A PIERCING ELECTRONIC howl was filling the room as Gibson struggled desperately to recover his wits. He had been in such a deep sleep that, at first, he didn't even know where he was. Luxor? That's right. The apartment? He could remember that, but what was happening to the television? The glass of the screen seemed to have been transmuted into soft stretching plastic, and something was trying to push its way through it from inside. The raw energy blazing from the set was blinding, and it strobed back from the walls of the room like a short-circuiting psychedelic light show. Gibson raised an arm to shield his eyes, convinced that the picture tube itself was going to explode at any moment in a shower of glass. At that point he was still thinking in relatively normal terms like explosion or TV meltdown. He had yet to question why he was seeing flashes of dazzling color on a black-and-white set. It was only when something like an arm or a tentacle that seemed to be composed of swirling, multicolored interference extended out of the screen and into the room that he realized that he was still in the hostile world of the extraordinary. The thing was reaching around as though looking for a handhold, and it had formed indistinct fingers that blazed with red fire. It was like watching an electric lizard struggling out of its egg, except that as more of it emerged into the room it started to assume an increasingly humanoid form. Gibson watched transfixed as, with a final frenzied effort, it dragged its legs clear of the bulging screen and stepped to the floor, spilling cascades of sparks onto the dirty carpet, now only linked to the set by a glowing umbilical. It stood about six inches taller than Gibson, and he knew without being told that it meant him no good. When a black hole of a mouth opened the thing's approximation of a face, the electronic howl modulated as though it was trying to form words; then, without further preamble, it lunged for Gibson.
Gibson hurled himself out of the chair and rolled sideways. He was certain that if the thing touched him he'd be instantly fried. The thing didn't move particularly fast, and it seemed to have little sense of direction, but there was a flash of discharge and the stench of burning leather and horsehair as it hit the chair where he'd been sitting moments before. The whole room seemed to be filled with static, and Gibson could feel his hair standing on end and small shocks running up and down his spine.
The thing from the TV was turning and coming after him again. With no chance to get to his feet, Gibson scrambled backward across the floor like a terrified crab. It reached for him again, but he ducked under its arm. The gun! He had to get the gun. He didn't know whether it would do any good but it was all that he had. He could only go on ducking and weaving for so long. The gun was on the floor beside the chair where he'd been sleeping and, while the thing was turning again, he dived for it. Clint Eastwood would have been proud of the way that he came up off the floor with the automatic clutched in his fist. Doing his utmost to keep his hand steady, he squeezed the trigger. The gun bucked and the sound of the shot momentarily drowned out the electronic howl, but, to his dismay, the bullet went straight through the monster, and the only damage it did was blow a crater in the wall. A violet streak marked where the bullet had passed through the thing, but otherwise the only effect was to slow it up for a moment. The monster made what looked like a surprised gesture, as though it hadn't expected the bullet, but then it kept on coming.
A voice barked an order inside his head. "Shoot the TV!" It was as though an emergency area of his brain had assumed control. Gibson didn't think about it. The creature was almost on him and he could smell ozone. He fired twice. The TV exploded in a blue flash, and the thing vanished in the same instant. It was as though the TV set had not only been its means of entry to the room but also its source of energy, perhaps the source of its very being. He slowly lowered the gun. After the noise and confusion, the silence in the room was like a hollow void. The TV stood in the corner with a curl of blue smoke rising from the shattered screen. After thirty seconds of total, shocked paralysis, he stuffed the still warm gun into the waistband of his pants and ran for the Johnnie Walker in the kitchen. He didn't even bother to pour it into a glass; he went straight for the bottle.
Gibson knew he had to get out of there. It was a primal urge, not a logical decision. He didn't want to be in any place where things came at you out of the TV. Even though he'd killed the television, he had no reason to think that he was safe. For all he knew, there could be any number of other monsters waiting in the apartment to get him: in the fridge, the cooker, the electric toaster, even in the faucets in the bathroom. He wasn't waiting around for another attack; he'd rather take his chances on the streets of Luxor.
The one thing he wasn't going to do, however, was to go out wearing the suit that had been bleached out by the transition. He wanted to be as anonymous as possible out there, and an albino in a white suit was about as anonymous as Frosty the Snowman on the Fourth of July. He made a quick inventory of his double's wardrobe and picked out a baggy black suit, a dark-blue work shirt, and finally a white tie for just the slightest touch of flash. He dressed quickly, stowed the gun and wallet in the pockets of the borrowed suit, and, after a few moments' speculation whether the hostility to freaks that he'd seen on television extended to albinos, he completed the ensemble with a dark overcoat, a black fedora, and a pair of sunglasses he'd found in a drawer while he'd been going through the look-alike's stuff. After a final swift, hard belt of Scotch, he took a last look at the broken TV and let himself out of the apartment. As he was locking the door behind him, the blue face of a small balding man poked out of one of the apartments down the hall.
"What's going on? What's all the noise about."
"There's no noise."
"I heard shots."
Gibson pocketed his keys and started walking away. "I shot the TV because I didn't like the show. You never heard of that before?"
