A'ad bin Kin'ad scowled, and Hale actually rocked back away from the rage that burned in the golden eyes.

"Great flood?" the king roared. "I am crippled, and my lands are dry desert, because of my denial of your one god. I evaded his wrath, half of me at least evaded the full killing and damning extent of his wrath, but the rivers of my kingdom are parched valleys now, my vineyards and pastures are dust under the sand! You are a man, but the ghosts of my people could see that you have not the black drop in the human heart. You talk to me about floods! In what flood did you wash out the black drop, as I, being half-human, never could?"

Hale just stared expressionlessly at the king of Wabar, ready to swing the rifle butt up very hard indeed under the man's chin if he should spring at him. He was to doubt it later, but in that moment Hale was bleakly sure that the man was referring to Original Sin, from the consequences of which Hale had supposedly been saved by baptism.

Abruptly the king relaxed and smiled. "But you need food. Taste that meat-the animals were fattened on pistachios."

Hale remembered the taste of bad old bread in his mouth, and irrationally he dreaded putting into his mouth the handful of air he held.

He hesitated. "What animals?" he asked.

"Eat. Would you dishonor my table?"

Hale looked over his shoulder when he heard boots chuffing in sand, and relaxed to see bin Jalawi just stepping up to the tumbled stones below the ledge, holding his rifle casually since Hale appeared to be at ease.

When he had clambered up onto the wide ledge, bin Jalawi swiveled his impassive gaze from the black-bearded king of Wabar to the parrot to the miscellaneous fowls in the cave. "Salam 'alaikum," the Bedu said, formally, cutting a quick, questioning glance toward Hale.

"Indeed peace is on me," said the king of Wabar, "because of who my father was. I am A'ad bin Kin'ad."

Bin Jalawi's eyes widened; clearly he believed it. "There is no might nor majesty except in God the most high and wonderful!" he exclaimed, using a common Arab phrase to express awed surprise.

"Yahweh, Allah, Elohim," spat the king. To Hale he said, strongly, "Eat the flesh, damn you. Be a man, and nothing more."

Hale shuddered and flicked his right hand as though throwing something away, resolving to wash that hand soon, in water, or whiskey, or gasoline.

"This place is a ruin, my lord," said bin Jalawi to the king. "Will you come away with us, on one of our camels?"

"O calamity!" shrilled the parrot, spreading its orange-spotted green wings and fluttering up into the air.

"To where?" asked the king in a voice as deep as rumbling in a desert well. "'To the house no one leaves, where the mute crownless kings sit forever in deepest shadow and have dust for bread and clay for meat, and are clothed like birds in robes of feathers; and over the bolted gate lie dust and silence'?"

Hale recognized the man's words as the text of a Babylonian description of the afterworld, preserved in the Assyrian Gilgamesh clay tablets. He straightened his legs and slowly stood up, without taking his eyes off of the king of Wabar.

"Shall I walk?" demanded the king, opening the front of his embroidered red robe and flinging it back over his shoulders, scattering the clamoring chickens behind him. "Shall I ride a camel?"

Hale had flinched back with a smothered cry. The king's naked body from the waist down was made of rough black stone, with no seam or crack visible where white skin bordered black petrification-and millennia of sandstorms had grotesquely eroded the contours of the stone. The genitals were gone, and the projecting stone knees and thighs had been weathered flat, so that they looked more like frail flippers than a man's legs.

The robe must have been heavily padded, for the king's chest was just white skin sagging over ribs and collar-bones and prominent shoulder sockets; and the king's beard was patchy and white now. Hale could not see the robe on the cave floor, and he was suddenly sure that it had never been real.

"Stay," whispered the king through a toothless mouth. "Die. Learn to relish our food." One grimy, stringy white hand reached behind himself, and then he was holding a steel dagger by the point and nimbly cocking it back over his shoulder to throw.

Hale's brown hand snapped to the trigger guard of his rifle beside his hip, and in one motion he levered the short barrel up horizontal and pulled the trigger.

The ringing crack of the rifle shot was stunning in the cave mouth, and Hale couldn't hear anything as he instantly worked the bolt, ejecting the old shell and chambering a fresh cartridge.

