Beyond the Gate
Major Chingiz Khuv of the KGB faced his underling, Karl Vyotsky, across a distance of no more than ten feet and through a fine white milky film so thin it was almost invisible - yet they were worlds apart. Khuv could take two or three paces forward, reach out and shake Vyotsky by the hand. He could do it, but dared not. For in his present condition Vyotsky might just hold on, and while the Major couldn't drag Vyotsky out of there, Vyotsky was certainly capable of dragging him in. They could still converse, however, albeit laboriously.
'Karl,' Khuv called out. 'There's no way you can get back right now, and you can't just go on kneeling there like a lost waif. Or you can, but it won't do you any good. Oh, we can feed you - of course we can - simply by pushing food through to you! Simmons was quite wrong about that. It was something he hadn't thought out, that's all. But he was right when he said you'll die. You will eventually, Karl! How long that will be depends on how long you've got before Encounter Six. Do you follow me?'
Khuv waited for Vyotsky's reply. Communicating through the gate was a frustrating business, but eventually Vyotsky nodded and got to his feet. Just doing that took him all of two minutes and more, and meanwhile the figure of the British agent was dwindling into the distance, oh-so-slowly vanishing from sight. Then Vyotsky's face and mouth began to work grotesquely, and his words came in a dull, distant, slow-motion booming. Khuv made him out to say: 'What do you suggest?'
'Simply this: that we kit you out exactly like Simmons, give you all we can of equipment and concentrated food. Then at least you'll have the same chance he has.'
Eventually the answer came back: 'No chance, is that what you mean?'
'A slim chance,' Khuv insisted. 'You won't know unless you try it.' He called forward an NCO from the squad of soldiers at his rear, issued sharp, rapid orders. The man went off at a run. 'Now Karl, listen,' Khuv continued. 'Is there anything you can think of that might be useful to you - other than what Simmons has?'
Again Vyotsky's slow nod, and at last, 'A motorcycle.'
Khuv's jaw fell open. They had no idea what the terrain would be like. He said so, and:
'So if I can't ride it, then I'll ditch the bloody thing!' Vyotsky answered. 'For God's sake, is it too much? If I could fly a helicopter I'd ask for that instead!'
Khuv issued more instructions; but all of this taking time, and Simmons now a dot on the white horizon, gradually drawing away like an ant across the face of a sand dune.
The equipment began to arrive, and a trolley to carry it. The trolley was loaded and pushed into the sphere, and Vyotsky commenced the endless business of kitting-up. He was working as fast as he could, but to Khuv and the other observers it was like watching the progress of a snail. The paradox was this: that it was just as bad for Vyotsky. He felt that he was the one moving at speed, and they were the flies stuck in treacle! While to them even the droplets of sweat falling from his brow took seconds to strike the invisible floor where he stood.
At last his motorcycle arrived: a heavy military model -but in good working order, with about two hundred and fifty miles of fuel in her belly. The bike was put on its stand on a second trolley and wheeled through. On the other side, Vyotsky began the incredibly slow process of mounting the machine, kick-starting its engine into life. But whatever might be wrong with time in there, the rest of the physical spectrum seemed in order. The bike coughed, made a noise like great hammers on oak, where the beat of each piston was a distinct, individual sound, and Vyotsky lifted his feet off the ground. And slowly, oh-so-slowly - but still a great deal faster than Simmons -so Vyotsky and his machine dwindled into the white distance and finally disappeared from view. Two empty trolleys were all that was left...
After Vyotsky had gone, Khuv continued to watch the sphere until his eyes began to hurt. Then he turned and crossed the walkway to the Saturn's-rings platform, and started up the wooden stairs to the shaft through the magmass. There on the landing at the mouth of the shaft Viktor Luchov was waiting for him. Khuv came to a halt, said:
'Direktor Luchov, I notice you distanced yourself from this experiment. Indeed you were conspicuous by your absence!' His tone was neutral, or if anything even a little defensive.
