8a : The Taj Mahal By Daylight
Trust -- true confidence in another being -- tends to be in short supply. This is a universal law. I have many memories from that night of catching Iktar looking at me and seeing in her eyes, a need to convince me that she had, indeed, embraced the previous dawn.
There was also concern. We were not dealing with a phenomenon which had been the subject of a proper scientific investigation. The rule for our frame of existence had always been 'embrace the dawn and you die'. Iktar was the only exception to the rule. But once I had formulated that thought, I knew it to be inaccurate. Iktar's survival was the only exception that we knew of.
Direct sunlight is fatal more or less immediately, indirect sunlight is fatal after a time. This was a rule by which I had always lived. When the time came to put it to the test, I chose not to be cautious. I chose an all-or-nothing approach. When my watch told me that it was five minutes before dawn on a day a dozen or so years after my transition to post-death, Iktar and I took our glasses of blue drink to the top of the house.
Standing on either side of an east-facing window, out of the direct glare of the watery light of the sun, which was shining through thin cloud, we watched a band of pale light form on the wall opposite the window. The sun was fully over the horizon when Iktar stepped into the beam. Almost at once, after a slight delay due to quasi-human reflexes, I joined her.
There was no sensation of warmth. The sunlight was fairly weak and, as I have mentioned, we don't feel much of anything any more. We just stood there in silence, Iktar and I, waiting for something to happen but hoping that nothing would.
Iktar raised her glass towards me. I raised mine and clinked it against hers.
"Here's to our first dawn together," she said with a smile which expressed the relief that we both felt.
"The first of many, with any luck," I replied.
We drank our toast in blue, alien cocktail.
"I don't have a pair of sunglasses but I don't think I'm going to need one," I said after a while.
Iktar nodded. "Yes, I noticed that. We know that bright artificial lights don't affect us but I expected sunlight to be different."
Iktar yawned suddenly.
"How long have you been up?" I said with a laugh.
"I don't know. Ages. A night and a day and a night."
"And you're feeling tired?"
"Yes, I am, come to think of it. Maybe we need to switch off for a while, have something similar to sleep, for some sort of regeneration process."
"If you want to go and crash out for a while, I won't feel deserted."
"Not yet. I want to go out for a walk with you. In daylight. Just to be sure this is really happening and it's not all a dream."
Bright beams flooded down from clouds to ground. Suddenly, the sun broke through the white and grey mountains of cloud, exploiting a long rift. The top half of my body was in full, direct sunlight.
I have no idea how we are supposed to be destroyed by sunlight -- burned up, dispersed into an ever-thinning mist, something as dramatic as an explosion or what. I braced myself automatically. Eventually, I realized that I was still there.
"There are more things in my philosophy than you ever dreamed of, or however the quotation goes," Iktar remarked.
"You can say that again," I laughed. "I think I'm more inclined to go along with your dream theory about what's happening now."
"Come and look at the world in daytime," Iktar invited.
Our walk took us down to the river. I watched sunlight rather than street lighting glinting off the grey water. I had forgotten the colours of natural light. The world looked a very different place by day. I had seen the red buses on TV often enough, but actually seeing them looking their proper red on the streets was a novelty. Again, I had seen the streets themselves often enough in films and on TV, but being out and about in those same channels in that day's intermittent sunlight made everything different. In fact, only the black taxis looked pretty much the same.
After wandering around for an hour and a half, we ended up at a café in a pedestrian area. We chose the sparsely populated outdoor section. The sun had disappeared permanently by then and there was rain in the air, but we didn't care. Our topic of discussion, naturally enough, was what had been the problem about daylight for the post-dead.
"Was it ultraviolet light, I wonder?" Iktar said in her best university lecturer manner. "Remember that series on the Sci-Fi channel that we never got round to watching? Ultraviolet? Weren't they were killing vampires with ultraviolet light in the trailers?"
