P1 : Transition
Frosch had brought his plan to 'leave the Earth' to us (Iktar and myself) first. It was news to Tolshivar when we mentioned it to him the next day, a wet Wednesday. Tolshivar had turned up with the July schedule for the science fiction film club, which had been delayed over issues of availability, which had been resolved satisfactorily.
The news came as too much of a surprise for Tolshivar to manage a considered reaction to it. My impression, however, was that he was enjoying being a part-time alien so much that he would probably volunteer to be one of the stay-behind study group.
Life continued as normal for a week or so as Frosch toured the world, putting his idea to our far-flung group -- Xanthe and her gang, Hathor and Borgan. I got into the habit of spending the morning at Tolshivar's company hospitality apartment when the essential World Cup matches were on. Iktar didn't want to know about sports most of the time -- and especially not about football and tennis -- but she did come running when there was a spectacular crash during motor-racing.
I got quite a shock when I turned up at Tolshivar's place for the lunchtime England v Turkey quarter-final. He was wearing more than a smile of greeting when he opened the door for me -- it's more polite to ring the bell than just drift through someone's door. I found out why when when I reached his TV room and saw Hathor sprawled elegantly on his settee. Her hair was still brunette but it looked a bit blonder than before. She was wearing a lounging outfit of a Stars & Stripes teeshirt, black cords and plain black trainers and looking about as drop-dead gorgeous as a woman can get.
"Greetings, Hadukar," she said with smile for my look of surprise.
"Greetings, Sokar," I returned. "Long time no see."
"China's a big place. They took a lot of sorting out," Hathor said with a darker smile.
"But you've done it?" I said, picking a chair which gave me a partial view of the pre-match build-up on the wide-screen television and as well as the visitor.
Hathor shrugged. "As much as I can be bothered. So when your minion Frosch turned up to tell me the alien thing has run its course, I thought I'd wander back here and find out what else he's up to."
I noticed in passing that Hathor's English had lost most of her former French accent and she sounded almost American. I concluded that she could pass for a French Canadian if she was with people who didn't know that particular accent at all well.
"Minion," Tolshivar remarked with a laugh as he passed out mugs of coffee. "Frosch would love that."
"Men shouldn't be allowed to take themselves too seriously," Hathor told him.
"No danger of that for us with Iktar around," Tolshivar said.
Hathor gave him an unfathomable smile.
"So are you a football fan?" I said, being careful not to mention that the French team had made an early exit from the World Cup while ours was still struggling on and setting world records for getting through with the minimum number of goals.
"Football?" Hathor gave me the same smile. I interpreted it as meaning who's this weird bloke?. "No, I'm waiting for your General to take me to a meeting with one of his CIA contacts."
"Don't tell me. Frosch has changed his mind about leaving the planet," I said.
"I think it's more to do with showing the CIA a new face to prove there's lots more of us they haven't seen," said Tolshivar.
"Keep the legend going right up to the last minute," said Hathor.
"You weren't another spy or someone in the military in a previous existence?" I asked, realizing that I knew precious little about Hathor. Her previously very French anti-British attitude, and especially her anti-male attitude, had put me off trying to get to know her. She seemed a whole lot less what the Americans call 'hostle' now.
"I was a school teacher," she said. "For ten years. Then, one evening, as I was driving home from the school in my car, it was hit by a minibus full of school kids, who distracted their driver by throwing a coat over his head."
"She was about the same age as Loriva," said Tolshivar, proving that he had been successful in extracting some biography from his other guest. The information wasn't much help to me as I couldn't remember how old our Cornish witch had been at the time of her transition to post-dead. "About a year older than me," Tolshivar added. I knew that he had croaked at the age of 31, which made Hathor 32 plus however long she had been post-dead.
"I used to be very conventional in those days," Hathor remarked with a glance down at her attire. "I would never have worn trainers back then. Dying opened up a whole new way of life to me, if you see what I mean."
"It certainly closes some doors but opens up a lot of new ones," I said.
