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5a : Reality Checks

butterflyFrosch let me digest his news for a couple of days. For my part, I could see no reason either to preach caution at him or to run away screaming. Essentially, Frosch was planning some sort of confidence trick with a bunch of dangerous gansters as the marks. But if it all went horribly wrong for him, what would the consequences be?
   When they learned that they had been duped, the North Road Mob would go into Gangster Pride mode. They would set out to limit the circle of knowledge -- it would do nothing much for their credibility if people learned that they had been fooled -- and they would seeek to deliver violent retribution on the heads of the tricksters.
   The first activity, knowledge limitation, would have no immediate relevance to us, other than its overlap with the second activity, the violent retribution. Wiping out the tricksters would also remove them from the circle of knowledge. Except that the North Road Mob would be unable to wipe us out by conventional means.
   I could see that retiring from the scene of the crime made more sense than staying in the firing line and laughing as the North Road Mob wasted ammunition on us. I was reasonably confident that General Frosch appreciated the value of not drawing undue attention to us. There is a universal agreement among us that it would not be a good idea to let the pre-dead know that there are post-dead people still walking among them.
   Of course, retiring from the scene of the crime did not mean moving away from this part of London, or even relocation to another city. A simple change of appearance and another operating name would do the trick. If I reduced my height by a couple of inches and gave my eyes an Oriental slant, no reasonable person would assume that I had been someone called Prethon during the confidence trick played on the North Road Mob. The same conclusion, I feel sure, would also be reached by an unreasonable person.
   My main area of concern, I realized, was the way Frosch was treating the whole affair like a game while in the background, the seriously criminal North Road Mob was trying to position itself vis a vis adversaries, or possibly allies, who could be genuine off-planet aliens.
   In my heart, or where it used to be, I knew that I did not want to leave Churchill Square and set myself up elsewhere. I had been corrupted by the comfort. I admit it. Further, the post-dead are not subject to the bodily adverse effects of anxiety and stress, as the pre-dead are. So my concern was purely intellectual.
   As I may have mentioned, we don't feel much of anything physically. Emotionally, well, that's another kettle of fish. But unlike Iktar, and particularly Xanthe, I generally choose not to get too involved with anything now. But I know that I have the capacity to become vindictive. As despoilers of my long abandoned farmhouse learned to their cost.
   Of course, this brings up the interesting thought of how exactly I would retaliate against one of the post-dead who 'pissed me off to the max' with his silly games, to use what was once Iktar's favourite saying. Punching, kicking, shooting, stabbing and shoving Frosch under a bus or a Tube train are all a total waste of time. Putting a sunlamp with a timer switch in front of his daytime refuge is an option -- but I have a feeling that it wouldn't work. I don't know why it wouldn't work but I just have a feeling, at times, well, quite regularly, that the universe has been specially designed to frustrate me.
   I think it was having an easy the escape route available -- living in the same place but under another identity -- and knowing that the gangsters had no means of harming myself, Iktar and the others, which gave me the confidence to go along with whatever Frosch had in mind. Even so, I was glad of some further information when he dropped in on me the couple of days later -- on the Friday which marked the end of his original fortnight's grace. My first question concerned the business plan of the North Road Mob as Frosch understood it.
   "What we've got," Frosch told me, "is an interesting mixture of almost old-school and new-school gangsters. An alliance of people with fairly slim connections to underworld figures and jumped-up, nouveau riche, dead dodgy yuppy types with high society connections. Friends of minor aristocracy, pop stars and trendy politicians."
   "Sounds a fairly poisonous combination," I remarked as I handed Frosch a glass of neat Pernod in the library, which we had chosen for our discussion in perference to the TV room.
   "Sounds like a good recipe for business success to me," Frosch returned with a laugh. "There's just Colin, Colin Breen, with any blood ties to the Good Old Days. He's got an uncle who did two stretches for extortion then insurance fraud on a grand scale. Uncle Charlie now lives in Spain and he's out of it, but he gives Colin some credibility."
   "Don't mess with me or I'll set my gangster uncle on you?"
   "That's how it was in the early days, but Colin doesn't need Uncle Charlie any more. He's the boss of bosses now. Under him are two lieutenants, Mike Verbrecher and Don Garrison, and a general staff of sorts called Julian, Don and Albert. All five of them are people Colin met at university or on the fringes of his social scene there, and like-minded people with criminal tendencies but without the courage to follow though with them on their own."
   "What you might call pack-animals? Needing a leader and a bunch of similar people for support?"
   "Yes, that's about it. They've all hitched their wagons to Colin's star, as it were. Colin is clever, a good organizer, ruthless and he has that vital thing that all successful generals need -- good luck in big chunks."
   "And they're all respectable businessmen? They don't have the police watching them and ready to pounce, I mean?"
   "Yes, they specialize in security, which is just a modification of the old protection rackets, retrieval of lost property, industrial espionage and counter-espionage, repo work -- did you know Iktar works for one of their companies?"
   "Can't say I did."
   "Well, she does. And they also do our old favourite, winkling. They do business with a hard edge and they're not too bothered about straying over the edge of the law. Although they do make a real effort not to look like a bunch of crooks.to avoid embarrassing their social and political connections, which would lead to losing them. The prime minister's sister-in-law hangs out with Verbercher and another guy called Julian, for instance."
   "So this North Road Mob thing. Is that what they call themselves? I mean, is that what they're known as in their business circles as a sort of nickname?"
   "Hell, no! It's for internal consumption only. By Colin and his immediate circle. They only play at being a London gang for their own amusement. As far as everyone else is concerned, they're just a group of pals and associated businessmen. They even pretend to be rivals in some areas."
   "Businessmen? No women?"
