Declare, p.45
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       Declare, p.45

           Tim Powers
 
Page 45

 

  "And of course the DGSS bullet didn't affect your angel at all. So I went back and studied the djinn. I read the oldest fragments of the Hezar Efsan, which was the core of the Thousand Nights and One Night; and in the Midian mountains of the Hejaz I found communities of Magians, fire-worshippers, and traded gold and medical-supply whole blood and thermite bombs for the privilege of witnessing their distressing mountain-top liturgies. And I found that in all the very oldest records, djinn are described as being killed by. . . trivial-seeming things: someone carelessly throwing a date-stone at one of them, or accidentally hitting one with a misaimed fowling arrow, or even by taking a sparrow out of a hidden nest. Eventually I decided that the way to kill a djinn was to change the shape of its animated substance in a particular way. "

  "I am glad we stopped you on Ararat fourteen years ago," said Mammalian, lifting his own glass and draining it in one gulp.

  "I decided that a Shihab meteorite would comprise the death of a djinn-not in the stone's internal structure, but in its melted and rehardened shape. The meteorites are always pitted with round holes, like bubbles, uniform in their dimensions but of all sizes, even down to microscopic; I concluded that the concavities in the surface of the meteorite are the imprint of a djinn's death, repeated at every possible scale, and that if I could summon the djinn down from the mountain peak to the stone in the gorge, and then explode it in the midst of them, the pieces would be propelled into the substances of the creatures, forcing their stuff to assume the complementary convex shape. "

  Hale paused. For the last several seconds he had been hearing a telephone ringing in some nearby room; but Mammalian hadn't paid any attention to it, and now Hale realized that it had stopped.

  "The djinn are supposed to have existed before mankind," Hale went on, "and in many ways they are a more primitive sort of life, more crude. Their thoughts are kinetic macroscopic events, wind and fire and sandstorms, gross and literal. What the djinn imagine is done: for them to imagine it is to have done it, and for them to be reminded of it is for them to do it again. Their thoughts are things, things in motion, and their memories are literal things too, preserved for potential reference-wedding rings and gold teeth looted from graves, and bones in the sand, and scorch-marks on floors, all ready to spring into renewed activity again at a reminder. To impose-"

  He jumped in his chair then, for he had clearly heard a British man's voice shout, "Shut her up!"

  It must have come from the beach outside, and Mammalian was simply waiting for him to go on.

  Hale wiped his forehead on his shirtsleeve again. "To impose a memory-shape onto their physical makeup is to forcibly impose an experience-which, in the case of a Shihab meteorite's imprint, is death. "

  Mammalian's eyes were wide, and he was shaking his head mournfully. "In 1948 your people brought a big chunk of meteoric iron to the mountain and set it high in the Ahora Gorge, with explosives under it. The meteorite is still on the slope there now, rusting-though as soon as we finish talking here I will radio instructions that it be retrieved and ground to dust. Where did you get it, and how do you know it has killed a djinn?"

  Ground to dust, thought Hale dully. This is all part of your plan, Jimmie?-that we lose the meteorite that poor Salim bin Jalawi and I worked so hard to find, worked so hard to retrieve-

  "We got it," he said, "at the site of an ancient city that had been wiped out by a meteor strike-it's mentioned in the Koran-south of the well at Um al-Hadid in the Rub' al-Khali desert-the A'adite city of Wabar. "

  As he began to tell Mammalian the story, and the reels of wire hissed slowly between the recorder's spools, Hale did finally relax; the meteorite was gone, Elena was gone, and perhaps if he told his own story with objective, emptying thoroughness, drinking as much as possible as he told it, he might at least for a while lose the unwelcome burden of his own identity.

  The Volkov documents had been the initial clue.

  It had been late in 1947 when Hale concluded from them that the Soviets had in 1945 intended to mobilize a covert expedition to Mount Ararat; and when he had made some inquiries with the Ankara SIS station and Broadway in London, and then traveled out to the Hejaz to talk with the reclusive old fire-worshippers in the mountains, he concluded uneasily that the Soviets had not yet done it, but intended to start very soon. Overflight photographs indicated that big new hangars and pools and railway yards were being constructed at the secret research stations in Soviet Armenia, just on the other side of the Aras River from Ararat; and Hale was told by the Bedu who roamed the Hassa desert west of Kuwait that all over the Arabian peninsula sandstorms were lately calling urgently to each other across the wastes, and that hatif voices from the darkness were keeping Bedu up praying loudly all night, and that the roaring of the djinn who were confined to desolate pools could be heard for miles over the sands.

