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M1 : Special Agents

butterflyOn the evening after our trip back to our former home in the wilds, I met Frosch by appointment at Cassidy's, the North Road Mob's Number One Establishment. He had left a message on our answering machine during our jaunt and he had been out and about whenever I had tried to ring him for details of what he wanted to discuss.
   It was Friday night, the end of the working week for some and the club was well filled. Even so, Frosch and I managed to stay fairly invisible by not encouraging the special treatment normally provided for visitors from off-planet. We arrived through the front door, without beaming in, and we propped up a stretch of the bar while trying to look like regular punters. But before I could ask Frosch what was in the wind, Debbie Boon was being outrageous and whacky beside us.
   "Yo, Debs," Frosch said with a smile. "What's cookin'?"
   "Yo, Sokar, Hadukar," Debbie said in what was an intimate tone for someone used to letting everyone in the room know that she was around. "I was hoping to run into you."
   "Lucky us," said Frosch.
   "You won't think you're so lucky when you hear the message," laughed Debbie. "My esteemed brother-in-law wants to meet the Hadukar. Officially, that is. The full Downing Street circus with the meeja snapping away. I think he wants some pictures for his website."
   "But we've already done the UK," Frosch told her.
   "You've what?" Debbie put on a comical expression of scepticism.
   "The Hadukar has met your head of state. You know, the Queen?" Frosch added.
   "Oh, right." Debbie Boon made a mental adjustment away from her brother-in-law's propaganda.
   "And we can't really get involved with dealing with individual states at a lower level," said Frosch.
   "God, I'm going to love telling him that," laughed Debbie. "He can be such a pompous tick at times."
   "As you probably know, we should really only be dealing with a united planetary government," Frosch added. "But we're finding it quite interesting here, which is why we're making a few exceptions from the usual contact protocols."
   "So you're only back here on a flying visit?" Debbie said to me.
   "I'm afraid so," I replied with a grave, statesmanlike nod. "We still have lots to do and lots to see on your planet. And we're back here to take a break from meeting people. Officially, that is."
   "Bonza!" said Debbie, going all Australian on us.
   Frosch's mobile started to ring. His side of the call involved a lot of listening.
   "So do you really enjoy all the meeja stuff?" Debbie said to me. "All the parades and the little people being tediously ethnic?"
   "Well, tolerate rather than enjoy," I admitted. "But it's all part of the job. And I don't have to do all that much of it."
   "Send the deputy?" laughed Debbie.
   "If you've got one, use him. Or her."
   "Works for me," laughed Debbie. She spotted someone who was waving to her and made her excuses more or less on the run.
   "I'm out of here," Frosch announced, putting his mobile away.
   "And the reason you wanted to see me is?" I prompted.
   "Big job coming up. Tell you about it tomorrow night at your place. About half-six. Make sure Ik and Tolsh are there, okay?"
   "Anyone would think you were the Hadukar, the way you keep giving me orders," I murmured to him as he was beaming out.
   Frosch's disappearing act went down so well with the people in the club's main bar that I finished my drink, declined the offer of a replacement when the bartender rushed over and did my own beam-out. I headed for home, feeling rather surprised that Frosch had not yet found a way to charge for such performances.
   I also found myself wondering if old No Jacket, our apology for a prime minister, would start hanging round Cassidy's in the hope of meeting the aliens unofficially. A meeting with the visitors in front of witnesses would be better than nothing, if nowhere near as good as a meeting in front of photographers.

butterflyFrosch arrived for the Saturday evening meeting looking cheerful and enthusiastic. He announced that he had a really big job for us. "One that's 'quite worthwhile'," he added. "The Americans are becoming tired of playing the world's policeman. They get derision and violence from all sides, and no one appreciates them."
   "Shame!" laughed Iktar.
   "But they do want to make the world a safer place," said Frosch. "Although, mainly for themselves, admittedly."
   "This sounds like it's going to be good," said Tolshivar.
   "Basically, it's a sabotage job," said Frosch. "In subtle ways."
   "Sand in the gearbox rather than a monkey wrench in the works?" said Iktar.
   "Only we're doing it with nuclear weapons," said Frosch.
   "What?" the rest of us said in chorus, like a WWF audience.
