Q1 : Survivors
"We're nothing like vampires," Iktar told me patiently. "You can see us in mirrors and with security cameras. And unlike vampires, we can go anywhere. We don't have to be invited in somewhere."
If it's Saturday, this has to be New Zealand. Being able to get to the other side of the world in less than half an hour has its confusing side. We left London at about eleven o'clock on Friday evening and it was about eleven a.m. on Saturday morning when we arrived at New Zealand's South Island, which is less volcanically active and has the higher mountains. Leaving my watch on British Summer Time meant that I was half an hour ahead of the locals, according to the position of the watch's hands, and half a day behind in terms of my internal clock.
We were still having an intermittent discussion about the 'murder in the park' a week after the event. Iktar was still trying to find a convincing reason why the victim of the Slayer had dispersed in a dust explosion when stabbed with the 'Sword of Darkness'. Her main problem is that she is too good at shooting holes in theories. Every time she comes up with something that seems to hold water, she hits it with a lethal torpedo.
"I'm not saying we're like vampires," I told her for the umpteenth time, "but the so-called conventional wisdom about them is our nearest model. Vampires are undead and so are we. Vampires can live for centuries and so can we. Well, at least a century and a half in Borgan's case. Vampires can't be killed except by exceptional means. And remembering what happened to Bethan, the same applies to us. Although we can choose not to continue our existence. Such as by exposing ourselves to sunlight if we believe it will kill us. And we die even though sunlight doesn't affect us any more. If it ever did. Because we believe it will kill us, and that's what matters. Which has to be what happened to whoever it was in the park. He believed himself to death."
"Vampires are infected with a disease," Iktar interrupted. "We live on because of our genetic make-up. No, we don't know that about vampires," she added, irritated with herself for assuming vampire stories have a factual basis.
"And the genetic theory about us is just that, a theory of yours," I added. "Look, Ik, why not just leave this alone until Frosch comes up with something?"
"Because it's bugging me," Iktar complained. "Okay, you're right. We're here to do some skiing. Let's get some gear organized."
We floated around until we spotted people on skis, civilization and shops. Iktar decided that a ski resort in New Zealand was pretty much like the ones in the Alps, as far as she remembered. The clothing and equipment had got a lot more high-tech but the skiers behaved much the same.
We trailed around, looking at skis and working out what sort of outward appearance we should assume which would make us look smart but not like fashion-victims. We were in a vast cavern of a shop when Iktar disappeared. But being post-dead meant that I could sense her direction. I found her gazing at a display of what looked like sawn-off surf boards.
"Have you ever done any snow boarding?" she asked.
"Yeah, lots," I replied.
"I was just thinking, if we tried it out, we'd both be beginners and that would be fairer on you than skiing."
"And if I turn out to be absolutely useless at it while you shine, that would just underline your natural feminine superiority?"
"Probably," laughed Iktar. "So what do you think?"
"It's certainly a lot less to lumber about. One snow board as opposed to two skis and two sticks."
"Hi, folks, can I help you?" A thirtyish sales assistant with a deep tan and a distinctly Californian accent had sneaked up on us.
Iktar explained our requirements. We debated over colour and style for about five minutes, then Iktar got her credit card out. We left the store with brand new snow boards and directions to an establishment which could provide beginners with a full briefing on the art of snow boarding.
The Californian (surprise) running the snow boarding course was able to tag us on to his early afternoon class. We slid down gentle slopes, fell off a lot, and came back for more. After a couple of hours spent learning body postures and how to read terrain, Iktar decided that she wanted to tackle something more severe than the training course.
By the end of the afternoon, I was falling off my snow board less than half as often as Iktar, and I was starting to gain confidence. I have never been any sort of sportsman. I suppose I lacked the dedication needed to become good at a sport when I was pre-dead. And I had other things to do with my time, such as earning a living and responding to biological imperatives. Those things are no longer relevant and I have Iktar to push me now.
By the early evening, we began to flake out. It was about then that we realized that we had been up all night, thanks to the almost 12-hour time difference. Iktar had hired a jeep for moving our snow boards around while I had been entrusted with booking a motel room in which to store our bits and pieces. We headed back to the motel to crash out.
