J1 : Another New Face
If experience has taught us anything, it is that meeting another of the post-dead is always by accident and always a surprise. Having done it several times in the recent past, Frosch and I got over the contact shock faster than the other bloke.
The stranger was an inch or two over six feet, his skin colour was café crême, his black hair was short and non-curly, and he had the sort of smooth complexion that indicates an apparent age range of early to mid thirties. When we got talking, we discovered that his accent was almost public school English of the nineteen forties, but it had a distinctive Jamaican rhythm behind it.
"Frosch," said the General, offering a hand.
"Borgan. With a B," the man added to tell us that he wasn't Morgan with a cold.
"Prethon." I offered my hand next for a brief and firm contact. "Are you from around here or are you just visiting, like us?"
"I live here," said Borgan. "You're like me?"
"If you mean post-dead, yes, we are," said Frosch.
"Post-dead," Borgan repeated with a laugh. "I like that. Sorry if I'm staring at you. It's just I've never met a white guy like, well, like we are. Post-dead."
"You're our first black guy," said Frosch. "So that make us even."
"There are more like us around here?" I inferred.
"Well," Borgan shrugged. "I used to know two others like us. But I've not seen either of them for ages."
"Two like you?" said Frosch.
"Both black, yes," said Borgan. "I think I last saw one of them about thirty years ago. The other guy, aahm. Must have been the turn of the century. I remember we had a drink when the old queen died. I don't think I ever saw him again."
"The old queen?" Frosch said as I was saying, "Not Queen Victoria?"
"That's the lady," said Borgan.
"How long have you been like you are?" I said. "If you don't mind me asking."
"The year after the civil war ended in America. In the spring. There was a storm and the boat sank and we all drowned. Except I found myself washed up on an island nine days later. Only I didn't know about the nine days at the time."
"You worked it out later," said Frosch.
"That's it," said Borgan. "It was night and it was raining and I felt fine. Not cold or wet or hungry. And I realized I was, well, different while I was waiting for a boat to come by."
"Not getting hungry or thirsty? And seeping into the ground when you got tired? That must have been a bit of a giveaway," said Frosch.
"I guess we all go through that," said Borgan.
"We all find we've changed, all alone, and we deal with it," said Frosch.
"That and not being awake during the day," said Borgan. "I know, I didn't see the sun for over sixty years. Then I guess I just got fed up with the nights. So I kept out of direct sunlight and I stayed up a bit longer each day. And then I found it didn't affect me, being out in the sun. So I went sight seeing for a long time. All round the world."
"Yeah, I can think of someone else who does a lot of round the world tripping," Frosch said with a look at me.
"Then I started working on boats, just for a change, when the tourist industry got going here," Borgan added. "And after the last war, when they invented skin diving and looking for treasure, I tried it myself."
"What, real free-diving without needing air tanks and so on?" said Frosch. "Or do you take that lot with you for camouflage?
"I wear the gear sometimes so I don't look out of place," said Borgan. "But I usually go places no one else knows about."
"Not having to breathe must do wonders for the costs side of things," said Frosch, as ever spotting a financial angle.
"And being able to go as deep as I liked without getting the bends is good," said Borgan.
"We were thinking about doing a bit of treasure hunting," I said. "I suppose you'll have to tell us which areas you've got staked out as your personal property."
"I guess so." Borgan showed of a lot of white teeth in a grin. "But there's lots to go round. If you can get to it."
"We've been using this place as a reference library," I said, making a gesture to include the whole of the Pirate Museum. "I suppose you do the same?"
Iktar beamed in at that moment. She gave me a 'who's your friend?' look of surprise as Borgan was staring at her. I assumed that her being female and white, not to mention the beam-in, made Iktar another new post-dead experience for Borgan.
"Iktar, this is Borgan, who lives here. Borgan, this is Iktar, a member of our small group of the post-dead," I said by way of introductions.
Borgan was looking even more suprised when he knew that Iktar was just one of five females whom Frosch and I had met, one of whom (Bethan) was now deceased. We also mentioned we knew another male member of the post-dead (Tolshivar). Telling Borgan that Iktar was the driving force behind our treasure-hunting brought us back to that subject.
