Necroscope III: The Source

Chapter 3


The Perchorsk Projekt
The complex built into the base of the riven mountain at the bottom of the Perchorsk ravine was vast, and it wasn't without a degree of Russian pride in achievement that Chingiz Khuv took Michael J. Simmons on a tour of inspection - but neither did Khuv lack respect for Jazz's considerable talent for destruction. On their walkabouts, the British agent was literally strait-jacketed in a garment which effectively disabled him from the waist up, and as if that weren't enough Karl Vyotsky was invariably present, surly bodyguard to his KGB boss.
'Blame all of this on the technology-gap, if you must have any sort of scapegoat at all,' Khuv told the British agent. The Americans with their microchips, spy-satellites, complicated and oh-so-clever electronic listening systems. I mean, where's the security if they can tap-in on any phone call anywhere in the whole wide world, eh? And these are only a handful of the ways in which sensitive information may be obtained. The art of spying' (a sideways glance at Jazz, but without enmity) 'takes a great many forms and encompasses some formidable, one might even say terrifying talents. On both sides, I mean, East and West alike. High-tech on the one hand, and the supernatural on the other.'
'The supernatural?' Jazz raised an enquiring eyebrow. The Perchorsk Projekt looks solid enough to me. And anyway, I'm afraid I don't much believe in ghosts.'
Khuv smiled and nodded. 'I know,' he said, 'I know. We've checked on that - or perhaps you don't remember?'
Jazz looked blank for a moment, then frowned. Come to think of it, he did remember. It had been part of his •debriefing', but at the time he hadn't paid it a lot of attention. Actually, he'd thought his 'DO' was pulling his leg: to ask what he knew about INTESP, or E-Branch, which used Extra Sensory Perception as a tool for espionage. Indeed ESPionage! As it happened, Jazz had quite genuinely known nothing at all about it, and he probably wouldn't have believed it even if he had.
'If telepathy was feasible,' he told Khuv, 'they wouldn't have needed to send me, would they? There wouldn't be any more secrets!'
'Quite right, quite right,' Khuv answered after a moment's pause. Those were my feelings exactly - once upon a time. And as you rightly point out, all of this,' he waved an arm expansively about, 'is obviously solid enough.'
'All of this' was the gymnasium area, where for the past week Jazz had been getting himself back in shape following the fortnight he'd spent on his back. The fact that they'd so easily emptied him of all he had known still didn't sit too well with him. Here, as they paused a while to let Karl Vyotsky strip off his pullover and work out for a few minutes with the weights, Jazz thought he'd try a little pumping of his own.
He had no doubt that whatever questions he put to Khuv, they'd be answered in a truthful, straightforward manner. In this respect the KGB Major was entirely disarming. But on the other hand, why shouldn't he be open? He had nothing to lose. He knew that Jazz wasn't going anywhere outside of this place, ever. He'd known that right from square one. That's the way they had it figured out, anyway.
'You surprise me,' he said, 'complaining about American know-how. I was supposed to be about 75 per cent proof against brainwashing, but you pulled my plug and I just gurgled away. No torture, not even a threat, and I'm pentathol-resistant - but I couldn't hold a thing back! How the hell did you do that?'
Khuv glanced at him, went back to watching Vyotsky handling weights as if they were made of papier-mâch. Jazz looked at Vyotsky, too.
Khuv's underling was huge: seventy-five inches and a little over two hundred pounds, and all of it muscle. He hardly seemed to have any neck at all, and his chest was like a barrel expanding out of his narrow waist. His thighs were round and tight inside light-blue trousers. He felt Jazz's eyes on him, grinned through his black beard and flexed biceps that would shame a bear. 'You'd like to work out with me, British?' He finished his exercises and dropped the weights clanging to the floor. 'Bare-fisted, maybe, in the ring?'
'Just say the word, Ivan,' Jazz answered, half-smiling, his voice low. 'I still owe you for a couple of teeth, remember?'
