“If you seek Him, He will let you find Him.” ~1 Chronicles 28:9
“They won’t be taking blood or anything, will they?” Callie Hayes looked up from the clipboard in her hands to the dimpled youth behind the receptionist’s counter.
“Our physical evaluations are noninvasive,” he assured her. “Completely painless.”
“For goodness’ sake, Callie,” Meg Riley protested beside her. “It’s only a psychology experiment. Why are you giving him the third degree?”
“I want to know what I’m getting into this time.” Callie pushed slipping wire-rim glasses back up her nose as she flashed an accusing glance at her companion.
Meg was petite, freckled, and green-eyed, her face framed by chin-length black curls. She wore a white spaghetti-strap T-shirt with blue shorts, and she’d been Callie’s best friend since fourth grade. Together they’d endured adolescence, the divorce of Meg’s parents, a two-year obsession with Zane Grey novels, high school, and college. After graduating from the University of Arizona four years ago, they’d both settled into a holding pattern—Meg waiting for a teaching position at one of the Tucson school districts, and Callie just waiting. It was through Meg’s temporary job with the university’s Psychology Department that she stumbled onto the world of the paid guinea pig. “Easy money,” she dubbed it.
But Callie discovered there were reasons guinea pigs got paid.
“Thirty dollars,” Meg had promised last time, “and all we have to do is lie in the sun for a few hours.”
Ha! It was bad enough having strangers smear squares of sunscreen on her bottom and peer at them every fifteen minutes, but when the local news crews showed up, Callie nearly died of embarrassment—and swore she’d never let Meg talk her into any such thing again.
“This isn’t like the sunscreen business,” Meg assured her. She turned to the receptionist. “We had one bad experience, and now she’s paranoid.”
The baby-faced youth nodded. His nameplate read Gabe, and though he looked like a high schooler, Callie guessed he was a college freshman.
“Ask as many questions as you like,” he said. “I’ll answer anything that won’t affect the integrity of the experiment.”
Callie frowned, fingering the end of the thick red braid that hung over her shoulder. “No drugs?”
Gabe’s blue eyes widened. “Of course not! As our flyer says, we offer evaluation of and instruction in the decision-making process. There are absolutely no drugs.”
“So what do we have to do for the fifty dollars?”
“You’ll be negotiating an obstacle course and—”
“Obstacle course?” Callie looked up from the waiver. “That won’t involve heights, will it? Rope climbing, that sort of thing?”
“Good grief, Cal,” Meg cried. “It’s not boot camp.”
“Just let the man answer, okay?”
“It is on the ninth floor,” Gabe said. “Are you acrophobic?”
“Only once I get to the tenth floor.” She laughed nervously.
“Maybe we can help with that.”
“I was just joking.” The last thing she needed was another bout with a shrink.
Gabe shrugged. “Well, we’ve had good success with phobias—and fear in general, for that matter.”
“See?” Meg’s short dark curls brushed Callie’s shoulder as she leaned close. “It’s not like that other thing at all. In fact, it might even give you an excuse to miss your sister’s birthday bash tonight. Unless you think the Mr. Right she’s got for you this time really will be Mr. Right.”
Callie snorted. Her sister, Lisa, moved in an alien world—upscale, fashion-fixated, and socially saturated. Lisa’s Mr. Rights were inevitably lawyers or MBAs, all acquaintances or co-workers of her husband’s. Expecting another version of Lisa, the men were always disappointed when they met her short, dull, tongue-tied little sister.
Callie detested the whole scenario. And the possibility of having an excuse for missing the affair was a powerful incentive. “How long will it take?” she asked Gabe.
“Not more than a few hours if you follow instructions. We do ask that you commit to finishing the experiment, however.”
“And we won’t have to do anything embarrassing or improper?”
He looked amused. “Only if you choose to.”
“Come on, Cal,” Meg murmured. “You said you’d do this.”
“Oh, all right.” Callie signed the waiver and handed it over. It’s only for a couple of hours, she consoled herself. And who knows—maybe I will gain new and powerful insights. Maybe I’ll learn how to say no to Lisa. Maybe it’ll even turn my life around like the flyer promises. There’s no denying it could use some turning around.
Four years out of college, she was still making minimum wage raising rats for biology experiments. She still lived in a rented apartment, still had to endure her mother’s lectures about finding a man and getting focused, and still wasn’t any closer to doing what she really wanted to do—paint. Unfortunately that was something both her mother and sister considered completely unacceptable. A career in art was too unreliable. Worse, her deadbeat father was an artist—when he wasn’t following the horse races or losing his money in Las Vegas—and she didn’t want to be like him, did she?
At her mother’s insistence, she had gone into pre-med. But she was not accepted at med school after graduation—much to her relief—and thus far the only thing her science degree had turned up was the rat-raising job. A job that somehow spilled from part time into full and consumed all her energy, so that little art got done, and she stayed where she was, trapped, frustrated, and waiting for a miracle to set her free.
Gabe told them to go on up and indicated an elevator panel in the textured beige wall beside the desk. Meg hesitated, looking uncertain, then leaned over the counter. “Alex Chapman was supposed to meet us—”
“Yes. He’s waiting upstairs.”
As they entered the elevator Meg nudged Callie’s arm. “He’s waiting for us! Did you hear?” She fluffed her black curls and groped in her purse for a breath mint. “Do I look okay? What am I gonna say?”
“Hello usually works.” Callie tried not to think of the dark well of space beneath her feet, pushed away thoughts of cables snapping and cars plummeting. The last thing she wanted was to have an attack here.
“But what about after hello?” Meg persisted.
“You never had any problems talking to Jack.”
“There’s a light-year of difference between Jack and Alex. Wait’ll you see him, Cal. He is so gorgeous.”
“So you’ve said. Many times.”
“Have I?” Meg giggled.