   "Strictly men only on the business front."
   "Sounds like a pretty organized bunch," I remarked with a laugh.
   "They are. They're starting from the idea that if they're working for up-market clients, they'll have a measure of protection via the establishment."
   "This is winkling squatters out of properties owned by rich bastards?"
   "Or their companies, yes. As just one area of business. There are lots of other development areas, of course. Such as moving Travellers on when they pollute areas of the countryside owned by your rich bastards. Or ravers when they invade a farm to hold one of their music festivals."
   "Sounds like someone's been busy, working up his business, moving into other areas," I remarked.
   Frosch gave me the smile of a busy entreprenneur. "Anyway, the line of thinking the North Road Mob has taken is that the sort of people they'll be working for -- quality people -- they'll be able to buy off or deflect the police. They'll have Freemasonry links, access to old boy networks, the bonds of mutal self-interests, or whatever."
   "Not the sort of thing you could take to a bank manager. But I suppose they wouldn't do that, anyway."
   "Right, they'd rob a bank to raise their capital," Frosch interrupted with a laugh. "But they're still at the business development stage, as far as I can gather."
   "How does one develop a winkling business?"
   "I think they've been doing some low-level winkling to get the feel of it, with a guy called Don Paulino in charge of that, but there's not been too much money in the sort of jobs that they've been able to get. And they're unlikely ever to be employed by their preferred clients as things stand. They're competing on cost with traditional winklers."
   "Like General Frosch and Company?"
   "Except that we don't use traditional methods. No bruised and broken bodies when we go in."
   "A few dead ones, occasionally."
   Frosch shrugged. "That's just one of the hazards of stealing shelter from someone else instead of paying for it. But the point I'm trying to make is that with some technology ..."
   "Alien technology?"
   "Well, yes, that would be best of all. But with some sort of technology that gets the squatters out reliably and quickly, but doesn't have any legal come-backs, they've cracked it."
   "Are they still talking about alien technology? I mean, with any sort of conviction?"
   Frosch shrugged. "Having thought the situation over, the North Road Mob have open minds. They accept that, on the balance of probabilities, there are other civilizations in the universe and any which visit the Earth will have superior technology to what we see around us."
   "I suppose even gangsters can believe in UFOs and little green men."
   "Except that this is a bunch of hard-headed, no-nonsense guys with their heads screwed on the right way. So they won't believe that we are aliens, or people who know aliens, without proof."
   "That should be an interesting challenge," I said with a laugh. "Getting their proof."
   "But the stories about what happened when people started shooting at us do allow for that explanation."
   "Among others, surely. Lots more likely ones."
   "Open minds, Preth. The North Road Mob know that respectable members of the scientific establishment are involved in SETI -- the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. The attempts to pick up transmissions by ET civilizations. They know that governments around the world are involved in covering up UFO incidents -- some of them created by their own secret projects like the Stealth Bomber."
   "Yeah, you get programmes like that on Channel Four and the Discovery Channels all the time, Frosch."
   "Also, Governments around the world are involved in trying to make the dreams of science fiction writers come true. Space travel, spy satellites, weapons based on lasers and other types of radiation, nuclear weapons, Stealth bombers -- all these things, which we know about now, were once top secret. Which leads to an obvious question. If we know now that all that stuff exists, what else have the world's governments got in the same category that is still top secret? What have they got that aren't they telling us about yet?"
   "Well, yes," I conceded. "You can't argue with a good conspiracy theory."
   "And that leads us straight to another alternative. An alternative to aliens, I mean. What if we have access to technology developed by a secret government research station?"
   "I suppose it would be difficult for anyone to keep a secret from us," I admitted. "Unless it's something we can look at for as long as we like but we won't understand it because we don't have the specialized education."
   Frosch held out his glass for a refill, which reflected his transition from resident to guest at the house on Churchill Square. "Stop doing deep thinking like that," he said with a laugh. "They don't know you can walk undetected through any security system on the planet. They're just extrapolating from James Bond films and what they know the pre-dead can do about cracking secure locations."
   "Okay, they'll assume we've bought this technology on some clandestine market in such things." I returned the recharged glass to Frosch. "Where from?"
   Frosch shrugged, taking care not to spill his drink. "The former Soviet Union and the United States are equally likely. Even the UK and places like Japan, France and Germany. Every state contains greedy people, who would be willing to make a profit out of what they know from being involved in state-sponsored research programmes and what they can steal."
   "Yes, and I suppose we don't need a complete story about where the technology came from. Who developed it, I mean. We can just say, Need to know, and you don't."
   "Right. And the point is, whether or not the source of the technology is aliens or some government's secret project, the North Roaders want to buy in to it -- if it's real. So that's their first target, finding out for sure if our 'technology' is real. I mean, everything they've heard about us could be silly stories quite easily."
   "Bullets hitting ordinary flak jackets and people not really seeing what happened?"
   Frosch nodded. "Anything like that. What it all comes down to is that if the technology is real, they can bargain for it. There must be plenty that they can offer for it. And there's always the threat of turning us over to the police if we're awkward with them. You're a bunch of spies, you're going to get locked up, style of thing."
   "So what's our strategy for convincing them that the technology is real? I assume you're keen to give them a helping hand in that direction so that they'll start making serious offers for it?"
   "Not really. Helping them, I mean. I think, in this situation, it would be best to let them come up with their own tests. So they're a hundred per cent sure we've not pulled the wool over their eyes somehow."
   "Does this mean we're going to get shot at some more?" I asked with a sigh.
   "Oh, I'm sure Colin and his pals can be more inventive than that," laughed Frosch.