   "It's perfectly safe," said Frosch.
   "Says who?" demanded Iktar. "And be warned, only convincing proof will be accepted."
   "I'm not asking you to eat the uranium or the plutonium or whatever," Frosch said patiently.
   "Pity. I've always fancied glowing in the dark," said Tolshivar.
   "What we're going to disable is the trigger mechanisms. Eventually."
   "What, after ten years' training?" scoffed Iktar.
   "They contain a lot of sensitive electronic components." Frosch ignored the interruption. "You could do a lot of damage to the essential ones with an ordinary cigarette lighter."
   "Yeah, right!" scoffed Iktar, who seemed to be in a belligerent mood for some reason.
   "But we don't need to resort to anything so crude, and we don't want to leave visual damage on them. They're also highly vulnerable to large doses of static electricity. Which we aliens can deliver since Preth invented his hralmak weapon. Fifty thousand volts should do the trick nicely."
   "As long as anyone remembers how to use it," I remarked.
   "So what do you reckon?" said Frosch. "Do we want to make the planet a bit safer for the Earthers?"
   "Do we really care if we aliens are probably not staying here? I mean, it's not what you'd call a very interesting planet," Iktar added with a cynical smile.
   "They've given me some testers," Frosch continued, assuming that the frivolous comments amounted to agreement. "What we've got to do is burn out specific components with a high dose of static electricity. You see, the thing about nuclear weapons; I mean, of course, the crude fission weapons the less advanced Earther regimes have cobbled together; is that the trigger has to work perfectly to slam all the bits of fissionable material together to create a supercritical mass. And to set them off, you need either a timer or a radio-trigger. So if we can zap their electronics, at worst, all they'll get is the conventional explosives going off and at best, nothing happens."
   "And bits of radioactive stuff all over the place if the conventional explosives go off," Iktar pointed out.
   "Except they won't be letting them off when they discover their bombs are defective," Frosch countered. "Which they will because they can't resist playing with them and testing them and pretending they're going to use them."
   "But the components have to look undamaged to a casual visual inspection?" I said.
   "Exactly," said Frosch. "As I see it, they think they're okay right up to the moment someone runs a routine test. Then -- panic!"
   "Maybe it would be a good idea to zap their spares, too," said Tolshivar.
   "Already on the list," said Frosch.
   "So how much work is involved in this?" said Iktar.
   "Not too much because there aren't that many rogue nukes about," said Frosch. "All we have to do initially is a poll of the usual suspects -- India, Israel, Pakistan, South Africa and so on. Plus a few characters the Yanks and the Russians suspect bought weapons from Soviet army officers who hadn't been paid for a few years."
   "A poll?" said Tolshivar.
   "Right," said Frosch. "There are a number of different designs -- basically, each rogue nuclear country comes up with its own design from bought or stolen information and testing. So what we have to do is find out where the weapons are and how many, and provide some pictures of what their works look like. Then the CIA looks at our stuff and tells us what to do to neutralize them."
   "And the CIA is paying for all this?" I asked, a touch sceptically.
   "Just think how much their stock will go up in the White House if they have exact details of who's got what and where it is," said Frosch.
   "Always assuming anyone believes what's basically an organization of lying, cheating bastards," said Iktar.
   "They'll also be able to compare what they've been told about the distribution of former Soviet nukes by their agents and informers with a real count," Frosch added.
   "Internal auditing," said Iktar. "Yes, that's got to be worth something."
   "Like, were their reports accurate or were their spies making it up for a laugh?" said Tolshivar. "Yes, that's definitely worth knowing."
   "So are we up for this?" said Frosch. "It's a good cause and the money's good. And payment will be prompt at each stage. Intelligence gathering then the actual sabotage. And if we sell everything to our own MI-Six at a later date, well, the Yanks will just think the pesky Brits have been spying on them."
   "In that case, yes, I guess we're up for it," said Iktar.
   "Questions?" said Frosch.
   "Yes," I said. "Are we doing this as aliens or Earthers with fancy technology?"
   "As aliens," said Frosch. "The CIA knows the sort of technology needed to do this job doesn't exist on this planet. Why, what difference does it make?"
   I shrugged. "None, I suppose. I just wanted to to be up to speed on the overall story."
