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Chapter Nine

YANCEY SLIDE WAS standing by himself at the bottom of the gentle grass slope that led down to the lake, smoking one of his thin black cheroots. But it was a somewhat different Yancey Slide from the individual that Gibson had seen in Ladbroke Grove. The gunslinger garb had been replaced by smooth, lounge-lizard evening dress, a white tuxedo jacket over black pants and a purple cummerbund, that made him look like a disreputable James Bond. Only the black sunglasses remained, concealing the frightening demon eyes. His hair was slicked back, and Gibson was amused to notice that his bow tie was undone, hanging loose. Maybe, even in eighteen thousand years, Slide hadn't learned to tie one, either. Slide also wasn't blue; like Nephredana, he had retained his white-boy demon pallor.

As Gibson and Nephredana approached, his back was toward them. He seemed to be staring thoughtfully out across the mirror-smooth water, but while they were still a few yards away, he appeared to sense them and turned. "So you brought him?"

Even though the demon eyes were hidden, Gibson still felt a definite chill when Slide looked at him. Nephredana made a sweeping gesture that seemed to present Gibson for Slide's approval. "He was already getting into trouble with the whores on the Strip."

It was happening again and Gibson wasn't having any. He wasn't prepared to be treated as a specimen any longer, and he quickly took a step forward. "Good evening, Mr. Slide."

Slide smiled and his dark glasses flashed with reflections of the party lights. He seemed to sense what Gibson was feeling. "Good evening, Mr. Gibson. It was nice of you to come at such short notice."

"It was nice of you to send the lady to fetch me."

Slide laughed. "Oh, the lady was very keen on the idea herself."

Gibson's eyebrows climbed. "She didn't mention that to me."

Nephredana shook her head. "Ignore him, Joe. He's just pushing your buttons."

Slide removed the cigar from his mouth. "I expect you could use a drink after your trip out here."

Gibson nodded cautiously. He trusted this affable new playboy version of Slide even less than the sinister longrider in Lad-broke Grove. "You're right, I could definitely use a drink."

Slide indicated a nearby floodlit marquee.

"Shall we walk?"

They started up the slope, away from the lakeside. Now it was Slide's turn to make a sweeping gesture. It took in all of the surrounding estate.

"So what do you think of Castle Raus, Joe?"

"I'm impressed, but I'm also wondering what I'm doing here."

Slide seemed to be working overtime at the demonic charm. "Doing here? You're my guest, Joe, I thought, after all that you'd been through, you deserved a little R and R."

"You won't take offense if, after all that I've been through, I don't absolutely buy that."

Slide shot him a sly look. "You don't believe that I could only want you to have a good time?"

"Why don't you just come right out and tell me what you really want with me."

"I hate to disappoint you, Gibson, but, right now, I don't want anything."

"You deny that there's something about me that interests you?"

"Well, sure you interest me. You got a whammy count on you higher than I ever seen on a human."

Gibson sighed. "An aura like a black cloud?"

Slide smiled and nodded. "Your mojo's rising so fast, boy, it should be making your head spin."

His whole accent had changed, switching from tuxedo velvet to the grate and rasp of all the way down and funky. Gibson was aware that he was being jived by a demon, but jive talk was better than no talk at all, and Gibson even had a strange feeling that Slide might be telling him the truth, albeit in a weirdly oblique manner.

"It's certainly making my head spin." He had to agree with that. "Trouble is, it seemed to me that any mojo I had was on a strictly down grade."

Slide looked at him knowingly. "That's because you're back-pedaling with it as fast as you can, hoping it'll go away, but it ain't gonna, so you'd best accept that you're on the rise and start taking bets on how high you'll go before the fall."

Gibson didn't like the sound of the word "fall." "You want to put any of that into plain English?"

Slide let out an impatient hiss. "That's as plain as it gets, boy. You want it any more plain, and I'll just have to assume you've been hanging with the streamheat for too long and you're beyond redemption. Why don't you just get drunk and enjoy the party? It'll all come to you in time."

They were almost at the entrance to the marquee and moving into the thick of Raus's guests. Despite the fact that everyone with the apparent exception of him, Nephredana, and Slide were rich shades of aqua and turquoise, and the styles of clothing, particularly among the women, were odd to the point of alien, the party was of a kind that Gibson instantly recognized. The guests had obviously gone to a lot of trouble to convince themselves that they were the cream of Luxor society. Back home, they'd confidently expect their pictures to appear in the next issues of Vanity Fair, Interview, or New York magazine. He found it strangely comforting to know that pretension hardly varied from dimension to dimension, and he discovered he didn't need a scorecard to help him spot the stereotypes. Society painters escorted politicians' wives; dress designers, hairdressers to the stars, TV actresses, and real-estate speculators ran in whooping packs; celebrity newscasters squired prominent lesbians; racecar drivers and teenage starlets carried out intimate investigations of each other in dark corners, as did fashion models and merchant bankers, while women who wrote sex novels avoided their lawyer husbands, and men and women with no claim to fame apart from an accident of birth making them heirs to legendary fortunes kept up a stream of inane chatter. Oh, yes, Gibson knew this bunch. The smart set had invaded too many of his dressing rooms and taken over too many parties thrown for him back in the old days. Even though he'd been a peripheral part of it for a while, Gibson had never understood and certainly never liked high society. He had never appreciated their absolute certainty that they had a right to be there, their condescension, their bland belief in themselves and their value systems. Above all, he loathed their arrogant stupidity. What was the old MC5 war cry from the sixties? "I see a lot of honkies sitting on a lot of money telling me they're the high society" Among the lesser faux pas along the downward spiral of his career had been the times when, at the top of his not inconsiderable voice, he'd informed whole rooms full of the social crowd how he held them in total contempt and wished that they'd fuck off, stop drinking his booze, and leave him the fuck alone.

