Two hours after setting out from the sphere - two lonely, shadowy hours, with only the grunts and groans of his own exertions for company - Jazz Simmons paused for his first real break and found a seat on a tall, flat-topped boulder which gave him good vantage over the terrain all around. He took hard biscuits from his pack and two cubes of dense black chocolate designed for sucking, not biting. Wash these down with a sip of water, and then he'd be on his way again. But now, while he sat here easing his deceptively gangly but powerful frame and catching a breather, there was time to look around a little and consider his position.
'His position'. That was a laugh! It certainly wasn't an enviable position: alone in a strange land, with hardtack food sufficient to last a week, enough weaponry to start World War III, and so far nothing to shoot at, blast or burn! Not that he was complaining about that. But again the thought occurred: where were they? Where in hell were this world's denizens? And when he did eventually find them, or they found him, what would they be like? Which was to assume, of course, that there were others here unlike those he already knew about. Which was to hope so, anyway.
It was as if his private thoughts were an invocation. Two things occurred simultaneously: first a rim of bright half-moon, rising in the west and turning the sky in that quarter a gold-tinged indigo, showed itself over the peaks on the opposite side of the gorge; and second... second there sounded a far, almost anguished howl, a reverberating, sustained note echoing up to the moon and down again, picked up by kindred throats and passed mournfully on up the pass into the beckoning distance.
There could be no mistaking cries like that - wolves! And Jazz remembered what he'd been told about Encounter Two. That one had been lame, blind, harmless. These weren't. Nothing that sounded like that could possibly be in anything other than extremely good health. Which didn't bode too well for his own!
Jazz finished eating, washed the gritty chocolate from the back of his throat, adjusted his pack and got down from his rock. Time he was on his way again. But - he paused, then froze in his tracks, stared directly ahead, and up, and up!
Before, the light from the blister-sun, however feeble, had kept the canyon walls in silhouette; they'd presented only a black, flanking frame to Jazz's eyes, with the main picture lying directly ahead. That picture had been the false horizon at the head of the saddle, the scree-littered way to it, and the thin arc of bright yellow light beyond; which, Jazz noted, had moved gradually from west to east, until now it was lying in the very corner of his picture.
When during the last two or three miles he'd turned his gaze away from the sun for a moment, turned his face to the flank and looked up, then, as they'd grown accustomed, his eyes had been able to spy the dark, forested heights, and above them the sharp silver gleam of snow. But in fact he'd had little time for sight-seeing; mainly his attention had been glued to the non-existent trail, picking a way through rocks and fallen jumble, always choosing the easiest way ahead. It had scarcely dawned on him that as he progressed, so indeed there had been something of a trail. In his own world he'd have expected one, and so in this world it had failed to make an impression. Until now.
But here the gorge was a great deal narrower. Where two hours earlier, at the mouth of the pass, the distance between walls had been something more than a mile, maybe even a mile and a half, here it had narrowed down to less than two hundred yards, almost a bottleneck at the foot of steep canyon walls. The crest of the saddle, as he judged it, was only a quarter-mile ahead now, when at last he'd be able to look down and spy something of the world on the sunlit side of the range.
What had caused him to freeze was this:
The moon, rising swiftly over the western side of the gorge, now shone its silvery-yellow light down on the eastern wall. Jazz was close to that side of the gorge, so that the previously silhouetted face seemed to tower almost directly overhead. But no longer in silhouette - no longer a vertical, soaring jut of black rock - the mighty cliff of the canyon had taken on a different aspect entirely.
Picked out now by the moon in sharp detail, Jazz saw a castle built into the vertiginous heights! A castle, yes, and no way he could be mistaken on this occasion. Where once a wide ledge had scarred the cliff's face, now the walls of a fortress rose up fantastically to meet the massy overhang of natural stone high overhead. A castle, an outpost, a grimly foreboding keep guarding the pass. And Jazz knew he'd hit upon its purpose here at the first throw: a keep guarding the pass!
Craning his neck, he took in its awesome moonlit bleakness, the gaunt soullessness of its warlike features. There were battlements, with massive merlons and gaping embrasures; and where towers and turrets were supported by flying buttresses, there yawned the mouths of menacing corbels. Stone arches formed into steps joined parts of the architecture which were otherwise inaccessible, where the natural rock of the cliff bulged or jutted and generally obstructed; flights of stone stairs rose steeply between the many levels, carved deep into the otherwise sheer rock; window holes gloomed like dark eyes in the moon-yellowed stone, frowning down on Jazz where he crouched in the shadows and gazed, and wondered.
