Declare

9,200
07.03.2019

At noon the Bedu insisted on stopping for a smoke. When they had dismounted, bin Jalawi ceremoniously shook some dry tobacco from a leather pouch into an old.30 caliber cartridge shell, then struck a match to it and took several deep puffs from the hole where the primer had once been; then he passed it to the man next to him. When the makeshift pipe came around to Hale, he inhaled the harsh smoke deeply, wishing that Moslems could bring themselves to indulge in liquor as well.

Before getting back up onto the camels, the Bedu had to chat for a few minutes in the warming sun, and as they swapped old stories that they must all have heard many times before, they checked their rifles-the men carrying automatic weapons popped the magazine out and worked the action to eject the chambered round, while the ones with bolt-action rifles stripped the bolt out and wiped it off before sliding it back into the breech. Hale knew that the desert Arabs were forever idly stripping and reassembling their rifles, but today it seemed to him that they performed the habitual actions more deliberately than was usual, and he noticed that when the men finally got to their feet, each rifle now had a round ready in the chamber.

They had ridden for another hour across the low white dunes when the young man who had first returned Hale's greeting pointed ahead. "Ain al' Abd," he said uneasily.

The rotten-egg smell had grown stronger, and Hale had followed the example of his companions and pulled his kaffiyeh across his face, tucking the ends into the black agal head-ropes; now from the narrow gap between the lengths of cloth he squinted ahead and saw a dark shadow line that proved to be the edges of a depression in the marshy sand.

A meteor strike? wondered Hale. He remembered seeing a meteor crater some thirty miles southwest of here, near Abraq al-Khalijah, which meant high stony ground in an empty region-the crater had encompassed forty acres, and its cliff sides were twenty or thirty feet high; the meteorite had fallen in the 1860s, and the 'Ajman and 'Awazim tribes had avoided the place because of the Bedu superstitions about the Shihab, the shooting stars that knock down evil spirits who fly too near to heaven. The Coptic Christians in Egypt had a similar notion about the Perseid meteor showers in August, calling them "the fiery tears of St. Lawrence," whose feast day was August 10.

St. Lawrence, thought Hale with a nervous grin. The patron saint of Declare, perhaps. A martyr to it, certainly.

In early 1948 in the ruins of Wabar, at the southern end of the ancient dry Dawasir-Jawb riverbed that stretched for more than two hundred miles from the Al-Jafurah valley by the Gulf of Bahrain, Hale and bin Jalawi had found what Hale had believed was a Solomonic seal, an iron meteorite as big as a tire, among the scattered black pearls that were lumps of fused sand, and Hale had radioed an RAF base in Abu Dhabi to fly out a DC-3 Dakota to take the thing away…and too at Wabar they had found and conversed with the half-man king who had made a covenant to evade the…the wrath of God…which had destroyed his city and stopped the river and buried his pastures and farmland under the dead sands of the desert…

But as his camel rocked steadily closer to the shadowy streak in the white sand, Hale soon saw that this was not a meteor crater; and it was almost with disappointment that he finally looked down at the sunken black pool, forty feet across at the widest, that lay at the bottom of this six-foot depression in the desert. In the center of the pool the water rolled and swirled over a natural spring, and Hale could see that on the eastern side a channel curled away toward the Maqta marshes and the eventual sea.

Only Ishmael had ridden up to the edge of the slope with him. The five Bedu sat on their grazing camels several hundred feet back.

Hale squinted around at the remote horizon: 'ausaj bushes and sand and salt and far-traveling wind, nothing else. Ishmael, perched awkwardly in the saddle on top of his camel, was staring down at the desolate sulfur-fouled spring.

"When is he going to be here?" Hale called, shifting to sit cross-legged on his own saddle. "The person we're supposed to talk to?"

Only Ishmael's eyes showed over the tied-across flap of his head-cloth, but Hale thought the old man looked sick. After a few seconds Ishmael sighed visibly, then nodded toward the water and said quietly, "He is here."

Hale followed the man's gaze-the rainbow-smeared surface of the water was more bumpy and irregular now, as if the wrecked chassis of a locomotive were rising up from the depths, humping the sliding water above it and about to break the surface-and then Hale's face went cold, two full seconds before his ribs tingled like a mouthful of bubbling champagne.

