B1 : No Lizards
The truce proved to be of short duration. For a few days, Iktar and I wandered about on the North Road Mob's territory and their people just checked us out and kept their distance. Then Iktar spent the best part of 36 hours on a single repo job, which had a successful conclusion, and she found herself in the mood to celebrate. We took her roulette system to the North Roaders' casino club, where I showed her how to monitor slot machines and get in just when they were ready to pay off. Iktar saw no reason why she should refine her system with her own money.
We were just about to drop a second jackpot prior to assaulting the roulette table when I found myself standing in the shade. The man in the dinner jacket, white silk shirt, black bow tie and shimmering, dark blue cummerbund was six foot four if he was an inch and he looked about a yard wide.
"Someone wants to talk to you," he announced.
"Who?" I said, feeding another token into the slot machine. We were about four plays away from a pay-out.
"I mean, right now," the man said as I got more fruit salad.
"Right." I fed the greedy monster again.
"You're not listening," the big man told me.
"If I wasn't listening, I wouldn't be talking to you," I told him quite reasonably. Fruit salad, another token. More fruit salad.
The big man took hold of my money arm in what would have been a crushing grip if it had been applied to someone with a crushable arm and a conventional human nervous system. "Someone wants to talk to you," he repeated.
"I know, you said. But I'm busy so take your hands off me," I told him.
"Shut up and listen." The heavyweight tightened his grip.
"You're not going to stand for that, I hope?" Iktar took over feeding the machine while I was out of action. More fruit salad.
"Do you think he'll take notice of a fair warning or do you think he's too thick to know when he's in extreme danger?" I addressed my remark to Iktar, treating the heavyweight like someone who was no longer there.
"Hey, you, I'm talking to you." The man produced a knife and shot a gold-plated blade into view from the handle. He held the four-inch blade about a foot from my chin.
I densified my arm to resist his grip. Iktar fed another token into the machine then put on a provocatively quizzical expression, challenging me to get on with it.
So I gave the big guy my best shot.
The flash and bang were very impressive, even if I say so myself, and they coincided with the electronic cheer as the fruit machine payed out. The heavyweight flew about fifteen feet, trailing smoke and a foul stench of burning flesh and plastic. Iktar and I gathered up our winnings and left the area as the fire alarms started to go crazy.
"I zapped the surveillance camera," Iktar remarked.
"I know, I saw you looking at it," I replied.
"You certainly made him jump."
"I gave him a double shot. Fifty kilovolts and your haralchiv together."
"Hey, that's a good idea. I wish I'd thought of it."
"You don't have to now I have."
"True. I don't think Frosch is going to like it. You zapping that guy so publicly."
"We can't let our lives be ruled by what Frosch will and won't like, Ik."
"True," laughed Iktar. "Come on, let's cash in and go somewhere better."
Frosch caught up with us the next morning as Iktar was thinking about checking for repo jobs and I was thinking about buying some new books for the library. Not apportioning any blame, Frosch told us that he was open to suggestions for what to tell the North Road Mob about the previous night's 'incident' in their casino club.
"You could always just look blank," I suggested. "The old 'nothing to do with me, mate' attitude."
"Or you could wonder about the state of their wiring," said Iktar. "If the Health and Safety bloke shouldn't be closing them down as a public danger."
"Yeah, they'll like that," laughed Frosch.
"Or you could tell them someone as important as a Hadukar has an automatic defence system," Iktar added. "Which their man triggered when he put his grubby Earther mitts on a person of Preth's importance."
"That's good," said Frosch. "And I guess we've all got something similar?"
"I guess we have," said Iktar. "Well, the Amintosh certainly do."
"I should think the military have something a lot beefier, eh, General?" I added.
"Could be," said Frosch.
"Anyway, I'm outa here," said Iktar. "See you when I see you."
"Have a nice time," said Frosch.
We chatted on for a while and Frosch decided that he would buy some books, too. So we headed for bookland. And while we were cruising through the bound volumes, Frosch came to the conclusion that he had to bring matters to a head over the testing issue. He knew that everyone on our side was getting pissed off with the North Road Mob's testing methods and he was starting to worry that one of the women, most probably Xanthe, would do something really impulsive and excessive.
