C1 : All Change
As rumours of a really stunning alien video began to circulate among the people who really count, Frosch decided that it would be a good idea to shift everyone to different living quarters. With remarkable speed, he located a wealthy British exile, who wanted to return to the UK to get involved in the political scene now that he had made his fortune away from the succession of grabbing bastards at the head of the British Treasury.
Churchill Square was an address which appealed to the Hon. Archie, as he was known. The house was becoming too identified with aliens for Frosch's liking, and he felt that it would benefit from a period of ownership by someone whose Earther credentials were impeccable. We cleared out the 'lost space' at Number One, Churchill Square and left it for the new owner to find or not. Frosch seemed quite indecently pleased by the profit which he had made on the sale.
At the middle of July, about three weeks after the attack on me in the car park which I had been using as a transfer location, Iktar and I found ourselves relocated to the penthouse of Perry Plaza. Our new home had a large, east-facing window, which allowed us to watch the dawn arrive, and an equally large west-facing window so that we could welcome the night. We had cable TV, a library, a super-duper computer for Internet research and a bar. As far as the other occupants of the building were concerned, the penthouse was owned by an eccentric billionaire, who maintained a string of apartments around the world. He visited London occasionally and he was reclusive.
The place was equipped with efficient dust filters on the air conditioning system and the cleaners visited just once per month. Iktar and I were living there officially but it was understood by the five of us that it was as much a meeting ground as the Churchill Square house had been. We all agreed to beam in and out of the penthouse, and never to arrive or leave on foot using the lifts -- or the stairs if we were feeling energetic.
Everyone else moved to a similarly magnificent residence and we held a round of apartment-warming parties. Much to our surprise, Frosch included himself in the hospitality and the rest of us were able to compare how he lived with how we lived. Iktar, ever suspicious, concluded that Frosch had at least one more apartment, which was his main refuge. She was convinced that the one which we had been allowed to visit was just an accommodation address for the general.
By the time we were all settled in at our new homes, the Security Services -- MI5 and MI6 -- had taken over the investigation of the strange affair of the alien in the car park as a matter of national security. When he arrived for a mid-week get-together, Tolshivar was able to report that the CCTV tape of the incident had been shown to the prime minister and his immediate circle of advisors, and the PM was demanding a definitive and immediate answer to the question, 'Are there aliens here in London?'
Xanthe had also dropped in, knowing that Tolshivar would be bringing us some news. Frosch was absent. We assumed that whatever Tolshivar had to say was not news to the General. "Perhaps it's just as well we all moved," Xanthe remarked. "Otherwise, we'd have had the Earthers kicking our doors down and yelling, 'Armed police!' at us."
"That wouldn't achieved much if we can just beam out before their very eyes," said Iktar.
"That would be great, wouldn't it?" laughed Tolshivar. "The police break in, the bad guys are surrounded, all seems lost, and then they just beam out."
"If it was a pre-dawn raid, we could let them lock us up," Iktar remarked. "And we wouldn't be forced to give the game away by having to escape from our cells before dawn to avoid being wiped out by the rising sun."
"No, we could even go to gaol for ten years as a suspected enemy aliens and illegal immigrants," I returned.
"That would be fun," said Xanthe.
"They'd have a bit of a shock if they tried to rape Preth in the showers," Iktar said with a grin. "And found him impenetrable."
"Oh, yes," Tolshivar added, "coming back to the car park. The word is that the camera operator was totally freaked out by what he saw. They took him to a secure medical facility for 'debriefing' by the security services. And they also told him there's an element of protective custody in it, which he was quite happy about."
"Why, is he on full pay?" said Iktar.
"If there are aliens in London, he's happy being safe from them in a safe house," said Tolshivar. "And if there aren't, he's having a great holiday with all found."
"All right for some," said Xanthe. "What are they saying about this tape? Do they believe what's on it?"
"There's too much for them not to believe," said Tolshivar. "They've got one more bit of tape from another camera. Preth falls right through the field of view. It doesn't show him beaming out on the way down but if any Earther had gone past that camera going downwards at that speed, they'd still be scraping him off the pavement."
"So they're satisfied that the beaming in and out is real?" said Xanthe. "But that doesn't prove anything."
"How do you mean?" Tolshivar asked with a frown. His glass of green liquid stopped on the way to his mouth. He was drinking creme de menthe with bitter lemon. The rest of us had blue drinks.
"I mean, it proves the technology is real," said Xanthe, "but it doesn't prove that Preth is an alien as opposed to an Earther with access to the technology."
"Yes." Tolshivar nodded thoughtfully. "The technology question is settled. It's real. But the alien side is still open."
Iktar's mobile phone began to ring. Everyone looked at her in an accusing way. She gave her number and listened for about twenty seconds. Then she folded up the phone and looked very pleased with herself. "One of my repo targets has slipped up. I'll see you later," she announced. And then she beamed out without more ado.
