HE WAS IN a tunnel made from hard, bright, reflective material, and he was terrified. A dazzling white light was all but blinding him. He didn't have a clue where he was except for an uncertain feeling that the way out was somewhere up ahead. The most important thing was that he had to keep going. This he knew for sure. Keeping going was of a life-preserving importance. There was something behind him, something coming after him down the tunnel, and if it caught him he was dead meat.
The diameter of the tunnel was getting smaller. He was having to walk in a semicrouch with his knees bent and his head hunched into his shoulders like an ape. If the tunnel got any narrower, he'd be forced to crawl. He heard noises behind him but he didn't look back. He couidn't look back. All he could do was to keep hurrying on, doubled over in the knuckle-trailing, simian shamble. It wouldn't do any good to look back. The pursuit sounded as if it was gaining on him, and the bright tunnel continued to shrink. As well as shrinking, it was taking on a definite downward incline. He was running back down the slippery slope of evolution. It was like that chart on the wall in school: the Ascent of Man. Except he was going in the opposite direction. Any moment, he'd be developing a tail. The sounds behind him were even louder-coarse laughter and the crash of heavy boots. He couldn't take any more. Despite his fear, he turned and looked for the first time.
Not real rats scuttling on all fours but anthropomorphic rats the size of five-year-old children. Maybe twenty of them. Rats in engineer boots. Rats in sunglasses. Rats in Nazi helmets. Rats wearing bandoliers and carrying tommy guns. Rats that walked on two legs with oversize heads and humanoid bodies. Rats that flashed disgusting yellow rat teeth as they laughed and called out to him in B-movie Mexican-bandito accents,
"Hey, gringo, we gonna get you. We don't need no stinking badges."
Their leader wore a black patch over his left eye. He was the one setting the pace, making sure that his men took their time, stringing it out, relishing this game of rat and mouse. "Hey, Gibson, we gonna get you."
They weren't cartoon rats. He hadn't washed up on the dark side of some surreal Looney Tune. They weren't even Roger Rabbit technology. These bastards were for real, far too real. Filthy fur formed into greasy spikes; the cuts and sores on their bodies were gross and suppurating. They smelled bad. They stank of sewers and foulness. A detached part of Gibson's mind marveled at this. Joe Gibson had very little sense of smell, having progressively destroyed it during the years when cocaine had been the public display of having too much money. It hardly ever played a part in his dreams.
Dreams! It was a dream. He was dreaming, damn it. All he had to do was wake up. Wake up!
He couldn't wake up. No matter how he tried, he couldn't wake up. Stop this dream! Let me out of here!
He turned and fled. The tunnel was even narrower and it sloped more steeply. He slipped. His feet went out from under him and he fell heavily on his ass. There were shouts of laughter from the rats. They enjoyed a good pratfall. The tunnel was now so steep that he started to slide. He couldn't stop himself. He was picking up speed. The tunnel had become a spiral. Round and round he went, down and down he went. He curled himself into a fetal ball. What was this? The DNA helix? True devolution?
He shot out of the chute. For a moment he was in midair, weightless. Then he hit the water and went under. It was foul and stank worse than the rats. His feet found bottom and he struggled to stand. Snaky things slithered around his ankles, but he didn't even want to think of them.
"Wake up!" A voice rolled across the foul water, but he couldn't wake up. With most nightmares, once the realization came that he was was only dreaming, it was always possible to make the effort and come out of it. This one, however, had him locked in. It wouldn't let go. Any minute, he'd be running into Freddy Krueger.
He was standing up to his waist in black, filthy water in what had to be the heart of all the sewers of the world. A huge man-made cavern with walls of slimy stone, a dank and dripping cathedral with cascades and waterfalls where pipes and conduits spilled their contents into the central confluence.
And there was something wading toward him. It wasn't Freddy. In fact, there were nine of them. More Nazi helmets, except that these were on the heads of real live Nazis. Almost-live Nazis. Corpse-white, hollow-skull faces and ragged, filthy uniforms, pushing through the water with weary, dead-eyed determination, holding their rifles above the water, survivors of Stalingrad on the long, long retreat through hell.
"Ve haf come for you, Gibson, you piece of scheiss."
