Through the Gate
A fourth and final door was opened and Clarke felt himself urged through it. But the abrupt sensation of speed in motion had alarmed and shaken him, and as yet he hadn't recovered.
Harry? he said, the thought trembling like a leaf in the immaterial void of the Mobius Continuum. 'Harry?'
Except the second time it was his voice he heard, not just his thoughts. He stood with Harry Keogh in his office at E-Branch HQ, in London. Stood there for a moment, stumbled, and reeled!
The real, physical world - of gravity, light, all human sensation and especially sound, most definitely sound -impressed itself forcefully on Clarke's unprepared person. It was signing-off time for most of the staff; many had already left, but the Duty Officer and a handful of others were still here. And of course the security system was in operation as always. Sleepers had started to go off all over the top-floor complex as soon as Clarke and Keogh appeared, quietly at first but gradually increasing in pitch and frequency until they would soon become unbearable. A monitor screen in the wall close to Clarke's desk stuttered into life and printed up:
MR DARCY CLARKE IS NOT AVAILABLE AT PRESENT. THIS IS A SECURE AREA. PLEASE IDENTIFY YOURSELF IN YOUR NORMAL SPEAKING VOICE, OR LEAVE IMMEDIATELY. IF YOU FAIL TO -
But Clarke had already regained partial control of himself. 'Darcy Clarke,' he said. 'I'm back.' And in case the machine hadn't recognized his shaky voice - not waiting for it to print up its cold mechanical threats - he staggered to his desk keyboard and punched in the current security override.
The screen cleared, printed up: DO NOT FORGET TO RE-SET BEFORE YOU LEAVE, and switched itself and the alarms off.
Clarke flopped into his chair - in time to give a great start as the intercom began to buzz insistently. He pressed the receive button and a breathless Duty Officer's voice said. 'Either there's someone in there, or this is a malfunction... ?' A second voice behind the first growled:
'You'd better believe there's somebody in there!' One of the espers, obviously.
Harry Keogh pulled a wry face and nodded. 'This place was no great loss,' he said. 'None at all!'
Clarke pressed the command button and held it down. 'Clarke here,' he said, talking to the entire HQ. 'I'm back - and I've brought Harry with me. Or he's brought me! But don't all rush; I'll see the Duty Officer, please, and that'll be all for now.' Then he looked at Harry. 'Sorry, but you can't just - well, arrive - in a place like this without people noticing.'
Harry smiled his understanding - but there was something of his strangeness in that smile, too. 'Before they gang up on us,' he said, 'tell me: how long did you say it was since Jazz Simmons disappeared? I mean, when did David Chung first notice his absence?'
'Three days ago in - ' Clarke glanced at his watch, ' - just six hours' time. Around midnight. Why do you ask?'
Harry shrugged. 'I have to have some place to start,' he said. 'And what was his address here in London?'
Clarke gave him the address, by which time the Duty Officer was knocking at the door. The door was locked and Clarke had the key. He got up, unsteadily crossed the room to let in a tall, gangling, nervous-looking man in a lightweight grey suit. The Duty Officer had a gun in his hand which he returned to its shoulder-holster as soon as he saw his boss standing there.
'Fred,' said Clarke, closing and locking the door against other curious faces where they peered along the corridor, 'I don't believe you've ever met Harry Keogh? Harry, this is Fred Madison. He - ' But here he noticed the look of astonishment on Madison's face. 'Fred?' he said; and then they both looked back into the room. Which apart from themselves was quite empty!
Clarke took out a handkerchief and dabbed at his brow. And in the next moment Madison was steadying him where he suddenly slumped against the wall. Clarke looked slightly unwell. 'I'm alright, it's OK,' he said, propping himself up. 'As for Harry - ' he glanced again all around the office, shook his head.
'Darcy?' said Madison.
'Well, maybe you'll get to meet him some other time. He ... he never was desperately fond of this place...'
Something less than four days earlier, inside the Perchorsk Projekt:
Chingiz Khuv, Karl Vyotsky and the Project Director, Viktor Luchov, stood at the hospital bedside of Vasily Agursky. Agursky had been here for four days, during which time his doctors had recognized certain symptoms and had started to wean him off alcohol. More than that: already they believed they had succeeded. It had been remarkably easy, all considered; but from the moment Agursky had been freed from the responsibility of tending the thing in the tank, so his dependency on local vodka and cheap slivovitz had fallen off. He had asked for a drink only once, when he regained consciousness on the first day, since when he'd not mentioned alcohol and seemed hardly the worse for the lack of it.
'You're feeling better then, Vasily?' Luchov sat on the edge of Agursky's bed.
