GIBSON WAS HALF thrown into the back of the Hudson. He went sprawling on his knees as Yop Boy dived in behind him, still spraying the Luxor Police Department with machine-gun bullets. Nephredana was lounging unconcernedly in the backseat. Slide was behind the wheel, sitting hunched in the driver's custom bucket seat, pumping the gas pedal, with his hat pulled down over his eyes and the collar of his duster coat turned up. The red and green displays of the car's complex and definitely non-1951 control panel bathed his face with a decidedly satanic light in the otherwise darkened interior. The moment everyone was safely aboard, he popped the clutch and sent the car rocketing toward the exit ramp. Gibson was tossed onto his side by the acceleration. Using his manacled hands, he tried to push himself into a sitting position.
"I thought you had a nonintervention policy?"
Slide laughed. "That was then, this is now. What's the matter, ain't you grateful?"
"I'm grateful, but you cut it pretty fine."
Nephredana shrugged. "Cutting it fine is the spice of life."
They were on the street hurtling straight at the traffic. Yop Boy, dressed for combat in his own outsize version of ninja fighting threads, had swung into the passenger seat, riding shotgun beside Slide, with his assault rifle pushed through the open window. A cab crossed an intersection, and the bewildered driver, seeing the Hudson coming at him like some avenging Detroit angel, stopped dead, right in their path. Slide only avoided it by mounting the sidewalk, sending a group of pedestrians diving for safety. Slide appeared to drive with a total disregard for the fate of innocent bystanders.
Fortunately the streets around police headquarters were comparatively empty in the small hours of the morning, and the innocent bystanders were down to a minimum. As they hurtled through the night, with Slide concentrating on the driving and Yop Boy playing defense, Nephredana pulled the electronic lock pick from her leather utility garter.
She pointed to Gibson's handcuffs. "Let's get those things off you."
She aimed the small cylinder at the handcuffs and they opened with a soft double click. A moment later, the padlock on the chain had opened and the whole deal had dropped to the floor of the car. Gibson eased himself into the seat, rubbing his wrists. "Damn, but it's good to be out of those things."
Nephredana crossed her legs. "You were in a lot of trouble back there."
"Tell me about it. I think I was just a fraction of a second away from being gunned down by the local Jack Ruby."
Yancey Slide turned in his seat. He seemed quite able to drive with one hand and without looking at the road.
"At last we've broken up that fucking pattern, I hope for good and all."
"You mean the Kennedy pattern?"
"I could have probably stopped the one in your dimension if I hadn't let Howard Hughes sidetrack me, the paranoid piece of shit."
"You knew Howard Hughes?"
"You have to deal with all kinds of assholes in my business. If Hughes hadn't faked me out by pretending that he knew more about the conspiracy than he really did, I might have had a chance to talk with Jack Kennedy before he went down to Dallas."
Gibson was getting a little off balance from all of Slide's name-dropping. He guessed that if you had lived for some twenty thousand years, you did get to meet a lot of people. Whether, though, you should retain a need to ostentatiously boast about it was something else again.
"You knew Kennedy, too?"
"Jack Kennedy wasn't an asshole. Except maybe for his need to jump on anything that breathed. That was neurotic behavior."
Nephredana snorted derisively. "That's kind of rich coming from you."
Slide flashed his sinister snaggletoothed grin, and his inhuman slit eyes blazed with a brief humor. "I'm a demon. I've got an image to maintain."
He turned back to the road. They were now running on a fairly empty highway that led out of the downtown district of government buildings and big business and possibly out of the city altogether. The Hudson was humming along at a speed that, from the way the streetlights flashed by outside the windows, must have exceeded 150 miles an hour, but its motion had a deceptive, almost dreamlike quality, a lack of vibration that made it feel as if they were in some sort of simulator rather than a real nuts-and-bolts vehicle.
Gibson leaned forward and asked the obvious question. "So what happens now? Are we going someplace or are we just on the run like Bonnie and Clyde?"
Gibson half expected Slide to launch into a detailed account of how he ran with the Barrow Gang and helped Bonnie with the poems that she sent to the newspapers. In this case, Slide either resisted the temptation or he had never met the gangster twosome, because he actually came up with a straight answer.