  The most-secret agency of the Soviets was planning to go again to the Ahora Gorge on Ararat, for the first time since 1883-perhaps to fetch out another of the creatures, perhaps to establish some diplomatic alliance with the whole tribe. Perhaps both.

  Hale had come up with the plan to cart a genuine Shihab meteorite way up into the Ahora Gorge on Mount Ararat, and use ankhs to summon the djinn down to the stone, and then explode it in their midst. It would be an SOE operation rather than an SIS one-and since the SOE no longer officially existed, the only person whose clearance he needed was Theodora's. The decipher-yourself code message okaying the plan arrived at Hale's CRPO office in the Al-Kuwait British Embassy less than an hour after he had telegraphed the proposal.

  And so the twenty-five-year-old Captain Hale of the Combined Research Planning Office had set about finding a Shihab meteorite.

  He learned that there was a covert traffic in the objects in the black-magic Al-Sahr shops down by the Ahmadi docks south of town, but the stones offered for sale in those furtive establishments had no real provenances and were often simply smoked sandstone or granite. He had turned to historical records then, hoping to find mention of a meteor strike that might be said to have killed a djinn.

  It proved to be easy to find, in a book called The Empty Quarter, published by Holt as recently as 1933; and the very name of the author was intriguing-the book had been written by H. St. John Philby, the father of Kim Philby. In the book the senior Philby recounted his expedition into the Rub' al-Khali desert to find the lost city of Wabar.

  Many passages in the Koran described Allah's angry destruction of the city of the idolatrous A'adites, and Arab folklore recalled the city as having been called Wabar or Ubar, and placed it in the great southern Arabian desert. St. John Philby had trekked by camel caravan to the reputed site, but instead of ruined foundations he had found the black volcanic walls of two meteor craters; in his book St. John Philby described black pellets of fused glass which his Bedu guides had thought were the pearls of perished A'adite ladies, and he mentioned a Bedu legend that a big piece of iron lay somewhere in the area, though Philby had not succeeded in finding it.

  The elder Philby had assumed that the vaguely constructed-looking black crater walls must have been the only basis for the Bedu identification of the site as the legendary Wabar; apparently it had not occurred to him that the fabled city might actually have stood there, and literally have been destroyed by fire from the heavens.

  Several times during Hale's research the old, half-welcome excited nausea had kept him fearfully reading all night, drinking contraband Scotch and wishing he could bring himself to follow Elena's example and return to the Catholic faith.

  In the chapter on Wabar, St. John Philby had described the dreams he had had as his caravan had approached the craters-nightmares of the desert spinning around him in radiating rays of gravel, while he tried uselessly to take bearings with a surveyor's instrument.

  And in the fragmentary Hezar Efsan, Hale was troubled to read the story enigmatically preserved as "The Fisherman and the Genie" in the Thousand N
ights and One Night. In the ancient story, a genie tricked a fisherman into catching fish from a miraculously preserved lake in the desert; when the fish were put into a frying pan, a solid wall opened and a black giant described as "a mountain, or one of the survivors of the tribe of A' ad" appeared and asked the fish, "O Fish, are you constant to the old covenant?"-to which the fish replied, "Return, and we return; keep faith, and so will we. "

  Clearly, in his childhood end-of-the-year nightmares, Hale had been in touch with some hidden world-a disturbingly contra-rational world, perhaps older than rationality, but still secretly alive and active.

  Hale was nervously certain that the A'adites had been fallen angels, and that Wabar had been a kingdom of djinn, destroyed by some kind of meteor strike-and he resolved to find the meteoric stone that St. John Philby had failed to find there.

  And so Captain Andrew Hale had quietly taken a vacation from the CRPO-while, as the Canadian Tommo Burks, he had flown to Al-Hufuf and begun outfitting an expedition to the Rub' al-Khali region of Saudi Arabia, under forged authorization documents from the National Geographic Society in Washington, D. C.

  In the Jafurah desert settlements outside Al-Hufuf he hired ten Bedu tribesmen for the expedition, including several from the 'Al-Murra tribes to act as guides and rafiq escorts, and he set his agent Salim bin Jalawi to assembling thirty desert-bred 'Umaniya camels and purchasing enough rice, dates, coffee, first-aid supplies, and ammunition for a month-long trip.