We managed a whole day's practice before Frosch showed up at our motel. He arrived at 10 p.m. Frosch time and 9:30 a.m. for those on holiday in New Zealand. When he recovered from his mirth at discovering that we had been snow boarding, Frosch reported that Anthony Jon (with no 'h') Clade, who had been wielding the 'Sword of Darkness' in Hyde Park, was a mystery man.
The police had given his picture to TV news programmes and the newspapers. One of his neighbours had recognized his picture on TV -- the woman had fancied him and that's why she had noticed him. The police had visited his flat for a root around but they had been unable to find any leads to family, friends or anyone who would admit knowing Clade.
He had not used any of the local shops or pubs regularly enough to be noticed by the people working there. There was nothing in the flat about a job, a bank account or any conventional stuff like that. In fact, the flat looked more like a temporary base camp offering somewhere to wash, change clothes and sleep rather than a home. Then, three days into the case, the local CID had handed the inquiry over to a Special Investigation Team.
"And the SIT are sitting on the case," Frosch added. "They're just collecting all the data and physical evidence gathered so far and doing nothing with it."
"What, even the tree he crashed into?" said Iktar.
"Why?" I added.
"If I knew that, I wouldn't be sitting here, looking puzzled," said Frosch.
"This whole thing has the air of the tip of an iceberg," Iktar decided.
"Which is why I'm staying with it," said Frosch. "I've also got Tolsh doing a bit of ferreting about, too."
"Remember that TV series Ultraviolet?" I said. "Maybe there's some secret Church Police handling the case."
"Hello, we're back to vampires again," said Iktar.
"It's a good point," said Frosch. "Maybe there is some secret outfit trying to find out if the post-dead are any sort of threat to the nation."
"That's my snow board in there," I said in response to his frown at the anonymous, black-plastic travelling shell for my board.
"I'd suspect she's trying to kill you off to inherit all your money," said Frosch. "If that wasn't impossible and she didn't have more money than she knows what to do with."
"She's the cat's mother," Iktar said frostily.
"I've not heard that one for years," laughed Frosch. "So anyway, have you detected any more of us on the other side of the world?"
"Not really," said Iktar. "Why, do you want some more aliens to show to the CIA?"
"I was just wondering," said Frosch. "I know Preth has this theory that the post-dead tend to go for major cities or places so isolated, you'd never hope to come across them in a million years."
"If you're seriously looking for New Zealander post-dead, you might have better luck on the North Island," I said. "They've got all these volcanoes, so it's more interesting. But I don't think any are erupting at the moment. Why, are you doing some recruiting?"
Frosch shrugged. "Not particularly. I was just having a conversation with Hath the other day. About how you'd go about finding more of our kind."
"Is she still around?" said Iktar.
Frosch shrugged again. "She comes and she goes. She's another one who likes to keep her independence. But she's a bit bugged about the Clade affair. So she takes the odd turn to snoop on the SIT."
"Hang about somewhere we'd consider a must-visit place?" said Iktar. "And wait for post-dead people to show up as a means of finding others?"
"Haunt the place, you mean?" said Frosch. "Come to think of it, that's probably the origin of haunting. Ghosts hanging about, waiting for a kindred spirit to show up so they'll have someone to talk to."
"The only thing wrong with that," I mentioned, "is the large number of places you could go and the small chance you'd choose to be there when someone else post-dead shows up."
"Unless you choose to go to a place that's a natural magnet for people like us," said Iktar. "Like that farmhouse of yours."
"And the ghost town the bikers were using," said Frosch.
"Except, it's not a very efficient way of doing things," said Iktar. "Look at how long you and me spent on our own before we met up with Preth."
"Talking about the bikers," said Frosch, "I came across something that put me in mind of them. There's a bunch of characters stealing cars in the States and taking them out on stretches of highway where they get about two cars a day. Then they stop about a mile apart and crank them up to full speed for a head-on crash."
"Sounds like fun," said Iktar.
"The police think it's some bunch making a film on the cheap and they're using radio control and crash-test dummies," said Frosch.
"But you know better?" I said.
"I reckon it's the bikers the AFT mob ran out of town," said Frosch. "All the crashes were half-head-on, right-front to right-front. I reckon the driver was steering from the front passenger seat with the accelerator wedged down. That way, both drivers can enjoy being flung through the windscreen when they hit."
