The Gate To...?
They started down the final flight of wooden stairs to the Saturn's rings or spider web platform, then moved round the central sphere until they approached the walkway leading to its coldly incandescent heart. Ten feet away from the gate in the electric fence Khuv halted, turned to Jazz and said: 'Well, what do you make of it?' He could only be talking about the glaring yet enigmatic globe which stood on the other side of the gate, maybe seven paces away. It was quite motionless, it made no sound, and yet it was menacing.
'You said that this was where the atomic pile stood,' Jazz answered. 'What, in mid-air? No, OK, I'm being facetious. So what you mean is that after the blow-back everything within sixty-five feet or so of the centre of that... that - whatever it is - was vaporized out of existence, right?'
"That would have been my explanation, too,' Khuv nodded, 'but incorrectly. As I've already pointed out, conversion is the word. According to Viktor Luchov, the energy of the trapped beam was attracted by the latent energy - or the energy in action - in the pile. You could compare it to the way a nail is drawn to a magnet. In the final fusing there was no explosion. Perhaps there was an implosion, I don't know any more about that than Luchov himself. But the matter which had formed the floor of this place, and the pile itself along with its fuel - yes, and all the machinery; too, which had filled this area - all of these things, outwards from the centre to the spherical wall which now you see, were eaten, transformed, converted. Men, too. Seventeen nuclear physicists and technicians died instantly, leaving no trace.'
Jazz was impressed, if not by Khuv's telling of the story, certainly by its content. 'And radiation?' he said. 'There must have been a massive release of - '
Khuv shook his head, bringing Jazz to a halt. 'In relation to what was available, there was very little in the way of escaped radiation. The tips of those wormholes, fifteen to twenty feet into the rock, some of those were hotspots. We did what we could, then sealed them off. In the levels above there are dangerous places still, but again mainly sealed off. And in any case those levels are no longer in use and will never be used again. You have seen something of the magmass, but you have not seen all of it. Metal and plastic and rock were not the only materials which flowed together inseparably in that blast of alien energy, Michael. But rock and metal and plastic do not rot! You understand my meaning, I'm sure...'
Jazz grimaced, said: 'How did they... clean the place up? It must have been a nightmare.'
'It still is,' Khuv told him. That's why the lighting is muted up there. Acid was used. It was the only way. But it left moulds in the magmass which are utterly hideous to look upon. Pompeii must be something similar, but there at least the figures are still recognizably human. Not elongated or twisted or ... reversed.'
Jazz thought about it, enquired no further as to Khuv's exact meaning.
Vyotsky had been growing restless for some little time. 'Do we have to stand here like this?' he suddenly growled. 'Why must we make targets of ourselves?'
Jazz's dislike for the man was intense, amounting to hatred. He'd hated him from the moment he first laid eyes on him, and couldn't resist jibes whenever the opportunity for such surfaced. Now he sneered at the huge Russian. 'You think their fingers are likely to slip?' he nodded in the direction of the crew manning the closest Katushev. 'Or maybe they've a grudge against you, too, eh?'
'British,' said Vyotsky, taking a threatening pace closer, 'I could happily toss you on that fence there and watch you fry! You've been advised to mind your mouth. But me? - I hope you go on pushing your luck till you push yourself right over the edge!'
'Calm yourself, Karl,' Khuv told him. 'He's looking for your measure, that's all.' And to Jazz: 'He doesn't mean that sort of target,' he said. 'Or rather he does, but not in the way you think. It's simply that if anything - anything at all strange - comes out of that ball of light there, those crews have orders to open fire immediately and destroy, or try to destroy it. And those orders take absolutely no account of the fact that we happen to be standing here, right in the arc of fire.'
'But if it did happen,' Vyotsky added, 'and if what could come through did, then I personally would be glad to stop a bullet!'
Khuv gave a little shiver, said, 'Let's get out of here. Karl is quite right: we are stupid to stand here tempting fate. It has happened five times before, and there's no guarantee it won't happen again.'
