Declare

9,079
07.03.2019

West of the tents the white slope climbed toward the tumbled chunks of ice at the foot of the Abich I glacier wall, and down here at the level of the tents one of the Russian commandos had begun axing out a square, yard-wide step in the snowpack. Another was lashing three snap-link carabiners at fifteen-foot intervals on a long white rope, and when he had finished he beckoned to Philby, Hale, and Mammalian.

He clicked the carabiners one by one onto similar links at the fronts of their climbing harnesses, so that the three men were attached to the rope.

The Russian muttered something, and Mammalian laughed and translated: "Our borscht-blooded friend says we are three babies that must be leashed."

Neither Philby nor Hale had any funny rejoinders.

The Russian who had chopped out the step in the slope was now crouched in front of it, digging at the vertical wall of snow he had exposed. When he stood up and began speaking to one of his fellows, Hale could tell by the man's tone that he was not happy. Hale peered at the exposed surface of snow, and saw that the Spetsnaz had scooped loose snow and ice out of several horizontal layers-apparently the snowpack was not uniformly dense.

Hale was the last man on the rope, and he walked up to where Philby stood, dragging the slack behind him. "Is that bad, do you suppose?" he whispered to Philby.

"This is all bad," Philby muttered. "Our father has doomed us both."

The Russian was speaking, and Mammalian waved backward at the two Englishmen; then he turned and said, "The ice is subject to shearing, sliding. Avalanche is a-real possibility."

"Well, we knew that, for heaven's sake," snapped Philby.

"Uh," Mammalian went on, translating, "it will be more dangerous when we are moving across the slope, above-rather than straight up it, as here. Make no noise-tread lightly, not stomping-and-don't speak."

One of the Spetsnaz, whose white machine gun was equipped with a folding stock and a collapsible bipod at the muzzle, walked downhill past Hale and knotted a lighter line onto the trailing end of the rope and clicked his own harness carabiner onto the bight of the knot. The three amateurs were now bracketed at either end. The rest of the Spetsnaz had attached their harnesses along the far half of the long rope with similar knots, and now the procession had begun to move up the white slope, in single file.

After Mammalian and then Philby had begun plodding forward, Hale took up the pace, hearing the crunch of the Spetsnaz's boots start up behind him.

Hale could feel the grade of the hill in his calves, for with the crampon-spiked boots it was not possible to walk on his toes; but the mild ache was pleasant for now.

Soon the men at the front of the rope had stopped at the foot of the thirty-foot glacier wall, and after Mammalian and Philby and Hale had walked close enough for the rope to lie slack on the ground between them they halted too. The Abich I glacier was gray-white in cross-section, and Hale was staring up at the overhanging cornices of snow and ice when he noticed that the leader had begun to climb the bumpy, gullied wall.

The man moved upward in a contorting but graceful series of moves, like slow-motion bullfighting; at one point he would stretch out a leg to hook an outcrop with his instep, at another he would wedge his forearm or elbow into a gap in order to reach higher with the other hand, and once he simply pulled his whole weight up a yard like a man doing chin-ups. He paused near the top to hang a loop of slung rope on the face, and then after climbing up another yard he stopped below a gap in the overhanging cornice, unslinging his ice-axe to reach up and prod the surface with the pointed butt end of it.

At last he climbed up to the gap and jackknifed through it and out of sight; and a moment later another man was moving up the face, in rapid scrambles, and the line had begun moving again.

Hale was dizzy at the thought of making that ascent himself. There wasn't enough slack between himself and Philby for him to hope that the men at the crest could simply lift them up like sacks of coal-clearly some climbing, some supporting of his own weight, would be required. Under all his clothing he could feel sweat on his chest, and suddenly his mittens seemed as clumsy as the fins of a fish. Was one supposed to take them off?-they were thonged together through a loop at his collar.