"You'd have to be a bit weird if you wanted to do that more than a couple of times," said Iktar.
"I think these guys did their heads in on acid and other hallucinogenic drugs while they were pre-dead," said Frosch. "And becoming post-dead didn't do anything for their sanity."
"I was just thinking," I remarked. "There's another career for you when you wind up the alien thing. In the movies, as a stuntman. Who better than someone who's post-dead to do the most dangerous jobs for the highest pay?"
"I'll have to remember that if I ever get bored," laughed Frosch. "What did you think of the match, by the way?"
Iktar groaned, turned to her laptop computer and found something of greater interest on the World Wide Web.
"It was a classic of its genre," I said, stealing shamelessly from a report on a news website.
Tolshivar and I had enjoyed the best view in the stadium of the World Cup Final. We had watched England go ahead in the 46th minute, just before half time, via an opportunist goal by the right fullback. We had groaned in despair as one of the German players collapsed in the penalty area in the 89th minute.
We had booed loudly as the ref had reached for his red card while gazing at an England defender. But a replay on the big screen behind the English goal showed that the German had taken a dive. So he received the red card and his team got a corner. From which they knocked in an equalizer in a goal-mouth scramble.
England launched a swarming attack from the kick off and their captain blasted in a go-ahead goal in the 91st minute. Our team then survived a further 4 minutes of time added on to seal an historic victory.
"It was certainly a nail-biter," said Frosch. "I don't think they'll ever top that. Anyway, I'll leave you to your snow boarding. I thought I'd have a cruise around here then head home to find out what the SIT are up to. I'll be in touch next time I hear something good."
Q2 : VINZ
Iktar had renewed her subscription to some sort of Internet messaging system during a break from hurtling down mountains on a snowboard. It was the one which she had used when we had been on our volcano-surfing holiday about eight months before. So when Mount Ruapehu started doing its best to ruin business in the Whakapapa ski region at the end of our first week in New Zealand, we abandoned snow-boarding and headed over to the North Island for a look.
A vast, dirty grey plume connecting ground and sky aided our navigation. We solidified out of sight and approached a vantage point. The police had established an exclusion zone and they were out in force, along with the military, to make sure that no civilian nutters got themselves killed.
"This is no good," Iktar remarked to me when we were at the front line. "We're missing all the good stuff."
We could see surges in the volcano's plume as pulses of gas and rock were fired up into the air. There was a lot going on but we needed to be a lot closer to see any of it properly. So we retired out of sight and thinned out to invisibility.
There was quite a strong wind gusting in the region of the blow-hole, which lay some distance from the top of the volcano. We found that we could lurk on the up-wind side and see fairly well though the haze of dust. It was a little disconcerting to have big lumps of rock splat on the ground where we were standing even though we were as invulnerable as fog but indispersible in addition. The noise from the blasts of gas and dust was tremendous. The ground was shaking and we couldn't hear ourselves think.
I think Iktar and I felt the approaching presence simultaneously. We both turned to look at an apparently empty area of mountain. All three of us solidified together. But when lumps of rock, some the size of a television set, began to bounce off us, we all de-densified again. With gestures, we agreed to move to an adjacent mountain peak where we could communicate.
The newcomer was called Fereng. He was mind-blown to find that there were others like him; post-dead. He was a New Zealander who had become a geologist and then a vulcanologist. He had been suffocated by dust and gas from Mt. St. Helens about five weeks after his thirtieth birthday, which meant that he had been post-dead for two-thirds of his pre-death life-span.
We blew Fereng's mind even more when we told him that we are in touch with almost a dozen other post-dead people. When we shared the theory that the best place to find others of our kind is at 'must see' events and places, Fereng issued a hollow laugh. He had been visiting the most spectacular volcanoes on Earth for the last twenty-odd years without meeting someone else like him.
Iktar and I shared bits and pieces of our personal histories. Fereng was surprised to hear how old some of our group were. He just stared when we mentioned that Borgan had been post-dead since the time of the American Civil War. Iktar got much the same reaction when she mentioned that we had come to New Zealand for a snow-boarding holiday. Fereng had not considered the possibility that the post-dead might be able to interact with the pre-dead so freely and follow their pursuits so readily.