After much thought, he had decided that it would be better all round if we were aliens rather than spies. Spies are just people, ordinary Earthers, unpredictable at times but constrained within the framework of human experience. Aliens are a totally unknown quantity. If they felt threatened, they could just start taking out whole city blocks and then split, leaving behind a wasteland of smoking rubble.
"I like your imagery, Frosch," I said with a laugh. "How appropriate that we're in the science fiction section of this shop. Have you read Harry Turtledove's World War series yet?" I pointed to one of those compilation volumes, which contain a whole bunch of books in a single binding.
"I keep meaning to," Frosch picked one of the books off the shelf and added it to his wire basket. The bookshop did not supply them and I assumed that the basket came from a handy supermarket. We tended to buy ten or a dozen books at a time and the basket was a very handy convenience. "Maybe I'll read a couple of the books before I come out to Colin Breen and the rest of the North Roaders as an alien. See if Mr. Turtledove can come up with any useful ideas we can nick."
"Even Earthers have their uses," I remarked.
Frosch was back at Churchill Square a couple of days later, on Sunday afternoon. He was trying to look annoyed for a full house of his partners in crime (Xanthe had arrived at about lunchtime for people who still needed to eat and Tolshivar had joined us about an hour before) but we could tell that Frosch was really quite amused.
"Guess who the police tried to question about Prethon's fun and games in the casino the other day?" Frosch said to the assembled company in the TV room.
"What's it got to do with you?" Iktar asked with a frown.
"That's pretty much what I said to them," said Frosch. "What makes them think I could tell them anything when I wasn't there?" He produced a pocket cassette recorder and set it on the arm of his chair.
"He is under your command, our friend Mr. Prethon?" a fairly deep voice said from the recorder when Frosch pressed the play button.
"No," said Frosch's voice.
"How would you describe your relationship, then?"
"Pretty much. If anything, he's more equal than me."
"I bet that admission bought tears to your eyes," laughed Iktar.
"So he didn't report the incident to you? Or discuss it with you?" the policeman's taped voice added.
"Not really," said Frosch's voice.
"And you didn't discuss it with him?"
"I can't think of anything that needs discussing about it." Frosch switched off the cassette recorder. "Looks like the police have been informed that I'm a leader figure in our little group."
"Strange that they didn't come rushing round here to arrest Preth," Iktar remarked. "Or me, for that matter."
"Looks like they've been warned off," said Tolshivar.
"That's very encouraging," laughed Xanthe. "A few tricks the Earthers can't explain and they start believing we're genuine aliens. And no longer subject to their petty rules and regulations."
"Not that the police have a hope in hell of putting together a case against Preth," said Tolshivar. "The North Roaders aren't going to say anything, and anything that happened in the casino was pure self-defence."
"That doesn't usually stop the fuzz making nuisances of themselves," said Iktar.
"It's obviously the power of our legend," said Frosch. "By the way, I started the first of the World War series, Preth, and it got me thinking. Maybe we should have a lizard on our team. To show the Earthers that we have more than one alien species in our contact party."
"What sort of lizard?" said Iktar. "Something like the Kardassians on Deep Space Nine? Fairly human-like? Or were you thinking more of the Creature From The Black Lagoon?"
"Maybe we should go for something really alien, like the Scarans in Farscape," said Tolshivar. "Something that's obviously not a human with make-up and rubber bits glued on."
"I'm not sure we should be repulsive or lizards," said Xanthe. "Being aliens is bad enough. Lizards and Scarans might be a bit more threatening that the Earthers can handle."
"That's a good point," Iktar said, looking rather surprised that what she considered to be an eminently sensible suggestion should have come from Xanthe. "Human-like aliens are probably as much as the Earthers can handle. It's reasonable to expect them to have a parallel code of ethics and a little bit of respect for Earther lives. But cold-blooded, scum-sucking lizards? They'd zap the lot of them as soon as look at them."
"Okay, we stick with human-like," said Frosch. "And no lizards."
