The Toast / by Richard J. Brewer

A Tale of Occupied Earth

 

Erik Dunayevskii raised his glass of vodka, his eyes locking with those of the man sitting across the table from him.

“To the Motherland,” he said. His Russian accent was detectable but had faded considerably from his many years of living in London.

Martin Adams raised his own glass. His own accent fully represented the U.S. of A.

“To the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

The two men drank and slammed their empty glasses on the table.

“Ahhhh,” said Erik. “No matter the food shortages. No matter the rationing. As long as there are potatoes there will be vodka.”

“And Russians to drink it,” said Martin. “I can’t remember the last time I was able to get a good Kentucky Bourbon.”

“It is not made any more?”

“Oh it’s made. But the off-world overlords have developed a taste for it. What’s left can be had for a price but it’s beyond what I can afford on my Social Security.”

“But surely,” said Erik with a dry chuckle. He refilled both their glasses. “American ingenuity being what it is, I would think where there’s a still, there’s a way.”

“That’s true,” said Martin. “And yes, there is home brew around but the product is hit and miss. Mostly miss. And it’s considered contraband. If I wanted the good stuff, even if I could afford it, I’d have to get it on the black market. The Mahks discourage that kind of thing. I would not do well in a Mahk-Ra gulag. Too old for that shit.”

“You look well for a man of your advanced age.”

“You used to lie better. How old are you these days?”

“I will not see eighty again.”

“Nor I.”

Erik raised his glass again.

“To aging with dignity.”

Martin matched the move.

“To not being dead.”

Drink. Slam.

“Ahhh,” said Erik again. “Your flight?”

“Calm. Very little turbulence. You can say what you want about the Mahks, but the new stabilizers they’ve installed on our aircraft make for a smooth ride.”

“Security?”

“When has that ever been a problem?”

“So who flew into Heathrow today?”

“George Smiley.”

That pulled a chuckle from the Russian, and both men took a moment to smile. Then Martin leaned forward, his voice low.

“So, are you sure it’s him?”

“It is him,” said Erik. He reached inside his jacket and pulled out a small envelope from which he extracted a series of black and white photographs. He set them on the table, facing Martin.

The American squinted at the pictures then, with some reluctance, produced a pair of reading glasses. Putting them on, he picked up the pictures and then proceeded to raise his head and extend his arm until the image became clear.

Captured on the photograph was a quaint London street scene: a cobblestone road, lined with trees and brick-faced pre-invasion buildings. Walking down that street was the Mahk-Ra NoKolis-Ra.

When the Mahks invaded, Earth, as one, turned and faced the enemy in a never before seen show of unity. Prior to the invasion the world was a blue-green ball of constant political squabbling; a world set in perpetual conflict with itself over ideology, land, wealth and power. All that changed with the arrival of the Mahk-Ra in 2020.

 

Forty years before the coming of the Mahks the idea of an alien invasion from outer space was the thing of science fiction books and movies and television shows: a source of entertainment. The Cold War, though, was serious business and very much in play. Spies from all sides were in constant shifting states of cat and mouse shenanigans. The rules were simple: get all the information you could, by any means necessary, and don’t get caught doing it.

Martin and Erik had been recruited by their corresponding governments straight out of university, Martin by the CIA and Erik by the KGB. Both were stationed in London. Over the years they had been pitted against each other time and again. By 1985, each was well aware of the other’s identity. It didn’t take a good spy long to learn all the other animals in the zoo. But as the world turned things began to change. When the wall came down in late ’89, the once seemingly clear lines began to shift. In time, the two men began to develop a growing respect, one might even say a friendship, between them. This didn’t stop them from doing their jobs. They were, of course, patriots first but they began to do what they could to stay out of each other’s way and left others in their ranks to go up against them.

It was later that Alice Aims entered the picture. She was an assistant to a low level civil servant of the British realm. Still, this civil servant had ambitions. And you never know where those ambitions could lead. The civil servant of today is the Prime Minister of tomorrow. Alice, it seemed to Erik and Martin, would be the best way to keep tabs on the possible up and comer. Both men took their shot at turning her into an asset. Both men thought they had succeeded. Neither knew for some time that Alice was MI5 and making her own play at turning them. The next four years found the three of them courting each other for information that could prove useful to each other’s country and at some point over those years both Martin and Erik fell in love with Alice Aims, and she with them.