"We're getting out of this fucked-up dimension while the getting's still good."
Gibson glanced nervously out of the rear window. They might be going fast enough to outrun a police car, but the LPD also had helicopters.
"The cops are going to be looking for us in the worst possible way."
Slide dismissed this with a shrug. "There's a whammy on this car that's going to make it very difficult to find."
"Are you sure about that?"
"Listen, kid. The cops are the least of our worries. In a matter of a few hours, this city is going to be one great big radioactive parking lot. Although the UKR doesn't know it yet, the Hind-Mancus have decided to use the confusion created by Lancer's murder to launch a sneak nuclear attack. Fifty of their flying wing atom bombers are coming up hard on their failsafe points right now."
Gibson had a good deal of trouble adjusting to this new piece of news. "You're putting me on?"
"The hell I am. I'm not just getting out of this dimension for the sake of your health. This whole place is going to blow."
Slide shook his head. "Not really. The same thing nearly happened in your dimension. I know for a fact that some of the politburo wanted to do exactly the same thing except that Khrushchev put his foot down."
"Are the Kamerians so blown away by the assassination that they can't defend themselves? Can't they stop the bombers?"
Slide grimaced. "Sure, they'll have fighters in the air and their SAM batteries will be on full red alert. The League's going to lose most of its bombers but some are going to get through. Some always do, and some are quite enough."
Nephredana was unwrapping a stick of gum.
"So where are we going to be when the shit hits the fan?"
"Back at the Hole in the Void."
Nephredana rolled her eyes. "The Hole in the Void? Does that mean you're going to go on another hundred-day drunk?"
Even Gibson, with his record of wretched excess and current bemused state, couldn't help but stand awed by a being who could routinely contemplate a three-month, nonstop binge. Slide, however, was shaking his head. "No hundred-day drunk this time round. Things are so delicately balanced right now that we're all going to have to stay on top of it."
Nephredana frowned. "It's really that bad?"
Slide nodded. "It's really that bad."
Gibson was starting to come out of shock and move back into confusion. "I'm grateful for being rescued and everything, but I really could use a certain amount of filling in as to what's going on. I mean, I seem to have just come out of an assassination conspiracy that I still don't fully understand, and now you're telling me a nuclear war is going to break out and we're going to someplace called the Hole in the Void. You've got to realize that I'm feeling a little ragged at the edges after all this."
Slide turned away from the road again and gave Gibson a hard look. "So I not only have to save your sorry ass, I also have to explain what's going on because you're too dumb to figure it out for yourself?"
"I wouldn't put it quite that way but…"
"But you'd like to know what the deal is."
"I'd feel a lot better."
"I wouldn't count on that."
"I was afraid you'd say that."
"So where do want me to start?"
"This nuclear attack is quite inevitable?"
Slide nodded. "Quite inevitable. Accept that and then put it out of your mind. This isn't your city or your country or even your dimension. You may find the death of all these people regrettable, but there isn't a damn thing you can do about it. Regret it and move on. Screw this dimension, in fact. What can you do with a place that has a supermarket chain called Hitler's? There's plenty ahead for you to worry about."
"That's not so easy to do."
Slide made a take-it-or-leave-it gesture. "You don't have time for the luxury of guilt or trauma. Concentrate on what happens next."
"The Hole in the Void?"
"The Hole in the Void."
"What is this Hole in the Void?"
"It's a bolthole, a refuge for us demons, an anomalous place in a fold between the dimensions. A few of us old boys created a safe hideout there, a place to go when the regular time stream gets too hairy. It'll give us a breathing space, you dig?"
Gibson shook his head. "Not really, but I expect I'll find out when I get there. I assume the present situation qualifies as hairy."
"How do we get there?"
"Right now, I'm looking for a soft spot where we can trans through."
Gibson could only assume that a soft spot was something akin to the transition point at Glastonbury that he and the streamheat had used to get to Luxor. Slide and his gang seemed to have a much more casual attitude toward moving from one dimension to another than anyone else he'd encountered on his travels.
"So what about the conspiracy? Why did the streamheat want to get rid of Lancer?"