By sheer luck the unaimed shot had punched a hole through the king's upraised forearm; and in an instant the wrist and hand had turned black, and the knuckles clanked when the suddenly heavy arm hit the stone floor.

"Jesus," said Hale blankly.

Tendons stood out in the king's shoulder and elbow as he tried to lift his stone hand; and the knuckles dragged on the ledge surface a little way, but did not rise. Behind him the dagger clattered to a halt on the cave floor.

"I am still secure from judgment," whispered the king, probably to himself. "I am still secure."

"We," said Hale, "are not." Thank God, he added mentally. He took a deep breath and let it out, and he found that he had to step back and flex his hand away from the gunstock to keep himself from firing an aimed slug through the king's heart, or through his head, out of sheer horror at the fact of him. "And we must leave you."

Then Hale and bin Jalawi were hopping down over the tumbled stones and sprinting across the sand toward bin Jalawi's camel, and beyond that Hale's camel beside the meteorite; and all Hale could think of was the coming effort of digging a trench up to the mass of iron, and winching it down onto the sled, and then hitching all eight camels to the sled for the laborious march south out of the accursed basin of Wabar. The radio case was in his saddlebag, and he had to tell himself forcefully that he must wait until they had found a gravel plain wide enough for an RAF Dakota to land on, before he dared use the agreed-on frequency to talk to a human being in the rational outside world.

Chapter Thirteen

Turkey, 1948

And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die;

For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods…

–  Genesis 3:4-5

Hale and bin Jalawi had ankhs and rifles ready to hand as they flailed their shovels and secured the winches, but the ghosts of Wabar had been effectively knocked down, and the king was an inert figure in the portico of the black mirage-castle.

Between the two of them they managed to get the camels to drag the meteorite four miles south, out of the Wabar basin to a broad gravel plain at the edge of the Al-Hibakah region; and after they had freed the ropes from the heavily encumbered sled and tied a conspicuous long red flag to it, Hale used the radio at last, briefly, to give the RAF bases in Bahrain and Abu Dhabi a triangulation on the meteorite's new location.

He and bin Jalawi led the camels away to the northeast then, to arrive after five blessedly uneventful days at Abu Dhabi on the gulf coast. Here they sold the camels and got themselves on the ship's manifest of a lateen-rigged Iraqi boom; the old ship changed its name at every port, and stayed well clear of the steamer lanes, and safely landed its cargo of mangrove poles in Kuwait after only three days at sea.

A telegram waiting for Hale at his office let him know that the pickup had been successful-the pitted chunk of iron was now in the hands of the bewildered SIS, and Hale did not see it again until the middle of May, a little more than three months later.

By this time the old wartime Special Operations Executive had been officially dissolved for three years. The agency had been separated from Foreign Office control back in 1940, and placed under the supervision of the Minister of Wartime Propaganda, and after 1945 Hale's temporary seconding to SIS had been allowed to default into a permanent position. The CRPO was SIS cover, and Hale was on the SIS payroll, and he did field investigations for the SIS Head of Station in Al-Kuwait-but the SOE still functioned within SIS from a sort of administrative limbo, through Theodora with the secret sanction of one Cabinet minister, and Hale was still primarily an SOE agent.

The SOE had been covertly preserved solely in order to complete one operation-Declare.

In the early May of 1948 a decipher-yourself telegram arrived at Hale's Al-Kuwait CRPO office from Broadway Buildings in London. It was SIS orders to report immediately to Erzurum in eastern Turkey, but Hale noted the keywords that indicated that the message had been sent by Theodora, and so he knew the orders had to do with Declare; another clue was the fact that the telegram used the pre-1945 code term for Turkey, 45.000, rather than the new SIS term, BFX. The old code was obsolete, and had been compromised even during the war- Germany had been designated by the number 12.000, and Hale recalled hearing of Germans in a Brussels bar in 1941 drunkenly singing "Zwolfland, Zwolfland uber alles."

Kim Philby was the Head of Station in Turkey in 1948, working as First Secretary to the British Embassy in Istanbul; but Erzurum was more than six hundred miles east of Istanbul, and it was only a puzzled RAF commander who met Hale's plane and handed him orders to take a car from the RAF base motor pool and drive directly to an address in Kars, an old city of tsarist origin still farther east, near the Soviet Armenia border.

