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Chapter Seven

"DOES DRESDEN KNOW about him?"

Gibson didn't recognize the voice he was hearing as he swam up through the black sea, except that it had the officious, suspicious tone of a cop.

A second voice answered the question. "Of course Dresden knows about him. He's the replacement for Zwald."

Gibson knew the second voice. It belonged to Klein. He sounded tired. The cop voice was that of a man who couldn't leave it alone. "What happened? He's the wrong color."

Gibson knew that they couldn't be talking about him. How could he be the wrong color?

Klein's voice answered again. "The trans was rough, we had to use an unorthodox access point."

"How can he be a replacement for Zwald if he's the wrong color?"

The Klein voice started to sound impatient. "It really isn't my problem. We found him, we brought him, but something went wrong in the trans. Nothing can be done about it, so quit busting my balls."

"He's going to stick out like a sore thumb."

"I know he's going to stick out like a sore thumb, but that really isn't my problem. I've done my bit and the rest is up to Dresden."

Gibson was aware that he was lying on something hard. It felt like a concrete floor. He opened one eye and wished that he hadn't. Everyone around him was blue.

Klein's voice changed, urgent and warning. "Put a cover on it, it looks like he's coming round."

Gibson opened his other eye. He seemed to be in some kind of cavernous garage or workshop. A dozen or more people, both men and women, were moving around, and the majority of them were wearing the streamheat dark-blue jumpsuits with the same silver insignia at their throats. The disturbing part was that their skins were varying shades of the same blue.

Klein was standing over him, looking down. His skin was now tinted a soft aquamarine. "Are you okay?"

Gibson decided to play it traditional. "Where am I?"

"You're in Luxor."

' "The car was on fire,"

"That was a transition illusion."

Gibson struggled into a sitting position. His muscles ached. "How long was I out for?"

"About an hour."

Gibson stared down at his hands. They were also very pale blue, but much lighter than Klein's skin or anyone else's. "Why have we all changed color?"

Klein looked mystified. "What do you mean changed color? "

Gibson gestured at the other people in the place."Everyone's blue. I'm blue, you're blue. Everyone's turned blue."

" You look a little strange but everything else seems normal."

Gibson started to get agitated. "Everyone's fucking blue."

"I think this might be a perception problem."

"You're telling me that I'm seeing things?"

Klein sighed. "Transition can produce some strange effects. Things become changed. You're in another dimension and what you're seeing is just a product of both your brain and the transition. "

"My suit, too?"

The black suit in which Gibson had left London was now spotless white, as though it had been bleached. Klein shook his head. "No, the suit really did turn white."

"This is too weird for me."

"Just relax. You'll be okay."

Gibson started to take notice of his surroundings. He found that his first impression of a cavernous parking area fell well short of actuality. The place could have been an aircraft hangar, except that aircraft hangars weren't constructed from raw unfinished concrete and their roofs weren't supported by thick steel-reinforced pillars. It was hard to tell the true size of the underground installation beyond the basic impression that it was very large indeed. Brightly lit areas where intense beams of light blazed from overhead grilles alternated with pools of impenetrable shadow. In one of the nearest pools of light, a work detail in green rubber suits, filter masks, and protective goggles that made them look like invading Martians were hosing down a large white car, removing a gray film from its bodywork similar to the one that had coated the Cadillac after the UFO attack. It was no ordinary car wash. The hose they were using was made of jointed stainless steel, and the substance that gushed from it under high pressure seemed more like a gas than a liquid. Where it hit the car it splashed and smoked, and Gibson had a suspicion that it was causing the smell of ammonia in the air. The car wasn't a Cadillac, either; in fact, it wasn't like any car that Gibson had ever seen before, big and bulky like something out of the late forties or early fifties, a Tucker or maybe an overgrown De Soto, with fins and a radiator grille that belonged on a jet fighter.

"Is that our car?"

Klein nodded. "Changed a bit, huh?"

"Why couldn't it just stay a Cadillac?"

"Because it's also been through transition. It would be fairly pointless if it still looked like an Eldorado from your dimension."

"What is this place?"

"It our main base and access point in this dimension."

"You have something like this back on Earth?"

Klein shook his head. "We maintain a much larger presence here. The politics of this dimension are very unstable."

Other big baroque cars were parked in a group farther down the area as well as a handful of sinister black paramilitary vehicles like bulky Batmobiles with armor-plate, slit windows, and exterior-mounted heavy machine guns. A pair of cumbersome, old-fashioned helicopters also stood nearby, like ugly sleeping insects, with their rotors folded back and canvas covers over the Plexiglas cockpit canopies. Klein wasn't exaggerating when he said that the streamheat maintained a presence here.

A squad of armored men carrying automatic weapons marched past where Gibson was sitting. Their dark-blue body armor was made up of irregularly shaped plates of some thick porous material that protected their torsos, thighs, and upper arms. The helmets they wore were polished and cylindrical, with a stylized sunburst insignia on the front and vestigial metal crest at the back that might have had its roots in some sort of feathered headdress. Taken as a whole, the ensemble made them look not unlike high-tech Aztecs. As they tramped by in step with the measured stamp of steel-shod boots, Klein didn't pay them the slightest attention. Instead, he looked down at Gibson.