At that point, the doorbell rang to announce Frosch's arrival. He stayed for about two minutes and left with Hathor, allowing Tolshivar to turn up the sound on his TV about thirty seconds ahead of the kick off. The Turks launched a furious assault on our team right away and the English defence went into panic mode. Luckily for us, the Turkish team had nobody capable of getting a shot on goal and they gave the ball boys a lot of exercise.
England managed one shot on target in the first half and two in regulation time in the second half. The FIFA officials decided to add on five minutes to make up for a couple of lengthy injuries. In the third of those five, as the spectators were resigning themselves to a fruitless struggle to score a golden goal then the awfulness of penalties, the English attack forced a corner. Somehow or other, the ball ended up in the net with two players claiming the goal and the Turks protesting furiously. We were through to face Spain the following Wednesday in a semi-final match.
"They left that a bit bloody late," Tolshivar remarked as he switched off the studio ramblings.
"They're worse than the bloody Germans for getting late goals," I agreed. "You almost wish they'd lose so you don't have to go through that again. Well, I'd better be getting off now."
"Doing anything interesting?" said Tolshivar.
"Iktar reckons she wants a place of her own and I have to look at what's on offer with her."
"You two falling out?"
"Not necessarily. She just likes to prove she's independent every so often. And she thinks it would be a good idea to have somewhere where she can please herself."
"I thought she did that anyway," laughed Tolshivar.
"I think she wants to be able to do it without having to pretend I'm going along with it," I explained. "See you later."
P2 : Sword of Darkness
Iktar looked at eight apartments over the rest of that Friday and the next day -- unencumbered by letting agents and people like that, of course. None of them came up to her expectations although she seemed to be forming a better idea of what would be her ideal solo refuge. She had mislaid an address and we ended up looking at apartment nine at around midnight on Saturday night.
Iktar's conclusion was that it was a nice enough place to live but the soundproofing wasn't up to the job of keeping out the neighbours, which managed to justify our presence there so late in the day. Her next big idea was to take a stroll through Hyde Park to find out if it really was as dangerous as a local TV news programme had made out.
"I think it's all a plot to hype the place," Iktar remarked as we reached the furthest point from civilization un-mugged, although we had been offered our choice in drugs three times by quite respectably dressed strollers.
"How hype?" I said.
"Make it sound like Central Park in New York so they can sell tickets for a tour with armed bodyguards," said Iktar.
"Sounds like something to suggest to General Frosch," I said with a laugh. "Hello!"
"Can you feel it too?" Iktar turned her head to the right and scanned away from the path and back towards it, trying to perform a human direction finder act.
We were on a path travelling through an open area which was dotted with trees. The trees were old and widely space, intended to provide shelter for people picnicking on the grassy area rather than ambush points for muggers close to the path. Both of us could sense that we were in the vicinity of another of our kind, the post-dead.
We both homed in on the right area together. It was a very bright night as we were just a couple of days away from a full Moon and the sky was cloudless. There were two people running. One chasing the other. We stood and watched as they crossed the path about twenty yards ahead of us.
Just after crossing the path, the larger figure caught up with the smaller. An arm holding what looked like a sword lashed forward. The figure in front just blew apart in a shower of dust. We were both too surprised to move, too overcome by surprise to be able to react. But when the man with the sword turned and began to run towards us, Iktar extended her arm as an aiming device and let go with her hralchiv weapon.
The force of the supersonic blast lifted the swordsman off his feet and drove him back. A tree got in his way. The branches shook from a mighty impact. The human part of the equation of momentum slumped to the ground like a bundle of limp old clothes.
"I don't believe what I just saw," said Iktar.
"That makes two of us," I said. "What the hell happened? He was one of us, yes? The bloke who was stabbed?"
"Yes, I felt it," said Iktar. "He was there. But he's not there now."
"Why? Why did he blow up like that? It was just like something out of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. That wouldn't happen to us. That sword, or whatever it was, would either go right through us or bounce off, according to our density at the time."
"Maybe it happened because the other person thought it would happen. He was conditioned to think that way and he did it to himself."
"Sort of frightened himself to death, kind of thing?"