5b : Technology For Real

butterflyIf they ever bring in an award for the Mad Scientist of the Year, I'm sure that Iktar would be top of the list pretty permanently. I gathered, from observations, that she has a passion for gadgets, which has lain fairly dormant since the last war [I mean World War Two, in case anyone is in any doubt].
   Even so, gadgets were the last thing on my mind when she requested my presence in the Churchill Square house's long first-floor corridor on the Tuesday after Frosch's latest visit. She was having a night off from repossession work and we were planning a visit to my science fiction cinema club later. Iktar, as my guest, was going to catch up on some parts of the Star Wars saga which she had missed.
   "Your mission, if you chose to accept it," she told me with an impish grin when we had travelled from the TV room to the corridor, "is to watch and be amazed."
   We were standing at one end of the corridor, near the stairs. I followed the direction of her gaze to a card table, which was standing about 20 feet away. On it, placed upright, was a long, thin cardboard box, which was a couple of feet tall and six inches wide.
   "Okay, are you ready?" Iktar asked.
   "Do I need to see you and that box at the same time?" I asked.
   "Just watch the box," the lady told me.
   I gazed the length of the corridor. I was aware of Iktar lifting her arm until it was horizontal with her fist aimed, I assumed, at the box.
   I flinched automatically at the muffled bang just a couple of feet away from my right ear. The box hurled itself backwards off the table and leapt against the thick, dark red curtain drawn across the window at the end of the corridor.
   "Good, isn't it?" Iktar remarked, highly pleased with herself.
   "You did that? From here?" I didn't have to pretend to be impressed -- I was genuinely impressed.
   "I figured, if we're aliens, we should have an alien weapon that's unlike anything they have on Earth."
   "But we're not necessarily aliens, Ik. General Frosch also has espionage of military secrets up his sleeve."
   "General Frosch may have told you that," scoffed Iktar, "but he's getting more and more sold on the alien idea. It has so many more possibilities."
   "So where's the weapon? Up your sleeve? Except that you don't have sleeves, of course."
   "I'm the weapon. Or more accurately, it's built in."
   "What, some sort of electronic device?"
   "No, nothing like that. I've worked out how to project a supersonic jet of air."
   "How do you work out something like that?" I was impressed again.
   "It's just a bit of basic physics and a bit of fluid dynamics," Iktar said airily. "What it does is reproduce the effect of the scrill weapon that Agents Boon and Sandoval have in Earth: Final Conflict. But without the optical pulse the special effects people add on."
   "Great! How does it work?"
   "It should be quite easy to learn how to do it without having to know all the theory."
   I concluded that Iktar wasn't not too sure herself how her invention works. But I was far too polite to say anything like that to the lady's face. Iktar got me to replace the box on the card table for another demonstration. I was starting to get the hang of the sonic pulse generation technique when Iktar noticed the time and decided that we had to head for the SF film club right away.
   What, with 'fierce faces' from Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and scrill weapons from Earth: Final Conflict, we are becoming quite convincing aliens. What could be next on the agenda? I asked myself as Iktar was busy with female last-second going-out preparations. Star Trek-style Vulcan mind melds? Actual demonstrations of shape shifting like those performed by Odo of Deep Space Nine? General Frosch would have a field day when this particular bee became lodged in his inventive imagination.