This time it was B-movie German. "We have ways of making you talk." He had to get out of this dream.
"Wake up!" The disembodied voice spoke again.
"Come on, Joe, wake up. It's just a dream."
Now there were two voices, Gibson didn't understand. The voices were urgent, concerned. For a moment, faces looked down, shouting and shaking. Then the faces blurred and, instead, a skeletal hand with an SS ring on its third ringer was reaching into his face.
"Quick, give him the shot, he's slipping back."
A needle was going into his arm.
Gibson started to struggle. "What?"
He was struggling out of the dream. "What?"
"They tried to get you on the dream level."
Gibson was shaking his head. He was stretched out on the bed in the guest room. A woman, either the receptionist or her double, was bending over him. A second Nordic blond, enough like the receptionist to be her sister, had just pulled the needle of a disposable syringe out of his arm and was wiping the skin with a swab. He felt the quick chill of surgical spirit. Casillas was standing in the background looking concerned.
The receptionist or her double put an arm under his shoulders. "Can you sit up?"
Gibson eased into a sitting position with her half-lifting him. She was exceedingly strong. Gibson sighed. He'd always had a thing about girls who could beat him at arm wrestling. He shook his head, trying to clear the craziness. '"What was that all about?"
This time Casillas answered. "You have been under what we call psych attack. While you were sleeping, the enemy attempted to infiltrate your dreams."
"Infiltrate my dreams?"
"It's a very basic technique. Fortunately we were able to wake you in time."
"And what would have happened if you hadn't?" Casillas stepped forward so Gibson could see him better. "I imagine there was something in the dream that was trying to get you, to do you harm?"
Gibson nodded, "Rats and Nazis. What would have happened if they'd got me?"
"You would have retreated into catatonia." Gibson took a deep breath. "Thanks for the early call." The last thing that he remembered was being taken to a small functional guest room, little more than a cell, and stretching out on the narrow single bed to think about the day's revelations. He must have fallen asleep almost immediately, and that was strange in itself.
He looked at the receptionist's sister, who was disposing of the syringe. "What did you shoot me up with?"
"A combination of tranquilizer and Methedrine."
Gibson half smiled, "No shit."
Casillas had an excellent bedside manner. "It's important that you don't sleep for the next few hours."
"I don't think I'm going to be able to."
"You may not be able to resist."
"So I'm on speed for the duration?"
"Until we get you to a safer location."
"I thought that I was supposed to be safe here?"
"Apparently not. The enemy seem to be incredibly interested in you."
"So where do I go to now?"
"You're putting me on! London, England?"
"It's clearly not safe for you in New York."
"But why London? Why not Cleveland?"
"We have an associate in London who I believe may be equipped to hide you. Why? Would you rather go to Cleveland?"
Gibson quickly shook his head. "Hell, no. I was just curious."
The door opened quietly and William Storm Eagle entered. "Is he okay?"
Casillas nodded. "He made it."
Storm Eagle came to Gibson's bedside. "How do you feel?"
Gibson grinned like an idiot. The chemical cocktail was kicking in. "I feel fine. It was just some old dream."
Storm Eagle didn't smile. "It was more than a bad dream."
Gibson was feeling better and better, and the temptation was to minimize what had just happened. "I think it's time that we had a talk."
Casillas shook his head. "You should rest."
"The hell I should rest. I've just been shot full of crank and I haven't felt so talkative in years. Besides, I think you people owe me a couple of explanations."
Storm Eagle glanced at Casillas. "He has a point."
Casillas seated himself in a chair beside the bed. "What do you want to know?"
"Know? I want to know anything you can tell me. I heard a bunch of stuff about dimensions and wavelengths, but nobody has given me anything like a satisfactory explanation of why I'm a part of all this. How did you people, you Nine, hook into me? All I've had so far is double-talk."
William Storm Eagle sat down on the edge of the bed. The unusual blue eyes scanned Gibson. "You have the mark of the coyote on you,"
Gibson shook his head vigorously. "That's not what I want to hear. I've had enough bullshit mysticism. You know what I'm saying, Chief?"
Casillas sighed. "The problem that we have here is one of language. William says you have the mark of the coyote, another of our number might say you had a manifest destiny, a third would describe it as a dark aura. The detector provided by the streamheat gave you a reading of two-hundred-percent normal."