"Something like that." Iktar paused and concentrated. "Yes, he's definitely gone. It wasn't just a variation of our beam-out method. He's really gone. Or she."
"Dangerous business, believing in things."
"So that's why you don't believe in anything?" Iktar attempted to retreat from a grim moment via humour.
"Not if it does that to you," I returned thoughtfully. "But why would anyone do that to one of us? We're not vampires. We don't go round draining people of blood and we don't convert them into blood-drinking creatures of the night."
"I know that and you know that. But how are you going to convince the pre-dead, Preth?"
"I'm still trying to work out how the bloke you hralchived knew he was chasing one of us. He was obviously expecting whoever it was to go off in a cloud of dust. And then he came at us. Until you zapped him."
"We'd better check him out to see if he's got some sort of gadget," said Iktar.
"Maybe he doesn't need one. Maybe he's some sort of Slayer," I added thoughtfully. "Maybe it's built-in. Biologically engineered."
Iktar and I approached the still figure. There was no one else around, no independent witnesses to the drama. The man was in his mid forties and somewhat older than our apparent age. He was dressed in a conventional suit with a white shirt (in the moonlight) and a plain, dark tie. He had nothing resembling a gadget for detecting the post-dead in his pockets. In fact, he had nothing much in his pockets except an unused handkerchief, some paper money and loose change in a jacket pocket and a mobile phone, which Iktar claimed for further examination.
"Was he someone who could feel it when he's near us? The way we know when we're near the post-dead?" Iktar asked when we had returned his other possessions to the dead man's pockets.
"That's preferable," I said. "Let's have a look around to make sure he didn't drop a gadget when you zapped him."
"Why is being able to sense us preferable to a gadget, Preth?"
"If it's done with a gadget, anyone can do it. But if it takes a person with a particular genetic make-up which lets him tune in to us, we have less to worry about."
"Except that stabbing us with a stick like this isn't going to do us any damage." Searching the immediate area, Iktar had found the weapon. It looked like a sword stick with a black blade -- lethal enough to the pre-dead but, we hoped, no threat at all to either of us. There was no sign of a hand-size box of electronic tricks -- we spent a long time making sure of that.
"Where do you put the batteries?" Frosch asked when we had brought him up to speed on our adventure in the park. He unscrewed the pommel of the weapon and pulled the handle off the tang. Then he removed the token finger guard, leaving just the blade, which was made of black metal. The business end of the blade had a very shallow V-shape with the groove on top. The black colour seemed natural in the artificial lights of Frosch's apartment rather than painted on. The sides of the blade were blunt. Just the final six inches and the point were sharp.
"Looks adequate as a stabbing weapon," said Hathor. She and Tolshivar had been enjoying Frosch's hospitality when Iktar and I had crashed the party. "But like Prethon said, trying to stick this into one of us isn't going to do us any harm."
"And this bloke just dusted like a vampire on Buffy?" said Tolshivar.
"No, it wasn't a beam-out effect." Iktar answered the unspoken question. "Whoever it was was gone. We both felt it."
"There, then not there," I said in confirmation.
"Of course, said Frosch, "what we don't know is the history between these two people. The bloke who was dusted ..."
"Or the woman," said Hathor.
"Or the woman," said Frosch, "might have deserved it."
"Yeah, well, we were in a state of shock," said Iktar. "So when that bloke came at us next ..."
"It was a case of do unto others before they can do unto you," said Frosch. "What about the mobile?"
"It was just an ordinary mobile as far as we could tell," said Iktar.
We had stopped on the way to Frosch's apartment to examine the mobile phone. Iktar had found nothing out of place inside after removing the case and comparing the works with those of a similar model. Before that, she had switched the mobile phone on and pushed all of the buttons. Even though she had been operating it in the presence of two of the post-dead, there had been no flashing lights or warning sounds.
"Except your tests weren't conclusive," Frosch pointed out when I had repeated what Iktar had told him earlier. "It's possible you have to press the keys in a certain sequence to get the detector to work."
"Or you need to have one of the pre-dead operating it," Iktar added. "I'm not pretending my tests were exhaustive."