A fine drizzle was falling on the nighttime streets of Luxor as Gibson turned right out of the front door, pulled his hat down over his eyes, and started up the street at a brisk pace. He wanted to be as far away from the apartment building as fast as he could. There was always the chance that one of the neighbors had called the police. It didn't look to be the kind of building where gunshots were so commonplace that everyone ignored them. There was also the chance that if the streamheat had been monitoring the attack of the TV beast, they, too, might be on their way, if not to rescue him, at least to scrape his charred remains from the catpet. At the end of the block, he paused to listen, but he couldn't hear any sirens.
He was heading in the general direction of the big intersection with the golden statue that he'd seen on the ride in with Klein, Once there, though, which was about the limit of what he knew of the local geography, Gibson had little real idea of where he was going or what he was going to do. His flight from the apartment and its possible dangers had been so precipitate and so urgent that he hadn't bothered to stop and think through a plan. The best that he could come up with was to find a bar and use the breathing space to see what else he could learn about the ways of Luxor. After that, maybe a cheap hotel and a little time to think. He was screwed and he knew it, but the longer that he could put off accepting that unpleasant fact the better.
He turned the corner and kept on going. He could see the floodlit statue up ahead in the distance, and he continued in that direction. The traffic was fairly light in this largely residential area, and when he heard shouting and the gunning of car engines behind him, he reacted with the instincts of a paranoid and whirled round, his hand going toward the pistol in his pocket. He relaxed when he saw it was just a gang of teenagers in two convertibles, tops down despite the drizzle, drinking and hollering and generally carrying on. Then a beer can sailed past his head, bounced off the sidewalk, and was immediately followed by a torrent of abuse.
"Fuck you, albino bastard! You gonna die!"
"You gonna die, motherfucker freak!"
In unison the kids in both cars broke into a fast chant that drifted back to him as they accelerated on down the street.
It was only as they were speeding away that Gibson noticed the banner hanging out of the second car, a stylized purple eagle on a red background. So what were these juvenile idiots, junior normal nazis out for an evening of freak baiting? The problem appeared to be worse than he had imagined from just watching TV. Not only was he in another dimension and subject to electric-monster attack but he also seemed to have joined the ranks of the local "niggers." Gibson had been in Luxor for less than a day, and he was becoming rapidly convinced that it sucked.
After some more walking, he finally reached the intersection, and, as he stood wondering which way to go next, a police Batmobile came slowly round the statue, obviously making a routine inspection of anyone who was on the sidewalk. Gibson wanted to be the hell off the streets. The sooner he was in a warm, comfortable tavern with a drink in front of him the better. He'd seen a number of cabs cruising for fares but he'd hesitated over taking one. He still tended to believe Klein's statement that the streamheat operated one of the local cab lines, and the way his luck was running, he was quite likely to pick one of those and be right back in the frying pan again. On the other hand, though, he could wander around lost in the rain all night. It was time to take a chance and hail one and ask to be taken to the local equivalent of Times Square or whatever.
The first empty cab that he attempted to wave down went right past without stopping. At the last minute, he spotted a small purple-eagle sticker on the windshield, just like the teenagers' banner. Clearly this particular driver didn't stop for albinos. It was some minutes before another one came along, and Gibson spent the time becoming increasingly nervous. Fortunately this driver didn't share the prejudice against freaks. The cab pulled up beside Gibson and he climbed in.
"I'm a stranger in town and I'm looking for a place to get drunk."
The driver didn't treat it as an at all unusual request. "You want it quiet or rowdy?"
Gibson grinned. "Oh, rowdy any time."
It wasn't just a matter of natural inclination. Gibson had decided rowdy would give him a good deal more natural cover. The driver set the cab in motion. "I'll drop you at the corner of Pomus and Schulman. That's pretty much the heart of the Strip."
Gibson nodded. "The Strip sounds good to me."
"Watch your money, though. The place is lousy with thieves."
"Isn't everywhere, these days?"
The driver nodded. "You said it, pal."
They passed yet another of the billboards with a giant picture of Jaim Lancer on it. Gibson wondered where the president stood on the matter of freak hatred. He suspected that the president was the kind that rode the fence, deploring it in public but tipping the wink to the local nazis in private. He had that kind of look about him.
Very soon they were passing through an area of gaudy neon and busy sidewalks. Gibson felt a little more encouraged. This was more like it. The pulsing, rippling lights and their mirror images on the wet street were beacons of vibrant trashy humanity against a darkness that, from where Gibson was sitting, seemed increasingly cold, threatening, and polluted. Ever since he'd been a kid, Gibson had been drawn to the bright lights of big cities. They'd been both his strength and quite possibly a part of his downfall. Certainly they'd always been there, offering their comfort, winking and blinking and constantly renewing their tawdry promises, so no matter how many times he'd been stung or cheated or washed up and left for dead in the cold daylight, he always went back.
The driver turned in his seat. "You see anything you fancy in this sink of iniquity?"
Gibson stared out of the window at the passing show. "Yeah, a whole bunch of things."
