Declare, p.17
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       Declare, p.17

           Tim Powers
 
Page 17

 

  "So far so good," he said. "Let's see if Moscow is back on the air yet. "

  He tuned the condenser knob to the 49-meter bandwidth and tapped out KLKKLKKLKDEETC on the key, then reset the dial to the 39-meter bandwidth for receiving. Even transmitting for only a few seconds had misted his forehead with sweat-the current he was using was not wired in from a neighboring house anymore, and the Abwehr and SS direction-finders were supposedly always noting illicit broadcasts and laying out direction lines on street maps; already if they were quick they might have triangulated this block.

  Abruptly he was getting a strong Morse signal over the phones, and he lunged for the pencil to begin copying.

  ETC ETC ETCETCCCTTTEEE. The dits and dahs were coming so quickly that they were nearly a rattle. He could only lift the pencil from the paper and wait for the signal to slow down.

  "It's crazy," he said in a tight voice. "It's clear, but he's sending like a lunatic. "

  "That tube is glowing purple," said Elena softly, pointing.

  Hale glanced at the alternating current valve through sweat-stung eyes-there was a purple glow in the glass, which generally meant ionized air in the vacuum; that would weaken the signal, though, and in fact the signal was coming through with razor clarity-

  - but so rapidly now that it was just a rough buzz, and so painfully loud that he clawed off the headphones and tossed them onto the floor. Even so he could hear the noise clearly.

  It wasn't musical, but it seemed to be pulsating in a deliberate rhythm-and both Hale and Elena inhaled audibly as they recognized the drop-and-double-beat measure they had patterned their footsteps on last night. Hale's pulse was twitching the collar of his shirt, and so he could see that the rhythm was in perfect counterpoint with his heartbeat, and he guessed that Elena's heart was pounding in exact synchronization with his, and with the barbaric drumbeat or inorganic chanting that was shaking out of the headphones. His ears popped as if with increased air pressure, and he was irrationally sure that something out of a nightmare had come down from the stars to hang over the house, filling the sky.

  Hale flinched and dropped the pencil, and from the corner of his eye he saw Elena start back too, at the clear impression of attention being paid to them. It knows me, he thought, and now it knows where I am.

  Horizontal beams of light moving across the dark face of the sea like spokes of a vast turning wheel. . .

  How far in have I got to get, to know what Lawrence knew?

  Elena was gasping, "Turn it off, turn it off," even as Hale became aware of an uneven gusting of wind at the window and a rattling of the roof shingles outside, and the smell of wood burning.

  Almost reluctantly, almost despairingly, Hale grabbed the alternating current wire and yanked on it, and the set went dead as the wall lamp and pieces of plaster clattered to the floor.

  Both of them were crouched tensely on the floor, staring at the window, but only the evening breeze sighed in over the sill, with no sounds but distant motors and sirens. In the glow from the lamp on the opposite wall, Hale could see wisps of smoke spin away to invisibility in the fresh air.

  At last he let himself relax, slumping backward to rest on his elbows and rock his head back. The night air was chilly in his damp shirt. "Damn me!" he panted. "Where's that brandy?"

  Elena's face was sheened with sweat as she got up on her knees to hand it to him. "Maybe," she said shakily, "that's why Centre is letting all the networks be rounded up. Cut off a gangrenous limb. " She took the bottle from him after he had gulped several swallows and tipped it up herself. When she lowered it and licked her lips, she said, "We need to consult Claude Cassagnac as soon as it can be arranged-he's the only other member of our network that I know, and he's been in the game since even before the last time Moscow rolled up the networks. "

  Hale wanted to ask her what she had seen-and heard and smelled, and thought-here; but he found that he couldn't frame the words, and he felt himself blushing to realize that it was self-consciousness, or shame, that was choking his question. And he didn't want to ask himself why he should feel ashamed of what had happened. This had been some electrical phenomenon-static charge in the atmosphere causing interference and unsynchronized duplication of the signal, turbulent air preceding a thunderstorm. Exhaustion had made him impose the familiar rhythms on the random noise, just as it could conjure voices or the ringing of a telephone out of the sound of a filling tub; and only exhaustion could be the reason he was reminded of his boyhood reluctance to tell his year's-end dreams to the priest in the confessional.