'As I shall continue to absent myself from such... acts!' Luchov answered. 'You are the KGB here, Major, and I am a scientist. You call it an experiment, and I call it an execution. Two executions, it would seem! I thought it would be over by now else I'd not have been here, but unfortunately I was in time to see that lout Vyotsky take his departure. A brutal man, yes, and yet now I pity him. And how will you explain this to your superiors in Moscow, eh?'
Khuv's nostrils flared a little and he grew slightly paler, but his voice remained even as he replied: 'My reporting procedures are my business, Direktor. You are right: you are a scientist and I am KGB. But you will note that when I say "scientist" I do not make it sound like pig-swill. I would advise caution how you emphasize your use of the term KGB. Does the fact that I am able to perform certain thankless tasks better than you make me any less useful? I should have thought the very opposite. And can you truthfully tell me that as a scientist you are not fascinated by the opportunity we have here?'
'You perform these "tasks" better than me because I would not perform them!' Luchov almost shouted. 'My God, I ... I-!'
'Direktor?' Khuv raised an eyebrow; the line of his mouth was tight, thin and ugly now.
'Some people never learn!' Luchov stormed. 'Man, have you forgotten the trials at Nuremberg? Don't you know we're still bringing people to justice for - ' He saw the look on Khuv's face and stopped.
'You compare me with Nazi war criminals?' Khuv was now deathly white.
'That man,' Luchov pointed a trembling finger at the sphere, 'was one of our own!'
'Yes, he was,' Khuv snapped. 'He was also psychotically brutal, devious, insubordinate and dangerous to the point of being a downright liability! But haven't you wondered why I never reprimanded him? You think you know it all, don't you, Direktor? Well, you don't. Do you know who Vyotsky worked for before me? He was a bodyguard to Yuri Andropov himself - and we still don't know exactly how he died! But it's a fact they didn't get on, and that Andropov intended to demote him. Oh yes, you can believe it - Karl Vyotsky was implicated! Very well, and now I'll tell you why he was sent here - '
'I ... I don't think that's necessary,' Luchov grasped the landing's handrail to steady himself. All of the blood had drained from his face until he was as white as Khuv. 'I think I already know.'
Khuv lowered his voice. 'I'll tell you anyway,' he whispered. 'But for his misadventure tonight, Karl Vyotsky was to have been our next "volunteer"! So don't cry for him, Direktor - he had only a month left anyway!'
Luchov gazed aghast at Khuv where he turned away and climbed the steps through the shaft. 'And he didn't know?' he said.
'Of course not,' Khuv answered without looking back. 'If you were in my shoes, would you have told him?'
Jazz plodded on.
No use hurrying and wasting energy needlessly, and it wasn't as if anyone or thing was going to sneak up on him. Not here. But certainly he must try to conserve his strength. He didn't know how far he had to go, another mile or ten or a hundred. He felt like a man crossing a vast lake of salt, whom the sun had already blinded. Yes, it was like that: as if he marched blindly, endlessly under a blazing sun, but one which held no heat. Only light. He sweated, yes, but purely from his efforts and not from any external source of heat. It was neither hot nor cold in this white tunnel between the worlds; the temperature seemed constant and was no problem; one might actually live here, except one couldn't possibly live here. No one could ever really live here; not in a place where he was the only reality and everything else was... white!
Twice he'd taken a swig from his water bottle, replacing lost moisture, and twice he'd thought to himself: is this all there is, this emptiness? What if it doesn't go anywhere?
But then, where had the bat and the wolf come from, and the magmass creatures, and the warrior? No, it had to go somewhere.
He had also paused to take the rusty magazine off his SMG and throw it away, and fit a good one from his packs. If he had to use the weapon, the last thing he wanted to happen was for a duff round to jam itself in the breach.
It was then, just after he'd fitted the new magazine, that he learned something else about this weird Gate place. Fastening the straps of his pack, he'd looked up -and discovered that he didn't know which direction was which. He had a compass on his wrist, but it was a little late for that; he should have checked it immediately after entering the sphere. He'd looked at it anyway - and seen the hand circling aimlessly, just as lost as he was! And then again he'd looked all about him, slowly turning in a full circle, or what he believed was a full circle. But he couldn't even be sure of that.