Slide winked and tapped the side of his nose confidingly.
"You're making the mistake that everyone else makes. Conspiracies are hatched in the shadows and, like anything else in the shadows, they frighten people. The temptation is to imagine that they are much bigger and better organized than they really are. Most of the conspiracies I've ever become involved in have been a mess. They're usually uneasy alliances of individuals with a lot of different goals and motivations. Nobody tells the truth, and the internal fighting usually starts well before the deed's been done. Nothing I've seen of this one has caused me to think that it was any exception to the general rule. The way I figure it, the Luxor natives who were in on it were pretty straight ahead.in just wanting to off the president and seize power. Their mistake was that they were too greedy. They only had their eyes on the prize and they didn't pause to wonder how Hind-Mancu, the big rival superpower, might react."
"This is Raus's bunch?"
Slide nodded. He was looking at the road again, driving with one hand and taking a cheeroot from the pocket of his duster coat with the other. He lit it with the same snap of his fingers that he'd demonstrated for Gibson and Windemere in Ladbroke Grove.
"I don't think Raus himself was the same as all the rest. Anyone who keeps Balg penned up in his basement probably has a much more complicated game plan. When the dust settled, though, he probably expected to be crowned king."
"And the streamheat?"
"Those bastards? That's the hard one. The one thing you can count on is that they're lying ninety percent of the time, with a dime of truth to keep you off balance."
"So what's the truth in this instance?"
"The truth? It's probably some floating crap game or movable feast; it usually is around the streamheat. What's their euphemism for getting their faces into other folks' business? Constrainment of chaos? A poke here, a prod there, a dirty little deal in a back alley or a banana skin on a crucial sidewalk, the odd cosmic manhole cover removed, and they think they're playing fucking God, but all they're really doing is screwing things up worse than they're screwed up already. The thing you gotta remember about the streamheat, kid, is that they're basically a bunch of semisavage sons of bitches whose physics peaked too early. A whole bunch of us, the ones who knew what was what back then, should have gone in there in 1427 and wiped out the lot of them. A culture that stumbles across atomic weapons while it's still making sacrifices to the Sun God needs to be nuked themselves, right back into the Stone Age. But no, don't interfere, we all said. Let them work out their destiny. Well, no more, kid, total the swine and work out the destiny later. The problem with the streamheat is that, despite all the crap they give out about interzone cooperation, they're really the tool of a culture that's still as mad as hell that it can't predict the future. That's why they always try to pretend that they can. All their computers, their logic engines, their behavioral projections, societal convection rolls, Lorenz's butterfly, and all the other paraphernalia, it's all just chicken entrails and burned goat bones when you get down to it. All their efforts really only prove that they don't have a plan, they don't have an overall strategy. They run around in a frenzy being personally offended by the chaotic unpredictability of the universe and trying to fix it so it'll be the way they like it. When they fail, as they almost always do, they become even more hysterically convinced that they are fighting some kind of holy war against the forces of havoc, randomness, and disorder. It makes about as much real sense as human sacrifices to the Sun God."
Gibson blinked. This whole new assessment of the streamheat took a little digesting. "What did they really hope to achieve in Luxor by killing Lancer and pinning it on me?"
"They probably thought that they could install Raus as the head of a puppet government and have the UKR under their control, although I do wonder how they expected to control someone who kept Balg in his basement. Anyway, that's what the lower ranks seem to have believed, the ones you were dealing with like Smith and Klein. The fact that it now looks like the whole of the UKR is going to get dixie-fried as a result of the assassination puts a slightly different complexion on things."
"You actually think the streamheat engineered this nuclear attack that's coming?"
Slide nodded. "Sure do. They've got the UKR so heavily infiltrated it'd be kinda dumb not to assume that they've done much the same thing to the Hind-Mancu on the other side. They probably suggested the sneak attack in the first place."
Gibson was at a loss. "But why? What would they have to gain from nuclear devastation?"
Slide took his hand off the wheel and jerked a thumb in the direction of Nephredana. "Didn't she explain death-moment energy physics to you?"
"So work it out for yourself. Think about all that death."
"A huge burst of energy?"