"You feel any better?"

Gibson nodded. "A little."

"Did you hallucinate a lot coming through?"

Gibson pushed his hair back with his fingers. "A lot? Yeah, I'd say a lot. I turned into a burning meteor and then I fell into a black sea."

"It can be rough the first time. Can you stand?"

"I don't know."

"You want to try?"

"Sure, why not."

Klein reached down and took Gibson's arm. Gibson tried standing and found that it wasn't too difficult. He momentarily wanted to vomit but that quickly passed.

"Where are Smith and French?"

"They've gone on ahead to report."

Gibson was startled by a shout from one of the cleanup crew working on the white car.

"Superior in proximity!"

A group of five people were coming toward Gibson and Klein at a brisk, businesslike pace. Two of them were what Gibson was already thinking of as regular streamheat, in the plain blue jumpsuits, and two were the military form, in the slab-honeycomb armor and pre-Columbian helmets. Gibson didn't have to be told that the fifth guy was some sort of officer. The extra gold on his collar, the cape thrown over his shoulders, and the arrogance of his bearing made it immediately obvious. If that hadn't been enough, the way that the cleanup crew came to attention and even Klein formally stiffened rammed the point home.

All through his life, Gibson had always experienced a problem with authority figures. When someone started telling him what to do, his natural reaction was surly hostility. Sometimes he believed this hostility had been one of the major forces in shaping his life, and if it hadn't been built into his personality by either nature or nurture, he might have become president instead of a rock 'n' roll degenerate. He saw that it wasn't going to be any different in a new dimension. While the streamheat officer was still twenty yards away, Gibson knew that they were going to inevitably clash.

Klein muttered quickly out of the corner of his mouth. "This is Superior Dresden and he's the head of this section. Watch out for him. He's hard as a diamond and cuts as deep."

Superior Dresden was the kind of Nordic blond god that Hitler would have instantly used as a model for the Aryan superman. Why were all these streamheat so goddamned perfect? If anything, Dresden was even more perfect than the lower ranks like Smith, Klein, and French. Did they practice selective breeding back in the streamheat dimension? Even Dresden's attitude came straight out of the SS academy. He looked Gibson up and down as though he was an inferior piece of merchandise, and Gibson responded by striking a pose of dumb insolence. After the cursory inspection, Dresden turned his attention to Klein.

"Is this the one?"

"Yes, Superior Dresden, this is Joe Gibson."

"Why is he so pale?"

"There were some problems with the trans. He took it hard."

Dresden thought about this. "It will be best if he goes straight to the apartment."

"Should I take him personally, Superior?"

Dresden nodded. "Yes, you take him, you've come this far with him."

"What about my debriefing from the previous mission?"

"Smith and French are already covering that. You can turn in your report later."

He looked Gibson up and down once more and still didn't like what he saw. "He's not particularly impressive, is he?"

"He's something of a legend in his own dimension."

Dresden let out a short exhalation of breath that seemed to indicate he would never cease to be amazed by what went on in other dimensions, and Gibson, already sensitive to being talked about as though he wasn't there, reached the limit of his tolerance.

"Listen, friend, you may have people jumping around here like you were second cousin to God, but I'm not from around here and I expect to be extended the common courtesies. You know what I'm talking about?"

Dresden's face clearly demonstrated that he wasn't accustomed to being spoken to like that. He glared balefully at Gibson.

"Do you know who I am?"

Gibson grinned and looked Dresden straight in the eye, refusing to be intimidated.

"Yeah, I know who you are. Your name's Dresden and supposedly you're the big wheel round here. Trouble is, that doesn't do too much for me. I'm Joe Gibson and I didn't want to come here; I'm also not a part of your Boy Scout troop and wouldn't advise trying to treat me like I was. I've put up with a great deal in the last few days and I'm really in no mood to be pushed around."

Dresden held his gaze. "I don't like your manners, Gibson."

"That's funny, I was just thinking the same about yours."

"You may regret this." With a curt gesture of dismissal, Dresden turned back to Klein. "Take him directly to the apartment and then report back to me."

As Dresden and his escort marched away, Klein looked at Gibson and slowly shook his head. "You shouldn't have done that. Superior Dresden is vindictive and has a long memory. He won't let an insult like that pass."

Gibson stuck out his lower jaw. "I've dealt with power-crazed assholes before. I can take my chances."

Klein nodded. "You may well have to." He took Gibson by the arm and steered him down through the huge space of light and dark. They passed a gang of laborers humping large wooden packing cases from off the back of a big, old-fashioned semitrailer. The laborers, who wore baggy tan coveralls, were uniformly short and dark, with lank black hair and Prussian-blue skin. Maybe there really was something to this idea of the streamheat practicing selective breeding. If their society as a whole, back in their home dimension, was organized anything like their interdimensional secret police, it had to be a fascist anthill. It wasn't at all encouraging to think that he'd been forced to throw in his lot with a bunch of fascist ants. He couldn't dwell on the concept, however; some more immediate thoughts required his attention.

"What's this apartment Dresden was talking about?"

"We maintain a number of anonymous apartments throughout the city for the use of our people when they need to blend in with the native population. You're going to stay in one of them until your situation has been rationalized."


