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G1 : Gone

butterflyIn all the excitement arising from my adventure, nobody noticed exactly when Hathor and Bethan dropped out of sight. They had been going their own way for too long, their contacts with the rest of us had become increasingly infrequent and we had more or less removed them from the group's social calendar.
   Frosch questioned Marivella on her next trip to England. She complained that the French women had been avoiding her, possibly because she had upset them for some reason known only to the rather touchy Hath and Beth. In Mari's opinion, someone other than herself was more likely to have had the last contact with them. Further, she assured Frosch that she was no particular friend of theirs. She had hung around them only because she had not wanted to be left on her own in the strange, new world of the post-dead.
   We found out what the French ladies were up to when another piece of video was leaked out of China by the official agency which was responsible for heavily denied leaks. Iktar described the sequence as 'deliberately dirtied-up digital', which meant that a clean original had been messed about to obscure details. Even so, the 30-second sequence showed a meeting packed with Chinese civilian and military officials and, at the prime focus, two Western women with the right colour of glowing eyes and Goa'uld voices.
   General Frosch acknowledged that the alien camp was showing very little solidarity and that Hath and Beth had gone off to make their own deal in the East. He was relieved that they were following the co-ordinated alien behaviour policy and he was confident that no matter what they did, Hath and Beth wouldn't give the game away. After all, they wanted exactly the same thing out of the Earthers as the rest of us, Xanthe included -- unlimited amounts of money in return for promises and bugger all in the way of delivery on the technlogy front. General Frosch concluded that the group was probably better off without the French women because their failure to follow his orders was bound to lead to serious trouble, sooner or later.
   Abandoned, Marivella teamed up with Xanthe and disappeared again. According to Frosch, Xanthe had switched her affections to the Swiss, having dropped the French after their attempt to abduct me using an Earther kid as a human shield. Xanthe thought that the tactic was too Saddam Hussein for her tastes and pointed to a fundamental streak of untrustworthiness. Apparently, the Swiss were trying to convince Xanthe of the value of working through a neutral and non-aligned country, which sounded like a line which was designed to appeal to a senior alien diplomat.
   At a meeting on a late October evening at the apartment which Iktar and I shared, the rest of us gathered that Frosch was still talking to Xanthe but he had no control over her -- pretty much like Hathor and Bethan. Their independent operations were no great handicap, the general felt. Our group in England still had the rest of Europe [France and Switzerland excluded], Russia, North and South America, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, the Indian sub-continent and South-East Asia as alternative zones of operation.
   "Pick a territory," said Iktar. "I think I'll choose Australia. I always wanted to have my own island."
   "I'll have the good old USA," said Tolshivar.
   "Could we quit arseing around and get real? As in real life?" said Frosch.
   "I doubt it." Iktar gave him a big smile. "I don't think we do real life any more."
   "Yeah, you can say that again," laughed Frosch. "By the way, you may be interested to hear I've decided to cool things in England for a while and check things out further afield."
   "Sounds like we're back to pick a territory," said Tolshivar.
   "Prime Minister No Jacket not come through with the knighthood?" Iktar asked with a cynical smile.
   "He's been acting like he invented the aliens and it's doing him good, being left to wonder why they've disappeared. It would really help if you two could change your appearance when you go out anywhere around London," Frosch added to Iktar and myself.
   "What about Tolsh?" I asked.
   "He's going to the States with me," said Frosch.
   "That's logical, seeing I claimed that territory," said Tolshivar.
   "Our friend No Jacket has been a bit discomposed since his aliens dropped out of sight," said Frosch. "He's being wound up by the French, who are still pretending they're in contact with Xanthe and/or Hath."
   "Rotten sods, politicians," said Iktar.
   "So it would help things along if he thinks the Hadukar has left London. Hence the need for you two to put on different faces."
   Iktar shrugged. "Okay with us. How are you getting on with your mates in the North Road Mob, by the way? Have you dropped them, too?"
   "I'm still making occasional contacts," said Frosch. "Dropping in at their clubs. The politicians are aware of this -- and somewhat reassured that at least one of their personal aliens is still in London."