"Right on the money, a huge energy bonanza. Which, in light of recent reports that they have the means to catch and store DME, seems to make a lot of sense from their point of view. Plus they have the added bonus of a lot of random print-through in other dimensions that they probably think they can exploit to their own ends."
"And you figure that Smith and the others didn't know about this?"
"Never tell the minions what they don't need to know."
"I've been getting more than my fair share of that."
"What did you expect?"
"That's the problem. I didn't expect anything. I didn't ask to be a part of this in the first place. What is it with me?"
Slide laughed. "What is it with you? You want me to tell you?"
Gibson was becoming a little unnerved by the way that Slide kept turning his head away from the road to talk to him. At speeds around a hundred and a half, it seemed to verge on the suicidal unless Slide was driving by some kind of telepathy.
"I'd be delighted if you'd tell me."
Slide grinned. "You, Gibson? Hell, you're a very special person. You're a veritable crossroads of coincidence, a repository for untapped mischief, a catalyst for confusion."
Nephredana popped her gum. "Lighten up on him, Yancey. He's had a hard day."
Gibson nodded. "That's right, I asked."
Slide started counting off Gibson's problems on the five fingers of his free hand. "First there's all this business of your opposite number in Luxor being a potential presidential assassin."
"You believe that? Couldn't that have just been something else that the streamheat cooked up?"
Slide shook his head. "I tend to doubt that. I think it falls within the ten percent of truth. If it didn't, why would they mess with you at all?"
"You think they pointed Casillas and the Nine at me in the first place?"
"I'm sure they did. That's why I came to London to check you out."
"So what about this massive aura that I'm supposed to nave?"
"You could say that it kinda falls into chicken-and-egg territory, so to speak. Does shit happen to you because you've got the aura or do you have the aura because shit happens to you? There's also the point that the streamheat may well have been hedging their bets over your filling the Four Requirements of the Prophecy of Anu Enlil."
Gibson had the sinking feeling that the cosmic opener was busy on yet another can of worms. "What the hell is the Prophecy of Anu Enlil?"
"Nobody told you? I'd have thought Abigail Voud would have filled you in. She's big on stuff like that."
Gibson sadly shook his head. "No, nobody told me. So what else is new?"
Slide turned to Nephredana. "How does the text go?"
Nephredana recited from memoiy. " 'And a man shall come among them, a man who was a leader of men but who fell from the favor of his followers, a man who crossed the great divide and, arriving in the country beyond, took up arms and slew the king of that country.' Those are the Four Requirements, you want me to go on?"
Slide nodded. "Yeah, get on to the part about entering the Realm of Gods."
Nephredana picked up the thread. " 'And, taking flight, he came with companions to the place between worlds where the Portal was made known to him and he entered the Realm of Gods where the Sleeper lay and he spoke with the Sleeper of the time that He might wake.' "
Gibson frowned. "That's all very fancy, but how does it apply to me?"
"Leader of men, right?"
Gibson laughed in amazement. "The last thing that I've ever been is a leader of men. "
"Anyone one who can fill Madison Square Garden has to be a leader of some kind. Young men all over the world were copying your clothes and your walk, your haircut and your sneer, even your brand of sunglasses. Think you weren't a leader? And you certainly fell from favor, you can't deny that. You've moved from one dimension to another, and as for killing the king…"
At that moment, Yop Boy cut in with a warning. "Lights up ahead, boss."
Yop Boy must have had extraordinary eyes, because Gibson couldn't see a thing. Slide, too, who nodded in reply. "I got 'em."
Yop Boy was still peering into the darkness. "Looks like a cop roadblock. I guess they must have penetrated the whammy."
Slide grinned back at Gibson. "Watch this, kid."
Slide seemed to find an extra surge of power somewhere inside the car. Up ahead, four police cruisers were drawn across the highway, completely blocking the four lanes. Uniformed figures were clustered around the cars, and Gibson could imagine the tension and the weapons clutched tightly in their hands. The Hudson was charging straight at them. It no longer felt as though they were riding in a simulator. The car was vibrating wildly.
Slide glanced at Yop Boy. "We got a power window?"