butterflyAs expected, Frosch was delighted by Iktar's invention. Xanthe, on the other hand, thought that it was unladylike and unnecessary -- from which the rest of us concluded that she was too idle to put in the practice needed to gain delicate control of it.
   At the weekend, when we were beginning to worry about knocking down the Churchill Square house by accident, General Frosch took Iktar and myself out to an abandoned quarry, which lay somewhere in the wilds of Wales. It was a miserable, wet, cold February day, but such considerations no longer bother us. We post-dead aliens are fully weather-proof.
   We knocked a few rocks around, increasing both the size and the range. Then General Frosch and the lady inventor started to get ambitious. They decided to try zapping a rock face. Just when I was starting to wonder if anyone would come to investigate the explosions -- our sonic booms -- at what was supposed to be an abandoned quarry, we disappeared in a dust cloud.
   Frosch had caused a serious landslide -- which gave Iktar ideas. The next thing I knew, we were off to the Alps to cause a few avalanches out in the wilds. Of course, we were careful to stay out of the path of the galloping snow -- not because we felt in danger from it but in order to watch the whole spectacle.
   "It gives you quite a strange feeling of power, being able to knock lumps off Mother Nature like this," Frosch remarked as he watched a line of trees just vanish.
   "And it's a new career if your plans for the North Road Gang go horribly wrong," Iktar mentioned. "A professional snow-shifter."
   "Oh, ye of little faith," sighed Frosch. "Come one, let's go and find somewhere else that needs its snow tidied up."

butterflyPractically the moment we returned to London, the North Road Mob were experimenting again. Iktar had some repo work to do but Frosch was in the mood for a drink and a chat after our Alpine adventures. He chose a pub in the North Road Mob's area as his watering hole -- something which I discovered after the event.
   I am no longer even a little impressed when a barman knows what Frosch's usual is. Frosch ordered a glass of single malt whisky for me. He was still in his neat Pernod phase. We were just deciding which part of the pub to favour with our presence when a couple of yob types approached us and starting having a go at Frosch for drinking something that looked like "cat's piss", according to the yobs.
   When one of them tried to take his glass from him to have a sniff at it, Frosch got violent. There was a flat bang and the yob sailed away backwards. He turned a neat somersault when he hit the ground and he finished up sitting against a stretch of wall, out to the wide.
   A couple of bouncer types arrived at that moment and the two yobs disappeared from the premises, one being dragged by his heels, head bouncing over every obstacle, and the other with his arm twisted up his back.
   "Sorry about that, James," a smooth voice said behind us. "The security should have been quicker. Although, you look like you can take care of yourself pretty well."
   "One thing I don't stand for is encroachment," Frosch replied, turning to smile at a man of about our own apparent age.
   The man was standing behind the bar -- but clearly in the capacity of an owner rather than a worker. "Excuse me?" he said.
   "He encroached on my personal protection system." Frosch said with a shrug. "We set the safety margin deliberately high and we warn people if they're getting too close." Frosch shrugged again. "But some people won't bloody listen or they won't stop pushing or they get me pissed off and I don't bother telling them."
   "This protection system. Can I have a look at it?"
   "Not really."
   "Why not really?"
   "Because it's a built-in bio-mechanical system. It's not some external black box you can open up."
   "How does it work?"
   "Have you got a computer?"
   "Yes, of course."
   "Do you know how it works? Really works? The electronics, how the software makes things happen?"
   "Of course, not."
   Frosch shrugged. "It's exactly the same with my system. I have it, I use it, it works successfully but I don't have a clue how it works. Anyway, James, can I love you and leave you?" he added to me. "I need a word with Mike."
   "Right, see you around," I told him. Dismissed, unintroduced, I drained my glass and headed for the door.

