1: A GOOD DAY FOR A BAD ABDUCTION
Earth hovered a hundred feet below . . . or maybe it was ninety-eight; the gauge that determined this number was improperly calibrated and not to be trusted. Denokin (pronounced DEN-uh-kin) didn’t need gauges, though. He was used to eyeing up the distance on his own. He was good at his job, which involved shuttling passengers back and forth between hidden space stations and vibrant resort destinations like Earth.
“Two minutes,” he called over his shoulder to the empty control room, as he glanced at the circular monitor on the console in front of him, which told him what he already knew: he was right on course, with a slow, controlled descent. Two minutes was one of a handful of English phrases he had picked up in the course of his work. He always liked to use local language whenever he could.
“I’ve got one,” he said, that being another English phrase he had mastered.
What he had got was an unsuspecting earthling on the ground below. Abduction of earthlings was a common element of his job, and the details of those abductions were usually fascinating to his passengers, so much so that he normally found several curious travelers peering over his shoulder during the abduction phase. But there seemed to be no such curiosity on this trip. This particular group was a solemn bunch, far too preoccupied with their own concerns to care.
There were no beginner’s nerves or novice excitement left in Denokin’s work. He had done this many times before . . . three thousand, four hundred sixty-seven times to be exact, not that he or anyone else was keeping track. His skills had developed into second nature, and this would be a routine plucking. In fact, this particular pluck would be one of the easiest he’d ever come across. The curve of the land and the surrounding forest made sure of that.
Denokin was looking at a young couple lounging romantically on a large red-and-white blanket with black lines crisscrossing its surface. They were lying on their sides, facing one another, almost dead center in the middle of a clearing. Thick trees circled one side of the clearing, while the other side swelled into a large rolling hill, building a perfect secluded area for frolicking love. It also happened to be a perfect spot for an abduction.
Denokin gripped the throttle as he eyed the display screen. His hand was identical to that of a human. So was his face, his build, all of him. He was thick, with broad shoulders, resembling the iconic image of a lumberjack. The only hint that he might be an alien was the massive spaceship that surrounded him. Without that, he could blend into any local bar, post office, or grocery store.
To be perfectly scientific about it, Denokin was human, as were the rest of the ship’s passengers. They were all human . . . just not earthling. This may seem like a minor point, but don’t be mistaken. Humans come in vastly more varieties than the average earthling would think. Consider that there are over ten thousand species of birds on the planet. It can be natural to think that a bird is a bird, but imagine a pelican, standing next to a cardinal, standing next to a penguin. A bird is very much not just a bird. In the same way, a human is not just a human.
Most earthlings were still discomforted by the fact that there were five races of earthling. So, they were certainly not ready to tackle the concept of different species of human.
This type of social analysis was not on Denokin’s mind at the moment. He was busy doing his job.
“One minute,” he announced, using a more natural alien dialect this time.
“That’ll be fine, thanks,” a voice called back, from down a narrow hallway, using the same alien dialect.
As the ship moved closer to Stewart and Mindy, the land on the other side of the ridge came into view. It was a park, crowded with people. Families and friends picnicked and barbecued. There were hide-and-seek games, pickup football games, bicyclists, and kite fliers. As the spacecraft drifted over the ridge, it would have thrown a shadow on the crowd below, but it was designed not to do that. Denokin’s ship was one of the latest luxury cruisers, equipped with high-end transpose technology built directly into the hull, letting light flow through and making it invisible to the human eye. This far exceeded the standard stealth generators found in most intergalactic cruisers. It also had a built-in sound-wave modifier, which cancelled the hum from the engines and left the crowd below oblivious to its presence.
Had they been allowed to see it, they would have seen a flat, round vessel about the size of a grocery store, with a rough exterior resembling rock. Any earthling would swear it wasn’t aerodynamic, but that only highlights Earth’s limited understanding of airflow patterns.
The ship moved back across the ridge and settled over the isolated couple in the middle of the open ground.
It’s almost like they want to get plucked, Denokin thought to himself. There was no way for him to know that he had picked the wrong target, but he was about to find out.
On the red-and-white blanket with black lines crisscrossing its surface, Mindy breathed a tense breath. She was stiff and anxious, but trying to get her nerves under control. Stewart sensed this without looking at her. He smiled.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. He stood and straightened his clothes. “Just stay low.”
