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I1 : Toward Christmas ...

butterflyIktar and I stayed on at our villa on Jamaica's south coast after the operation in South America. We were being tourists again and Christmas lay just ten days ahead -- so it wasn't really a time for getting involved with anything new or serious.
   Of course, we took in all the pirate sites around the island and we became regulars at the Pirate Museum in Spanish town. And it wasn't long before Iktar started to wonder about doing a bit of diving to look for sunken wrecks of treasure ships. The post-dead, of course are not troubled by such trivial considerations as breathing, Admiralty diving time tables, the bends and so on.
   Our only problems at the bottom of the sea, Iktar decided, were likely to be seeing what was there and understanding what we were seeing. Anything which has been in the sea for a long time either rots or it gathers a masking overburden of marine life or adhered sediments. If we were to become treasure hunters, we would have to solve the problem of deciding what was worth retrieving and what was just a lump of matrix.
   As far as the pyramid of US currency was concerned, Karl Davidson of the DEA went along with my plan. He supplied what looked like a collection of ordinary suitcases -- which had sealable, watertight liners -- and we loaded the money into them. Then one of his men drove a boat inshore and we loaded the suitcases on to it like tourists moving from one area to another.
   Iktar and I rode away with the boat, spent a couple of hours watching Frosch trying to fish on the move, then we beamed out and returned to our villa. I retain a memory of the helmsman staring at us in disbelief as we vanished. He knew at one level that he had aliens aboard but it was clear that he had never quite believed it until that moment.
   The only slight cloud on Davidson's horizon had been a fear that we might have contaminated his evidence with our eager fingerprints while liberating it from the drug producers. According to Frosch, Davidson had just nodded when the General had told him that aliens fingers don't leave behind greasy marks. But he had still insisted on a practical demonstration involving Frosch holding a stainless steel calling card case -- and not leaving any traces on it.
   Iktar was out doing some research when Frosch visited our villa on the Wednesday before Christmas week. He was looking very relaxed and on top of things. The DEA team was still hard at work on the material recovered in Panama, Frosch reported, and there had been a bit of shooting in Panama and Colombia. And a few hand grenades going off.
   "The coke mob are eager to find out who sold out the twin factories or who was careless," Frosch told me over a glass of neat Pernod, which was adorned with a single ice cube as we were in the tropics -- not that the post-dead are too affected by the external temperature. "Someone in Panama has given them copies of the layouts which you and Iktar supplied to the DEA guy."
   "A leak?" I said.
   "But in Panama," said Frosch. "Which is preferable to one in his organization for Davidson. Anyway, the bad guys are totally dead certain than an inside man made your plans. Someone inside their organization has sold out. So there's a lot of score settling going on in the name of making the organization secure again."
   "A bit like what's going on in China?" I said.
   "Pretty much," laughed Frosch.
   "So when's your DEA bloke going to be setting up the next target?"
   "I don't think there is a next target," Frosch said thoughtfully.
   "How so?" I asked with a frown.
   "I think there's a bit of history and some unfinished business between the DEA bloke and the gang we discommoded. There's a good word out of Sherlock Holmes."
   "Isn't that what Holmes did to Moriarty? Just before they danced the Reichenbach Waltz?"
   "Or was it incommoded? Anyway, my DEA bloke was made to look like a proper twerp by the target. Sometime in the fairly distant past but he's dead good at holding a grudge. So I reckon he's out to grind this particular target into the dust."
   "Won't his bosses start asking pointed questions if he rests on his laurels for any length of time?"
   "He's not doing much resting at the moment. A whole lot of info came out of the busts on the twin factories, the cash you and Iktar lifted, stuff found in the target's home and office, stuff they got from his associates, and so on. Processing that lot is pretty much a new industry. And they're monitoring the who's killing whom situation and offering deals to anyone who wants to get out of the racket. Possibly, a couple of jumps ahead of a goon squad."
   "Can I take it the target's still running around free? If he was incommoded, that means he wasn't busted as a result of our efforts?"
   "He's a bit of a Teflon Kid, our target. He's got the money and the connections to run everything from a distance and keep himself looking clean. All the stuff they found at his home, for instance, came from an office which one of his underlings uses. Exclusively."
   "How convenient. Anyway, he's got a lot less money than he had before our operation."