Gibson's head snapped round. "Are you telling me that the streamheat have given you some gizmo that you use to select recruits to your cause?"
"Without their help, we'd be virtually blind."
"Isn't it putting a lot of trust in those guys?"
"We have no other choice."
Gibson had a vision of Casillas and the rest of the Nine sneaking around in the New York night with something that looked like a Geiger counter, looking for a few good men to battle Necrom.
Casillas's voice sounded weary. "You are not here as a result of the device alone. The mark, the aura, manifest destiny, they are all ways of saying that you are an exceptional individual and that it seems you have a definite role in the coming conflict."
"So what is that role? Are you telling me that I'm the fucking Ringbearer or the Defender of the Universe?"
Storm Eagle sternly shook his head. "Probably nothing as grand. It may be that you are only a pivot, a catalyst of some kind. To be frank, it was a major surprise when the enemy took an immediate interest in you."
"That's the other big-ticket question. Who exactly is the enemy? Who sent the tontons or whatever they were? Who caused the dream attack?" The speed was giving Gibson's voice a desperate edge. "Who's out to get me?"
It was the first time that Gibson had seen Casillas look helpless. "That's something for which we don't have a precise answer."
"There really is no single enemy as such. You have to think in terms of various marauding groups coming into this dimension. Some of these marauders we've known about for a very long time. They are the demons of old, set in motion by the approach of the confluence. Others are entirely new entities who have seen a chance to expand their power to other dimensions and are making the most of it. The confluence and the waking of Necrom are moments when massive power will be free for the taking. There are a great many ruthless and power-hungry entities in this universe, both human and nonhuman."
"But why do so many of them seem hell-bent on heading for our dimension and causing trouble?"
William Storm Eagle stood up. "Because we are vulnerable, Joseph Gibson. Over the last few centuries, this has become a particularly material world, obsessed with technology. Much of what we once knew about the multidimensional universe has either been lost or has been relegated to the level of mythology and folktale or else clouded by superstition. This is also why we have to rely so heavily on the streamheat. There is so much that we have to relearn."
Gibson lay back on the bed. "I really need to think about all this."
Casillas got to his feet and stood beside Storm Eagle. "I'm afraid you are going to have to do your thinking on the run. There is no time to linger. You'll be starting out for London very shortly."
As the two men left the room, William Storm Eagle turned and looked hard at Gibson.
"One thing, Joseph Gibson."
"Don't ever address me as 'chief' again."
If all those years on the road had taught Gibson anything, it was that travel gets easier the less that you have to do with the mechanics of it. The car takes you to the airport, the airline takes your luggage, the cabin attendants bring you drinks. They are paid to do these things; as far as you're concerned it's their reason for being. They maybe even enjoy it. Fuck-ups were inevitable but there was no way to beat the process. The only answer was to become as passive as possible. Insure as much comfort as you could, but, after that, behave as closely as possible to a piece of luggage and let them do it for you.
The trip to London was arranged in what had to be record time, and Gibson's role in it was nothing if not passive. He didn't even have anything to pack. It had been decided that under no circumstances should he return to his own apartment. Within the hour, a chartered executive jet was waiting at JFK, a phone call to the home of a highly placed State Department official had covered his lack of a passport. Smith, Klein, and French had once again been assigned as his bodyguards, although they hadn't seemed exactly overjoyed to be saddled with the task.
"We thought we were through with you, Gibson."
"The feeling was mutual."
Klein had slowly shaken his head. "London, huh?"
Gibson had nodded. "You were hoping for somewhere a bit more exotic?"
"I'm always hoping. I guess it won't be for long, though. We've only got to stash you and then we're done."
"That's what they said the last time, wasn't it?"
Klein had looked at Gibson curiously, as though wondering for the first time if he might have had the rudiments of intelligence after all.
"You may have a point there."