Iktar and I spent the rest of the day being shown around Mount Ruapehu by an expert. We headed back to the South Island when the sun set and the visibility dropped off to a strain-your-eyes level. Fereng frowned when he found that we were living in a motel but he realized that we had rather more gear than he did.
The vulcanologist had a notebook, a geological hammer and a couple of cameras. We didn't ask him how he had acquired his equipment but we gathered that he was adept at slipping his films into the system for automatic processing equipment and retrieving the developed and printed films. He kept his pictures and notes in locked fire- and damp-proof boxes, which he stored in inaccessible places.
The idea of some of the post-dead having credit cards and identification documents which allowed them to hire cars was another mind-blower for Fereng. Iktar and I chose not to get involved in an explanation involving Frosch, his business activities, our pretending to be aliens and the CIA's role in providing our documentation. Put into a few sentences, the whole story sounded totally improbable. It was something which you had to have lived over the last year or so.
Frosch was quite intrigued to hear that we had met another of the post-dead while volcano-surfing rather than while snow-boarding. By the time he called on us again, Iktar and I had given Fereng some idea of what we did to earn an honest crust and he was eager to join in. After thinking over the possibilities which we had opened up to him, Fereng had come to the conclusion that he needed to establish a base with a computer, a scanner and broadband Internet access. He was planning to build the fruits of twenty years on volcanoes into a vast website.
Frosch seemed to take to him right away and the General was always on the lookout for a willing worker. Fereng was willing to work -- but first, he had to continue his work on Mount Ruapehu until the volcano quietened down.
"Another mad scientist type," Frosch remarked, with a glance in Iktar's direction, when Fereng had returned to the North Island.
"Someone who'll dump you when he's made enough to set up his website, probably," laughed Iktar.
"It'll be useful to show off a planetary geologist to the CIA before the aliens leave the Earth," said Frosch. "Give our expedition a bit more depth and a bit more credibility."
"Have you decided when we're going yet?" I asked.
Frosch shrugged. "Probably August. Or the end of this month. Depends how everyone feels."
"You mean there's some democracy in the decision?" Iktar asked in amazement.
Frosch shrugged again. "It never hurts to let people think they've got some control over their lives. Even if they haven't. Anyway, can I get on with telling you about the Clade Affair?"
"Feel free," I invited.
Iktar abandoned her laptop and gave Frosch her full attention.
"Okay, it looks like Clade was being sponsored, or rather controlled, by a bunch calling themselves the Trimorate. There's three of them. Obviously," Frosch added in response to Iktar's look of superiority at recognizing the obvious when she heard it. "Two of them want to get post-dead people working for them as they're 'go anywhere, see everything' people. The other one is going along with their agenda but he really wants to find out how to become post-dead himself."
"What, kill himself and see if he's still there afterwards?" said Iktar.
"These three have been researching the concept of sustained life for a lot of years," said Frosch. "And they're convinced that odd things can happen perimortally. There are so many genetic possibilities. If people are born with genetic self-destruct mechanisms, like cancers, it stands to reason that there are also people who are longer lasting than others just for the sake of balance."
"That would be something to ask your friendly, neighbourhood aliens about," I offered. "If they can identify that sort of genes."
"Except they don't know how to contact the aliens," said Frosch.
"How about hanging round the clubs they go to, like the prime minister?" laughed Iktar.
"But it's a good point," said Frosch. "According to my CIA bloke, we've been a great help to Earther scientists."
"How?" said Iktar.
"Apparently, just knowing something is possible is a help to them. Interstellar travel, transporter technology, personal defence screens, our weapons, the anti-pollution filters."
"All these things that don't exist?" scoffed Iktar.
"All these things which ought to exist and will exist when some Earther invents them," Frosch countered. "Anyway, this Trimorate got their hooks into Clade via a screening programme. People with certain interests were quizzed and tested. Well, there was a lot of psychology in it. They were bamboozled into volunteering for all sorts of tests of psychic abilities."
"Sounds harmless enough," I said.
"Except that they were looking for people who are sensitive to psychic phenomena. They were looking for people who are likely to be able to know when they're in the presence of the post-dead."