"You'll be briefed when the time comes."

"And who'll do the briefing?"

Klein almost smiled.

"Superior Dresden."

Gibson's face fell.

"Oh, shit."

"Maybe that'll teach you to put a curb on your mouth."

They turned right at a point where a formidable chain-link and razor-wire fence cut off access to the rest of the area. Gibson couldn't read the red-and-white signs that were posted at regular intervals along the fence, as the text seemed to be in the same alien script that he had seen on the keyboard of the Cadillac's computer, but the red lightning bolts on each sign made the message pretty clear-the fence was electrified. Through it he could see figures, both tan and dark blue, moving around among rows of bulky, tarpaulin-shrouded shapes. For what was supposed to be a covert organization, the streamheat were amassing themselves quite a mess of materiel here in Luxor.

Gibson and Klein entered a tunnel or corridor, Gibson wasn't sure which; ever since he'd woken up from the transition, he'd had the feeling that he was underground, although he wasn't absolutely certain why. They seemed to be passing through the administrative hub of the base; the rooms and cubicles that opened onto the tunnel/corridor were filled with men and women in blue jumpsuits who were either shuffling papers or bent over computer monitors. In one large room, a line of operators stared at a hundred or more purple-and-white, postcard-size monitor screens that had to be a part of some Big Brother surveillance system. Gibson made a mental note of that-you never knew when the streamheat might be watching. It was also along this tunnel/corridor that Gibson caught sight of himself in a mirror. What he saw was enough of a shock to stop him dead in his tracks. His features and figure were much as he had last seen them, but practically everything else had changed. He was pale blue, a very pale blue. Even accepting the fact that he was temporarily seeing a world of people with blue faces, he had become extraordinarily pallid, not a healthy robust blue like Klein and Dresden and all of the others he'd seen since his arrival in Luxor, but a faded-unto-death, corpselike pastel. If anything shocked him more than the color of his skin, it was the way that his hair had changed: it had bleached out like his suit, white as the driven snow. It was also considerably shorter and brushed back into the pompadour of a fifties greaser.

"I'm fucking Eddie Cochran in negative!"

Klein looked a little guilty. "I was intending to tell you about that later when we got to the apartment."

"Tell me what exactly."

"You're extremely pale. You seem to have lost a lot of pigment in the transition."

"This isn't an illusion like the blue faces?"

"I'm afraid not."

Gibson's expression turned from shocked to suspicious. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Klein took a deep breath, as though steeling himself before delivering the bad news.

"You're pretty much an albino."

"An albino? I don't want to be an albino."

"There really isn't too much we can do about it."

"So much for blending in with the native population. I'm going to stand out like a sore thumb."

"In actual fact, you may not."

"The place is loaded with albinos?"

"Luxor has more than its fair share of strange people. Their development of nuclear energy was extremely sloppy and, on top of that, they've had three limited nuclear wars, so there are a lot of quite weird-looking folk walking around."

"So you think I won't be that noticeable."

"I'm hoping not."

"This is getting ridiculous."

The two of them waited at the door of an elevator. When they stepped inside and Klein pushed the buttons, they started going up.

"Where are we headed for?"

Klein glanced up at the ceiling. "Ground level."

Gibson nodded. He was pleased that his sense of being underground had been correct. It was good to know that one's instincts were functioning properly.

The entrance to the streamheat's underground base was concealed in a derelict warehouse in the middle of what seemed to be an abandoned industrial park. The sky was a metallic gray, and the smell of coming rain was carried by a brisk wind.

As they emerged into the daylight, Gibson looked around in disbelief. "This is another dimension? Shit, we could be back in Newark."

Klein smiled knowingly. "You'll find a lot of similarities."

A street ran past the front of the warehouse that looked as though it hadn't been used in years. The surface was cracked and littered with garbage that was breaking down into a uniform organic mulch that fertilized the rank grass growing up through the cracks.

Gibson looked up and down the street for some form of transportation but could see nothing. "So how do we get to civilization? I hope you don't think I'm going to walk."

Klein shook his head. "You won't have to walk. We're going to take a taxi,"

Gibson looked surprised. After all they they'd been through, the idea of a cab ride seemed a little prosaic. "A taxi?"

"Sure, a taxi. Did it ever occur to you that cabs are an ideal means of transport?"

Gibson shrugged. "I'd never really thought about it. They certainly come in handy when you're drunk."

"We own one of the local cab companies. As well as giving us a line into some of the Luxor crime families, the cabs provide an inconspicuous way of moving around the city. Nobody ever looks twice at a cab."

Gibson scanned the street again. "So where is this cab?"

"One will be along in a moment to pick us up."

In confirmation of his words, a red-and-green vehicle appeared at the far end of the street, carefully steering around the heaps of debris and rusted-out shells of abandoned cars. Except for some minor details, it looked for all the world like a '52 Chevy. When Gibson got into it he found that the interior of the cab was the interior of a cab. He could have been back on Earth. The-armored steel and Plexiglas between the driver and the passengers may have been a little more intense than the anti-theft screens in New York cabs, but not by much, and he wouldn't have thought too much of it if he 'd climbed into the same vehicle on Fifty-seventh Street. If the protection that cabbies thought they needed was any indication, Luxor had a major problem with street crime. Gibson also discovered something that didn't make him happy at all. The back of the cab was plastered with the usual warning stickers and advertising signs, and these brought Gibson face-to-face with what seemed to be another and very serious failure of the transition.