   "Is this you in full Goa'uld mode with the voice and the eyes?" I asked.
   "Only in private with the inner circle," said Frosch. "Colin and his sub-bosses. And the PM's sister-in-law."
   "I bet that winds him up even more," laughed Tolshivar. "His sister-in-law gets to meet the aliens but he can't."
   "Life is full of little disappointments," said Frosch.
   "How are the North Roaders taking the news that you're a bit too high-powered to be giving a chunk of alien technology to their outfit because they're too small?" I asked.
   Frosch shrugged. "Like good businessmen, they making the best of what there is. They're trading heavily on knowing the aliens. It's good for blagging their way into cartels and restricted circles."
   "I bet No Jacket's not being so modest," said Iktar.
   "The PM's worried about ending up in the same situation as the North Roaders," said Frosch. "Europe is telling him to stand down and be a good European. It's time for the Europeans to share what they've got."
   "The usual thing," said Tolshivar. "The UK's got it and they want it for free."
   "Who is this cynic?" laughed Frosch. "No, even No Jacket admits the aliens aren't going to deal with a single country, and especially not with one as small as the UK. The Europeans know we want to deal with a unified Earth Government -- but they're hoping we might just settle for dealing with a major power block in the expectation that it will become the basis for a so-called EarthGov."
   "Sneaky," said Iktar.
   "And once they have the backing of the aliens, no one else will be able to challenge the chosen power block," Frosch added. "If not Europe, then the aliens are most likely to go to a North American Alliance of the United States, Canada and possibly also Mexico. So our PM has got to decide if he's going to settle for a small slice of the action as part of Europe or no action at all, as it's unlikely that the famous 'Special Relationship' is going to count for much if the aliens hook up with the NA Alliance."
   "I should think the French are in the same boat," I remarked.
   "Pretty much," said Frosch. "Those who are in contact with the aliens, however on the fringes, are having to make their minds up. Do they try for a solo deal that's looking more and more unlikely or do they throw their aliens into a European pot and try for a few special privileges because they were their aliens in the first place?"
   "United Europe versus United America," said Tolshivar. "An interesting choice."
   "And one we shouldn't rush ourselves over," said Frosch.

butterflyThe alien vacuum in Europe was filled dramatically a week later -- on the day before Halloween. The European Union was holding one of its First Contact Protocol sessions at a big hotel in Amsterdam for some reason which had not been explained satisfactorily. Most of the cynics in the media seemed to think that they wanted a junket somewhere with cannabis cafés and a good red light district.
   Anyway, the TV news services suddenly got very excited about two of the delegates. Apparently, they both had glowing yellow eyes and funny voices, and one of them had beamed out in full view of a roomful of people -- although the security cameras had missed it. The protocol session ended in uproar and the EU's usual suspects jumped at the opportunity to point out that they were doing something useful after all, not just wasting the taxpayers' money.
   Iktar and I received a phone call from Frosch the next day. Once he had established that we hadn't been playing a silly trick, he got round to his main area of concern. He had been wondering if some of the other European post-dead had realized that pretending to be aliens had excellent financial promise. The General was worried about unscheduled competition.
   Of course, the whole thing blew up three days later. It had all been a hoax perpetrated by two Belgian illusionists, a publicity stunt a few days ahead of the launch of their new TV series. When he phoned us at the weekend, Frosch seemed amused but a little disappointed to find out that it had just an Earther trick.
   Receiving phone calls from the other side of the Atlantic had set Iktar and myself thinking. There was nothing much going on in London and it seemed an ideal time to go on holiday again. We decided to go and have a look at some volcanoes -- up close and dangerous. The big advantage of being post-dead and pretty well impervious to flying rocks and red-hot lava is that you can see all of the fun in safety. You can boldly, or perhaps foolishly, go where no man in his right mind has gone before. Extreme Volcano-Surfing sounded a whole lot of fun. Although Iktar was a bit doubtful about the wisdom of standing in the middle of a pyroclastic flow to find out what it felt like. Exposing ourselves to gas and dust at six hundred degrees Centigrade and rocks the size of a house leaping around seemed a little excessive.
