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       The Pods, p.2

           Michael Carter
 
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  ~

  It took us only five minutes to reach home. Unsurprisingly considering the time of night - 1.17AM - we didn't encounter anyone else on our way back. We did meet a dog, though, wandering around, and whimpering a little, perhaps afraid of the things falling from the sky. James patted it a little when we went past and immediately regretted it, as the animal latched onto us, following us all the way home, despite several shoo's and loud claps to scare it off.

  When we reached our empty house, we found the back door left wantonly unlocked. It was a good job Mum was away; she'd have killed us both.

  After locking the door behind us we headed straight for the kitchen where there was a clean chest-height bench to conduct our observations on. Carefully, I stood the canister on the shelf, while James flicked the light switch, brightly illuminating the room from its former moonlit glow.

  "Come on then," said James, "let's have a look." I grabbed a glass and turned the cold tap on,

  "Hold up a minute, will you. Just getting a drink."

  "C'mon, Paul, hurry up!" Patience never was one of his best points.

  I swallowed down the cool fresh water, placed the glass in the sink and said, "C'mon then. Let's see what we've got."

  Slowly, as before, I lifted the cap and the attached cylinder out and held it up to the light.

  "What's it say? Is it English?" I examined it, seeing seven digits, each about an inch square in size.

  "Just some numbers, I think- Oh and two letters, too." I examined it some more; the digits were familiar but the meaning wasn't.

  "Well?" screeched James, sounding a tad left-out, "what's it say?" I read directly from the cylinder, speaking them aloud for my benefit as much as his.

  "One Zero Three Seven Four Haitch Zed. What d'you make of that?" He was non-plussed, like me.

  "I dunno, you're the clever one. Is that all there is?" Fair question, so I checked.

  "Yup, that's it." I read them out again, "One Zero Three Seven Four Haitch Z-. Wait a minute, haitch zed, that means hertz!"

  "That means what?" I grinned, having conquered the first puzzle.

  "Hertz. You know, like on the radio, what Dad told us."

  "Oh. Right. Yeah." He looked as confused as ever.

  "C'mon." I told him, and rushed for the back door.

  James followed me to the wash-house outside with the usual round of questions; where was I going? What was I going to do? While I unlocked the wash-house door I tried to explain.

  "Remember what Dad used to do in the Army?"

  "Of course, he was a radio operator. Why?" The key seemed to be stuck. I kept on twiddling.

  "Well, he used to tell us stuff, didn't he, about radio and things, and he showed us how to pick up the police on his WRR. Remember."

  "Yeah, so what?" At last the door clicked and I stumbled in, switching the light on as I passed.

  "So, we can use his radio to tune into the frequency on that cylinder."

  "Oh." he said, probably still in the dark.

  Dad had been in the Army, the Communication Corps, for about seven years, I think, before he died. It was their fault, and they admitted it; something about unchecked valves on the helicopter engine, so Mum said; she also told me that the pretty hefty compensation and pension they gave us was nothing compared to having him around the place. She was dead right. Dad was great. Sure, he went away a lot with his job, he had to, but when he was home he was brilliant, and was just learning me how to use and fix radios when he went off on that fated helicopter trip to Somerset, eight months ago. That was the last time we saw him.

  I hadn't been in the wash-house since just after the funeral. Dad used to call it his Radio Room. He bought a lot of equipment from the Army stores, special stuff what you can't buy in the shops. Most of it was broken or damaged when he brought it home; that's how he got it so cheap. All the time I was growing up I would watch him in his little den fixing wires together and soldering and fitting things together. He managed to fix up a WRR - that's a Wide Range Radio - with so many little extra features and extra capacity that it was in better condition than it would have been when it was new. I'm not sure why he built it really; I think he enjoyed constructing the things more than he did using them, but he sometimes let us in to listen to American Radio stations or the police helicopter band, and occasionally even private CB communications. He even fitted a CD player to it and used to listen to Little Richard while he fixed up new things.

  Anyway, he'd taught me how to use it, and how to digitally tune in to distant and faraway signals, and that was what I was planning to try now. See if I could tune in to 10,374 Hz and see if there was anything there.

  I switched it on at the wall, and waited a while for the familiar droning buzz which meant that all systems were operative. Then you had to press the two stand-by buttons and wait for the LED's to flash ready. This done, I studied the dials and the buttons, trying to remember exactly what to do.

  "Right. 10,374 Hertz. That'll be, er, long wave, I think." I checked the long-wave dial at the bottom. Sure enough, there it was, the nearest to it at least: 10,350 Hz. It was almost at the end of the long wave band; ordinary receivers couldn't get anywhere near it, they didn't need to as there were no commercial stations that far out.

  I flicked the switch that said LW, and waited for the red dial marker to appear.

  "D'you think you'll be able to get something?" James asked.