Mindy Craddock was twenty-six years old, with thick black hair, blessed with flawless skin, a sparkling complexion, and cute-as-a-button dimples. She kept her body concealed under modest clothing—a long, yellow sundress today—but it was clear that she was fit and trim.
Stewart Faulkner was in his early thirties and looked even younger. He had a thin build and a boyish charm. Light-brown hair slightly curled over his ears, and a confident smirk was burned on to his face. It told a quick story of his life . . . he was used to winning, and he was prepared to win again.
He pulled a tiny glass vial from his pocket and screwed a short syringe cap onto it, not a recreational drug, but a necessary medication. Without looking, he located a large vein in his arm. Mindy watched as he poked himself. The automated components inside the cap did their job, sucking the liquid from the vial and delivering it into his blood stream.
Inside the ship, Denokin’s fingers simultaneously pressed the three buttons necessary to activate the abduction process. A door on the bottom of the ship began to slide open.
“Don’t go anywhere,” Stewart smirked to Mindy. He looked up at the sky, seeing nothing. A vibration emanated from the base of the ship. The strange vibration enveloped Stewart, causing a smile to stretch across his face, while Mindy grimaced. A heavy silence bore down on them. Stewart was suddenly gone. Mindy stared into the open space where he had been, trying to take it in.
Midway between the ground and the ship, the wind was buzzing past Stewart’s cheeks. His stomach was left somewhere back on the ground, trying to catch up, and he wasn’t missing it at all. The force was equivalent to what science would call 10 g’s. Even 3 or 4 g’s could knock out most people, and Stewart should have been unconscious now—and possibly even dead from all the blood leaving his heart and pooling in his feet. But somehow, this ride came with all the thrills and none of the health hazards.
As he reached the undercarriage of the ship, his body was whipped into a horizontal position, facing up. A cushion of air greeted him and slowed his ascent. It was a comfortable, cool reception. As he entered the ship, a receiving harness was fitted around his body. It was less of a cage and more like a high-tech seatbelt that encompassed the whole body. The bands were about two inches thick and made of a gray metal that was soft and flexible, yet utterly unbreakable.
Inside the ship, the whole apparatus rose from the floor, and Stewart was now lying on his back on what resembled an exam table. The extensive harness made it look like a table for a patient who had plans of escaping. This was exactly the case on both accounts: that was the exact purpose of the design, and those were the exact plans of this patient.
The exam room was filled with most of the items you would expect to see, though a lot of them appeared to be a few steps beyond the reach of modern science. A specially designed mechanism fit to Stewart’s face and gently held his eyelids open, as strobes of light bombarded his pupils. This was designed to overload the brain in just such a way as to induce a deep-sleep similar to a coma. A side effect of this short-term and virtually harmless coma was that it often grayed the memories immediately before and after the coma, meaning that when a subject awoke in a field, that subject was more likely to dismiss this as a strange dream than a tale of alien abduction.
As the strobe light stopped and the mechanism released Stewart’s face, a tiny suction cup adhered to his hand, injecting him with a clear fluid called theramane—a highly effective tranquilizer that was designed to work directly on the muscles to prevent the body from moving. Even in a comatose state, the muscles are still functional and may react. This second step was a safeguard against spontaneous movement. It would have instantly put each muscle to sleep upon contact, but the formula that Stewart injected into himself from the little vial counteracted this effect.
Stewart pushed the contraption off, which retracted toward the ceiling in one fluid motion. He rotated into a seated position, and with a finger from each hand, wiped a contact lens from each eye. They had worked perfectly, shielding his pupils from the strobe lights. He was now inside the ship on his terms, unharnessed, unhypnotized, and unparalyzed.
Denokin entered the exam room, slowing to an uneasy stop as he noticed the empty exam table. His first thought was that he had missed the target altogether, drawing up nothing but air. His second thought was an image of the poor earthling falling from the ship and crashing back down to Earth. By the time he got around to entertaining the possibility that the earthling had escaped, it was too late. With a thud, Denokin’s large frame fell limp on the floor of the receiving lab. Stewart stood over him with a tranquilizer gun still in his grip. He savored the victory for a moment.
Stewart had foiled the abduction, but he knew very well that his life was never in any danger. Abduction tended to be harmless for the earthling, and abduction was about one thing . . . vaccination. It wasn’t concerned with brain scans, or anal probes, or body snatching, as many might have you believe. Abduction was simply a matter of necessity. Every planet was littered with toxins, diseases, fungi, bacteria, and viruses. Earth was no different. Just because the climate and atmosphere created a welcoming environment, didn’t mean a traveler from another galaxy could simply bound from his ship and take a quick dip in the pool or frolic on the beach without dire consequences. Even for earthlings, crossing an imaginary line into another country presented health hazards. This was why alien visitors needed a dose of native antibodies, which required a fresh blood sample from a local human.