   We eventually decided to be real, 21st Century tourists and make no plans. We would log on to the Internet to get reports of which volcanoes were active on a particular day and go where the best action was likely to be. And so that was the last that we saw of the UK and the rest of our small group of friends until the middle of November.

G2 : New Business

butterflyThere was a four-day-old message on our answering machine asking us to contact Frosch when we returned to London. It was Friday and Iktar suggested letting him stew until after the weekend. But she relented when she realized that she wanted to catch up on his news from the USA.
   Frosch was round to see us about twenty minutes after we had left a message on his answering machine. He was looking pretty pleased with himself. Apparently, he had been in touch with a part of the CIA which still had useful amounts of covert funds for doing jobs which the Executive deemed necessary but only on a 'clean hands' basis.
   "Sounds fairly dodgy, getting in with the CIA," Iktar observed. "They don't have the best reputation for competence, never mind common sense."
   "This outfit is the exception that proves the rule," Frosch assured her. "They've been operating without embarrassing their bosses for over twenty years under three different directors. Although they do operate an interesting system of cut-outs."
   "What's that? For the benefit of someone who's never been a spy," I asked.
   "The boss of my agency, Sorensen, gets other people to do him favours. And if anyone screws up, it's their fault."
   "People like you, you mean?" Iktar asked with an innocent smile -- which looked somewhat less innocent than usual because we all had our Goa'uld faces switched on.
   "So how did you meet this Sorensen?" I said while Frosch was glaring his disapproval at Iktar.
   "The CIA got the inside story on the attempt to kidnapping our Hadukar from an SIS contact. So Sorensen got someone who owed him a favour to send a team over here. They eventually approached me in Cassidy's, one of the North Roaders' clubs."
   "Approached?" I said. "What, all pals or with guns drawn?"
   "Oh, it was dead subtle," laughed Frosch. "Two of them came up to me and told me they knew who I am and what I am. And then they just looked at me. So I asked them, 'Why are you telling me this?' So their number one guy, Hesselmann, said. 'Things could get difficult if you don't co-operate with me.'"
   "Oh, dead subtle," laughed Iktar.
   "So I let him bluster on for a while," Frosch said through a grin, "then I stood up and told him he wasn't saying anything I wanted to hear. So the next thing I knew, there were these three big blokes around me with their hands inside their jackets. So I switched my Goa'uld face on and looked Mr. Hesselmann up and down. Then I asked him what he thought his mates could do. And I beamed out right in front of him while he was thinking what to say."
   "How irritating," I laughed.
   "Of course, I'd been watching the Yanks more or less for as long as they'd been looking for me," said Frosch. "And by the time they approached me, I'd found out the team leader's name and his team's names and his boss's name, Sorensen, and where Sorensen's office is. So I went straight there."
   [I should mention again at this point that we have the ability to 'detach' ourselves from the Earth's influence and move independently around its perimeter. If we push it, we can get to Australia in about half an hour, for instance. It's not exactly as instantaneous as a Star Trek transporter but it's a whole lot faster than Concorde or the fastest jet fighter.]
   "I beamed in a couple of feet from his desk," Frosch told us. "While Mr. Sorensen was having a meeting. One of his blokes actually fell out of his chair when I appeared. So I looked Sorensen in the eyes, full Goa'uld mode, and gave him a list of the guys who were hassling me in England and asked what he thought they'd accomplish
   "So Sorensen cleared his office and told his guys to wait in the next room and talk to no one. Then just as he was trying to think of something to say to me, his phone rang. It was Hesselmann, the bloke in London. It had taken him about 20 minutes to find a secure phone.
   "It took Sorensen about half a minute to realize that it had taken me about a quarter of an hour to get from London to Langley, Virginia, and find out how to get to his office. And then he knew for sure that I was using technology that he could only see on Earther TV. So he offered me a drink, they had to scramble about a bit to find some Pernod, and we started talking serious turkey.
   "I told him my job is protecting the Hadukar but there's nothing much for me to do at the moment for reasons which don't concern him. And that's how we found some areas of common interest and some supply and demand issues. With me being a Goa'uld all the way through.