What Gibson mainly saw were the crowds, and in their numbers he knew he had his best chance of safety. They moved along the sidewalks like the crowds in every red-light district he'd ever been in, strictly divided into two groups, the prey and the predators, the suckers and the players. The suckers always moved with a slow aimlessness, always looking for the forbidden thrills, always hoping and too stupid or too desperate to give up and go home, even when they must have realized that those thrills were just myth or imagined shadows. The predators only moved when they had to. With some, movement was a matter of open display, as with the prostitutes who swung their hips and lazily chewed their gum, or the corner cardsharps who flashed their cuffs and recited the soft come on. Others merely waited in the shadows, like the smooth, watchful, well-fed pimps in their sharkskin and gold checking on their stables, or the nervous takeoff artists laying for the careless or the drunk and ready to melt away at the first approach of a cop. Streets like this were a beckoning refuge for anyone on the run or with a need to disappear. There were already so many criminals, marginals, and illegals living on them that an organic system of boltholes, hiding places, warnings, and alarms was firmly in place. Streets like the Luxor Strip might take no prisoners, but they also asked very few questions.
The driver pulled over to the curb. "I'll let you off here if that's okay."
Gibson squinted at the meter. If he was reading the numbers right, the fare was 3.75. Gibson had yet to learn the name of the smaller unit of UKR currency that was one-hundredth of a kudo. His reckoning must have been correct, because the driver seemed quite satisfied with his kudo-and-a-half tip.
As Gibson climbed out of the cab, the driver raised a hand. "You watch your ass now, you hear?"
Gibson grinned. "I will, don't worry." The driver didn't know just how carefully he would be watching his ass.
The first thing that Gibson heard was the sound of bebop: a tune that sounded uncannily like Charlie Parker's "C-Jam Blues" came bouncing from a nearby blue-lit doorway, Gibson's spirits immediately lifted. Luxor might be a fucked-up place, but if it had bebop, it couldn't all be bad. The temptation was to duck straight through the blue door and submerge himself in the music, but Gibson had a natural aversion to simply going into the first place he saw. He'd walk on down the block and check out more of what the Strip had to offer before he settled on somewhere; besides, a live band might well indicate that it was a nightclub behind the blue door, and Gibson had some serious thinking to do before he could let himself go. A friendly shot-and-beer joint would be more his speed, if indeed Luxor had such a thing. He suspected that they did, although he knew that he had to be prepared for friendliness to be just an illusion.
He couldn't read the neon signs, but the majority of their messages were loud and clear. Sex seemed once again to be the major selling point, and half the places that he passed featured some variation of striptease or girly show. On the other side of the street a blue neon woman with an hourglass figure and vibrant yellow hair towered three stories above the sidewalk, swinging her electric-light hips while her red bikini flashed on and off. When the bikini was in the off phase, pink nipples glowed in the center of her massive breasts. On the same sidewalk a gang of teenage boys shouldered their way through the slower-moving crowds with the nervous urgency of a gang on the prowl, obviously out of their own neighborhood but determined to play it tough in front of the more serious lowlifes who really operated on the Strip and called it home. In their black leather jackets, Hawaiian shirts, and black dungarees, they resembled the chorus from a revival of West Side Story. Gibson smiled to himself. What would they be getting next in this town, James Dean movies?
As he approached the next corner he spotted another group of people who seemed to be going against the general flow. A half-dozen hard-faced men in riding boots and field-green military-style uniforms were aggressively handing out leaflets, thrusting them into the hands of unwary passersby with intimidating looks that challenged the recipient to either refuse the flyer or try and hand it back if he dared. Gibson immediately recognized the emblem on their red arm bands. He was seeing altogether too much of the sinister purple eagle, and he quickly altered direction to give them the widest possible berth, A hooker in a red skirt slit to her thigh saw what he was doing and flashed him a fleeting smile of sympathy. Gibson had stopped believing in whores with hearts of gold a long time ago, but the smile gave him a moment of pause. Then he noticed that she, too, was wearing sunglasses after dark. Perhaps, under the thick pancake makeup, she was just a fellow albino expressing solidarity.
From the moment that he'd left the cab, Gibson had started noticing just how many genetic aberrations there were walking the streets of Luxor. Even allowing that there would be a higher proportion of freaks and misfits around a place like the Strip than maybe in other parts of the city, the numbers were startling. Gibson had spotted at least a dozen individuals with facial deformities in the space of two blocks, plus two more albinos and a beanpole of a man who had to be well over seven feet tall. The dwarfs were so numerous that they almost formed a second stratum on the sidewalk. The genetic damage in this dimension was completely out of control, and Gibson wished that the advocates of limited nuclear war back home could see what a bunch of dirty little bombs could do.
He came to a kiosk that sold newspapers, magazines, and tobacco, and he decided that it would be a good idea to stock up on cigarettes. The outside of the kiosk was protected from the weather by a layer of enameled tin signs, the kind that Gibson had seen in stores as a kid, and that they now sold in trendy antique boutiques to the kind of people who lived in apartments with exposed brick walls and Victorian furniture. It was the standard Luxor style of tits-and-ass advertising, and he probably wouldn't have given any of it a second glance, except that one of the well-developed and scantily clad blue babes was holding up a pack of Camels. Of course, the name was in the Luxor alphabet, but it was definitely a pack of Camels. The same tan, yellow, and brown pack, the same camel, and the same pair of pyramids and clump of palm trees in the background of the drawing. Gibson slowly shook his head: a different system of writing but an identical brand of smokes.
"I guess there's no telling with parallel worlds."