Vyotsky showed his own teeth again, but not in a grin, and put on his pullover. Khuv turned to Jazz, said: 'Don't push your luck with Karl, my friend. He can give you twenty pounds and ten years of experience. On top of which he has some ugly little habits. When we caught you on that mountain he knocked your teeth out, yes, but believe me you were lucky. He wanted to pull your head off. And it's possible he could do it, with a little effort. I might even have let him try, except that would have been a terrible waste, and we've already had enough of that around here.'
They began to walk again, passed through the gymnasium and out into a room containing a small swimming pool. The pool wasn't tiled; it had simply been blasted out of the bedrock along a natural fault. Here, where the uneven, veined ceiling was a little higher, several of the Projekt's staff were swimming in the pool's heated water; the room echoed to the slapping sounds of flesh on plastic as two women open-handed a ball to and fro between them. A thin, balding man was practicing jack-knives from a springboard.
'As for your "debriefing," said Khuv, shrugging, 'well, there's high-tech and there's high-tech. The West has its miniaturization, its superb electronics, and we have our-'
'Bulgarian chemists?' Jazz cut him short. The tiled walkway at the side of the pool was wet and his feet were slipping; he stumbled, and Vyotsky caught his arm in a powerful grip, steadied him. Jazz cursed under his breath. 'Do you know how uncomfortable it is walking round in this thing?' He was talking about his strait-jacket.
'A necessary precaution,' said Khuv. 'I'm sorry, but it really is for the best. Most of the people here aren't armed. They're scientists, not soldiers. Soldiers guard the approaches to the Projekt, certainly, but their barracks are elsewhere; not far away, but not here. There are some soldiers here, as you'll see, but they are specialists. And so, if you were to get loose - ' again his shrug. 'You might do a lot of damage before you met up with someone like Karl here.'
At the end of the pool they passed out through another door into a gently curving corridor which Jazz recognized as the perimeter. That was what they called it, 'the perimeter': a metal-clad, rubber-floored tunnel which enclosed the entire complex about its middle level. From the perimeter, doors led inwards into all the Projekt's many areas. There were still a few doors Jazz hadn't been through, the ones which required special security access. He'd seen the living areas, hospital, recreation rooms, dining hall and some of the laboratories, but not the machine itself, if there was such a beast. Khuv had promised him, however, that today he was to visit 'the guts' of the place.
Khuv led the way, Jazz following, with Vyotsky bringing up the rear. People came and went around them, dressed in lab smocks, overalls; some with millboards and notes, others carrying pieces of machinery or instruments. The place could easily be some high-tech factory anywhere in the world. As Jazz and his escort proceeded, so
Khuv said:
'You asked about your debriefing. Well, you're right about our Bulgarian friends: they really have a knack for brewing potent stuff - and of course I'm not just talking about their wine. The pills were to cause you pain; they cramp muscles, heighten sensitivity. The shots are part truth-drug, part sedative. They have the effect of making you susceptible to suggestion. It's not so much that you can't refuse, more that you're far more likely to believe -anything that we tell you! Your Debriefing Officer not only speaks very good English, but he's a top-rank psychologist, too. So don't blame yourself that you let your side down. You really had no choice. You thought you were home and dry, and that you were only doing your duty.'
Jazz merely grunted for reply. His face was void of emotion, which was the way he'd kept it most of the time since discovering he'd been duped.
'Of course,' Khuv continued, 'your own British, er, "chemists" are rather clever men in their own right. That capsule in your mouth, for instance: we weren't able to analyse its contents here at the Projekt. Hardly surprising; we aren't equipped with a full range of analytical facilities - that's not what the Perchorsk Projekt is about - but even so we were at least able to conclude that your little tooth capsule contained a remarkably complex substance.
That's why we've sent it to Moscow. Who can say, maybe there's something in it we can use, eh?'
While he spoke to Jazz, Khuv kept glancing back at him, checking him up and down as he'd done so often during the course of the past few weeks. He saw a man only thirty years of age, upon whose shoulders his Secret Service masters in the West had placed an awesome weight of responsibility. They obviously respected his abilities. And yet for all Simmons's training, his physical and mental fitness, still he was inexperienced. Then again, how 'experienced' can a field agent in the Secret Service be? Every mission was a flip of a coin: heads you win, and tails... you lose your head? Or as the British agent himself might have it, a game of Russian roulette.
