S1 : A Survivor Race
Frosch and Tolshivar returned from their job at the end of the week. Fereng was not with them. He had returned to New Zealand to give his new bank account some exercise and get things moving on his website. I suspected that we wouldn't see much of him for the rest of the decade if he had to scan a collection of photographs, which he had collected over thirty-odd years, and assemble them, with his notes, as a website.
"He was one highly satisfied dude," Tolshiver remarked as he claimed a chair in our TV lounge.
"The satisfaction that comes from being paid a whole lot of cash for some fairly dodgy work," Frosch added. "So what's the story on this new guy? The Geordie?"
Iktar gave him a brief account of our tour of the UK's castles and the meeting with Neroon. Frosch seemed less than impressed to hear that our latest find was a potholing, castle-loving, science fiction fan.
"He wouldn't have any trouble being an alien if he's an SF-fan," Tolshivar pointed out.
"I can't see the CIA getting much mileage out of him," said Frosch. "And he hasn't got a speciality."
"He could be a general administrator," said Iktar. "An expedition needs people to keep everything running while the experts do their thing. You know, giving the story strength through depth."
"Yeah, right," said Frosch, not convinced. "Talking about the CIA, they were wondering if our transporters can be set to do a partial materialization."
"What for?" said Iktar.
"To create the effect of a ghost."
"The CIA want to haunt their enemies?" I said, laughing.
"More like drive them crazy," said Frosch, who wasn't joking. "You get some creep like the Ayatollah Bunch of Commies, or Gadaffi or Saddam Insane, or what's his name? The boss of Al Qaida. Or even some creep with the United Nations. You want him out of your way but you can't have him assassinated. So what do you do?"
"Haunt him until he goes crazy?" I suggested.
"Right in one," said Frosch.
"So what did you tell him? Mr. CIA?"
"I told him I'd have to check with our technical people and get back to him," said Frosch.
"The whole point of transporters is to get you there without messing about, not play ghosts with you," Iktar said.
"Right," said Frosch. "So Tolsh, who was with me, he started looking worried and he muttered something about it might be difficult to maintain the pattern lock if you don't get a move on with the transfer. Then we moved on. It never pays to get the CIA's hopes up too fast. Oh, yes, another thing one of their guys was asking us during a coffee break was if vampire and werewolves stories could be based on things that happened during previous alien visits."
"The CIA actually pays guys to think up questions like that," Tolshivar remarked.
"But it's a fair point," said Frosch. "Do you ever wonder if vampires really exist? I mean, look at us. We have to be what ghosts are based on. Us Survivors. So what about vamps? Are they just a silly story or are they based on something real, like us? And what about werewolves? What?" Frosch added when he realized that Iktar and I were smirking.
"We had a long discussion about that," I said. "It went on for weeks after that business with the Iraqi Survivor being slain in the park. And we came to the conclusion that we don't really know anything about vampires. I mean, hard facts as opposed to stuff in books and on TV."
"So when I told the CIA we hadn't come across any alien species with a craving for human blood, or any shape-shifters who could do a wolf, I wasn't misleading him?" said Frosch.
"Probably less than usual," said Iktar.
"Another thing the CIA bloke wanted to know was if Preth and Ik are married," Tolshivar remarked.
"The CIA have detected an air of ownership?" I said with a smile for Iktar.
"Something like that," said Frosch.
"So what did you tell him?" Iktar asked.
Frosch shrugged. "I just told him we don't really have that sort of system. We just choose to spend time with people we like. And the more people like each other, the more time they spend together. And no, I didn't mention Iktar's twice your age."
Iktar put on a dangerous expression.
"On the other hand, it all depends how you define age," I said quickly. I had been pre-dead for twice as long as Iktar and she had been post-dead for most of my total existence. "If you're talking about how old we were when we became Survivors, I'm middle-aged, Ik and Tolsh are in their prime and you're just a young lad whose number isn't dry yet."
"Get out of that, General," laughed Tolshivar.
"But coming back to Mr. CIA," I added, "you reminded him not to analyze us in Earther terms, I hope?"
"I suppose it amounts to that," said Frosch. "Anyway, talking about Survivors, what we really came here to tell you is that Hathor has been doing some general snooping about while we were in the States. It looks like the Yanks, the Russians, the Chinese and the French are all doing Survivor-related research."
"That's them as well as the Brits," said Tolshivar.
"Are they getting anywhere?" said Iktar.
"Difficult to tell," said Frosch. "The projects are all ultra-top-secret of the sort they use when they're worried about people laughing at them."
"Or complaining about the abuse of taxpayers' money?" I suggested.