The first phase of the operation was to move Gibson out of the building and into the car. The entire Greene Street security force was assembled in the lobby. Before Gibson was even allowed to enter the elevator, patrols with hand radios were sent out to nearby intersections and up to the roof. It was only when they reported back that everything seemed safe that the party for the airport and its considerable protective shield started to move out. Gibson found that he didn't even make it into the first elevator. This was entirely filled with security whose job was to cover the short distance between the building entrance and the car that would take him to JFK. Gibson had been the focus of hired protection before, but even on the Self-Destruction Tour, when that bunch of psychotics who called themselves the Order of the Cleansing Flame had been threatening to cleanse him, there had been nothing on a scale that could approach this.
"I guess this is how Nixon felt."
One of the guards, who was standing right beside him in the tightly packed elevator, grunted. "Or maybe Jack Kennedy."
Gibson turned his head and regarded the man bleakly. "Thanks a bunch."
When he hit the street, he was almost too hemmed in to see anything. The white Cadillac was waiting. As he was hurried to the car, he craned around to see as much as he could of what was actually going on. To his surprise, he found that the block had been sealed at both ends by the regular NYPD. There were the familiar crowd-control sawhorses and parked blue-and-whites with red flashing lights that reflected off the officers' nylon jackets. The street was completely clear of both vehicle and pedestrian traffic, and the building's security force was able to fan out with weapons at the ready, looking every which way for possible threats. How the hell had the Nine managed to persuade the cops to cooperate at such short notice? They might be strange but they seemed to have a wealth of connections on every level.
"How's all this being explained to the general population?"
"We're making a film. It seems that in this town, a movie crew can do about anything it wants."
They were in the car. Just Gibson, Smith, Klein, and French. A police cruiser in front of them immediately whooped into life and, as its lights started slowly rotating, they followed as it eased forward. They were on the move, up the block at little more than walking pace. The police barriers were drawn aside, and they nosed through a small crowd of curious onlookers. The moment they were clear, the two cars rocketed away. Gibson was pushed back into his seat by the sudden acceleration. By the time he'd struggled to lean forward again, they were running red lights at seventy miles an hour, the police car in the lead with its sirens howling a warning while the Cadillac followed behind flashing its own signal-one of those magnetic flashers that stuck to the roof of the car. They touched ninety on Delancey Street but had to drop to just fifty crossing the Edward R. Koch Bridge (named for the very popular mayor after his 1988 assassination) to avoid running into a truck. After that they were on the BQE and weaving in and out of traffic, following the signs to JFK at speeds that weren't actually suicidal but frequently came very close. Nobody was going to take them on the highway.
To reach their chartered jet, they had to use an extremely exclusive side entrance to the Pan Am terminal that led directly to the airline's most isolated and protected ultra-VIP sanctuary. This was the place that was used only for the likes of Margaret Thatcher, Fidel Castro, or Michael Jackson. A quartet of Pan Am officials was waiting for them. There was an undercurrent of excitement in the superplush suite of rooms, as though the Pan Am people thought they were participating in some real-life James Bond epic. Gibson wondered what story they'd been told regarding the reasons for this sudden no-expense-spared flight.
Smith went straight to work. "Is the aircraft prepared for takeoff?"
"It's fueled and stocked but it'll be about twenty minutes before it can be integrated into the traffic pattern and given clearance. Would anyone care for a drink while you're waiting?"
Smith began to shake her head, but Gibson quickly interrupted. The Methedrine was riding roughshod over the tranks that they had given him, and if he didn't have something to mellow him out a little, he'd be chewing on the inside of his lips. "Yes, I would. I'd like a very large Scotch, please, the oldest single malt you have behind your bar."
One of the Pan Am officials beckoned to a hovering waiter. "Ralph here will take your order."
Gibson repeated the order to Ralph. To his surprise, as Ralph walked away, Klein beckoned to him. "I'll have one, too."
"Certainly, sir. What would you like?"
"I'll have the same as him."
Gibson raised an amused eyebrow. "I didn't know that you people drank."
Klein winked. "You'd be surprised what we do. I have a feeling that this is going to turn into a long and grueling trip, and I thought I might settle in just a little."
The drinks arrived before he could elaborate. Two very large Scotches on a silver tray with separate glasses of ice and water and a bowl of mixed nuts. Klein put two ice cubes into his and topped it off with a little water. Gibson took his straight. As the first sip hit his tongue, he let out a delighted gasp.
"Like a dancing angel."
It was possibly the finest whiskey that he had ever tasted.
