7a : A Political Dimension
Iktar returned with the last gasp of the night and I had to wait until Saturday evening before I received a report on what General Frosch was up to with the North Road Mob. Iktar had picked up a packet of ground coffee with a delicate chocolate flavour, according to the puff on the wrapper, and we had to brew some of that and take it to the library before she was ready to talk.
"Some politician friend of the North Roaders has found out that the gang think they're in contact with aliens," she told me after she had drawn out the getting herself comfortable process for as long as possible.
"Minister is friend of gangsters, shock-horror?" I remarked.
"Not quite. He's only a local councillor. Well, a bit more than only. He's about third in command on the ruling party. Benson or Benton, he's called. Everyone seems to call him Benny, though. But he does have connections to the government. I think he's been pretty well assured a safe seat at the next election as long as the present prime minister keeps his job."
"Not something everyone would put money on."
"Anyway, I gather Benny thought it was all a bit of a joke at first, the aliens. Then he got a bit panicky in case it was true. So he had a talk with a pal who's a junior deputy something or other at the Ministry of Defence. And they've been doing some checking up on us."
"What, all of us?"
"As many of us as they can track down. All that messing about we were doing where we were going round pretending to be minor celebrities didn't help."
"What, they think there's a whole gang of us?" I said with a laugh.
"They certainly think there's a lot more than the four of us," Iktar said with a half smile of contentment. "The coffee's not bad, is it?"
"It's different. Bit on the sweet side for me."
"But not bad for a change?"
"I suppose we can dilute it with ordinary ground coffee."
"Yes, that's a good idea."
"So what did the Men from the Ministry come up with about us?"
"A whole load of inconclusive stuff. They were starting to think we're definitely not human, but then they cottoned on to that idea that Frosch was floating. What if our PPS is screwing up all the scans? The X-rays and so on."
"We could be humans with stolen technology that stops them X-raying us?"
"Right. Except these guys aren't that convinced that the sort of technology we'd have to have exists on this planet yet. The Personal Protection Screens, for instance, aren't something any Earthers have invented."
"Well, they're in a position to know. So where are we up to?"
"Frosch reckons the politicians, this is the government, they've decide to watch and wait for the moment. Assess the threat and look for ways to use it or neutralize it."
"Pretty much the way we're watching the Earthers to see if they're a threat to us?"
"The old Cold War stand-off scene," Iktar said with a nod. "Except, if we are aliens, we've got all the bombs and they haven't. So they need to tread very carefully."
"I bet they'd rather prove we're Earthers with technology than aliens."
"Oh, I don't know. Frosch reckons the prime minister is thrilled by the prospect of possibly being the first world leader to meet representatives of an off-world culture. Mind you, he's also terrified of being hoaxed and going down in history as a prize idiot."
"People may think that anyway after considering his record in office."
"But he doesn't want to provide proof positive himself. What the PM's most worried about, Frosch reckons, is if it's a hoax. He would almost rather let the chance of meeting representatives of an ET civilization slip away rather than take the smallest risk of being fooled."
"Human nature multiplied by a politician's ego."
"At the same time, he'd be enormously chuffed if aliens chose to visit London rather than any other city in the world. Or if the aliens are all over the world, that they would choose to reveal their presence to the British government rather than to any other government in the world -- particularly to us rather than to the Yanks and especially not to the President of the EU."
"Talking about a politician's ego," I laughed.
"And the PM's sister-in-law, Debbie Boon ..."
"The one who keeps giving the tabloids a thrill?"
"The very same. She has links with the North Road Mob. Frosch reckons she's dated Julian Hucks, the 'Deb's Delight' and Mike Verbrecher or 'Motoring Mike', who used to drive on the saloon car circuit. And did the Le Mans 24-Hour twice. And even got there once."
"So the PM has an independent line of information into the North Roaders through his sister-in-law? Independent of this councillor bloke?"
"Or Frosch has a way to feed information directly to Downing Street."
"Yes, that's the way a general would look at it."