"That, too," said Frosch. "It's also difficult to figure out what their objectives are. And it's even harder to tell if they're trying to find out if Survival is possible or whether they're following up on reliable reports that it does happen. Everyone apart from the Trimorate here in London, of course, who've actually made a Survivor."
"Just the one?" I said. "The bloke they wrote off in the park?"
"They're still arguing over whether they know how to make another Survivor or they just got lucky the first time," said Tolshivar.
"They're actually worrying about the moral consequences of writing off their next volunteer," said Frosch.
"Can't they get someone terminal?" I asked. "Someone with about ten minutes left to live? Preferably, due to a medical condition rather than some criminal they're planning to put in front of a firing squad."
"That's what they want, someone terminal," said Frosch. "But someone with no family or friends who'd get in the way. They're having problems finding someone in that category. Someone they can trust to stay in the programme if the guy Survives."
"What about Clade, their Slayer?" said Iktar. "Have they got anyone to replace him?"
"They're got candidates who have the same scores on their screening tests," said Tolshivar, "but they think they need another Survivor to be sure the candidates have the ability to sense our presence, like Clade."
"And we still don't know what the Trimorate are planning to do with their Survivor, assuming they can keep him under post-hypnotic control?" I asked.
"Hath reckons she knows what the bloke at the MoD wants," said Tolshivar.
"Hath has got an over-active imagination," said Frosch. "She reckons the Government is hoping to build a strike force of invulnerable Survivors to counter any threat from the aliens."
"What, just because you won't talk to No Jacket?" laughed Iktar. "That makes you a threat?"
"It makes a sort of sense, though," said Tolshivar. "Survivors are 'go anywhere, see everything' people and they could report on what the aliens are really up to. World domination plans and all that. And sabotage them if they try any funny business. And nick their secrets either way."
"Except the Trimorate are still arguing the toss over doing their Dr. Frankenstein experiment again?" said Iktar.
"If Hath's right and the Ministry of Defence want a few Survivors on their side, no doubt they can encourage the Trimorate to try again," said Frosch. "After all, they're an ideal front. No connections with the Government. They're just a bunch of mad scientists messing about on their own initiative if it all goes horribly wrong."
"There's going to be a lot of fun and games when this stuff leaks out," Iktar remarked. "The Church and all the other religious groups aren't going to like it. It cuts them right out of the loop if Survivors have their after-life here without any reference to them."
"It definitely sounds like something that lot would want to suppress or have abolished," said Tolshivar. "All research into making Survivors."
"Except, the CIA doesn't take much notice of religious nutters," said Frosch.
"If they're not paying the bills, they don't have any say," remarked Iktar. "And no one's going to stop the Chinese if they think they can get some advantage out of having Survivors. It'll be the next big thing after the Space Race -- the Survivor Race."
"About the only thing that'll slow them down is being sure they can control their Survivors," I said. "Remembering what Hath did to the Chinese after they murdered Beth with one of their experiments."
"We're back to the threat aspect of Survivors," said Iktar. "Except, Hath is supposed to be an alien, not a Survivor."
"Even so, everyone's going to be looking for Slayers, like the late Mr. Clade, to keep their Survivors in line," said Frosch.
"And they'll need someone to keep the slayers in line," said Tolshivar.
"Which is less of a problem," said Iktar. "Human slayers can be beaten up and deprived of their pleasures if they don't toe the line."
"Sounds like this is a situation we should be keeping an eye on," I said.
"Agreed," said Frosch. "Which is why I'm sure you'll all jump forward next time I'm looking for volunteers for a recce mission."
S2 : The Assassination Bureau
Over the next week, Iktar and I became aware of a rash of mysterious deaths. The news media, particularly the TV news channels, were getting very excited about them. Some of the victims were well known major enemies of society, others were just names in news reports to me. I began to wonder if Frosch had offered the CIA an assassination service. But on balance, Iktar and I felt that we had to reject the idea. It would be bad for the aliens' image, we decided, if they were to become common assassins working for mere Earthers.
Dropping hints to make the planet more likely to stay intact until it's ready for full contact is one thing. Going out and zapping the local bad guys is quite another. Although, as I mentioned to Tolshivar when I dropped the idea on him, maybe an alien with a social conscience might 'off' a few bad guys as a public service.
I confronted Frosch with my hypothetical Assassination Bureau when he turned up at our apartment on Thursday morning. He, of course, denied everthing. Then he and Iktar strolled off on a mission which was too top secret for your humble narrator to know about.
I had just finished telling them to 'push off and see if I care' when one of our number performed a slow beam-in in our TV room. Hathor gave me a conspiratorial smile and glanced around the room.