As they turned away and headed back toward the stairs, Jazz asked, 'Do you have it on film? I mean, if it's a regular occurrence - '
'Not regular,' Khuv corrected him. 'Five - shall we call them, "emergences" - in two years can hardly be called frequent. But I take your point. Oh, yes, Michael, we learned our lessons quickly. After the first two encounters we fitted cameras, and now there are also cameras mounted on these guns. They are triggered when the weapons themselves are triggered. What the gunners see, the cameras capture - on film, anyway. As for the thing your side has code-named "Pill": that was the first. Nobody here was ready for it. The second one was smaller, but we weren't ready for that, either. After that the cameras were put in.'
'Any chance of seeing what we're talking about?' Jazz might as well go for broke; there was little or no chance of him getting out of here, but still he'd try to discover what he could of this mess if only on the off-chance.
'Certainly,' said Khuv without hesitation. 'But if you prefer I can show you something far more interesting than mere films.' There was something about the way he said it that warned Jazz to be careful, but nevertheless he answered:
'Well, by all means, let's keep me interested.'
Vyotsky's grimly sardonic chuckle sounding from behind made him wonder if he'd made the right choice...
They went back up through the quiet but disquieting magmass levels to the perimeter, and along it to the secure area which housed the Projekt's laboratories. Passing through two guarded security doors, they arrived finally at a steel door bearing a stencilled scarlet skull and the stark warning:
KEEPER AND SECURITY
Jazz couldn't help but think: more melodramatics? But Khuv and Vyotsky had gone very quiet, and perhaps it would be as well if he followed suit. He held his tongue, wondered about the word 'keeper'. Keeper of what?
Khuv had a plastic ID tag which he inserted in a slot in the door. The card was accepted, 'read' and given back; mechanisms whirred and the door opened with a click. Before pushing it all the way open, Khuv motioned to Vyotsky who turned down the lights in the anteroom. As the lights dimmed Jazz noticed Vyotsky's face: it was pale and shiny with cold sweat. Also, his Adam's apple bobbed noticeably. There could be little doubt that the big Russian was both hard and cruel, but it seemed there were some things that could get to him. It also appeared that Jazz was about to meet one of them.
Khuv, though, was cool as ever. Now he pushed the heavy door open and motioned Jazz through it. With some misgivings, the British agent stepped inside the dark room. Vyotsky followed close behind him, and Khuv came last, closing the door after him.
The darkness was almost complete: only a series of small red lights the size of flashlight bulbs glowed in the ceiling. Revealed by their dim glow, the rectangular shape of a glass case stood against one wall like a huge tropical fish tank. Khuv's voice came soft out of the darkness. 'Are you ready, Michael?'
'When you are,' Jazz answered. But even as the words left his mouth, he knew he wasn't here to admire goldfish.
A sharp click sounded and the lights came on.
Something moved in the tank and reared up!
Behind Jazz, Vyotsky made a choking sound. He'd seen this before, had known what was in here, but if anything the knowledge had only served to precipitate his instinctive reaction to it. And now that Jazz saw it he could readily understand why.
The thing was something like the moulds in the magmass which Khuv had not described but Jazz had pictured. It was like that, and yet not like that, for it was alive. Twisting, flowing, it glared out through the thick glass of the tank with eyes that were sheer hell. It was the size of a large dog, but it was not a dog. It wasn't anything Jazz could have possibly imagined but a composite of most of his worst nightmares. It didn't stay still long enough for him to even try to decide what it was. And worst of all, it didn't seem to know itself!
Flattening itself for a moment against the glass of the tank, the thing might have been a leech. Its underside was corrugated and shaped like a huge, elongated sucker. But its four hands, its tail and its head were parts that might readily fit on a giant rat! That was how it looked - for a split-second. Then -
The head and hands changed, underwent a swift metamorphosis, became manlike. An almost human face crushed itself to the glass, gazing flatly, almost pitifully out into the room. It grimaced: an expression that was part smile, part scowl, part snarl, and then its human jaws yawned inhumanly open. Inside that mouth was a hell of teeth worthy of some monster piranha!