butterflyI never did find out what Frosch and North Road Mob sub boss Mike Verbrecher had to say to each other. We were overtaken by another small drama almost immediately and that pushed Frosch's latest conspiracy out of my mind.
   A letter addressed to 'J. Frosh' was hand-delivered to Number One, Churchill Square the next day. Iktar found it in the hall and opened it, in search of General Frosch's secrets. All it contained was a 'with compliments' slip for a firm of estate agents with a fairly local address and what looked like a burst plastic envelope of unscented talcum powder.
   Frosch went ballistic when Iktar mentioned the weird message on her way out to an evening repo job. Frosch had arrived to make some phone calls from his 'office'. Iktar had to show him the waste bin where she had thrown the uninteresting communication pronto. Then she shot off to her job, leaving me to watch Frosch in full anger mode.
   I began to appreciate what his problem was when I had listened in to the first of three calls. Frosch suspected that we had been 'anthraxed'. The first step was to haul some expert and her testing equipment to Churchill Square. The middle-aged woman climbed out of her van and walked rapidly across the pavement in full biological isolation gear! Fortunately, it was another dark, wet, miserable February evening -- a Wednesday -- and there was no one about in the square to notice her and wonder what was going on.
   The biological weapons expert seemed totally unconcerned by the sight of Frosch and myself swanning around without rubber suits and masks. I assumed that General Frosch had told her about our 'personal protection systems'.
   Frosch and I collected further equipment from the back of her van while the expert established her laboratory area in a ground-floor reception room. She took an hour to confirm that we had been sent anthrax spores. Frosch started to moan about the cost of a full bio-decontamination sweep of the house. I decided to spend the rest of the night at my science fiction film club while he got on with his organizing. I took the attitude that if his messing about had brought us the problem, then it was up to him to square things away.
   Two days later, on Friday, Frosch turned up at Churchill Square with a lab report. We had been attacked more by 'dirty-grey biology' than by 'black biology'. According to his lab report, we had been sent a deactivated version of anthrax, which gives positive results to the routine screening tests but which doesn't produce anthrax symptoms and death. Well, death in the pre-dead, anyway.
   Anthrax-savig 114 was the white powder's technical name. Frosch told Iktar and myself that it is used for biological blackmail. The white powder conveys the message:

"We could have infected you or someone close to you but we chose not to this time. Pay up or we'll do it for real next time. Pay up if you don't want to live in a rubber suit for the rest of your life."

According to Frosch, it's a developing area of crime which is still feeling its way and which is mainly confined to the United States. I felt far from honoured to be one of the first potential victims in the U.K. Frosch, on the other hand, had calmed down and he was thinking about ways to use the attack to his advantage.
   A good thing to do, he felt, would be to invite his chief suspect to Churchill Square and behave as if no one had noticed that we had been almost anthraxed. Iktar shot his idea down in flames by pointing out that he would achieve nothing. The sender of the Anthrax-savig 114 would know that it is harmless and he or she would not be afraid to visit the house.
   In the end, Frosch decided that the best thing to do was make a careful note of the cost of detecting the attack and the clean-up operation, and then make sure that the North Road Mob paid for everything at least ten times over.
   Iktar then left us to do some research on the Internet. She was up to something but it was clearly too soon to share it with the rest of us. Frosch and I headed for the drinks. He had switched from neat Pernod to Southern Comfort. I was still trying out single malt whiskies.
   "By the way," Frosch remarked when he was holding a full glass, "we have a weapon called a stenchiv. But don't admit to anyone that you've ever heard the name, okay?"
   "Good, is it?" I asked.
   Frosch gave me a confidence-trickster's smile. "It'll take out a medium-size planet. Like the one we're on now."
   "Makes you glad we've got it and the Earth people haven't," I said with a laugh. "By another way, has Iktar got a name for her way of zapping people yet? Her scrill-weapon? I keep meaning to ask her but it's difficult to get a word in at times."
   "No, she's still working on it. She's making a long list of names of weapons in science fiction stories so she can pick something totally different."
   "I know. She's had me doing searches in SF sites on the Internet. Looking for ideas for something that most Earth people won't have heard before."
   "We're calling them Earthers," Frosch mentioned. "It's shorter than Earth people. But you don't do it to their faces, only when they could overhear you."
   "Oh, right."
   "That's not what she's doing now?" Frosch added. "Researching weapon names?
   I shook my head. "No, this is top secret. She's working on another bit of technology. One that Earth people -- sorry, Earthers -- will recognize when they see it, though."
   "Sounds like it's going to be good," laughed Frosch.
   "Even better than her scrill-weapon, she said," I told him.
 

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