It was 1992 at The Warthogs Breath pub. Martin was sipping a lager when a heavyset man with thick, dark eyebrows that would one day grow white, wild and bushy, sat down opposite the American spy. He set a shot glass of dark amber liquid in front of Martin while holding a glass of clear Russian vodka in the other. He raised his drink in a toast.

“To strange bedfellows,” he said, allowing the full richness of his homeland to come through.

Martin picked up the offered glass. He studied the whiskey for a moment and then the man in front of him. He reached forward and tapped his glass against the Russian’s.

“To peace and understanding.”

Drink. Slam.

Two more shots and a phone call later, Martin and Erik were joined by an unusually timid Alice. She accepted a glass of wine and sat down between her two men. By the end of the night all anagrammed affiliations were set aside and an unprecedented detente was formed. A detente, with benefits, that would last for the next three decades. Neither of the men ever asked her to choose between them, and she never did. That night and forever after, at least between them, politics, regimes and home offices ceased to exist.

Then came the Mahk-Ra, in ships the size of cities.

Then came the war, fierce and bloody.

Then came the surrender, complete and unconditional.

After the fall of the planet, NoKolis-Ra was assigned by the Mahk-Ra High Command to be Lord Governor of the British Isles. He made London his base of operations. Like many of the Mahk-Ra overseers, his way of ruling was ruthless and absolute. Humans, the loweer caste Mahk-Re, even his fellow Mahk-Ra were all equally subjected to his wrath should they not follow the law according to him. He was particularly driven to stamp out all forms of resistance, from peaceful demonstrations to the persistent irritant faction of freedom fighters known as The Red Spear. Using The Talon, the Mahk-Ra elite secret police, any resistance against the empire was hunted down and eliminated.

Alice, now in her sixties, was still an executive assistant to the same civil servant, though with his ambitions, her guidance and a touch of MI5 influence, his level had risen to the point where he was now a Minister in the House of Commons. He was also a secret member of The Red Spear. But, as Alice, Erik and Martin knew only too well, secrets were made to be exposed. On a bitterly cold January morning five years after the invasion, a detachment of Talon enforcers stormed into the Minister’s office and escorted him, Alice and the entire staff out of the building and into an open courtyard where they were joined by their families, who had been collected earlier that day. With only a perfunctory reading of charges including treason, rebel alliances, insurgency and crimes against the Empire, the collected group of people, twenty-seven in total, were, under the direct orders of NoKolis-ra, executed.

The execution was broadcast live around the world, again by order of NoKolis-ra. The bodies of the fallen were left lying in the courtyard for twenty-four hours before they were allowed to be gathered and disposed of. During that time the images of the prone corpses were screened continually around the globe, a warning to those who would continue to resist the Mahk-ra.

Helplessly, Martin and Erik had watched the broadcast of the killings. After the invasion they had both been recalled to their respective countries in order to take on other governmental duties. Being of a certain age, the new jobs were mostly sitting behind desks, filling up space until they were deemed old enough to retire. But they had stayed in touch with Alice, despite the Mahk-Ra’s monitoring of Earth’s communications. Old spies, after all, have their ways. There had even been plans for a reunion, but that was not to be.

Until now. Fifteen years after Alice’s death, the two old frenemies sat across from each other, a bottle of homemade vodka and a lifetime of memories between them.

 

“So,” said Martin. “He has finally left the palace.”

Upon his appointment to office Nokolois-ra had taken up residence in Buckingham Palace. It was rumored that for years he had kept members of the royal family as house servants. It was said that it amused him. Whether or not that was true no one knew. What they did know was that the following years found had him sitting  on the throne applying his heel against the neck of the human race for the next two decades But always from behind the walls of the Palace.”

“Why now?” Asked Martin.

“Union Day. Next week is Union Day.”