'As well as can be expected,' the patient replied. 'I had been on the verge of a breakdown for some time, I think. It was the work, of course.'
'Work?' Vyotsky seemed unconvinced. The thing about work - any kind of work - is that it produces results. On the strength of that, it's rather difficult to see how you could be exhausted, Comrade!' His bearded face scowled down on the man in the bed.
'Come now, Karl,' Khuv tut-tutted. 'You know well enough that there are different sorts of work exerting different pressures. Would you have liked to be the keeper of that thing? I hardly think so! And Comrade Agursky's condition was not strictly exhaustion, or if it was then it was nervous exhaustion, brought on by proximity to the creature.'
Luchov, who carried maximum responsibility in the Perchorsk complex and therefore wielded maximum authority, looked up at Vyotsky and frowned. Physically, Luchov would not have made half of the KGB man, but in the Projekt's pecking order he stood head and shoulders over him, even over Khuv. The contempt he felt for the bully was obvious in his tone of voice when he said to Khuv:
'You are absolutely correct, Major. Anyone who thinks Vasily Agursky's duties were light should try them and see. Do I see a volunteer here, perhaps? Is your man telling us he'd make a better job of it?'
KGB Major and Projekt Direktor looked in unison, pointedly at Vyotsky. Khuv smiled his dark, deceptive smile but Luchov's scarred face showed no emotion at all and certainly not amusement. Evidence of his annoyance was apparent, however, in the throbbing of the veins on the hairless left half of his seared skull. The quickening of his pulse was a sure sign that he disapproved of someone or something, in this case Karl Vyotsky.
'Well then?' said Khuv, who had been at odds recently with his underling's boorishness and bad temper. 'Perhaps I was wrong and you would like the job after all, Karl?'
Vyotsky swallowed his pride. Khuv was just perverse enough to let it happen. 'I...' he said. 'I mean, I - '
'No, no!' Agursky himself saved Vyotsky from further embarrassment. He propped himself up on his pillows. 'It is quite out of the question that anyone else takes over my job, and ridiculous even to suggest that an unqualified person should assume such duties. This is not stated in any way to slight you personally, Comrade,' he glanced indifferently at Vyotsky, 'but there are qualifications and there are qualifications. Now that I've overcome two problems - my breakdown, and my absurd... obsession, for I refuse to call it an addiction, with drink - the third will not be difficult, I promise you. Given the same amount of time as I've already spent, that creature will give up its secrets to me, be sure. I know that so far my results have not been promising, but from now on - '
'Take it easy, Vasily!' Luchov put a hand on his shoulder, stemming an outburst which was quite out of character for the hitherto retiring Agursky. Obviously he was not yet fully recovered. For all his doctors' assurances that he was fit enough to be up and about again, his nerves were still on the mend.
'But my work is important!' Agursky protested. 'We have to know what lies beyond that Gate, and this creature may carry the answers. I can't find them if I'm to be kept on my back in here.'
'Another day won't hurt,' Luchov stood up, 'and I'll also see to it that from now on you have an assistant. It can't be good for a man to have to deal with a creature like that on his own. Some of us - ' he glanced meaningfully at Vyotsky, ' - would have broken long ago, I'm sure...'
'Another day, then,' Agursky lay down again. 'But then I really must get back to my work. Believe me, what lies between me and that creature has now become a very personal thing, and I won't give in until I've beaten it.'
'Get your rest then,' Luchov told him, 'and come and see me when you're up and about. I'll look forward to that.'
Agursky's visitors left the ward and at last he was on his own. Now he could stop acting. He smiled a sly and yet bitter smile - a smile composed in part of success, in that he'd deceived everyone who'd seen him, and partly of his terror of the unknown, and the fact that he was now on his own - which died on his face as quickly as it was born. It was replaced by a nervous anxiety which showed in his pale, trembling lips, and in the tic that jerked the flesh at the corner of his mouth. He had fooled his doctors and visitors, yes, but there was no fooling himself.
His doctors had examined him thoroughly and found nothing except a little stress and maybe physical weariness - not even Vyotsky's 'exhaustion' - and yet Agursky knew that there was a lot more than that wrong with him. The thing in the tank had put something into him, something which had hidden itself away for now. But wheels were turning and time ticking away, and the question was: how long would it remain hidden?
How long did he have to find the answer and reverse the process, whatever that process was? And if he couldn't find the answer, what would it do to him, physically, while it lived and grew in him? What would it be like when it finally surfaced? So far no one knew about it but him, and from now on he must watch himself closely, must know before anyone else knew if ... if anything strange were to happen. Because if they knew first - if they discovered that he nurtured within himself something from beyond that Gate - if they even suspected it ...