I met Iktar again the following night -- Sunday gone into the early hours of Monday. She had just pulled off a repossession job against a totally sneaky customer and she was in the mood to celebrate. As I was doing nothing much at 3 a.m. but watching American motor racing on a wide-screen telly, I was summoned to help her enjoy her triumph.
Iktar's boss had been having trouble with his voice mail and she had been trying to leave a message for about ten minutes when I joined her in what looked like a pretty desperate part of town. Apparently, there was a club used by repo people and similar night workers nearby.
We set off in the direction of the club with Iktar telling me how she had outflanked a non-payer who had outwitted three of her colleagues for over a month. Then she decided to have one more go at voice-mailing her boss with the success so that he would know just how brilliant she is when he arrived at his workplace in the morning.
We stopped at about the middle of a row of heavily shuttered shops. Iktar thinks that using a mobile phone on the move, except in an emergency, is totally vulgar. She dialled a number. Weird noises issued from her phone. Then there was silence.
The next thing we knew, some kid was pointing a gun at Iktar and telling her to give him the phone or she was dead! I was just thinking that the boy looked about twelve years old and his gun had to be a toy when Iktar used her scrill weapon -- the hralchiv -- on him.
The kid flew across the road and crashed into a set of steel shutters with enough force to start an alarm ringing.
"Oops!" Iktar said with a laugh in her voice. "I'm still getting the hang of this. I always use too much power when I get annoyed."
We crossed the road. She had zapped the kid so hard that his body was seriously broken. He was oozing blood from his eyes, which is never a good sign, as well as his nose, mouth and ears. It was then that I noticed that he had a moustache of sorts, which meant that he had to be a lot older than twelve, despite his lack of size.
"He doesn't look so healthy," I remarked, feeling that one of us had to say something or we would be stuck there forever.
"He's even less healthy now," Iktar said with grim satisfaction.
I realized that she had been draining her assailant to the point of non-survival.
"Where's his gun?" Iktar added. "We shouldn't leave it lying around for another young criminal to find."
We made a detour to the river to dispose of the gun, which proved to be totally real, fully loaded and dangerous to the pre-dead, before we headed on to the repo club. Neither of us felt unduly concerned by the demise of a criminal who stole mobile phones at gunpoint in the middle of the night. That night's work was to have significant repercussions, however.
7b : The Face Of An Alien?
General Frosch paid a visit to Churchill Square on Monday night. He was looking to pick Iktar's brains. He was still trying to cover all of the angles of our being aliens. I discovered that Iktar had converted him to blue Curacao and bitter lemon as an appropriate drink for people not of this planet, which made the bartender's job simpler. We were taking our blue drinks in the library.
"Okay," Frosch began, "assuming people believe you're an alien, what do you say when they ask which planet are you from?"
Iktar shrugged. "An accurate reply would be, 'the name wouldn't mean anything if you heard it'."
"Yeah, I like that," Frosch said with a laugh. "It's definitely not in our solar system?"
"Obviously. We could have put a base on Mars or the Moon, but what would be the point if we've got the Earth? This is the only planet with the protection from radiation of an thick atmosphere, which is also breatheable. But if you're an advanced alien life form, you're from another star system and that's where home would be."
"And the average punter doesn't know one star from another?"
"Especially the ones with just catalogue numbers," I offered.
"This galaxy or another one?" said Frosch.
"To come here, we'd have to be from the neighbourhood," Iktar decided. "There's too much more interesting stuff locally if you're from across our galaxy, or from a neighbouring one, to ever come to an insignificant system like ours."
"What have you got against Earth?" I said indignantly.
"Our region of the galaxy is insignificant as viewed during a survey from space at a long distant," Iktar said patiently.
"Another thing is why we're here," said Frosch.
"We're just having a look at what's here," Iktar said with a shrug. "What do you need more than that?"
"We're a bit like the Ferengi," I added. "We're here, we're looking for a profit, we have technology to sell, and when we've sold it, we're gone."
"This is something I'm having a problem with," said Frosch. "I mean, it's difficult to imagine a primitive civilization like this one having anything we'd need. Or anything we couldn't just take if we really wanted it."
"You reckon you'll be able to get away with telling the North Road Mob that?" I asked with a laugh.