A woman walked by him in a dress that seemed to be a spiral of stiffened lace that followed a strategic track up her body. In one hand she held the leash of a small, white, poodlelike dog, On her other arm there was a short man in a purple-and-white striped suit, a dyed-pink Beatle haircut, and oversize, white-rimmed sunglasses. It seemed that, in this dimension, the parallel Andy Warhol was alive and well.

Inside the marquee, Slide made straight for the bar and Gibson followed close behind. White-coated waiters were pushing a sparkling white wine that was probably the local equivalent of champagne, but Slide steered Gibson past them. "Just leave it to me, that stuff's not fit to drink."

He caught a bartender's attention. "I'd like two doubles from Mr. Raus's private reserve."

The bartender gave Slide a look as though he had just spoken the most obscene blasphemy and implacably shook his head. "I'm not authorized to pour from Mr. Raus's private stock."

Slide slowly leaned across the bar. "Do you know who I am, kid?"

The bartender shook his head a second time. "No, sir, I don't know who you are, but I assure you it wouldn't make any difference. I have strict instructions not to serve anyone from Mr. Raus's private stock unless he personally orders it."

Slide lowered his sunglasses a fraction and treated the bartender to the briefest glimpse of what was behind them. "I think Mr. Raus would want us to drink his finest booze if he was here, don't you?"

The bartender turned pale, his eyes glazed over, and he answered with the dull monotone of a zombie. "I understand and I quite agree with you, sir."

Moving as though in a trance, he went to the back of the bar and returned with a bottle with a gold label that carried three initials, presumably the Raus monogram in the local script. He slowly and carefully poured Slide a double shot and then did the same for Gibson and Nephredana. Gibson took a first experimental sip, and his face broke into a blissful smile.

"Damn but that's good."

Slide also looked pleased. "Isn't it just?"

Nephredana, on the other hand, put herself above all this rapture. She turned disdainfully to the bartender. "Put a shot of yerlo in it, will you?"

Gibson watched in horror as the zoned-out bartender topped of Nephredana's glass with a clear spirit that turned cloudy as it hit the whiskey. He winced at the defiling of the whiskey. "Are you crazy?"

Slide grinned at Gibson. "She cultivates a terminal philistinism where booze is concerned. I think she does it to irritate me."

Nephredana tasted the mess and seemed satisfied. "You're irritated, therefore you are, Yancey,"

Gibson tried not to think about Nephredana's drink as he tasted Raus's private stock a second time. It was whiskey, no mistake about that, but unlike any whiskey that Gibson had ever tasted in his own dimension. It was a kissing cousin to a single-malt Scotch but certainly not the same. All he knew for sure was that it was truly excellent, more than likely a quarter of a century in the cask excellent. Slide might have ulterior motives for befriending him, but he sure as hell knew how to show a stranger a good time.

A flashbulb went off nearby and momentarily distracted Gibson from the whiskey. There were a number of photographers cruising the crowd, no doubt looking for shots for tomorrow's society pages and gossip columns. He guessed paparazzi had to be expected at a party thrown by a media mogul. He was thankful that no photographer here would have any interest in him. His face meant nothing here in Luxor, and that was a welcome relief. More than once in the past he'd had problems with photographers. The worst incident had been the time when he'd been fined five hundred bucks after beating one up outside of the Roxy in LA. When they'd dragged him off the man, the LAPD hadn't been particularly gentle, and he wound up with seven stitches in his head and a much too intimate knowledge of the choke hold.

It surprised him that Slide didn't seem the least bit perturbed by the presence of cameras at the party. Gibson would have thought that a demon might object to being photographed. Maybe they didn't come out on film, like vampires didn't appear in mirrors.

Slide finished his drink and placed the glass on the bar. The bartender looked as though he wanted to refill it, but Slide shook his head and turned to the other two. "Let's move on to the main building. I think we're out with the B-list here."

They started walking toward where French windows opened out on a broad terrace that overlooked the lake. The crowds became even thicker as they approached the house itself, and Gibson started to realize just how big the party was. There had to be close to fifteen hundred people spread out around the estate.

Gibson glanced questioningly at Slide. "Are all these people actually against the president?"

Slide looked at him blankly. "What?"

Gibson realized that he wasn't explaining himself. "On the way out here, Nephredana told me that Raus was throwing this party as a kind of demonstration of support for his campaign to dump Lancer. I was just wondering if all these people could really want to get rid of the president."

Slide laughed and shook his head. "Hell, no, ninety percent of this bunch are just here for the party. Raus's newspapers and TV stations may claim different tomorrow, but most of these fools have come out for the booze and the food and to see and be seen and get drunk and get laid and all the other things people go to parties for. What you do have, though, is a serious gathering of the real anti-Lancer forces. They're probably up in some smoke-filled room right now plotting his downfall."

"Is that why you're here?"

Slide halted and looked hard at Gibson. "When are you going to stop believing that I'm a player in all this?"

Gibson also halted. He had seen what Slide and Nephredana could do to humans that annoyed them, and he was a little scared that he had gone too far.

"It's just hard to believe that, being what you are, you could avoid being a player."

"Did you ever think that, being what I am, I'd hardly want to be a player? "

That seemed to settle the matter for the moment, and the three of them walked on in silence, up the steps and in through the French windows.

Raus had clearly ordered his architects to go for breathtaking. Beyond the French windows, Gibson found himself in a huge cavernous hall. He imagined that he had been in other places that were as overbearingly impressive, but he couldn't think of one outside of the Vatican or Radio City. As with the exterior of the house, though, the hall suffered from wild clashes of style: rococo gold was positioned cheek by jowl with the smooth geometry of deco steel, and the quasi-Michaelangelo fresco that arched across the vaulted ceiling came into serious conflict with the stark lines of the postmodern staircase that led to the upper levels.

As they entered the hall, Slide and Nephredana paused to speak to a small Oriental man with a black patch covering one eye and a face crisscrossed by old dueling scars. Gibson wondered if he was a local or another kind of demon, but since Slide made no attempt at introductions, Gibson carried on by himself, expecting the other two to catch up with him when they were ready.