Callie watched the six blink out and the seven appear over the door. Uneasiness churned in her middle. She was okay up to the seventh floor, but after that, things got dicey. Floor-level fear was a fairly common manifestation of acrophobia, but because it didn’t match the stereotypical fear of heights, it was harder for others to relate to. You were expected to freak out when you looked out a lofty window or stepped onto a rooftop observation deck, and most people nursed enough of their own latent acrophobia to sympathize. But falling into a full-blown panic just because the numbers changed on an elevator panel? Even she knew it made no sense.
Not that it mattered. Above the sixth floor, she got jittery. And above the ninth … STOP it! Don’t think about it!
“Frankly, I think you were an idiot to return Jack’s ring,” she said to Meg, desperate to distract herself. “He’s a good guy, and he loves you.”
Meg gestured dismissively. “Jack’s even more predictable than you are. He’s a stick-in-the-mud. I want some excitement.”
“Excitement.” The seven gave way to an eight. “You have lost your mind.”
Meg grinned. “You mean my heart.”
“You don’t even know the man.”
The eight changed to a nine, a chime pinged, and the elevator opened at the end of a gleaming, door-lined corridor. On the ninth floor.
Don’t think about it. Everything’s fine.
She followed Meg into the hallway, smelling the pleasant crayon scent of the floor wax and feeling abruptly disoriented. Hadn’t the elevator faced across the building’s width when they’d boarded it?
The dark-haired youth awaiting them distracted her from further musing. This must be the famous Alex—the handsome-as-a-Greek-god, I-die-a-thousand-deaths-each-time-he-looks-at-me real reason Meg was here. A graduate teaching assistant for Dr. Charis’s Psych 101 and a doctoral candidate in the psychology of the paranormal, Alex was set to receive his degree in less than a month. Meg figured she had to make a connection today, or forget him.
Though Meg had billed the guy as movie-star caliber, Callie found him unexceptional. Dressed in a white tunic and slacks, he was of average stature, with glossy black hair and dark, long-lashed eyes. His face was open and friendly, but hardly stunning. Gabe, the receptionist, was better looking.
He did have a nice smile.
“Meg! Great to see you. And you brought a friend!”
As Meg introduced them Callie had to admit he was a likable guy, one of those people who instantly made you feel at ease.
“We really appreciate what you’re doing here,” he told them. “Without volunteers like you, our project would be nothing. I hope you’ll find it worth your while.” He motioned down the hall. “Shall we get started?”
“So what is this obstacle course like?” Callie asked as they walked.
“I’m afraid I can’t tell you,” Alex replied. “The experiment demands that all participants begin with the same level of …” He smiled at her sidelong. “Well, ignorance.”
“You mean we have to go into this blind?”
“More or less.”
Alarms went off in her head. Red lights flashed around images of experimenters hovering over her posterior and TV reporters aiming large-lensed cameras.
“I hope the obstacles aren’t tires and ropes,” said Meg, “because we’re hardly dressed—”
“Oh, we’ll provide appropriate apparel.”
“You mean it is tires and ropes?” Callie asked, aghast.
Alex laughed but wouldn’t commit either way.
He led them to an L-shaped room where three people waited in white plastic chairs lined against peach-colored walls. A picture window dressed with vertical blinds—thankfully closed against the morning sun—filled the left wall. Callie took care not to look at the window and concentrated on following Meg and Alex to the counter. There a boyish Asian in a gray-yoked tunic gave them clipboards with medical forms to fill out, after which they were called to the examination room at the back. Callie went first, leaving Meg in happy conversation with Alex.
The exam was decidedly unorthodox. Instead of using blood pressure cuffs, thermometers, and blood vials, the lab tech, a handsome, muscular youth named Angelo, pressed her hand against a jellylike plate and flipped a switch.
“This is pretty fancy equipment,” she exclaimed as the plate vibrated beneath her palm.
“Takes fingerprints, temperature, blood pressure, and blood chemistry all at the same time,” he boasted with a grin. “State of the art. Now please step up onto this disk.”
She complied, looking around curiously. “It must be a pretty physical obstacle course if you have to examine us first.”
“Just follow the instructions, and you’ll be fine. You need to put your jewelry and such in the bowl there.” He gestured to a steel receptacle sliding out of the wall. “Glasses, too.”
As Callie deposited watch, earrings, and glasses in the bowl, Angelo stepped into a cubicle across the room. Then a low hum sounded above her and a studded circular plate descended from the ceiling, stopping well above arm’s reach. She heard some clicks, and the hum changed pitch. Abruptly, ribbons of multicolored light swirled around her, the incongruous scent of warm taffy tickling her nostrils.
“My goodness! What is this?”
“Organ scan,” Angelo called from his booth. “Relax.”
Again the ceiling plate clicked and whirred. The taffy scent faded, and now a tingle burred through her body like a tiny whirlwind. It stopped a moment later, and the humming ceased. As the lights faded Angelo emerged from his controls. “You’re the picture of health,” he said with a grin. “I’d guess you’re a jogger.”
“I do my share. Would you have disqualified me if I wasn’t in good enough shape?”
“Well, if you had a bad heart or something, we’d have to address that,” he said, helping her down from the raised disk. “But you don’t.”
He gave her a cream-colored jumpsuit and sent her off to a changing booth. Stitched with pockets and zippers, the suit was fashioned from a fine, buttery fabric that seemed unlikely to withstand the rigors of an obstacle course. Though she felt silly wearing it, it was very comfortable.
Only one person remained in the waiting room when she returned—a thin man seated by the hall doorway whose open stare made her even more self-conscious about the jumpsuit. Keeping her distance from the window, Callie sat as far as she could from the pointy-chinned stranger. But she’d no sooner settled when, to her chagrin, he got up and sat one chair away from her, regarding her with an almost leer. “You here for the experiment?”
Suddenly aware that even the Asian receptionist had left his post, she nodded and looked around for a magazine. There were none.