   "That cash you two lifted was a drop in his ocean, Preth. The guy's been doing this for a couple of decades, so he has deep reserves. Okay, losing two factories, all the coke in them and a mountain of ready cash has put a big crimp in his operation. But all that means is he's going to have to divert assets to buy in coke from elsewhere to keep his customers happy while he sets up his production operation again."
   "So we just twiddle our thumbs until that happens?"
   "Oh, I'm sure we can find lots of other things to keep us busy," Frosch said with a grin. "Remember Sorensen, the CIA bloke? I was talking to him the other day. He was asking if I knew a Sokar Hathor."
   "What did you do? Deny it?"
   "There's no point in telling a guy at his level a lie he won't believe. No, I told him she's on a parallel assignment to mine. So he asked if I knew a Bethan next. And I told him Amintosh Bethan made the fatal mistake of assuming that she was dealing with civilized beings in China. And we others have all taken note of her error."
   "Just in case he was getting any funny ideas?"
   "Something like that. Then he wanted to know the SP on the Hath and Beth set-up. So I told him Sokar Hathor was the protection detail for Amintosh Bethan, who was on an information gathering assignment. Then I gave him some guff about having a good look around his planet to assess the level of progress of the Earthers and determine the ultimate level of contact."
   "Primitive and hostile? The level of progress?" I suggested.
   "Sorensen was wondering if Hath plans to bomb the Chinese back to the Stone Age," laughed Frosch. "So I told him the Mission Commander hasn't given her access to the serious weapons."
   "And Sorensen started wondering how powerful they are if she's trashed most of China's military capability with frivolous ones?"
   "I guess he did," laughed Frosch. "According to Sorensen, the CIA estimates that the Chinese have lost as much as 20% of their air force and possibly 80% of their capacity to produce chemical and biological weapons."
   "Is she still at it? Hath? In China?"
   "I think she's getting bored with it now. My guess is she's seeing what the Japs have to offer her right now."
   "China's natural rival?"
   "Right. They're looking to get back into the mainstream of power countries after all their social and industrial problems."
   "Well, if they can get an alien on their side, that's a good starting point."
   "Oh, yes, talking about aliens." Frosch put on a big grin. "Sorensen showed me some clips from Stargate SG-1. So I pretended to be fascinated and asked him if the people with glowing eyes and weird voices are screened against atmospheric pollutants, like us. So he told me they're inhabited by Goa'ulds, which are snake-like aliens, and the eyes and the voice switch on when the Goa'uld speaks through the host. Then he showed me a clip of a Goa'uld in a tank. So I took one look at the snaky thing and said, 'Well, I certainly wouldn't fancy one of those inside me!'"
   "And what was the point of all that?" I wondered.
   "I think he was just trying to say that no matter what aliens look like when the First Contact situation comes along, some Earther will be able to dig up a film clip and say, 'See, I told you aliens would look like that.'"
   "Yes, the need to be in the right is a prime imperative for most of the pre-dead," I said with a nod.
   We chatted on for a while longer, then Frosch told me that he had a spot of business which required his personal attention and beamed out. Thinking things over while I waited for Iktar to return, I realized that I was feeling pleasantly pleased with the way our last piece of business had gone. In fact, I was starting to appreciate the buzz which Frosch and Iktar are getting out of their new careers.
   I suppose the reason why I have not felt their urge to be up and doing so vigorously is that I have been looking upon myself as someone who has retired from life and, therefore, someone who is no longer subject to the imperatives of the pre-dead. I don't need to eat or drink to keep body and soul together. I don't need to accumulate wealth so that I can obtain nourishment, shelter and possessions to impress those around me. As a member of the post-dead in good standing, I don't need much of anything.
   I suppose it's my nature to lurk about and enjoy myself in a quiet way in my retirement years. Having a posh address, a bar, a library and cable TV are welcome extras but not essentials. When I need entertainment, I can always go and watch someone else's telly or use a public library out of hours or lurk invisibly in a cinema. Trips around the world with Iktar are great fun but I could stay at home on my own without feeling that I was missing out. I suppose it's my nature to be a very self-contained person. But we are in a time of change. My being up and about during sunlit hours proves that! And I am adaptable.
   I had a sense that Frosch was sounding me out during our chat. Perhaps the change that our General fears now is that I have become too wealthy after the Panama Operation to be bothered about working again. Still, I suppose he could impersonate me with fair success if he needs the personal services of 'Hadukar Prethon' in the future. But I suspect that his current problems all stem from an excess of success -- he has lots of jobs on hand and he's struggling to find bodies to tackle them.