"Except that we're not vampires, Ik," I pointed out. "If anything, we have more in common with ghosts than vampires. And according to you, we're the next stage of existence. Presumably, because we all have a particular genetic modification. We're mutants with a death-survival potential."
"Okay, we're the post-dead not the undead. But it could have been the same thing. UV radiation from the sun. And somehow, we're now resistant to it."
"Or we've become resistant to it with time."
"Unless it's like X-rays. The pioneers of X-rays couldn't see anything happening when they exposed themselves to them at first. Then they all started dying of radiation poisoning."
"You know what I really love about you, Ik?" I said with a laugh. "The way you're always so bloody reassuring."
"I was just thinking, we could go on a round-the-world tour. Seeing the dawn come up in exotic locations."
"So we could. Never mind seeing the Taj Mahal by moonlight, you want to see it by daylight?"
"That's exactly it," laughed Iktar.
I could see that Iktar had developed a form of daylight intoxication. Suddenly, there were lots of places which she wanted to see by daylight. And she needed an escort -- me. Because she needed someone with her to multiply her enjoyment of these exotic new sights.
"One volunteer to go with you, present and correct," I remarked.
"Of course, going on a round the world trip to see the dawn from every continent might be a quick way of killing us. Assuming sunlight has the same cumulative poisoning effect as X-rays."
"In that case, I'll die happy in great company."
"Yes, there is that to it, isn't there," Iktar said with a radiant smile. "For both of us. Frosch isn't going to like it if we swan off round the world."
"We can't let our lives be ruled by what Frosch will and won't like, Ik. Besides, if you let him in on your secret, you're going to give him a whole new time-frame for his sneaking about. He'll be able to spy on everyone, not just night owls."
"I think we should disappear while he's chewing that idea over," laughed Iktar.
The head of the local CID had sent an underling round to our home a couple of times, seeking to contact Iktar and myself. As far as we could gather, the detective constable had just shoved a note through the door on receiving no response to the doorbell. The police interest in Iktar was a whole lot less than that shown by the Daily News but they still had the body of a thief on their hands and every lead had to be followed up.
Iktar and I decided to take the precaution of going round to the police station during my first afternoon of daylight -- after Iktar had enjoyed a 'nap' for several hours. We showed the notes to the constable on duty at the front desk and he made an internal phone call.
A detective sergeant spoke to us briefly, telling us that he was following up a request for information and taking a close look at our relative sizes. He was rather short staffed on a Saturday afternoon, but he managed to scare up two pairs of detectives, who took us to separate interview rooms. Iktar and I made separate statements to the effect that we had been at home in bed and asleep when the phone-thief had been written off. Then we were free to go.
Iktar decided to do a bit of spying on the detective sergeant. She learned that someone with a computer had worked out the relative sizes of the man and woman whom the phone-thief had approached, and that she was much too tall to be the woman on the video.
I contacted Frosch via his mobile phone, after he had emerged to face the evening, and told him to stroll round to Churchill Square to hear some important news. I could see General Frosch thinking 'court martial' when I announced that Iktar and I were going on holiday.
I had been expecting his first word to be "But ..." I was planning to hit him with, "But me no buts, Frosch," before he could utter anything else -- mainly because I've always wanted to use that line on someone. Frosch didn't let me down.
When he had recovered somewhat from the shock of our desertion, Frosch acknowledged the wisdom of taking Iktar out of range of the Daily News, which still wanted to interview her. Even if the police seemed okay about eliminating us from their inquiries, the tabloid was still pushing, which suggested that someone behind the scenes was yanking the editor's chain.
Then Iktar hit Frosch with her news.
Frosch just stared at her for a while, alternating between a half-smile and a semi-frown as he tried to work out if it was a pointless joke or on-the-level information.
"Okay," he said eventually, "I give in. I can't tell if you're for real or not."
"Can't you tell from our suntans that we were out this morning?" I said.
"You're trying to tell me you can go out during the day?" Frosch made no effort to keep the disbelief out of his voice.
"Just think who you can spy on," laughed Iktar.