At one end of the grand hall, a trio was playing smooth lounge jazz and twenty or so couples were dancing. The singer/piano player sounded like Nat King Cole. It wasn't exactly Gibson's kind of music, but he moved closer for a better look. A waiter passed by with canape's on a tray. Gibson, realizing that he hadn't eaten in God knew how long, grabbed two or three. Forgetting to eat was one of the quickest ways to end the evening in a helpless alcoholic stupor. The trio didn't hold his attention for long. They were about as bland as one might expect at an event like this. Gibson started looking around the huge hall. Raus had by no means thrown all of the mansion open to his guests. Entrances to corridors were roped off and guarded by more tuxedoed bouncers and, on the staircase, another team of security vetted those who came and went. It seemed that you had to be a special super-VIP guest to make it to the upper levels.

Gibson glanced back at Slide and Nephredana, but they were still talking to the man with the eye patch. He wondered what had become of Yop Boy. Had he been left back in some other dimension, or was it simply that he didn't get to go to parties? Gibson knew it was a mistake to treat these idimmu lightly. He had only seen the mildest, sleight-of-hand displays of their power, and what they might be able to do when they really stretched out hardly bore thinking about. He had to resist being lulled by Slide's cowboy charm and Nephredana's aloof cool and keep on telling himself that these were two dangerous entities. Gibson took another look at the pair. What were they to each other, lovers, partners, running mates, master and concubine? Slide seemed to call the shots, but Nephredana's attitude was hardly subservient. Maybe it was a mistake to even attempt to judge them by human standards.

The train of thought was derailed by the whisper that quickly went round that Verdon Raus himself was coming down to mingle with the lesser mortals, and an outbreak of jockeying for position started at the foot of the stairs in front of the bouncers and the red velvet ropes.

To judge from the size of his escort and the care with which they guarded him, Raus might well have been the president. First down the stairs were a half-dozen security agents-slick, well-groomed young men carrying bulky walkie-talkies and presumably with guns under their dinner jackets. Raus followed, surrounded by a knot of people made up of beautiful young women and hard-faced, middle-aged men. The immaculate blond on his arm was presumably his current wife, the TV star, but there were seven or eight equally attractive and slightly younger women behind her who looked as though they'd be more than willing to step into her shoes the moment that she fell from favor. The men all had the assured veneer of accustomed power. Most were in dinner jackets, but there was also a sprinkling of military dress uniforms and one high-ranking police officer in blue and gold. Raus himself was one of those small Napoleonic men-squat, broad-shouldered, with splayed feet, the kind who walked leaning forward with his hands clasped behind his back and his jaw thrust out pugnaciously.

As the entourage made its way down into the hall, a sudden commotion erupted over on the other side of the stairs. Someone was yelling. "This is the palace of abominations!"

Nat King Cole faltered in the middle of a tune that sounded uncommonly like "Anything Goes," and half the room made ready to drop to the marble floor. A flurry of gunfire seemed to be expected at any second. Gibson tensed with the rest figuring this was the way they did things in Luxor. The yelling continued.

" Raus! You are the servant of Balg and you will die in hell!"

Gibson blinked. Who the hell was Balg?

It was one of those slow-motion moments. Gibson could see the man who was doing the shouting. He was one of those nonentities who are never noticed in a crowd until the day they go ballistic. The downstairs bouncers were converging on him, hands outstretched in grimly professional desperation, getting to him before he could pull a gun. On the staircase, Raus's own bodyguards were turning, closing on him to protect him with their bodies. The man struggled to reach Raus.

"Abomination! Slave of Balg!"

Nephredana was beside Gibson and he quickly turned. "Who or what is Balg?'l

Nephredana shook her head. "Later."

The bouncers were on the man and he was going down under a half-dozen of them. It seemed that, after all, he was a shouter rather than a shooter. The party on the staircase waited until the weirdo had been dragged away, and then they resumed their downward progress as though nothing had happened. Nat King Cole started up again. It was a slightly shaky start, but he, too, quickly resumed business as usual. It was around then that Gibson noticed that the man immediately behind Raus and slightly to his right looked exactly like Sebastian Rampton. Gibson stiffened. It had to be him-there was no mistaking the round Heinrich Himmler glasses, the stooped shoulders, and the thin, pale face. How in hell could the most suspect of the Nine be here in another dimension and apparently on intimate terms with one of its most powerful men?

Nephredana must have noticed his reaction. "What's wrong?"

Gibson answered without thinking. "I thought I saw someone I knew."

"Who?"

"Sebastian Rampton."

Nephredana turned and beckoned to Slide, who was still talking to me individual with the dueling scars. "You better hear this."

Slide detached himself from the conversation and came over to where they were standing. "Interesting guy, that. He's the Hind-Mancu ambassador. Made his name during the suppression of the Viet Minn back in the sixties."

Nephredana quickly interrupted him. "Gibson thinks he saw Sebastian Rampton in the group around Raus."

Yancey Slide adjusted his sunglasses. "No shit." He peered at Gibson. "Are you sure it was him and not a parallel from this dimension?"

For the life of him, Gibson didn't know why he'd blurted it out to Nephredana in the first place. Had she seen his reaction to seeing the man who looked like Rampton and hit him with some sort of influence? It was too late now, though; the damage was done and he could only go along. "I really can't be sure. I only had a fleeting glimpse but it certainly looked like him. Could the streamheat have maybe brought him here?"

Slide shrugged. "It's possible. You can expect virtually anything from a people that had nuclear weapons in the early seventeenth century."

This last remark took Gibson completely by surprise. "Say what?"

Now Slide was looking surprised. "Nobody told you the history of your traveling companions?"

Gibson was right off balance again. "It seems that nobody tells me anything if they can possibly help it."

Slide was thoughtful. "Even if this Rampton you saw was a parallel from here, I still don't like the fact that he's so close to Raus. Anyone with his makeup is going to be up to no good,"

"You know Rampton?"