It was all the same everywhere he looked: whiteness stretching as far as the eye could see in every direction. Even a white floor and a white sky, making no distinction anywhere, no horizon, nothing but himself. Himself and gravity. And thank God for gravity, for without the sensation that there was something solid underneath him - he knew he would have very quickly gone mad. With it ... at least he knew which way was up!
Then he'd looked back over his shoulder. Had he really come from over there? Or from over there? Difficult to tell. How did he know he was still heading in the right direction? What the hell was 'direction' in this Godforsaken place?
But when he'd tried to move off again there had been resistance, a wall of invisible foam that pushed him back with a force equal to that which he mustered against it. To the right it wasn't so bad, but still difficult, and to the left likewise. There was only one way to go, which meant that that had to be the right way. That was why he hadn't noticed it before; because he'd automatically chosen, or been guided, along the path of least resistance. And after that there'd been more plodding, more sweating, until now - time for another swig at his bottle. Staring ahead, and as he pulled at the bottle and let the water cool his mouth, Jazz suddenly realized that things were no longer pure white. That came as a shock, so that he almost choked on his water. Now what the hell...? There in the distance... mountains? Silhouettes of crags? A dark-blue sky and... stars? It was like looking through a sea-fret; better, like looking down a tunnel at a misty morning. Or at a scene faintly etched on a white silk screen. But how far away?
Jazz plodded on, more eagerly now - and at the same time somewhat more apprehensively. The scene came closer, growing brighter as the stars blinked out and were replaced by weak beams of sunlight seeming to strike through the mountains to the right of the picture's frame. And that was when Jazz heard the sound.
At first he associated it with the emerging scene, but then he realized that it came from behind him. And no sooner that than he recognized it for what it really was: a motorcycle! He turned and looked back.
Karl Vyotsky rode with the sling of his SMG across his right shoulder, the gun itself hanging under his arm, muzzle forward. As yet he couldn't see the distant scene that Jazz had spotted, but he could see Jazz. The big Russian gritted his teeth into a snarling grin, guided the bike with his left hand and his knees and took the handgrip of the gun in his right fist. He laid his index finger along the trigger-guard, turned up the throttle and felt the bike surge forward. 'British,' he grunted to himself, 'your time's up. Kiss it all goodbye!'
For a moment Jazz was stunned. A motorcycle! And here he'd been knocking himself out walking it! The problem was, how to turn Vyotsky's advantage into a disadvantage? But as he'd walked, so Jazz had been giving the Gate's weird physics a thought or two. Now he believed he had the answer. 'OK, Ivan,' he murmured to himself, 'so let's see if you're as smart as you think you are.'
Vyotsky rode closer, revved up until sixty showed on his clock and the bike throbbed under him. The ride was smooth as silk, but even so, aiming the SMG would not be easy. It would be, literally, hit or miss. But he did have the element of surprise, or if not surprise, shock at least. What must the Englishman be thinking now, he wondered, to see this powerful machine bearing down on him?
He's a little less than half a mile away, Jazz was thinking. Thirty seconds. He got down on one knee, turned his body side-on so as to decrease his target silhouette, turned his gun in Vyotsky's direction. Not that he intended to shoot at him, just make him a little nervous.
A quarter-mile to go, and Vyotsky's face a mask of hatred where he thundered to the attack. But... suddenly his quarry had grown smaller, he'd gone down on one knee. And at the same time Vyotsky saw the scene on the other side of the Gate. For a moment it threw him, but then he returned his concentration to what he was doing, namely: hunting down this British bastard to the death! He began to move his knees, shift his body-weight, give the bike something of a slow wobble; and at the same time he commenced firing single shots in Jazz's direction.
One hundred and fifty yards, and Jazz held his fire. He hadn't even released the safety-catch, hadn't cocked the weapon. It seemed obvious that the crazy Russian intended to run him down; Vyotsky was relying on Jazz losing his nerve and making a run for it, trying to get out of the way. But Jazz had some ideas of his own. Finally he clicked off the safety-catch, cocked the weapon, re-sighted and... waited. For if he was correct it would be useless to fire anyway.