"I can't read this stuff."

Klein's eyebrows shot up. "What?"

Gibson pointed to the various signs inside the cab. "It all looks like it's written in Martian. I can't read a word of it."

"That is a major problem."

"You're not kidding. I don't really relish the idea of being an illiterate. How can I even tell which is the men's room?"

Klein shook his head. "I don't know what to say. Transition is supposed to take care of things like basic reading skills."

"Is there anything that can be done?"

"I don't have a clue. I've never come across anything like this before. I guess you could try learning it the hard way."

Gibson was getting angry. "Give me a break, will you? I'm not about to learn to read all over again." A thought hit him like a thunderbolt. "Am I going to be able to speak the language?"

Klein looked worried. "I sure as hell hope so. All we can do is see what happens."

"Suppose I said something to the cabdriver?"

Klein shook his head. "He's one of us. He'd understand you anyway. You don't seem to have any problem with our language."

"You're talking your own language?"

"I have been ever since you woke."

"So what do we do?"

"We'll just have to wait until you're in among the natives."

"Might it not be a bit late by then?"

"That's a chance we're going to have to take."

"Fucking great."

"I'm sorry."

"Sorry really doesn't cut it in a situation like this."

Gibson turned and looked out the window. Driving into Luxor was depressingly like driving into any city anywhere. The cars that they passed were a little strange, and the design of the suburban homes was unlike anything he'd seen before. They were flat-roofed, ranch-style houses that might have come from some early-fifties, Popular Mechanics vision of the future. Those, however, were only details, and the drive was really no stranger than coming into, say, Moscow or Istanbul. At some point in the past, Luxor must have been extremely prosperous and indulged in a towering, skyscraper school of architecture that seemed to view the act of constructing a building as the creation of another monument to itself. The buildings that reared into the air, some for fifty and sixty stories, were loaded down with spires and gargoyles, flying buttresses, and heroic statues and reliefs. It was clear, however, that the good times were long gone. The imposing towers were filmed with soot and daubed with unreadable graffiti at street level, and the broad avenues were choked with traffic belching black unfiltered exhaust fumes probably thick with every toxin known to man. The monorail rapid-transit system that crisscrossed the streets at the third-floor level was in such a state of serious neglect and disrepair that its decay was obvious to Gibson at very first glance, and he resolved not to use it unless absolutely necessary,

It seemed that Luxor's population was growing too fast for the city to cope, and the groaning infrastructure was in the process of going down for the last time, drowning in a sea of humanity for which it had never been designed. The sidewalks were crowded with pedestrians, and although the bustle of busy city was still in evidence and well-dressed people were going about their business while new gleaming cars crawled through the near-gridlock, there were also ample numbers of those who clearly had nothing to do except lean or loiter or shuffle aimlessly and panhandle the passing stream of the more well heeled. Every couple of blocks, a drunk could be seen stretched out on the sidewalk or sleeping it off in a doorway, or a pair of winos would be huddled together, sharing a bottle in a paper bag. Many of the intersections they passed had their share of skittish hookers trying for the quick daytime trick, and, all in all, the newcomer was left in no doubt that Luxor had hit hard times.

If Luxor had economized on anything, it certainly wasn't law enforcement. One of the first things that Gibson noticed was the massive police presence. Although it seemed like a perfectly normal day with nothing special going on, there were cops everywhere. Foot patrols, pairs, and even trios of officers in helmets and flak jackets and with bulky submachine guns slung under their arms stood on street corners and prowled the sidewalks while the bums and hookers and guys selling stuff out of suitcases melted away at their approach. Even the more affluent citizens avoided looking straight into their hard, expressionless faces. The city's police cars were equally formidable-more of the slab-sided, huge black Batmobiles with the fins and the armor and the firepower, just [ike the ones that Gibson had seen parked underground in the streamheat base. As their cab inched along through the logjam of traffic, one of the black juggernauts slowly passed them.

Gibson glanced at Klein. "It can't be any picnic for criminals in this town."

Klein was also looking at the armored police cruiser. "They don't make a bad living, believe me."

Law enforcement wasn't confined merely to street level. Black helicopters buzzed overhead bearing what had to be police insignia, slowly circling, constantly observing the streets and rooftops below. They were bulky, slow-moving machines with round Plexiglas cabins like something out of the Korean War.

Klein offered a token explanation. "They're cop-crazy here."

"So you guys should fit right in."

Klein ignored him. "They have four separate police departments in this city alone, plus assorted unofficial thug squads."

Gibson continued to watch the police car as it pulled ahead. "You really brought me to a dandy vacation spot."

