge stone rose up out of the ground.
Khufu took a step back, though he was not close enough to be in any danger, even if the block should fall back to earth. He glanced around at his retainers. Better they not see any sign of fear in their Pharaoh. But none were looking at him. All gazes were fastened on the rising block of stone, whether out of natural curiosity or a cunning desire to avoid the appearance of embarrassing their Pharaoh.
The one beside him could, of course, show no sign of scorn.
The block rose, higher and higher, above them – higher than a tree, now! Then it sank gently into place among the other blocks.
Khufu breathed again. The enormous edifice was beautiful. It inspired awe and reverence. More importantly, it told all – slaves and merchants, ministers and priests, foreigners and perhaps the other gods themselves – of the Pharaoh’s power and place.
He nodded. “Very good.” He turned to the tall being beside him. “This pleases me.”
The other did not react. Its skin was harder than stone, smoother than still water. It had four arms, but one leg. There was no head. Was it indeed a living thing? It claimed not to be. Just a representative of those who did live. Was it a god? That seemed the most reasonable supposition, but it claimed not to be. Some kind of servant of a god, then.
“We have come to help,” the being said, its voice echoing out of its midsection. “We have decided, as has been done for many thousands of your years, to fulfill one, and only one, request. You have now seen this indication of our power. We ask you to decide what form our help shall take.”
“To serve the Pharaoh is the expected imperative,” Khufu said. “You say you have been sent to help me, as an emissary of the gods to a god.”
“Yes. To help your people.”
“Very good. This pyramid is impressive. I would now like another one, even larger. You can do this?”
“We can easily do that,” the being said. “But we remind you that the pyramid here was built as a mere demonstration, of a type that we have long ago determined useful in showing less advanced peoples the magnitude of our power. That being done, more significant changes and improvements to your lives may be considered. The pyramid may seem to be impressive, but it does little to serve the needs of your kingdom. It is, after all, nothing more than rocks piled on more rocks.”
“It serves my needs,” Khufu said. “I wish another.” Some of his ministers were shuffling their feet. Was this creature disagreeing with the Pharaoh?
“Pharaoh, you do understand that your request need not take the form of the demonstration that we have provided?”
“Yes, that’s clear.”
“We ask that you think carefully about what form your request shall take. We can do much to improve your people’s health. We can enable your people to communicate with one another, though they be far apart. We can assist you in moving people or goods quickly and easily across great distances. We ask again that you deliberate prudently. We can provide you with details concerning any of these improvements. You have but to make the request.”
“We thank you, and request a pyramid.”
“There is no reason to reach a decision quickly,” the being said. “Many aspects may play a part in your choice. Let us first, for example, consider the state of medicine and healing in your community. Our research indicates that most of your medicinal cures are not effective, and contain ingredients such as dung from various animals, fat from cats, and fly droppings. Your diet erodes your teeth at a high rate of speed, and your people suffer from parasites from your impure canals and drinking water. Most of your people do not live more than forty years. We can change this, if this is your desire.”
“I think you do not understand our healers. Many of them are priests of the god Sekhmet, and are renowned in their fields. Our Houses of Healing are sought by travelers as well as our local people. No, no. Our general health is not really a problem. We do need a pyramid, however.”
“May I ask that you think further? Take time, if you wish, to consult with others. I will come to you tomorrow, and we will again discuss what we can do for you at that time.”
The Pharaoh nodded. “Yes. Attend me in the morning, and hear my words.”
“Are they fools, then? The people of this world?”
The world in question spun slowly beneath them.
“That would be my assumption. However, we are dealing with one individual, one cultural leader, and so we cannot draw any firm conclusions concerning the rest of the inhabitants. Remember Slomufr? At first all they could think to ask for was a really nice pastry recipe.”
“But would sane people select as leader one who would prefer a meaningless status symbol over the wellbeing of the population? I mean, even the Slomufrians eventually came around to making a more reasonable request.”