   The General needs us, Iktar and myself. In fact, he needs the pair of us working together. We have a synergistic effect in combination. The product of our endeavours is greater than the sum of the individual contributions.
   Upon reflection, I feel that I am too young to stay in retirement. There is much which can be done and there are interesting times ahead. As Tolshivar might tell me, 'Why not get out and enjoy them, me old Preth?'

butterflyAs the days before Christmas ticked away, I discovered that the Chinese were still leaking videos of contact sessions with their aliens. Satellite TV and access to the world's news was a fact of life rather than a luxury at our Jamaican villa.
   CNN's China-watchers could see clear evidence of on-going power struggles at many levels. The analysts agreed that there was a battle in progress to exterminate the last of the dinosaurs and make the Chinese military more relevant to the 21st Century. That was clear from the way familiar, older faces kept disappearing and younger men acquired badges of higher rank on better quality uniforms.
   A parallel political struggle was in progress with the New Guard grabbing every opportunity to write off embarrasing members of the Old Guard with the parallel object of dragging Chinese politics into the new century. Most of the commentators seemed to think that the new Chinese Revolution was a good thing. None of the credit was going to Sokar Hathor, though. She continued to make unsmiling appearances in officially leaked video sequences showing China's new men, and the occasional new woman, and the ghost of Amintosh Bethan.
   The CIA had decided that the present 'Hathor' and 'Bethan' were just images constructed on a computer and added to a carefully staged meeting. Dirtying up the images on not very good quality VHS recordings 'masked the joins' and made the artificial indistinguishable from the real. China may have been evolving but, as in the West, political honesty was still an oxymoron for its rulers.

I2 : ... And Beyond

butterflyIktar and I had made no real plans but it was understood that we would spend the Christmas period in Jamaica. Sheer inertia, of course. An unexpected call from Frosch changed our plans. He had decided that it would be a good thing for the group to have an office party in London. His object was to bring us all together so that we could talk over what we were doing and keep our 'alien' story consistent.
   Christmas Eve fell on a Monday. None of us was looking particularly Monday morning-ish when we assembled at a company hospitality apartment at around lunchtime (for the pre-dead). The vast entertaining room had a picture window with a panoramic view of a lot of office buildings, an office area in one corner, a splendid collection of assorted chairs near the bar and an impressive collection of wide-screen TVs.
   Frosch and Tolshivar were there when Iktar and I arrived. Xanthe and Marivella arrived half an hour late -- which had to be a social statement rather than a result of living in a different time zone.
   It was clear right away that they had dropped into the roles of Head of Delegation and Social Secretary. Amintosh Xanthe was in charge and Marivella, who didn't really have a rank in the alien hierarchy, was her companion. The pair of them seemed to have visited most of Switzerland but neither had much to say on how their negotiations with the government were going.
   Tolshivar had been conducting biological warfare on behalf of the CIA somewhere in the wilds of Asia. What the Americans wanted to do was come up with a virulent, sprayable biocide which would take out the opium poppy -- Papaver somniferum -- selectively while leaving neighbouring plant life untouched. The agent also had to have a short lifetime after spraying, so that its active form would not be transported out of the sprayed area. Another requirement was that the agent would not leave residues which would have adverse effects on humans and wildlife.
   The CIA was interested in waging economic warfare on warlords and international criminals whose activities threatened the safety of the United States. This particular department of the CIA was also mightily interested in ways of detecting poppies in areas which were camouflaged or otherwise shielded from aerial or satellite observation.
   Tolshivar had spent days on end flitting around likely target areas and spreading poison clouds when he got lucky. He was very interested to hear about the activities of Iktar and myself in South America. The idea of locating safes full of money and liberating the contents seemed to appeal to him.
   Frosch had put a cable news channel on one of his collection of TVs, with the sound turned down low, to make sure that he wouldn't miss anything dramatic that happened in the world. There was nothing much going on in Britain. The main news at home was that parts of North Yorkshire were on flood alert after heavy rain -- so no white Christmas for them. Eager interviewers were looking for people willing to tell the cameras how terrible it is to be facing a wet Christmas and how the community was rallying round at a time of trial.