Yop Boy nodded. "Anything we want. Full banshee halo if we need it."
Slide's grin was truly demonic. "Ha!"
He hit a number of buttons on the car's control panel, and the Hudson was immediately enveloped in orange flame. At the same time, there was a hideous howling from outside the car.
Gibson looked round in alarm. "Are we on fire?"
Nephredana shook her head. "Just scaring the hell out of these cops."
It was certainly working. Through the flame envelope in front of the windshield, Gibson could see the cops leaving the cars that were blocking the road and running for their lives. The cars remained, however, and it looked as though the Hudson was going to plow into them and total itself. Then, as Gibson watched in complete amazement, an unseen force lifted first one car and then a second clear into the air and threw them violently aside. It was as though they were the toys of a giant, invisible, and very petulant child who had hurled them away in a fit of pique. One landed on its roof about twenty yards on down the road while the other arced straight up, turned over, took a nosedive into the hard shoulder, and folded up like a concertina. The Hudson raced through the gap that had been left in the roadblock, and, as they flashed past the police cruiser that was lying on its crushed roof, its gas tank exploded and it burst into flame. The fire envelope that surrounded the Hudson was suddenly gone.
Slide was chortling. "Did you see those guys run?" He glanced at Gibson. "Do you know what that was, kid?"
Gibson shook his head. "Never seen anything like it."
"Threw a banshee halo round the car."
"Was that difficult? "
Slide made a dismissive gesture. "Piece of cake. Unpotentialized psychic power. All you gotta do is focus it and it'll do what you want. There's always plenty of loose spook energy around. Most of it's too stupid to do anything for itself except maybe condense into a half-assed apparition and make a few moaning noises, but if you give it a focus, it'll go the whole nine yards for you. Nothing spook energy likes better than to be given something violent to do."
Gibson slipped down in his seat and closed his eyes. Slide, on the other hand, seemed to treat running a police roadblock as no big thing. He went back to the previous conversation as though nothing had happened.
"So you see how you qualify for the Four Requirements of Anu Enlil."
Gibson took a deep breath. "It all seems a little farfetched. For one thing, I didn't kill the king. I only took the rap for it."
"Everybody thinks you did and that may be enough for the prophecy. A lot of prophecies are really just a matter of perception."
Gibson started shaking his head as if by doing it he could ward off this new idea. "If it's all the same to everyone, I really don't think I want to have anything to do with this Anu Enlil business. I gave at the office."
Nephredana took out a compact and, still chewing gum, checked her makeup. "You may not have much choice in the matter."
Gibson scowled. "Why didn't I guess that? So what happens to me if I qualify for the prophecy, do I get taken out and burnt at the stake or what?"
Slide grinned. "Hell, no. You do okay on this one. When He wakes and returns, you become the Master of Humans in your dimension."
Slide's grin faded. "Don't make me say his name."
"You mean Necrom?"
Slide winced. "I wish you wouldn't do that."
Gibson blinked. "I'm not sure I want to be Master of Humans in my dimension."
Apparently satisfied with her face, Nephredana put away her compact. "It sure beats living as a bond slave, or, worse still, culled out with the excess."
Gibson frowned. "Culled out with the excess."
"When He walks again, the numbers of your species will be appreciably thinned out."
Gibson swallowed hard. "Thinned out."
"Well, you have been rather overbreeding for the last few centuries."
Gibson couldn't believe what he was hearing. "Thinned out? Just like that?"
"What did you humans expect? To go on breeding exponentially until you'd filled up the known universe?"
Gibson leaned forward and clasped his head in his hands. It was starting to hurt. "I wish someone would offer me a drink."
Nephredana produced a flat, one-pint, sterling-silver flask and handed it to Gibson. "Why didn't you ask?"
Gibson took a grateful pull on the flask, and fire exploded in his throat, than roared through his head and chest. He coughed and his eyes watered. "What the hell was that?"
"I call it a sheer drop."