"I'd better give it to this guy I know in the security business," said Frosch. "Get him to check it for bugs or find out if it's programmed to do anything."
"I'll give it to you later," said Iktar. "We didn't like to bring it here in case it has a tracker device built in."
"Sound strategy." Frosch gave her an approving nod.
"The thing that's doing my head in," said Tolshivar, "is the idea there's some bunch going round slaying the post-dead like we're vampires."
"What we need to know is if this is something that happened once for a personal reason or if it's some sort of organized thing," said Frosch.
"So we have to sit in on the police operation when they check out the body?" said Iktar.
"Do the police know about him yet?" said Frosch.
"We didn't tell them," I said.
"Okay, let's get organized and then drop a dime on them," said Frosch. "We'll need to keep an eye on them until they set up the incident headquarters. Once we know where that is, we can drop in to see how they're getting on from time to time."
"I'm in," Hathor said in response to a questioning look. "I want to know how this comes out as much as anyone else."
'Battered body in park mystery' was one of Monday's headlines. The TV news channels had chewed the story over on Sunday but they had had nothing much to go on. The newspapers had a little more to work with after a full day's investigation but they still flew a lot of kites and most of them turned up some sort of organized crime or drug connection to explain the death.
Lacking witnesses or forensic evidence at the scene, the London police got on with their routines of finding out everything they could about the dead man and his family, friends and other contacts.
The post mortem report gave them little assistance. All that the pathologist was able to report was that Anthony Jon (with no 'h') Clade had been flung against a solid object with a rough surface (the tree) with sufficient force to break bones and cause massive hydrostatic damage to soft tissue. Most of the police speculation centred around some sort of giant catapult. Fortunately, no one made a connection to the 'aliens' and their hralchiv weapon.
Frosch's security expert reported that Clade's mobile phone was just that -- a standard, unmodified mobile phone with no function other than to send and receive phone calls and text messages. It was just another negative in a long string of them. The police had found nothing sinister at the dead man's home and the people who had known him seemed ordinary enough. The only bright spot for the investigators turned out to be a cluster of encrypted files on Clade's computer, which was passed on to one of their experts.
When Tolshivar and I settled down to watch the England versus Spain semi-final at lunchtime on Wednesday, we had been expecting to hear from Iktar all morning. She had gone off at breakfast time to hover invisibly at the police incident centre to listen in on the morning shift-change summary. We assumed from her no-show that she was following up on something.
The match seemed typical of England's current World Cup performance with attacks breaking down and gaping holes appearing in the defence whenever Spain threatened. The goalkeeper earned his wages but he had no chance against the rocket shot, which was deflected past him in the second minute of time added on to the first half.
A different England team took the field in the second half. They knocked in an equalizer right from the kick off, they took the lead after seventy minutes, they got a comfort third goal five minutes later and they defended fairly magnificently until the four minutes of added time ran out.
"Why didn't they play like that earlier?" Tolshiver asked as he switched off the celebrations and post-match analysis in the TV studio.
"I reckon they brought on a team of aliens for the second half," I said.
"What, Frosch got them to look like the England team and they outran the other lot?" laughed Tolshivar.
"Either that, or they gave them some drugged oranges at half time," I said. "So we're up against the Germans in the final." Germany had beaten Brazil 3-2 the day before, scoring the winner in the 91st minute, late as ever.
"So we needn't switch on until about five minutes to go because it will be nil-nil up til then," laughed Tolshivar.
"Saves a lot of messing about," I admitted. "Well, look who's here!"
Iktar had beamed in. She looked at the dark, silent television set and nodded her approval. "Good. It's over."
"We won," said Tolshivar.
"I don't wish to know that," Iktar told him. "That stuff on Clade's computer? The encrypted stuff? He was writing a book about a conspiracy to take over the world by The Shadows."
"What, the bad guys from the Shadow War on Babylon Five?" said Tolshivar.
"No, a sinister form of life right here among us," said Iktar. "A bunch of parasites who come out only at night and who just take what they want from normal humans."
"What, fact dressed up as fiction?" said Tolshivar. "Or what he thinks is fact?"