Frosch shrugged. "Why not?"
"Why not, indeed?" I was forced to admit.
"I'd say there's enough here to justify a study centre, at least," said Iktar.
"Xanthe was saying something about aliens would come here to look at the Earthers the way we'd go to the zoo," I offered.
"We definitely can't tell them that," laughed Frosch.
"A diplomatic mission," said Iktar. "That's a good starting point. Observation without interference. With rogue operators like yourself selling off bits and pieces of our fantastic technology around the edges."
"Hmm," said Frosch. "Sounds promising."
"I'll dig into my collection of science fiction stuff I've trawled from the Internet and see if I can come up with a solid scheme of things," Iktar added.
The consequences of actions invariably return to haunt us. Except when they don't -- but nobody notices, then. I'd noticed people giving Iktar funny looks of the sort which we'd collected when we'd been making ourselves look somewhat like minor celebrities. The look that says, 'Hey, that's ...; no, it can't be.'
Iktar had said nothing to me but I soon noticed that she had the attitude of someone who was toughing it out and ready to beat up the next person who asked her for an autograph. Eventually, an hour from dawn, in the all-night café where we had ended up after a heavy night at the science fiction film club, I confronted her in a minor way.
"Why do people keep looking at you?" I mentioned in a totally casual way. "Apart from to admire your amazing good looks, of course."
"Bloody annoying, isn't it?" Iktar said in the tone of someone who was glad that her dim escort had noticed the problem at last.
"I mean, do they think you look like someone new in a TV soap?"
"Some of them look quite intelligent so it has to be more than that."
"D'you reckon we should grab the next one and make him talk? Twist his arm off down a dark alley?"
"That sounds like a plan to me," laughed Iktar. "In fact, I think we'll do it if they're still doing tomorrow night."
"Yes, time is getting on a bit," I said after consulting my watch, which can be programmed to give a count-down to dawn at any given latitude and longitude. "Are we off home now?"
In a quiet street, we 'beamed out', reducing ourselves to shrinking pencils of yellow light, in case anyone was watching, and made a rapid journey back to Churchill Square. Unusually, we found Frosch waiting in our basement secret room. He usually spent the day at his own penthouse apartment.
"What the hell have you two been up to?" from him coincided with our routine greetings.
"Define 'up to'," Iktar returned.
Frosch handed her a page torn from the Daily News, a relatively new black-top tabloid newspaper, which was kicking ass in search of circulation about one year after its launch. The paper claimed to offer 'serious news'. Its target readership was wealthy middle class people but the editorial staff was known to have red-top instincts.
The headline, a product of such instincts, read: Is This The Face Of An Alien? Below it was a picture of someone who could have been a distant relative of Iktar's.
"This is supposed to be me?" she said.
"Just read it," said Frosch.
Iktar held the half page at an angle comfortable for both of us and we began to read. The story was written in a rather breathless and semi-joking style, as if the journalist wanted to believe that it was all true but he was covering his backside in case it was just a hoax.
"The mugging was picked up on the CCTV surveillance system outside a wine store," Frosch added. "They've enhanced the hell out of the picture to get that photographic quality, which is why it doesn't look much like Ik any more. And recording the stuff at night by the street lights didn't help. But a bloke flying away from a woman after pointing a gun at her -- that has to be you two."
"We're not denying it," Iktar said. "And if anyone else points a gun at us, the same's likely to happen. How did they get this? The newspaper?"
"My best guess is the manager of the shop or a copper sold them a copy of the tape. The News pays quite generously for stuff that puts them two steps ahead of the competition, I hear."
"So what have they got, the police?"
"A camera that came on automatically for a while, a bit of grainy video at six frames a second showing a kid with a gun trying to rob a posh lady of her mobile and getting zapped out of the camera's view at high speed. Then the lady and the bloke, whose face they can't do anything with, enhancement-wise, also leave the camera's view."
"Not what you'd call a lot to go on," Iktar remarked.
My watch sounded a warning tone. "Dawn five minutes away," I mentioned.
"We'll think about this in the evening," said Frosch. Then he dived into his overday storage area before Iktar could start an argument.