We could almost hear the wheels going round in Frosch's head when he was confronted with that prospect. He wanted to believe us but he was unable to accept that the 'wisdom of ages' was out of date. In the end, we invited him to an embrace the dawn party on Sunday morning and left it at that.
Sunday dawned wet and grey. We had a lot of trouble deciding whether the sun had risen just by looking out of the upper-floor window on another grey morning. By a quarter past seven, there could be no doubt that the sun was above the horizon. Frosch had been walking to and fro across the room, passing in front of the window and then moving out of the invisible sun's line of fire.
By the time we decided that dawn had come and gone, Frosch was wearing an 'amazed to be still alive' expression. I suppose I must have looked much the same to Iktar the morning before.
The three of us went out for a walk in light rain. Frosch was clearly running on his nerves but trying to appear as cool as Iktar and myself. If we were in an unannounced suicide pact, then he was going to keep calling our bluff right up to the last possible moment.
We wandered around for an hour, then we stopped for breakfast. We went inside the café but we picked a table beside the front window. Frosch was starting to get over a mild case of daylight intoxication and he was already making plans to exploit his new freedom of movement.
"So does this make us invulnerable as well as immortal?" he asked our resident mad scientist.
"Point number one, we don't know that we're immortal," Iktar returned. "We may well wear out but it may take a few hundred years to do it. As for being invulnerable, you can't kill us by shooting us or using a sunlamp on us, but there may be lots of ways of wiping us out that we don't know about."
"Yes, true," Frosch said thoughtfully. "And you don't know if we're resistant to sunlight up to a point?"
"I don't know if we're suddenly going to disintegrate," said Iktar. "But if I suddenly disappear, you'll know you've got two days left."
"And I've got one day left," I remarked.
"I guess we've got to be optimistic about this." Frosch chewed thoughtfully at his bacon sandwich, which he had decorated with both HP Sauce and tomato ketchup. "And it certainly opens up a lot of possibilities. Business meetings during the day, for instance. Mind-blowing!"
"So you'll be exploring your possibilities while we're on holiday?" said Iktar. "Everyone's happy."
"Have you told Xanthe?" said Frosch.
"We've not seen her for ages," I said. "And her mobile's switched off."
"Oh, well, I guess she'll show up," said Frosch. "When are you off on your round the world trip?"
"Today," Iktar said in a tone which left no room for argument.
8b : Vedrak Tolshivar
We were away for just over three weeks. Iktar and I visited every continent and sub-continent and we saw the local dawn at, below or well-above sea-level. Between dawns, we looked at pyramids in Egypt and South America, tall buildings all over the place, and spectacular natural and man-made places like the Grand Canyon, Stonehenge and, of course, the Great Wall of China.
We were touristed out when we finally got home to Churchill Square. Iktar was even thinking of getting another job as a repo woman and still working nights. For my own part, I was a bit daylighted out, and I was planning to resume my nocturnal existence for a while.
After visiting our private apartment to make sure that Frosch had been keeping the place dusted, we split up. Iktar wanted to go off on her own for a while and I wanted to rediscover the large, empty house with its areas of 'lost space'. I was totally unprepared to meet a stranger in the TV room.
I just sat down and directed what must have been a fairly indignant stare at the intruder.
"Tolshivar, First Vedrak of the Prime Order," the stranger said, more or less throwing away the title.
"I think I'll go out and come in again," I decided. The guy was one of us, post-dead, I could feel it. Which meant that either Frosch or Xanthe was playing silly buggers for some reason.
The stranger thinned himself to almost total invisibility then re-solidified. "I'm an alien. Like you and Frosch and the others."
"He's definitely going with that idea, is he?" I struggled to come to terms with the realization that the Four Musketeers were now Five. At the same time, I knew that it was too much to expect that General Frosch had been sitting idly by while Iktar and I had been swanning around the world, enjoying ourselves.
"He's got a pretty good scenario worked out for the right moment."