"So you've had a lot of experience of moving around under water?" Iktar said. "I was wondering if we'd need weights to help us go down."
Borgan showed off his teeth in another laugh. "I thought the same at first. But you won't need them."
"And you've been diving since what? The late nineteen-forties?" said Frosch. "Serious diving, that is?"
"Since about then," Borgan said with a nod.
"So are you sitting on a vast pile of treasure now?" I asked.
"The treasure's still at the bottom of the sea," said Borgan. "But I know where it is."
"You've never thought of getting an expedition together to haul it out?" said Frosch.
"Too much hassle, man," said Borgan. "Getting all the bread together, getting the permissions to dive, getting to keep any of it with the government saying, 'Thanks for all your help, man, but this is ours now.'"
"What you need is a one-man mini-sub that you can load up with loot and take somewhere where they don't ask questions," said Iktar.
"One day, maybe," Borgan said with a lazy smile. "Maybe."
Using the reference library had fallen off the agenda. Borgan took us back to his apartment to look at some of his collection of highly selected items saved from the sea floor. He lived in a vast space which had once been a sail loft in the good old days. It was almost yuppified in a way appropriate for an area with a not terrifically huge average income. Borgan was clearly someone who liked a lot of room to move around.
Our next stop was our villa on the coast, where we introduced Borgan to our favourite blue drink. We talked treasure hunting until Frosch realized that he had things to do elsewhere. It was more or less automatic for us to beam in and out but Borgan was very impressed by the effect.
"Those aliens on the TV, they do that," he remarked when Frosch had gone.
"Some people will imitate anything," Iktar said dismissively.
"But what about those aliens?" Borgan added. "Are we safe from them?"
"To be unsafe, they'd have to catch up with us," said Iktar. "And we're pretty elusive, aren't we?"
"I guess so." Borgan put on one of his grins. "And we can always hide at the bottom of the ocean if they turn nasty."
Borgan was a bit embarrassed about believing in aliens, no matter what the TV news services had shown to an eager world. Our acceptance that they existed and they were on Earth made him feel less of a gullible idiot. With Frosch absent, Iktar was able to dominate the conversation and it soon took a technical turn. That's when we learned, to our astonishment, that Borgan had learned how to look inside a lump of stuff on the ocean bed and determine what it contained. Iktar, of course, required proof of such a claim.
We returned to Borgan's sail loft, where he produced a mis-shapen mass and told us that it contained lead musket balls. It was his turn to be amazed when Iktar turned down the power of her hralchiv weapon and shocked the accumulate matrix off its contents. We weren't too surprised to find six musket balls inside the lump.
At that point, we had a basis for trade. Borgan could offer his treasure hunting experience and his ability to sense what was inside lumps of stuff. We had our weapons technology for removing overlying stuff.
We all started yawning as Saturday night became Sunday early morning. Iktar and I treated Borgan to another display of beaming out when we headed for home.
"Seems like a very nice bloke," Iktar remarked when we had regained our villa.
"Quite spry for someone who's about a hundred and forty," I replied.
"He's as old as that?" Iktar looked surprised.
"I'd write to the Guinness Book of Records but I'm sure there must be older post-dead around."
"Do you think any of them are seven thousand years old, like that Egyptian bloke who was a host for one of the Goa'uld on Star Gate SG-One?"
I shrugged. "There might even be Neanderthal post-dead around. But I still find the idea of living for thousands of years a bit far fetched."
"Further fetched than people actually surviving death?"
"You can hardly call that far-fetched when it's the basis of most religions."
"Except that it's true in our case, Preth. Not just a silly story told to extract cash and favours from people."
"I suppose the world is a weird place."
"Talking about weird, you know that kid those French secret service agents grabbed to make you go with them?"
"Those alleged French secret service their government has never heard of?"
"That's right. Anyway, Frosch was telling me the kid has his own website. Done by his dad. The family seems to have done quite well out of the whole thing. Frosch reckons they can't say too much more ahead of the trial but the kid's been signed up by a national tabloid, so he's not going to be short of a computer game or two."
"Which one got him? Your friends on the Daily News?"
"No, the Sun had deeper pockets."
"I bet that narked the News," I said with a laugh.
"The French get quite narked when people reminded that their agents tried to kidnap the Hadukar. Frosch says there's been a lot of speculation back home over whether the aliens will be called as witnesses at their trial."