   "So we don't have a Prime Directive? Like Starfleet?" said Tolshivar. "We can interfere in Earther internal affairs?"
   "Actually, we're doing this on an unofficial basis," Frosch admitted. "As a military commander, I recognize the value of field exercises to keep my troops on their toes. And what the Hadukar doesn't know about won't hurt him. Okay?"
   I shrugged again. "Fine by me."
   "Right, let's get some planning done," said Frosch.

butterflyWe operated in pairs when we went out on our scouting missions, four eyes instead of two, and we swapped partners every day to stay sharp and focussed, which was one of General Frosch's ideas.
   Sneaking around invisibly, Iktar told me, is a totally tension-free way to conduct covert operations, especially when you know that there's not a lot that the opposition could do to you even if they could see you. I accepted her observations as statements of reliable fact, knowing that she had been doing similar jobs for real 60 years ago, during World War Two.
   It is usually only when Iktar shares her wartime experiences with me that I realize that she is 24 years older than me and she comes from a different generation. She certainly doesn't act like someone in her eighties, and you'd never know that General Frosh has started his second century, but that's probably because we are no longer subject to the physical decay that affects the pre-dead. We are as young or as old as we look, and as we feel and think.
   All of the places where the atomic weapons were housed had layer upon layer of security. We found it extremely easy to visit the inner layer when no one was authorized to be inside the weapon stores. The eyes were all looking outward for people trying to get in -- not inward for 'aliens' who were already in.
   Avoiding sensors and not standing, visible, in front of active CCTV cameras was no problem for us. We lurked, we made notes, we took pictures of installations and their interiors with our digital cameras, and we infiltrated cavities in weapons, taking along microcameras with a flash system to record the works of nuclear devices. We also had a good look around to see what else we could find before we moved on to our next target.
   Frosch delivered all of the reconnaissance data to his CIA contact as a single initial report at the end of a busy week for all four of us. The CIA Information Officer and his deputy drooled over the pictures downloaded to their computers for a while. Then, watched by Frosch, and invisibly by the rest of us, he authorized a healthy electronic payment to one of our offshore bank accounts.
   After that, we had a week off to spend some money and let the CIA know that we had other things to do.

M2 : Garbage Disposal

butterflyWhile we were back in London, Frosch paid a routine contact visit to Cassidy's Club to find out what the North Road Mob and their political friends were up to. He was laughing his head off when he arrived at our company hospitality apartment later in the evening.
   "I think No Jacket's joined your SF film club and he's just seen Independence Day or something similar," he announced in my general direction. "The Prime Minister is worried about our lot invading his planet. Debbie's just told me that's the real reason why he wants to talk to the Hadukar. To try and suss out our plans."
   "Why, what's here that we could possibly want?" Iktar scoffed.
   "On the other hand," I pointed out, "we're obviously such an advanced civilization that he's got no chance of stopping our invasion."
   "Good point," laughed Frosch. "Why worry about losing when you can't possibly win? Another thing that's upsetting No Jacket is he told MI-Five to find out what they can about us and they've not had much luck."
   "No surprise there," said Iktar.
   "Right," laughed Frosch. "These aliens being able to beam in and out of places makes following them a real pig of a job, so Debbie reckons."
   "How does she know stuff like that?" scoffed Iktar.
   "Apparently, she's dead good at reading papers that are upside down to her," said Frosch. "And our show-off ponce of a prime minister doesn't know it. And he thinks it's cool to let his sister-in-law see he's got all these important documents from spies on his desk."
   "Well, so much for the nation's security," scoffed Iktar. "Everything that goes through the prime minister's personal flat gets relayed to the North Road Mob and their mates by the PM's gabby sister-in-law."
   "The North Road Mob don't do bad for security," said Frosch. "Remember that time we went to see that sub-boss, Preth?"
   "Oh, yes," I said. "At his apartment block, there were three blokes sitting around the lobby, smoking and reading the papers and making calls on their mobiles, and looking like they lived there. In the lobby, I mean."
   "Ready to chuck out undesirables," said Frosch. "Or break a few legs if the undesirables turned stroppy."
   "If we had that sort of conspicuous security, MI-Five would have a few less headaches," said Iktar.