“It is a puzzle. Let us consider other alternatives we can offer, when next we discuss the issue.”
“Communication?” Khufu frowned. “My wishes are already communicated effectively by those who attend me, to those who need to know them.”
“Your kingdom is large,” the being said. “Consider those of your people who reside or work in faraway districts. In addition, conflicts on your borders could be more quickly and peacefully resolved if you could become instantly apprised of the facts of such incidents.”
Khufu nodded reluctantly. “Yes, I could see where rapid orders to my generals could swing the tide of battle. Oh, my people are beset constantly, on all sides – the Mitanni, the Hatti, Assyria – not to mention the dreadful Sea People, like the Sheklesh and the Tursha. Yes, I can see the value in that.”
“I meant, Pharoah, that such communication could resolve disputes before they rise to violence, and calm those who baselessly fear you.”
“No, no, you don’t know those people,” Khufu said. “They understand nothing but strength.”
“In any case,” the being said, “advanced methods of communication could go far beyond the mere reception of royal commands. Should you so wish it, we could arrange for each household, or even each member of your large community, access to the information produced by other members of the community, in a kind of interconnected meshwork—”
Khufu frowned again. “No, no, that reeks a little too much of Neith, with her spiderwebs determining destinies. I prefer to make my own way, create my own legacy. No, I think communication is not what I desire. A pyramid, though – a nice, huge one, with a golden top – now, that would be something amazing.”
“I must consult with my masters,” the being said. Khufu waved it away.
“He remains focused on the construction of a pyramid.”
“Does he not understand the advancements we offer?”
“Oh, he understands. He is just more concerned about his own veneration.”
“And yet the name of the one who ushered in a new era of medicine or communication would echo down the ages, would it not?”
“Apparently he does not think so.”
“I told you we should have gone to Assyria.”
“The decision has been made, and indulging in hypotheticals is profitless. Or would you suggest we ask various leaders of this world what each one wants, and then choose to help the one who gives us the answer we have already decided is best?”
“Of course not. Such would defeat our holy purpose. Very well, let us proceed.”
“‘Transportation’? Khufu said. “A better chariot? A pyramid – right there, see? – would be a much grander scheme. More visible for miles around.”
“Far beyond the chariots or sledges you now use,” the being said. “We offer you a system of roads, connecting all the cities of your farflung lands. Chariots which would need no horses, enclosed to protect its passengers from dust and the burning sun, given power by that sun, and with multiple receptacles for beverage vessels.”
“When you say ‘receptacles for holding beverage vessels,’ do you mean like things for holding cups? Cupholders?”
“Yes, ‘cupholders,’ If you wish. In addition to these chariots, we could give you ships that could cross seas in defiance of winds, with no one needed to man the oars. Even ships of the air. All this could be yours. Consider wisely.”
Khufu put a hand to his chin. “When you say ‘multiple’ cupholders, how many are we talking about? Just two? Because that would be ‘multiple,’ technically.”
“Six. As many as eight, in select models.”
“Eight! Huh!” Khufu’s eyes lost their focus, and then he shook his head. “No, no. Do you think I haven’t already considered wisely? I am, after all, the Pharaoh, and have my own share of wisdom! I admit the cupholders would be nice. Nevertheless, I ask for a pyramid.”
“You do realize, I am sure, that the construction of a pyramid is fully within your existing capabilities. You do not require our assistance for such a task.”
“Yes,” Khufu said, “but my people tell me that such a project would take years. Literally, years! Who has that kind of time?”
“I know. Usually the first mention of cupholders gets them. Do you recall the tri-queens of Eosgk?”
“Oh, yes. They couldn’t get enough cupholders. Well, no accounting for taste, I guess.”
“Have you come now to construct my pyramid?” Khufu asked.
“Are you then certain, great leader, that you do not want the medical advances, the innovations in communications, or the improvements to your transportation systems? Any of these would be the envy of your world.”