Fifty yards, and Vyotsky firing on automatic, a stream of lead that buzzed and plucked at the air all about Jazz, too close for comfort. And at the last possible moment he hurled himself to one side. Vyotsky's bike careened by him; its rider threw it into a steep, banking turn; the bike stood on its nose and hurled him out of the saddle!
Then machine and rider were somersaulting in different directions, and Jazz walked carefully forward toward them, and toward the scene looming on the other side of the Gate. Miraculously, Vyotsky came to the end of his skidding and tumbling and found himself virtually unharmed. The 'ground' here was obviously different. He had bruises and one sleeve of his combat suit was torn where he'd put his elbow through it, but that was all. He climbed shakily to his feet, stared unbelievingly at the Englishman maybe fifteen paces away where he walked toward him. 'Hello there, Ivan!' Jazz called out. 'I see you got here the easy way.'
Vyotsky grabbed up his weapon, checked it was undamaged, aimed at his oncoming enemy. Why was the stupid bastard grinning like that? Because of the accident? He'd found it amusing? The bike must have blown a tyre or something; but Simmons, he must have blown his mind! He wasn't even defending himself; he merely cradled his gun in his arms, came forward at a casual stroll.
'British, you're dead!' said Vyotsky. He deliberately lowered his aim - to chew up the other's thighs, groin and belly - and squeezed the trigger. The weapon was on automatic. It fired three stuttering shots before Vyotsky's finger was jerked from the trigger, which happened when the gun slammed into his chest and sent him crashing backwards to sprawl on the floor. Vyotsky felt as if his chest had caved in, as if his ribs were broken; possibly one or two of them were.
Lying there hugging himself, gritting his teeth and murmuring, 'Ah! Ah.r from the pain, he looked at Jazz. In the distance between them, three bullets were plainly visible lying on the floor. The SMG had 'fired' them insofar as they'd escaped from its barrel, but only just. And that had resulted in three mighty mule-kicks coming in rapid succession, blows which even the huge Russian's bulk hadn't been fully able to absorb.
Vyotsky made an effort to reach the smoking gun where it lay, but that was in Jazz's direction, which was the wrong way. He tried harder, and of course failed. The SMG was all of fifteen inches beyond his straining fingertips - hardly a great distance - but it might as well have been a mile, or not there at all. The motorcycle, too, lay in the wrong direction.
Jazz reached the bike, hauled it upright, stood astride the front wheel and wrenched the handlebars back into position from where they'd been knocked slightly askew. He ignored Vyotsky's groaning. Then he wheeled the bike forward and picked up the Russian's gun. And at last he spoke:
'Sound and light are the only things that seem to work in both directions here,' he said. 'We can hear each other, talk to each other, and even though you're ahead of me -toward the other end of the Gate, I mean - your words get back to me. Likewise your picture, for I can see you. But while we're standing like this, nothing solid can ever come from you to me. Reverse our positions, and sure enough I'd be dead, except that isn't the case. So there's no way you could have harmed me, Ivan: no bullets, no sticks or stones, nothing. These three rounds - ' he kicked the three spent projectiles aside, ' - they fired the gun! If you weren't so burned-up with hate, you'd have worked it out for yourself.'
It all sank in, and finally Vyotsky scowled and nodded.
Then, still holding his chest, he sat up. 'So get it over with,' he said. 'What are you waiting for?'
Jazz looked at the other and grimaced. 'God, what a wanker you are! Hasn't it dawned on you yet that we may be the only human beings this side of Earth? You and me? Not that I'm much for male companionship, but I can't see myself killing off half the human population just for the fun of it. Last time that happened it was Cain and Abel!'
Vyotsky was finding it hard to follow Jazz's logic. He wasn't even sure it was logic. 'What are you saying?' he said.
'I'm saying that, against my better judgement, I'm giving you your life,' Jazz told him. 'See, I'm not the sort of murderous lunatic that you appear to be. Yesterday, in my cell - if I'd had you then in this position - things might be different. And your own fault because you worked me up to it. But I'm damned if I can kill you here and now.'