"So where did you run into him?" I looked at the stranger more closely. He was a man of our common apparent age, mid-thirties, well made as far as body shape was concerned, he presenting no obvious blemishes and he kept his dark hair cropped in a crewcut style. As far as his 'clothes' went, he was 'wearing' what looked like an expensive business suit, and he was clearly quite comfortable in formal attire.
"We met at Number Ten." Tolshivar flicked his gaze over me, not really approving of my casual mode of dress.
"Is that a club I'm supposed to know?" I decided not to be impressed.
"Oh, you know it all right," laughed Tolshivar. "Where the prime minister hangs out?"
"Right. So you were listening in on cabinet meetings, too?"
"I keep hoping I'll sit in on one that's remotedly interesting. Well, hope springs eternal, as they say. But like Frosch reckons, tedious people have incredibly tedious meetings."
"So you thought you'd join our merry band when you two got talking?"
"When I got over the shock of finding out there's more like me."
"Post-dead, you mean?"
"That's one thing to call it," laughed Tolshivar.
"So where does a Vedek come in General Frosch's private army?"
"Vedrak. A Vedek is a Bajoran religious leader in Deep Space Nine. A Vedrak is two steps below a Sokar. Which is some sort of general."
"A colonel, in fact," I calculated. "A Sokar being a major-general. I assume we're not including one-star generals? Who are really only brigadiers and only generals in the US army."
"Well, if you're going to be accurate," Tolshivar said dismissively.
"And what rank do the rest of us have?" I added. "The ladies and me?"
Tolshivar aimed what could have been a mocking smile at me. "You don't. Frosch and I are military. But the ladies are Amintosh, sort of high-ranking civil servants. The posh lady, Xanthe? She said she wasn't going to be anything less than a general if Frosh was one. So he decided to have parallel military and civilian people on our expedition. You're a Hadukar, which is pretty much a roving ambassador with cabinet minister status."
"And what, this place is our embassy?"
"Not really." Tolshivar added a superior edge to his smile. "We're not sure if we want to establish diplomatic relations with EarthGov yet. In fact, Frosch's line is that it's probably not worth getting involved with Earth until they establish a global EarthGov. We want to deal with a single authority, not a whole bunch of petty chieftains."
"That's calculated to get right up the noses of the self-important little squirts running this country's government!" I said with a laugh. "Not to mention the EU bunch. And the president of the United States."
"Show you don't care, get them gagging for it, then make the killer deal," laughed Tolshivar.
"Yes, that sounds just like General Frosch," I said.
The new arrival had been acting as a caretaker at Number One, Churchill Square during our absence. Iktar's reaction to him, about an hour after meeting him and after Tolshivar had gone out to see Frosch, was to mention to me that she hoped that he had somewhere of his own to live.
"Why's that?" I asked with a mild frown. "Worried about him seeing you strolling round in your undies?"
"I just don't want Frosch to think he can use this place as a doss house for his new mates," Iktar returned with a note of patience. "According to the legend, two people live here. You and me. And that's the way we have the accommodation set up. I don't want to have to keep having to do a rewrite."
"A point of view which makes excellent sense," I acknowledged when I could have pointed out that meeting new people -- the post-dead like ourselves -- seems to be pretty much of a once in a blue Moon affair.
Iktar, it seemed, had taken on the role of mistress of the house and she believed that she had the final word on who lived there. Possessions had never played much of a part in our lives before now. Beings which require only intellectual stimulation as a reason to keep on going tend not to accummulate much in the way of baggage. This empirical rule had been true for me and I had noticed that it had applied to the others, too. Our interactions with the pre-dead, and Frosch, had changed all that.
We each belonged somewhere specific now -- Iktar and myself at the Churchill Square house, Frosch at his penthouse and Xanthe at her grand apartment. We had never really belonged at the wrecked farmhouse out in the wilds. It had just been a place to meet and socialize while we waited for inspiration and a new direction.