“This is the Kingdom of Egypt,” Khufu said. “We are already the envy of the world.”
The being paused. “We have one more proposal,” it finally said. “We hesitated long before making this offer, but it has been decided that, although the changes we now suggest will bring destruction and horror, the benefits of a unified people under your reign may make it worthwhile, nevertheless.”
“You intrigue me,” Khufu admitted. “State your proposition. What can you give me?”
“Weapons,” the being said. “We can make it possible for you to kill or immobilize opponents at great distances, great armored chariots that will enforce your will upon your foes while keeping your own people protected, birds of the air that can rain terror down upon your enemies. The Nubians, the Sea Peoples, the empires of the Hatti and the Mitanni, the Assyrians – all will bow to you, to be conquered and subjugated to your will, to devote themselves to the betterment of the Greater Egyptian Empire.
“Released from the need to fight, your people will be able to turn their powers into making your kingdom a true paradise. You can lead this world into a tomorrow that will forever remember your name and feats.”
Khufu nodded. “I confess, that is very tempting,” he said. “However, I am confident that we can withstand attacks by any of these enemies. What I cannot do, though, is build a giant honking pyramid. Well, not without massive amounts of work and time. My people tell me I would not even live to see its completion.”
Khufu gazed up at the being. “As a god among men, I remember what it was like to be human. And do you know something? Becoming a god doesn’t seem to have changed me all that much. I feel pretty much the same. I don’t have the time to wait; this body would decay long before the pyramid was completed. Unless…” Khufu paused thoughtfully. “I wonder if my priests could somehow preserve my body, maybe using soaked strips of linen… Well, that’ll be a thought for another time. Anyway, yes, my decision is final,” he said. “I really, really want that pyramid.”
The being bent slightly. “As you wish.”
It stood high in the brilliant sunlight, so blindingly white that even its golden cap was hardly brighter.
“An impressive sight, I admit,” the being told Khufu.
The pharaoh shaded his gaze with a flat hand. “Even better than I had hoped,” he said. “It will awe all those who see it.”
“But when you consider what you have given up for it, is it worth it?” the being asked. “The health of your people, the power of your kingdom? All for – this?”
Khufu was shaking his head. “You still do not understand. I am aware of the value of the advantages you offered. They would have truly transformed this land. But let’s face it – civilizations are transitory. Our great Egyptian age will eventually slide into the sand, our history and our feats and abilities forgotten, our heights unknowable to the savages that will follow us.
“With your help, we could, perhaps, have forestalled our decline. But it can not be prevented, can not be avoided. Nevertheless, those who follow will see the beauty and grandeur of this pyramid for thousands of years, and marvel at our people! Word will spread throughout the wide world, and strange people in far-away lands and in distant ages will speak of the glory of Egypt. It is far from a mere shiny bauble to please a pharaoh’s pride. It is a wonder that will outlast me, my dynasty, my very kingdom.
“And that is a truly wondrous thing.”
“So it wasn’t personal fame he was attempting to achieve, but that of his civilization. You could almost say it was a laudable goal.”
“Well, I guess he has a point. Glory and reputation are very important to these people. And it will be an impressive monument for a substantial period of time. Um, did you take a picture of it? It is pretty striking, after all.”
“Of course I did. Still, to think of what they could have had, the advances we could have given them. Look at the shining civilizations of Wull, the Othulie Cluster, the Yaded. The wonderful progress they have made, since our visits! The dizzying heights they have reached!”
“Yes, yes. But we need not give up on this world completely. Let’s complete another circuit. By the time we return to this planet, thousands of years will have passed. Next time we’ll try the other large southern continent.”
“And shall we use the construction of a pyramid as a demonstration, the next time? Maybe we should think of something else.”
“No need for a change. What are the chances that the people there would want the same stupid thing? It’s not like we’ve come all this way just to make piles of rocks.”