For all Simmons's expertise in his many subjects, still they were only theoretical skills, as yet untested under 'battle' conditions. For on his very first assignment the dice had rolled against him, the cylinder had clicked into position with its bullet directly under the firing-pin. Unfortunate for Michael J. Simmons, but extremely fortunate for Chingiz Khuv.
Again the KGB Major's dark jewel eyes rested on Simmons. The Englishman stood just a fraction under six feet tall, maybe a half-inch less than Khuv himself. During the time he'd spent in his role as a logger, he'd grown a red beard to match his unruly shock of hair. That had gone now, revealing a square jaw and slightly hollow cheeks. He'd be a little underweight, too, for apparently the British liked their agents lean and hungry. A fat man doesn't run as fast as a thin one, and he makes a much easier target.
For all that he was young, Simmons's brow was deeply lined from frowning; even taking into account his present circumstances, he did not seem a particularly happy man, or even one who'd ever been especially happy. His eyes were keen, grey, penetrating; his teeth (with the exception of the ones Karl had removed) were in good order, strong, square and white; about his sturdy neck he wore a small plain cross on a silver chain, which was his only item of jewellery. He had hands which were hard for all that they were long and tapered, and arms which seemed a little long, giving him a sort of gangling or gawky appearance. But Khuv was well aware that appearances can be deceptive. Simmons was a skilled athlete and his brain was a fine one.
They reached an area of the perimeter Jazz had not seen before. Here the coming and going of staff was far less frequent, and as the three turned the curve of the long corridor so a security door had come into view, blocking it entirely. On the approach to this door the ceiling and walls were burned black; great blisters were evident in the paintwork; closer to the door the very rock of the ceiling appeared to have melted, run down like wax and solidified on the cool metal of the artificial walls. The rubber floor tiles had burned right through to naked metal plates, which were buckled out of alignment. It seemed somehow paradoxical that a Russian Army flame-thrower stood on a shelf against the exterior wall, clamped in position there. In surroundings like these Jazz might well have expected a fire extinguisher - but a flame-thrower? He made a mental note to ask about it later, but right now:
'The Perchorsk Incident,' he said, watching Khuv for his reaction.
'Correct.' The Russian's expression didn't change. He faced Jazz eye to eye. 'Now we are going to take that strait-jacket off you. The reason is simple: down in the lower levels you will need some freedom of movement. I don't want you to fall and hurt yourself. However, should you attempt anything foolish, Karl has my permission - indeed he has my instructions - to hurt you severely. Also I should tell you that if you got lost down there, you could well find yourself in an area of high radioactivity. Eventually we may get around to decontaminating all the hotspots, but it's unlikely. Why should we when we won't have cause to use those areas again? And so, depending on how long it took you to surrender, or how long it took us to flush you out, you would almost certainly jeopardize your health - perhaps even fatally. Do you understand?'
Jazz nodded. 'But do you really think I'd be stupid enough to make a run for it? Where to, for God's sake!?'
'As I explained before,' Khuv reminded him while Vyotsky unfastened the restraining straps on his strait-jacket, 'we aren't too concerned that you'll try to escape. That would be sheer suicide, and you no longer have reasons to wish to die - if you ever did. What we are concerned about is the damage you might do, maybe even large-scale sabotage. And that could have very grave consequences indeed. Not only for everyone here, but for the entire world!'
For once Jazz's expression changed. He slanted his mouth into a humourless smile, laughed gratingly. 'A bit melodramatic, aren't we, Comrade? I think maybe you've been watching too many decadent James Bond films!'
'Do you?' said Khuv, his slightly slanted eyes narrowing a fraction and becoming that much brighter. 'Do you indeed?'
He took a key from his pocket, turned to the heavy metal door. It was equipped with a lock set centrally in a steel hand-wheel, like a locking device on a bank vault. As Khuv went to insert his key, so the wheel turned through quarter of a circle and the edges of the door cracked open. Khuv stepped back. Someone was coming through from the other side.