"Ah, these career women," remarked Xanthe. "Always busy." Then her mobile phone began to ring. Xanthe retired to another room to take the call.
"It's a really nice place, this," Tolshivar remarked on his way to the bar to replenish his glass. "How do you like it after Churchill Square?"
"It has the obvious advantage of being less accessible to the press, the police and guys with bogus witness summonses," I said. "I suppose it all depends whether you prefer being all on the same level in a penthouse apartment or having a vertical dwelling. I must admit, I was rather sorry to leave Churchill Square. It was my first experience of living at a classy address."
Tolshivar reclaimed his seat. "Which raises the question of whether we should be letting the Earthers push us around like this." he said. "Booting us out of house and home like this."
"What's your alternative?" I invited.
"Do you ever get the feeling we should be out zapping the Earthers as ghosts or poltergeists? Don't you get the feeling that this is the true purpose of our afterlife?"
"Actually, I've never really seen any sort of mission in my continued existence," I admitted. "I just am for however long it lasts and that's all there is."
"I exist therefore I am?"
"Something like that."
"You know your problem, Preth? You've got no ambition," laughed Tolshivar.
"An accusation which has been levelled against me quite frequently in the recent past. Usually by Frosch and/or Iktar. But unlike them, I have no major needs. And especially not a need to be the boss of the world."
"So you don't feel driven to seek out an explanation for who we are, what we are and where we're going?"
"To be truthful, I'd rather read a good book or watch a good film. I guess I'm not the philosophical type. All that asking questions about the meaning of life does nothing for me. Because when you think about it, it doesn't mean anything. Knowing or not knowing, or thinking you know, isn't going to make a whole hell of a lot of difference to anything."
"Strike 'no ambition' and write in 'depressingly practical'," laughed Tolshivar.
Xanthe returned to deposit her glass on the bar. "I have to go," she said in an apologetic tone. "Thank you for your hospitality, Preth. And your news, Tolshivar."
"Have a good time," Tolshivar said.
Xanthe smiled and beamed out in a way which was subtly different from the way anybody else did it.
"Off to play footsie with her French contacts, I'll be bound," said Tolshivar. "It's a great life if you don't weaken. What we were talking about?"
"Being a philosopher," I said.
"So we were. And you don't fancy it?"
"The weird thing is, when you think about it, we're in the ideal situation for a philosopher. We don't need to persuade some university to pay us a salary in return for teaching some classes and writing worthless papers and getting into amusing arguments with other university philosophers. We can just sit around and think about the meaning of life all day. And read up on what others think."
"Yeah, when you put it like that, it does sound like an existence for a grade-A deadleg. Of course, the other big question is how many others like us are around. Do you ever think about that?"
I shrugged. "It's like the first big question. I have no idea what the survival rate is for going from pre-dead to post-dead. So I can't just take the population of England and multiply it by the appropriate factor. And I have no idea how long people like us survive on average in a post-dead condition, so I can't work out the balance between the extinction rate and the replenishment rate. It's an unknowable quantity."
"Sounds like you have been thinking about that particular problem."
"It's more I've already had this conversation with Iktar. And we decided there's not that much point in wondering about the unknowable."
"Some people would jump at the chance to do that all day."
"Yeah, well, I'm not one of them."
"Frosch has been thinking about it recently. Wondering about the strength of the competition."
"What, he's worried about a gang of others like us leaping out of the woodwork and taking over his rackets?"
"Or starting up a rival racket and undercutting him."
"I'm sure he'll make them see there's more than enough pie to go round."
"He was also wondering if the other post-dead might see us 'aliens' as a threat and try to do something about it. Like, would they show out to their government and military, and volunteer as special forces in the battle against the aliens in return for special priviledges?"
"Sounds like Frosch has joined our science-fiction film club," I said with a laugh. "What if we're the only ones like us?"
"What, in the whole world? Yeah, that sounds likely," scoffed Tolshivar. "People only become post-dead in England?"
"It could be that the conditions for becoming post-dead are only right in limited areas. Such as the ones where we evolved."
"I'll have to tell that to Frosch," laughed Tolshivar. "It'll cheer him up no end, that idea."
"Not that it's likely to be true, though. There must be something behind all the ghost stories you get all around the world."
"I suppose there must be."
"But when you think about it, it's probably more likely that any other post-dead are going to think we're aliens, not Earthers like them."
"Especially if we can do stuff they can't, like using Iktar's weapon," Toshivar agreed.
"One thing I do sometimes wonder about," I admitted, "is what others like us get up to. Do they just lurk about like we used to, observing? Do they take the piss out of the Earthers by being ghosts or poltergeists? Do they pretend to be evil spirits and frighten the life out of people if they don't give them things?"
"They are evil spirits if they do stuff like that."