"What if the Hadukar claims diplomatic immunity, Ik?"
"Difficult if you don't have a diplomatic treaty. Frosch reckons it's only a matter of time before one of the prime monster's spin doctors realizes that and tries to get in touch with us for a flashy, image-boosting conference."
"Best of luck to him," I said through a yawn.
Iktar used both hands to hide a yawn of her own. We thinned and drifted down into the earth beneath the villa for the night. We had some serious treasure hunting to talk over in the morning.
J2 : Unsurrendered Assets
We spent a majority of our waking hours during the first three weeks of January under the sea, lurking around the old pirate strongholds of the West Indies. Iktar and I collected a few trinkets but, like Borgan, we found ourselves content to locate wreck sites, identify the 'good' pieces and either leave them where they were or move them to a safer place if tide races threatened to damage them.
As a hobby, treasure hunting was fun and full of surprises. But there was also something lacking. It wasn't really a way of life for Iktar and myself. Borgan seemed quite happy lurking about at the bottom of the sea with a torch which was armoured against the pressure, but Iktar and I wanted a touch of excitement. We needed to be hi-jacked by pirates and have the opportunity to fight back.
When Frosch turned up on the evening of the third Satuday in January, we expected him to have another job for us and we rather rushed him through our collection of treasures. In fact, work was off Frosch's agenda for the moment. Iktar and I sat and stared at him in disbelief when he announced that Sorensen of the CIA had been ordered to surrender his alien assets.
"What, you and Tolsh?" I said at last.
Frosch shrugged. "Who else?"
"And how much say did you get in this?" Iktar asked.
Frosch shrugged again. "Somewhere south of bugger all. I met Sorensen in a hotel room and asked him just that. So he just pointed a finger at the ceiling and said, 'The guys up there are deciding the fate of whole countries. Individuals don't count for much. Even aliens.'"
"Not an attitude calculated to make friends and influence people," Iktar remarked.
"Too true," said Frosch. "Then Sorensen told me his bunch get squeezed between the hard-nosers and the brown-nosers. And bitching about it is just a waste of breath."
"Life's no joke, then you croak," said Iktar. "So what are you doing about it?"
"I started at pissed off," said Frosch. "Then I went to a bit amused by the casual arrogance of it all. Then I realized those were wrong attitudes. After all, I'm Sokar Frosch of the Prime Circle. I'm a big wheel in the hierarchy of a visiting delegation from an off-planet civilization, not something to be passed around like a hot pistol."
"Hear, hear," laughed Iktar.
"So I decided to drop my US Intelligence circle for the moment. Just walk away and not look back."
"Does this include your DEA guy? Davidson?" I asked.
Frosch pulled a face. "I think he's going to be busy for the next six months tying up the stuff we turned up in South America. No, I thought I'd have a look what you two are up to on the treasure hunting front."
"Are we looking for another partner?" I asked Iktar.
"No," she said. "But there's not a lot we can do if he decides to come along and look over our shoulders."
"Nice to be made welcome," laughed Frosch. "So this Borgan guy, it's really true that he can look inside a concreted object in the sea and see what's really there -- value or junk?"
"Amazing but true," Iktar confirmed.
"Is this guy an alien, or something?" said Frosch.
"There's a point," I mentioned, "we haven't told him we're supposed to be aliens as well as post-dead. Minimizing the shocks to his system, I suppose."
"Okay, there's no need to be in too much of a rush to hand out our life histories," said Frosch. "Let's just enjoy a treasure-hunting holiday here and see how things go."
"Actually, we were thinking about heading back home soon," said Iktar. "There's not all that much happening around here."
"Okay, maybe we can take a couple of trips south," said Frosch. "Just to keep our hands in with the sneaking about."
"You've got another job on in Panama or Costa Rica, haven't you?" Iktar accused. "And you're really here to get us doing all the work for you."
"No, I just want to monitor the situation there," said Frosch. "And maybe do a bit of damage to a certain drug baron's cash-flow situation."
"Collect more cash for your DEA guy to launder?" I said.
"Cash is one thing you can never have too much of," said Frosch.