"Ah," I said thoughtfully. "Not so harmless."
"And Clade was their number one boy in that field," Frosch added.
"How do you know all this?" said Iktar.
"From watching the SIT team which isn't investigating Clade's death," said Frosch. "They're in touch with the Trimorate, which is how I got on to them."
"So it's a sort of official bunch?" I said. "Like the Church Police in Ultraviolet?"
"Not quite as official as them but they do have a lot of semi-official contacts and people who are interested in their work."
"Interested in living forever to spend their ill-gotten gains?" said Iktar.
"Anyway," Frosch continued, "from what Tolsh and I can gather, Clade started to get disillusioned, suspicious and fearful. There are signs he stopped trusting his patrons not to abuse the talents of Survivors."
"Survivors?" Iktar repeated. "Yes, I like that as a name for us. It's a lot better than Shadows."
"What happened next is anybody's guess," Frosch concluded. "It may be that he thought it would be a good idea to finish off the bloke he stabbed in the park to stop his talent being abused. And then he ran into you two. And realizing you were more Survivors, he attacked you out of fear and loathing."
"And in trying to zap us, he got himself zapped," said Iktar.
"So where is this getting us?" I asked.
"Closer to some sort of truth," said Frosch. "But whether knowing this truth is a good or a bad thing for us remains to be seen."
Our next episode of information from Frosch's detective work came after we'd returned to London. Iktar and I were accomplished snow boarders by them and Fereng was moderately good and improving rapidly. He had been all round the world chasing volcanoes but he had never been to England either before or after his death. Finding that we were living in company hospitality apartments impressed him even more while giving him encouragement. He could dare to hope that putting his life's work on a website was an achievable ambition rather than a dream.
Frosh and Tolshivar came round to our apartment (Iktar's idea of a separate apartment for herself seemed to be on hold for the moment) within half an hour of Iktar's call to Frosch's mobile phone, suggesting that they had been at a loose ends.
"Someone is experimenting with near death simulations," Frosch announced when we had introduced Tolshivar to Fereng and parked ourselves in the TV room.
"Wasn't there a film about that?" I remarked. "Didn't we see it at the film club?
"Yes, Flatliners, it was called," said Tolshivar.
"Right. What happened in it?"
"I don't remember. It was so long ago."
"Can we get back to the point?" said Frosch. "Going on from what I told you earlier, it looks like the Trimorate, this bunch of mad scientists, they're all hoping to live forever by going into a post-dead or Survivor condition. Not just one of them, all three."
"Do they have actual proof that there is a post-dead condition?" said Iktar. "That there are Survivors?"
"It looks like they're happy their evidence says it's reasonable and they're trying to work out what the condition is and how to get there," said Frosch.
"According to Ik," I mentioned, "you have to have a certain genetic make-up."
"That's only a theory," Iktar reminded us. "Which isn't based on any evidence or scientific study."
"Even so, they're going to be a bit pissed off if they find a genetic link and they don't have the right genes," said Tolshivar. "If they can make other people live forever but not themselves."
"Unless they can find a way to isolate the Survivor gene and splice it into their own DNA," said Iktar.
"That should keep them busy for the next hundred years," laughed Tolshivar. "Finding out for sure if you can go into an afterlife and doing the genetic engineering."
"Coming back to the point," said I, "do we know any more about the connection between the police Special Investigation Team and the Trimorate?"
"Not yet," said Frosch. "But I think some son of a bitch at the Ministry of Defence, possibly with some input from the spy types and the police Special Branch, has stumbled across something going on and he's waiting to see how it comes out."
"I hope he's not planning to make the prime minister and his bunch of deadlegs immortal," said Tolshivar.
"This is the sort of deal where you'd keep the politicians out of the loop for as long as possible," said Frosch.
"So what's the bottom line on this?" I asked.
"Hath, Tolsh and I are still sneaking about, poking our invisible noses in," said Frosh. "Trying to locate the mad scientists so we can look over their shoulders."
"Don't tell me, you're about to double the number of sneakers," said Iktar. "To speed things up."
"It's really good to have a team who can see the job ahead and be ready for it," Frosch said before getting down to some serious organizational work.