   "Actually, we could have it with our own undercover coppers around to deal with the undesirables," said Frosch.
   "Go on, how?" I invited.
   "Another thing Debbie told me is that No Jacket has been talking about offering full diplomatic status to us aliens."
   "What, the first Earther government to do so?" Iktar said with a cynical smile.
   "Correct," said Frosch. "On condition we establish a proper embassy and live there."
   "Instead of the secret places his spies don't know about?" I remarked.
   "Also correct," said Frosch. "The PM was also talking about providing suitable accommodation for free. Well, free to us if not to the taxpayer. He'd also love to have us medically examined to prove we're not a danger to the Earthers."
   "Only put the other way round?" said Iktar. "A precautionary measure for our sakes? Make sure the Earthers aren't a bio-hazard to us aliens?"
   Frosch nodded. "His only problem is he's dead scared the aliens will up and leave if he pushes things. According to Debbie, he'd rather have the aliens here unofficially and not jumping through his hoops than see them go somewhere else."
   "The more I hear about this bloke, the more I think I'd throw up if he ever came near me," said Iktar.
   "Good job you're not the head of our diplomatic mission," laughed Frosch. "So, are you enjoying your week off?"
   "I hope this isn't you telling us to cut it short," said Iktar.
   "No, this is me letting you know you've got a bit more free time," said Frosch. "Operations resume on Thursday of next week."

butterflyOn the first Thursday in April, Frosch paid another call on his CIA contact, whose name turned out to be Merill Sergeant. The rest of us had not bothered to look and listen for names on our last visit to his offices -- on our first payday. Mr. Sergeant was a COGD [Covert Operations Group Director] in the CIA's NID [Nuclear Intelligence Division]. He looked fairly average when sitting down but we were surprised to find that he was about six foot four in his dark brown ankle-boots.
   His deputy, Bob Small, was about six foot six and very skinny. He seemed to spend more time playing with his glasses than wearing them, which made Iktar wonder if they might be some CIA super-weapon that he was dying to use on someone.
   Along with three invisible escorts, Frosch watched CIA videos in Sergeant's office, looked at photographs and listened to experts tell him how to identify the essential components of an atomic weapon's triggering and firing mechanism.
   There were five experts and Frosch received more or less an individual briefing for every 'rogue' nuclear missile site. Tolshivar and I felt that we were drowning in detail when we left Langley, Virginia, but Frosch and Iktar seemed quite happy with the mission.
   At this important stage, we dropped into the natural team formation -- Tolsihvar with Frosch and myself with Iktar. Frosch felt that it was important that each team should have a leader who had military experience and who knew what he/she was doing. I almost asked how being a lance-corporal for a brief time in the trenches of the Great War had given him experience relevant to this job; but I didn't.
   When we got down to doing the job, we fried 'components in place' inside the nuclear weapons, and their spares in the stores, using large charges of static electricity. Following a last-minute request from the CIA, we also fried all sorts of other electronic equipment at random around the 'rogue' nuclear storage facilities.
   Iktar guessed that the CIA was trying to make the recipients of our attentions think that they had been zapped by some sort of energy weapon, which had been fired from orbit. The effect of that bit of 'black thinking' would be to make the recipients doubly paranoid -- because the weapon existed and because whoever controlled the weapon knew where to point it.
   After Iktar and I had completed our last job, neutralizing the single-weapon nuclear arsenal of an Asian warlord with a large income from opium poppies, we headed for the impressive mountains near his headquarters to watch a spectacular sunset.
   Miles from the nearest Earther, we sat and wondered if Frosch's CIA contacts were starting to get paranoid in their turn.
   It was the first Sunday in April, Day Three of our neutralizing operation and General Frosch had been beaming in at the end of each day at Fort Langley, Virginia, with a report. If we were really earning our pay by zapping minor nations' nukes, then someone in the CIA had to be worrying about maintaining the integrity of Uncle Sam's nuke's -- specifically, how to make them alien-proof.
   We wished whoever got that job an uninterrupted supply of aspirins for his major headache before we headed for home. The time difference and our rapid method of global transport meant that we arrived in the middle of the afternoon with no chance of seeing a London sunset in five hours' time because of the thick rain clouds.