“Better reconsider,” he said. “Strange things go on around here.”
Curiosity made her look at him. His hair was lank and gray, his skin waxy pale, and he had an unpleasantly strong earthy smell. “Like what?”
His black eyes bored into hers, and she thought—absurdly—that they weren’t quite human.
The chair squeaked as he leaned close. “Have you noticed … that none of the workers here”—he looked around conspiratorially—“have beards?”
Callie blinked. She tore her gaze away, flushing. “No, I hadn’t noticed,” she said, thinking of going back down the hall to look for Meg. Or even the lab tech, Angelo. And where was the receptionist?
The stranger leaned closer. The earthy odor acquired a taint of decay. “They’re aliens,” he whispered. “Can’t grow beards like regular men. And they’re plotting to kidnap you. Better reconsider.”
Callie rose, heading for the hall to the examination rooms. Before she reached it, however, the stranger stood and, chuckling softly, left the room.
Breathing a sigh of relief, she sagged into a chair. No beards? Aliens? What nuthouse did he escape from?
She was almost giggling when first Meg, then the receptionist, and finally Alex returned. When she told him of the incident, he wasn’t surprised.
“Calls himself Hermes. I think he’s one of those homeless guys from over on Fourth Avenue. I’ll send someone to escort him out.”
As they headed for the next station, Callie asked about the project’s sponsor, which Alex identified as a private foundation called Aggillon, Inc. When she asked why they were interested in this project, he looked at her askance, one dark brow raised in amusement.
“It just seems like a lot of money’s being spent here,” she added hastily. “I wondered what the justification was.”
“You don’t think turning people’s lives around is sufficient justification?”
She opened her mouth to contest his overblown claim, but saw Meg glaring at her from Alex’s other side and swallowed her words.
He stopped outside a pair of double doors. “I’m afraid these psych profiles are tediously long, but try to answer as honestly as you can.”
“Where is the course?” Callie asked suddenly. “Is it on this floor, or will we go somewhere else?”
Alex grinned. “You are the curious one, aren’t you?”
“Paranoid is the word,” Meg muttered.
Alex laid a hand on the door handle nearest him. “You’ll enter on this level.” He pulled the door open for them. “While you’re completing the profiles, I’ll program your starting sequences. One of the techs will take you to an orientation room when you’re ready.”
Program your starting sequences? Could the course be computer generated? With a virtual reality unit they could set up any sort of obstacle course they wanted, in no space at all. Perfect for a ninth-floor operation like this. It also explained the ritzy jumpsuits. But virtual reality units had to be expensive—just like every other piece of equipment they had in this place.
“Are we not going through together, then?” Meg asked, stepping into the opening.
“You might meet each other once you’re inside, but at the beginning, each of you will enter on your own.” He paused. “Any more questions?”
They shook their heads. As he walked away Meg leaned against Callie and whispered, “I haven’t talked to him this much all year!”
“I didn’t think you’d have trouble talking.” Callie steered her friend through the doorway. “Have you asked him out yet?”
Meg looked chagrined. “Every time I start, my throat freezes up.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll do it.”
The room beyond the doors held rows of white Formica-topped tables lined with more plastic chairs. About twenty people sat scattered throughout, bent over legal-sized sheets of white paper. Callie was relieved not to find the alien-obsessed weirdo among them.
A table near the door was manned by yet another youth in a gray-and-white uniform who looked as if he hadn’t graduated from high school. Perversely Callie found herself studying the smooth skin on his face, realizing the business about the beards was true. Not only did none of the workers sport one, none even looked capable of growing one. From Gabe to Alex to the muscular lab tech, Angelo, to this desk worker, they all looked too young to be doing what they were doing.
She settled with Meg in a corner of the room, skimming the questions as she chewed on the end of her braid. It’s nonsense, surely. But … what about that organ scanner? The jumpsuit’s strange fabric? Even Alex’s evasiveness about the obstacle course became suspicious.
“All right, what’s wrong?” Meg’s whisper cut into her thoughts.
“What makes you think something’s wrong?”
“You’re chewing your hair.”
Grimacing, Callie dropped her braid and picked up her pencil.
“So what’s the problem?” Meg repeated.
“I don’t know. Just … well, there are things that don’t make sense around here.”
“The money. The equipment. Why anyone would be interested in such a dippy project.”
“It wouldn’t be the first dippy project a private foundation financed. Maybe they’re using it as a tax write-off.” Meg paused, studying her thoughtfully. “You don’t like it that they won’t tell you what to expect.”
“Not at all.”
Meg grinned. “Where’s your sense of adventure, girl?” She leaned on both forearms. “So what do you think of Alex?”
“He’s cute enough, I guess.”
“Cute! Are you blind? He’s gorgeous.”
“He’s attractive, Meg, but no more than anyone else here. Not as much as some, in fact. And that’s another thing. There isn’t one ugly guy in this whole operation. Not one zit, not one speck of dandruff, not one head of less-than-lustrous hair. No one’s too fat or too skinny, or has buckteeth or clunky glasses. Don’t you think that’s a little weird?”
Meg’s green eyes widened. She shook her head. “I think you’re a little weird.”
“I’m serious, Meg—”
“They’re probably too old for zits—”
“Too old? Some of these guys have barely hit puberty. I doubt even Alex has to shave more than once a week.”
A crease formed between Meg’s brows. “So what’s your point? You think there’s something fishy going on because a few guys can’t grow beards? That the crazy guy was right, and they are a bunch of aliens?”
It did sound absurd, stated flat out like that.
“What do you think they’re going to do? Rape us? Kill us? Take us to Mars and perform weirdo examinations on us? Look around, girl. We’re in the middle of Psychology East, Room … I don’t know, 910 or something.”
Callie frowned at her.
Meg frowned back. “Your sister’s right. You are getting paranoid.”