"You've just missed Frosch," I told her.
Hathor's smile broadened. I offered her a chair and a drink. She sprawled elegantly on the settee and opted for neat Pernod.
"I suppose you and Frosch are working on something else that's too top secret for me to know about," I mentioned as I handed her a glass of yellow liquid.
Hathor shrugged. "He may think that but I don't. So he didn't tell you that one of Trimorate is trying to become a Survivor?"
"The last thing I heard, they were looking for volunteers who are about to croak as their experimental subjects rather than going for it personally." I chose our blue mixture of curacao and bitter lemon as my refreshment.
"Chobbon, the senior partner, has always been aiming to live forever, so Frosch reckons."
"Oh, yes. I seem to remember him mentioning one of the Trimorate had that secret agenda."
"Not any more, he hasn't." Hathor was looking extremely pleased with herself.
"His latest experiment; on a volunteer; failed miserably. And he's going crazy trying to work out what went wrong."
"So he's still in the land of the pre-dead? Chobbon? He's not pushing up the daisies on a permanent basis?"
"I thought leaving him alive with a failure would be the most counter-productive solution," Hathor said.
"You thought, as in Frosch wasn't involved in your decision?"
"I don't work for Frosch."
"While that may be true, he'd probably like to know about it if you're going to get involved in his games."
Hathor delivered another Gallic shrug. "To quote your Rolling Stones, 'You don't always get what you want.' and I think it brings a bit of justice to life if Survival is purely genetic and chance. Not something you can do to order in a laboratory."
"You mean, you don't want the riff raff becoming Survivors and spoiling things for the rest of us?" I suggested.
"Something like that." Hathor gave me her best smile. "You're not going to tell on me, then?"
I gave her an English shrug. "What you do is between you and your conscience."
"Good. Has he said anything about when the aliens are leaving the Earth? Anything firm?"
"The end of July seems to be target."
"Today is the first of August."
"Then I suppose it must be sometime very soon. For the main party."
"Oh, yes, a number of observers are staying behind," Hathor recalled. "I thought your report was very encouraging."
Iktar and I were still working on the second draft of the Hadukar's final report, which Frosch seemed to have leaked already. We intended to say that a number of areas of Earth are now ready for limited contact with the aliens but vast territories are still in the hands of criminals. More frequent monitoring visits are required -- at intervals of decades rather than several centuries, as in the past -- and I feel that it would be a good idea to maintain a thread of contact with those of the civilized areas which wish it.
"I gather you've succeded in uniting the African dictators," Hathor added. "They're all up in arms at being called criminals."
I shrugged. "Point number one, they're not entitled to know what's in my report. Point number two, it doesn't name names, so they're guilty of making assumptions. And point number three, who cares?"
"Who indeed?" laughed Hathor. "Are you doing anything today?"
"Nothing totally vital," I said cautiously.
"Have you ever heard of Asterix the Gaul?"
"You know they have a theme park about him and his tribe in France?"
"Yes, I've even been there. And it's definitely somewhere you'd go back to." Tolshivar and I had taken a look at the place earlier in the summer -- and come home mightily impressed.
"Oh, good. I was thinking of going there myself and I was looking for someone to go with."
I drained my glass. "Okay, you're on."
Iktar gave me a quizzical look when I arrived home just before midnight. As she made no attempt to tell me how she had spent her day, I chose not to talk about mine. I had found Hathor surprisingly good company and the trip to the world of Asterix had been great fun -- which was definitely something that Iktar wouldn't want to hear.
Frosch invited us over to his place the following night. He had been doing some redecorating and the current furniture looked Thirties Dictator in style. Hathor and Tolshivar were there already when Iktar and I beamed in. Frosch and Iktar had a secret. The rest of us began to unravel it when Frosch switched on a television set and tuned to one of the digital news channels.
There had been lots of rumours and counter-rumours flying around about the death of an international terrorist. Known to the world's media by his code-name of George, he had worked for just about everyone in his time but he was currently an enemy of Uncle Sam and he looked like a prime candidate for the attentions of my hypothetical assassination bureau.
George's organization had been denying that he was dead. The official American line was that they were lying and George's group were going to carry on performing terrorist operations in his name to keep the cash rolling in from his sponsors. As far as I could tell from the TV programme, the sponsors were looking for proof that George Qarachi [the most commonly offered of his many aliases] was still alive, and his organization was going to provide incontrovertible proof of that fact.
The Americans in the TV studio seemed very cool about the whole thing. They knew that George was dead, their conviction was smugly irritating and they were not going to argue about it with the world's news media. The terrorists were represented by a masked head on a monitor, which was parked near the posh studio seating. George's spokesman was contributing to the debate via a videophone from an unknown location.