The discussion had to be postponed. When we returned to circulation at about seven-thirty on a wet Thursday evening toward the end of March, someone was ringing the doorbell. We soon discovered that there was some cheeky sod peering through the letterbox into the hall, the floor behind the front door was littered with notes and there were journalists parked around Churchill Square in wet cars.
I retrieved some of the notes when the security camera showed that the lurker had cleared the porch. All sorts of people wanted to speak to 'Mrs. Prethon'.
"This has got to be someone trying it on," Frosch decided when we were in our TV room, waiting to see if anything about Churchill Square was mentioned in a news break on the local cable TV channel.
"The North Road Mob?" said Iktar.
"Either them or someone whose strings they're pulling," said Frosch "Someone like Charlie or one of his lieutenants has decided to pushing things. He's given them Iktar as the woman on the video. As far as the papers are concerned, if it's not true, it's all a big joke they're having with their readers. But if it is true ... Well! Aliens among us, shock horror."
"This is going to blow my job," Iktar realized, putting on her 'very annoyed' expression. "The firm won't keep me on if people keep looking at me, wondering if I'm the woman in the newspaper picture."
"I think what we've got to do is sit this one out," said Frosch. "We carry on as normal, as far as possible, but we don't let ourselves be seen arriving at this place or leaving. Okay?"
"I don't think okay is the word for it, Frosch," Iktar said in a frosty tone. "I suppose we'll have the police round looking to ask me questions."
"I'll go and check some things out," Frosch added in a thoughtful tone, ignoring the reprimand. He 'beamed out' and left us.
"Yeah, and I'll go and check some things, too." Iktar just de-densified and drifted through a handy section of wall.
Left alone, I gave my attention back to the television set. Nobody had anything to say about Churchill Square. I had got to the point of wondering whether to switch off, or change to a different channel, when a woman appeared in front of me. She had light blonde hair cut in a short style and she was wearing what looked like designer glasses with a very light tint. Her bottle green jumper and matching cords looked just like the outfit which Iktar had been 'wearing' when I had seen her last and I could sense that she was one of the post-dead.
"It's me," she said in Iktar's voice.
When I stood up, I found that she had made herself about three inches taller. She was now just a couple of inches shorter than me on medium heels.
"Couldn't you have gone the other way?" I complained, just being awkward. "Made yourself four feet tall so I look dead big when you're standing next to me?"
"Like the Big Hair Bloke on Bravo?" laughed Iktar. "Why don't you just grow a bit?"
"What, and bang my head every time I go through a doorway? Or is this you telling me you'd like to hang out with an extra-tall Michael Knight?"
"I think at least one of us should be able to recognize the other in a crowd."
"I tell you what, the police are never going to recognize you if you open the door to them."
"I was just thinking about that," said Iktar. "We could leave. We could choose to walk away, or whatever, from all this fuss and bother. But we're not going to."
"We're not?" I said, sitting down again.
Iktar lowered herself into the neighbouring chair, getting used to her different size. "I think there must be a mile-wide stubborn streak in all of us. It's the same pig-headed refusal to be evicted from what's ours that kept us at that shambles of a farm house for so long. It's working again here. They can take my job away but they're not going to run me out of town."
"Hooray for us!"
"Okay, I can see it happening eventually; with you and me, at least. One day, we'll choose to retire to somewhere quiet for a while ..."
"... but somewhere with a library and cable TV now."
"... but not for a while and not because we had been driven out of our home by a bunch of greedy Earthers."
"Way to go, Ik," I said with a laugh. "I wonder if Xanthe will recognize you?"
"As there are only two women in the group and she's the other one, I don't think she'll have too much trouble."
"What about when Frosch was playing her twin sister?"
"Point conceded," Iktar said with a smile. "So, anyway, are we going somewhere so I can get used to being nearly as tall as you?"
"Yeah, sounds like a plan," I said.
7c : A New Perspective
We rarely experience a truly life-changing event -- using 'life' in the sense of existence rather than the precursor of death. I had one today when Iktar joined me and casually announced, right out of the blue, "I saw the dawn today."