"Accumulating more cash than you'll ever need in banks is a waste of time," I said. "There are lots of more interesting things you could be doing."
"Not if your name's Frosch," laughed Iktar. "And I don't care what his motives are. I'm up for a bit more sneaking around."
"Hold your horses," said Frosch. "I have some organizing to do first. And nothing's going to happen for about a week, which is why I'm here to find out what you two are up to with your treasure hunting."
"It's more treasure locating and leaving in place than actually dragging it ashore and shoving it in a bank when it's been cleaned up," said Iktar.
Frosch put on a comical expression of horror for the lost opportunity. I could see that he was getting ready to do a lot of arm-twisting if we tried to stick to that wasteful philosophy while he was around.
Four days later, Iktar and I found ourselves in Panama City on a wet Wednesday. The rain in South America is warmer and more plentiful than the rain in England. Our job involved lurking, separately, and watching comings and goings at selected office buildings. Frosch had us gathering intelligence information ahead of a possible raid.
Sitting at a café wearing dark sunglasses and pretending to read a copy of the Washington Post that was a couple of days old, I became aware of a woman looking at me. I froze a smile in place as I started to wonder if I had made myself too damn handsome for my own good -- and think what a laugh that thought would give Iktar if I shared it with her.
Focussed on the job, I had been ignoring other senses. The woman was sitting down at my table as I suddenly realized that she was one of us -- post-dead. She looked as if she had endured a long and not terribly easy life before achieving our blessed state.
The woman started talking to me in a low, urgent voice. Iktar and I had picked up a fair amount of Spanish while lurking hereabouts. In fact, we were just about as fluent as Frosch now. I began to feel as if my memory banks had been scrambled. The woman was speaking what sounded like Spanish but the words didn't make sense.
I offered a hand across the table and told her that my name is Prethon in slow, careful Spanish. I just about got her name amid a torrent of her weird, almost-Spanish. The waiter arrived and I asked her if she would like a coffee, which seemed to be a novel idea for Persid. The waiter seemed to understand her brand of Spanish without much trouble. I resumed my attempts to communicate. It wasn't until I got to, '¿De donde Usted?' that the penny dropped.
The woman was from Brazil and she was speaking Portuguese.
We struggled on with a broken conversation for a few more minutes, then I had my brilliant idea. I got my mobile out and I speed-dialled Xanthe's number and asked to speak to Marivella.
My new acquaintance had a ten-minute chat with Mari while I returned to observing comings and goings at the office building across the street. I had plenty of time to observe that Persid really was as ancient and haggard as she had seemed at first glance. I concluded from her lack of concern over her image that she was only recently post-dead.
Eventually, Persid handed the phone back to me and motioned for me to listen. Marivella told me to stay put and she was on her way to Panama to join us. My job took another holiday as Persid and I sipped coffee and talked on. Keeping things simple, I told her that I am from England. She came from somewhere in Brazil called Salvador, which sounded like a pretty universal name for a South American town.
Marivella arrived, homing in on us, as we were well into further cups of coffee and running out of things that we could say. Marivella told me that Persid had died at the end of November of the previous year. She had become post-dead at about the time when Iktar and I had been lurking about looking for our drug-processing laboratory. She had felt drawn to Panama for a reason which she could not explain but she had arrived after Iktar and I had left in triumph with our loot. She had been wandering around in Panama ever since.
Marivella translated for me for a while, then she got caught up in her conversation with Persid and she seemed to forget all about me. Then Iktar showed up, wanting to know why I was goofing off instead of working. Seeing me apparently socializing with Marivella and one of the locals didn't help her attitude any.
Iktar said hello to Persid while the Brazilian was looking overwhelmed by meeting three fellow post-dead in half an hour or so. Reading Iktar's body language, Marivella suggested that it would be a good idea for Persid to join her and Xanthe at their Swiss base until she had found her feet again. They wandered off, looking for a place to become invisible and start to do some fast travelling.
Iktar made a few sarky remarks about people who are irresistible to old ladies then we got back to lurking and observing for the rest of the business day. And when that job was over, it was playtime. Iktar had thought of a new hobby. She was getting quite a kick out of wandering around deposit vaults in banks and inspecting the contents of the boxes to find out if they included drugs and cash together.