Slide nodded. "Oh, yes, I know Rampton." He turned to Nephredana. "Listen, I think I'm going to talk to Raus and see what all this is about."

"What do you want me to do?"

"Stay with Gibson. You might fill him in about the streamheat. Let him know what kind of people he's been fucking with."

Slide walked quickly away and disappeared into the crowd. Gibson looked expectantly at Nephredana.

She took a deep breath. "Let's go and get a drink. I see I'm going to have to continue your education."

They made their way to the nearest bar, and when they both had drinks in front of them, Nephredana started into the story.

"The people you call the streamheat come from a dimension where South and Central America, and not Europe, made the great leap forward. Up until the end of the fourteenth century, their history was running pretty much parallel to that of both your dimension and this one, but, from that point on, events began deviating fast. It all started in 1427 with the Emperor Izcoatl in Mexico. Izcoatl was something of a degenerate, even by the standards of Aztec royalty, but he had this thing about science, and driven by his relentless goading-and, believe me, Izcoatl could goad-his people not only managed to discover the wheel, but really went the distance in thinking through its possible applications. Just three years later, they stumbled across gunpowder and after that, they were off and running. During the next ten years, Izcoatl pushed his empire as far as Texas in the north and Rio de Janeiro in the south. Selective breeding of the northern bison gave him an effective substitute for the horse and, when iron-ore deposits were found in the equivalent of southeastern Brazil, and the Aztecs learned the trick of smelting, there was no stopping them. Izcoatl and his heirs were well on their way to becoming masters of all the Americas."

Gibson was intrigued by the way Nephredana managed to make six-hundred-year-old events sound like they had happened just yesterday.

"Around 1500, the Europeans started showing up, but Montezuma, who was emperor by then, was ready for them, and they were never able to establish a beachhead on the continent. The threat from across the Atlantic, however, really galvanized Aztec science. In less than seventy years, they had electricity, the internal-combustion engine, and powered flight and were taking their first shots at splitting the atom."

Gibson whistled. "You're putting me on?"

Nephredana shook her head. "Not a bit of it, You can't imag-ine what can be achieved in a state run by an absolute, life-and-death autocrat when the motivation's there. And remember something else: All this time they were still practicing the same sun-worshiping, human-sacrificing religion that they'd had when they were living in mud huts, only it had now grown to truly epic proportions. You should have seen the Great Solstice Festival of 1577. They snuffed a quarter of a million people at that four-day bash. Now that's what you call motivation."

"You make it sound like you were there."

Nephredana sighed, "I was. I was having an affair with a fighter pilot from Tenochtitlan at the time, but after that slayfest I had to dump him. Too much blood even for me."

"So what happened next?"

"They let off their first experimental bomb in 1605 and then spent the next ten years perfecting a method for delivering a nuclear holocaust. The means wasn't all that spectacular-a big, clumsy, prop-driven bomber, all fuel and bombload-but it could make it across the Atlantic and that was all that mattered. The Aztecs weren't all that bothered about getting their aircrews home again."

"Extra sacrifices?"

"Exactly."

" So what did they want to do? Nuke Europe back to the stone age?"

"Precisely that. They knew that the Eurotrash in their sailing ships would keep on coming, and, more to the point, they would inevitably pilfer bits and pieces of Aztec advanced technology, upgrade their armaments, and begin posing a real threat. According to Aztec thinking, a preemptory strike was the only answer, and, as an added plus, it would be one fuck of a bonanza of souls for the Sun God. By 1615, the Aztec military industrial complex was in high gear, turning out an armada of planes for the raid on Northern Europe."

"What stopped them?"

"Nothing stopped them."

"I don't understand,"

"That's because you're still thinking in terms of your own dimension. Just because you've still got Europe intact, you assume that everyone else has."

Gibson blinked. "You mean they did it?"

"Damn right they did it. July 4, 1618, the Night of the Many Suns. They laid a strip of bombs from Lisbon to Warsaw, as far north as London and as far south as Naples. No more Europe in the streamheat dimension. Of course, all the dust and fallout and the rest of the crap went straight around the world. Russia and China took a beating and then it blew right across the Pacific and over the Aztec Empire, swamping them with cancer, birth defects, and sterility. Unfortunately it didn't kill them outright."

"Did it make them stronger?"

Nephredana nodded. "Stronger, meaner, and crazier. They now ruled the planet in their dimension, as much of it as they hadn't turned into an atomic wasteland, and it was a grim, nasty place."

"They still went on with the human sacrifices?"

"Oh, yes, in fact they turned it into a science. They made inroads into death-moment energy physics that no normal culture would have imagined possible."

"Death-moment energy physics?"

"You wouldn't want to know about it, except that's how they first got started in the interdimensional transit business."

"When did they start that?"

"They discovered the trick of dimension transfer about a hundred years ago, but even before that they had already left their impression on other dimensions. The attack on Europe produced massive print-throughs."

"What are print-throughs?"

"When something as catastrophic as a nuclear attack occurs in one dimension, it can produce secondary effects in others nearby. In your dimension, the Night of the Many Suns and its aftermath was reflected as the Thirty Years' War and the plague. Eight million died in Germany alone."

"Does it have to be a nuclear attack?"

"No, but they do produce the most noticeable effects. When they dropped the A-bombs on Osaka and Nagasaki in your dimension, a giant reptile thawed out of the Arctic ice and went on a rampage through a parallel Tokyo."

Gibson was having a degree of trouble with some of this. "What about volcanos and natural explosions, do they cause print-through?"

Nephredana shook her head. "No, no, you're missing the point. It's not the crude energy release of the explosion that causes print-through, it's the cumulative effect of all the simultaneous death. When an entity dies there's a brief but massive release of psychic power and weird shit happens. Image that multiplied hundreds of thousands of times."

Despite the booze, Gibson felt a chill clutch at his chest. "Death-moment energy physics."

Nephredana raised her glass to him, "Now you're getting it, kid."