   Abroad, the First World, and possibly the Second World as well, was enjoying the antics of Third World African policians at the United Nations. Breaking up for Christmas had been delayed by an emergency session, which had dragged on and on. The African nations were complaining again. Their beef was, 'Why are the Europeans and Chinese not sharing the benefits of their contacts with an off-world civilization with the African nations? Why is Africa being left out yet again?'
   "Because they're corrupt, unsavoury dictatorships?" Frosch remarked when the item came round again on the news cycle.
   "The African states demand access to the representatives of the off-world civilization. We will not be denied," an indignant voice from the UN told us.
   "Oh, yeah?" laughed Frosch.
   "Life's a fat dunk, then you die," said Iktar.
   "Interesting how they keep saying 'off-world civilization' instead of using the a-word," I offered.
   "I guess it sounds a bit more, well, impressive than aliens? Scientific? Not sci-fi?" said Frosch.
   "What we ought to do," I suggested, "is turn up en masse somewhere small but nice and ask for the official tour. Let the bigger countries know that size doesn't matter to aliens. Confuse them a bit."
   "What, somewhere the size of Monaco?" said Xanthe.
   "A bit more of a proper country," I said.
   "Jamaica's nice," said Iktar. "Apart from all the gangsters."
   "How about Tuva?" said Tolshivar. "They used to have great stamps."
   "Anyone speak Tuvalese?" said Frosch. "Or Russian?"
   Marivella raised a hand and smiled cautiously.
   "How about a Pacific island?" said Iktar. "There must be somewhere small and innocuous. Where did the Mutiny on the Bounty mob end up?"
   "Pitcairn Island," I offered.
   Iktar, who was sitting on a wheeled office swivelling chair, pushed herself over to Frosch's Number Two computer, loaded an encyclopaedia into the DVD drive and did a quick name search. "Population fifty-four. That's practically one each for the visitors."
   "What we'd need is somewhere a bit bigger but self-sufficient," said Frosch.
   Iktar performed a search for small countries and began to call out names. We ended up back at Jamaica. General Frosch told us that he would take the matter under advisement and get back to us when, or if, a plan firmed up.
   Now that we were back at Jamaica, Iktar began to talk about the amount of pirate treasure still thought to lie on the sea bed around the Caribbean. Tolshivar seemed quite interested in joining us for some exploration when his current assignment ended. Xanthe seemed to think that wandering about under the sea was unladylike. Marivella seemed tempted but loyal to her companion.
   Inevitably, the news programme had a story of more trouble in China, which made Frosch wonder if the Chinese were pragmatic enough to draw a line, sod the bygones and start all over again with Hathor.
   "I think she's the type to enjoy a good grudge too much to give it up," I told him.
   "There was some stuff on the Internet about a bank job in Shanghai," said Iktar. "Well, two jobs, really. On the same night. No alarms, no drama. Just eight hundred grand in dollars gone the next morning. Nothing else taken."
   "You can't start giving Hath the credit for every explosion and bank job in China," laughed Tolshivar.
   "Maybe not," said Iktar. "But it's more than possible that she's got herself a nice penthouse in Hong Kong and she's enjoying a great life while she gets her revenge."
   "Blah, blah, blah, and so to seek to know the unknowable is a waste of sodding time," I misquoted.
   "How true those words are, even today," said Frosch. "But let's not forget the Earthers are a bloody ungrateful bunch and be careful. Let's not forget what happened to Beth."
   "Strange to think we can drink a toast to absent friends," Iktar remarked.
   "Strange to think we can get just as miserable as Earthers at Christmas," said Frosch. "I was thinking of strolling round to the North Road Mob's territory this evening. Anyone else interested?"
   "If the drinks are on them, you can count me in," said Tolshivar. "Are we sliding round to wherever No Jacket's having his freebie Christmas to tune him up a bit, too?"
   "I don't think I need exposure to a prime minister right now," said Frosch.
   "Yes, I know what you mean," laughed Xanthe. "Are we going to your club like this?"
   The six of us were wearing our Goa'uld faces with glowing eyes and resonant voices.
   "No point in hiding our light under a bushel," said Frosch. "And it's not as if it's a secret any more that we're aliens."
   Our reunion continued through the afternoon, with everyone finding lots to talk about. Then, in the evening, we headed for what Colin Breen, the boss of bosses of the North Road Mob, called his Number One Establishment. Three pairs of aliens beaming in simultaneously in the front entrance hall at Cassidy'scaused a bit of excitement but the members and staff took us in their stride more or less as a matter of personal pride. If aliens turned up beside them, they could handle it.