All too quickly, as far as Gibson was concerned, the flight was ready to board and he found himself being ushered toward the escalator that led out onto the dark tarmac. The twin-engine executive jet was standing by itself under cold floodlights in the parking area reserved for large private aircraft. There was no other traffic that late at night, and they had the area to themselves. The plane was white with gold trim, and as they hurried toward it, one of the Pan Am officials attempted to fill in a little of its background.
"I think you'll enjoy traveling in this aircraft, Mr. Hoover…"
Hoover? Who the hell did they think he was? Didn't the guy recognize him? It wasn't that long since he'd been a regular in People magazine.
"… it was originally built for an Arab oil prince and it really is on the cutting edge of luxury."
Gibson glanced curiously at the official. "What happened to the prince?"
"He was assassinated by his brother-in-law. That's how the aircraft became available for private charter."
If pink leather couches, concealed lighting, gilt cherubs, and a fifty-inch projection TV were the cutting edge of luxury, then the Pan Am official was right on the money.
As he stepped into the cabin, Gibson looked around in wonder. "Christ, it looks like a flying whorehouse."
The captain was waiting to greet them. He smiled and nodded. "I believe that was what its first owner used it for most of the time. I'm Captain Donovan, and my crew and I hope that you enjoy your flight. Flying time to London will be just under seven hours."
Gibson wondered if all airline captains were turned out from the same mold: calm, tall, mature, good-looking and slow-spoken, laugh lines at the corners of their eyes, and gray at the temples-the very image of capable reliability.
Once again, Smith had no time for pleasantries. "Will we be leaving right away?"
"We're going through the final clearances right now. As soon as you're settled in, we'll start to taxi out to the runway."
"Which airport will we be landing at?"
"We'll be coming into Luton. It was thought to be less conspicuous than Heathrow."
"We'll need a suitable car waiting when we arrive."
The captain nodded, "As soon as we've reached our cruising altitude, I'll call ahead and make the arrangements."
Smith thought about that. "I'd rather this was left to the last moment, say when we're an hour or so out from London. That way there'd be less chance of word of our arrival leaking out."
The captain was nothing if not anxious to please. "Whatever you suggest." He indicated the cabin attendant, who up to that point had been standing in the background. "I have to go forward now. This is Janine, she'll be happy to answer any other questions that you may have and generally make your flight as comfortable as possible."
Janine stepped forward with a professional smile. "Hi, if you'd all like to take your seats and strap in, we'll be getting underway."
If anyone had ever needed a model for the perfect stewardess, Janine would have admirably filled the role. She had lavish red hair that might have belonged to Ann-Margret in her Vegas prime. Her figure was long-legged showgirl perfect and shown off to total advantage by the short tailored uniform that matched the pink and gold of the decor. As he dropped into his seat and fastened the seat belt, Gibson wondered idly how well acquainted he and Janine might become during the seven-hour Atlantic crossing. There had been a time when stewardesses had fallen all over him, but since his very public descent from grace, their ardor had cooled to nothing more than routine courtesy.
As soon as they were in level flight, and the seat-belt sign was off, Gibson stood up and started to explore the possibilities of the aircraft. The speed made it virtually impossible for him to sit still. The first thing that he discovered was a smaller rear cabin that was taken up by an enormous circular water bed and a second projection TV. When he saw it, Gibson laughed out loud.
"Jesus, it really is a flying whorehouse."
Janine stepped through the connecting door behind him."The ex-prince had very distinctive taste."
Gibson looked along a shelf of videocassettes beside the bed. They were mainly S amp;M porno punctuated by Clint Eastwood and Sylvester Stallone movies. "I don't think that even Elvis would have gone for decor like this."
He prodded the yielding surface of the water bed. "Did you work for the prince? "
Janine laughed and shook her head. "Definitely not. From what I heard, he expected things from his cabin crews that were far beyond my job description. I work for the charter brokers. The day after tomorrow I'll be dressed like a butler, serving cognac to a Japanese electronics mogul in a walnut-paneled Learjet that looks like an English stately home on the inside."
Gibson sat down on the bed. "That seems like a waste."
Janine reverted to formality. "Would you care for a drink, Mr… Hoover?"
Gibson looked at her with a who-are-we-trying-to-kid expression. "Hoover?"