"Well, yes, I suppose they are. Or do they have interactions with Earthers on a level similar to ours? Do they run protection rackets or bodyguard services? Or do they offer revenge? One of our lot would make a great private eye. He could go anywhere, follow anyone, get in anywhere."
"Or a great assassin."
"Yes, being post-dead has a whole lot of advantages for the business-minded when you stop and think about it."
"So you admit philosophers have got something going for them?" laughed Tolshivar.
"People like us thinking practical things have value. But philosophers?" I added scornfully. "They're just a total waste of space."
"Do you think there are even sad sacks who still get the 7:52 train in the morning and go to work, just like they did when they were alive? The way your mate Iktar still works?"
"Iktar does it as a hobby. Plus she likes a challenge. But I suppose there may be post-dead people who lack the imagination to do anything different from what they're used to. As far as I can tell, being post-dead just means you're not alive in a conventional sense, not that you're suddenly a genius."
Tolshivar nodded. "They reckon a lot of people stay exactly the same all through their lives. So why should being dead change anything?"
C2 : A Working Holiday?
Iktar, living up to her boffin image, had been experimenting and I, of course, was the first to receive a demonstration of a variation of her hralchiv weapon. Iktar had come to think of bodies flying away from an attacked alien as rather showy and vulgar. She had created a neater and much more immediately deadly version of the weapon.
Basically, what happens to the person, or object, on the receiving end of the new weapon is a violent acceleration backwards and then forwards. The effect is like being shaken by some super-strong monster at supersonic speed. For a human subject, the brain is banged around in her or his skull, which produces unconsciousness, concussion and brain damage severe enough to cause death.
After the demonstration, which Iktar gave in the quarry where we had tested the hralchiv weapon at full power, the inventor seemed both proud and embarrassed. She had used containers made of thin plastic, which she had filled pretty well full with about a couple of gallons of ordinary tap water per container. When zapped with the unnamed weapon, each container had split apart and showered its contents over a wide area.
"I wouldn't like to be an Earther on the receiving end of that," I said when Iktar had written off three of her six containers.
"You don't think this is right over the top?" Iktar said.
"As long as the person's head doesn't come apart, it's less messy than using the hralchiv, or shooting someone. And they end up just as dead. And you're not likely to hit any innocent bystanders with flying bodies."
"I'm not sure I'd ever get pissed off enough with someone to want to use it."
"You can treat it as the equivalent of a nuclear deterrent, Ik. You've got it but you hope you don't have to use it. But it's there if you need it. And you can't uninvent anything. That's a fundamental law of the universe, you once told me."
Iktar nodded slowly. "I still feel a bit like Dr. Frankenstein."
"I suppose that happens to everyone in weapons technology," I decided. "Okay, are you going to show me how it works? Or have you decided to put an embargo on it?"
"I suppose you need it more than me. After all, you're the one the Earthers keep having a go at now."
"I suppose you don't have to use it at full power every time, Ik. It can be like a phaser. You can have a stun setting as well as kill."
"Yes, that's true." Iktar began to look a little happier with herself. "Okay, you should be able to get the hang of it quite quickly. You can do the push bit. All you need to learn is the pull."
I wrecked one of the containers, leaving us with two. We continued to practice on lumps of rock until we felt that we were getting an idea of the power levels to use. We ended up wrecking the remaining containers when we tried a stun setting on them, but we did manage to get several hits on them before we used too much force. Like everything, getting to know the new weapon would take practice.
Within a matter of days, the video sequences of me beaming in and out at the North Roaders' car park and zapping my assailant had leaked out into the public domain. They were even available on the Internet, Iktar discovered while trawling around one day. Nobody had been brave enough to stand up in the House of Commons and ask a question about aliens but the topic was being discussed freely and, a month or so later, the prime minister was coming under increasing pressure to define his government's position on contact with people from beyond the stars.
Being a seasoned politician, old No Jacket was quite blatant in his refusals to admit that his government was in contact with beings from off-world. He seemed to be playing the 'ridicule' and 'national security' cards in alternation.
Government spinsters took every opportunity to rubbish the suggestion that there were aliens running around in London but they kept running into major credibility problems. People were saying quite openly that politicians in general, and the present government in particular, share a track record of distorting the truth and telling outright lies. In fact, an opinion poll had produced the conclusion that over sixty per cent of the electorate believed that most members of the government were physically incapable of uttering a straight, factual statement without strapping on party spin.
Not long after Iktar and I had perfected the use of her new hralchiv variation, and we were ready to show it to the others, the Daily News rushed back to its tabloid roots with a special promotion. Eric the Vampire had a copy of the paper when Tolshivar and I ran into him at the science fiction film club. The News was offering a bounty for one or more of the aliens, who were supposed to be in London. The essence of the pitch was, Bring us an alien and we'll make you a millionaire.