Jazz stepped back, gasping, and bumped into Vyotsky. The big Russian grasped his shoulders, steadied him. And in the tank the thing's hands sprouted hooks that scrabbled at the glass; its face collapsed to a black leathery mask with a convoluted snout and huge, hairy pointed ears, like a great bat; webs grew between its limbs and body, forming wings. It sprang high, thudded against the tough glass ceiling of its tank, flopped down on the deep sandy bed.
Jazz was vaguely aware that someone - possibly Khuv, he thought; yes, even Khuv - had murmured, 'My God!" In that same moment the thing had elongated into a worm with a spade head, rammed itself head-first down into the sand and burrowed out of sight. There was a final flurry of sand and ... all was still.
After long moments of silence Jazz expelled his breath in a great sigh. 'Christ almighty!' he said, in a small voice. Then all three men drew air deeply into starved lungs. Jazz closed his gaping mouth, looked at the two Russians. 'And you're telling me this - thing - came out of that ball of light, right?'
Khuv, pale in the bright lights, with eyes that were dark blots in his doughy face, nodded. Through the Gate, yes,' he said.
Jazz shook his head in bewilderment. 'But how in hell did you catch it?' It seemed a very reasonable question.
'As you can see,' Khuv answered, 'it doesn't like bright lights. And for all that it can change its shape at will, still it seems very primitive in its mental processes - if it has any worth considering as such. It could be that it's all sheer animal instinct. We think it probably attacked the Gate on the other side; it would have been night in that world, and the glaringly bright sphere must have seemed like an enemy, or even prey. But when it burst through to our side - into the hollow sphere of rock down there - it was bright as day. Luckily for the people who were there, it headed straight down one of the wormholes - to escape from the light, do you see? And someone had his wits about him sufficiently to put the open end of a steel cabinet over the mouth of the hole. When it tried to come back out it was trapped.'
'How long have you - ' Jazz found the greatest difficulty in concentrating on what he was saying, found it almost impossible to take his eyes off the tank, ' - had this thing?'
'Eighteen months,' Khuv answered. "This was the third encounter.'
'Of the too close kind,' Jazz had finally got himself together.
'Pardon?' Khuv stared at him blankly.
'Nothing,' Jazz shook his head. 'But tell me: what does it eat?' He didn't know why he'd asked that. Maybe it was the memory of all those teeth, and Khuv's talk of prey.
Khuv's eyes narrowed. Not defensively but thoughtfully. He opened the door, switched off the lights and beckoned Jazz and Vyotsky to come out. They went back to the perimeter and Khuv led the way to his own quarters. On the way Jazz asked: 'I take it it does eat?'
Khuv remained silent but Vyotsky answered for him: 'Oh, yes, it eats. It doesn't need to, apparently, but it does when food's on offer. It eats people - or anything else with good red salty guts! Or it would if it could. Its keeper feeds it on blood and offal which is pumped through a tube to it. He knows exactly how much to give it. Too much and it gets bigger and stronger. Too little and it shrivels, hibernates. When they've worked out a way to handle it safely, then they'll try to find out what makes it tick.'
The specialists from Moscow,' said Vyotsky, shrugging. The people from - '
'Karl!' Khuv stopped him with a word. And Jazz thought: so even though I'm a prisoner, and for all Khuv's "glasnost", still there are sensitive areas, eh?
'Specialists,' said Khuv, 'yes. If they can find out about it, maybe they'll also discover something of its world.'
Something else was bothering Jazz. 'What about these flame-throwers I keep seeing?'
'Isn't it obvious?' Vyotsky scowled. 'Are you stupid after all, British?'
'Concentrated fire kills them,' said Khuv. 'Up to now it's about the only thing that does. That we've discovered, anyway.'
Jazz nodded. Things were beginning to shape up in his head. 'I'm starting to see the potential,' he said, drily.
'And no need to tell me where your "specialists" come from. The Department for the Study of Chemical and Biological Warfare on Protze Prospekt, right?'
Khuv made no answer. His mouth had fallen aslant in a twisted smile.
Jazz nodded. His own expression was a mixture of sarcasm and revulsion. 'And how would that be for a biological weapon, eh?'