The structure started maybe fifty feet up the cliff face, half-way to the top of a lone, projecting stack. In the chimney between cliff and pillar, stone steps were visible zigzagging upwards to the mouth of a domed cave; presumably the cave was extensive, with its own passageways to the castle proper. Higher still, the fortifications themselves spread outward across the face of the cliff like some strange stone fungus, covering nature's bastions with the lesser but more purposeful works of ... men? Jazz could only suppose so.
But whoever had built this aerie, they were not here now. No figures moved in the battlements or on the stairways; no lights shone in the windows, balconies or turrets; no smoke curled from the tall chimneys moulded to the face of the cliff. The place was deserted - maybe. That 'maybe' was because Jazz was sure as he'd ever been that hooded eyes were upon him, studying him where he in turn held his breath and studied the cliff-fashioned castle.
The lower part of the stack where it stood mainly free of the canyon's wall was still in shadows, which gradually drew back as the moon rose higher still. Jazz was glad of that moon, for the sun was now plainly declining. When he crossed the crest of the saddle, then perhaps he'd catch up a little with the sun, earn himself maybe an hour or so more of its dim light; but here in the lee of the great grim castle, for the present the moon was his only champion. He moved swiftly forward, going at a lope because of the imagined (?) eyes, sticking to the shadows of boulders where possible and crossing the moonlit gaps between at speed. And presently he came to the base of the stack of weathered rock where it leaned outward a little from the cliff. Or at least, he came to the great wall which surrounded that base.
The wall was of massive blocks; it stood maybe twelve feet high and was crowned with merlons and embrasures; the mouths of dragons formed spouts for corbel chutes. But the carven dragons were not Earth's dragons. Jazz swiftly, silently skirted the wall, came to a gate of huge timbers studded with iron and painted with a fearsome crest: the dragon again, with the face and wings of a bat and the body of a wolf! He was reminded of nothing so much as the magmass thing in the tank back at Perchorsk. But this dragon was split down the middle with the menacing darkness of a courtyard - for the great gates stood open a little, inwards. As if in invitation. If so, then Jazz ignored it; he hurried on toward the waning sun, desiring only to put as much distance as possible between himself and this place while there was still light enough to do so.
Minutes later he began to breathe more easily, reached the crest and was at once bathed in warm, wan sunlight. Shielding his eyes against the sudden light, however hazy, he turned to look back. A quarter-mile away, the castle had merged once more into the face of the cliff. Jazz knew it was there for he'd seen it - had even felt it - but stone was stone and the uneven cliff face was a good disguise. And Jazz realized how glad he was to have come past that place unscathed. Maybe there was no one, or nothing, there after all. But still he was glad.
He took a deep breath, issued it in a long drawn-out sigh - and gave a massive start!
Something moved close by, in the shadow of fallen boulders where they humped darkly on his left, and a cold female voice, speaking Russian, said: 'Well, Karl Vyotsky, it's your choice. Talk or die. Right here and right now!'
Jazz's finger had been on the trigger of his SMG ever since the castle. Even before the woman's voice had started speaking, he'd turned and sprayed the darkness where she was hiding. She was dead now - or would be if the weapon had been cocked! Jazz was glad it wasn't. Sometimes, with his speed and accuracy, it was as well to take precautions. On this occasion his precaution had been to leave the gun safe. It was good practice for his nerves, that's all. Shooting at shadows was a sure sign that a man was cracking up.
'Lady,' he said, his voice tense, ' - Zek Foener? - I'm not Karl Vyotsky. If I was you'd probably be on your way to an alien heaven right now!'
Eyes peered at Jazz from the darkness, but not a woman's eyes. They were triangular - and yellow. And much too close to the ground. A wolf, grey, huge, hungry-looking, stepped cautiously into view. Its red tongue lolled between incisors nearly an inch and a half long. And now Jazz cocked his weapon. The action made a typical ch-ching sound.
'Hold it!' came the woman's voice again. 'He's my friend. And until now - maybe even now - the only friend I have.' There came a scuffing of stones and she stepped out of the shadows. The wolf went to heel on her right and a little to her rear. She had a gun like Jazz's, which shook in her hands where she pointed it at him.