   "In the end, Sorensen even asked me about the eyes and the voice. So I told him his planet's too polluted for our tastes and maybe we'll be able to help the Earthers to clean it up one day. And with that parting thought, I beamed out and left him wondering whether to rush home and tell his wife, 'Hey, honey, guess who I've just been meeting with. An honest to gosh alien!'"
   "Sounds like a good way to get yourself locked up somewhere secure," I remarked.
   "Except you can't do that to the CIA," Iktar said.
   "So you're sneaking about for the CIA now?" I added.
   "I can neither confirm nor deny a connection with the CIA," Frosch said in a stuffed-shirt voice.
   "What about the rest of us?" said Iktar. "Have you got anything lined up for us?"
   "I thought I'd wait and see how you feel about it," Frosch said.
   "How unusually sensitive," scoffed Iktar.
   "Common sense, given your independent attitude of mind," said Frosch. "By the way, we're not having anything to do with the Middle East."
   "Not even Israel as a favour to the Yanks?" Iktar prodded.
   "Especially not Israel," said Frosch.
   "By another way," I said, "have you heard how Hath and Beth are getting on in China? Any more leaked videos come out?"
   "No videos, but the CIA is monitoring the situation. And Sorensen wasn't at all pleased to hear that they're aliens, like us."
   "Why's that?" said Iktar. "He was hoping they're hoaxers?"
   "The whole US administration has been hoping the European and Chinese aliens are all a hoax. But the inner circle is mighty relieved to have made contact with some aliens of their own."
   "Relieved enough to be very generous?" I suggested.
   "Extremely very," laughed Frosch. "Anyway, the word from China is that they're happier dealing with French-speaking aliens rather than English-speaking aliens. It's a side effect of their hatred of everything American."
   "You could say much the same about the French," Iktar observed.
   "True," Frosch said with a nod. "So anyway, that's the situation here. How was your trip? Fall down any interesting volcanoes?"
   And that set Iktar off on an account of our holiday. Frosch stayed and listened for quite a long time, which suggested to me that he wasn't very busy.

butterflyFollowing the pre-volcano holiday directive to change our appearance when we went out, Tolshivar and I had discussed whether we needed to rejoin the science fiction film club with new names and new faces. In the end, we decided not to bother. No one was going to believe that aliens were members of the club. In fact, being members of the club, we concluded, was pretty much proof that we weren't aliens.
   On the night after our return, Xanthe showed up with an idea for a girls' night out and Iktar deserted me. Tolshivar turned up as I was wondering what to do. I learned that the SF film club was having another Japanese monster night, which solved the immediate entertainment problem.
   "Have you ever been to Iraq, Preth?" Tolshivar asked as we were studying the programme for the night.
   "Can't say I have," I told him. "Why?"
   "I've just been there with Frosch. Doing a job for the Yanks."
   "What, spying for Frosch's mate Sorensen of the CIA?"
   "A bit of that. Helping to destroy a biological warfare lab, actually."
   "How?" I asked with a frown. "Not using our alien weapons, surely? Wouldn't that be a bit of a dead giveaway?"
   "No, nothing like that. The two of us took in some of the CIA's demolition charges of high explosive and special fire compounds and blew the place to hell."
   "Sounds a useful service to humanity."
   "Sorensen was highly delighted. And the pay's great."
   "How did they know you'd actually done the job, though?"
   "We did it when one of their satellites was overhead and the seeing was good."
   "What, they saw this huge great explosion at the time and place specified?"
   "Right. Frosch was on his mobile to Sorensen and he pushed the button when the boss told him to."
   "How do they know you'd actually blown up a biological warfare lab, though?"
   "From the peripheral evidence. We took them a load of photos of the lab complex and the people working there. And they verified these are all people in that line of work. And they traced some of the equipment from serial numbers. We even got them some samples of what they were cooking up."
   "What, dodging the scientists and the security staff?"
   "No, they start things stewing then leave the place running on auto-pilot kind of thing for long periods. So there's no one going there for the Yanks to track. If you can get through the outer security perimeter, you can wander round on your own for ages. You just need to stay out of the way of the security cameras. Or mess about with them."
   "So Frosch really has sold the CIA on the idea that he's an alien?"