  He had planned to leave at the end of January in 1948, and had applied to King Saud for permission to travel in the Saudi interior-but on January 6, his birthday, Hale had received word that the king had forbidden the trip. The 'Al-Murra tribes were at war with the Manasir, Hale was told, and the situation was complicated by the fact that the king's tax collectors were in the area collecting the zakat tribute. But the 'Al-Murra tribesmen Hale had enlisted for the trip had not heard of any fighting with the Manasir, and Hale knew that the zakat was always collected in June and July, when the summer's lack of grazing forced the Bedu to camp on their home wells.

  "He doesn't want a Nazrani out in the sands," said bin Jalawi philosophically, sipping coffee at a sidewalk cafe in the Al-Hufuf town square. "Not when the spirits have got everybody stirred up in this way. Even the yakhakh are animated. Perhaps, Tommo Burks, it is the end of the world. "

  Yakhakh were locusts, and in fact a net had been draped over the cafe's awning poles to keep the flying grasshoppers off the tables; every three or four years the insects migrated up from Abyssinia, and today the sky was actually darkened by clouds of them passing overhead toward Kuwait, as if the sun were eclipsed.

  Hale drummed his fingers on the wooden table. "National Geographic he treats this way!" he said angrily. "I wish I were a journalist, I'd write a story about him. " He frowned at bin Jalawi. "Can you. . . sell off the supplies we've bought, and the camels, and dismiss the men we've hired? I think I'll be buying a plane ticket back to Kuwait. "

  "Certainly. " Bin Jalawi cupped his hand and rubbed his thumb across the inside of his index finger in a universal gesture. "The men will want pay for the time they've waited-I can distribute it. "

  I'll bet you can, Hale thought. "But could you secretly hold back some of the supplies, after making a big scene with trying to get the best prices in returning the rest of them?-and quietly keep a couple of the best guides on our payroll, after noisily firing the rest?"

  "Alahumma!" said bin Jalawi; the phrase meant to be sure or unless possibly. "This would be in order to disobey the king-to be subject to arrest, in the company of an infidel Nazrani in the sands. A greater pay-scale would be required from the Creepo. "

  "'You limpin' lump o'brick-dust,'" sighed Hale, quoting Kipling's Gunga Din at him, as he often did. "Yes, double the pay-it'll still be cheaper than hiring all ten of them at the old rate. And keep back six or eight of the best camels. Eight. I'll get somebody to board the Kuwait plane as Tommo Burks. And then I'll meet you and the camels and the two guides at the Jabrin oasis in. . . what, a week?"

  "If we ride hard. And how are you going to get to Jabrin?"

  "I'll drive a jeep there. The camel route from Hassa to Jabrin would be navigable in a jeep. "

  "The journey will destroy the jeep. "

  "Well, I haven't got to drive it back, have I? I'll ride one of the unburdened supply camels on the return trip, and just abandon the vehicle at Jabrin. And when you sell back the supplies, don't sell the sled, understand? Nor the ropes and shovels. "

  Hale had bought a sand sled that could be pulled by camels, and he was hoping the meteorite could be dragged to a gravel plain where an RAF aircraft could land.

  "If the tribes get word of a Nazrani in the sands, it will be all they will talk about. Ibn Saud's men will hear of it. "

  "We'll be fast," said Hale confidently, "and if we meet any Bedu I'll speak only in order to return greetings, in Arabic with some northern accent like Ruwala-"

  "And not get off your camel," added bin Jalawi. He had often told Hale that his huge English feet left monstrous footprints in the sand.

  The 150-mile camel route from Hasa to Jabrin was mostly polished tracks slanting across gravel plains, but a number of times Hale did have to drive the commandeered RAF jeep over dunes, with the big 900-x-15 tires spinning heavily and sand thumping like deep water in the wheel wells. He had left Hufuf in the frosty dawn, but by the time he drove the jeep around the last sand ridge and finally saw below him the palm plantations of Jabrin, the sky was red with twilight, and a bandage from the jeep's first-aid kit was wrapped tightly around a splitting radiator hose, and the radiator itself had been patched by a helpful Bedu family at the last well, with a paste of flour and camel dung. The generator had been screeching for the last hour.
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