"I'm not sure I want it. Let's get back to the streamheat; when did they start operating?"

Nephredana was looking around at the parade of passing guests, and she seemed to be getting bored with the lecture. "It's like I said, they made the breakthrough a hundred years ago, and by the late 1920s they'd started running all over, trying to reshape the whole fucking multidimensional universe in their own image. They apparently arrived in your dimension too late for the Russian revolution but in plenty of time for Hitler. Tried to get in with Mao Tse-tung as well, but Chairman Mao wasn't buying, and he had a bunch of them shot. He was smart enough to realize that the streamheat image was truly nasty. They called themselves the TSD at first, Time Stream Directorate, but it didn't catch on, they got the name streamheat from-well talk of the devil!"

Gibson stiffened. "What?"

Nephredana pointed across the grand hall. "Isn't that the bitch that brought you here?"

Gibson peered in the direction she was indicating, and there was Smith, wearing a severely cut, off-the-shoulder evening dress, in conversation with two men in dinner jackets. As far as Gibson could see, she hadn't spotted him, but he turned to Nephredana with a good deal of alarm. "You think she's looking for me?"

Nephredana shook her head. "Don't flatter yourself. This party is exactly the kind of environment in which the stieamheat like to wheel and deal, but let's get out of here anyway. I don't think it'd be a good idea if she spotted you."

"So where to?"

"Let's go to the pistol gallery. I feel like shooting something."

"Pistol gallery?"

"Raus has a pistol gallery in a specially soundproofed corridor on the second floor. Raus has a lot of soundproofed areas in his mansion."

Gibson wasn't sure about the idea of pistol shooting. "I could use another drink after the history lesson."

Nephredana dismissed the implied objection. "We'll get one along the way."

"You've been here before?"

"Oh, yes."

She walked him in the direction of the postmodern staircase. The security men immediately lifted the ropes aside when they saw her coming. She didn't even have to say anything, and Gibson wondered if they knew her from previous experience or if they just recognized the look. Nephredana had a look and an attitude that could take her just about anywhere.

Beyond the red velvet ropes the party shifted into a whole other gear. They moved through a number of rooms, each of which had its own special attraction. In one, a dozen men and women were playing what looked like a version of high-stakes baccarat. A guest bedroom had been turned into an impromptu opium den where young men and women were, by turns, making themselves blissfully comatose by sucking on the multiple hoses of water pipe. The entertainment in some of the rooms was a little more perverse. In one that they passed through, couples sat round the shadowy walls, sipping cognac from balloon snifters as they watched a woman in a red leather cat suit administering electric shocks to a naked and kneeling young man. The large orchid house, which was an extension of the second floor under its own double-glazed dome, had been converted into a jungle room complete with parrots, Afro/Luxor drummers, highlife dancers, and a bar serving sticky cocktails with plastic snakes for swizzle sticks. Nephredana perversely decided that this would make an ideal pit stop. Gibson took one of the plastic-snake cocktails, wishing that he had a way to get some more of Raus's private stock, while Nephredana engaged the bartender-a muscular young man in a loincloth whose deep-blue skin had been oiled for the occasion-in lengthy conversation, obviously giving him the recipe for some fresh cocktail from hell.

When they finally reached the pistol gallery, a solitary woman in a purple sheath dress was shooting at targets with a tiny pearl-handled automatic. As Gibson and Nephredana came through the door, she smiled politely, daintily blew the smoke from the barrel of the gun, slipped it into her vanity bag, and left.

A well-stocked, glass-fronted gun cabinet ran along the back wall of the long narrow room. Gibson would have assumed that it would be kept locked, particularly during a party, but Nephredana went straight to it and opened one of the doors.

"What kind of piece do you want, Joe?"

"I'm not sure I really want to shoot; I'm on the way to being drunk, and I've gotten into trouble mixing guns and booze before now."

Nephredana smiled wickedly. "No roadies to shoot here, Joe."

Gibson caved in. "I don't know, I'm in your hands. What do you suggest?"

Nephredana grinned. "Take a big one, they're more satisfying."

"Okay, so give me the biggest motherfucker you can find, a damn, great, Clint Eastwood special."

Nephredana ran her eye along the racks of pistols like a browser selecting a book in the library. "Here we go, a Zeck amp; Dorf.45 Pacifier. Try this for size."

The forty-five was about the biggest revolver that Gibson had ever seen, with a seven-inch barrel, finished in burned chrome with ebony grips and a strip of fancy reinforcement running back from the front sight. As Nephredana handed it to him, she ran her forefinger sexily down the barrel. More than the gun itself, the gesture threw Gibson for a momentary loop. It wasn't that he didn't think of Nephredana as sexy; indeed, she surrounded herself with an air of sexuality that traveled with her like a purple cloud. It was just that he hadn't expected it ever to be focused on him. He'd assumed that they were on opposite sides of an alien gulf, beyond all possibility of coupling, and he'd never so much as fantasized about any carnal happening. Now that she was apparently bridging that gap, he had to take a couple of steps back and regroup. He doubted that Nephredana had missed his flash of confusion, but he covered himself by spinning the pistol on his index finger if for no other reason than that he felt it was probably expected of him.

"This is serious cannon."

Nephredana selected a piece for herself. It was an automatic, smaller than the forty-five but black and deadly. "You mind if I shoot first?"

Gibson bowed. "Go right ahead."

She loaded the automatic from a supply of ammunition on a shelf in the gun case and moved over to a control panel on the wall. "I'll set the targets."

She hit a number of switches on the wall panel. The target that the lady in purple had been shooting at flipped up into the ceiling. An electric sign came on.

READY.

Nephredana assumed the classic knees-bent, arms-extended firing position. A cutout figure flipped out from the wall. Nephredana fired, hitting the target squarely between the eyes. She was clearly no stranger to firearms. The first target withdrew and a second flipped up in a different position. She fired again. This target took it in the outlined heart. She shot four more targets before she paused. Every one of the cutouts was a photograph of the president, Jaim Lancer.