It was a simple enough statement but world-shattering in its implications. If true, it meant that we are no longer chained to the night. The time of change is surely here in spades.
This was a day later. Iktar and I had drifted around some of our favourite haunts on our night out, and I had been the one to collect the looks. People were either wondering what I had done with my previous companion or they were wondering if the alien had dumped me. Eventually, Iktar decided to go off on her own and I retired to the science fiction film club to catch up on a missed episode of the Darkman sequence.
I didn't see Iktar again until the next evening. She was waiting for me in our basement lost space when I emerged for another night -- the old Iktar with dark hair, no glasses and at her usual height.
"Are you all right?" I asked, suddenly alarmed as the true meaning of her words sank in. ‘Seeing the dawn' is not supposed to be a good idea for the post-dead and I was suddenly aware that she could be gone from my life very soon and this was her final farewell.
"I'm fine," she said with a smile.
"Are you sure? You actually saw the dawn?" I let my confusion show through in my tone.
"I stayed out a bit too late this morning and I had to sneak back to Churchill Square on the shadowed side of the street. Just my luck, I kept telling myself, the only morning for ages when the rain held off. And I kept wondering if I'd start bursting into flames like Spike does on Buffy, the Vampire Slayer."
"And did you?"
"No, not even a mild case of smoking. So anyway, that started me wondering. We have some sort of genetic memory that we should avoid sunlight. I mean, no one ever told me that ..."
"Me, neither," I said into the expectant pause.
"So I started wondering. Female curiosity. Is it really true? Or is it true any more if it once was? Were we vulnerable to sunlight right after, well, whatever happens when we change from pre-dead to post-dead? And does it wear off?"
"So the mad scientist in you decided to experiment?"
"Something like that. I ended up drawing some curtains almost to and sticking my little toe into the beam of sunlight."
"Something you wouldn't miss if it went up in flames?"
"That was the idea, yes. Anyway, to cut a long story short, the sunlight had no effect. And in the end, I opened the curtains and just stood in the light of the rising sun."
"And lived to tell the tale?"
Iktar just looked at me.
"Not even a mild case of sunburn?"
"No, nothing at all."
"So are you going to try it tomorrow?"
I just looked at her. For my entire post-life existence, an invitation to embrace the dawn with someone would have meant a suicide pact. My first reaction was to wonder if she was lying to me. 'What if she's planning to duck out of the path of the sun's rays at the last minute so that the last thing I hear is Iktar saying April Fool!'
That unworthy question ran though my mind, closely followed by, 'So what if that does happen?' As someone who has died once already, the end of another phase of existence would be just something that happened. And if there was nothing beyond, then there would be nothing of me left to feel regret.
"You don't believe me, do you?" Iktar said into my silence.
"Going there would leave me with the more difficult question of why you'd be telling me such a silly story," I replied eventually. "What would be the point?"
"And it's a week to April Fool's Day?"
"That as well."
"I really did stay out here all day, Preth. I've been wandering about, looking at things, all day. Not looking like this, of course. I was the tall blonde. But the daylight didn't affect me."
"It's suppose to."
"I know. If you get fed up with this post-death existence, you're supposed to stay up and embrace the dawn. Or even what passes for the dawn when it's March and it's always raining. But how do you kill yourself now?"
"Beats me, Ik," I said with a shrug. "You could try diving down a black hole, if you're really desperate. There's supposed to be one at the centre of the galaxy."
"I've just thought," Iktar added, "what if I'm not affected by sunlight any more but you are?"
"Tough females aren't but weak males are?"
"I've been post-dead for about six times as long as you, don't forget. I don't think I'd ever forgive myself if I got you to stand in a beam of sunlight and it killed you."
"We could always try it out on Frosch first."
"Or we could be cautious about it, like I was at first."
"Expose a non-essential bit of the laboratory rat to sunlight and see if he shivels up?"
"This is sounding a lot more clinical than I wanted, Preth. I've been happy about it all day; thinking about all the places we could go; but now ..."
"Now, we'll just have to wait and see what happens at seven o'clock tomorrow morning," I told her. "Who said there are no surprises left for the Twenty-First Century?"