That was the word for it, wasn’t it? Embarrassed, Callie tossed her braid over her shoulder. “Never mind.”
“No, you’re right. I’m being ridiculous. Forget it.”
She focused on the questionnaire. Alex hadn’t exaggerated—it was long. Two hundred multiple-choice questions filled both sides of the two legal sheets, covering all manner of preferences, from food to climate to religion. She found them depressing, for they reminded her of all the ways she was failing at life and what a total wimp she had become.
Meg finished first and left to turn in her sheets. Some time later Callie submitted her own sheets, then followed the attendant to a windowless cubicle that smelled of ozone. A small Formica-topped table, two plastic chairs, and a tall blue locker comprised the room’s furnishings. She sat at the table and waited, feeling claustrophobic and fighting off unpleasant notions of alien kidnappers. Surely, she reassured herself, if Alex and his crew really were kidnapping people, they wouldn’t let that nutcase wander around warning everyone.
The door swung open, startling her, and Alex entered with a blue nylon day pack, which he dropped on the table. “So,” he said, settling across from her, “Meg tells me you’re an artist.”
She looked away, embarrassed. “It’s just a hobby.”
“But one you’d like to see become a career.”
“That doesn’t look likely.”
He smiled. “Life has a way of changing rapidly, often when you least expect it.”
She shifted uncomfortably.
He unzipped the day pack’s top compartment. “This holds everything you’ll need to—”
“What do we need a pack for, if the course is going to be virtual reality?”
He cocked a brow. “Who said anything about virtual reality?”
“If there are different obstacles for each individual, I figure they must be computer generated.”
She frowned at him. “You don’t have room up here for a limitless array of real obstacles.”
“You seem to know more about what we’re doing than we do.”
Annoyance flared. “Well, if it’s not virtual reality, what is it?”
“A course with various obstacles—some decisions to make, instructions to follow. I’m afraid that’s all I can tell you.”
She frowned at him again, tapping a fingernail on the table. Baby-faced researchers, science-fiction technology, secrecy and evasion. Her fears might be unfounded, even paranoid, but every fiber of Callie’s being was screaming at her to beware. And now that it looked like she wouldn’t be with Meg anyway, what was the point of staying? Was it really worth the fifty dollars?
She drew a deep breath and stopped tapping. “I think I’d like to withdraw. I just can’t go into this blind. I’m sorry for wasting your time, but if you’ll return my—”
“Unfortunately that’s not possible.”
She stared at him.
“Miss Hayes, you didn’t come here because of your friend. You came for yourself. Why not give yourself the chance to find the answers you’re seeking?”
“What do you mean, ‘that’s not possible’?”
Alex sighed. “I’m afraid you’ve already entered the experiment. Your only way out now is through the Arena.”
She blinked in confusion.
He drew a slim black book from the pack. “This is your field manual. You’ll need it to find the exit.”
He’s not going to let me go.
“I advise you to heed its warnings,” he went on, “for there is—”
She stood and strode to the door. Alex made no move to stop her, and in the three steps it took her to reach it, she realized it must be locked. Clenching the unmoving knob, she struggled to control her rising panic and finally turned back to him.
“You can’t do this,” she whispered.
He regarded her with something like compassion. “You did agree to take part, Miss Hayes.”
“I agreed to inkblots and fitting pegs into holes.”
“You knew it would be an obstacle course when you signed on.”
“No legitimate experimenter ever refuses his participants the right to back out. It’s not even legal.”
“We operate by a different legal system. Surely you read the waiver you signed?”
She stared at him mutely. Yes, she’d read it, but not that closely, not all the paragraphs of fine print. And shouldn’t they have made it plain to her what she was signing?
Continued protest, however, seemed useless. Perhaps if she refused to listen to his instructions, refused to pick up the equipment, refused even to look at him—she shifted her gaze to the blue locker—he would conclude she was too much trouble and let her go.
From the corner of her eye, she saw him frowning.
“Refusal to accept our instruction is itself a decision which our experiment is designed to incorporate,” Alex said. “We will not suffer, nor will the project, but you will find the experience disagreeable.”
She looked steadfastly at the locker.
“Miss Hayes, if you continue to refuse me, I’ll have no choice but to deposit you on-site, utterly unprepared.”
She said nothing.
He sighed. “Your initial objective will be to pass through the Benefactor’s Gate. A guide will lead you from it to the exit. As long as you follow the instructions, you’ll have no trouble.”
She maintained silence. He went on, but she tuned him out. The remark about depositing her on-site had unnerved her. Surely, he was bluffing….
Then it hit her—illegal as this was, they could never just let her go. They’d have to kill her, or wipe her memory, or addle her mind.
Suddenly she couldn’t breathe. Swallowing hard, she interrupted him. “Why are you doing this?”
His expression was genuinely pained. “You’ll understand in time,” he said. “The white road will lead you to the Gate. Stay on it and keep moving. That’s very important. There is evil in the Arena. But as long as you stay on the road, it cannot harm you.”
He stood and stepped toward her, offering the pack. She backed away, and he stopped with a sigh. “We intend this for your benefit, Callie. You’ve come to us because you don’t like where your life is going. You want something better. Don’t let fear and stubbornness keep you from finding it.”
He held out the pack again. She backed against the door, half angry, wholly terrified. What would he do now? Make her take it?
He just stared sadly into her eyes. And vanished.
The pack fell to the floor with a muffled clatter, and she flinched back, gasping. Before understanding could sink in, the table, chairs, and locker followed him into oblivion. Then the cubicle’s four white walls pulsed with red light and drew in around her. Just when she thought she would be crushed, they too dissolved, and she fell into nothingness.
* * *
Chapter 2 The world came back to Callie all at once. She stood in a circular, glass-walled shelter with a slatted wood roof. It was surrounded closely on three sides by the red rock walls of a small grotto. The air smelled damp, and water trickled behind her.