   Toshivar shrugged. "Sokar Frosch is stuck on Earth with a Hadukar to look after and getting bored because the Hadukar's not getting on with his job. So the General is making himself available to anyone who wants to buy his time and give him something interesting to do."
   "You've got to admire the guy's initiative," I laughed.
   "Plus, the Russians have told the Yanks to lay off their allies, the Iraqis. So if General Frosch is on the job, the Yanks can say, 'It's not us, mate. It must be those aliens."
   "Except they wouldn't admit setting those aliens on the innocent Iraqis."
   "Right," laughed Tolshivar. "They probably just say the Iraqis are a bunch of clumsy gits when bits of their country start blowing up."
   "Unless Sorensen's trying to pull off a double bluff. He's keeping General Frosch ultra-ultra-top secret and letting the Russians think that any alien talk coming out of the good old USA is empty bragging."
   "That sounds devious enough for one of General Frosch's plans, Preth."
   "Don't look now, but I think I've just been insulted," I laughed. "It's getting on for time we were going, by the way."
   "Monsters, here we come," said Tolshivar.

butterflyIktar was back from her night out when I rolled home in the middle of the night. Tolshivar had decided to join me for a blue drink before he went to his home. Iktar was messing about on the Internet, taking advantage of a time when the traffic was less than usual.
   "Enjoy your monsters?" she asked after accepting the offer of a blue drink.
   "Being able to see the film club catalogue lying on the table where we left it spoils the impact of the deduction," Tolshivar remarked.
   "No aliens in your films?" Iktar added.
   "No, just Earther monsters," I replied. "Guess where Tolsh has been."
   Iktar couldn't guess and Tolshivar told her about his adventures in Iraq.
   "Sounds like you've been having fun," she decided at the end of it. "Although I've been having second thoughts about showing out to the CIA as aliens."
   "You'd prefer to be an Earther with technology?" said Tolshivar.
   "I was just thinking," said Iktar, "If we actually admit we're aliens, the CIA will come up with a lot of awkward questions."
   "What's your favourite colour? What's your sign? How much do you earn and what do you spend it on?" I listed.
   "I was thinking more of our civilization's history, our mating habits, what's our planet's climate like? What's the geography like? What's the basis for the economy? How long have we been in space?"
   "What's the weirdest alien species you've ever encountered, excluding Earthers?" I contributed.
   "Do you really look like that or are you really terrifyingly alien monsters in a skin?" Tolshivar added.
   "The point is," Iktar said, "are we going to try to come up with a framework of knowledge? Or is even the afterlife likely to be too short for a decent job?"
   "I can't be arsed, is a phrase that comes to mind," I remarked. "I wonder if General Frosch has thought about any of this?"
   "Frosch can't think of everything," said Iktar.
   "So what's your solution?" said Tolshivar. "I assume you've thought this through?"
   "I'm thinking formal relations with the Earthers, full diplomatic contact, might not be a good idea," said Iktar.
   "What, load up with loot and split instead?" laughed Tolshivar.
   "I think a better legend would be some sort of clandestine deal," Iktar said patiently. "The official line is no contact with the Earthers just yet but we're a group of free traders who are prepared to slide in, do some trading for mutal profit ..."
   "... and slide out again," Tolshivar finished. "Good plan."
   "I think General Frosch could live with that," I decided. "All he's really interested in is the profit."
   "Slash and burn, asset strip and run," said Tolshivar.
   "Old No Jacket, the prime monster, he's going to be a bit disappointed," I said.
   "Are we going to let our lives be ruled by whether or not N.J. is disappointed?" said Iktar.
   "Hell, no!" laughed Tolshivar.
   At that moment, Frosch beamed in. "Ah, this is where you are," he said.
   Iktar looked as if she was on the point of offering an amusing crack. Frosch's serious expression changed her mind.
   "I've just had a message from Sorensen, the CIA bloke," Frosch told us. "He's had a report out of China that one of their aliens has been killed. No further details."
   We just stared at him. Suddenly, the volcano-surfing, bullet-resistant aliens weren't quite so impregnable.
   Suddenly, the playing field was a bit more level.

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