But when Mammalian went flexing and reaching away up the face, Hale saw that although the man was climbing, he was at the same time giving some of his weight to the rope, which was being tugged up from the top-and his mittens were off, swinging loosely behind his belt. I can do that much, Hale thought, shucking off his own and flexing his hands in the liner gloves; and when Mammalian had disappeared over the cornice and even Philby was halfway up the face, puffing and grunting and scrabbling with his crampon spikes at the ice, Hale stepped gamely up to the face and found that it was not difficult. With the rope taking his weight at his waist and tugging upward, he even found several times that he had to pause before stepping up to the next hand-hold to allow the rope to come taut again.

Then he had rocked over the lip in the cornice gap and was crawling across snow, the drogue stone swinging below his chin. Only one of the Russian commandos was hauling the rope up now, and the others were squatting on this new slope.

They were on the Abich I glacier now. It was more steeply inclined from south down to north than the Cehennem Dere had been, and it was mostly bare ice, with pockets of snow clinging to the face only where cracked, compacted sections of ice had been pushed up to make steps.

The air stung the inside of Hale's nose, too cold at this height to carry any smells except a faint tingle like sulfur. Hale pulled his mittens back onto his aching, numbed hands, and the exposed patches of his face stung as if with a burn. He shifted around to look southward up the mounting slope to the peak, still three thousand feet above, and he quailed at the lunar remoteness of it, and of the white streamers of snow that trailed away from the peak across the gray sky.

Mammalian was standing by the slack rope beside him, looking down toward his boots. Hale followed the direction of his gaze and saw a smoothly oval two-inch hole cut into the ice.

"A borehole," said Mammalian, speaking loudly to be heard over the static-like roar of the wind, "from one of the scientific expeditions. Round, originally-the glacier flow has made it elliptical."

Hale just nodded. Hartsik had said that the djinn had no problem with elliptical holes. Well, Hale had brought some elliptical solids, a few thousand of them, packed tight for now in.410 shot shells.

Too soon the Spetsnaz were all on their feet again, and then one by one, as if through an invisible bottleneck, they were moving out in single-file across the glacier face. In less than a minute it was Mammalian's turn to start forward, and then Philby's, and then Hale was plodding out onto the glacier, his crampon spikes clashing on the ice.

They were walking up a convex slope. The surface was bumpy and cracked, but it seemed solid enough, and the few yards-wide gaping crevasses they skirted were conspicuous. If I could kill the man behind me with one round, Hale thought with a sort of dazed abstractness, I could probably catch the other nine with a couple of careful bursts-they're all within a ten or twelve degree wedge in front of me. Twenty-nine bullets for nine men; well, ten men, I suppose, counting Mammalian.

But he didn't know how much mountaineering skill would still be required before they reached the Ark; and if even one of the Spetsnaz was not killed outright, Hale would find himself the target of very professional return fire; and anyway he knew he could not shoot men in the back. Especially not Hakob Mammalian.

The rubbing-alcohol wind was stinging his cheeks and forming ice crystals around his nostrils. I can at least put the load of birdshot into Philby's back, he thought despairingly-and as long as I don't kill him, as long as he can still flee to Moscow, that will have turned over the hourglass on the Moscow ghula, Russia's guardian angel, Machikha Nash. She'll die shortly after Philby does, and he's already fifty-one; and the Soviet Union should collapse within only a couple of years after that; assuming Declare's math is right, now. And I should be able to fire at least one shell into the djinn too, before the Spetsnaz cut me down.

Play out the hand.

He was light-headed, almost drunk, and he watched his alternating boots scrape the ice as if they were images on a movie screen. He had not seen Elena again after that late afternoon three weeks ago when he had stood in the doorway of the Normandy Hotel bar and watched her kiss Philby. He had had no clear chance to ask Philby about her, and truthfully he hadn't tried to make a chance-she had presumably been part of the SDECE team with plans to exfiltrate Philby, back when Philby had still believed he had the luxury of considering a defection offer, and in any case Philby would assuredly not have told Hale anything that could have been helpful to her; and Hale was bleakly sure that her only response to the sight of Andrew Hale now would be to try to kill him.

At least she didn't look up and see me, that afternoon at the Normandy bar, he thought now, bitterly. At least she didn't see me. That's warming consolation to take with me to…to "the house whence no one issues."