She turned numbly, heart slamming against her breastbone.
“I’ll have no choice but to deposit you on-site, utterly unprepared.”
He’d really done it.
Beyond the glass at the grotto’s rear, a dark pool gleamed beneath the moisture-blackened rock and a mat of ferns and grasses. To its left, tucked between the cliff and the glass, stood a ten-foot-tall fountain of long, tough, swordlike leaves resembling the South American pampas grass widely used in Tucson landscaping designs. Except the leaves of this plant were segmented. And appeared to be made of glass. And bristled with golden spines. A raft of them spilled across the roof slats overhead, quivering in the still air, and Callie thought she heard a faint chiming. Needle pricks raced the length of her spine, and she didn’t need a botanist’s manual to tell her this bizarre cross between a cactus and a grass was not from the world she knew.
She turned away and saw the sign—blue letters floating in the glass wall:
Drop-off Point 24
Proceed along path
to your right.
Below this hung a transparent ten-inch cube, marked on the side nearest her with three gold circles arrayed around a central point of light. A path, made of the same white sponge as the shelter floor, led to the grotto’s mouth thirty feet away, where it disappeared around the rock.
A trembling began in Callie’s fingers, light and fluttery.
She executed another slow spin. The trembling spread to her arms and shoulders, stuttered across her back. Her legs turned to water, and she sagged to the floor, catching her head in her hands. Eyes closed, she forced herself to take a deep breath. Then another.
When she felt solid again, she lifted her head. The plant was still there, along with the sign and the transparent box. Drug-induced hallucinations, perhaps? Computer-generated virtual reality? Maybe she was actually sitting in a lab, encased in electronic hookups. But surely she would have some recollection of being hooked up, some awareness of gloves and helmet. Surely it wouldn’t seem so … real.
And it couldn’t be real. Because if it were—
Her thoughts raced.
The hall outside the elevator that ran the wrong way, the weird organ scanner, the men who looked too young and had no beards—who vanished into thin air.
Who weren’t men at all.
The bright lights were back. She fought them off, forcing herself to face the truth.
They were aliens.
A roil of conflicting emotions swelled—fear, anger, and a sense of helplessness that shook the foundations of her being. Control, organization, and planning—these were the tenets by which she lived. She didn’t believe in flitting about impulsively. She made lists of goals and tasks, kept neat and careful calendars, and always considered the consequences of her actions, thereby avoiding dangerous and unpleasant situations.
Yet somehow she’d been ripped from her safe, secure life and transported to this alien place to fulfill some … alien purpose.
She had read about such things in science-fiction novels. She had even seen a TV show with wild-eyed people talking about being kidnapped by aliens—hokey stuff that belonged on the front page of supermarket tabloids.
Suddenly it was her life.
Even as it terrified her, the notion outraged her. She was no slave to be snatched up at their whim. How dare they! Maybe she’d just sit here and wait them out. If all their subjects did that, they wouldn’t have much of an experiment.
But all their subjects wouldn’t.
Her stomach churned. Most subjects wouldn’t realize what they had gotten into until it was too late. Meg was probably going along right now, following instructions, never realizing she had no choice.
But I don’t have to go along. If I refuse to move, they’ll have to release me eventually.
Alex’s words returned. “Your only way out now is through the Arena.”
Maybe he was bluffing. But could she gamble her life on it? What was to stop them from simply killing uncooperative participants? Or letting their arena do it?
“There is evil in the Arena….”
Callie hugged herself, sick and fearful all over again. Her gaze dropped to the blue day pack at her knee. “This holds everything you’ll need….”
Unfair. Outrageous. Horrid.
She gritted her teeth—hating the direction reason was taking her—and yanked the pack into her lap.
The first thing she drew out was the field manual Alex had shown her earlier. Its black cover was inscribed with three gold interlocking circles and her name. She set it on the rubbery floor and reached into the bag again, pulling out a handful of black rubber donuts, wire half circles, and small turquoise cubes. She also found numerous abstractly shaped ceramic pieces—blue, orange, red, and clear—some only a few centimeters wide, while others filled her palm.
“My equipment, huh?” she muttered, certain Alex was listening. “Everything I’ll need, you say. I just have to put it together, right?”
Across from her, the weird plant chimed as if in answer. She glanced up, frowning. Had there been that many arms pressed against the glass before? Probably. She was looking at it from a different angle now.
Returning her attention to the ceramic pieces scattered before her, she immediately found two that fit together—a clear, five-inch-long rod, and a short thick elbow about two inches wide, one leg flattened into a tab, the other pierced with a hole at its end. The hole was just the right diameter for the rod, which seated itself with a click when she inserted it, then refused to come out again.
She held the resulting implement up to the light, noting the slight depressions on the tab, as if to accommodate thumb and forefinger. So what was it, then? A writing stylus? A key of some sort? A temperature probe? Part of some other construction altogether? She had no idea. It did slide nicely into the slim pocket along the seam of her left thigh, though, so that’s where she left it.
She fiddled with the rest of the pieces for a few more minutes, then opened the book. It smelled of fresh ink, and the pages stuck together. Turning to the title page, she read:
Instructions for Participants
Below the title glowed a holograph of a crystalline arch marked with the same three interlocking circles as the cover.
Several pages of introduction followed, then a list of five rules jumped out in boldface:
1. Stay on the white road at all times.
2. Proceed immediately to the nearest gate.
3. Avoid distractions.
4. Follow the instructions given in the manual.
5. Auxiliary Supply Boxes will provide any additional needs. Do not leave the white road.
“Guess I won’t leave the white road.” The next page offered a thicket of text explaining the rules. She skipped it, paging randomly. Tissue-thin pages displayed numerous construction diagrams plus paragraphs of fine print explaining how to use the strange stew of ceramic pieces.