The door opened fully toward the three where they waited, and a handful of technicians and two men dressed in smart civilian clothes came through. One of the two was fat, beaming, jovial: a VIP visitor from Moscow. The other, grave-faced, was small and thin; his face was badly scarred and the hair was absent from the left half of his face and yellow-veined skull. Jazz had seen him before; he was Viktor Luchov, Direktor of the Perchorsk Projekt - a survivor of Perchorsk Incidents One and Two.
Brief greetings were exchanged between Khuv and these two men, and then the larger party went on its way. Then Jazz and his escorts passed through the door and Khuv locked it behind them.
Beyond the door the complex took on an entirely different aspect. By comparison, the damage on the approach to this area had been superficial. Jazz stared and tried to make sense of the chaos he saw there. The evidence of terrific heat was apparent everywhere: stanchions were blackened and in places eaten half-way through; the floor-plates were missing entirely, had been replaced with timbers; the face of the exterior rock wall -literally the mountain itself - was black, dull and lumpy, like lava frozen in its course. A metal chair or desk -difficult to tell which - and a steel cabinet projected in twisted ruin half out of a massive nodule of lava which was in turn welded to the wall; and above this anomalous nodule a cylindrical shaft maybe twelve feet in diameter had been drilled through the rock upwards at an angle of forty-five degrees, from the lip of which the lava could be seen in large part to have issued.
Jazz looked again at the dark throat of the shaft, wondered how it could have been cut and where it went. He reached up a hand to touch the side of the rim where the shaft opened into the corridor; the rock was smooth as glass, not lumpy like the volcanic flow from the shaft's lip ... Aware that Khuv was watching him, Jazz shot him an inquisitive glance.
Tm told that used to have a square cross-section, whose sides were something less than two metres,' Khuv informed. 'Also that it was lined with a perfect mirror of a very high density glass on impervious ceramic, giving almost 100 per cent reflectivity. After what you have termed the Perchorsk Incident, this is what remained of the shaft. I suppose you might say that this is what comes of trying to pass a round peg through a square hole, eh?' And before Jazz could answer: 'Of course, I wasn't here when this happened. You see, I have my own job, Michael - you'll forgive my familiarity? - with a branch of the Service whose work you would find entirely unbelievable. It is that E-Branch of which we've already spoken.'
Jazz said nothing, continued to glance all about, tried to take in all he was seeing and hearing. What good that would do him he couldn't say, but it was all part of his training. 'E-Branch, yes, Michael,1 Khuv went on. 'You English have an E-Branch, too, you know - which is why we were so interested to know if you were a member of that organization. If you had been - ' he shrugged - 'then we would have been obliged to dispose of you from the outset.'
Jazz raised his customary eyebrow.
'Oh, yes,' said Khuv, casually, 'for we couldn't allow you to transmit - neither telepathically nor any other way - knowledge of this place to the outside world. That, too, could be very dangerous; so much so that it might even conceivably bring about World War III!'
'More melodramatics,' Jazz murmured.
Khuv sighed deeply. 'You will understand - eventually,' he said. 'But first find yourself a place to sit for a while, and I'll tell you everything you were sent here to discover.
You see, I actually want you to understand everything. You'll know why later.'
Khuv perched himself on a knob of black rock while Jazz found a seat on the side of the steel cabinet where it leaned out of the lava nodule. Vyotsky remained standing, saying nothing, merely watching. The Projekt's air-conditioning whispered faintly, distantly, and apart from this and Khuv's voice, all was silent. Khuv spoke very softly and the effect was eerie: like a whisper echoing in some deeply buried alien vault.
'You must blame all you see here primarily on the USA's SDI or Star Wars scenario,' he began. 'Of course, those terms hadn't been thought of as early as that, but the idea was there sure enough. We knew that much from standard intelligence sources. As for the Perchorsk Pro-jekt: it was little more than a clever theory until America started dreaming up its space defence initiative. But after that it was the same old story: we had to have an even better defence system. As with bigger and better bombs, so with defence systems. If Star Wars could mean the loss of 95 per cent of our nuclear capability, then we had to have something which cancelled out the West's strike capability utterly.