Chief Inspector Iktar had taken it upon herself to remove from circulation, any packets of drugs that she found along with cash which looked as if it had come from drug trafficking. She felt that dropping the drugs into a handy volcano was a service to humanity -- the pre-dead part of it, anyway -- and she knew that the cash would come in handy.
Back at our Jamaican villa at the end of a full day, Frosch was interested to hear that we had met another of the post-dead. He lost interest very rapidly when we mentioned that Persid spoke only Portuguese. Frosch felt happy enough admitting to knowing only English. He believed that any foreigners who wanted to talk to him should do him the courtesy of learning his language. It was what had made the British Empire a great force for world unity, he told us. He even sounded as if he believed it.
Persid's arrival in our world prompted some speculation on survival rates, most of it fairly frivolous.
"Four blokes but six women," Iktar remarked, flicking her eyes between Frosch and myself. "I think that says something."
"Alternatively," said Frosch, "Sixty per cent of survivors in England are male. And that's a hundred per cent in Jamaica."
"A hundred per cent are women in each of France, Spain and South America," said Iktar.
"That we know of," I mentioned.
"Right. All your samples are too small to be statistically reliable," said Frosch. "So all your conclusions are totally bogus."
"And yours, too," Iktar pointed out.
"Unlike some, I never pretended otherwise," said Frosch. "Talking about pretenders, I have it on good authority that Mr. No Jacket, our prime minister, wasn't too thrilled when his spies told him the Hadukar had seen the Queen."
"Shame," laughed Iktar.
"And he was even less pleased when the news leaked out to the meeja," Frosch added. "Until Andrew Slayne, his Slimeball Number Two, gave it a bit of spin. The current line is that now is the time for the aliens to meet the government to talk turkey."
"What, now that they've met the monarch for diplomatic purposes?" I said.
"Right," laughed Frosch. "They're also still being careful to avoid calling the Queen the 'head of state'."
"Sounds like a revolution brewing," remarked Iktar.
"Another bit of bad news is the Yanks feel left out," said Frosch. "There are aliens in China and the UK, and probably France and Switzerland too, so why aren't they talking to the president of the most important country in the world?"
"Probably because the Yanks feel free to order your pal Sorensen of the CIA to surrender us," I said. "By the way, how are you explaining allegedly high-powered alien generals and diplomats working for the CIA and the DEA?"
"Participation in a culture's activities, including law enforcement and counter-terrorism work, can be useful in defining the culture and its level of development," said Frosch.
"I bet that came out of a science fiction book," I said.
"A bet you wouldn't lose," Frosch told me. "Something else that's getting the Yanks wound up is what's going on at the UN. The Africans and their mates are still at it. The usual suspects are going on about calling an international conference to discuss ways to share the benefits of technology donated by an off-world civilization with countries which might not be able to use it directly by virtue of being hopelessly backward or corrupt."
"That's not just the Africans," Iktar remarked.
"It's seen as a logical extension of the EU's First Contact Protocol sessions," Frosch continued. "Which are due to resume early in February, in about three weeks' time."
"Isn't it great the way these parasites are all set to divvy up something they don't have?" said Iktar.
"In fact," said Frosch, "they don't even know what the something is. And they're all set to claim the credit for handing it out. And a big slice of the cash, of course."
"What we should do," I suggested, "is get the Earthers agitating to be told what the technology is and exactly what these guys are planning to divide up."
"They'll just say they're getting the general principles in place," said Frosch. "Slippery as a bucket of eels, these guys. I mean, if we were to beam in at the UN, the whole lot of us, and tell them this planet is too primitive for contact yet, they'd just tell each other the next lot of aliens might not be so choosy and carry right on."
"What a fat dunk." Iktar put on her much neglected Buffy, the Vampire Slayer fierce face. "Maybe we should sneak up on a few of these characters and make them too scared to leave home."
"Works for me," laughed Frosch. "You know, I have a sneaking suspicion that the Earthers are probably getting ready to write this alien contact off as a practice run after all the bonehead stuff they've pulled. Like shooting at the aliens, trying to kidnap the Hadukar and actually killing one of his diplomatic team."
"That sounds quite possible," Iktar agreed.
"Which is why I'm looking for job opportunities in a new line of business," Frosch added.