Nephredana noticed how Gibson was looking at them. "Raus's little joke." She took out two more targets and then stepped back. "It's your rum."

Gibson positioned himself. A target flipped out. He squeezed the trigger. The best he could do was to clip the shoulder of the presidential cutout. Nephredana looked him up and down.

"You're not exactly Wyatt Earp, are you?"

"I've only had TV sets to practice on."

He fired again. This time, he hit Lancer in the throat. As the echoes of the shot died away, he looked sideways at Nephredana. "I've been meaning to ask you, did you and Slide send that thing out of the TV set for me?"

Nephredana shook her head. "Not guilty, judge."

"But you knew about it?"

"Sure, we've been keeping an eye on you ever since you left the streamheat base. How do think I knew to find you in that bar?"

"You didn't know what happened inside the apartment, though?"

"What did happen in the apartment?"

"Some kind of humanoid electronic thing came crawling out of the TV. I think it was trying to kill me. When I blew away the TV, it vanished."

"That showed unusual presence of mind."

"And you've no idea who might have been behind it?"

Nephredana shook her head. "No idea at all; maybe the streamheat were trying to spook you."

"Maybe."

Gibson fired three more shots in quick succession. One missed; the other two hit the president in the chest. He shot once more, the last round in the gun, and blew away a section of head above the right ear.

Just as Gibson was shaking the empty shell casings out of the cylinder prior to reloading, the gallery door unexpectedly opened and a man with a bulky, old-fashioned press camera stepped into the pistol gallery. As Gibson and Nephredana turned, a flashbulb popped. Gibson lunged after the photographer but he was already out of the door and gone.

"Come back here, you!"

He dragged the heavy soundproofed door open, but there was no sign of either man or camera. He went back to Nephredana. "I lost him."

She didn't seem particularly concerned.

"I wouldn't worry about it. What's a picture one way or the other?"

"I hate fucking paparazzi."

Nephredana took him by the arm again. "I think you need a drink."

"Not in the jungle room, though, hey? I feel like a real drink."

She smiled. "Anything you say, Joe Gibson. Anything you say." And as though to emphasize the word "anything," she put a hand on the back of his neck and stroked his hair. "And after we've had a couple of drinks, we'll go and take a look at something that may well blow your mind."

Gibson had closed his eyes at the touch of her hand. It was very cold but not in the least unpleasant. Gibson smiled. He was starting to enjoy the sensation and wondering where it might lead. "It takes a lot to blow my mind."

"I think Balg may do it for you."

His eyes snapped open. "Balg?"

Nephredana's dark glasses were a couple of inches from his face, and her lips were moist, "Balg." She spoke the word almost lovingly.

Gibson blinked. "The guy who did the shouting; he wasn't crazy? There really is a Balg?"

Nephredana stepped away from him. "You'll see."

They went back down the big staircase to the more public areas of the party. The jazz trio had been replaced by a large swing band that verged on the cacophonous. A lot more people were dancing and with a great deal more energy. The whole nature of the downstairs party had changed. People seemed more intent on enjoying themselves rather than just being seen, and it went without saying that the great majority of guests were now a good deal drunker and some appeared to be verging on doing things that they might later regret. Gibson and Nephredana went past the bandstand and started down the long corridor that linked the front and back of the house. Halfway along it, she quickly stepped over the velvet rope that was supposed to prevent guests from entering one of the side passages and indicated that Gibson should do the same,

It was about that time that a security man, on guard a little way down the corridor, spotted them. "I'm sorry, miss, you can't go in there."

He moved quickly, attempting to get to them before they went any farther. Nephredana made a fast pass with her right hand. The man stopped dead, then turned and went back to his post as though nothing had happened. She seemed to have blanked all awareness of them from the security guard's mind. Without waiting to see any further effects of her handiwork, she grabbed Gibson by the hand and pulled him over the rope.

"Come on! A zapper like that doesn't last very long."

Gibson followed her as she hurried down the passage. At the end of it there was a spiral flight of stone steps that led down, presumably into the cellars of the mansion. Nephredana plunged straight down them with her spike heels ringing on the stone. She reached the first level down and kept on going. It smelled like a wine cellar. The second level was different, colder and clammier, with a strange musty smell that Gibson didn't like at all. The third level was decidedly odd. The walls ran with condensation and the steps were slippery with a greenish slime. The musty smell was close to becoming a stench, and the few dim lights that there were created new threatening shadows with each turn of the stair.

"The foundations of this place are very old. Even though Raus virtually rebuilt the house from the ground up, he kept the original roots. The roots were why he went to so much trouble to buy the property some ten years ago, right after Lancer came to power."

Gibson put a hand to his mouth. "What's making that smell?"

"You'll see."

"I'm not sure I want to."

"Chicken?"

"You're too fucking much."

The stairs ended and a door was in front of them. Although the door seemed to be constructed of dark, ancient wood reinforced with corroded iron bolts, the lock system was modern; preelectronic but very formidable. Nephredana hiked up her skirt. There was a small flat utility wallet made from some sort of ultra-soft leather strapped round her upper thigh like a garter. She extracted a small, silver cylinder, not unlike a very advanced dental drill, and pointed it at each lock in turn. The sound of the tumblers falling and the bolts pulling back was plainly audible.

Gibson looked on in admiration. This was one hell of a woman. "Useful thing, that."

Nephredana nodded. "My passkey. Help me push this door open."

The door opened on a small stone platform from which another set of steps led down, curving around the outside wall of a circular chamber that went even deeper into the earth, almost like a huge shaft or well. The word "bowels" sprang into Gibson's mind. This was the closest to the bowels of the Earth that he had ever been. The smell was definitely a stench now. Except that, once inside the door, there was a warm musky quality to it that almost seemed alive.

Gibson peered over the edge of the steps. He could see a light at the bottom of the shaft, a luridly poisonous green glow that also seemed to be the source of the stench. "What is that thing?"

"That's Balg."