'Perchorsk was to have been the first step, the proving ground. If it had worked, then similar installations would have been constructed all around Russia's borders. The satellite countries might perhaps have to fend for themselves in any future holocaust, but the Soviet heartland would be defended - completely! Do you follow me so far?'
Jazz cocked his head on one side. 'You're telling me that this,' he glanced here and there, all about, 'wasn't intended as a weapon, right?'
'Exactly,' Khuv nodded. 'It was to have been the opposite of a weapon: a shield. An impenetrable umbrella over the head of the central Soviet Union. Ah! But now I see how interested you are; finally we have a little animation! Well, and should I proceed?'
'By all means,' said Jazz at once. 'Do go on.'
Khuv settled into his story:
'Don't ask me about the mechanics of the thing; I'm a - well, a "policeman", not a physicist! Franz Ayvaz was the brains and driving force behind Perchorsk, and Viktor Luchov was his second-in-command. Ayvaz, as you may already know, was our top man in Particle Beam Acceleration and various associated fields of research; in his younger days he'd been a leading pioneer of laser technology; his credentials were impeccable, and his theory -on paper at least - seemed to be exactly what the defence staff was looking for. A dual-purpose force-field to shut out incoming missiles and render their nuclear capacity entirely harmless.
'That's how the Perchorsk Projekt was born five years ago, and this is where it died three years later. Ayvaz died with it, and Luchov is still here gathering information, piecing it all together and seeing if there's anything that can be salvaged. As to what happened exactly:
'What was supposed to happen was this:
'A beam was to be generated down below in the lower levels. That's where most of the hardware used to be. Accelerated to the limits of tolerance and excited by atomic bombardment, it would be released up this shaft and emitted like an enormous laser into the ravine. Where the shaft emerged into the ravine, a nest of mirrors would divide the beam into a fan shape which would be waved across the sky and into space. It was to be a test, that's all. The very first of a series.
'Alas, there was a failure in the motors which governed the movement of the exterior mirrors. They jammed in the worst possible position at the worst possible moment.
Also, the scientists here had been under pressure; their work had been hurried and performed in conditions which weren't the best; a full range of failsafe devices had not been incorporated. Do you know what happens, Michael, if you plug the barrel of a gun, load it and pull the trigger? But ridiculous to ask a question like that of a man who is an expert in firearms! Of course you know what happens.
'Well, and that's what happened here. There was a colossal blow-back. Energies sufficient to fill an arc of space covering from Afghanistan to Franz Josef Land were trapped and confined within the shaft and redirected back to their source. There was a collision of awesome forces, the instantaneous generation of incredible temperatures, and in the immediate vicinity of the beam matter itself underwent some radical changes. Now of course that is my non-technical layman's explanation. You will need to talk to Luchov if you want more - but I guarantee you wouldn't understand him. Not unless there's a lot more to you than we've discovered, anyway.
'So... that was the Perchorsk Incident, or "pi" as your people in the West have christened it. The shambles you see here is not one hundredth part of the devastation which occurred down below, where we'll be going in a moment. And as for loss of life: we paid a terrible toll for our haste, Michael, a terrible toll. But not so terrible as the toll we may still have to pay...'
With those enigmatic words still echoing, Khuv abruptly stood up. 'Let's go deeper,' his words were clipped, urgent, 'right now! Two levels down, where perhaps you'll be able to get the feel of what it was really like.' Jazz got to his feet and followed on, and once again Vyotsky formed their tail along the perimeter a little way, then down wide, heavy-beamed wooden stairs into what could only be termed a region of sheer fantasy.