"Is this dead or alive?" Tolshivar remarked, unimpressed.
"I didn't read that far," laughed Eric. "They're a bit miserable, though. There was a whisky firm offering a million quid for an alien spaceship years ago. These sods could have offered two."
"They could offer a hundred million," I pointed out. "If they're not going to be paying it out."
"You believe the goverment when it says it's not talking to aliens, Preth?" said Eric.
I shrugged. "If the government swears black and blue it's not talking to aliens, you can be pretty sure that's just what's happening. But I don't think they're denying it hard enough for it to be true. And I can't see any aliens jumping through a tabloid's hoops. Or letting any Earthers drag them off to wherever the editor hangs out."
"I thought this was supposed to be a serious tabloid of the sort the wealthy middle-classes can take home without embarrassment?" said Tolshivar.
"Even the so-called serious papers haven't been exactly authoritative for ages," I pointed out
"And I thought this lot were supposed to support this government," Tolshivar added. "Weren't they bragging they got them elected?"
Eric shrugged. "Anything goes in a circulation war."
"What, even embarrassing your mate the prime minister by shoving an alien non-story on the front page?" said Tolshivar. "I hear the PM's getting quite touchy about all the rumours that he's in contact with the aliens. And he really gets pissed off when people call him a liar when he denies it."
"It's not going to make any difference, really," said Eric, who didn't know that Tolshivar's information was based on personal clandestine expeditions to Downing Street. "Someone asks if it's true the government is negotiating with representatives of a civilization from another planet. The PM says no. So he gets told, 'In view of the evidence that beings from another world are right here, on our planet, why has the government failed to contact them when so many others have met them? What is the prime minister hiding? Or why isn't he doing his bloody job?'"
"That's a sure way to get him pissed off even more," said Tolshivar. "Accuse him of hiding something."
"Yeah, well, his problem is he can't have it both ways. He's either involved in a cover-up of his dealings with the aliens or he's a party to the grossest negligence imaginable for not making contact with them."
"That's an interesting point of view," laughed Tolshivar.
I could tell that he was planning to mention it to Frosch the next time they met.
A warning bell rang. We had three minutes to find our way to seats before the film began. We were having a night of alien invasions through the years from about the Fifties to the present day.
Another problem for the British prime minister was the European Union. There had been a rash of reports of alien incidents all over the European mainland, including non-EU territories, but none of the evidence of contacts with beings from off-world had been as clear and as compelling as the security camera video of the attack on me and its aftermath.
As the Daily News special offer reached the end of its first week, one of the spinnsters for the EU President was saying that any contact with an off-world civilization should be handled by the EU leadership and not by the government of an individual member nation. Soon, the British prime minister was being beaten up in print abroad for being a bad European by not sharing his aliens. In reply, he began to make frantically protests to the effect that he had no control over where and when aliens choose to land and with whom they chose to make contact.
Just when relations between the UK and the EU leaderships seemed to be heading for melt-down, the EU politicians showed their true colours. What they really wanted to say was that whether or not there were aliens on Earth at that very moment, the EU needed to have a first-contact policy. Of course, that meant lots of jobs for the usual suspects and endless scope for junkets while they thrashed out the contact protocols. And even though there was a huge stink about the cost of the project, the politicians and their cronies went right ahead with diving even deeper into the trough.
There was a plague of alien imposters, and some of them collected sizeable slices of cash from gullible Earthers before disappearing. Then the Italian government started to get very coy about the way that it would deal with alien visitors. General Frosch called a meeting on the morning of the second Saturday in August. He was feeling threatened.
Iktar, Xanthe and I answered a call to Frosch's palatial penthouse. Tolshivar was away doing a job for Frosch and excused. The General had been refining his outfit to make it look a little more like a uniform, and he looked very spick, span and pressed as he marched up and down in front of us in his lounge. We others were sitting in what looked like executive swivelling chairs clothed in black leather.
"I need a co-ordinated effort on this one," Frosch told us. "We need to find out what's going on in Italy."
"You don't think it's some sort of swindle? Like all the others?" said Iktar.
"It doesn't matter if it is," said Frosch. "We need to know the score."
"You think it could be Italian aliens like us ripping off your ideas? Post-dead aliens?" I said.
Frosch nodded. "It's possible."
"You're ruling out real, well, alien aliens?" said Iktar.
"I'm not ruling out anything," said Frosch. "But we need to go over there, have a good look, and find out what's going on without being detected."
"Full stealth mode," said Iktar.
"You're proposing a group holiday in Italy?" Xanthe said, driving to what she saw as the heart of the matter. "Sounds delightful."
"Well, a working holiday," said Frosch.
I could tell from the look on his face that he had realized that he would not be getting too much work out of Xanthe. Which just meant all the more for the rest ofl us to do. As in life, so in death.