"Balg's a bunch of glowing toxic radiation in the bottom of a pit?"

"I guess you'd call Balg an entity."

Gibson grunted. "Two entities in one day is at least one over my limit. Is it safe?"

"Not in the least."

"So what the fuck are we doing here?"

"It can't come out of the shaft. It's pretty well penned up."

"I have your word on that?"

"In the elder days, Balg was vanquished by Galmesh and bound outside of the time stream. Over the millennia, though, a small part of him began to intrude into this dimension. The original house on this sight was built around the intrusion. Subsequent owners have put in a lot of work attempting to set free Balg in his entirety. Verdon Raus is only the latest in a long line."

"You 're telling me that Raus is trying to let this thing loose?"

"He believes that he can control it for his own ends."

"Can he?"

"He doesn't have a prayer."

Gibson held up a hand. "Wait a minute. Let's just back up here. I thought that this Raus dealt in newspapers and TV stations, was some kind of William Randolph Hearst." He nodded toward the glow in the pit. "You're telling me that, when he gets home from a hard day's moguling, he messes around with this H. P. Lovecraft shit?"

"Verdon Raus is a very complex individual. Shall we go a little closer?"

"Do we have to?"

Nephredana sighed. "Come on, Gibson. Live dangerously."

Gibson followed Nephredana down the stairs with serious trepidation. The stairs had no banister or safety railing on the outside, nothing but a long drop to Balg. Gibson didn't like heights at the best of times, and when they came with a dangerous glowing entity at the bottom, they were infinitely worse.

After descending for forty or fifty feet, with the glow of Balg becoming brighter by the foot, the steps terminated in a circular flag-stoned platform in the center of which was sunk the final shaft that contained Balg, or, at least, the portion of Balg that had made it into this dimension. Gibson noticed that a number of steel rings were set into the stonework right at the edge of this deepset well. Gibson glanced at them and then at Nephredana, whose face had taken on a ghoulish aspect now that it was lit green from below. "What are these for? The human sacrifices?"

Nephredana scarcely bothered to look. "Probably."

Gibson took a quick step back. "You're kidding me?"

Nephredana shook her head. "Balg feeds mainly on psychic energy, so I imagine a good few of those who've been messing with him over the years would have tried it. I've found that it never takes humans very long to get around to sacrificing their own kind. I guess it's the attraction of the ultimate."

"Death-moment energy physics?"

"You got it."

There was a strange echoing noise from down inside the shaft and a sudden rush of the foul-smelling air. Gibson turned away. It was as though Balg had detected their presence. "Are you sure that thing can't climb out of the well?"

"Look down there."

"Must I?"

"Go ahead. It won't hurt you."

Gibson advanced cautiously to the edge and peered down. It was the act of looking into a green hell. His overwhelming instinct was to get away from Balg and out of his subterranean vault as fast as possible.

Nephredana was standing behind him. "What do you see?"

"Balg. Isn't that enough?"

"Be precise."

Gibson gritted his teeth. "A green glow that looks radioactive with a kind of white mist covering it."

"Look at the mist."

Gibson looked again. He could just make out lines of red light running through the mist. "Are those lasers?"

"Raus thinks it's his final defense against Balg."

"I didn't think they had lasers here. Shit, they don't even have color TV."

"They don't have lasers here. He's had a little outside help. I suspect your chums in the streamheat."

"Isn't that against the Prime Directive or something? Not giving advanced technology to a culture that it hasn't developed itself?"

Nephredana smiled. "Actually that's Star Trek, but the same principle applies."

Gibson looked back up the steps. "I think I've seen enough of this place. The stink is starting to get to me."

Nephredana nodded. "Balg isn't the most attractive of beings."

As they turned to leave, Gibson noticed that there was a small, dark alcove set beneath the curve of the steps where they rose from the platform. It appeared to contain racks of devices that, as far as he could see, had the sole common purpose of inflicting pain on various specific areas of the human body.

He quickly pointed the stuff out to Nephredana. "Is that what I think it is?"

Nephredana didn't seem particularly concerned. "What else would it be?"

"You mean he tortures his victims before he feeds them to Balg?"

"Once you get started in the sacrifice business, the rest pretty much follows."

Gibson didn't wait any longer. He was climbing the steps. "That's it, I'm out of here."

Nephredana followed without comment. Unfortunately, as they approached the door there were sounds from the other side.

Gibson looked round in alarm. "Christ, what do we do now?"

Nephredana was already out of her high heels and heading back down the stairs in silent stockinged feet.

She turned and hissed at Gibson. "Come on!"

"Where do we go?'

"The alcove, we can hide in there. It's probably Raus coming to show his pet to some selected guests."

There was the sound of keys in the door. Gibson gave thanks that Nephredana had had the foresight to relock the doors behind them. The alcove was small, and Gibson wasn't keen on taking refuge in a torturer's tool locker, but it was a case of needs must. It was far from being the ideal hiding place. There was hardly enough room for two people in among the various steel and leather appliances, and the glow from Balg was so intense on that level that they hardly had even the protection of darkness.

Gibson whispered urgently to Nephredana. "Can't you put some whammy on them so we can slip away?"

Nephredana shook her head. "Too risky with Balg just below us. Any influence could too easily backfire. Balg's all random surplus energy and no smarts. A hex could trigger all manner of ugly shit."

Gibson was about to protest that they were in all manner of ugly shit already when the sound of footsteps and voices came from the stairs above. Nephredana put a silent finger to her lips. Gibson suddenly recognized one of the voices. It was Smith.

" despite that, Verdon, this is still a very dangerous experiment. If that thing should get loose before we are able to control it"

What in hell was she doing down here and what kind of deal was going down between Raus and the streamheat?