With one hand lightly on the rail, Jazz stared into the dim recesses of a great disorder, a weird chaos. The lighting was poor here, perhaps deliberately so, for certainly what little could be seen was - to say the least -disconcerting, even frightening. Down through a tangle of warped plastic, fused stone and blistered metal they passed, where on both sides amazingly consistent, smooth-bored tunnels some two or three feet in diameter wound and twisted like wormholes through old timbers, except they cut through solid rock and crumpled girders. And the thought came to the British agent that something, some vast force, had attempted to bring about a certain homogeneity here, had tried to make every different thing into one similar thing. Or had tried to deform everything beyond recognition. It was not so much that the various materials had been fused by heat and fire, rather that they seemed to have been folded-in, like the ingredients of dough, or different coloured plasticines in some monstrous child's hands.
'It gets worse,' said Khuv quietly, leading the way lower still. Those strange tunnels there were not "cut" through the magmass - that's what Viktor Luchov calls this jumble of matter, incidentally, a "magmass" - they were eaten into it by energy shearing off from the blow-back! We can only guess at the extent of the damage if the installation had been built on the surface.'
The stairs descended to a veritable bed of magmass, only levelling out when they reached a vertical wall of unbroken rock like the face of a cliff. Here the timbers underfoot formed a walkway which turned to the right through an angle of ninety degrees and ran parallel with the foot of the looming wall of rock. Under the boards the floor was chaotically humped and anomalous, where different materials had so flowed into each other as to become unrecognizable in their original forms. And through all the congealed mass of this earthly and yet unfamiliar material ran those irregular wormhole energy channels, very like the indiscriminate burrows of rock-boring crustaceans in the sea, but on a gigantic scale.
'"Eaten,"' Jazz pondered over the word. 'You said these holes were "eaten" into this stuff - but by what?'
'Rather, shall we say, "converted"?' Khuv glanced at him. 'Perhaps that paints a truer picture, to say that the material was converted into energy. But if you'll be patient I can show you a far better example. We are going to the place where the pile used to be. That, too, was eaten - or converted, if you prefer.'
'Pile?' For the moment Khuv's meaning didn't register in Jazz's confused thoughts.
'The atomic pile which was the Projekt's main source of power,' the Russian explained. 'The backlash ate it -utterly. Yes, and then it seems it ate itself!'
Jazz might have questioned that statement, too, but now looming on the left of the walkway a huge, perfectly circular hole appeared in the face of the black wall of rock. Light issued from this tunnel where it angled steeply downward, and Jazz didn't need telling that this was a continuation of the shaft seen in the upper level, which once - and only once - had carried a fearsome beam of energy to the outside world.
The walkway turned left into the mouth of the shaft, became a stairway once again. Blinding white light was painful after the comparative gloom of the two levels through which the party had descended. Ahead and below, the far end of the shaft was a white disk of glaring brilliance, with its lower rim blacked out by the walkway's platform. Jazz shielded his eyes, saw a young Russian soldier in uniform leaning against the curved wall. The man at once came upright, snapped to attention, slapped the stock of his Kalashnikov rifle in salute. 'At ease,' said Khuv. 'We need some glasses.'
The soldier leaned his rifle against the wall, groped in a satchel slung over his shoulder. He produced three pairs of tinted cellophane spectacles with cardboard rims, like the glasses Jazz had once been issued to view a 3-D film.
'For the light,' Khuv explained, though there was hardly any need. 'It can be blinding until you're used to it.' He put on his glasses.
Jazz did the same, followed Khuv down the stairway built through the glass-smooth cylindrical shaft. From behind them came a clatter as the soldier's rifle toppled over when he went to pick it up, then Karl Vyotsky's husky, threatening voice hissing: 'Idiot! Dolt! Would you like to do a month of nights?'
'No, Sir!' the young soldier gasped. 'I'm sorry, sir. It slipped.'
'You damn well should be sorry!' Vyotsky rasped. 'And not only for the rifle. What the hell are you here for anyway? To check passes for security, that's what! Do you know that man in front, and me, and the man with us?'
'Oh, yes, sir!' the young soldier quavered. The man in front is Comrade Major Khuv, sir, and you too are an officer of the KGB. The other man is ... is ... a friend of yours, sir!'
'Clown!' Vyotsky hissed. 'He is not my friend. Nor yours. Nor anyone's in the whole damned place!'