Vyotsky tried to sneer, managed only a wince. 'Lily-livered chickenshit son of a - ' He jerked himself to his feet.
Jazz lowered his own SMG and put a single round between Vyotsky's feet. It whupped where it ricochetted off the ground. 'Sticks and stones,' he reminded, 'can't hurt my bones, but names can certainly do yours a hell of a lot of damage!' He got on the bike and kicked it into life.
'You're leaving me here, without my gun?' Vyotsky was suddenly alarmed. 'Then you might as well kill me after all!'
'You'll find your gun waiting for you when you come through the Gate,' Jazz told him. 'But remember this: if I ever catch you on my trail again, it'll be a story with a different ending. I don't know how big that world is up front, but from here at least it looks big enough for the two of us. It's your decision. So that's all from me, Comrade. Here's hoping I won't be seeing you.'
He put the bike in gear and rolled forward past Vyotsky, upped the gear and picked up a little speed, looked back once, briefly. The big Russian was watching him go. It was hard to say what sort of an expression he was wearing. Jazz sighed, climbed through the remaining gears and headed for the sunlit scene ahead. But in the back of his mind something kept telling him he'd made a bad mistake...
Another mistake was this: failing to recognize where the Gate ended and the strange world beyond it began!
Jazz had been riding only three or four minutes, had kept his speed even at maybe twenty, twenty-five miles per hour, when without warning he breached the sphere's outer skin. For it was a sphere on this side, too, he realized as he tumbled in mid-air. The trouble was that on this side the sphere seemed parked in the throat of what looked like a crater, and the crater's rim was three feet higher than the surrounding terrain.
The bike fell, Jazz too, managing somehow to kick himself free of the rotating machine, and both of them collided jarringly with hard earth and scattered rocks. Winded, Jazz lay there for a moment and let his senses stop reeling. Then he sat up and looked all about. And then he knew how lucky he'd been.
The dazzling white sphere was perhaps thirty feet across, and all around its perimeter, penetrating the earth and the crater walls alike to a radius of maybe seventy feet, magmass wormholes gaped everywhere. Jazz had landed between two such holes, and he knew it was only a matter of good fortune that he'd not been pitched headlong down the throat of either one of them. Their walls were glass smooth and very nearly perpendicular, and their depth entirely conjectural; once in, it would be one hell of a job to climb out again.
Jazz glanced at the sphere, turned his face away before the dazzle blinded him. A giant, illuminated golf ball plopped down in wet mortar and left to dry out. That's what it looked like. 'But who in hell drove it here?' Jazz muttered to himself. 'And why didn't he shout "fore"?'
He stood up and checked himself over, finding only bumps and bruises. Then (and despite the fact that he felt almost compelled to stand still and simply gape at the weird world he'd entered) he went to the bike and examined it for damage. Its front forks were badly twisted and the wheel jammed immovably between them. If he had a spanner and could get the wheel off, then he might be able to straighten the forks one at a time using brute strength. But... he had no spanner.
So ... what about tools in general?
He released catches on the bike's seat and tilted it back... the tool compartment underneath was empty. Now the machine was doomed to lie here until it rusted. So much for transport...
Now Jazz gave a thought to Karl Vyotsky. The Russian was maybe one-and-a-half to two miles behind him. Forty minutes at the outside, even weighed down with equipment. The last thing Jazz wanted was still to be here when Vyotsky arrived. But he must do one more thing before he moved off.
He had a small pocket radio, a walkie-talkie that Khuv had insisted he bring with him. Now he switched it on and spoke briefly into the mouthpiece: 'Comrade bastard Major Khuv? This is Simmons. I'm through to the other side, and I'm not going to tell you a bloody thing about how I got here or what it's like! How does that grab you?'
No answer, not even static. Or perhaps the very faintest, far-distant hiss and crackle. Nothing that remotely constituted an answer, anyway. Jazz hadn't really expected anything; if the others hadn't been able to get through, why should he be different? But:
'Hello, this is Simmons,' he tried again. 'Anyone out there?' Still nothing. The radio, for all that it weighed only a pound, was now 'dead' weight, useless to him. 'Balls!' he said into the mouthpiece, and pitched it into one of the magmass holes where it slid from view.