He remembered the frightening cocktails that Nephredana had ordered in the bar and at Raus's party and was thankful that he couldn't see what he had just drunk. Damn, but he wished that he had some more of the streamheat's hero serum. Being pitchforked from police headquarters into a car full of mad demons who proceeded to inform him that it was the eve of destruction and that the cause of all his troubles might well be because he was the subject of some ancient prophecy was taking a sorry toll on his nerves, and he needed something to dull the edge. Despite the taste, he took a second hit from Nephredana's silver flask, and after the rerun explosion had rippled through his nervous system, he let loose a long sigh. "You know, all I really want is for the world to leave me alone for a while."
Nephredana's smile was brittle and impatient. "Didn't you hear, Joe? You can't always get what you want."
Gibson nodded. "I imagine there's also a catch to all this prophecy business."
Slide quoted in a low voice. " 'And qualifying according to the prophecy, the man shall pass the Portal and, entering the Realm of Gods, shall look upon the Sleeper in the act of waking.' "
Again, Gibson shook his head, "I really don't think so. I don't want to pass any portals and look on any sleepers, and, even if it's inevitable, I'm still going to go kicking and screaming."
Nephredana laughed delightedly. "That's my Joe Gibson."
Any further protests from Gibson were cut short by Yop Boy pointing at a light that had started flashing on the control panel. "Looks like we got a soft spot, boss."
Slide pushed back his hat. "It sure does. With luck, we'll be out of here momentarily."
"I'm not too sure about that, boss."
Slide glanced at Yop Boy. "What now?"
"More lights out there."
"Another roadblock? "
Yop Boy shook his head.
"I don't think so. This is something weird."
Now Gibson was scanning the road up ahead. So far he couldn't see anything, and he didn't really want to imagine what Yop Boy might define as weird. It was a couple of minutes before he saw it, a pale-gold light, way off in the distance. Slide didn't slacken speed, and as they came closer Gibson could see that the light was some sort of beam coming from an object that appeared to be hovering above a point on down the highway.
Yop Boy cursed under his breath. "That's no helicopter. In fact, you're not going to like this, boss."
"I think we've got a saucer up ahead. As far as I can tell, it's sitting on top of the the soft spot just like it was guarding the trans point."
Slide pursed his lips. "Goddamn it to hell. I hate those fucking things."
Gibson leaned forward. "What are they?"
Slide snarled at the beam of light. "I don't know, that's why I hate them. I've never, in all my days, ever got a satisfactory explanation of those things." He began to slow the Hudson until it was only moving forward at a crawl."I don't take any chances with those things. I don't trust them."
"You think they're alien spacecraft?"
Slide shook his head. "I gave up that bullshit theory a long time ago. Never could believe that aliens could act so weird. If they were aliens, there would have been some kind of contact by now. Aliens wouldn't keep up the same terminal skittishness century after century."
Gibson was leaning forward on the back of Yop Boy's seat, staring through the windshield. "I heard a theory once that UFOs were really time machines from some point in the future."
Slide nodded. "I heard that idea a few times myself, and I have to admit that it's one that best fits with the facts. It certainly accounts for the lack of contact. I imagine time travelers would be real hung up on not causing random time displacements and what have you. You must have heard about all that stuff? Tread on the wrong beetle and, a million years down the pike, a whole civilization vanishes without trace. I gave up on that theory, too, though. I just didn't like to think about it. There are enough contemporary problems without bastards coming back from the future to fuck with you. I don't think about these things anymore. I just hate the sight of goddamn saucers."
It was now possible to make out details of the craft, and Gibson's heart sank as he recognized the configuration of the thing, the gray metal superstructure like a giant hubcap with portholes ringing the top turret and the three large hemispheres on the underside.
"It's an Adamski saucer."
Slide turned and looked at Gibson as though he was surprised that he knew about such things. "Adamski was a fucking liar. He claimed that he went for rides in one of these things with tall handsome guys from Venus. Take my word for it, there are no guys from Venus, handsome or otherwise."
Nephredana snorted. "He was just making it up to sweeten his book deal."
Gibson continued to stare at the saucer. It was fascinating to see one close up. It must have beeen about forty feet across and was hovering at about its own diameter above the roadway. The single wide beam of golden light streamed down from a source that Gibson couldn't see, somewhere on the underside, at a central point between the three spheres. It formed a circular pool of gold on the roadway that was like a spotlight on the stage at a Vegas casino. It only needed Frank Sinatra standing there singing "My Way" to complete the picture.