'Sir, I-'
'Now hold that rifle out in front of you,' Vyotsky snapped. 'Arm's length, finger through the trigger-guard, finger under the backsight. What the hell...? Arm's length, I said! Now hold it, and count to two hundred, slowly! Then get back to attention. And if I ever catch you slacking off again, I'll feed you into that white hell down there dick-first, got it?'
'Yes, Sir!'
Following Khuv toward the white glare at the end of the shaft, Jazz murmured sourly: 'A disciplinarian, our Karl.'
Khuv glanced back, shook his head. 'Not really. Discipline isn't his strong point. But sadism is. I hate to admit it, but it does have its uses...'
At the end of the shaft there was a railed landing where the stairs levelled out and turned to the left. Khuv paused on the landing with Jazz alongside. Waiting for Vyotsky, they gazed down on a fantastic scene.
It was like being in a cavern, but there was no way it could be mistaken for any ordinary sort of cave. Instead, Jazz saw that the rock had been hollowed out in the shape of a perfect sphere, a giant bubble in the base of the mountain - but a bubble at least one hundred and twenty feet in diameter! The curving, shiny-black wall all around was glass-smooth except for the wormholes which riddled it everywhere, even in the domed ceiling. The mouth of the shaft where Jazz and Khuv stood pointed downward at ninety degrees directly at the centre of the space, which also happened to be the source of the light. And that was the most fantastic thing of all.
For that central area was a ball of light some thirty feet across, and it was apparently suspended there, mid-way between the domed ceiling and the upward curving floor. A sphere of brilliance hanging motionless within a sphere of air, and the whole trick neatly buried under the foot of a mountain!
Narrowing his eyes against the glare, which was powerful even through the tinted lenses of his spectacles. Jazz slowly became aware that the spherical cavern contained other things. A spidery web of scaffolding had been built half-way up the wall and all around the central blaze. The scaffolding supported a platform of timbers which circled the weird light source, reminding Jazz vaguely of the ring system round Saturn. Leading inwards from the ring, a walkway proceeded right to the edge of the sphere of light.
Externally, backed up against the black, wormhole-riddled walls - evenly spaced around the perimeter and massively supported on a framework of stanchions - three twin-mounted Katushev cannons pointed their muzzles point-blank at the blinding centre. Crews were in position, their sights aligned on the sphere, their faces white and alien-looking with headset antennae and insect goggle-eyes trained on the dazzling target.
Between the guns and the sphere stood a ten-foot-high electrified fence, with a gate where the timber walkway spanned the gap between the Saturn's rings and the centre. There was some motion down there, nervous and jumpy, but not much; the stench of fear was so thick in the supposedly conditioned air that Jazz could almost feel it like slime on his skin.
He gripped the wooden rail, let the entire scene print itself indelibly on his brain, said: 'What in the name of all that's...?' He turned his head to stare at Khuv. 'I saw the arrival of those guns that night you caught me. The electrified fence, too. I thought they were meant to defend Perchorsk against attack from the outside, which struck me as making no sense. But from the inside? Christ, that doesn't make much sense either! I mean, what is that thing? And why are those men down there so desperately afraid of it?'
And suddenly, without any prompting, he knew the answer before it came. Not all of the answer but enough. Suddenly everything fitted: all he'd seen, and all Khuv had told him. And especially the flying monstrosity that the American fighters had burned to hell and sent crashing to earth in a ball of flame from high over the west coast of the Hudson Bay. And speaking of flames, wasn't that a four-man flame-thrower squad down there on the Saturn's-rings platform? Yes, it was.
Vyotsky had come up quietly behind Jazz and Khuv where they stood at the rail. He put a huge hand on Jazz's shoulder, causing him to start. 'As to what it is, British,' he said, 'it's some sort of gate or door. And as such we're not frightened of it.' But Jazz noted how for once Vyotksy's tone was muted, perhaps even a little awed.
'Karl is right,' said Khuv. 'No, we're not frightened of the Gate itself - but I defy any sane person not to fear the things that sometimes come through it!'