   Colin Breen had an efficient alerting system and he arrived in person to escort us to a private area for the select as we were heading for the bar. On the way there, Frosch spotted Nelson Johns, the Downing Street Chief of Staff, who looked as if he had had a few during the day. In his 'relaxed' condition, he was chatting up one of the club's staff, whose duties seemed to involve just being female and irresistible to spare males.
   Tolshivar suggested keeping an eye on Mr. Johns and maybe taking some embarrassing photographs, which could be leaked to the gutter press, if the opportunity arose. Frosch told him to behave himself.
   We spent about a couple of hours in the club, during which we were introduced to a steady stream of people. Frosch reckoned it was Colin showing off his alien connections. The privileged visitors included Debbie Boon, the prime minister's 'wild child' of a sister-in-law, who was there with North Road Mob sub-boss Mike Verbrecher, and, we learned later, an aide from Buck House.
   Gilbert Pole, Frosch told us when we were back at his apartment prior to going our separate ways, had been commanded by Her Majesty the Queen to make unofficial contact with the aliens. The Queen wanted to meet Hadukar Prethon so that she could make up her own mind whether or not he was the genuine article.
   "And his staff?" Xanthe asked, a touch hopefully.
   "A solo audience," said Frosch. "Which I'd better do."
   "Why?" Iktar demanded.
   "Because I know what to say and it'll save the trouble of briefing Preth and making sure he knows the script," Frosch replied.
   "I don't think it would be all that much trouble," I said, being awkward deliberately to wind the General up.
   Frosch marshalled his arguments. It took him a full five minutes to realize that I was only pretending to be pissed off by losing a chance to meet the Queen. Iktar caught on almost immediately and she gave the General a really hard time to remind him that no one had elected him the supreme commander of the alien delegation.
   The others realized that they could be there as invisible witnesses to the occasion if they had nothing else arranged for the coming Friday. Iktar and I were planning to be back in Jamaica by then, anyway.
   Getting his own way smoothed Frosch's ruffled feathers after he realized that he was being wound up. He popped a bottle of champagne for a final toast, then we others headed for our apartments in London. We would all be staying in town at least for the next couple of days -- Christmas and Boxing Days.

butterflyFrosch turned up at our villa in Jamaica -- it was ours now because Iktar had bought it -- on Saturday evening, the day after his audience with the Queen. He brought a recording of their conversation, telling me that if I was supposed to have been there, then I should know what had been said.
   The bogus Hadukar Prethon had been quite reassuring during the half hour or so of conversation. He had assured the Queen that the aliens had no hostile intent toward the people of the UK and that we were used to meeting new civilizations and arranging contact on the appropriate terms.
   "Oh, I like this bit," I said with a laugh as Frosch was telling the Queen that England reminded him of home and that he used to live on an island much the same size. "Was that before you went off to fight for her grandfather and country? And got yourself killed?"
   "Yeah, something like that," said Frosch. "But I didn't think it would be polite to mention it. So you reckon you'll be able to bluff your way, if necessary, after hearing the recording?"
   "Maybe I should have gone along invisibly. Yes, I should think so," I added, answering the question.
   Frosch's next move, I gathered, would be to Japan with Tolshivar, where they would be spending the New Year period. I gathered that he was hoping to find out if Hathor really was doing a deal there. Hath was out of his control but Frosch still believed in the value of a co-ordinated policy toward the Earthers.
   When he had finished his reports, Frosch decided that he wanted a look at the Pirate Museum. The out-of-hours periods were good for us because we could be there invisibly without having people walking through us. The experience of being walked through does us no harm but Iktar finds it irritating.
   Iktar was going off independently on one of her expeditions but she told us that she would catch up with us at the museum later in the evening. We watched her beam out then we finished our drinks with no great sense of urgency. A somewhat roundabout route gave us the chance to take in the sights on the way to the museum.
   Both of us detected a presence, another of the post-dead when we reached the museum. I assumed that Iktar had finished doing what she had been doing early or she had changed her mind. We approached the presence and assumed solid forms by doing a beam-in, expecting to see Iktar do the same.
   But the figure who appeared in front of us, just solidifying without drama, was tall, black and equally surprised to see us.

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