– suddenly a blinding flare of white light ahead of him burned the silhouettes of McNally and the jeep's windscreen frame into Hale's retinas, and an instant later the night was shattered by the stuttering crash of gunfire.
Hale's hands were on the jeep's fender, and even through his numb fingers he felt hammering impacts against the vehicle's steel body in the instant before he dropped to his knees in the icy mud on the side away from the gorge's south wall. The sustained, deafening noise made it hard for him to unsling his rifle, and before he had got it into his hands he saw, by the razory-clear black-and-white illumination of the magnesium flare on the road ahead, the body of McNally tumble to the snowy mud by the right-front wheel of the jeep, his eyes wide and his throat punched open.
Black blood jetted from the wound-and Hale's mind keened in pure fear to see the glistening black drops move slowly in mid-air, like obsidian beads falling through clear glycerine.
He was still hearing his own voice ask, Where is the blood?
A gust of wind from the north knocked Hale against the muddy rear wheel, and his nostrils flared at the smell of metallic, rancid oil.
His balance was gone, and thinking that another earthquake was shaking the mountain, he raised the gun to shade his eyes from the flare light and squinted up at the overhanging masses of snow on the gorge crests-but it was the sky that made him bare his teeth in dismay. Even through the glare-haze he could see that the world-spanning black vault of stars was spinning ponderously, and the whole gorge seemed to be reciprocally turning the opposite way, with slow but increasing force.
And a voice like a volcano tolled down from the stony heights of Ararat then, exploding his thoughts away in all directions like frightened birds-its slow, throbbing syllables were in Arabic, and among them he caught the word for brothers-and his left hand closed on the canvas bag strung around his neck, with no more conscious volition than a frightened bug scuttling for cover. With his right hand he clumsily fumbled out the iron ankh.
The ankh seemed hot in his cold fist, and it served as an anchor for his thoughts: Wave it, push them back-
But when he pushed the iron cross up through the icy resisting air, it was abruptly snatched away upward, tearing the skin of his palm.
At the same time McNally's body had sat up in the white light, and now its arms flopped and then stood straight up over the lolling head; in the next moment the body had been yanked up onto its toes, and then right off its feet, so that it dangled unsupported in the air.
I should have held on to the Khan's stone, Hale thought despairingly.
And then his chest was suddenly constricted as if between a giant thumb and finger, and he was forcibly lifted up by an invisible strength, and just for a moment he was suspended in a half-kneeling posture, facing the jeep, with his knees off the ground and his toes in the mud. McNally's body fell away above him into the revolving sky, and Hale knew that he himself was about to follow the body up-
And in the Sten gun's trigger guard his right forefinger, neurally remembering the telegraph key, began twitching out the old hitch-and-skip clochard rhythm in firing the gun.
The muzzle was pointed at the jeep's right-rear tire, and snow and mud sprayed up into his face as the tire ruptured and the jeep's back end clanked down on the springs-but Hale's knees smacked into the mud as the invisible hand released him, and he made himself hang onto the jumping gun and keep blasting out the alien drumbeat.
In the few seconds it took for the magazine to be emptied, his pulse and breathing had taken on the pounding rhythm, and he let go of the gun and stood up to hammer out the beat on the lowered fender with his numb fists.
Then all the crashing sound ceased at once-not as though he had gone deaf, but as though a silent black surf had engulfed the gorge. The flare was glowing a golden orange now to his right, and the shooting certainly appeared to have stopped, though he could see spots of smoldering red in the darkness below the close south wall of the gorge, on the other side of the jeep. The Sten gun's ejected shells glittered in the amber light, and though the brass shells turned slowly they did not fall out of the air.
As if the rhythm that now defined him constituted a matched bandwidth frequency, he found himself taking part in a vertiginously bigger frame of reference, a bigger perspective.
He didn't seem to be in his own body anymore, nor thinking with Andrew Hale's mind. He was looking down on Mount Ararat now-and from a wider viewpoint than just two close-set human eyes.