'I'll say it again,' he said, 'just in case you weren't listening: I'm not Karl Vyotsky.' Her gun was still shaking, violently now. Jazz looked at it, said: 'Hell, you'd probably miss me anyway!'
'The man on the radio?' she said. 'Before Vyotsky? I ... I recognize your voice.'
'Eh?' Then Jazz understood. 'Oh, yes, that was me. I was trying to give Khuv a hard time - but I doubt if he could hear me. It was Khuv sent me through the Gate, just like he did it to you. Only he didn't lie to me about it. I'm Michael J. Simmons, a British agent. I don't know how you feel about that, but ... it looks like we're in the same boat. You can call me Jazz. All my friends do, and... would you mind not pointing that thing at me?'
She sobbed, a great racking gulp of a sob, and flew into his arms. He could feel her straining not to, but she had to. Her gun went clattering to the stony earth and her arms tightened round him. 'British?' she sobbed against his neck. 'I don't care if you're Japanese, African, or an Arab! As for my gun - it's jammed. It has been for days. And I'm out of bullets anyway. If it was working and I had the ammunition - I'd probably have shot myself long ago. I... I...'
'Easy,' said Jazz. 'Easy!'
'The Sunsiders are after me,' she continued to sob, 'to give me to the Wamphyri, and Vyotsky said there's a way back home, and -'
'He what?' Jazz held her close. 'You've spoken to Vyotsky? That's impos - ' And he checked himself. The antenna of a radio was sticking out of her top pocket. 'Vyotsky's a liar,' he said. 'Forget it! There isn't a way back. He's just looking for a chum, that's all.'
'Oh, God!' Her fingers were biting into his shoulders. 'Oh, God!'
Jazz tightened his grip on her, stroked her face, felt her tears hot in the crook of his neck. He smelled her, too, and it wasn't exactly flowers. It was sweat, and fear, and more than a little dirt, too. He pushed her away to arm's length and looked at her. Even in this deceptive light she looked good. A little haggard but good. And very human.
She couldn't know it, but he was just as desperately pleased to see her.
'Zek,' he said, 'maybe we should find ourselves a nice safe place where we can talk and exchange notes, eh? I think you can probably save me a hell of a lot of time and effort.'
'There's the cave where I rested,' she told him, a little breathlessly. 'It's about eight miles back. I was asleep when I heard your voice on my radio. I thought I was dreaming. By the time I realized I wasn't it was too late. You'd gone. So I headed for the sphere, which was where I was going anyway. And I kept calling every ten minutes or so. Then I got Vyotsky...' She gave a small shudder.
'OK,' Jazz quickly told her. 'It's all right now - or about as right as it can be. Tell me all about it on our way to this cave of yours, right?' He stooped to pick up her gun, and the great wolf went into a crouch, screwed its face into a ferocious mask and snarled a warning.
She patted the animal almost absently on its great head where its ears lay flat to the long skull, said: 'It's all right, Wolf - he's a friend.'
'Wolf?' Jazz couldn't help smiling, however tightly. 'That's original!'
'He was given to me by Lardis,' she said. 'Lardis is the leader of a Traveller pack. Sunsiders, of course. Wolf was to be my protection, and he has been. We got to be friends very quickly, but he's not much of a pet. There's too much of the wild in him. Think of him in a friendly way, like a big dog -1 mean really think of him that way, as your friend - and he won't be any trouble.' She turned and began to lead the way down from the crest toward the misty orb of the sun sitting apparently motionless over the southern mouth of the pass.
'Is that a theory or a fact?' Jazz asked her. 'About Wolf, I mean?'
'It's a fact,' she answered simply. Then, as quickly as she'd started off, she paused and grabbed his arm. 'Are you sure we can't get back through the sphere?' Her voice had a pleading quality.
'I told you,' Jazz answered, trying not to sound too harsh, 'Vyotsky's a liar - amongst a lot of other things. Do you think he'd still be here if he knew a way out? When they put me through the Gate I dragged Vyotsky with me. That's the only reason he's here. I figured if it was bad enough for me it was good enough for him! Khuv and Vyotsky, those people are ... it's hard to find a word for them without being offensive.'
'Be offensive,' she said, bitterly. 'They're bastards!'
'Tell me,' said Jazz, following her as she started off again, 'why were you heading for the sphere in the first place?'