They had reached Khuv's quarters. He opened the door, said: 'Would you like a drink, or should I let Karl take you back to your cell and toss you around a little to improve your manners?' His voice crackled like thin ice underfoot. Jazz had touched a tender spot. The British agent was much quicker on the uptake than Khuv had given him credit for.
Jazz looked at Vyotsky's grinning face, said: 'Oh, I think I'd prefer the drink every time.'
'Very well, but try to remember: you are in no position to criticize anything. You are a spy, a murderer, a would-be saboteur. And remember this, too: you don't know everything. We don't know everything! Weapons? Like... like that? Personally I would rather close the place down, concrete it in, lock the Gate shut forever - if that's at all feasible. So would Viktor Luchov. But the Projekt was sponsored - indeed it was ordered - by the Defence Agency. We don't control anything, Michael, but are ourselves controlled. Now make up your mind: we can be "friends", or I can have someone else, someone a lot less sympathetic, complete your briefing. It's up to you.'
Briefing? For some reason Jazz didn't like the way Khuv had used the word. A slip of the tongue, obviously. Briefing didn't really apply here, did it? Why are you being given the treatment? a voice asked in the back of his mind. What's in it for them? He didn't have the answers and so put the question aside, said:
'OK, I accept that. We all do what we have to. We all have our orders. But just answer me one more thing and after that I won't interrupt you again.'
Khuv ushered Jazz and Vyotsky into his living area. 'Very well,' he said, 'what is it?'
'That thing in the glass tank, your intruder from another world,' Jazz wrinkled his nose in disgust. 'You say it has a keeper? Someone who looks after it, feeds it, studies it? It's just that I can't imagine what kind of a man he would be. He must have nerves of steel!'
'What?' Vyotsky gave a snort that was half-way a laugh. 'Do you think he volunteered? He's a scientist, a small man with thick spectacles. A man dedicated to science -also to the bottle.'
Jazz raised an eyebrow. 'An alcoholic?'
Khuv's expression didn't change. 'Very soon,' he said after a moment's pause. 'Yes, I'm afraid he will be...'
Three hours later, at about 7:30 p.m. - after Jazz had had delivered to him in his cell a cup of tepid, flavourless coffee and a cold meat sandwich, standard evening fare, and after he'd consumed both - he lay on his back on his metal army bed and yet again turned over in his mind all the facts Khuv had given him. The Russian had talked almost nonstop for an hour and a half, during which time the British agent had remained true to his word and had not once interrupted him. Once Khuv was underway Jazz hadn't wanted to stop him anyway, partly because the Russian's flow of words and images had been smooth and required no deep explanation, but mainly because his story had been completely fascinating.
And now, yet again, Jazz recapped:
The Perchorsk Incident or 'pi' had been the disastrous test run of Franz Ayvaz's sub-atomic shield. After that mess, clearing up had almost been completed when 'Pill' happened, which Khuv referred to as Encounter One; but from what the KGB Major had told Jazz, it hadn't been so much an encounter as a downright nightmare!
The - creature? - which had come through the sphere of light on that occasion had been... well, it had been the monstrosity Jazz had seen on the film shot by the AWACS reconnaissance aircraft over the Hudson Bay, which now he realized was like nothing so much as the Big Brother of the thing in the glass tank. But when Big Brother had squeezed its bulk into this world from its own...
Khuv's description of Encounter One as he himself had heard it from people present at the time had been graphic:
'You've seen it, Michael, on that film you told us about. You know what it was like. Ah, but that was only after it had escaped through the shaft into the ravine and got itself airborne! On the ground it had been far worse; oh, yes, and I'll tell you about it from first-hand accounts! First, however, I'll try to explain how the Gate works. Or I'll describe what happens when it works. The "skin" of the sphere - its "surface" as we see it - is in itself a contradiction of physics as we understand that science. Viktor Luchov has likened it to an "event horizon". We see things on it after, and even in advance of, any given event! In the former case as a sort of retinal after-image printed in the sphere, and in the latter as a gradual emergence until the - whatever - breaks through.