An architect had once told Gibson that when a city lost its pride, it covered itself in billboards. If the size and quantity of the ones in Luxor were anything to go by, the town had no pride left at all. Every piece of available space seemed to be given over to advertising. Billboards were everywhere, some of them a full block long. The techniques of selling in the United Kamerian Republics were by no means a fine art. Giant, scantily clad, garish women with big breasts and electric smiles held up various cans, bottles, and packages or else sprawled across cars, cookers, and TV sets without too much real relationship to whatever particular product they might be pitching. It appeared that in Luxor they believed that just about anything could be sold by sex. Gibson had never seen such expanses of blue skin in his life, and he wasn't sure how he felt about it. He was a little confused about having erotic responses to blue women. There was, however, one consolation. A good percentage of the blue bikini babes were offering packs of cigarettes.

"So they still smoke here in Luxor?"

Klein nodded. "Sure they do. Most of the natives have one going all the time. By pure dumb luck, they stumbled across a cure for cancer back in what, in your world, would have been the nineteen-thirties."

One of the main exceptions to the parade of blue bimbos was a set of billboards that featured huge black-and-white portraits of a good-looking man in his forties with brush-cut hair and a winning smile. Under the photograph there was a simple short slogan in red type that Gibson was, of course, unable to read.

After they'd passed five of the signs, Gibson pointed the next one out to Klein. "Who's that?"

"That's Lancer."

"Who's Lancer?"

"He's the president, Jaim Benson Lancer, the thirty-second President of the UKR."

"So why all the billboards? Is it election year?"

Klein shook his head. "They don't have real elections here anymore."

"So what's with all the advertising? The president's out selling beer in this dimension?"

"It's just an inspiration message to the people reminding them that JBL loves them and they love him."

"If they love him so much, what does he need all these cops for?"

"That's the weird thing about the United Republics. Lancer's been in power for ten years, and during that time, things have gone from bad to worse, but the more he screws things up, the more the population seems to adore and idolize him. Somehow, he's managed to completely detach himself from his disastrous administration."

They crossed a big intersection where a massive gilded statue of an idealized naked man with fountains dancing round his feet threatened to hurl a golden thunderbolt straight up the avenue and into one of the more affluent areas of the city that Gibson had so far seen. After five blocks however, the affluence dwindled to a neighborhood of genteel decay. The cab turned into a street of tall, reasonably well-kept apartment buildings and pulled up in front of one about halfway down the block.

Gibson glanced at Klein. "Is this it? Are we there?"

Klein nodded. "This is it."

They stepped out of the cab and Gibson looked up at the front of his new temporary home. It really wasn't all that different from his place on Central Park West, maybe a little down-market but basically the same kind of structure. A similar blue-and-white awning led up to the front door, and as he walked into the paneled lobby it was easy to picture Ramone, his New York doorman, standing there.

The streamheat apartment was on the fifteenth floor, and that was where the resemblance to his New York home ended. The place was small, dark, and dingy, with tiny cramped rooms and narrow slit windows, most of which looked out on a blank air-shaft. It was also crowded with heavy, fifties-style furniture. Most of the space in the living room was taken up by a massive three-piece suite, upholstered in green leather that showed the marks of wear and even the scars of cigarette burns. Klein turned on a light, but it did nothing to improve the place's appearance. The walls were a dirty parchment yellow and the carpet an all-purpose excremental brown. Neither seemed to have been properly cleaned in the last decade.

"It's hardly the Plaza."

"It'll do for the moment."

Gibson sniffed. "You don't have to live here." Then he realized that he was only assuming this. "You won't be living here with me, will you?"

Klein shook his head. "No, I won't be living here. You'll be here on your own until other arrangements can be made."

Gibson raised an eyebrow. "Aren't you afraid that I might take a powder?"

The idea of Gibson walking out didn't seem to bother Klein at all. "Where would you go?"

Gibson nodded. "You have a point there."

They moved into the single bedroom. The double bed and a wardrobe like an upright coffin built for two hardly left enough floor space for the two men to stand in comfort.

"This is the kind of apartment where junkies come to die."

"It'll have to serve."

"Maybe if we got rid of some of the furniture?"

"I wouldn't bother thinking about redecorating. I doubt you'll be here long enough."

Gibson looked around. The place still seemed to be inhabited. There was certainly someone else's stuff strewn all around. "Who used to stay here?"

"Another agent. He was just transferred out."

There was a quality to Klein's voice that made Gibson suspect he was hiding something, but he decided that it was probably pointless to call him on it, and they returned to the living room. If Gibson had learned one thing during his acquaintance with the streamheat, it was that they were masters of keeping their mouths shut. He noticed a large TV set in the corner in a solid mahogany cabinet. Now what the hell was TV like in Luxor?

"So what happens now?"

"I have to return to the base and make my report."

"What about me?"

"This is your apartment for the moment. Relax, make yourself at home. I think you'll find there's everything you'll need."

This was all going a little swiftly for Gibson. "Wait a minute. You're just going to leave me here?"

"I don't have any orders to stay here and baby-sit you, if that's what you mean."

"What do I do about food and stuff?"

Klein shrugged. "The place is well stocked. I guess more will be sent in when you need it."

"Don't I get some kind of emergency number? Some way I can contact you people if there's a problem?"

"If there's a problem, we'll know about it."

Gibson remembered the bank of postcard-size monitor screens in the streamheat base. "You'll be watching me?"

Klein's face was blank. "I don't know what exact arrangements have been made for your security."