"I've seen saucers like this before."
Slide dismissed Gibson with a slight wave of his hand. "Yeah, I know, one buzzed your plane while you were on the way to London. It was a lot different from this one."
Gibson was angry at the curt dismissal. "I'm not talking about that one, I mean saucers exactly like this."
Three heads turned in unison.
"Where? When? What happened?"
"It was on the way to Luxor. After we'd left Gideon Windemere's house in Ladbroke Grove and taken a conventional road out of town."
Nephredana interrupted him. "We know that, we were following you."
"That's right, you were. Anyway, out in the country, near some ducky English village, we hooked into the laylines."
This time it was Slide who interrupted. "So that's where you vanished to."
"So we're lost in the ozone in this kind of layline fairyland and suddenly these UFO's started strafing us."
"Ones like that?"
Gibson shook his head. "No, it was another kind that were attacking us, ones that looked like white glowing disks with a kind of blue aura around them. I thought that we were going to be blown all to hell by these red fireballs they kept shooting at us, and then these other guys showed up like the goddamn cavalry, ones exactly like that one, and ran off the first bunch, seemingly saved our ass."
Slide was giving him a decidedly squint-eyed, Clint Eastwood look of suspicion. "They helped you and the streamheat?"
"So they might have been saving you or they might have just been saving the streamheat."
"I guess so."
"Or they may have just been having a beef among themselves."
"I guess that's possible, too."
"It still sounds too much like they're getting into our business."
They were now just fifty yards from the silently floating craft, and Slide brought the car to a halt.
"If that thing doesn't get out of our way and fast, we're in a lot of trouble."
Nephredana blew a quick bubble and snapped the gum back into her mouth again. "Can't we go looking for an alternative soft spot?"
Yop Boy shook his head. "No time."
Slide opened the driver's door. "There's no point in sitting here like a bunch of idiots. I'm going to take a look at that thing."
Slide started walking toward the saucer. Gibson opened his door to follow but Nephredana quickly put a hand on his arm. "Don't be ridiculous. Anything could happen with that thing."
"Slide's going out there."
"He's Yancey Slide."
Gibson grinned at her as he slid out of the car. "Yeah, and I'm Joe Gibson. Don't forget that."
Yop Boy didn't say a word. He just climbed out of the car and followed with the ever-present assault rifle at the ready.
Nephredana's voice rasped after the three of them. "Damn you, you macho morons, wait for me!"
They walked until they were thirty feet or so from the saucer and then they stopped, standing side by side, well back from the pool of light. The saucer hung above them like a silent floating enigma. No hatches opening, no ladders extending to the ground, no octapoids rushing out to carry off Nephredana and no zapping death ray.
The other three stood and watched while Slide fumed. "At the very least the bastards could take the trouble to explain what they want."
Nephredana produced the silver flask. "I've never seen you too keen to explain yourself to strangers."
"That's not the point."
Nephredana spat out her gum, took a long pull on the flask and then passed it to Gibson. Gibson took a hit, wondering if the stuff could make a man go blind, and handed the flask to Yop Boy, but Yop Boy didn't drink any and passed it straight to Slide. Slide didn't hesitate. He put the flask to his mouth and tilted his head back, seemingly draining it. When he was through, he let out a satisfied gasp and looked up at the saucer.
"I'm going to have to do something about you. The question is what."
At that moment a flight of jets roared across the sky heading east. It was too dark to make out anything but the faint flare of their exhausts. Whatever the jets were and wherever they had come from, they were traveling without navigation lights.
Gibson looked at the dark sky in alarm. "Are those the enemy bombers?"
Slide was also looking at the sky. "Kamerian interceptors, but the Hind-Mancu wings can't be far away. We have to do something about this fucking saucer or we're going to find ourselves caught out in the firestorm."
Nephredana retrieved the flask and upended it. Slide had finished off the booze. "So what do you do about a flying saucer?"
Slide paced round in a small frustrated circle three times before he halted and slapped his fist into his palm.