"One thing that occurs to me," said Xanthe, "is your Goa-whatsit eyes and voice. If we're humans, more or less, why do our eyes glow and our voices sound funny?"
"Iktar, our resident boffin, will answer that one," Frosch said with a note of challenge in his voice.
"Simple," said Iktar.
"So simple, it doesn't really need explaining," Tolshivar said into a lengthening silence.
"Pollutants," Iktar said at last. "It's a mechanism we switch on when the local pollutant levels start to irritate our eyes."
"And that's the voice, too?" said Frosch. "Something else we switch on?"
"Or it's part of the same protection system," said Iktar."We come from an advanced, post-pollution civilization and we don't like the crap the Earthers breathe."
"That's good, Ik," Frosch said, impressed.
"Yeah, now explain the Buffy, the Vampire Slayer 'fierce face'," I said. "What's that all about?"
Iktar just looked at me.
"Personal pollution protection systems," Frosch said thoughtfully. "That's something the environmentally conscious Earther would buy."
"I'll give you a very reasonable royalty rate on the invention," Iktar promised.
"Talking about things Earthers would buy," said Tolshivar, "I was hanging around Number Ten, listening in, the other day. And one of his back-scratchers was telling the PM that the government's medical officers are wondering about quarantine issues."
"Why?" Xanthe said with a frown.
"Someone was wondering what would happen if alien visitors turned out to be harbouring alien diseases, which the Earthers could contract. Or if there are relatively harmless alien bugs; harmless to aliens, that is; which could jump species and devastate the Earther population."
"That sounds like an argument for being lizards with a totally alien biochemistry which makes that more or less impossible," said Iktar, the boffin.
"This is just control freak stuff," Frosch said dismissively. "They want to set up hoops for us to jump through and see what info they can extract on bogus medical grounds."
"Really?" said Zanthe.
"Someone has said, 'Hey, maybe we could blag a cure for cancer out of these guys without paying for it.' It's that sort of mentality," Frosch added.
"Alternatively," said Tolshivar, "one of the government spivs is thinking they could blag the cure and sell it on to a big pharmaceutical company. Then they could pretend it's an Earther invention and make some serious money for themselves."
"Is there any limit to the depths to which people expect politicians to sink?" laughed Xanthe.
"Probably not," Iktar decided.
"Another thing they'll want, next thing you know," said Tolshivar, "is for one of us to let them put him through their mill to find out how we tick. So they can come up with a biological weapon against us, just in case."
"Are you a member of his science fiction film club?" Xanthe said with an amused glance in my direction.
"Don't mock," Frosch said before Tolshivar could open his mouth and confirm Xanthe's conclusion. "I get my best ideas from reading science fiction."
"Why am I not surprised to hear that?" said Xanthe.
"So what's our strategy, Chief?" said Tolshivar.
"We stall," said Frosch. "If we don't admit we're aliens just yet, they don't have a leg to stand on with the medical stuff."
"Hang on," said Iktar, "I thought we'd agreed we're going to come out as aliens? Are we back in the closet now? Earthers with technology developed here, not aliens with totally new technology?"
"We're people who won't cause medical problems," said Frosch. "Which means, we're either Earthers with technology or we're aliens from an advanced civilization, which is used to contacting other alien species without contaminating them or being contaminated by them."
"Well, developing that thought," said Iktar. "Are we all the same sort of humanoid aliens? Or are we members of some sort of federation of star systems and some of us aren't from the same planet as the rest?"
"Yeah, I've often wondered that about Frosch," I mentioned.
"I don't think we need to complicate the scenario with that sort of detail," said Frosch. "The politicians will have a big enough job over getting their heads round alien visitors. If they've got the chance of trying to play off humanoid species against humanoid species on top of individual against individual, it's going to blow their tiny little minds."
B2 : Free Flight
Sometimes, there are developments which you just don't anticipate. Frosch suddenly became incredibly busy and impossible to contact. Tolshivar became almost as inaccessible. When he did show up at Churchill Square, he enjoyed being mysterious about where he had been and what he had been doing.