In London, we were property owners and we were well on our way to establishing ourselves as persons of consequence. We were changing very rapidly in the time of change.
Catching up with General Frosch on what had been going on in our absence, a couple of days after our return, I learned that he suspected that Xanthe had been exploring the possibility of making her own deals independently from him. I also gathered from his speculative glances in my direction that he was wondering if Iktar and myself were doing the same -- namely looking for personally favourable terms if a deal was struck with one particular group of Earthers.
My initial thought was that we would end up in a situation similar to the plot of the film The Producers where each of us was selling off 50% shares in the profits from our 'alien techology' to whole gangs of gullible Earthers.
"What are your grounds for your suspicions, Inspector Frosch?" I asked when our self-appointed leader seemed to have run out of complaints for the moment.
"She's been seen hanging around with a guy from the French embassy a lot recently," Frosch replied. "And as he's a totally poisonous pillock, Xanthe can't be doing it for fun."
"Well, I suppose it's one explanation."
"And the others are ...?" Frosch invited.
"Nothing springs to mind immediately," I admitted. "Have you thought of confronting the lady with your suspicions, if only to clear the air. So you know if you've definitely got a rival?"
"No point." Frosch shrugged. "She'd say 'no' either way. I know, I would."
"So you feel confident about applying your own moral standards to other members of the group?"
"Are you trying to tell me the idea of your own, personal deal hasn't crossed your mind?" Frosch demanded.
"Actually, no," I returned, looking him straight in the eye. "Probably, because I don't have your contacts. And it's not really my field of expertise."
"Good. Because I think it's a good idea to co-ordinate our efforts when we look for allies in this sector."
"When you talk about 'this sector', is 'of the galaxy' implied? If so, why do we need allies in this sector? Especially a bunch of dead-legs like the Earthers."
Frosch smiled. "We're not saying."
"To save you thinking up a reason, you mean?"
"That's one way of looking at it," Frosch said with a broadening smile. "There's also a hint that there could be dangers around which, if we don't feel confident about tackling them alone, the Earthers have got no chance."
"So the buggers had better sign up an alliance with you pronto?"
"Something like that."
"Unless the bastards start wondering about playing the field and trying to get a better deal from your enemies."
"Which is another good reason for not giving them that much solid information to go on. How are you getting on with the new bloke?"
"He's okay. No disgusting personal habits. And he seems to be fitting in quite well. I get the impression he's been wandering around in daylight a lot longer than us, though."
"Yes, that came across to me, too," Frosch said with a nod. "Although, I don't think he's been post-dead for all that long. He still seems to be feeling his way over things like getting about. You know, the way we drift around anywhere we want."
It's not something we've had to learn. In our present state, we just seem to be able to get to other places very quickly -- pretty much half way round the world in half an hour when we're in tourist mode.
"Yes, that takes a bit of practice to control it at first but we've been doing it for yonks. Or getting on for a century, in certain cases," I added with a sideways look at Frosch. "Do you think the genetic memory, for want of a better term, about avoiding sunlight is getting lost?"
"It's possible. These things do wear out, according to what you see on the TV. And if it's not necessary any more ..."
"There's something for Iktar, our resident mad scientist to chew on. Was it necessary for us to avoid sunlight right after we became post-dead but is it no longer necessary for anyone who becomes post-dead now?"
"Should keep her busy on a slow day," laughed Frosch.
"So anyway, how are you getting on with your pals at North Road?" I asked.
Frosch put on an expression suitable for a big businessman on the verge of a killing. "Things are getting pretty positive on the political front. I think we're on the verge of getting in touch with the serious money men."
"The Chancellor, and like that?"
"And the millionaire hangers on who come to the politicians with their chequebooks open. They're the sort of guys who'd jump at the chance to exploit their own bit of alien technology."
"Have you ever thought how you're going to be able to spend all the cash you expect to extract from these guys?" I asked with a laugh.
"One can but struggle on and take the risk of dying in the attempt," Frosch said with a grin.