At least the Babylonian myths hadn't said anything about it being cold there! The tightness in his chest, a feeling like the useless urge to breathe underwater against a resolutely closed throat, was stronger.

He had been daydreaming, and he only realized that he had passed the crest of the glacier and was now plodding through calf-deep snow on the lee side when a hard yank at the waist of his harness webbing snapped his head back and pulled him forward off his feet; he jerked his head back down and saw that he was falling toward snow, but the snow surface was breaking up in chunks and tumbling away below him into deep shadow, and the rope was a tight line slanting steeply down.

Hale landed with his knees on snow-padded ice but his chest out across the rope, over a black abyss; and an instant later his hands had clamped like vises onto the rope's taut length. He was hanging over the pit of a bottomless-looking crevasse, and he was stable as long as he didn't move: he was a downward-pointing triangle, with his solidly braced knees being the two secure points of it. He had hit the rope with his face, and his snow-goggles had been knocked down over his chin-his eyes were stinging in the sudden cold.

From behind him he could hear a rapid metallic hammering, and from far away ahead, on the other side of the abyss, he could hear Mammalian shouting English words at him; but most of Hale's weight was on the rope, and he was squinting straight down into the darkness, watching the diminishing fragments of white snowpack fade into the black.

Hale didn't breathe, or think. Coils of intenser blackness were moving, far away down there, like gleams of reflected absence-of-light on vast shoulders and ribs and thighs. The mountain wasn't tall enough to encompass the downward distance Hale's gaze seemed to be plumbing-he must be looking down into the heart of the earth. He became aware of two spots of a blackness so absolute that he had to look away, dazzled, fearing that he would blind himself by staring straight into them; and then he was glad that he had looked away, and he clung even more tightly to the quivering rope, for he realized that the two astronomically distant orbs of blackness were eyes.

Wisps of radiant vapor flicked up past his face, but he knew they indicated no heat below-he guessed they were simply the chunks of ice and snow that had fallen in, twisted by tidal forces until their very molecules had been wrung apart and the atoms dispelled in all directions.

Hale's own eyes were blinded by frozen tears. Even though he was not looking down into the pit, he could feel the attention of the thing down there stretching his identity.

What was down there would unmake him, though afterward the stuff that had been him would fly away into the sky here, into the upper air, perhaps to trouble radio broadcasts with idiot recitations of nursery rhymes.

Pot's right, no more bets, showdown.

The Destroyer of Delights, the Sunderer of Companies, "he who layeth waste the palaces and peopleth the tombs"-call it Death, call it the Devil who had brought Death to Adam and Eve. I was afraid because I was naked, and I hid myself. He would never be found, if he hid here. He needn't fire the derringer at all.

Lay down your losing hand, he told himself, and forfeit everything.

A line from Rupert Brooke echoed in his head: And I should sleep, and I should sleep. How much longer could he have been expected to keep on being Andrew Hale, alone?

It would be easy to free himself from the rope and plummet down to what waited; and in this vertiginous instant it seemed to be inevitable. I've lost my father, I've lost Elena-I can save Theodora the trouble of verifying me, and lose myself, at last. Already one of his hands, without his volition, had shucked its mitten and crawled to his waist, and was clutching the carabiner snap-ring. One squeeze of the spring-loaded gate, and then all he would have to do would be shift his weight to one side or the other.

He had been aware of Mammalian's voice shouting at him, as if from the other side of the sky, but now he heard a phrase-for God's sake, man!

And it seemed as if he could hear him because Hale had surfaced from deep, cold water. His throat could now open at last in surrender to the insistence of his lungs, and he was breathing in great gasps while his lips formed unvoiced syllables; and when he made himself listen to what he was saying, he heard, hallowed be Thy name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done…

Hale strained to raise his head, blinking and squinting to see around the frozen tears. He was just able to lift his head high enough to make out Mammalian, sitting twenty feet away in the snow on the far side of the fissure. "What?" shouted Hale to him, in a rusty voice.

"Do you want to live, or die? Please be honest."

One more bet, after all. Double or nothing.

Hale bared his teeth at him before letting his head drop back down. "To live, Hakob." He could feel that his innermost shirt was slick with sweat.

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