  "Well, yeah. I mean I should be able to find the frequency, I'll use the digital tuning, but I don't know if there'll be anything broadcasting. I think that it's mostly static and natural waves up that far." The red marker had appeared now, and I had to turn the LW tuner around completely several times before the marker shone in between the 10,350 and 10,400 Hz barriers. I couldn't hear anything at all, not even static.

  "Don't you have to turn the volume up or something?" A bright idea. I checked the volume dial.

  "No. It seems OK. We should be able to hear something at least." And then I saw the socket-switch.

  "Unless it's on headphones of course." I slipped the headphone plug out, and flipped the appropriate switch to `Direct Audio'. At last, I heard static.

  "Right, and now for the magic part." I flicked another switch, the one that said `Digital Tuning System' and several dozen more LED's flashed on at me, as well as two flashing stars on the readout panel.

  "What's it doing, now?"

  "It's just locating the frequency that it's at at the moment. It should be in roughly the right place." The stars disappeared and the digits came up; 10,368 Hz. Not far out. There were two little buttons directly beneath the readout, one with a - sign and one with a +, just like cursor buttons on a TV remote. I pressed the + button, and the number changed to 10,369 Hz.

  I pressed it again. 10,370 Hz. Four more presses.

  10,374 Hz. Our golden number.

  At first there was nothing, just a clear airwave, although the static had died. I noticed that the signal hadn't faded in either like most of them do, but was only broadcasting strictly on that one miniscule frequency. Dad had said that you needed a digital transmitter to do that, and that only the military used them.

  "Is there anything there?" I gave a best-I-can-do smile,

  "Well, can you hear anything?"

  "Nope."

  "Ditto." And then, as if to prove us wrong, a voice with a London accent filtered through, very clearly.

  "In," it said, "Beacon XX8A, three repeat three containment units down and out, remaining unreleased, phase four takeover. Request new cyclic e-number for further unit replacements. Passcode V41 X26 Beacon. ID XX8A. Zero One Twenty-Six Hours. Out." Then silence again.

  "What was that?" asked James.

  "I don't know." I said, although secretly I was getting a little worried. Whoever it was, they'd said someth
ing about three containment units down, they must be the things falling from the sky. Did that mean that three of them had landed? Although if that was the case why

  would he mention wanting replacements? And what the hell did `takeover' mean? All the rest of it was garbage.

  "James, will you go in the house and get me some paper and a pen, please." He must have caught on with what I was going to do because he answered `Yep.' and rushed off. Just after he came back with a little notebook and attached pen the same voice returned, saying exactly the same thing, except the time was two minutes later. I tried to write some of it down but only caught the last part. James looked at my scribbled efforts.

  "Maybe it'll come on again?"

  "Yeah, I hope so." Then we sat in silence for a while, maybe three minutes until it returned once again, the exact same words. This time I got all of it down, but I'd still appreciate it one more time just to check everything was accurate. While waiting for a repeat performance we read through it together.

  "What d'you think `remaining unreleased' means?" James asked me.

  "I don't know, but down and out usually means broken or destroyed. You know, like a plane or something."

  "And he's asking for replacements?" I thought about it.

  "Yes, it seems so, maybe because they're unreleased, whatever that means."

  "So the pods are supposed to release something?"

  "Apparently." Something rather sinister was beginning to take shape in my mind. James interrupted it.

  "Any ideas on what a cyclic e-number is, or what Beacon means?" I didn't get a chance to answer as the same voice broke the radio silence yet again. As he spoke I checked through what I'd written and made a few digit and number corrections.

  "That's four times he's said that. Do you think he's waiting for an answer."

  "I suppose he must be." I said. "We'll just have to wait and keep listening." Silence dawned between us then, while we waited, and the insidious gnawings of that sinister notion came back into my mind. I tried to think about other things. Pretty soon the same voice came back again, the speaker beginning to sound a little impatient. After about thirty seconds a reply - a womans voice - came through. This is what it said.

  "London HQ in. Beacon XX8A. E-number you require is as follows; 0021-64-652-137452. Repeating, 0021-64-652-137452. You have fourteen minutes left before the new cycle number. Will repeat in 30 seconds. Please keep frequency clear. London HQ out." Then more silence. On the radio, at least.

  "There's the answer." said James sounding refreshed and newly excited, "Did you write it down?"

  "No, I didn't get it. But she said it would repeat in thirty seconds."

  "You'd better get ready then. Can't you tape it?" This was a brainwave on his part, albeit a bit on the late side.

  "Great idea, but we haven't got time now. She'll be back any second."

  "I'll go find a tape anyway. You write it all down." He looked happy, having contributed a worthwhile idea.