She glanced at him briefly. 'When you've been here as long as I have you won't need to ask. I came in that way, and it's the only Gate I know. I keep dreaming about being able to get out that way. I wake up thinking it's changed, that the poles have reversed and the flow lies in the other direction. So I was going there to try it. At sunup, of course, which is now. One chance and only one, and if I didn't make it through, then I wouldn't be making it back to Sunside, either.'
Jazz frowned. 'Reversed poles and all that - is that scientific stuff? Is it supposed to mean something?'
She shook her head. 'Just my fantasy,' she said, 'but it was worth one last shot...'
They walked in silence for a while, with the great wolf loping between them. There were a million questions Jazz wanted to ask, but he didn't want to exhaust her. Eventually he said: 'Where the hell is everybody? Where are the animals, birds? I mean, it's nature's way that where there are trees there are animals to chew on them. Also, I saw things at Perchorsk that made me think my coming here would be like rolling a snowball into hell! And yet I haven't seen -'
'You wouldn't,' she cut him short. 'Not on Starside, not at sunup. Now we're down toward Sunside you'll start to see animals and birds; on the other side of the range you'll see plenty of them. But not on Starside. Believe me, Michael - er, Jazz? - you really wouldn't want to see anything of what lives on Starside.' She shivered, hugged her elbows.
'Starside and Sunside,' he mused. 'The pole is back there, the mountains run east to west, and the sun is south.'
'Yes,' she nodded her head, 'that's the way it is -always.' She stumbled, said: 'Oh.' and went to one knee; Jazz reached out and caught her elbow, stopped her from toppling over. This time Wolf made no protest. Jazz helped Zek to her feet, guided her to a flat rock. He shrugged a pack from his shoulder, took out a twenty-four-hour manpack: food for one man for one day. Then he dumped the pack onto the rock and made Zek sit on it.
'You're weak from hunger!' he said, pulling the ring on a tiny can of concentrated fruit juice. He took a sip at the juice to clean his mouth, handed her the can and said, 'Finish it.' She did, with relish. Wolf stood close by, wagging his tail for all the world like a low-slung Alsatian. His great tongue was beaded with saliva. Jazz broke a cube off a block of Russian chocolate concentrate and tossed it. Before it could hit the ground Wolf's jaws closed on it crunchingly.
'It's mainly my feet,' Zek said. Jazz looked at them. She wore rough leather sandals, but he could see caked blood between the toes where they projected. The mist had cleared from the sun a little, and now Jazz could take in the rest of her. True colours were still difficult, but outlines, shadows and silhouettes made readable contrasts. Her one-piece was ragged at the elbows and knees, patched at the backside. She carried only a slim roll, hooked to her harness. A sleeping-bag, Jazz correctly supposed.
They're no kind of footgear for this terrain,' he said.
'I know it now,' Zek answered, 'but I'd forgotten. Sunside is bad enough, but this pass is worse. And Starside is sheer hell. I had boots when I came here, like you. They don't last. Your feet harden quickly, you'll see, but some of these pebbles and rocks are sharp as knives.'
He gave her chocolate, which she almost snatched. 'Maybe we should rest right here,' he said.
'Safe enough, with the sun on us,' she answered, 'but I'd prefer to keep moving. Since we can't use the sphere, and we can't stay Starside, it's best we get back to Sunside as soon as we can.' Her tone was ominous.
'Any special reason?' Jazz was sure he wouldn't like the answer.
'Lots of them,' she told him, 'and they all live back there.' She nodded back the way they'd come.
'Do you feel like telling me about - them?' Jazz unhooked one of his kidney-packs; he knew it contained, among other things, a very basic first-aid kit. He took out gauze bandages, a tube of ointment, plasters. And as Zek talked he kneeled and carefully slipped the sandals off her feet, began to work on her wounds.
'Them,' she echoed him, making the word sound sour; and again a shudder ran through her. 'The Wamphyri, do you mean? Oh, they're the main problem, it's true, but there are other things on Starside almost as bad. Did you see Agursky's "pet", the thing in the tank at Perchorsk?'
Jazz looked up, nodded. 'I saw it. Telling you exactly what I saw would be a different matter!' He tore off a strip of gauze, soaked it in water from his flask, gently wiped away the caked blood from her toes. She sighed her appreciation as he squeezed ointment from its tube and rubbed it into the splits under her toes and the pads of her feet.
'That thing you saw was what happens when a vampire egg gets into a species of local fauna,' she told him. She said it as simply as that, her voice quite neutral.