Union Day acknowledged and commemorated the day the Mahk-Ra invaded. Every October 31st saw speeches and parades around the world giving mostly self-congratulatory praise to the Mahk-Ras who came from across the universe and made the Earth and its inhabitants a part of the great Mahk-Ra empire.

“There have been other Union Days,” said Martin. “What’s so different about this one?”

“Twentieth Anniversary,” said Erik. “The High Command is pushing for friendlier relations between humans and The Mahk-Ra. For the first time Nokolis-ra and other Mahk officials have been making personal appearances around the country.” “Where?”

“Oh, he has been everywhere these past few weeks. Schools, military bases, housing projects. Last week he dedicated a power station in Sussex. All good public relations. Lots of positive press. The great Nokolis-ra mingling with the commoners.”

“A regular Mahk of the people.”

“The point is …” said Erik.

“That he’s out in the open,” finished Martin. “I get it. What kind of protection?”

“Motorcades, bulletproof car, human and Mahk-Re security detail, snipers on rooftops, metal and bomb detectors, mini-drones outside the events.”

“Then what the hell, Erik?” said Martin. “He’s sealed up tight. He may as well still be sitting in Buckingham. How are we supposed to do anything?”

“I have a plan,” said Erik as he poured them each another shot. “It is what you capitalist pigs would call a crapshoot. But …”

“Never mind buts,” said Martin. “Tell me.”

And he did.

Drink, slam.

 

Seven days later, it was done.

It had been a gamble. Using several contacts from the old days, many with connections to The Red Spear, the two men had gotten themselves admitted to St. Joseph’s Veteran Hospital where Nokolis-ra was scheduled to visit. There had been an assembly in the hospital’s auditorium where everyone made speeches of co-existence, harmony and forgiveness, followed by a walk among the wards that housed the veterans who were too physically infirm, either from injury or age, to attend the ceremonies. There each of the delegates, human and Mahk-Ra, made a show of stopping by the bedside of the vets, speaking with them individually, shaking their hands, and commending them for their bravery, their service to their countries, their world, and to provide a symbolic amnesty for any and all, real or perceived, past transgressions against the Empire.

It was Martin who got to shake the hand of Nokolis-ra. Disguised to make himself look even older than his years, he held out a trembling hand to take Nokolis-ra’s hand in his, holding the alien’s hand for as long as he could while the official photographers snapped their pictures and Martin listened to the rote words coming from Lord Governor’s mouth.

As soon as the delegation left, Martin climbed out of bed and rushed to the bathroom, where he carefully peeled away the thin film of membrane-like material from his hands and flushed it down the toilet. His street clothes were waiting for him and he quickly changed into them. Stepping out of the bathroom, he was met by a waiting Erik, who had done his own cleaning up in another bathroom. Together they left the hospital, each walking in separate directions once they exited the front doors. The plan was to meet later that evening at The Warthog.

The poison was a genetically altered derivative of a particular strain of anthrax. It was designed specifically to be absorbed through the skin and once contact was made it settled deep into the victim’s system. Slow acting, the infection would begin its work over the course of several days, bringing on a low level fever, low enough that the subject would assume they were coming down with a cold, but as time worn on the fever would increase, followed by aching in the joints, nausea and graduating to excruciating cramps, bloody vomiting, diarrhea and, finally, eight to ten days after exposure, convulsions and death.

The night that Nokolis-ra’s death was announced Erik and Martin were at their old familiar table. Three drinks had been placed before them.  One of homemade vodka, one of pre-invasion bourbon and one white wine in a simple delicate stemmed glass. Martin was booked on a flight back to the United States the next morning. Erik was being smuggled back into Russia the following week. But this night they were together. Both knew it would be the last time.

Erik reached for his drink, the first of many that night. Martin raised his glass in a toast.

“To justice,” he said.

“No,” said Erik. He reached over and gently touched his glass to rim of the glass of white wine and then out to the American.

“To love, eh?” he said. “For tonight, I think we drink to love.”

The American looked at the vacant spot at their table, the glass of white wine in front of the empty seat. He nodded thoughtfully and reached out to clink his glass against the Russian’s.

“Yeah,” he said, softly. “Yeah, that sounds right.”

Drink …