'They actually saw that thing coming - but they didn't know what they were seeing! Remember, it was the first. They saw it in the sphere: a gradual darkening of part of the surface up near the sphere's dome. The dark patch became a shape, the shape a sort of misty three-dimensional picture, and the image - in a little while -reality. They saw the head and face of a bat four or five feet across: like a hologram but slowly, oh so slowly, changing. It was all in slow motion, a fascinating thing to witness. So they thought. The wrinkling of the convolute snout, which perhaps took half a minute; the leaning forward of the ears - a flicker of motion in real-time -lasting all of five seconds; the baring of the needle teeth, each one of them six inches long, which was accomplished with the speed of a yawn.
'Now think of it: they had guns! There were actually a handful of soldiers down there with weapons - not for any specific purpose, but simply because soldiers sometimes have guns. But who would think to shoot at such a thing, eh? After the fact, maybe - but at the time? Listen to me: do we shoot off guns at pictures on a screen? That was what this was like, a 3-D film.
'Also, Viktor Luchov was there. Do you think he would have let them shoot at it? Not a chance! He didn't even know what the sphere was yet. But ... it might well be his redemption! In Franz Ayvaz's absence he had still to answer for the Perchorsk Incident, and now out of nowhere this... phenomenon!
'Its clarity had been improving for about an hour. All the misty edges had firmed up until the image had the brilliance of a TV picture. People had run to fetch cameras and were actually filming it, like tourists filming ancient monuments or views of outstanding beauty! After all, they knew it couldn't be real. What? A bat with a head as huge as an elephant's?
'Then - quite suddenly, without warning - the impossible happened. They realized that the snout had pushed through the "skin" of the sphere. The monster was no longer just an image on a screen. It sniffed, inhaled sharply several times - and in the next instant the nightmare was upon them!
The event horizon slows things down, Michael. But once the Gate is breached, then all reverts to normal. But "normal" for that obscenity was total hell for the people face to face with it! I say it sniffed - a huge bat sniffing its prey - and it scented them! And it changed! The face and head that came through the skin were those of a vast wolf. You saw the thing in the tank metamorphose? It was like that, the very same. The giant wolf's head came through, and then its shoulders - but pushing them forward was a leathery bat's body, and great bat wings unfurling as wide as the sphere itself!
'Panic? There was such panic as men rarely experience in a lifetime. And to make it worse, the thing didn't come into this world silently but screaming. Ah, and what a voice it had!
'It came howling its rage at the bright lights, its hunger for the blood it had scented, its fear of an alien environment. And it slew. But while it was doing this, still it continued to emerge from the sphere. Now the rear end of the thing was like a vast centipede, stampeding through the Gate and threshing everywhere. It changed endlessly, became a dozen different hybrids in as many moments, and each and every one of them murderous!
'It snapped cables in its blind blundering - blind, yes, for it couldn't bear the lights. And a mercy it was blind, for if not the carnage would have been that much worse. But as it damaged the power supply many of the lights failed and its vision improved accordingly. Now it picked its victims with more deliberation, and devoured them whole with a deal more dexterity.
'But now, too, the soldiers were shooting at it - those with the nerve for it, anyway. They couldn't tell if their bullets hurt, but the massed gunfire certainly alarmed it. It headed for the darkest place it could find: the dimly lighted shaft, of course. By now it had changed into something very like the squirting squid-thing your AWACS air-crew filmed. Vast - amazingly vast �C it squeezed and squirted its way through the magmass levels. Indeed, in the way its plastic body flowed it was not unlike the magmass; and as it went so it put out extrusions with mouths and with eyes and with ... oh, appendages for which there is really no description. Imagine a leg sprouting from its side, and then the leg itself becoming a scuttling spider-thing, and you may have some idea of what I'm talking about.
'But finally it was out into the ravine, and in its wake a trail of death and destruction filled with the screams of the dead and the dying, and the empty spaces which were all that remained of those who had vanished forever. For a second time the Perchorsk Projekt was a shambles, and somewhere in the world outside that monstrosity was on the loose and rampaging. And no one had the faintest idea what to do about it.
'If we Russians have faults, Michael, they are these: we tend to be too well regimented in our thinking, and we are not accustomed to failure. So that when things go disastrously wrong we stand stunned, uncomprehending, like small children waiting for Mama to tell us what to do next. It was like that for Khrushchev when Kennedy faced him down, and again for the - shall we say - "responsible authorities" over that stupid affair of the Korean airliner. If there are any more disasters in the offing, it will doubtless be the same all over again - just as it was here at Perchorsk.