Agursky began to shudder uncontrollably, gritted his teeth and clenched his fists in a spasm of absolute terror. They burned those things from the Gate, hosed them down with fire until they were little heaps of congealed glue. And would they burn him, too, if... if-
What would he be like after those slowly turning inner wheels had turned full circle? That was the worst of it, not knowing...
Out on the perimeter and having separated from Luchov who had gone his own way, Khuv and Vyotsky were making for their own place of duty with the Projekt's esper squad when one of the latter came panting to meet them. He was a fat and especially oily man called Paul Savinkov, who prior to Perchorsk had worked in the embassies in Moscow. An unnatural predilection for male, junior members of foreign embassy staff had made him something of a risk in that employment. His transfer to Perchorsk had been swift; he was still trying to ooze his way out of the place, primarily by doing his very best to keep Khuv happy. He was sure he could convince his KGB watchdog that there were places where his talent could be far more effectively and productively employed. His talent was telepathy, in which he was occasionally very proficient.
Savinkov's fat, shiny baby-face was worried now as he bumped into Khuv and Vyotsky in the sweeping outer corridor. 'Ah, Comrades - the very men I seek! I was on my way to report...'He paused to lean against the wall and catch his breath.
'What is it, Paul?' said Khuv.
'I was on duty, keeping an eye - so to speak - on Simmons. Ten minutes ago they tried to get through to him! I cannot be mistaken: a strong telepathic probe was aimed directly at him. I sensed it and managed to scramble it - certainly I interfered with it - and when I could no longer detect it, then I came to find you. Of course, I left two of the squad there in my place in case there should be a recurrence. Oh, and on my way here I was given this to relay to you.' He handed Khuv a message from Communications Centre.
Khuv glanced at it - and his forehead at once wrinkled into a frown. He read it again, his dark eyes darting over the printed page. 'Damn?' he said, softly - which from him meant more than any explosion. And to Vyotsky: 'Come, Karl. I think we should go at once and talk to Mr Simmons. Also, I intend to bring our plans for him forward a little. Doubtless you'll be sad to learn that from tonight you'll no longer be able to taunt him, for he won't be here.' He tucked the message from Comcen into his pocket, dismissing the fawning Savinkov with a wave of his hand.
Vyotsky almost had to jog to keep up with Khuv when his boss now diverted and made for Simmons's cell. 'What is it, Major?' he said. 'Where did that message come from and what was in it?'
'This telepathic sending we've just had reported to us,' Khuv mused, almost as if he hadn't heard the other's questions. 'It isn't the first, as you're aware...' He strode urgently ahead, with Vyotsky close at heel. 'Most of them have been merely inquisitive: the work of various groups of foreign seers or scryers trying to discover what's going on here. But they were very weak because the alien espers can't precisely pin-point our location - that is, they have no definite point of focus - and also because we're protected by the ravine. Our own psychics have been able to break them up or block them easily enough. Ah, but if a foreign power could actually get an ESP-endowed agent inside this place, then it might be a different story entirely!'
'But Simmons isn't talented that way,' Vyotsky protested. 'We are certain of that beyond any reasonable doubt.'
'That's entirely true,' Khuv growled his answer, 'but I believe they've found a way to use him anyway. In fact this message in my pocket confirms it.' He chuckled grimly, like a man who has just lost a piece in a game of chess. 'It can only be the British, for they're the most advanced in this game. The people in their E-Branch are a clever lot! They always have been - and extremely dangerous, as our espers learned to their cost at the Chateau Bronnitsy.'
'I don't follow you,' Vyotsky scowled through his beard. 'Simmons didn't worm his way in here; we caught him, and he certainly wasn't coming quietly!'
'Right again,' Khuv nodded sharply. 'We caught him, and we brought him here - but believe me we can no longer afford to keep him here. That's why he must go -tonight!'
They had arrived at Simmons's cell. Outside the door, an armed, uniformed soldier lounged, coming to attention as Khuv and Vyotsky approached him. In a cell next door to the prisoner's, a pair of espers in plain-clothes sat at a table wrapped in their own thoughts and mental pursuits. Khuv went in and spoke to them briefly: 'You two - I suppose Savinkov has told you what's happened? That calls for extra security. Be alert as never before! In fact I want the entire squad - all of you, Savinkov included - on the job from now on. Full time! These measures won't be in force for long, probably only a matter of hours, but until I say otherwise that's how I want it. Pass it on, and make sure the rosters are adjusted accordingly.'
He rejoined Vyotsky and the soldier on duty let them into Jazz's cell. The British agent was sprawled on his bunk, hands behind his head. He sat up as they entered, rubbed his eyes and yawned. 'Visitors!' he said, displaying his accustomed sarcasm. 'Well, well! Just as I was beginning to think you two had forgotten all about me. To what do I owe the honour?'