The programme went to a commercial. Then the terrorists dropped their bombshell -- they announced that their leader would make a live broadcast on the Internet within the next five minutes. His supporters had bought some satellite time and he would be uplinking from the Amazon jungle.
Nobody was very surprised when Frosch put the website on a large computer monitor before the URL appeared on the TV screen. The broadband transmission looked quite reasonable quality for something coming from the middle of a jungle. Just about everyone on the planet could recognize George Qarachi after the recent deluge of publicity. He was about three minutes into his harangue when the CIA crashed his party.
Suddenly, a couple of George's bodyguards keeled over and he was surrounded by masked figure in plain, black uniforms. A man with what sounded like an authentic South American Spanish accent took over the broadcast.
The intruders fed a selection of archive fingerprints from French, German and Russian sources to the website as they fingerprinted the alleged terrorist leader in front of the camera. It was obvious even to an amateur fingerprintologist that there was no match when they offered the new set for comparison. They also drew a blood sample from the right arm of 'George', live on camera, and tested it for the group. George Qarachi was known to be Group A. All of the newspapers had published dossiers, which had included full physical specifications. The man in the jungle was Group O.
The live transmission ended with the imposter being taken away in handcuffs. The debate in the studio continued, with the Americans looking quietly pleased with themselves and the terrorist on the monitor doing his nut. Frosch switched them off.
"So what's happening in the jungle right now?" Tolshivar asked.
"The way I heard it," Hathor said unexpectedly, "they'll loaded everyone involved in the broadcast -- technicians, bodyguards, terrorists and all -- into their helicopters, take them up to about 500 metres and throw them out into the North Sea."
"I heard 300 feet," said Frosch. "But they'd be just as dead. And no one will be able to prove they were done in by the CIA because everyone on the assault team spoke Spanish with a Mexican accent."
"So the Brazilians won't be going berserk at the UN?" said Tolshivar.
"It was an unattributable operation," said Frosch. "No one can prove it was the CIA."
"And the best thing about it is that they can do the same again if George's organization tries to pretend the guy is still alive," Hathor added.
"Hang about," I said as a piece of the story caught up with me. "The North Sea? That's a hell of a long way from Brazil. Especially by helicopter."
"Yeah, they were actually broadcasting from Denmark," said Frosch. "But making it look like their signal was coming from the Amazon jungle. Creative use of satellite relays, as the CIA would tell you."
"So it should be Denmark who protests about the CIA in the UN?" I said.
"Except they don't know they were violated," laughed Frosch.
"Where in Denmark looks like darkest Brazil?" said Tolshivar.
"The Armulstad Botanical Gardens," said Iktar.
"So this Assassination Bureau I've invented," I added. "Would I be right in thinking it's not such a daft idea after all?"
"You can think what you want, mate," laughed Frosch. "Actually, what you've seen is the aliens' swan song. The CIA were pestering me so much about this one, I decided it was the sort of thing the Hadukar's security mob could do as a last favour. One we could knock off just before the aliens move on from the Earth -- while the Hadukar's too busy to notice what we're up to."
"We're not having a grand parting ceremony, then?" I said. "Drinks at the UN building in New York? Or even a last glass of bubbly with the North Road Mob?"
"I thought it would be best if the aliens disappeared as mysteriously as they appeared," said Frosch.
"Well, I'm glad you told me we've left Earth," I said. "I'd have felt such a fool if I'd beamed in to Cassidys -- only to be told by the bloke behind the bar that I'm not supposed to be on the planet any more."
"And that's not the only bit of moving that's going on," said Frosch. "I think it would be a good idea if we all move again. Make a clean break with our past."
"So if anyone tells me I look like one of the aliens, I can ask him if he's looking for a smack in the gob?" Tolshivar said with a laugh in his voice.
"Aliens? We don't know anything about aliens," laughed Frosch. "So we're all cool with moving on to something else?"
"We don't seem to have much choice about it," I pointed out. "What about telling the others?"
"Borgan knows. He was in on the job in Denmark," said Frosch. "I don't think your mate Fereng has got any time for us now he's getting his volcano website set up. We'll let Xanthe and her gang know tomorrow."
"What about that Geordie?" said Tolshivar. "What's his name?"
"He was always more interested in potholing and castles than what we were doing," said Iktar. "He'd like us to drop in on him again but he's not interested in joining General Frosch's private army."
"Anyway," said Frosch, "we've had a good run as aliens. And what we've all got now is a chance to sit back and take stock."