Nothing was pushing up from below the surface. The surface of the pool had clenched, in defiance of gravity, into gleaming folds and hollows, like the consistent standing shapes in a boat's wake; and the glassy ridges and depressions were moving, slowly and laboriously, sometimes shattering into explosive spray but more often holding their shapes. Curling streaks of tan silt rushed like pale flames across the gleaming black surfaces.

Two parallel ridges of water, ten feet long and tapered at the ends, flexed into symmetrical contours, and Hale thought they now resembled vast lips; beyond the ends and behind them, two upswelling domes suddenly seemed to be yard-wide bulbous eyes. Webs of silt flowed over the domes like eyelid membranes; the whole surface of the pool had swollen into a gleaming mound and now looked something like a blind amphibian head.

It was hard to grasp the scale of the pool-surface tension couldn't hold this volume of any liquid in this shape, and Hale's optic nerves apparently supposed that some magnification was going on-his vision kept blurring and he had to keep refocusing on the thing.

After a moment the eye hemispheres cleared of silt and were glistening black orbs, while turbulent whirls of sand still clouded the rest of the monstrously bulging pool. The eyes had nothing like irises, but there was focused attention, if not intelligence, in the gaze that was directed straight across thirty feet of heated air at Hale and Ishmael.

The faltering breeze from the pool was not only hot, but damp. The pool's convoluted surface was steaming now, at least in the twenty-foot quadrant between the huge lips and the sand slope below Hale's camel, and among the foggy wisps Hale could see that in the instant of its first appearance each puff of steam was a perfect ring, too brief to glimpse unless he happened to be staring at the right spot at the moment when one of them sizzled. Most of the flashbulb-quick rings were as small as coins, but some were as big as steering wheels, and a few were just segments of circles that would have been wider than radar dishes. The water was hissing and popping, and now a counterclockwise breeze had started up around the pool, raising a haze of sand.

Hale stared back at the blank face sculpted on the steaming and uncollapsing water out there. He didn't flinch, for he had been up close to this sort of creature before, but he was suddenly so dizzy that he wanted to jump down from the saddle and fall to his knees for sheer steadiness: the mere fact of this phenomenon was so incongruous and wrong that the landscape around it seemed to fade to a colorless two-dimensional sheet, with no reliable horizontal.

Ishmael muttered, "Ikh! Khrr, khrr," to his camel and tapped her neck with his stick, and the mare obediently folded down onto her knees, lowered her hindquarters to the sand, and then shuffled her knees forward until she was sitting as comfortably as a big cat. Clearly nothing so far had struck the beast as alarming. Look to dogs, camels don't react.

Hale's mount too was calm, and sat down with a leisurely shifting of weight when he had tapped her neck and huskily given her the "Khrr, khrr" command.

Ishmael stepped down from the saddle to the sand. His hand brushed the rifle stock that swung by his hip, but he left the weapon slung over his shoulder.

Hale noted the instinctive gesture and bared his teeth behind the flap of his kaffiyeh. The rifle could be of no use against something made of water and wind. The makeshift tinfoil ankh would have been a comfort-but he told himself that this djinn was apparently confined to this water, and probably diminished in power.

Ishmael had plodded several steps down the sand slope from the crest, and his robe was suddenly flapping as he stepped into the localized whirlwind. He scowled back over his shoulder at Hale. "Come over here!" he snapped in Arabic.

Hale took a deep breath. "Aye aye," he said hoarsely in English, boosting himself down from his saddle. The crusty sand was jagged under the soles of his bare feet, and he walked carefully down the slope to halt beside the old man. He was squinting now against the flying sand.

With a crash that almost made him jump back, the crudely formed eyes and lips broke apart into spray like wave-tops sheared by a gale, and for several seconds the space for ten feet above the pool was blackly opaque with whirling water; it looked like glittering smoke and hissed and crackled like a heavy rainstorm.

The separating and reforming sheets of black water were whipping past only a few yards in front of Hale's face, and the reek of sulfur filled his head. His knees were shaking-it was a moment-by-moment struggle for him not to break and run away.

Beside him, Ishmael called out in Arabic, "O Fish, are you constant to the old covenant?" Though loud, his voice was thin against the wind.

