by Bob Shaw

Ibn Zuhain, Lord of the Long Valley, walked through the evening shade of his private garden. Beyond its filigreed triple walls the desert sand and rocks retained the oven-fierce heat of the day, but within Zuhain’s sanctum the air was thick and fresh, seeded with moisture from a centrally placed fountain of elaborate design. The water, drawn from a deeplying spring, was so cold that as Zuhain approached the cascade he could feel himself breasting concentric rings of coolness. This, he knew, was yet another form of Allah’s bounty, and he was smiling his appreciation of it when he noticed a small blue flask sitting on the fountain’s onyx rim.

He examined the bottle without touching it and saw it was a poor thing, imperfectly glazed and sealed with resin, most certainly not one of his own possessions. Its presence meant that an intruder had entered the private garden.

Zuhain sighed heavily, both irritated and saddened by the fact that he would now—on an evening which should have been entirely devoted to prayer and pleasure—have to order one or more executions. He had no relish for seeing trained servants beheaded, but they all knew the punishment for failing in any duty, and to withhold it would be to encourage sinful laxity.

Using the hem of his robe, Zuhain swept the offending bottle off his fountain and let it smash on the bright tesserae of the courtyard. He turned and strode away, intent on summoning the captain of his guard, but had taken only a few paces when—incredibly—a voice sounded behind him.

“Why such haste, my lord?” it said. “Are you so rich and powerful that there is nothing more in all of creation that you desire?”

Zuhain swung round, his hand on the ornate dagger at his waist, and saw a tall man of Persian or Indian appearance regarding him with a smile. The stranger’s calm, relaxed manner was both an insult and a threat—an assassin had to be very sure of himself to retain such composure—and Zuhain glanced about him, wondering if all his guards and servants could have been overpowered without his knowing.

“I am alone and wish you no harm,” the stranger said, apparently divining Zuhain’s thoughts.

“Tell me why you are here—before I have the pleasure of slaying you,” Zuhain said.

“From me you can have the pleasure of three gifts—anything you desire—but nothing more.” The stranger was standing close to the fountain and its spray shimmered colourfully all around him, making it difficult to see him clearly.

“You may be alone, but I am not,” Zuhain assured him, “and from me you can have but one gift—that of death.”

“Death? For me?” The stranger’s smile grew broader. “The ’Lord of the Long Valley’ must be a powerful ruler, indeed.”

“Where have you come from?” Zuhain snapped, not liking the other’s manner.

The stranger disturbed some blue shards with his sandal. “Must you ask?”

“I must.”

“Then there can be no answer. Come, my lord, my time is short—state your first wish.”

“My first …” Zuhain narrowed his eyes, trying to eliminate the luminous haze which blurred the intruder’s outlines, and old memories began to stir. He held up his left hand, which had been injured eight years earlier and since that time, despite all the efforts of his physicians, had steadily withered into the semblance of a mummified claw.

“Restore this hand,” he said, “and I will know who—or what—you are.”

“It is done,” the stranger replied carelessly.

Zuhain opened his hand, the fingers spreading like the petals of a long-dormant flower, and comprehension blossomed likewise in his mind. Allah was indeed favouring him above all other men, for here was his chance to be young again and—with the vigour of youth allied to the wisdom of age—to spread his kingdom to the limits of Islam and far beyond. Much though he wanted to shed the burden of his years, however, Zuhain’s restless mind was drawn by another and, to him, more alluring prospect. History was one of the passions of which he was still capable, and he devoted himself to it, not for what it taught him about the past, but for what it enabled him to teach himself about the future. He saw the world as being in a state of continuous change, and it was one of his principal regrets that life was too short to allow more than a glimpse of the mighty spectacle of the Sons of the Prophet triumphantly carrying the true faith to the ends of the earth. But now, suddenly, it was within his power to soar like an eagle above the hidden landscapes of times to come.

“Tell me,” Zuhain said to the stranger, “what is your name?”

The tall figure’s eyes gleamed. “Is that your second wish?”

“Do not jest with me.”

“Very well, my lord—you can call me Emad.”

Zuhain pointed at him with a steady finger. “Emad, I command you to show me the world as it will be a thousand years from this day.”

The stranger shook his head. “It would be well for you to understand that I cannot be commanded to do anything—not even by the Lord of the Long Valley. I am required only to grant you three wishes.”

“Is it within your power to show me the world as it will be?”

“It is—but is that your second wish?”

“That is my…wish.”

“Very well, my lord. See!

Emad gestured at the floor of the courtyard between them, and suddenly the mosaic designs began to move, acquiring the fluidity and depth of a clear and sunlit sea. Zuhain found himself looking down on the familiar hills and valleys which surrounded his own capital, but vast and disturbing changes had been wrought. Of the thriving centre of commerce nothing remained but a scattering of shabby, ill-constructed huts, and the once-busy harbour had degenerated into a refuge for a handful of neglected fishing boats. Most vexatious was the fact that on the site of his own palace there remained nothing but a vague outline of the foundations, with streamers of white sand drifting across them like smoke.

Under Zuhain’s mesmerised gaze the scene began to shift, and within the space of a few minutes he had visited all the far-flung territories of his fore-fathers and had ranged beyond them to the ocean of the east and the narrow sea of the west. In all of Arabia the picture was the same—one of poverty and degradation, of wasted farming lands, of sparse, dispirited communities in which the people scratched for a living amid the ruins of their former greatness.