'Eventually the military were alerted, and they in turn told Moscow. But can you imagine the reaction? "What? Something has got loose from Perchorsk in the Urals? What sort of something? What are you talking about?" But at last Migs were sent up from Kirovsk, and the rest you already know. Indeed, you know more than I do about that part of it! But at least I know why the Russian fighters failed while the USAF planes succeeded. We've learned that much from the other... encounters. It's the reason for the flame-throwers.
That's right: the American aircraft were equipped with experimental Firedevil air-to-air missiles which not only explode on impact but hurl searing flames all about. Less bulky than napalm but ten per cent more effective. That is what stopped that thing over the Hudson Bay - fire! Fire and light - sunlight! Until the American fighters contacted it, the thing had flown through or under fairly dense cloud cover, and the sunlight wasn't strong yet. But as the sun rose so the creature descended, seeking protection for itself. They are cold things, Michael, and they are things of darkness.
'You've described what you saw on that AWACS film: clouds of vile gasses boiling off the creature's surface in the bright sunlight, and the way its vast, flattened, airfoil body shrank from the sun. Ah, yes! It wasn't so much that the Migs failed, but that other, natural forces assisted the Americans in their success. The thing was half-beaten before it met the Americans, and their Firedevils finished it off.
'Well, and that was the end of Encounter One...
'Now a sort of anticlimax: Encounter Two was a wolf!
'It came through in just the same way as the first thing, but by comparison it was so small - and so normal - that it almost went unnoticed. But not quite. A soldier spotted it first, put a bullet in it the moment it came limping through the Gate. That stopped it, but not fatally. It was examined, but oh so cautiously, and found to be ... a wolf! It was old, mangy, almost blind and close to starving. They saved its life, caged it, fed and cared for it and subjected it to every test in the book. Because they weren't quite sure they could trust it, do you see? But ... it was a wolf. In every respect a brother of the creatures which even today hunt in the great forests of these parts. By the time it died nine months ago, of old age, the animal was quite tame.
'And so they thought: perhaps the world on the other side isn't so very different from this one after all. Or: perhaps this gateway we've opened leads to many other worlds. Viktor Luchov thinks that as a physical phenomenon - or as a phenomenon of physics - it lies somewhere between a black hole and a white hole. Black holes sit out in the deeps of space and gobble up worlds, and not even light can escape from their fantastic gravitational attraction; white holes are the theoretical melting pots that give birth to galaxies; both are gateways to and from other space-times. Likewise our sphere of white light - but not nearly so violent! Which is why Luchov calls it a "grey hole", a gateway in both directions!'
At this point Khuv had held up a warning hand. 'Don't break the thread now, Michael, for we're doing so well. You can ask your questions later.' And when Jazz had relaxed again:
'Myself, I've no interest in the "holes" of advanced physics theory - I simply call it a monstrous threat! But that aside...
'You've seen Encounter Three and I've told you about it. As for Four: that was another anticlimax, but not quite so ordinary or acceptable as the wolf. It was a bat, order Chiroptera, genus Desmodus. Strangely, Vampyrum is the false vampire, while Desmodus and Diphylla are the true blood-suckers. This one had a wing-spread of point seven of a metre: quite a large one of its species, I'm told, but by no means a giant. It was seen coming well in advance, of course, and no chances were taken with it. As it emerged, in that selfsame moment, they shot it dead. But just as the wolf was a true wolf, so the bat was a true bat. Curiously, the vampire bat is a creature of South or Central America. Perhaps our grey hole was a gateway not only to other worlds but also to other parts of this world.
'Anyway, I was here by this time; the rest of this account is first-hand. Oh, and I can show you film of the bat's emergence, if you like. Not that you'll learn anything more than I've already told you, for it is exactly as I've described it. Ah, but the Fifth Encounter... that was something entirely different.'