"So I just wait here and amuse myself?"

"You'll be contacted." Klein was at the door and on his way out. "I wouldn't recommend roaming the streets or anything, but otherwise you're free to do what you like. I believe alcohol has been provided."

Gibson's lip curled. "Then I'll be all right, won't I? I mean, that's all the poor old drunk needs, right?"

Klein ignored him. "Drop the deadbolt on the door after I've gone."

The door closed behind Klein, and Gibson was suddenly all alone. After about twenty seconds, the realization of this crashed in on him like a physical blow and he had to say it out loud to himself to make sure it was real.

"You're on your own in another dimension."

The idea was almost impossible to accept.

"You're on your own in another fucking dimension."

Suddenly something inside him crumpled. He no longer had Smith, Klein, and French hurrying him from one place to the next, or Windemere providing him with at least the illusion of protection. He now had nothing but his own resources, and that was frightening.

"Jesus Christ, boy, what have you gotten yourself into?"

He went into the kitchen of the apartment and found that, as Klein had said, the place had been fully stocked. The cupboards and refrigerator were full of brand-name goods that must have been brought through from his own dimension. Whoever planned his menu, though, had some strange ideas about what he ate. They seemed to assume he lived on a steady diet of Wonder Bread, peanut butter, Cap'n Crunch cereal, Dinty Moore beef stew, and Chef Boyardee ravioli. Although he wondered about the motivation and even the method that had brought him this bonanza of junk food from home, he was pleased to see it. He was in no shape to be struggling with unreadable cans of whatever they ate here in Luxor. He imagined he would come to that soon enough if the streamheat decided he was to stay in this dimension for a while, but in the meantime he'd do his best to chow down on what was there and not complain too much. He did wonder where the food might have come from. Did the streamheat maintain supplies of cheap supermarket provisions from a variety of dimensions for eventualities like this or had the stuff been transed in specially for him? That scarcely seemed possible considering the speed with which he'd been brought there, unless, of course, they'd been planning to bring him long before he'd known about it.

He was relieved to find that the promised alcohol had also been provided. In the cupboard over the sink, he discovered three fifths of Johnnie Walker Red Label, and there were also two six-packs of Bud Light in the big, old-fashioned refrigerator. He opened a beer and poured himself a very large shot of Scotch. He raised his glass to the empty air in a silent toast to whomever might be watching and then set off on a detailed exploration of the apartment and its contents. The previous tenant appeared to have left in a great hurry: his clothes were still there, along with a number of books in the local language, discarded magazines, and newspapers. Gibson even discovered a clutch of local soft porn in which blue couples cavorted across pages of implausibly cheap color printing. It wasn't long, however, before a certain uneasiness started to set in. The deeper Gibson delved, the more he came to believe that the "other agent" had not just moved out in a hurry-the signs seemed to indicate that he had simply vanished. His razor, toilet articles, and a selection of medications were still in the bathroom, and there was even a signet ring on the edge of the sink, as though a man had taken it off and placed it there while he was washing his hands and then never put it back on again. Gibson inspected the medicines with an experienced eye and found that one jar contained some thirty or so yellow pills that looked uncommonly like Valium. He was almost tempted to take a couple but decided that it might be wiser to stick to Scotch for the moment.

On a table beside the bed he found a pile of what appeared to be political leaflets, the kind of handbills that were printed up and passed out on the street by radical and fringe groups trying to make their point. They carried a less than flattering drawing of President Lancer and a slogan in a loud, violent typeface. Gibson sat down on the bed and studied the flyer. What had this guy been, some kind of agent provocateur worming his way into the confidence of local dissidents? Looking at the man's stuff, Gibson couldn't believe that he'd been regular streamheat like Klein or French. The man was too much of a slob. His shoes lay on the floor were he had dropped them, and there was a half-eaten plate of food in the refrigerator that he seemed to have been saving. His very smell was still in the place, a mixture of dirty socks and cheap cologne that simply wasn't streamheat in any shape or form. Perhaps he'd been some hired-on local operative or maybe another unwilling import from another dimension.

The most disturbing find came as Gibson was taking a closer look at the TV. He spotted something down beside one of the carved legs of the baroque forty-inch set and went fishing for it. It turned out to be a wallet, and beside it, further under the TV, was a set of keys. Unease turned to outright spookiness. There was no way that any rational man left an apartment under his own steam without his wallet and keys. He flipped open the wallet and looked inside. This was the biggest shock yet. All it contained was a thick wad of the local currency and a single ID, and the picture on the ID showed a face that was close enough to Gibson's that it could have been his brother. His brother, that is, before the transition had turned him into an albino. Gibson closed the wallet and walked as calmly as he could to the kitchen and poured himself an even larger shot than the last one. As he drank, he looked around the ceiling wondering if the streamheat were watching him and had been all through the discovery of the wallet. Even as he looked, he knew that searching for the camera or whatever they might be using to spy on him was totally pointless. In his own dimension they had spy cameras so small that they were virtually indetectable, and at least the same had to be expected of the streamheat.