“What devil’s trick is this?” Zuhain’s voice was cold. “What false visions are you showing me?”

“I have nothing to gain by deceiving you,” Emad said emotionlessly, though his eyes had flashed again in what might have been anger. “This is your world as it will be a thousand years hence. This, Ibn Zuhain, Lord of the Long Valley, is the extent of your achievement.”

“I warn you,” Zuhain whispered fiercely, “your tawdry tricks will not avail you if…”He paused for a moment, his attention caught by a detail in one of the bright panoramas unfolding below. A caravan was climbing a mountain road, and to Zuhain’s amazement he discerned that it was composed of large wheeled vehicles which moved—as though by magic—without the aid of any beast of burden. On the side of each vehicle was a white square upon which had been painted a red cross. The scene expanded until Zuhain could clearly see men inside the marvellous conveyances, and his nostrils flared as he realised they were infidels—sleek, well-fed, arrogant infidels, journeying without fear where they would once have been cut down and fed to dogs.

“What now?” Zuhain breathed. “What is the meaning of this?”

“It is quite simple, my lord.” A hint of malice was now audible in Emad’s voice. “The world is very large, and it has many lands where the sun does not burn so furiously, where there is water in abundance—and the future belongs to the peoples of those green lands.”

“Do not lie to me,” Zuhain commanded, gripping his dagger.

“See for yourself, Ibn Zuhain.” Emad moved his right arm and the conjured scenes began to change with bewildering rapidity. Zuhain’s senses were numbed by the succession of glowing images of proud, teeming cities, endless expanses of ripening crops, lush forests, bustling ports. And everywhere he looked great vehicles of commerce plied the roads, huge ships moved on the surface of the oceans without wind or sail, and he even saw machines which flew above the clouds like metal birds. The pageant was one of wealth, luxury and power.

“I hope my lord is satisfied,” Emad said pointedly, showing signs of impatience. He gestured again with his arm and the floor of the courtyard returned to its former solidity. “It is time for your third wish.”

“Not yet.” Zuhain considered what he had seen, and his mind, skilled in the grasping of essentials, returned to the one factor which had been common to all the visions laid out before him. “Those ships I saw, the wagons, the machines which flew—what made them move? I saw no sails, no horses or camels, no tethered birds.”

“All conveyances will propel themselves by means of engines.”

“That is no explanation—what force is harnessed?”

“The force of the blue crystals, my lord.”

“What crystals do you speak of? Sapphires? Amethysts?”

“You have no name for them because, although they are plentiful in other lands, almost none can be found throughout the length and breadth of Islam. Suffice it to say that the blue crystals have a power which in one respect is even greater than mine—they cannot be confined. Place one in the stoutest bottle or brass-bound cask and it will soon burst the top or sides. And as you have seen, men will learn to harness that power and make it serve them in many ways. In that age the lowliest peasants will be as rich as princes.

“And now,” Emad concluded, “for your third and final wish. I assume that, like all the others, you desire the restoration of your youth and virility.”

“Not so quickly—I saw no riches in my domain, nor in any part of Arabia.”

“I have explained that the blue crystals are not found here, but do not alarm yourself, my lord.” Emad’s voice had taken on a caressing quality. “The other nations will be generous with gifts of food and medicine. Your children will not be allowed to starve.”

Zuhain partially drew his dagger. “If you value your life, dog, do not speak in that manner.”

“I tremble,” Emad replied sarcastically, drawing himself up until he stood almost as high as the garden’s central fountain. “Hurry, old man, state your wish. How young do you wish to be? Twenty? Fifteen?”

“As you say, I am an old man,” Zuhain replied, checking his anger. “There is little time remaining to me, and it would be good to taste the sweet honey of youth once more—but what is a lifetime when measured against eternity? The seventy years you offer will draw to a close just as surely as those I have already spent.”

“What if I offer you eternal life?”

“I have no desire to be forever denied entrance to Paradise.”

“You are a fool, Ibn Zuhain,” said Emad. “What, then, is your last wish?”

“I command you to rid this world of your accursed blue crystals and give me an equally powerful talisman in their place.”

There was a pause before Emad replied, and when he did so his voice seemed hushed. “Even for you, even for the Lord of the Long Valley, such ambition is too…”

Do as I say!” Zuhain thundered, drawing his dagger and throwing it at the towering silhouette. There was a flash, a ripple of shadow across the sky, and Emad was gone.

Zuhain looked all about him, anxious to behold the treasure for which he had eschewed eternal youth, and his shoulders sagged as he realised he had been betrayed. There was no treasure, no glittering talisman which would give his descendants the key to the wonderful future he had glimpsed. It occurred to him that he would have gained much had he treated Emad with politeness and consideration, but that had never been his way.

Dejected and angry, lost in his thoughts, Zuhain turned to leave the private garden, and at that moment there came a subtle alteration to the music of the high fountain. He looked at it and his eyes narrowed in fury as he appreciated the full extent of the jinn’s trickery and malice.

The clear water of the fountain—solace of his fading years—had dried up, and in its place there gouted forth a black and evil-smelling oil which, already, had begun to disfigure everything in its vicinity.