A fat man was taking his time over buying cigars, and Gibson had to wait. He glanced at the covers of the local tabloids. Luxor still had a lot of newspapers-as far as he could see, five in all. The headlines screamed unintelligibly, but Gibson could see from the pictures that, of the five papers on the rack, four had given their front pages over to a gruesome multiple murder. Huge color blowups of the bloody crime scene were positioned alongside smaller shots of a frightened pinhead being manhandled by police. A freak slaying appeared to be hot copy, and Gibson wondered why he hadn't seen the same story on TV. Was the press in Luxor so fast with its editions that the murder story had broken after he'd watched the news?
The fat man was through and it was Gibson's turn. "Three packs of Camel filters, please."
The man in the kiosk gave him a strange look. "Where you from, mister? Camel don't make a filter."
"So give me anything with a filter on it. I don't care."
The man treated him to a look like he was just one more crazy in a long day and tossed three packs of totally unfamiliar cigarettes onto the counter.
So a pack of cigarettes cost a kudo. That made life tidy.
Farther down the block, Gibson thought that he'd spotted his bar. The neon sign was elaborate, a foaming stein with suds running down the side, but as he turned into the entrance he ran straight into a burly bouncer in a black shirt and Tyrolean hat who made no attempt to get out of the way.
"You can't come in here."
Gibson still wasn't accustomed to being on the receiving end of a color bar.
"I just wanted a drink."
"So go down the street to the Radium Room. They serve your kind in there."
The Radium Room wasn't the most luxurious saloon that Gibson had ever been in, but for the moment it would suit his purpose. Nobody in the place seemed the kind to get inquisitive about a stranger who minded his own business. If he hadn't been told in front, he would have known immediately that the management had no reservations about serving mutations and also hiring them. The place was busy but not jammed, and at least a third of the clientele showed evidence of some kind of glitch in their genes. The bartender who asked him what he wanted had six fingers on each of her hands, and webs between the fingers.
It was then that Gibson made his second cultural error of the evening. "Scotch?"
Clearly the term wasn't used in Luxor. He tried again. "Whiskey?"
"Why didn't you say so."
"I'm sorry. I'm from out of town. Could I get a beer back with that?"
Gibson pulled out the look-alike's wallet to pay for the drinks, and before he put it away, he took anodier look at the picture on the ID. A thought struck him. Could it be that the double was actually a parallel him? He didn't like the thought one bit and swallowed the shot of whiskey in one gulp.
The bartender, who was still counting out his change, looked up sharply. "What's the trouble?"
"Nothing." He gestured to his now empty shot glass. "Why don't you do me again while you're still here?"
"You can put it away."
"It's been a rough day."
Gibson was wondering what, if indeed the double was his parallel in this dimension, would happen if the two of them met? Would they merely exchange pleasantries or would there be some hideous interface in which one or both of them were destroyed like matter and antimatter? Of course, the double wasn't an albino; maybe that would make a difference. A kind of sidebar idea jumped into his mind. If the streamheat's plan was really to swing some kind of substitution, the fact that he had come out of the transition as an albino may have seriously screwed things up. He sipped his second shot, hardly tasting it, and set the glass down on the bar. He took the whole parcel of thoughts that had been triggered by the picture in the wallet and, handling them with the mental equivalent of long tongs, consigned them to one of the deepest recesses of his mind. He should be concentrating on practical survival and concealing himself as far as he could in this red-light subworld of Luxor.
He took a deep breath to calm himself and clear his mind and then looked around the bar. He would probably be spending a lot of time in places like this over the next few days. The Radium Room appeared to be something of a pickup parlor. Gibson didn't know enough about the mores of Luxor to be able to tell if it was a swinging singles joint or a hooker bar, but he suspected the latter. He noticed that a woman a little way down the bar was looking in his direction. Taking the dim smoky light of the barroom into account, she actually didn't look too bad. Her close-cropped helmet of yellow-blond hair contrasted prettily with the blue of her skin, and her mouth, a slash of purple lipstick, pouted seductively. Gibson no longer had any doubts about how he'd handle getting close to a blue woman. To paraphrase Stephen Stills, love the color you're with.
The woman was coming through the crowd toward him. In her pencil skirt and low-cut blouse, she looked like a B-girl from some fifties gangster movies, and when she slid into the space at the bar beside him, he discovered that she had the matching, husky Lizbeth Scott voice.
"You wanna buy me a drink?"
Gibson smiled and signaled to the bartender. "Sure, anytime."
The woman's pout increased in provocation. "Are you alone?"
Gibson laughed. "You wouldn't believe how alone I am."
"My name's Zazsu."
Zazsu appeared to be a regular at the Radium Room. The bartender didn't bother to ask her what she was drinking, she simply set a green concoction in a conical glass in front of her and picked up some of Gibson's money. Zazsu sipped the green stuff through a clear plastic straw in a manner that seemed to be an open invitation to all manner of shadowy delights.
"Are you gonna tell me yours?"
Zazsu frowned. "Joe? That's a weird name. Are you from out of town?"
Gibson nodded. "Oh, yeah, I'm from out of town."
Zazsu came straight to the point.
"So I guess you don't know any girls in Luxor."
"Not a one."
"You looking for a good time?"
"I might be."
"I've got a place right near here. I could show you a real good time for a fifty."
"Is that a fact?"
Zazsu raised an eyebrow that seemed to indicate that time was money and he should make up his mind. "So, you wanna?"