  But he was shivering, and he couldn't make himself ask Elena about what they had just experienced.

  "Really?" he said instead, in a brittle voice. "'The last time'? Easy work for the Abwehr and Gestapo, just wait for Moscow to hand over her spies again. "

  Elena too seemed to be distracted. " Moscow works in ways that needn't be explained to us. "

  "Her wonders to perform," agreed Hale in English.

  "Marcel," she said in what struck him as an inordinately angry tone, "I have no choice but to report your-flippancy! Can't you-"

  "What's that?" he interrupted.

  Looking past the radio set, he had noticed a shadowy delta of spots on the floor, fanning out toward the window; and when he walked over on his knees to look at it more closely, he saw that it was hundreds of hair-thin rings scorched into the polished boards. Some of the faint rings could be traced to be a yard across, but most were no bigger than a penny, and some were such tiny black pinpricks that he assumed a magnifying glass would be needed to see that they were actually rings. He swiped at a patch of them with the damp palm of his hand, and they had been so lightly burned in that the blackness rubbed away almost completely.

  Elena had stood up and crossed to the window. "It's on the sill too," she said humbly. "Some kind of electrical discharge. . . ?"

  "Ball lightning, probably," he agreed almost shrilly, crawling back to where they had left the bottle. It could have been ball lightning, he told himself as he pulled out the cork. It could have been.

  "I think we sleep in our clothes tonight," she said, stepping away from the window and tugging the frames shut over the aerial wire and latching them. Clearly she was wishing there were curtains to pull across the view of the darkening sky. Still facing the glass, she said, "I think we should sleep together, with the light on. " She exhaled sharply. "Once I would have prayed. "

  Hale glanced at the faint black soot marks on the palm of his hand-and he thought he understood why Adam and Eve had hidden from Yahweh, in the Garden, for he wouldn't be praying tonight either. I heard Thy voice in the Garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself. "Once I would have too," he said. It occurred to him that she probably assumed that because he was British he had been brought up as an Anglican. "I was a Roman Catholic," he said, barely loud enough for her to hear.

  "Oh, you are a bad influence!" She turned and looked at him. "You do understand in our clothes, don't you?"

  I was naked, and I hid myself. "Yes, Elena. " In this half-light, with her hair pulled back and her rumpled skirt and blouse looking too big for her, and the eyes in her narrow face wide with uncertainty, she looked twelve years old; and Hale himself was wishing that he was back in Chipping Campden and could climb into the old upstairs box bed.

  "Dawn, be sudden," she said in English as she lay down next to where he sat.

  Hale thought it was a quote from a poem he had read, but suddenly he was too exhausted to ask her about it.

  Next day they bought fresh clothing at a black market stall by the river and moved into a different apartment, and that night Hale gingerly strung his antenna and aerial again, and plugged in the radio set-but though they braced themselves for another bout of wind and scorched floors and idiotically accelerated signal, or contrarily for the disappointment of finding that the set had been wrecked, in fact it was a session just like the o
nes he had experienced during the last ten days in the Rue le Regrattier house-the radio worked perfectly, but his call-sign drew no response from Centre.

  Elena composed a note to the agent Cassagnac, proposing a meeting, and she went off by herself to put it in what she called a dubok, which she told Hale could be any agreed-upon space that was not likely to be disturbed-a gap behind a loose brick in a quiet alley, a knothole in a remote tree, a flap of loose carpet in a cinema. Duboks were generally used only once, and the recipient often hired some random passerby to walk ahead and make the pickup. The best duboks, she told him, were often to be found in the ornate, dusty vestibules of churches, which led Hale to believe that wherever the security-minded girl was going to put the note, it would not be in a church.

  At the end of the week they moved again, and on the following Monday morning they went to meet with the agent Cassagnac. When Hale asked how she had learned where and when to meet the man, he was told that of nine broken windows in an abandoned convent in Montparnasse, three had been repaired with cardboard.

  To meet Cassagnac they bought an electric torch and then passed through a low door in the Rue de la Harpe, which Elena said was the oldest street in Paris; and when by the torch's beam they had picked their way down a zigzag succession of worn stone stairs, their hair fluttering in the cold clay-scented breeze from below, they found themselves in a cavernous chamber lit only in sections by paraffin lanterns hung on pillars that flanked gaping arches. The yellow glow of the lanterns disappeared far overhead in stray gleams on a concave stone ceiling, and wooden tables were arranged on the broad flags of the floor.