  "Yes boss." I said, and mimicked a salute. Then, abruptly, the woman came back on, and I wrote down most of it, taking special care with the number. This time she said that it would be repeated once more in thirty seconds time. James didn't get back in time with the tape, so I had to check the number on my paper. I'd gotten it right the first time. Just then, James rushed back in, waving a blank audio tape in the air.

  "I couldn't get the wrapping off. Has she been back on?"

  "Yeah, I think I got the number. Stick the tape in the deck, quick." He did so and depressed the `Record' button, only seconds before the voice returned for the final time. I checked my number again just to be sure it was right; it was. Just as well I'd wrote it down, too, because when we played it back the tape had only started recording properly half-way through the message, getting only half of the number.

  "What does it mean, do you think?"

  "It looks like a telephone number to me." I said, "Probably International, too."

  "Should we ring it?" he asked, lowering his voice slightly as if to keep the secret from marauding ears.

  "If it's international, it'll cost a fair bit." I was being cautious, as usual. But James was being rather clever.

  "If it's such a special number, it'll probably not show up on the bill." I have to admit, he had a point. If they - whoever they might be - had gone to all the trouble of secret digital radio broadcasts and constantly alternating telephone numbers then I don't think they'd let the calls appear on the bills. In fact, I'd be surprised if these calls even went through the telephone companies; they could be freephone numbers, too.

  "You know what, James." He looked at me expectantly.

  "What's that?"

  "You're absolutely right. Let's see who's there." At this, James failed miserably to hide a two-mile wide smile on his face.

  "Yes! I'll leave the tape running, eh?" Another thing I hadn't thought of. Little brothers really were useful at times.

  "Yeah, good idea." I smiled at him. "C'mon then."

  While we walked in the house my mind didn't know what to feel. Part of it was afraid for what we were about to do, guilty. Part of it was intensely curious. Most of all though, it was worried, for all the little snippets of things were converging together in my head, forming into an idea I didn't much like the sound of.

  Going in the living-room, I picked up the phone and put it down on the coffee table, next to the pad with the numbers. I sat down at the end of the couch, and James sat opposite on the chair. After clicking the appropriate button so that James could hear too, I breathed in deeply, said "Right. Here we go. Be quiet." and picked up the receiver. Carefully I tapped the numbers.

  Zero. Zero. Two. One. Six. Four. Six. Five. Two. One. Three. Seven. Four. Five. Two. Then a sudden panic hit me, and I slammed down the phone before it connected.

  "What?" asked James. I sighed then, not realising I had held my breath. When I spoke it came out all shaky, nervous.

  "They can trace the number, can't they! The 1471 thing! God, that was close."

  "It's a good job you thought of it, Paul. Hell, what if they'd traced us." There then followed a minute of silence, both of us breathing heavy breaths.

  "You'll have to use the blocking number. D'you know what it is?"

  "Yeah, 141."

  "You'll have to hurry up, too. The number'll be changing soon." I'd forgotten about that. One more deep breath, and I dialled again, carefully putting a One Four One before all the rest. While it connected I cleared my throat, ready for words.

  It rang. Once. Twice. Thr-

  "Quote clearance ID and passcode please." said a female American voice. I held up the pad and read the garbage from it, doing my best to sound deep and steady.

  "ID XX8A. Passcode V41 X26 Beacon." I heard keys being tapped at the other end.

  "One moment, sir." I winked to James who raised his thumb at me. I heard several connecting beeps at the other end of the line. Then a voice, female but different.

  "Beacon division, US Defence HQ, Denver. Operation Takedown Infection. Presidency bypass code 652. Where can I patch you, sir?"

  I didn't need any more. Suddenly everything made sense. My macabre nightmare scenario jigsaw was complete. I put the phone down and looked across at James. His expression told me that he'd probably worked it out, too. He was a clever kid.

  Operation Takedown. Operation Infection.

  They'd dropped a virus on us. A worldwide epidemic. Our own governments.

  Oh God.

  And there are still a dozen questions that needed an answer, the most prominent probably being `Why?', but the more immediate queries have to be; what does this virus do to people? Are there any symptoms? How long until it takes effect?

  I stood up to find that my legs had gone numb, and had to wait a few seconds to regain the feeling. Then
I walked over to the front door, opened it and stood in the porch, letting the cool night air caress my sweat-laden brow.

  "What'll happen now?" asked James, sullenly. I never answered. I was looking at the sky to see if the pods were still falling. They were, in the distance. I followed one down as it fell to Earth, over by Potter's Field. That's when I noticed the dog that had followed us home, lying on it's side on the other side of the road in the stark all-revealing neon of the street-light. It was convulsing violently, soundlessly, its limbs and head juddering in untrained unison. Within ten seconds it was dead, and when I walked over to investigate, its skin was decaying in front of me and its wide-open lifeless eyes bloodshot and bulging.

 
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