Khuv smiled coldly. 'Why, we're here to talk to you about your D-cap, Michael - among other things. Your very interesting, very ingenious D-cap.'
Jazz fingered the left side of his face, his lower jaw, and worked it from side to side. 'Sorry, but I'm afraid you've already got it,' he said, a little ruefully. 'And the tooth next door, too. But we're healing nicely, thanks.'
Vyotsky advanced menacingly. 'I can very quickly stop you from healing nicely, British,' he growled. 'I can fix bits of you so they'll never heal again!'
Khuv restrained him with an impatient sigh. 'Karl, sometimes you're a bore,' he said. 'And you know well enough that we need Mr Simmons fit and alert, or our little experiment won't be worth carrying out.' He looked pointedly at the prisoner.
Jazz sat up straighter on his bed. 'Experiment?' he tried to smile enquiringly and failed miserably. 'What sort of experiment? And what's all this about my D-cap?'
'Let's deal with that first,' Khuv answered. 'Our people in Moscow have analysed its contents: very complex but completely harmless drugs! They would have put you to sleep for a few hours, that's all.' He watched the other's reaction very closely. Jazz frowned, displayed open disbelief.
'That's ridiculous,' he finally replied. 'Not that I'm the sort who'd ever have used it - at least I don't think so - but those capsules are lethal!' His eyes narrowed. 'What are you up to, Comrade? Some silly scheme to lure me over to your side?'
Again Khuv's smile. 'No, for I'm afraid we've no use for you, Michael - certainly not now that you've seen the inside of the Perchorsk Projekt! But don't be so scornful of the possibility. I don't see that our side could be any worse than yours. After all, they haven't treated you too well so far, now have they?'
'I don't know what you're talking about,' Jazz shook his head, stopped acting the comedian. 'Why don't you tell me why you're really here?'
'But I have,' Khuv answered. 'Part of it, anyway. As for what I'm talking about: I'm telling you that your people expected you to be caught! They couldn't be sure what sort of reception you'd get, however, and they had to be sure that you wouldn't kill yourself too soon.'
Jazz's frown deepened. 'Too soon for what?'
'Before they could use you, of course.'
The frown stayed. 'What you're saying feels like it's making sense even though I know it can't be making any sense,' said Jazz. 'That is, if what you're saying is true!'
'Your confusion is understandable,' Khuv nodded, 'and very reassuring. It tells me you weren't a party to it. Your D-Cap was meant to fool you - ensure you'd play out your part to the full - just as it was meant to fool us! It was designed to slow us down as much as possible. I would guess your espers, British E-Branch, rigged the whole thing. And sooner or later they would also find a way to get through to you, if they had the time. But they haven't. Not any more.'
'E-Branch? ESP?' Jazz threw up his hands. 'I've already told you I don't know anything about that sort of thing. I don't even believe in that sort of thing!'
Khuv sat down on a chair beside Jazz's bed, said: 'Then let's talk about something you do believe in.' His voice was very quiet, very dangerous now. 'You believe in that space-time Gate down in the magmass bowels of this place, don't you?'
'I can accept the evidence of my own five senses, yes,' Jazz answered.
Then accept this also: tonight you go through that Gate!'
Jazz was stunned. 'I what?'
Khuv stood up. 'It was my intention all along, but I wanted to be sure you were one hundred per cent recovered from your injuries before using you. Another three or four days at most.' He shrugged. 'But now we've had to bring it forward. Whether you "believe in that sort of thing" or not, the world's E-Branches are very real. I am the appointed monitor and watchdog over just such a group of psychics, and several of my espers have been deployed here with me. Your people in the West are trying to use you as a "mirror" on our work here; so far they have not been successful; tonight we will ensure that they never are.'
Jazz jumped to his feet, stepped toward Khuv. Vyotsky put himself in the way, said: 'Come on then, British, try me.'
Jazz backed off a pace. He would dearly love to 'try' the big Russian, but in his own time, his own place. To Khuv he said: 'You force me through that damned Gate and you're no more than a murderer!'
'No,' Khuv shook his head. 'I am a patriot, devoted to my country's welfare. You are the murderer, Michael! Have you forgotten Boris Dudko, the man you killed on top of the ravine?'
'He tried to kill me!' Jazz protested.
'He did not,' Khuv shook his head, ' - but if he had tried at least he would have had the right.' And here Khuv feigned outrage. 'What? An enemy agent engaged in espionage, deep inside a peaceful country's borders? Of course he had the right! And we also have the right to take your life.'