After the diagrams, however, the remaining three-quarters of the book was indecipherable gibberish. “How useful,” she muttered. “An instruction manual I can’t read. Why would they give me a manual that makes no sense? Why are they doing any of this?” Instead of getting answers, it seemed she was just accumulating more questions.
The pack’s lower section held only a plastic liter bottle of water and two foil Snak-Paks whose use was obvious. As she restowed her “supplies,” the plant encasing the shelter shivered again, its chiming sounding lower and louder. She frowned at it. Had those filaments been sticking through the wood slats before?
Uneasiness stirred. Maybe it was time to go.
At the corner of her eye, the blue letters suddenly flared fluorescent magenta. She began to gather up the ceramic pieces.
A loud buzz made her look up as another of the plant’s glassy arms slipped between the roof slats, bobbing in the air above her head, golden spines sparkling. With a gulp she tossed the manual in her pack and continued fumbling with the rest of her scattered supplies.
The magenta letters began to flash, and the buzz changed pitch and silenced. Then the shelter vanished along with the spongy white circle on which she crouched. Their support gone, the plant’s arms slapped the sandy foundation in successive, hissing clinks, spraying her legs with tiny spines.
A rootlike tendril wrapped around her foot. With a cry, Callie jerked back—off-balance, clutching the pack to her chest. The runner clung, winding with startling speed around her ankle. She hopped backward, wrenching at it, but the tentacle stretched and held, as another curled over her toe.
Panicking, she fell backward and, in a burst of wild strength, kicked herself free, then scrambled for the path three yards away. Once she was back on the spongy surface, well out of the plant’s reach, she stopped, heart hammering, and watched the tendrils grope over the equipment parts she had been forced to leave behind. New dread tormented her. What if she couldn’t get out of this place without those pieces? What if—
The six-inch-thick pavement beneath her vanished as if a light beam had switched off, dropping her onto its sandy foundation with a jolt. She stumbled backward and turned to see the path disappearing section by section. Worse, all the bits of shattered arm that had sprayed the grotto were now taking root, sprouting new arms and runners with impossible swiftness.
Horrified, Callie sprinted for the path, gained it, skidded around the grotto wall, and raced into a wider canyon. When she stopped and turned back, the grotto opening was still there, but the path no longer entered it. Holding the day pack like a shield, she shoved her glasses back up her nose and wheeled slowly, taking in the black-streaked red canyon walls, the blue sky, and the utter stillness. It looked astonishingly real.
Thankfully she spied no more of the cactus grass. Her boots and jumpsuit, though coated with red dust and stained with yellow plant juice, had shielded her legs and feet from the spines. Her hands were another matter. Patches of short golden prickles bristled from the backs of them, and the skin was already burning and reddened. Having no tweezers, she pulled them out with her teeth, hoping they weren’t poisonous.
She was about to open her pack for the water bottle when an ear-piercing screech shattered the quiet and froze her in midmotion. The sound bounded back and forth between the cliffs, fading into a growling grunt and then to silence….
Pulse pounding, she bent to pick up the pack she’d dropped. Mountain lions screamed—but that was no mountain lion. That was nothing like anything she’d ever heard in her life. Almost running again, she followed the undulating path downstream, past sheer walls on one side and a crumbling talus slope on the other. The canyon hairpinned frequently, preventing her from seeing more than a few hundred yards ahead, and she was uneasily aware that if anything awaited her, she had no hope of evading it.
As time passed and she encountered no more unpleasant surprises, her pace slowed, and she relaxed, her mind returning to questions of how and where. It was all so convincing. She could almost swear she’d been transported to the Utah canyon lands. She’d backpacked there only a year ago with Meg and Jack, Meg’s ex-fiancé, so she knew the area. Rugged and sparsely populated, it was traversed by few roads. The aliens could have easily set up a course there with no one the wiser.
However, that theory didn’t explain how they had transported her the length of Arizona in the drawing of a breath. Was their technology so advanced such a feat was no problem for them? The orientation room had vanished from around her….
No, that was too farfetched. More likely she was in a carefully constructed set, with complex machinery lurking behind clever façades. Computer-generated imagery could give the impression of the orientation room dissolving. And that would explain the rule about staying on the road. Step off and you’d see the wires, cords, and gears that made it all run, just like on those behind-the-scenes tours at Disneyland.
She grimaced. Disneyland did not evoke happy memories. Her father had taken her there for her seventh birthday, a year after he’d divorced her mother. It had been the first time Callie had seen him since he’d left, and she had looked forward to it for weeks. Only to ruin everything.
After their behind-the-scenes tour—her father had insisted she understand it was all a fake—they’d boarded the Skyway. As the little cable car bore them quietly above the crowds she’d at first enjoyed seeing everything from such a lofty vantage. But halfway across, dark demons had fluttered up around her, plucking at her clothing, threatening to wrench her from the car and hurl her to the pavement below. Screaming in terror, she had clutched the railing so desperately the ride operators had had to shut the machine down to get her off.
Patrick Hayes did not take embarrassment well. Furious, he’d brought her home and suggested her mother take her to a shrink. Callie cried herself to sleep that night, and hadn’t seen her father since.
The incident precipitated a spate of phobic attacks, and finally her mother dragged her to a doctor, then to a series of disagreeable therapists who smiled too much and asked too many questions. She remembered little of it now, mainly recalling the sickening dread that always preceded her appointments. The attacks had finally ceased on their own, and in retrospect, everyone blamed it on the trauma of her parents’ divorce. No one except Meg knew her fear of heights had lately returned—with frightening intensity. What would they say was the cause now? The trauma of a nowhere life?
A shadow flicked across the path in front of her, bringing her up short. Overhead a large, pale flying-something disappeared beyond the canyon’s rim. It didn’t come back, though, so she moved on.
“Can’t say life’s boring anymore,” she muttered. “Nothing like the last time, huh, Meg? Oh, brother! Just wait till I catch you!”