Hale drove east all day in a big borrowed Oldsmobile, over roads whose paving blocks were so unevenly sunken that he drove many miles through the stubbled fields alongside the pavement, and as the sun sank behind him and the road climbed up into the Allaheukber highlands he had to turn on the car's heater; the hill-slopes were green, but he didn't see any trees until the road began descending toward Sarikamis, a cluster of wooden houses and a couple of petrol pumps tucked into the shade of pine-wooded hills. Hale bought petrol for the car with American dollars and pressed on, and by twilight he had reached the cobblestone streets and the old wooden buildings of Kars.

The address Hale had been given was a hotel, very nineteenth-century Russian-looking with its steep roof and narrow lamplit windows. Hale parked the Oldsmobile at the stone curb alongside a row of newly planted hawthorn trees, and when he stepped across the dirt strip and the flagstone sidewalk to push open the front door, he found Theodora in the hotel lobby, sitting placidly on a long wooden bench that ran along one wall.

An iron stove in a corner was filling the lobby with hot air and the scent of burning ox dung, and Hale closed the door behind him and began to unbutton his coat; but, "Let's walk," said Theodora, getting up from the bench and lifting an overcoat from beside him, and Hale sighed and turned up his collar.

He followed Theodora back out through the creaking lobby door and across the sidewalk, and even as the northwest wind from Russian Georgia found the gaps between his buttons, Hale knew better than to suggest they talk in the RAF car. The sun had set behind them, and Hale trudged down the center of the darkening cobblestone street beside the tall figure of Theodora, waiting for the older man to begin talking.

At last Theodora spoke. "The story for the SIS is that tomorrow morning you're going to infiltrate some Armenians into the U.S.S.R. aboard the train that crosses the border by Kizilçakçak, thirty miles east of here. One of Biffy Dunderdale's operations, supposedly, run out of Artillery Mansions rather than Broadway, so that Philby won't expect to know the provenance. It's not too implausible that SIS would try it; Philby has had no luck running Armenians over the border-his have all been caught and killed within sight of the barbed wire."

"I daresay," said Hale dryly.

"I don't like him either, my dear, but hold your fire until you've got a clear shot. In any case, you won't be stuffing Armenians into the train's undercarriage tonight, so it's academic. Tomorrow you'll be at the border to watch the train go as if you had, and Philby will be along to observe-"

Hale almost tripped over a cobblestone. "Philby's out here?"

"He will be by tomorrow morning. He's Head of Station in Turkey, so of course he saw your orders; and of course he noted the inquiries you made to the Ankara desk last year, about Soviet activity around the Aras River. This present plan will go some way toward putting his mind at ease about those inquiries. Your story is that you and Dunderdale have been planning for months to put these Armenians across, so of course you wanted to know the lay of the land, right? In any case, directly after your tour of the border tomorrow, you'll be moving south-secretly."

"To Ararat," said Hale. As soon as he had got his orders to fly to Erzurum, he had guessed that this was to be the execution of his plan for the Shihab meteorite, and he had to clench his jaws now to keep his teeth from chattering at the imminent prospect; but it wasn't entirely fear that plucked at his tight nerves.

"Yes, indirectly," said Theodora. "You're to go by way of a Kurd village in the Armenian corner of Iran, so as to approach from the south, from the Agri district; these Kurds are like your precious Bedouins, they travel across borders virtually unregarded, and they've lived around the mountain for thousands of years." Theodora laughed softly. "The Khan of the village is an ally of the Crown. During the war, his men gutted the local RAF depot, ready with their rifles and knives to go to war with the whole English tribe; of course the RAF simply sent bombers in to level their villages, and the Kurds took their sheep and goats and fled up into the mountains, waiting for English soldiers to march in and fight properly, with rifles. But we simply sent in more planes, and the Kurds had no palpable enemy to fight, and their women hated living in caves, and finally they sent an ultimatum to our headquarters-'If you do not come down and fight like men, we will be forced to surrender.' Well, the RAF permitted them to, and the Kurds have been staunch allies of ours ever since."