Stewart, who was one of those local humans, marched confidently into the control room.
“I’m in,” he reported, over the radio.
This ship was breaking the rules for entering Earth’s atmosphere, and that’s the reason Stewart was here. Sometimes these violations were merely clerical errors—someone forgetting to file the proper paperwork. Other times they were examples of flagrant disregard for authority. Furthermore, Code 5.14(b) of the Stellen Agreement established that visiting vessels shall not carry any earthlings, so abductions were not officially allowed on Earth. Earth did provide vaccines to alien visitors, but most aliens didn’t trust the canned vaccines and preferred to harvest their own fresh blood samples. Either way, it didn’t matter to Stewart. At the moment, he had a job to do.
Stewart was authorized to confiscate any such ship and to arrest those aboard, which was exactly what he was doing. This type of violation was officially known as a trespass, and those who were involved were known as trespassers. This area was a hotbed of alien activity. The 121-mile radius around Muncie, Indiana, was home to what was known as an optimal cone of entry. It was where alien pilots liked to bring their ships in, thanks to an inviting convergence of factors: barometric pressure, radiation patterns, magnetic flows, and so forth. This area kept Stewart and his team busy.
2: MINDY CRADDOCK
On the ground below, still on top of that red-and-white blanket with those black lines crisscrossing its surface, Mindy exhaled for what seemed like the first time since she watched Stewart disappear. Stewart had explained very little to this point, and Mindy was eager to learn. This was her first abduction—her first day in the field for that matter. She had been more of a desk person to this point in her career. She was very good at being behind a desk. She could transform mounds of notes and unintelligible scraps of paper into articulate, informative reports that never failed to impress. Whatever administrative task was dumped on her desk came out the other side in pristine condition. Whatever Mindy did, she managed to do it effortlessly, without any fits or panic attacks, without kicking the copy machine or cursing at her computer screen, even without pounding the keyboard a little harder than necessary when it failed to cooperate.
Had she merely graduated college and landed an office job, she would be the assistant that all the executives fight over. She would be the secret behind a great person’s greater success, doing all the work and yielding the glory. However, Mindy did not take this route. From high school she went directly to Stanford, where she spent six years getting the kind of degrees that prevent you from being anyone’s assistant.
Mindy wasn’t the kind that grappled to get ahead, though. She just enjoyed doing a good job. She never had to look for the light at the end of the tunnel, because she never imagined herself as being in a tunnel. She didn’t watch the clock, and she didn’t engage in office politics. She was never passed over for a promotion, but if she had been, she wouldn’t have noticed. To her, life simply wasn’t a competition. It never dawned on her to think of it that way.
Two weeks ago, the latest in a long string of promotions landed Mindy in the office of Darren Kemp, the assistant to the boss of bosses in the government’s Internal Data Processing Division, which was the intentionally nondescript name for the agency that managed all the paperwork in the Redundancy Class of the US government—the government’s highest level of secrecy. You see, if you stamp TOP SECRET on a document, foreign governments will lie, cheat, and steal, just to take photos of it with one of those miniature spy cameras. However, if you stamp REDUNDANCY on a document, you could pin it to the ceiling of a dentist’s office. One doesn’t name a group The Secret Service and actually expect that group to be a secret. Even the word division in Internal Data Processing Division was chosen because research had proved that people were far less curious about a division than they were about an agency.
Anyway, while standing in Darren Kemp’s office, Mindy was given a surprising opportunity.
“Anywhere you want,” he repeated.
“Anywhere?” she asked, trying to grasp the size of the word.
“Anywhere,” he said with a single, proud nod.
Mindy slipped into one of the two chairs in front of his desk. Her face hadn’t yet formed an expression. This was a very large word to comprehend. Darren waited for her response, trying to conceal a grin in order to maintain a professional appearance, but he genuinely felt excited for her. It truly was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pick any agency assignment in the US government.
“Of course, we’d want to keep you in the Redundancy Class, if we could,” he added.
Just as she felt she was getting a grasp on the decision before her, his words blew the boundaries wide open. She hadn’t even considered any post outside the Redundancy Class. It had been her home for many years now. Suddenly, the whole world was opening up to her.