"That's it, I can't fuck around any longer." He gestured to Yop Boy. "Fetch the doombeam."
Yop Boy looked at him doubtfully. "Are you sure about this, boss?"
"Just get the damned thing."
Yop Boy started back toward the car. Nephredana was also staring dubiously at Slide. She didn't even have to say anything for him to snarl angrily. "Don't you start."
"The last time you tried to use the doombeam you blew away half of that Mexican village and all but discorporated yourself."
"You have a better idea?"
Nephredana shook her head. "I'm not sure that the doombeam is an idea at all. What do you hope to do to the saucer with that thing? Blow it up?"
"At the very least, I'll annoy it."
Nephredana shook her head in disbelief, "Now we're annoying flying saucers."
Further argument was halted by the arrival of Yop Boy with the doombeam. Gibson could hardly believe what he was seeing. The thing looked like an antique, art-deco vacuum cleaner mounted on a telescopic steel tripod. It resembled something that might have been pressed into service as a prop in a 1930s Flash Gordon serial.
"Where the hell did you get that thing?"
Nephredana supplied the answer. "He built it. Yancey always wanted a genuine raygun. Some of it's made from stuff that the AEC had locked up in a vault at Oak Ridge until Yancey and some of his friends broke in and stole it. He matched that up with some black-market streamheat components and a few odds and ends that he got from this weird dimension where reptiles developed a civilization and eventually he created a weapon that's probably too dangerous to be fired."
Slide ignored her. He was bending over the tripod, carefully sighting the device. When he was satisfied, he stepped back. "You'd better all take cover."
Nephredana started walking quickly away.
"I'm taking cover all the way back to the car."
Yop Boy remained beside Slide, but Gibson turned and followed Nephredana. Being one of the boys was okay, but there were limits. The two of them had no sooner reached the car than a massive and blinding fireball filled the space beneath the saucer. At the same time a thunderclap of an explosion almost deafened them. Gibson's jaw dropped.
"Sweet Jesus Christ!"
It seemed impossible for Slide and Yop Boy to have survived the blast and conflagration. The doombeam had the desired effect, however, and the saucer flipped up as though it had been given a hot foot. The gold light narrowed down to a tight pencil beam and skittered over the ground as though it was searching for who or what was responsible, then the saucer went straight up and zigzagged away at high speed.
Gibson looked on in horror: the actual surface of the road was burning. "There's no way that they're going to walk out of that."
Nephredana was surprisingly unconcerned. "I know I tend to bait Yancey but you shouldn't underestimate him. He's virtually indestructible."
In confirmation, two figures came walking out of the flames. Their clothes were trailing ribbons of smoke, and the right sleeve of Yop Boy's ninja suit was actually burning. Despite a certain charring of his duster, Slide was grinning like a maniac. "I said I'd annoy them."
Nephredana yawned. "My hero."
Slide rubbed his hands together. "Okay, let's all get in the car and get going."
In the moment that he spoke, the sky behind the car became brilliant, blinding white. It was as though a star had exploded just beyond the horizon, and Gibson, even the three demons, cringed away from it. A brief moment of the most terrible silence made the world seem as though all sound had been drained away and replaced by light, a hideous killing light that rapidly condensed into a single brilliant fireball, blazing over the city of Luxor like a new sun, while evil smoke roiled up around it, beginning to form into the familiar mushroom cloud.
Even Slide stood awed. "One of their bombers made it through early."
Then the spell broke and he was galvanized into action. "Get going! Get into the car!"
The shock wave hit moments after they were all inside. Slide's hands flew over the control panel as the Hudson bucked and shuddered on its springs in the grip of an instant hurricane and debris slammed into the car's windows and bodywork. The engine caught and it roared forward, accelerating like a dragster for fifty yards as nuclear hell howled all around. When he reached the spot over where the saucer had been hovering, Slide slammed on the brakes. He worked on the panel again and then sat back.
"Okay, here we go. Leaving town one jump ahead of the holocaust."
Gibson braced himself for the same kind of mind-wrenching hallucinations that had accompanied his previous transfer from dimension to dimension. To his surprise, nothing happened except that the Hudson sank smoothly into the ground.