Once he calmed down from the initial shock, Gibson started to think seriously about what this new set of developments might mean. It could hardly be a coincidence that the last person to inhabit the apartment looked almost identical to him, so what the hell was going on? Was it some Prisoner of Zenda deal where he'd been shipped in to replace and there that theory faltered. Without answers to questions like who and why, there was hardly any point in going on with it. Maybe if he could have read the print on the ID card, he might have learned something about his near double, if nothing more than the name he'd been using. Detective work was close to impossible when one was a functional illiterate. The only other theory that came close to holding water was that the streamheat were sticking it to him for some mysterious reason of their own, and that the wallet, the apartment, and everything else were the props in some weird, rat-maze, behavioral experiment in which he was the rat. The whiskey was starting to go to work, and some of his fear was turning into slit-eyed belligerence. He glared at the supposed cameras that might be looking down at him from the kitchen ceiling.

"What are you trying to do, you bastards, bust my balls or just drive me crazy?"

He turned to the fridge for another beer and noticed for the first time a package wrapped in greaseproof paper, way in the back of the vegetable crisper. More of the last guy's leftovers? He had a sudden urge to get rid of it, to throw out all the crap left behind by this mysterious look-alike. How would that grab any watching streamheat?

"Mark it down as symbolic cleansing of the new territory, you cocksuckers."

Hell, for all he knew, they might be broadcasting this as a nature show in the streamheat dimension. Inferior Species Under Stress. Earth People Are Funny. Interdimensional Candid Camera, even. Smile, Joe, you're on. How superior did those bastards really think they were?

His fingers closed around the package of what he thought were leftovers, but instead of encountering something that felt like semifrozen mush, they touched hard cold metal under the paper. He quickly tore off the wrapping and found to his amazement that he was holding a gun. Gibson's first reaction was to immediately put it down on the small kitchen table. The cold metal was burning his fingers. Was this another part of the game? If indeed the streamheat were running some game on him, it seemed like a dangerous play-or did they see him as such a weakling that even armed, he wouldn't be dangerous?

He gingerly picked up the gun again. As guns went, it was a nice piece. A Luxor model that was not unlike a Colt.45 automatic. He fumbled around the bottom of the butt until he found the release for the clip, and slid it out. The gun was fully loaded. Suddenly feeling cold sober, he clicked it back into place. Gibson had never had any luck with guns, and since the notorious Incident with the roadie, he'd sworn them off altogether. He'd even refused the gift of a Saturday night special that Jerry Lee Lewis had tried to press on him at some drunken party following the Grammies, to the point where Lewis had started roaring that he was a worthless faggot. It took a certain kind of willpower to stand there and have Jerry Lee Lewis call you a faggot in front of the assembled music business, and Gibson had actually taken a warped pride in his own forbearance. Now here he was, in this filthy kitchen, clutching a big Mike Hammer automatic and wondering what he was going to do with it.

After about a minute, he decided that he wasn't going to do anything, at least not immediately. He poured himself a third drink and went back into the living room, taking the gun, the wallet, and the keys with him. For a long time he stared at the photo in the wallet but no inspiration came. It was only when he became convinced that the exercise was futile that he turned his attention to the bundle of cash. It would have been nice to know just how much it was worth, but, not even being able to read the numbers on the bills, it was impossible to tell. And then a thought struck him: he could read the numbers on the bills. A large brass sunburst clock hung right in front of him on the living room wall, flanked by two faded sepia prints of storms at sea. It was about as ugly as a clock could get but it had numerals that, as far as he could see, worked in exactly the same way as numbers worked back home, nine single characters and then ten, eleven, and twelve expressed as double digits. Even if there was some weird factor that he didn't know about, like the hours in Luxor were longer or shorter, it didn't matter. He knew the first rudiments of their numerical system. He suddenly felt incredibly pleased with himself and went to work figuring out the denominations of the various bills in the roll. It didn't take him very long to calculate that the bundle was just shy of two thousand of whatever unit passed as currency in Luxor. What he didn't know was whether this made him a rich man or would merely enable him to buy a cup of coffee and a sandwich.

The next thing to catch his attention was the TV. It occurred to Gibson that there was no need to go out mingling with the natives to find out if he understood the local language; all he had to do was switch on the set and watch for a while. Now he really was thinking for himself again, and it was like a breath of fresh air after having been told what to do for so long. He knelt down in front of the set, looking for the on/off switch. It turned out that Luxor could only manage two channels of black-and-white TV, One was showing a game show that, allowing for the natural culture shifts between dimensions, looked a hell of a lot like Family Feud. The main difference was that a comparatively normal family-albeit of ultramarine complexion-seemed to be competing against one composed of total freaks. He remembered how Klein had told him about the amount of radiation that was loose in this dimension. The genetic damage that must have been sustained by this family of four-Mom, Pop, and two kids-was nothing less than awesome. Pop was a standard pinhead, tiny pointed skull balanced upon a beefy, overdeveloped body, while Mom was a circus fat lady of five hundred pounds or more who had also been liberally endowed with facial hair. One lad was a dwarf, twisted and misshapen with a face so filled with hate that he seemed on the perpetual verge of apoplexy; the second, a tall and gawky girl, had a face filled with nothing: two eyes and a rudimentary slit of a mouth were the only truly defined features in a blank blue moon of a face. The audience was howling its approval as the family of normals whupped the freaks hands down. It appeared that the humiliation of the handicapped was real big laughs in Luxor. In addition to this insight, the game show offered Gibson two other crucial pieces of information. He quickly found out that according to his perception, the citizens of Luxor spoke colloquial American English. Their accent was a little weird but it was nothing that Gibson couldn't handle. He wondered if they really did speak English here and all the stuff he'd been told about how transition gave you instant linguistic skills was bullshit and deliberate lies. He only had Klein's word for any of it.