  A man's voice spoke-"Et Cetera!"-and in spite of the echoes Hale was able to locate a figure sitting at one of the farther tables. The man went on, in French, "And Monsieur Lot. " He pronounced it Low, which nettled Hale. "Join me, please. "

  Hale and Elena shuffled forward across the uneven floor, and from the cold drafts Hale got the impression that a number of tunnels extended out of this chamber, perhaps even under the river-and he was sure that this floor was Roman architecture, if not older. Catching a nimble fugitive down here would be impossible.

  A bottle sat on the man's table, and after they had sat down on a bench opposite him, he poured two glasses full of what proved to be a vaporously aromatic cognac. He appeared to be about forty, with graying brown hair curled back over his ears and falling onto his forehead, and his lean face was lined with Gallic humor and melancholy. He wore a gray sweater under a battered dark jacket.

  "You are adrift," he said, "and the relocation apparat isn't working. "

  "Centre seems to be abandoning us," Elena said, and she told him about their address having been broadcast insecurely, and described the disorder at the place of conspiracy in front of St. -Sulpice. Hale noted that she did not mention the weirdly accelerated signals and the burned floor of a week ago.

  "Call it a testing," Cassagnac said, "or a distillation. Survival of a few, which will include an increased percentage of the most genuinely committed. Before he himself was executed, Yezhov of the NKVD used to say, 'Better that ten innocent people should die than that one traitor should go undetected. '"

  "I met Theo Maly," Elena said in a cautious voice, "the Hungarian illegal agent, the ex-Catholic priest. He knew he was going to his death, when he obeyed the NKVD summons back to Moscow. "

  "You were a child, and Maly had great charm. " Cassagnac sipped his brandy. "Charm, wit-intelligence, even-these are I think preliminary catalysts, like picture books for children: useful ladder rungs for awakening people, but not things for the people to cling to, once they've been awakened. I believe Russia has a. . . a primitive guardian angel, which must be denied at every turn; and those who persist in loving the angel, and merit her special assistance, must be killed-ideally after they have given their full measure of acceptable benefits to the Party, and not one benefit more. "

  "Is that the way?" asked Elena forlornly.

  "The angel will always be there, my dear," Cassagnac said kindly, refilling her glass. "Five years ago Centre purged all the great illegals, the non-Russian Communists who could work outside the diplomatic channels and who in times of trouble could be disowned with no risk. They were educated Europeans, men and women who came to communism through literature and philosophy and the wounds of atheism, and they served their intercessory purpose, and then Yezhov killed them all lest their intercession proceed to become invocation; each morning the NKVD executioners were given their rifles and their vodka, and after they had shot their dozens and bulldozed them into pits dug by convict labor, they went back to the guardrooms and drank themselves insensible. The present generation in both the Razvedupr and the NKVD are correspondingly less attractive, to people like you and me, and even less tolerant of the guardian angel. But they will be summoned to the Lubyanka basement in their turn, and the ones who will follow them will perhaps be a little more to our liking; or else the ones who follow them will be. "

  "For three weeks we haven't been able to raise Centre on the radio," put in Hale, who wanted only concrete advice from this man. Somehow Hale couldn't help liking Cassagnac-the man's sad eyes and humorous mouth, and his rich voice, seemed vibrant with humane wisdom, but Hale thought his statements were damnable, and it hurt him to see Elena bravely trying to assimilate them.

  Cassagnac turned his warm eyes on Hale. "They will respond, my friend, as soon as they are set up in the new provisional capital at Kuibyshev. Keep listening until they do. And in the meantime-" He laughed gently. "You two are not malleable playback material. Elena, you must suspend contact with all agents and couriers and cut-outs; if you do establish wireless contact with Centre, change your address as frequently as you can, using cheap gueules cassees. A month ago Centre sent a message to the head agent in Belgium, giving the addresses of three of the Brussels agents; that message will be deciphered by the Abwehr, and that network will inevitably be rolled up, and then played back against Moscow. It is almost certainly Centre's intention that this occur now, deliberately rather than accidentally. If you are not in a position to be used in this way, Centre will not ask it of you. "
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