Abruptly the spray fell back, and the black water was a rushing whirlpool now, with a column of steam spinning above a tapering hole in the center. And from the wobbling hole echoed a deep oily voice like shale plates sliding in a cave: "Return, and we return," it said in Arabic. The funnel of water shook as the steam was sucked down into it, and then the voice said, "Keep faith, and so will we."

Hale's heart was thudding in his chest, and he knew that it was fear that had narrowed his vision and made his fingertips tingle, but with an electric exhilaration he knew too that there was no place on earth where he would rather be right now. He was sure that after this was over he would forget, as he had forgotten before-but in these rare moments of confronting the supernatural he always surprised in himself a craving to get farther in, to participate knowledgeably in this perilous, vertiginous, most-secret world.

Irregular ridges like spokes whirled around the gleaming hole now, giving the pool the appearance of a rapidly turning black glass wheel. Again the big voice rang the air: "Is this…the son?"

Ishmael croaked, "You tell me, O Djinn."

With another crash the water exploded as if something big had plummeted into it, and when it had fallen back like glittering coal it smoothed out into the crude amphibian-like head again, veiled with hissing bursts of steam. In the silt-streaked swell the two gleaming black domes stared straight into Hale's eyes, with nothing but fixed attention. While the thing was focusing on him in this way, Hale's thoughts were a fluttering scatter of speculation and alarm and excitement, like a radio receiver picking up too many bands at once.

The two lip-like ridges separated with a splash, and from the yard-wide gap between them the basso profundo voice sang to Hale, "O man, I believe you are the son." White clouds of steam blasted away into the blue sky with each syllable.

Hale couldn't think of anything to say-but he was able to recall the old rule, Never startle them, never reason with them-and so he simply echoed Ishmael. "You tell me, O Djinn."

Ishmael was speaking again, desperately: "We think he is. He will tonight be flying west over the sands, to the western sea. Your brothers and sisters are awake, but they will not approach him-"

The black globes collapsed and then bulged up from the convex surface again, and when they had cleared of silt they were palpably focused on the old man, and Hale was once more able to think. Whose son did they believe he was? Did they mean it literally? Could the Rabkrin, and this elemental creature, know something of Hale's actual father?-but a moment later he was distracted by the flat crack of a rifle shot behind him; and as he turned to look back he heard two more shots.

The five mounted Bedu were looking away from the spring, toward the southeast, and Hale saw that bin Jalawi had the BAR rifle in his hands. Looking beyond them, Hale was able to see on that horizon a cluster of moving dots that were mounted men, not mirage.

If the strangers were friendly, they would soon be waving their head-cloths in the air and then dismounting to toss up handfuls of sand.

So far they were not doing it.

"'Al-Murra?" asked Hale nervously, unable to keep himself from glancing back at the pool. The bulbous approximations of eyes and lips had broken up into churning random shapes below the curls of vapor. "Manasir?"

"As much as our party is Mutair, probably," Ishmael said in a flat voice. "But they're KGB-or conceivably Mossad, or the French SDECE. We have no time." He tugged back the fluttering flap of his kaffiyeh, and his exposed face was gray. "Bin Jalawi!" the old man shouted.

Hale's friend looked away from the unknown riders, toward the pool, and goaded his camel into a fast walk this way when Ishmael beckoned.

Ishmael's raised arm swept down with surprising weight onto Hale's shoulder, turning him back around to face the djinn in the pool.

"Say 'I break it now,'" the old man hissed in Hale's ear.

Hale crouched, clawing the sand and digging in with his toes-for an instant he thought he was about to fall into the pool-and then he realized that the nearest ten-foot quadrant of it had tilted up more than forty-five degrees, like a slanted glass bunker wall. Steaming black spray was fringing away along the rounded top and sides of the raised section of water, and as he watched, the smoothly convex surface began churning in a dozen concave vortices.

Hale straightened up dizzily, but Ishmael's hand was bearing down on his shoulder.

"Kneel," said Ishmael's voice urgently.

The vortices deepened into holes like clarinet bells, and as steam puffed out of the deep chambers, a dozen deep voices in unison said, "My name is Legion. Worship us." Two, then three of the holes combined into a bigger one.

❮❯