"I was given strict instructions to not know who you were. The passenger list reads 'J. E. Hoover and party.' "
"I was starting to think that I'd been totally forgotten."
"Actually, I used to have nearly all of your records."
"I still have them…"
"You just don't admit it in polite company anymore?"
"You did rather screw up, didn't you? I mean, telling the whole of Madison Square Garden to eat shit and die and then stalking off the stage was hardly a great career move. I was there, you know."
"I did worse than that."
"Yes, I read about it."
Gibson wasn't sure if her expression was sympathetic or just professional. "Maybe I'll have that drink now."
"How did you know?"
"I told you. I used to be a fan. You gave up drinking Rebel Yell bourbon and switched to good Scotch because the hangovers weren't so bad. I read that in the big Stone Free interview."
"The one with me on the cover."
"I'll get your drink."
With that, she was gone.
Gibson lay back on the water bed, producing a medium swell. He'd never really liked water beds. They made him feel seasick when he was drunk, and after his first couple of experiences with them he'd dismissed the whole concept as an overpromoted Californian aberration. Janine returned with his Scotch. "If you want anything else, just ring."
Gibson nodded. "Indeed I will."
After she'd gone, he muttered under his breath, "You know how to ring, don't you? You just stick out your finger and push. "
Outside the window a night-flight ghost world of moonlit cloudscape drifted past. For the first time, he realized that it was either a full moon or a close approximation. In New York, you tended not to be aware of the night sky. He picked out the movie High Plains Drifter from the shelf of cassettes, fed it into the VCR that was attached to the projection TV, lit a cigarette, and settled down to let Clint keep him amused for the next hundred minutes or so.
Just as the movie was coming to an end with Clint destroying the whole town without ever once telling anyone his name, Smith looked into the rear cabin. "I think you'd better come out here."
Gibson sat up. "What's going on?"
Smith looked at the screen with an expression of distaste. "The captain has just told us something."
"You'd better hear it for yourself."
Gibson followed her into the main cabin. The captain was standing there looking a good deal less than happy. "I've just been telling your companions that I believe a strange aircraft is shadowing this flight."
Gibson pushed his hair back out of his eyes. He was about at the point where he'd believe anything. "What kind of aircraft?"
"That's a part of the problem. It has a radar configuration like nothing I've ever seen before. Its progress is also extremely erratic."
Gibson looked round for Janine. She seemed to have secreted herself in the galley. "What exactly are you trying to say?"
"I've never encountered a UFO, but this thing does tend to conform to a lot of the reports that I've read."
Gibson closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "Are you trying to say that there's a flying saucer following us?"
Captain Donovan looked very uncomfortable. "Those aren't the words that I'd choose."
"But they're close enough for rock 'n' roll."
Gibson turned to Smith. "You know anything about this?"
Smith shook her head, at the same time giving a hard look that indicated that he should keep his mouth shut. "Absolutely nothing."
Gibson peered out of one of the cabin windows. Donovan indicated that he was wasting his time. "You won't see anything. Whatever it is has been staying between twenty and thirty miles behind us. It maintains approximately the same altitude, but there are wild fluctuations in its airspeed, and it keeps executing these crazy zigzag patterns that would be quite impossible for a normal aircraft."
Gibson turned angrily from the window. "Does anyone want to tell me what the fuck is going on?"
Smith moved toward him. "We don't know what's going on."
"The hell you don't."
Smith glanced at the captain. "Could you give us a few minutes to talk in private?"
"Of course, but, if you do know something about this thing, I'd be grateful if you'd let me in on it."
For the first time, Gibson saw Smith showing signs of stress. "Please, Captain, just give us a few minutes."
Without a further word, the captain turned and went back to the flight deck. His calm and patience seemed to be fading fast. Gibson's was totally in shreds. The Methedrine was gnawing at his nerves, and nothing would have pleased him more than to hurl something at the wall and start screaming. He could see no reason why anyone should retain their cool when they were thirty thousand feet over the North Atlantic being chased by a UFO.
As soon as the door had closed behind Donovan, Gibson rounded on the three streamheat. "Somebody had better start coming up with some answers pretty damn fast."
French raised a warning hand. "Can the crew listen in to our conversation?"