And now... now it was time to take a deep breath and really have a good look at where he'd landed.
Jazz was glad then that he'd dealt with things in their correct order of priority. For the fact was he could have just stood and gaped at the world on this side of the Perchorsk Gate for a very, very long time. It was in part familiar and fascinating, in part strange and frightening, but it was all fantastic. The eye was quite baffled by contrasts which might well be compared to a surreal landscape, except that they were all too real.
Jazz dealt first with the familiar things: these were the mountains, the trees, the pass that lay like the void of a missing tooth in stone fangs that reared up from scree bases and forested slopes, through the tree-line to gaunt, vertical buttresses of grey stone that seemed to go up forever. In awe of their grandeur, Jazz was drawn by the mountains away from the sphere maybe a hundred yards, and there he paused and put up a hand to his eyes to guard them from lingering sphere-glare; and he stared at the marching mountains again.
Even if he had not known he was in an alien world, he might have guessed that these were not Earth's mountains. He had skied on the slopes of Earth's mountains, and they had not been like these. Rather than born of some vast geological heaving, they seemed to have been weathered into being; and while this could scarcely be called a rare feature in Jazz's own world, still he had never imagined it on a scale such as this. An incredible feat even for an alien Nature: to have sculpted a fortress range of planet-spanning mountains right out of the virgin rock! So high, jagged, sheer and dramatically awesome -why, only take away the trees under the timber-line, and these could well be the mountains of the moon!
The mighty range ran (Jazz glanced at his compass, which appeared to be working again) east to west, in both directions as far as the eye could see. Its peaks marched away to far horizons and merged with them, passing into purple, indigo and velvet distances and disappearing at the very rim of the world. And apart from this pass, where in ages past the mountains had cracked open, their march seemed entirely unbroken.
Now, with the sphere behind him, Jazz stared at the 'sun' - or what he could see of it. Those weak beams he had seen when he was passing through the Gate, which came from the right of the picture to give light to this land, had been filtered through the pass from the rim of the distant sun. But that was all it was, a rim.
There at the other side of the pass, a blister of red light was rising (or setting, perhaps? For there'd been no enlargement of it while Jazz had been here) and shooting its feeble rays through the wall of the mountains. But it was the sun, or a sun, however weakly it shone; its light felt good on Jazz's face and hands where he shielded his wondering eyes. As for what lay beyond the mountains on that far, as yet unseen sunlit side: impossible to tell. But on this side...
To the west there was only the wooded flank of the mountain range, and at the foot of the range a plain stretching northwards, turning blue then dark blue into the apparently featureless distance. Directly to the north, to the far north beyond the dome of the sphere, all was darkness, where stars glittered in unknown constellations like diamonds in the vaulted jet of the skies. And under those stars, dimly reflective and reflecting too the far-flung beams of the blister-sun, the surface of what might be a sullen ocean, or more likely a sheet of glacial ice.
A chill wind was now blowing from the north, which was gradually eating its way through Jazz's clothing to his bones. He shivered and knew that 'north' was a very inhospitable place. And instinctively he began to pick his way across the plain of rocks and boulders toward the pass in the mountains.
But... this was strange. If the mountains ran east and west, and the - icelands? - were north, then the sun was due south. And still that blister of light and warmth hadn't moved. A sun lying far to the south, apparently motionless there? Jazz shook his head in puzzlement.
And now, finally he paused to let his gaze turn eastward, which was where anything real or vaguely familiar came to an abrupt end and the unreal or at best surreal took over. For if Jazz had wondered at the seismic or corrosive forces of nature which had created the mountains, what was he to make of the spindly towers of mist-wreathed rock standing to the east: fantastically carven, mile-high aeries that soared like alien sky-scrapers up from the boulder plain in the shadow of the rearing mountains? All the time he'd been here, Jazz had been aware of these structures, and yet he'd managed to keep his eyes averted; another sign, perhaps, that his choice of direction - the pass, and through the pass - was a good one.