At this juncture Jazz had noted how Vyotsky, behind his dark beard, had gone very pale again. He, too, had been present for that Fifth Encounter. 'Get it over with,' the big KGB man had stood up, gulped down his drink, started to pace the floor. 'Tell him about it, or show him the film, but get done with it.'
'Karl doesn't like it,' Khuv's comment was entirely superfluous, his smile cold and grim. 'But then, neither do I. Still, likes and dislikes change nothing. They can't alter the facts. Come, I'll show you the film.'
In a second small room Khuv had something of a study. There were bookshelves, a tiny desk, steel chairs, a modern projector and small screen. Vyotsky made no attempt to join Jazz and his senior officer but poured himself another drink and stayed behind in Khuv's living-room. Jazz knew, however, that that was the only way out of Khuv's quarters, and that only a few scant paces and a bit of flimsy door panelling separated him from the huge KGB bully.
Now, too, he had seen that his coming here had not been a spontaneous occurrence; Khuv had prepared himself in advance; all he had to do was dim the lights and roll the film. And whatever Jazz had expected, it certainly had not been what he saw.
The film was in colour, had a sound track, was very professional in every way. At one side of the screen a dark, fuzzy, out-of-focus shadow proved to be the side of a Russian soldier, with a glinting Kalashnikov braced against his thigh. Centre screen was the sphere of white light, or 'Gate' as Jazz now thought of it, and imposed on its dazzling surface - the bottom of the 'picture' coming just inches higher than the boards of the walkway where it spanned the gap between the Saturn's-rings platform and the sphere - was the image... of a man!
The camera had then zoomed in, turning the entire screen white and therefore that much less dazzling, with the image of the man central. He 'strode' straight ahead, looking directly into the camera. His movements were so painfully slow that each pace took long seconds, and Jazz had found himself wondering if he'd ever get here. But then Khuv had warned:
'See how the picture clears? A sure sign that he's about to come through. But if I were you I wouldn't wait for that. Study him now, while you can!' And obligingly, the camera had closed on the man's face.
The forehead was sloped, and the skull shaved except for a central lock of hair like a thick black stripe on the pale, almost grey flesh. Swept back like a mane and tied in a knot, the lock bobbed at the back of the man's neck. His eyes were small and close together, and very startling. They glared out from under thick black eyebrows that met in a tangle across the bridge of a squat or flattened nose. The ears were slightly pointed and had large lobes; they lay flat to the head above hollow, almost gaunt cheeks. The lips were red and fleshy, in a mouth slanted to the left and set with a sort of permanent sneer or snarl. The man's chin was pointed, made to look even more so by a small black beard waxed to a point. But the face's main feature was that pair of small, glaring eyes. Jazz had looked at them again: red as blood, they'd gleamed in deep black orbits. As if sensing Jazz's needs, the camera had then drawn back to show the entire man again. He wore a short pelmet of cloth about his loins, sandals on his feet, a large ring of golden metal in his right ear. His right hand was gloved in a gauntlet heavy with spikes, blades and hooks - an incredibly cruel, murderous weapon!
After that Jazz had only sufficient time to note the man's leanness, the ripple of his fine-toned muscles, and his wolf's lope of a walk before he stepped out of the sphere onto the walkway - and then everything had speeded up!
The British agent came back to the present, gripped the edge of his bed and drew himself into a sitting position. He swung his feet to the floor and put his back to the metal wall. The wall was cool but not cold; through it. Jazz could feel the life of the subterranean complex, the nervous, irregular coursing of its frightened blood. It was like being below decks in a big ship, where the throb of the engines comes right through the floor and walls and bulkheads. And just as he'd be aware of the life in a ship, so he was aware of the terror in this place.
There were men down there in that unnatural cavern in the heart of the mountain, men with guns. Some of them had seen for themselves, and others had been shown on films like the one Jazz had seen, what could come through the Gate they guarded. Little wonder the Perchorsk Projekt was afraid.
He gave a small shiver, then a grim chuckle. He'd caught the Projekt's fever: its symptom was this shivering, even when it was warm. He'd seen them all doing it, and now he did it, too.
Jazz deliberately gave himself a mental shake, forced himself to return to the film Khuv had shown him...