Bending down over the gorge, he held McNally's body in a hand made of wind, and the upward-tumbling human body, with its random motions and unchanging appearance, was no less expressive than living men were. On another side of the McNally form he could see other men, and their constricted bendings held no meaning, and the clothes and hair that were their substances were as imbecilically constant as the shapes of the cliffs. Thought and identity consisted of moving agitation-the verb in the leap of stones, the whirling of mirth in infinite grains of sand in a storm, questions in falling rain and answers in the bubbling liberation of water into exploding steam-expressed across miles of desert or turbulent sea; and to this vibrant dialogue men could contribute only accidental statements, like the airplanes and bullets they moved through the air, or the narrow wave-sequences they projected from their mouths to kink the air and from their radios to flatten the fields of the sky.
Brothers. Only when men were split, mind as well as body, so that one half could therefore move in deliberate counterpoint to the other half, were they capable of expressing comprehensible thought. But this one that existed on both sides of the gorge had catastrophically been split again, and had therefore fallen back into opaque idiocy. It carried a rafiq diamond, an emblem of kinship with the rushing sky-powers, but the message or request it had brought to the mountain was lost in conflicted motion.
Hale felt his subsumed identity flex with deliberate effort, and then McNally's leg was a crushed ruin tumbling separate from the body-and in the instant before he recoiled away from this incorporeal participation Hale tasted the hot blood and shattered bone and torn khaki.
The djinn were eating the men in the sky, and Hale, sharing their identity because he had aligned himself with their peculiar frequency, was doing it with them, in them.
Jesus, why didn't I hang on to the stone?
He forced his hands and his lungs to stop moving in step with the rhythm, and horror had already made a staccato chaos of his heartbeat.
And then he sagged with sudden weight and was standing again beside the jeep in the muddy gorge, in the icy wind; interrupted screams crashed in on his ears, and some of the screams were echoing down from the sky, and dark drops that must have been blood were pattering onto the jeep fender and onto his hands. Choppy bursts of full-automatic gunfire still plowed the air, but the muzzle flashes were pointed into the sky now-and then the steaming breath was crushed from his chest as he was again tugged upward with frightening physical force.
Automatically his fists again pounded the telegraph-key rhythms onto the wet fender, and the breath in his throat choked out the resumed beat in a series of grudged coughs.
With a dizzying flutter his heartbeat fell into the same cadence, and the bigger perspective was at once his again, and this time he was aware of another man participating in the alien indulgence-but the music that defined this one was in a different key or octave, and he knew it was the kind of man called a woman.
A thought of Hale's flickered across his subsumed awareness-it was Elena. She too was evading the doom of the men by aligning her frequency with the djinn, as they had both done in Paris.
And now she too was sharing in the consumption of the resisting bodies that spun through the air over the snowfields of Ararat's peak. Helplessly surrendering to the transcendent wills of the fallen angels, the sparks that were Hale and Elena moved in concert with the angels as the bodies were torn apart-and the two frail sparks had no choice but to concede that it was only in wide-flying dismemberment that the men, in death, achieved something like coherent meaning.
Not all of the men in the gorge had been taken up into the sky-some had been killed and left to lie in the mud, and Hale was aware of three-squared that bent and unbent their autistic shapes to move down toward the plain, out of the mountain; but even the geometric patterns they formed as they moved were without conscious meaning, and along with the will of the skies he ignored them.
He found himself looking upward instead.
The highest of the moon-silvered clouds formed sweeping stairways to lattices and balconies among the stars, and the music was complete and comprehensible now with the base line of infrared radiation in the earth and the skirling arpeggios of the solar wind and ionized particles scattering in the vast halls of the upper atmosphere-the dance was eternal, defiant and endlessly fascinating, fast as a horizon-spanning arc of lightning and as slow as the shifting of the basalt-footed continents.
The knot of identity that was consciously Hale had to be careful not to flex away with the angels into the sky or into the stony heart of the mountain-he was diminishing as he held back from these seven-league steps-and after some period of time he realized that he was alone and small and discrete, and that he was Andrew Hale, Captain Andrew Hale of the fugitive SOE, twenty-six years old and…profoundly unhappy.
He was kneeling in the mud beside the shredded rear tire of the jeep, and the magnesium flare had gone out, leaving the gorge in darkness. Only the whistle of frigid wind against high stone cliffs intruded now on the mountain silence, and as Hale got shakily to his feet he knew that there would be no use in calling out to his SAS companions-they had either been killed in the ambush, or taken up alive into the sky, or had fled down the path.