Gibson hesitated. The offer was tempting, and even a little commercial creature comfort was preferable to the absolute isolation that he'd been feeling ever since Klein had left him alone in the apartment. As far as revealing his alien status, he was fairly confident he was on safe ground; the natives of Luxor seemed to believe that out-of-towners were capable of any gaucheness or stupidity. He was about to agree to Zazsu's offer when he happened to glance up. The smile froze on his face and the words stuck in his throat. Nephredana had just walked into the Radium Room and was heading directly for where he was standing. It was a somewhat different Nephredana from the first time he had seen her, with Yancey Slide outside Windemere's house in Ladbroke Grove, but there was no mistaking it was her. If nothing else, on high spike heels she was a head taller than most of the drinkers in the place. Back in London, she had been pure metal, the wet dream of any Megadeth fan; now she looked like a gun moll from some lost Robert Mitchum movie. As before, she was all in black, a sequined jacket like the skin of a vampire reptile over a sheath dress so tight that it gave no quarter, a wide-brimmed hat with a veil tilted at a piratical angle, and a pocket book over her shoulder big enough to hold a small arsenal of weapons. A hush fell and heads turned as she made her way determinedly through the crowd, and one dwarf actually dropped his drink.
She made short work of Zazsu. With a jerk of her thumb, and a rasp of that deep graveyard voice, she ordered the woman away. "Beat it, honey. This one's mine."
"Wait a minute…"
"I said beat it, bitch."
Nephredana raised the veil of her hat, and a pair of demon eyes exactly like Slide's were revealed. Zazsu immediately capitulated and moved quickly away, and Nephredana turned her attention to Gibson. Fortunately for him, she had dropped the veil again and the inhuman eyes were hidden.
"I would have thought you could have done better than that, Joe Gibson."
Gibson shrugged, trying his hardest to put on a careless, swashbuckling front even though on the inside he was on the verge of panic. "What can I say. I'm still getting orientated."
"Getting an orientation lesson from a twenty-kudo hooker?"
"She wanted fifty."
"Probably thought you were a rube."
Nephredana was the only person in the place who wasn't blue, but Gibson didn't think it was quite the moment to ask for an explanation. He glanced down the bar to where Zazsu appeared to be telling her troubles to a man wearing a silk suit with very wide shoulders whose long, straight hair was slicked back and tied in a ponytail. "The girl seems to be complaining to her pimp."
Nephredana also glanced down the bar. "I don't think we're going to have any trouble with him." She leaned across and said something to the bartender that Gibson didn't hear. Gibson, not quite convinced that there'd be no trouble, continued to keep one eye on the pimp while he tried to find out what Nephredana was doing there.
"I'm assuming that this isn't a chance meeting."
The bartender set two drinks in front of Nephredana. One looked like ouzo and the other creme de menthe. She poured one into the other, and the resulting cocktail came out resembling a glass of toxic waste. She drank half of it and then smiled atGibson. "Of course it's not a chance meeting. Yancey figured it was time that you got out of the clutches of the streamheat."
"I may have already done that for myself."
"I wouldn't speak too soon."
"You think they're looking for me."
Nephredana swallowed the other half of the foul-looking drink and signaled to the bartender for the same again. "More likely they're waiting for you to come back dragging your tail behind you."
"And when I don't?"
"Then they'll come looking for you, if they still think you're useful to them."
"I hope I can manage to disappear before they get around to that. Unless of course Yancey Slide has other plans for me."
Nephredana mixed a second of the toxic concoctions. "Yancey doesn't have any plans for you. If you knew him better you'd be aware that Yancey doesn't exactly make plans, he just rides the flow. The only reason I'm here is because he wants you to come to a party."
Gibson blinked. This was the last thing that he had expected. "A party?"
"It's a very exclusive party. It's being given by one of the local power moguls."
"You want me to come right now?"
"Unless you want to stay here with the whores."
Gibson was becoming a little bemused. "No, no. I'll come to a party."
"You'll need a tux."
What the fuck was going on? "I don't have a tux. In fact, what you see is what I've got. I didn't exactiy pack for this trip."
Nephredana started on her second industrial waste. "Actually, I took the liberty of picking one up for you. I think it'll fit."
Gibson shook his head. All this was a little overwhelming when added to the rest of the day.
"Okay, so let's go to this party."
It was while they were both finishing their drinks in preparation for leaving that Gibson noticed Zazsu's pimp coming through the crowd with a look of vindictive anticipation on his face. His hand was going to the breast pocket of the silk suit. It came out holding a straight-edge razor. Nephredana had her back to the man and saw nothing of this. Gibson opened his mouth to yell a wanting but, in the same instant, she turned.
The pimp reached out to grab her arm. "I want to talk to you."
All Nephredana did was raise her right index finger. The man stopped dead in his tracks, and Gibson had never seen such an expression of pure terror as the one that came over the pimp's face. The razor dropped from his hand and clattered to the floor. He stood stock-still for a couple of seconds and then started to vibrate, as though in the grip of some violent palsy, all the time making small whimpering noises.
Nephredana glanced at Gibson. "In thirty seconds, he's going to have a fatal heart attack."
"You're going to kill him?"
"He pulled a razor on me, didn't he? Twenty seconds."
The pimp's face was going through progressively darkening shades of purple, and he was making noises as though he was about to swallow his tongue. The rest of the people in the bar stood silent and still, mesmerized by the spectacle of the vibrating pimp.