   Tolshivar drifted over to our apartment about half an hour after we had arrived in London. He told us that Frosch was now in Virginia, delivering his final report. Iktar, who was checking her emails at the time, found that she had somewhere interesting to go and disappeared more or less right away. Abandoned, Tolshivar and I decided to visit our science fiction film club.
   "You know what we're becoming?" Tolshivar remarked as we were leaving the apartment. "Garbage disposal men for the Earthers."
   "You reckon?" I said with a laugh.
   "Well, think about it. Taking drugs and drug money out of circulation. Stopping crooks enjoying stolen art. And now slinging the pipsqueaks out of the nuclear club."
   "Garbage disposal is an honorable and socially useful profession," I pointed out.
   "And I guess the pay's not bad," Tolshivar added with a grin. "I hope they're going to show these Star Wars films in the proper order, not the order they were released in."
   "If they chuck us out for whistling and stamping our feet, we can always sneak back in invisibly," I pointed out.
   "Isn't it fun, being an alien?" laughed Tolshivar.

butterflyWe lost sight of Frosch for about a week. For about three or four days after our return to London, we kept expecting the General to announce that he had another job for us to do because the CIA was so pleased with the results of the first one. But we heard absolutely nothing from him. When he did turn up again, it was to complete some unfinished business which had more or less slipped from the minds of the rest of us.
   Mobile phone calls summoned us to Frosch's personal company hospitality apartment. That was when we found that he had moved again -- to a penthouse with smoked glass windows, which made his main room feel like the inside of a Mafia mobster's limousine.
   "Remember our Texan, Mr. Harthorn?" Frosch asked when we were sitting on his posh furniture, armed with drinks.
   "The guy with the art collection?" said Tolshivar.
   "Right," said Frosch. "They're going to bust him and Ms Lucinda Gashe wants our help."
   "We've got a contract signed and sealed?" said Iktar.
   "Oh, yes," said Frosch. "And a plan worked out. Briefly, our part is to disable the alarms when the bust goes down and make sure Harthorn or his staff don't get a chance to destroy the evidence. Such as by blowing up his underground art gallery."
   "Have the CIA checked him out for nuclear weapons?" said Tolshivar.
   "No, but I have," Frosch returned.
   I wasn't quite sure if he was joking. Given Gram Harthorn's wealth, the odd nuke couldn't be ruled out.
   "How is anyone going to explain finding out about his collection?" said Iktar.
   "Easy," Frosch said with a smile. "There's a tracker device in the frame of one of the stolen pictures."
   "People don't steal frames," said Tolshivar, offering the benefit of many hours in front of a TV watching cop shows. "They cut the picture out of the frame and roll it up."
   Frosch shrugged. "Maybe it's not in the frame, then. Anyway, the point is, Ms Gashe is going to give me something to attach to one of the paintings ..."
   "So when you say it's in the frame, you mean, it'll be in the frame when the bust goes down?" said Iktar.
   "Right," said Frosch. "The story is the gadget lies dormant until it receives an activating pulse. That's why its batteries don't run out. And they've only just found it. Because you have to get within a certain distance for the activation pulse to kick it into life."
   "If I was doing it, I'd have a flat gadget that you can hide under a label on the back of the canvas," said Iktar. "An art gallery label might be something the crooks would leave in place because it verifies the authenticity of the painting. 'This is definitely where it's come from', style of thing."
   "Whatever," said Frosch. "The point is, the whole job goes down a week on Sunday. At six a.m. Texan time. So I'll need you in Austin on standby a week on Saturday."
   "What about checking Harthorn's alarm system again?" said Iktar.
   "In hand. I'll do that this weekend when I plant the bug thing. Then the FBI will be informed that a light aircraft flying over the ranch and sending out radio signals on the right frequency got a return signal from the bug. And after a whole load of planning, they'll do the bust the following Sunday."
   "All this presupposes the FBI will follow orders," said Iktar.
   "This will be a major coup for the FBI and they won't do anything to screw it up," said Frosch. "They'll follow the plan."
   "So the bosses know the full story and the people on the ground will do what the bosses tell them?" said Iktar. "It's all a set-up?"
   Frosch shrugged. "That makes sense to me, Ik. And life wouldn't be fair if it was only the criminals who had an easy time."
 

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