Memory of her friend’s chirpy assurances made her boil. Meg had become such a flake since she’d dumped Jack. All this experience-life-as-an-adventure stuff—hang gliding, dream exploration, yoga, seeking after a higher consciousness…. If they hadn’t known each other so long, and if Meg wasn’t her only real friend, Callie would’ve dumped her long ago.
How could Meg have known Alex all those months—lusted after him, for crying out loud—and not notice he wasn’t human?
A fork in the road interrupted Callie’s thoughts and brought her to a stop. Angling off what looked to be the main path, a branch headed up a boulder-clogged cleft, looping around the rocks like a casually thrown rope. She pushed up her glasses and frowned. Deeply cut and shadow-swathed, that cleft held promise of gaining altitude swiftly. Which meant she might soon find herself in a place where the exposure would goad her slumbering acrophobia to life.
The branch’s very lack of appeal, however, argued for its being the correct choice. Unless there wasn’t a “correct” choice. Maybe one route was simply shorter. Or offered different obstacles.
Dared she stop to consult the manual? Whatever had screamed, she hadn’t heard it again. Nor had the flying thing returned. She glanced around, rubbing the tender welts on the backs of her hands. No sign of any of those cactus-grass things, either. Surely her captors wouldn’t begrudge her a rest and a drink and a handful of trail mix. If they’d supplied the food and water, they must intend her to use it.
She settled cross-legged on a clear stretch of road and pulled out the water bottle and foil Snak-Pak, which turned out to contain a cupful of tan pellets.
“I fed some of this to my rats just this morning!” she muttered, wrinkling her nose. Lifting a handful in mock salute, she tossed a few of the pellets into her mouth—and was surprised to find they tasted like oatmeal cookies. “Okay, so maybe it’s not rat food.”
She crunched a few more, washed them down with the water, and then got out the manual and turned to the introductory material.
Welcome to the Arena. We hope you enjoy your stay. As you will discover, we have engineered the playing field to conform to your homeworld parameters—
Homeworld? Did that mean she was no longer on her homeworld?
Gravitational forces, day-night cycles, and atmosphere have been tailored to meet your biological needs. In addition to many of your homeworld species, a number of innovative bioforms have been engineered to add excitement and interest to your journey.
The light, fluttery feeling returned. Innovative bioforms? Like that thing that screamed?
For your comfort and safety, please stay on the path and follow all instructions.
She skimmed ahead. The section closed with—We appreciate your participation in our project and hope you’ll have an entertaining adventure.
“Entertaining adventure?” she squeaked. “Give me a break!”
The next page reiterated the “initial objective” Alex had given her: Follow the white road to its end, and there pass through the First Gate, pictured on the title page. The manual said nothing about splits in the road.
She turned the page, reviewed the five rules, and launched into the paragraphs of elaboration that followed. As Alex had said, the white road was a safe zone, undulating through a treacherous countryside whose engineered bioforms could be downright deadly. The plant that attacked her would have eaten her if given the opportunity, and its spines carried a mild poison that would produce discomfort for at least a day. The scream she’d heard was probably the territorial call of a rock dragon—six-foot-long lizards said to frequent canyons such as this. An unarmed woman would make easy pickings for a big female, but the path supposedly repelled them, so she’d be safe as long as she didn’t leave it.
The material accompanying rule number two, “Proceed immediately to the nearest gate,” was informative but not reassuring.
To encourage forward momentum, portions of the track have been engineered to disappear after an elapsed interval of time.
“Which you neglect to specify,” she noted sourly.
It is wise, therefore, not to linger, especially at the beginning. Should the worst happen and you do stray off the road, we have provided fourteen identical gates located at equidistant intervals around the Arena. No matter where you are, there will always be a safe road in the vicinity that will take you to one of them.
“So long as the ‘innovative bioforms’ don’t get you first,” she muttered.
Safehavens have been provided for your comfort along the roads. You may stay in each up to twenty-four hours. Food, water, energy cubes—whatever they were—and first-aid supplies are available there for your convenience.
She skipped ahead to rule three, “Avoid distractions.” Antagonists within the Arena are at work to prevent you from attaining your—
Something moved at the corner of her eye, and Callie looked up.
At the mouth of the boulder-choked cleft, a patch of gray weeds quivered in the quiet air. Silence pressed around her, deep and anticipatory, and a sense of being watched crawled up her back. She coughed, but the creepy feeling did not wane.
With one eye on her surroundings, she stuffed the Snak-Pak and water bottle back into her pack. Standing, she reshouldered the bag, then flipped through the manual’s thin pages one last time, hoping something might catch her eye. No luck. No index, either. She was on her own.
Pushing her glasses back up, she surveyed her two choices again. Surely most “participants” were not as stubborn as she and had eagerly received the orientation she’d disdained. No doubt the prescribed method of path selection was part of their counsel. Since the lower road looked the more traveled, it seemed the logical choice—and the easiest. There was no point in confronting her fear of heights unless she had no other options.
She slid the manual into the right rear pocket of her jumpsuit and was just starting forward when a sibilant hissing issued from the cleft. She froze, her heart once more pounding against her rib cage.
The silence returned.
Mottled red-brown to blend with their surroundings, rock dragons could supposedly sit motionless for hours awaiting their prey. But several careful inspections of the surrounding rock walls revealed nothing, and when no further sound followed the first, she exhaled deeply. “Wimp,” she muttered, her voice grating in the quiet. “It was probably just—”
Something scrabbled among the boulders and burst from the gray weeds—a blood red lizard? Insect? Crustacean? Whatever it was, it scuttled crablike across the sand, zipping by her and back along the road, then darted left into a crack in the rock.
Callie stood very still, struggling to put a name to the creature and failing. Another engineered bioform? Curiosity prodded her to investigate, but caution stood in the way—she’d have to leave the road to do so.