Iktar, subject to the greater pressure of female curiosity, cracked first. She had rejected the idea of spying on Xanthe, who was still 'up to things' with the French, but Frosch was a different proposition. We had to shadow Tolshivar to find out where our 'leader' was operating. Then Iktar's experience as an agent behind enemy lines came to the fore.
Frosch, we discovered, had been receiving clandestine invitations from foreign governments. He had also been doing some serious off-shore banking of bribes. We learned that he was now portraying me more or less as 'The Enemy', the obstructive and idle Hakukar, and saying that he could work around me, given sufficient resources.
He never confirmed anything but the legend, in his case, seemed to be that he was a human with access to technology which was probably from alien sources. He was an intermediary, a local agent, and it was no use asking him how the technology worked because he didn't have a clue.
To our amusement, we also learned that Frosch was being sounded out about making TV appearances on the equivalent of the Ed Sullivan Show in various countries. But his main business was with people at a slightly lower levels -- with politicians and their gophers rather than TV moguls At Iktar's last count, he had been approached by agents from the USA, Russia, Japan, China, Indonesia, New Zealand, Germany, Israel and Switzerland.
Between expeditions into the field to spy on our General, Iktar and I spent ages wondering when Frosch would unveil his activities to the rest of the group and what sort of lies he would tell about the total of bribes received. Iktar suspected that we would be lucky to see more than about twelve and a half per cent because Frosch could tell himself that he was doing all the work.
Life took a more dramatic turn for me during a break from our spying activities. It was the morning of the last Monday in June and I had not seen Iktar for a couple of days. Things had slowed right down on the Frosch front and we were not gathering much new, or even interesting, information any more. Iktar had returned to the world of repo work in search of a little excitement.
I had been using a part of a car park run by one of the North Road Mob's associates as a transfer location. It was very handy for a couple of decent bookshops and it gave me a good view of the panorama of London in action. The particular section of Level 3 that I used as a TL was semi-private and available only to friends and relatives of the North Road Mob. As few of them were out and about on Monday mornings, it was a good place to beam in and I found it very easy to stay out of the field of view of the security cameras.
On this Monday, I arrived just in time to see a traffic accident. I was looking out over the side wall of the deck when some idiot leapt into a flow of traffic. I assumed that the guy was a mugger fleeing the scene of a robbery. The driver of a red car braked as a figure flitted in front of the vehicle. A white van behind the red car didn't stop. I assumed that the driver was too busy yakking at his mobile phone to be bothered about the state of the road ahead.
The red car checked and then flew forward, shunted heavily from behind by the white van. The red car slammed into the mugger and sent him reeling into the path of a black taxi on the other side of the road. More brakes were abused, more bangs of metal in contact rang out. The mugger disappeared under the vehicles.
I was just thinking about the wonders of natural justice in action when someone grabbed my legs. The next thing I knew, I was over the side wall of the car park and in free fall.
I was surprised -- pretty well totally stunned -- by the assault. At the back of my mind was the thought that some jobsworth of a car park attendant had taken violent exception to a trespasser in the North Road Mob's territory. But I was not too stunned to think of a strategy. And so I beamed out on the way down to the concrete around the car park. I became a thin rod of light and disappeared.
I beamed back in again right behind my assailant, who was still hanging over the low wall, wondering where the hell I'd gone. I zapped him with 50 kilovolts to give him a clue. And when the man stopped twitching in the grubby angle of the wall, I zapped him again. Then I beamed out again when I heard running footsteps approaching.
I went home, back to Churchill Square, for want of inspiration. Iktar was there, just back from a successful repo campaign and bursting to let someone else know how clever she was. She soon shut up when she realized that I had a better story.
Chewing the matter over, we concluded that someone had taken it into his head to remove an obstacle. We assumed that Colin Breen of the North Road Mob had taken Frosch's complaints about the alien diplomatic corps in general, and the Hadukar in particular, too seriously and sounded off in the hearing of his 'troops', who had decided to do the boss a favour. It was Thomas à Becket all over again with the North Road Mob's car park standing in for Canterbury Cathedral and Colin Breen, rather than General Frosch, playing the part of Henry II.
