Bound by the Qattara Depression in the north and the Gilf Kebir Plateau in the south, Dakhla Oasis in the east and fabled Cyrenaica in the west, the central portion of the vastness known as Bahr ar Rimal al 'Azim, or the Great Sand Sea, may be reached in eight days by caravan on the Concession track from the steam packet port of Nag Hammadi. At Point A, a shimmering, heat-warped village or town that exists in the absence of a water source or any natural conditions that would make it attractive or even sufficient for human habitation, our journey ends. There we find a sprawling encampment comprised of tents, brick and mud shelters, earth-moving machinery, wet-eyed beasts of burden, and a swarm of dusky men mostly stripped to their waists. In the fever of the day the men scream recondite obscenities at the camels and the mules and especially, most viciously and most creatively, at each other.
As rude and tumultuous as it may seem to those who have just arrived, the city is only the fulcrum of a tremendous manual exertion. Around the encampment, spread over barrens that occupy thousands of square miles, hundreds of thousands of other men are scattered into work gangs. They have spades. They dig furiously into the sand and loose dirt, banking the debris on either side of their excavations. The excavations appear to be exceedingly wide roadways into which a lining of pitch is being laid, yet it's not obvious what conveyances they will bear or to where. The men certainly don't know, despite repeated instruction.
This is Professor Sanford Thayer's empire, cast under a piti- less star. He can barely drag himself from his camp bed to defy his physicians. At the opening of the tent he gazes upon the settlement and dwells, for the space of a tremor, on the drive and the daring, the decades of work and the moments of im- pulse, the mountains of paperwork and the massifs of cash, that have brought these animals, this machinery, and these men into the field of his famously acute vision. In that tremor two senti- ments take up arms and rise against each other.
The first combatant is despair: despair at his own folly, despair at the workers' incompetence, despair at the human primitiveness that mocks the greatest accomplishments of industry and culture.
But despair is dealt a wounding blow. Consider the nobility of this striving, by mule and man. Consider man's ingenuity. Consider this project as a pure, uncompromised expression of human intelligence. Progress is slow, but the endeavor approaches com- pletion. It will be completed. The fourth planet, high above the horizon in Sagittarius, unseen behind the screen of day, will be visible in the hours before morning dusk tomorrow, a fierce, unquenchable ember.
From Equilateral, by Ken Kalfus. Copyright 2013 by Ken Kalfus. Reproduced with permission from Bloomsbury USA.