Iktar nodded. "Right. He's written it as a series of diary entries. And he's got half a dozen books like that stuffed with markers on his bookshelf. Which he's obviously been cribbing from to get the style right. But the thing is, his character in the diary comes to the conclusion that he has to see off the Shadows with his Sword of Darkness."
"What, the way he did that bloke last night?" I asked.
"Probably," said Iktar. "I had to hang around for ages until I got a chance to copy the de-crypted files onto a floppy. So we need to get Tolsh's PC switched on so we can have a proper look at them."
Iktar took over the desktop computer. Tolshivar and I shared his laptop with a second copy of the diskette. The story suggested that the late Anthony Clade had been a one-man band. His hero in the book, Jon Darley, had become aware of the Shadows in his late teens. He had sensed unseen beings coming and going around him but he had not shared his experiences with anyone else for fear of being locked up in a padded cell.
He had been in his thirties when he had first tracked down one of the Shadows to its lair -- a house which had been standing empty for several months. The first Shadow had eluded him but he had been able to identify another a year later. He had then sought out the creature, befriended it and tried to discover what it was. The Shadow had grown suspicious of him, according to the diaries, and it had moved out of the area before Clade had been able to learn its secrets.
After three more encounters with Shadows, we reached the present. Clade had met the Shadow, which he had despatched in Hyde Park, in mid-April. By now, he was convinced that the Shadows posed an even greater threat to human survival than global warming, AIDS and the world's politicians rolled into one.
Clade's victim seemed to be lost and vulnerable, unsure of who or what he was and impressionable. Building up from the notes for an unwritten section of the diary, Iktar decided that Clade had warned his victim that Shadows are vulnerable to the Sword of Darkness and convinced him that one touch would de-cohere his molecules and make them fly apart.
"Maybe we should bid for the film rights for this book on behalf of the Sci-Fi Film Club," Tolshivar remarked to me.
"He's certainly got an imagination," I agreed.
"But the important thing is he looks like a one-off nutter," said Iktar.
"Assuming you can believe his book," said Tolshivar. "And he's not part of some group but claiming all the glory for himself."
"The police haven't turned up anything to suggest he's part of a group," said Iktar. "No membership card, no lists of fellow members, nothing from the people they've contacted. In fact, without our eye-witness testimony and his famous Sword of Darkness, there's nothing to tell them there was a Shadow on the scene last night and these diaries aren't total fiction. It looks like Clade was a solitary nutter."
"Life is never that simple," said Tolshivar.
A couple of days later, at about teatime for those who still need to eat, Iktar turned from her computer to fix me with a thoughtful gaze.
"What?" I asked when nothing further was forthcoming.
"Have you ever done any skiing?"
I shrugged. "Not really."
"How close is that to not at all?"
"Adjacent," I admitted. "If not coincident."
"You should try it. Especially now you're in no danger of breaking a leg."
"June's not exactly the skiing season, Ik."
"There's plenty of snow in New Zealand."
"Unless you're planning a trip to the other side of the planet. Is this before or after the World Cup final?"
"If you wanted to actually go to it, it would be quicker going to Japan from New Zealand than from here."
"Have I got time to catch my breath or are we off this minute?"
"Maybe you've got time to phone Tolshivar to tell him you'll meet him at the stadium on Sunday."
"So what do I do about keeping track of the time?" I wondered. "Do I set my watch to Japanese time? Or New Zealand time? Or keep it on British Summer Time because I know the kick-off is at twelve noon? Or should I buy two more watches?"
"The simplest solution is usually the best one," Iktar said wisely as she returned her attention to the computer.
When I looked over her shoulder, I could see that she was logged on to a website for skiers in New Zealand. I had a feeling that she was a bit freaked out over the Clade business and the idea that there are members of the pre-dead who can sense our presence. Or worse, nutters who can sense our presence and feel that they have to wipe us out.
I realized that we were just as likely to run in to someone like that in New Zealand as in England. But I also realized that it was something which Iktar didn't want to hear. Going to New Zealand and keeping quiet about my suspicions was the simplest and best thing to do.