The voices and footsteps reached the platform, and Gibson's horror was multiplied a hundredfold when he risked a peek around the edge of the alcove. Seven people had come through the door, and now they stood just a few yards from where he was hiding, black shapes against the green glow from the shaft. To his horror, he recognized four out of seven: in addition to Smith, the party included Raus, French, and the man who looked like Sebastian Rampton, If this was a parallel Rampton, it seemed that he was on a pretty much parallel trip. Two of Raus's tuxedoed goons brought up the rear. They were holding up a young woman who sagged between them, either helplessly drunk or drugged. Somewhere along the line, she had lost her dress, and she was now down to torn black lingerie that hadn't been too demure in the first place. Her head lolled, and every few seconds she was consumed by helpless giggles. In a moment of absolute, dark, crystal clarity, Gibson knew what was going to happen to the girl. He tensed but Nephredana put a restraining hand on his arm. It might be a grand gesture to leap out and try and save the girl, but it would also be suicidal. There was no point in sacrificing himself for some anonymous party girl. It was ultimately cold but wholly logical.

Rampton, at least, had the decency to raise a token objection. "Does this really need to be done?"

It was Raus who provided the rationalization. "The sacrifices have to be made. If they're not, Balg becomes violent. I doubt we could continue to contain it."

Rampton still seemed a little shocked by the proceedings.

"How many people do you have to feed to this thing?"

Raus's voice had an edge of cold, clinical pride, as though Balg was his hobby.

"Lately it's been taking about four a month to keep it quiet, approximately one a week."

"And nobody has wondered what you're doing here. There've been no rumors, no questions."

Raus sounded as if it was no problem. "When you control as much of the media as I do, rumors are easy to manipulate away. Besides, I'm very good to my people here. They understand and they keep their mouths shut. Also Balg doesn't leave any remains. There are no bodies to dispose of, and people vanish all the time."

Smith peered down into the shaft. "I think we'll have to talk about all this after the matter of Lancer has been resolved."

Raus seemed anxious to change the subject. "On the matter of Lancer, has this man from another dimension been picked up, this double for Zwald?"

At this, Gibson's ears pricked up. Were they talking about him? He listened tensely.

French answered Raus's question. "We don't have him but we're monitoring him. We can pick him up when we need him."

Gibson's eyes narrowed. If they were talking about him, French didn't know half as much as he claimed. They weren't monitoring him so closely that they knew he was just a few feet from them.

Raus didn't seem entirely happy with French's answer. "I'd rather we had him in a secure place. He's now crucial to the operation."

"Don't worry, we'll pick him up in the morning."

Raus continued to lean on the streamheat. "I don't want any mistakes."

Rampton also seemed to have misgivings. "I certainly haven't made a dimension transition to attend a nonevent."

Gibson was transfixed. Unless there were copies of Sebastian Rampton spread all over the multidimensional universe, it had to be the Rampton from New York, the one that he had met, and they had to be talking about him.

French was doing his best to be reassuring. "There's no problem, Gibson is too stupid to be a problem,"

While Gibson had to fight to control himself, Smith was at her most efficient and reassuring as she backed up French. "There won't be any problem. We can handle Gibson."

Gibson's jaws clenched in silent fury. Handle me, can you, you bastards? We'll see about that.

Raus signaled to the two black-tie goons, indicating that he thought it was time to feed the bimbo to the entity. As the two men moved the girl toward the edge of the shaft, her legs suddenly sagged, as though she'd lost control of them. She burst out in another fit of giggles. Gibson found that there was something particularly hideous about the sound, about her total unawareness of what was about to happen to her. Then, somehow, awareness cut through whatever they'd given her or whatever she'd taken. She let out one long awful scream before they pushed her over the edge and then a second, even longer one as she fell that reverberated with echoes. There were sobs and sucking noises from the bottom of the shaft and finally a single obscenely satisfied belch. Gibson closed his eyes and bit down on the knuckle of his index finger. When he looked again, Raus and his party, now only six in number, were going back up the steps. A few seconds later, the door closed and there was the sound of it being locked from the outside.

Gibson let out a sigh from the heart. "Jesus Christ."

Nephredana stepped out of the alcove. "Them's the breaks."

"I don't know how you can take something like that so calmly."

"It wasn't my first human sacrifice."

"I guess not."

"I'm very, very old, Joe. Don't be attributing any phony innocence to me. I've truly seen it all."

"This isn't easy."

He had probably never said a truer word. He walked over to the edge of the well and looked down. He didn't have a clue what to think. In the bottom of the well there seemed to be a new smug quality to the green glow. Nephredana came and stood beside him. She also looked down into the shaft. "One day we're going to destroy that thing."

"I sure as hell hope so. Did you hear what those bastards were talking about?"

"They were talking about you."

"They seem to have plans for me. The word they used was 'crucial.' You think they can get me?"

Nephredana shrugged. "It depends on how crucial it is to you to stay away from them. You seem to be doing okay so far."

"I've only been away from them for a few hours,"

"For the fugitive, it's one hour at a time."

Gibson knelt down and touched one of the steel rings in the stonework. "How many people do you think have died here?"

"Probably hundreds. Maybe thousands over the years. Balg has been here for a very long time."

Gibson shook his head. "Balg? What's next? Necrom?"

Fury flashed across Nephredana's face, and she grabbed him angrily by the lapels of his tuxedo jacket and pulled his face close to hers. She was very strong.

"Don't even say that name. Not here, not ever. You don't have the faintest idea what you're talking about."

Her fingers were in his hair. He could feel her long nails against his scalp. She hissed into his face. "Never say that name. You humans are so ignorant that you're dangerous."

Then she kissed him. The kiss was electric. His whole body trembled, and it was some moments before he could break away. "Surely not here?"

Gibson couldn't tell whether the force in her whisper was anger or passion. "Yes, right here. There are a lot of ways to fight the power."

She was holding his face between her hands, her nails were digging into the skin of his cheeks, and her hands were icy. He was revolted by the idea of making love in this place, but he knew that he could never find the strength to resist. A slow, languid smile spread over Nephredana's face.

"I'm going to hurt you, Joe Gibson and you're going to love me for it."


The White Room | Necrom | The White Room