Possibly these columns or stacks had been fretted from the mountains, to be left standing there like weird, frozen sentinels as the mountains themselves melted from around them. Certainly they were a 'natural' feature, for it was impossible to conceive of any creatures aspiring or even requiring to build them. And yet at the same time there was that about them which hinted of more than nature's handiwork. Especially in the towers and turrets and flying buttresses of their crowns, which looked for all the world like... castles?
But no, that could only be his imagination at work, his need to people this place with creatures like himself. It was a trick of the spectral light, a mirage of the twining mists which wreathed those great menhirs, a visual and mental distortion conjured of distance and dreams. Men had not built these megaliths. Or if they had, then they were not men as Michael J. Simmons understood them.
So ... what sort of men? Wamphyri? Flight of fancy it might well be, but again, in his mind's eye, Jazz saw the warrior burning on the walkway, and heard his voice raised in savage pride and defiance: 'Wamphyri.r
Mile-high castles: the aeries of the Wamphyri! Jazz gave a snort of grim amusement at his own imaginings, but ... the idea had taken hold of his mind and for the moment was fixed there.
Suddenly a mood was on him; he felt as lonely - more lonely - than he'd ever felt in his life. And the thought struck him anew that he was alone, and totally friendless in a world whose denizens...... What denizens? Animals? Jazz hadn't seen a one!
He looked at the sky. No birds flew there, not even a lone kite on the lookout for an evening meal. Was it evening? It felt like it. Indeed it felt like the evening not only of a place but of an entire world. A world where it was always evening? With the sun so low in the sky, that was possible. On this side of the mountains, anyway. And on the other side... morning? Always morning?
Reverie had taken hold, out of phase with Jazz's character, from which he must forcibly free himself. He gave a sigh, shook himself, set out with more purpose toward the opening of the pass and the blister-sun beyond it. The pass didn't lie level but climbed toward the crest of a saddle; and so Jazz, too, must climb. He found the extra effort strangely exhilarating; also, it kept him warm and was something he could concentrate on. Along the way grew coarse grasses and stunted shrubs, even the occasional pine, and above the scree the steep slopes were dense with tall trees. Just here the place was so like parts of the world he knew that... but it wasn't the world he knew. It was alien, and he'd had proof enough that it housed creatures whose natures were lethal.
Twenty-five minutes or so later, pausing to lean against a great boulder, Jazz turned and looked back.
The sphere was now a little less than two miles behind and below him, and he had actually entered the mouth of the 'V where it lay like a slash through the mountain range. But back there on the rock-littered plain ... the sphere was like a brilliant egg half-buried in its magmass nest. And a dark speck moved like a microbe against its glare. It could only be Vyotsky. A moment more - and Jazz nodded sourly. Oh, yes, that was Vyotsky all right!
The crack of a single ringing shot came echoing up to Jazz, bouncing itself from wall to wall of the pass. The Russian had found his gun where Jazz had left it for him; now he was telling this alien world that he was here. 'So look out!' he was saying. 'A man is here, and one to be reckoned with! If you know what's good for you, don't try fooling around with Karl Vyotsky!' Like a superstitious peasant whistling in the dark. Or maybe he was just saying: 'Simmons, it's not over yet. This is just to warn you: keep looking back!'
And Jazz promised himself that he would...
Down beside the sphere, Vyotsky quit cursing, laid aside his gun and turned to the bike. He saw the seat laid back on its hinges and his face twisted into a grin. Tucked loosely into a pocket of one of his packs he had a small bag of tools. It was the last thing they'd given him on the other side, and he'd been in such a hurry that he hadn't stored his tools away under the seat. Then the sneering grin slid from his face and he breathed a sigh of relief. He'd not once thought of those tools since Simmons took the bike off him. If he had, then for sure he'd have thrown them away somewhere in the last couple of miles.
Now he unhooked a small kidney-pack from his back harness, got the tools out and loosened the front wheel. He stood on one of the forks with his foot wedged under the wheel, bent his back and hauled on the other fork one-handed until he could feel it giving, then slid the wheel free. Now it was only a question of straightening the forks. He picked up the front end of the bike, half-dragged, half-wheeled it over to a pair of large boulders where they leaned together. If he could jam the twisted forks into the gap between the boulders, and apply the right amount of leverage in the right direction...