Iktar, playing the person with the cool head for once, decided that it would not be a good idea to rush over to Colin Breen's palatial home and demolish it with some sustained hralchiv activity. The best thing to do, she decided, was for the pair of us to remodel ourselves so that we looked nothing like Prethon and Iktar, and go and find something interesting to do somewhere else until General Frosch contacted us.
Our revenge, Iktar felt, had to be co-ordinated with the General. I think I was so surprised to find her in such a reasonable mood that I just went along with her plan without protest.
We had mobile phones which were supposed to work anywhere in the world. Frosch caught up with us in a mountainous spot in Colorado, USA, where the locals were being allowed to parachute off a bridge over a river with broad flat banks, which ran through a gorge and offered reasonable landing zones. It was a strictly one-a-year event and it was quite fun for us to watch brightly dressed idiots crashing into the water or the trees if they failed to steer their parachutes properly.
We moved away from our viewing positions and found a quiet spot in a parking area when Frosch joined us. "Say hello to a film star," he remarked as we perched on a section of stone wall for a conference. Iktar and I had reverted back to our normal appearances so that Frosh would be able to home in on us more easily.
"What, you?" said Iktar. "The film star?"
Frosch turned a thumb in my direction. "Him. They got most of his adventure on CCTV."
"Maybe I should have zapped the camera," I admitted.
"But you were too busy zapping the bloke," said Frosch, taking care to keep accusation out of his voice.
"What's on the tape?" said Iktar.
"The camera panning away from a bloke who's standing at the side wall, looking at what's going on in the street. There's just the start of him being pushed face first over the wall as the camera moves on. It's on a reverse sweep when Preth beams in. He's got his back to the camera and he beams in between the camera and the bloke who shoved him over the wall. The camera operator noticed something was going on about now, and he put the camera on manual. So the camera stops moving with the action framed in it. You can see past Preth to this other bloke. He's full face to the camera. Then he goes into convulsions."
"Fifty kilovolts where it'll do him most good," remarked Iktar.
"The other bloke is clearly wearing a disguise wig and a moustache," Frosch added. "He goes into convulsions again for no reason that you can see on the tape. Then Preth beams out. In full view of the camera and it was a decent video machine and a fairly new tape."
"What part of the North Road Mob does this bloke work for?" I asked.
"I'm still working on that," Frosch told me.
"Only it would be nice to hralchiv the right bloke's house," said Iktar. "Always assuming we don't do the whole bloody lot of them."
"A hasty reaction would be counter-productive," Frosch mentioned.
"Which is not necessarily something that's going to bother anyone who's not called Frosch," Iktar returned.
"Hang fire, okay?" said Frosch. "They owe us one and we should take the best advantage of it."
"As long as it's not forever," said Iktar.
"Hang about," said Frosch. "Who got chucked out of the car park? You or him? Shouldn't Preth get a word in?"
"An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us," Iktar quoted.
"You've probably got until we get bored and destructive," I told Frosch.
"Let's not screw up all my hard work for the sake of a few hurt feelings, okay?" said Frosch. "I'll be in touch." After a quick check for people looking in our direction -- everyone was still watching the idiots with parachutes -- he faded out of view without doing anything as dramatic as a beam out.
"I suppose he knows what he's doing," I said to Iktar.
"I bet he thinks he knows what he's doing," Iktar scoffed.
"I'm sure he does. I mean, he's been around long enough. He may look like a bloke on the young side of thirty but he's been around over a century now. He has to have learned a bit of wisdom as well as low cunning."
"I shouldn't air that thought when Xanthe's around. I don't think she'd enjoy being reminded that she should have had a telegram from the Queen."
"The same way it wouldn't be a good idea to talk about bus passes when you're around?"
"You're as old as you feel, Preth."
"Which is about fourteen in your case, a lot of the time," I said with a laugh. "Do you want to watch the idiots a bit more? Or should we go and see what else America has to offer us?
"Let's move on," Iktar decided. "Frosch is going to be sick as a pig if we get bored too soon."