"I mean, in a goddamned parallel dimension, why shouldn't the parallel people speak parallel English?"

It didn't explain, however, why he was unable to read their parallel writing, but he was learning very quickly that it was wise to stay away from these interdimensional brain twisters. They only confused him and ultimately made his head hurt. Better by far to stick to practical puzzles while he was on this mental roll, like the fact that the huge scoreboards at the far end of the game-show set not only showed the contestants' amassed winnings but also demonstrated the relationship between the cash prizes and the merchandise that was being given away. A car that looked not unlike a mid-fifties Studebaker was equated with a prize of ten thousand. That meant the two thousand sitting in the wallet wasn't a fortune but was quite enough juice to ease him out of trouble. He even learned the name of the currency. In Luxor, they wheeled and dealed and probably also lied and died for the almighty kudo.

The moment that he knew the value of the bundle of bills in the wallet, alarms started going off in Gibson's head. It could hardly be an oversight that the streamheat had set him up with an apartment in Luxor that came with an almost adequate fake ID, a decidedly adequate amount of walking money, a supply of booze, and a gun. In his experience, the streamheat didn't go in for oversights of this magnitude. So, if it wasn't an oversight, what was it? Were they hoping he would do something? Knowing the contempt in which they held him, he could only imagine that they expected him to take the money and the gun and go out and get drunk. It was crazy. Or was it? Maybe they expected him go to out and get drunk and then get arrested. That made a little more sense, and Luxor certainly had enough cops to bring him in if he were to cause a disturbance. The next question was why. By now, a theory was starting to develop. In the event of being arrested, he would almost certainly use the look-alike's ID, and that would mean an official report of some kind. Gibson frowned. Was he being set up as some sort of alibi for his double, creating the illusion that the man was in the local drunk-tank while, in reality, he was out doing something nefarious at the streamheat's bidding? Bringing Gibson across the dimensions seemed one hell of an elaborate way to set up an alibi unless, of course, it was going to be one hell of a crime.

Gibson poured himself another drink. Conjecture was making him weary. He realized that he was now at the point where he didn't believe anything that the streamheat had told him unless it was confirmed by another source. That meant doubting almost everything he'd heard about Luxor and challenging every supposition. He slowly sipped his Scotch and let the warmth course through him. The trouble with the intellectual rigor was that it was too much like hard work. He flipped the TV to the second channel to see if this might provide some new insight or inspiration, but all he got was an ugly and violent cop show in which, without too much benefit of plot, officers in heavy body armor blew away the bad guys with a selection of shotguns and automatic weapons. Gibson supposed that it was inevitable that this kind of show was popular in Luxor. Cultures that were big on law enforcement in reality were usually big on it as entertainment as well. He noticed that a large proportion of the bad guys in this show were genetic freaks, dramatically evil versions of the family on the game show. Gibson sighed. Was this how they siphoned off mass frustration, by turning up the hate against the atomic mutations?

"Jesus, this really is the fifties."

The cop show gave way to local news, and Gibson discovered that news presentation in Luxor was primitive, not unlike the old movie-house newsreels, with grainy photography, military band music, and a strident voice-over. The lead story was about the preparations for the president's forthcoming visit to the city, and it featured footage of Lancer riding in an open car, smiling and waving at a cheering crowd. Gibson instinctively didn't like Jaim Benson Lancer. The man was too handsome and too smooth, too many teeth and too much boyish hair. Gibson operated on the principle that anyone who looked so good just couldn't be trusted.

Gibson yawned. He had lost track of how much Scotch he'd poured into himself, and his eyelids were starting to droop. His sense of time was shot, but it was getting dark outside and the TV wasn't helping any. One channel was showing some grim movie about a bunch of chronically depressed peasants trying to eke out a living in some bleak, radiation-blasted rural hell, sort of Little House on the Nuclear Wasteland, and, on the other, an equally dour family drama, set in a apartment almost as wretched as the one that he was in, made him think of a version of the Honeymooners in which the humor had been replaced by raging angst and miserable screaming kids. He wondered if he ought to sleep or if he was in danger of psych attack in Luxor. Even though it meant taking the word of the streamheat, he had to assume that he was at least marginally secure. He couldn't spend the rest of his life staying awake because he was afraid of what might come at him out of his dreams. Whatever their ultimate intentions for him, he couldn't see that he would be much use to the streamheat either as a ringer or a rat in a maze with his brain fried by nightmares or crazy from exhaustion.

It was at some point around that thought that his eyes closed of their own accord and he went out into a merciful blackness without dreams, either good or bad.

The next thing he knew was that he was wide awake, and something was coming out of the TV at him.

The White Room | Necrom | The White Room