Sweat was pouring down the pimp's face, and his eyes had rolled up into his head. One of his rings was shaken loose from his hand and bounced on the floor beside the razor.
Somehow Zazsu seemed to break free from the spell that gripped the barroom. "Please! Don't kill him."
Nephredana looked at her pityingly. "Don't you whores ever learn? The asshole's probably better off dead. He's no use to you."
But she lowered her finger and the unfortunate pimp dropped to the floor like a puppet whose strings had been cut. The entire crowd in the barroom continued to stare as if hypnotized, except Zazsu, who crouched beside the man, sobbing and demanding that he speak to her.
Nephredana turned to Gibson. "Okay, let's get out of here."
Gibson had his hand in his pocket clutching the gun, but no one showed any signs of wanting to stop them from leaving. Indeed, the only sounds were the groans coming from the pimp on the floor and Zazsu's sobs. As he and Nephredana moved toward the door the customers stepped back like zombies opening a path for them.
The black Hudson was waiting at the curb outside the bar, gleaming with rain and reflected neon, apparently unchanged by its transition from dimension to dimension. A trio of punks were trying to peer in through the smoked windows but they scattered when Nephredana glared at them.
Gibson glanced back at the entrance to the Radium Room. "That was some trick you pulled in there."
Nephredana hurried round to the driver's door of the car. "You learn a few things over eighteen thousand years." She opened the door and slipped behind the wheel and leaned across to open the passenger door. "We shouldn't linger, though. The block I dropped on them will wear off in a minute or so."
Gibson climbed into the car and slammed the door. Nephredana eased the Hudson into gear and pulled away from the curb. Gibson took a last look at the Radium Room, half expecting an angry mob to come surging out of the door. "What did you do to that pimp anyway?"
Nephredana shrugged, concentrating on the traffic. "Just tweaked his nervous system."
"Was he really going to die?"
Nephredana nodded. "Oh, sure. In another five seconds if I hadn't stopped sticking it to him. The stupidity of prostitutes never ceases to amaze me. It's been the same since the invention of currency and it never changes. You'd think, after all this time, whores would come to realize that just because they're fucking for money, there's no need to give it all to a goddamned asshole of a man."
Gibson made a mental note never to do anything that Nephredana didn't like. The idea of being vibrated into a heart attack didn't appeal to him at all.
Since there was no sign of either Slide or Yop Boy, Gibson could only assume that Nephredana had been sent with the wheels to fetch him to wherever the party was. He looked around the interior of the Hudson and discovered that there was something a little weird about it. It appeared to be a good deal larger than the outside of the car would warrant. Sure, it was a big, old-fashioned sedan, but on the inside it was about as spacious as a small RV. He surmised that it was a piece of demonic spatial trickery, and he was a little surprised at the ease with which he was coming to accept these things, things that just a few days earlier would have boggled his mind and maybe scared the hell out of him.
They seemed to be heading out of the city. After passing through the intersection with the gold statue, they took a broad avenue lined with soot-caked, leafless trees and equally dirty official-looking buildings. From the avenue, they came out onto a steel road and rail bridge across the river. This was the first that Gibson knew about Luxor having a river.
Nephredana turned on the radio and got something that sounded a lot like John Coltrane playing " My Favorite Things."
Gibson smiled. "There's a lot of jazz in this town."
Nephredana nodded. "Luxor's a good town if you like saxophones." She pointed into the rear of the car. "Your tux is back there, in the box on the seat; why don't you climb into it."
"Right now, while we're driving?"
"Don't tell me you've never changed your clothes in a moving car."
"So get to it. You don't want to arrive with your party clothes under your arm."
Gibson clambered into the back of the car and spent the next few minutes struggling into his evening suit and remembering how the back of a moving car is always a less than ideal dressing room. Now and then he glanced up to see if Nephredana was watching him in the rearview mirror. She didn't appear to be, and he could only imagine that after eighteen thousand years she had seen enough male nudity to be no longer interested. He managed to dress himself completely with the single exception of the tie. Gibson had never learned how to tie a formal bow. Nephredana glanced back. "How are you doing?" He scrambled back into the front passenger seat."Okay, apart from the tie. I never was able to get the hang of these suckers." Nephredana looked at him as though he were an idiot. "I'll do it for you when we get there. You'd better stash that gun of yours in the glove compartment. They may have metal detectors at the entrance to this bash and it'd be embarrassing if you were caught with a piece."
Gibson's hand went unconsciously to the pistol in the waistband of his tuxedo. He had transferred it from the pocket of the look-alike's suit while he'd been changing. "How did you know I had a gun?"
"You telegraphed the fact when that pimp came at us in the bar, and I assumed that you'd keep it with you."
"I'd be happier if I had it with me after all that's happened."
Nephredana treated him to a look that brooked no further argument. "Stash it."
Gibson caught the look and did as he was told. They were now in the suburbs of Luxor, which proved to be quite a contrast to the inner city. Neat houses sat amid well-manicured gardens with the smug assurance of the safe and affluent, and Gibson suspected that genetic defectives probably didn't last too long around these neighborhoods. Nephredana noticed him staring out of the window. "So how do you like the Kamerian dream?"
"Looks like any well-heeled suburb. Same shit that I ran away from when I was a kid wanting to be Elvis Presley."