Then he heard a scuffle only a few yards away, and a moment later a shrill neigh and the wet clop of hooves in the mud-apparently at least one of the horses had survived, and someone had succeeded in mounting it.
Hale had lurched quickly backward at the unexpected noise, and now Elena's voice called harshly, in French, "Who is there?"
Hale was ashamed to speak, after the horror of their shared experience, but he made himself croak, "Elena-it's me, Andrew."
"Ach! Stay away from me-cannibale."
He glimpsed a rushing shape in the darkness and then the horse had galloped past him, its hooves thudding away down the invisible slope.
He wanted to shout the plural down after her-cannibales!-but he could only despairingly agree with her assessment of him. His earlier question rang in his head again-Where is the blood?-and he knew that the blood was on his hands…on his very lips, morally if not literally.
Elena had apparently taken the only remaining horse, but the other jeep was still here; and when Hale limped stiffly across the mud to it, he could make it out clearly enough to know from its stance that its tires were still inflated. Feeling immensely old and bad and sad, Hale climbed wearily into the driver's seat and forced his frozen fingers to press the starter-and when the engine roared into hot life, he clanked the gear-shift sideways into reverse and, hunching around in the seat to peer downhill through the steaming plume of his breath, began inching the vehicle back down.
After a few yards he realized that his panting had become sobbing.
Surely some of the SAS men had survived-they would know the jeep by its sound, and then they would recognize him in the dimness, if they looked closely. McNally is dead, Hale told himself, but the other four might still be alive-they'd have had a moment to dive for cover between the blaze of the flare and the start of the gunfire-they wouldn't know that I-participated in the deaths, some of the deaths, helplessly-
But he remembered the sustained full-automatic fire that had raked the jeeps, and he quailed. It had to have been Russians who had ambushed them-but how had Russians known to be waiting there, beside the south wall? Had the SAS men been observed planting the stone, or had they been betrayed by someone in the West?
After no less than an hour of rocking down the slope in reverse, frequently braking and shifting to low gear to climb back up when the right side of the jeep seemed to be tilting into the gorge, Hale found a wider clearing in which he was able to turn the jeep around and drive forward; and he switched on the one remaining headlamp as he drove, peering through the shattered windscreen at the surface of the mud track ahead.
And soon he saw the upright shapes of three men in the headlamp glare, plodding and limping down the rutted path. Two wore the dark windbreakers the SAS men had been wearing, and one had on the turban and baggy trousers of a Kurd. None of them turned around at the sound of the engine or the illumination of the headlamp.
His heart thumping, Hale slowed the jeep a few yards behind them. The Sten gun was long gone, but he fumbled the chunky.45 revolver out of his shoulder holster-and then he called hoarsely through the broken windscreen, "Get in the vehicle! I'll drive us down."
They had ignored the light and the engine noise, but Hale's voice seemed to galvanize them. The man in Kurdish clothing dove forward in a flailing cartwheel that carried him right off the path, and though the two SAS men stayed on the road, they were clearly insane-one began semaphoring wildly, hopping to use alternate legs as well as his arms and head, and the other turned toward the headlamps and dug his fingers into his face and tugged outward, as if trying to pull his head apart.
When Hale shifted the gearbox into neutral and ratcheted up the brake, intending to step out and try to grab them, they both went bounding away into the darkness, leaping high into the air at every step; to Hale they appeared to be trying to fly. In seconds they were lost to his sight.
Hale was sobbing again as he shoved the.45 back into its holster and released the brake and clanked the gear-shift back into first gear. He saw no more men on the slow drive back down to the plain, and he did not see the horse.
A cold rain began to fall as he drove the jeep across the dark miles of marshy road toward the spot where the Bristol Sycamore helicopter had landed. In the cloud-filtered moonlight he could see nothing on either side of the road except the grim boulders, and he had come to the conclusion that the pilot had flown the helicopter away and that he would have to drive twenty-five miles around the mountain to the town of Dogubayezit in the southwest, over God-knew-what sort of roads-when out of the corner of his left eye he caught a vertical thread of yellow glow in the night.