Smith shook her head. "No, they can't. I had the plane checked out for privacy before it was chartered. Its previous owner was particularly obsessive about privacy."
Gibson's anger continued to build to a flareup. "I don't give a damn what the crew can hear or can't hear. All I want is some answers, and I want them now."
Smith fixed him with a cold stare. "Don't throw a tantrum, Joe. We don't know everything. This is as baffling to us as it is to you."
"I wonder why it is that I don't believe you?"
"Maybe because you're a paranoid on amphetamines."
Gibson could feel himself becoming terminally ratty. "Or maybe because you're lying through your teeth."
Smith faced him. "You have my word. We know nothing about these things. Except that they turn up in just about every inhabited dimension with which we've ever had contact."
"You have them in your dimension?"
Smith nodded. "We not only have them but they also seem to be stepping up the frequency of their appearances. In recent years, it's gone as far as hands-on experimentation."
Gibson's eyes narrowed. "Kidnapping? Genuine abductions?"
Klein nodded. "Kidnapping."
"I thought that was just tabloid bullshit."
"Way up all over in the last five years."
Gibson clutched at a straw. "But they don't generally attack expensive private jets?"
Klein jerked the comfort of the straw from his grasp. "They've downed a few military interceptors."
"Yeah, but isn't it usually two guys called Vern and Bubba out fishing in the swamp who get themselves carried off by a gang of little green men? They have large heads and they stick tubes up Vern and Bubba's nostrils."
Klein didn't crack a smile. "Green skin, large heads, and slanted almond eyes. The reports are very common."
The Methedrine made it all too easy to take the situation at face value. After everything else that had happened in the last twelve or so hours, why shouldn't he be chased by a UFO? Gibson couldn't help an involuntary glance out of the window, to the rear of the plane, as if, at any minute, the UFO would come into view. "So are we in any danger?"
"It would seem unlikely. There are virtually no reports of these things being overtly violent without provocation. There are, of course, literally millions of people, aircraft, boats, even cars and trucks, that have simply vanished into thin air. They could be UFO victims. The shame of it is that we have so little data."
"You're a cheerful bastard."
Klein made a gesture with his hands. "You wanted to know the facts."
Smith looked at Klein. She was plainly not amused by his talking to Gibson. "While you're giving out all of this information, have you considered what story we're going to feed the captain?"
Before Klein could answer, the captain himself came through the door to the flight deck. "I'm sorry to interrupt you, but, if you go to the starboard windows, whatever this thing is should become visible very soon. It's been steadily closing on us for some minutes and should be alongside any time now."
For Gibson, everything else ceased to matter. What Smith, Klein, and French intended to say to the captain became irrelevant. What weird ideas Donovan might be entertaining were equally unimportant. He went to the window, pressing close to the glass to see as far as he could. In a minute or so he'd know whether he was going the same way as Vern and Bubba. There was a strange sense of detachment. Events were now so far beyond his experience and control that he couldn't even feel fear. All he could do was watch and wait. The others had also moved to the windows. Janine was in the cabin, standing beside him. Donovan had returned to the flight deck.
At first, it was almost nothing, a smudge of red light a long way off in the darkness. It was, however, changing fast, growing and expanding. The single red light split into a dozen or more tiny pinpoints that formed themselves into a circle, a spinning ellipse like a ruby necklace thrown through the night sky. The sky itself had also started to change, distorted by a shimmer like heat haze, except how could there be heat shimmer thirty thousand feet over the ocean in the dead of night? Then came the cathode flicker of distant, silent sheet lightning that seemed to judder clear to the horizon. Against the flare of the lightning, it was possible to see that there was a dark shape contained within the ring of red lights, an ovoid that was black as a hole in the heavens. And then it was no longer black. The dark of the shape turned deepest purple. But this was only another phase. Both the sky and the purple shape grew lighter. The sky was an eerie blue. Not the blue of the dawn but a cold, unholy, alien color, as though the atmosphere had become suffused with chill metallic energy. The ovoid continued to take on color. Now it was a violet glow, streaked with veins of liquid gold like the circulatory system of a god. The spinning red lights were also going through a metamorphosis. They grew from simple glowing points to large misshapen globules of throbbing power. For some seconds, they whirled at high speed and then extended laterally and merged into each other to form a continuous band girding the ovoid.