"It's much the same as what you have back in your dimension. They're just hanging on to appearances while they slowly sink into the mire. All the real money's being spent on the cold war with the Hind-Mancu with less and less left over for education or social programs. Even their consumer society is only sustained by impossibly massive deficit financing. Behind these facades, they're up to their necks in debt and stone terrified."
"Who are the Hind-Mancu?"
Nephredana raised an eyebrow," How much did your stream-heat friends fill you in about Luxor, UKR, and this dimension in general?"
"Next to nothing, like with most everything else."
Nephredana sighed. "Seems like it might be a good idea if I ran down a little background to you before we get to this party. We can't have you looking and sounding like a complete idiot."
"I appreciate that."
Nephredana smiled. "Okay, so the first basic you have to grasp is that this dimension missed out on having World War II."
Gibson nodded. "That much they told me. Seems like it made quite a difference."
"Quite a difference is a hell of an understatement. Something like that can radically change the whole face of a twentieth-century parallel."
"It doesn't look so different to me."
"That's because the shit still has a long way to trickle; these divergences take time. You won't recognize this place in a hundred years, if indeed it survives that long. As late as 1900, your world and this one were running on pretty much the same tracks. Even the factors that brought about World War I were in place in both dimensions. Things only started to alter once the killing got started. Either they were crazier here or they had a higher threshold for exhaustion. Whichever it was, they didn't call it quits after four years. They really hung in and went on slaughtering each other until well into the twenties. And not only slaughtering each other on the battlefield, either. They started to get real sophisticated. By 1921, they'd learned how to bomb cities from the air and they'd even discovered how to set off firestorms. When they finally ran out of steam in 1926, the local equivalent of the European nations had wiped each other out, an entire generation of young men was gone and a good percentage of everyone else as well, and, if that wasn't bad enough, in the two years after the war, a series of epidemics decimated another third of the surviving population. National economies were shot to hell, and the Europe here was a thousand-mile strip of ruins, famine, and disease. No industry, no agriculture, colonial empires gone, precious little government; in fact, the very structures of whole societies and cultures had been ground down to nothing, nothing but grim, ragged-assed, exhausted anarchy."
Nephredana shifted gear and set the Hudson roaring past a slower-moving family car hogging the middle of the road. She drove with an assured contempt for other drivers that Gibson assumed was a result of having superior demon reflexes and also what had to be a superior car. When she'd completed the maneuver, she resumed her history lecture.
"With Europe effectively gone, the main centers of power became polarized between the League of Hind-Mancu, which you can think of as a combination of China and India, and the UKR, which is virtually the USA, Canada, and Mexico rolled into one. Neither of them had played more than a token role in the war and it was pretty much inevitable that these two superpowers should become natural adversaries."
"You always find that, when a world is divided between two megastates, they have to start snarling at each other sooner or later. In this instance, the snarling went on for quite a while before they really got to it. Separated, as they were, by an ocean in one direction and the devastation of Europe in the other, overt hostilities didn't start immediately. Instead, they sank ponderously into a cold war of unbelievable rigidity and ignorance, like a pair of bull mammoths being swallowed by the muskeg, tusks locked and too stupid to disengage and scramble out. Every so often there would be an incident or proxy brush war, but the two superpowers were so cumbersome and inefficient that they tended, despite the crippling sums of money that both sides spent on weaponry, to keep it down to threats and posturing, and to avoid direct confrontation for three full decades. Then came June 5th, 1957."
"What happened on June 5th, 1957?"
"The Kamerians touched off their first A-bomb. Since then, there have been no less than five nuclear flurries. The last one was four years ago."
"How come there's any of this dimension left standing if they're so free with the nukes?"
Nephredana's expression indicated that she never ceased to marvel at the stupidity of human beings.
"Because they only invented small nuclear bombs. Just a dozen or so kilotons. They delivered them by primitive chemical-fuel rockets or turbo-prop bombers,"
There was a new tune on the radio. Whoever was playing trumpet sounded a lot like Miles Davis.
Gibson stared through the windshield, noticing that the rain appeared to be stopping. "I guess they have the consolation that they were spared Hitler."
"Actually the Hind-Mancu managed to fill that slot. They're pretty nasty today, but they went for it real good back in the sixties under Govendar. They became highly efficient at exterminating minorities and political enemies and built camps that quite rivaled Auschwitz or anything created by the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot."
"What about this country, the UKR?"
"I guess the best thing you can say about the Kamerians is that they always stop short of going all the way. I wouldn't say that it's because they're intrinsically better people, it's more that they've got this hang-up about wanting to think of themselves as the good guys. Lancer has locked up a few million political prisoners, but they still think of him as the defender of freedom. Spying on each other and snitching to the authorities has become a way of life, and they call it patriotism. Right now they seem to be working up a full-scale hate against all the genetic freaks and mutations that have been appearing since they went nuclear."
Gibson scowled. "I already ran into some of that."
Nephredana nodded. "Oh, yeah, of course. I was forgetting, you're an albino here. Well, you can count on one thing, it'll get worse before it gets better."
A thought struck Gibson. "Did they ever invent rock 'n' roll in this dimension?"
Nephredana shook her head. "Not that I know of. Why? Are you thinking of doing it for them?"
"If I'm stranded here, I'm going to have to make a living somehow."