He upended the bike and got the forks in position, began to exert leverage - and froze! He stopped panting from his exertions, stopped breathing, too. What the hell was that? Vyotsky raced for his gun, grabbed it up and cocked it, looked wildly all about. No one. Nothing. But he'd heard something. He could have sworn he'd heard something. He went warily back to the bike, and -
There it was again! The big Russian's skin prickled, broke out in gooseflesh. Now what - ? A tiny voice? A tinny, metallic calling? A cry for help? He listened hard, and yet again he heard the sound. But it wasn't a whisper, just a tiny, distant voice. A human voice - and it came from one of the magmass wormholes!
That wasn't all - Vyotsky recognized the voice. Zek Foener's voice, breathless and yet full of desperate hope, eager to communicate with someone, with anyone human in this entirely alien world.
He flung himself face-down beside the wormhole, peered over its rim. The smooth shaft was perfectly circular, about three feet in diameter, curving sharply inward toward the buried base of the sphere and so out of sight. But just where the shaft disappeared from view... there lay a small radio like the one Vyotsky carried in his own pocket! Obviously it had been Simmons's, and he'd discarded it. Every time Foener's voice came, so a little red monitor light flickered on and off on the control panel. It warned of reception, that light; it advised its operator to turn up the volume.
'Hello?' Zek Foener's voice came again. 'Hello? Oh, please answer! Is anyone there? I heard you speaking but ... I was asleep! I thought I was dreaming! Please, please - if there's anyone out there - please say again who you are? And where you are? Hello? Hello?'
'Zek Foener!' Vyotsky breathed, licking his lips as he pictured her. Ah, but a different woman now from the acid-tongued bitch who'd spurned his advances at Perchorsk! This world had seen to that. It had changed her. Now she craved companionship. Any sort!
Vyotsky took out his own radio, switched it on and yanked up the aerial. There were only two channels. He systematically transmitted on both of them, and this was his message:
'Zek Foener, this is Karl Vyotsky. I'm sure you'll remember me. We've discovered a way to neutralize the one-way drag effect of the Gate. I've been sent to seek out any survivors of through-Gate experiments and bring them back. Find me, Zek, and you find your way out of here. Do you hear me?'
As he finished speaking, so the red light on his set began to flicker and blink. She was answering, but he couldn't hear her. He turned up the volume and got broken, crackling static. He shook the set, glared at it. Its plastic casing was cracked, and the miniature control panel in the top was badly dented. It must have got damaged when he was flung from the bike. Also, its proximity to Simmons's discarded radio was jamming reception on that set, too.
'Shit!' he hissed from between clenched teeth.
He set the broken radio aside and lowered his head, one arm and shoulder into the wormhole. He gripped its rim with his free hand and hooked one foot round a knob of rock. And he stretched himself down and around, inching his fingers toward Simmons's radio. Its antenna was fully extended, formed a slender, flexible half-hoop of telescoping metal sections where it had somehow jammed against the sides of the shaft to halt the radio's descent. Vyotsky's straining fingers touched the antenna - dislodged it!
The set went clattering out of sight into unknown depths below.
Vyotsky snatched himself viciously up and out of the hole and jumped to his feet. Of all the bloody luck! He picked up his own set again, said: 'Zek, I can't hear you. I know you're out there and you can probably hear me, but I can't hear you. If you get my message you'll most likely want to start looking for me. Right now I'm at the sphere but I won't be staying here. Anyway, I'll be keeping my eyes peeled for you, Zek. It looks like I'm your one hope. How's that for a novel situation?'
The red light on his set started flickering again, a brief, unintelligible morse message that wasn't intended to be understood. He couldn't tell if she was pleading with him or screaming her defiance. But sooner or later she would have to search him out. He'd been lying when he said he was her one chance, but of course she couldn't know that. She might suspect it, but still she couldn't afford to ignore him.
Vyotsky grinned, however nervously. At least there was one thing in this damned world he could appreciate. And would appreciate. Still grinning, he switched his radio off ... ,