Klein was slowly shaking his head. His voice was an awed whisper. "It's amazing. It's like it's powering up for something, progressively raising all its energy levels."
As far as Gibson could tell the UFO was twice, maybe three times the size of the jet, and it rode in the air some hundred feet off their right wingtip, matching their speed and maintaining a constant distance.
He glanced at Klein. "What do you think it's doing? Taking a look at us?"
He found that he also was whispering. Klein was transfixed. "Who the hell knows?"
For more than a minute, the UFO seemed quite content to maintain its distance. Then it started to swing closer. At the same time, it glowed brighter, a relentless surge of energy that hurt the eyes. Damaging raw power, now brilliant white and bright enough to blind, was filling up the sky. The interior of the cabin was brighter than day. The terrible light took over everything, hard radiation that seemed actually to be streaming through the very fuselage of the aircraft.
"God help us!"
It was Janine who had spoken, but a similar thought had to be on everyone's mind. Gibson felt himself blacking out and then, with no perceivable transition, he found he was picking himself up from the floor. The others were doing the same.
Donovan came into the cabin. He looked shaken. "Are you all okay?"
Smith answered for them. "It would seem so. What happened?"
Donovan frowned. "I don't know, but the UFO has vanished without trace and we seem to have lost ten minutes."
"Who was flying the plane during this lost ten minutes?"
"No one. We were all out cold. We really ought to be in the sea by now, but as you can see, we're not."
Smith faced Klein and French. "This isn't good. Anything could've happened in ten minutes."
She turned back to the captain. "Are we where we're supposed to be?"
"If there's nothing wrong with the instruments, we're on course and on schedule."
Smith avoided Donovan's eyes. "I don't quite know how to put this, Captain Donovan, but are we also when we're supposed to be? Is there anything at all on the radio or radar that might not exactly be consistent with the late twentieth century?"
Gibson raised an eyebrow. Did Smith know more about UFOs than she'd admitted?
The captain gave her a hard look. "If you mean did we pass through the Twilight Zone and come out in ten million years B.C., no, we didn't. Everything seems normal."
"Did you check the commercial broadcast bands?"
"I got an FM rock station out of Thunder Bay. Bruce Springsteen as usual. No Glenn Miller or speeches by FDR. There are, however, three military jets out of an RAF base in eastern Scotland on an intercept heading for this position."
"What does that mean?"
"I imagine their radar must have picked up that thing and they're scrambling to investigate. People get nervous when a UFO shows up and closes on a commercial flight that immediately goes off the air."
French stepped into the picture. "Do you have a story ready, Captain Donovan?"
Donovan looked coldly at him."What do you mean by that?"
"I mean that, when we land, you're going to be asked a great many questions if, as it seems, this UFO has caused enough of a flap to get fighters up in the air."
"If you're thinking of asking me to forget the whole thing, that's out of the question. The radar sightings and the instrument readings during the time we were out are all on the flight recorder, and I can't pretend that entire episode didn't happen, much as I'd like to. Right at this moment, my first officer is on the radio trying to explain how we went off the air.
"What about the visual sighting? Are you going to tell them about that?"
Gibson had to admire the sheer gall of the streamheat. Minutes earlier, they'd been knocked out by a UFO and they were all but trying to blackmail the captain into keeping quiet about it. Donovan was silent for a very long time. When he spoke, it was with a cold distaste. "No, I don't think so. I'll leave it as a purely electronic phenomenon. All of the crew will almost certainly be up for drink and drug tests and psych examination as it is. I see no reason to make our lives even more difficult."
He paused and looked hard at Smith, Klein, and French. "Why do you people fill me with a deep and instinctive distrust?"
Smith put one hand on her hip and faced the captain. "That's a good question, Captain Donovan. Why do we?"
French backed her up.
"Maybe that's something else that might be a good idea to keep to yourself if you don't want the airline and FAA shrinks climbing all over you."
Donovan thought about that and answered with the expression of an honest man who finds himself compromised. "I take your point."
He turned to go back to the flight deck. In the doorway, he glanced back. "I'll be very happy when all of you are off my aircraft."