"So you're thinking of applying for a gig as Elvis?"
Gibson grinned. "Why not? I could use the money."
"I'm not sure the Kamerians are ready for an albino rock idol. It's a few years between Chuck Berry and Johnny Winter."
Gibson deflated. "I hadn't thought about that."
"I think you ought to."
Gibson did and realized that he didn't have a prayer with the levels of prejudice the way they were. It seemed that in this dimension he was fucked on every level. Outside the car, the overcast was breaking up into ragged cloud and the moon was showing through. The moonlight brought an intense sadness, and Gibson was stabbed by a sudden pang of desperation. He didn't want to be in this dimension, in a world of demon madness and dangerous TV sets. He wanted out of the whole freaking mess. Would he ever be home again among the safe and familiar? Even the IRS would seem comforting compared to all this.
After about forty-five minutes, they were in what appeared to be a private enclave of Luxor's most wealthy. They were driving along quiet, well-paved roads, past neat box hedges and high walls, and, at regular intervals along the road, they passed imposing gateways with high wrought-iron gates supported by granite pillars. By far the majority of these entrances were watched over at least by bulky, old-fashioned, closed-circuit TV cameras if not by actual armed, private security guards. A police Batmobile went past them going in the opposite direction, and the other cars that they saw were big and glossy. Beyond the walls and gates, Gibson was able to catch brief glimpses of solid stately mansions with grand porticos and warm lights shining out over immaculately tended grounds. If the economy of the UKR was in ruins, it didn't seem to be affecting this particular social stratum. When he mentioned this, Nephredana just shrugged.
"It's the same all over; the really rich stay rich, no matter what the situation."
"I take it that we're getting close to where we're going?"
"You think it might be an idea to fill me in on what this party's all about?"
Nephredana nodded. "It's being thrown by some local mogul. His name's Verdon Verster Raus and he's sixty-five years old and childless. He's been married seven times and his current wife of four months is a TV soap starlet called Immudia Deamorning, whose main claim to fame seems to be that she regularly drops out of her clothes on a show called The Dexters. She may not be around for too long, though. Current society gossip doesn't expect her to last out the year. This Raus is among the wealthiest and most powerful men in the UKR, and he owns a huge chunk of the country's media. According to current estimates, in addition to being the major stockholder in one of the two national TV networks, he also controls one hundred and twenty-seven newspapers and close to the same number of TV stations."
Gibson whistled softly. "You guys move in the big leagues."
Nephredana smiled wryly. "There aren't too many places where Yancey Slide can't get in."
"This Raus, what's he like? How does he use his power?"
"Raus? Oh, he's right in there pitching. When Jaim Lancer first became President, Raus was an ardent supporter. Then, four years ago, they had a falling-out."
"What happened?" . "There was something called the Gulf of Borg Incident where a Hind-Mancu naval cruiser shot down a Kamerian commercial airliner, claimed they thought it was a bomber. Lancer, with an uncharacteristic show of restraint, contented himself with tit for tat, taking out one of their aircraft carriers. It was probably the smartest thing to do under the circumstances, but Raus started screaming that Lancer was soft on the yellow devils and, since then, he's dedicated himself to doing everything he can to unseat the president."
"Raus sounds like Citizen Kane with a bad attitude."
They were approaching a pair of massive gates, and lights were visible beyond them. Nephredana began to slow the car.
"Yeah, he really fancies himself, but so far he hasn't achieved that much. Lancer is still in power, big as ever. In fact, this party is supposed to be a kind of show of strength by anti-Lancer forces. But we're there, so you'll have to figure out the rest for yourself."
Raus's mansion was by the far the most lavish of the homes that Gibson had seen on the ride out of town. The huge sprawling structure had been constructed in a bizarre cocktail of styles that was part Gone with the Wind, part Palace of Versailles, and part Castle Dracula. It seemed somehow fitting for the home of some latter-day robber baron. Sections of the building had been floodlit for the party, and these were reflected in the lake that ran along one side of the house, on which fountains played in the beams of more multicolored lights. Marquees of various sizes had been erected on the lawns in front of the main house, and the size of the crowds that were already moving among them indicated that when Veidon Raus entertained, he did it on a grandiose scale.
No less than a dozen burly men guarded the entrance to the Raus estate. Four large bouncers in shiny tuxedos checking the guests' invitations were backed up by eight uniformed security guards carrying the same kind of large-caliber weapons that were used by the police on the streets of downtown Luxor. Gibson smiled to himself. Whatever the dimension, it seemed that bouncers always looked the same.
He glanced at Nephredana. "You got the backstage passes?"
She looked at him, winked, and produced a pair of engraved invitations. "I've got everything."
She handed the invitations through me window to one of the bouncers. The invitations were checked against a list, and then the car was waved forward. As they drove down the long gravel driveway, they passed an area of less well-tended grass and scrubby bushes where, behind a deep moat and low retaining wall, a family of six gray rhinoceroses, two adults and two babies, stared balefully at the revelers. Gibson decided that a private herd of rhino, even a small one like this, had to be a pinnacle in displays of conspicuous wealth. At the head of the driveway, a carhop waved them down.
Nephredana stopped the car. She leaned over and deftly tied his bow tie. "This is it, Joe. Take a deep breath and smile nicely; we're going to mix it up with the jet set."