“Curiosity killed the cat,” she reminded herself and set off briskly down the lower path. Only when she’d put a curtain of rock between herself and the gloomy cleft did her uneasiness abate.
She soon encountered a second branching where the canyon widened briefly. Again she chose the low option, proceeding along a small stream through a field of pungent yellow wild flowers. Six Ys later, however, she was decidedly uncomfortable. The sheer walls loomed close, and the sun—or whatever was substituting for it—was clearly descending. She’d been prudently staying on the canyon floor, but now impatience flapped its dark wings, demanding more results for the time and effort she’d expended. If she went up, maybe she could see the arched gateway she sought. “Okay,” she said. “Next opportunity, I’ll do it.”
Only now the opportunities stopped.
Worse, her road had acquired an unsettling dinginess. The incoming paths she’d passed earlier had been similarly discolored, which she’d taken as indications of heavy use. Now she wondered if they might have been tricks, side spurs to confuse and distract. What if, at that first juncture, she’d chosen the wrong path?
The thought of backtracking nearly brought her to tears. As far as she’d come, she’d never make it back before dark. And there was that rock dragon to consider as well.
But if she was off the path …
Maybe she was just being paranoid again. Maybe it was the light reflecting off the surrounding red rock. Or dust. She paused at yet another turn and squatted to rub her fingers across the pavement. Sure enough, they came away coated with a fine red grit. “See?” she told herself. “It’s still white underneath. Nothing to worry about.”
And then that sense of being watched poured over her again, thick and stifling. Nape hairs erect, she eyed her surroundings—sand, rock, a few weeds. Nothing at all alarming. Yet the feeling persisted. Creepy. Invasive. Almost … evil.
Slowly she arose, rubbing her fingers on her thigh.
Then, out of the corner of her eye, she saw it standing twenty feet upstream, half hidden by a boulder. It jumped immediately out of sight, but the afterimage remained—humanoid, hairless, all arms and legs, with luminescent gray skin and two pitlike eyespots.
More alien than the cactus grass or the red crustacean—or even Alex and his vanish-into-thin-air trick—this thing’s very aura reeked of otherness. It struck a chord of such primal terror, she had backed ten yards downstream before she knew it.
She stopped and pulled herself together. It hadn’t attacked her. Maybe it couldn’t. Maybe it was in another dimension. Maybe it wasn’t even dangerous.
No. It was dangerous. Intuition, perhaps, but definitely as strong a feeling as she’d ever known.
Fighting panic, Callie hurried along the path, desperate now for an escape route. No matter what heights she had to brave, it was better than being down here with that thing.
But the canyon snaked on with no new branches—as if the creature had waited until she was trapped before revealing itself. It followed her steadily, and she glimpsed it now and then, peering from behind the rocks, an unnerving hunger in its “eyes.”
Finally, in the late afternoon, bone tired and increasingly desperate, she rounded a bend and found deliverance. Her narrow canyon descended sharply into another, the juncture marked by a stand of bright green cottonwoods. Stopping at the top of a twenty-foot limestone cliff, she spied the Y she sought. One leg continued down to the intersecting canyon. The other wound through the trees and switchbacked up the wall behind them.
Laughing with relief, she descended the switchbacks alongside the cliff and was just starting across the grassy swale toward the beckoning cottonwoods, when a low voice sounded behind her: “I don’t think you want to go that way, miss.”
Callie whirled with a cry. On the rock behind and above her crouched a brown-skinned, bearded man with glowing blue eyes.
* * *
Chapter 3 He was not another alien after all, but human, like her. And his eyes didn’t really glow—they were just so blue, they contrasted dramatically with his beard and tanned skin. Dirty brown hair curled over his shirt collar, and he wore a scratched leather vest above filthy jeans and sturdy hiking boots. A sheathed knife as long as his forearm hung at one hip, a holstered gun at the other. He carried a rifle with a rubberized stock and a white ceramic barrel encircled with wire rings.
Was he another participant? Or one of the distractions that rule three instructed her to avoid?
“What’s down there?” she asked.
“Swarm of harries.” His voice was low and pleasant, at odds with his appearance. He dropped lightly to the ground before her. “Believe me,” he added, squinting at the trees, “you don’t want to stir them up.”
She inspected the cottonwoods doubtfully. He pointed past her, sleeve and forearm layered with dirt. The smell confirmed his need for a bath.
“There in the tallest tree,” he said. “That blob hanging in the middle.”
She finally saw it—a pale mass suspended from a stout, bright-leaved branch. Other smaller shapes hung scattered around it. She shaded her eyes. “Harries, you say?”
“They look like flying manta rays. Paralyze their victims with the venom in their stingers, then suck the blood out of them.”
Callie shuddered. Suspicion swirled through her. She turned back to him. “I thought the white road was a safe zone—a place where things like that can’t hurt you.”
“It is.” He eyed her appraisingly. “I figure you left it, oh, on the first or second branching.”
“Left it? What—”
“Look back the way you’ve come.” He gestured over his shoulder. “It isn’t white, it’s pink. You’re on a sucker path.”
She was well aware of the road’s dinginess, but the manual had said nothing about sucker paths. “Who are you, anyway?”
“Just another ‘participant.’ ” The man’s lips twitched bitterly.
“So why are you off the road?”
He shrugged. “After you’re here long enough, you realize there’s no point to it.”
“But if it’s a safe zone—”
“It goes nowhere.”
She regarded him with renewed suspicion. Antagonists within the Arena work to prevent you from attaining your goal … avoid all distractions.
“So, uh, where do you think I ought to go?” Callie asked.
“I’m headed for camp now. You can come with me, or go back and try to find where you went off. I wouldn’t advise that, though.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Nothing. You say you have a camp? There are others of you, then?”
“Yeah, we have a good-sized group.” He glanced past her shoulder. “Look, if you don’t mind, I’d like to get going. I’ve got fresh meat with me.” He pointed up the rock, and Callie saw his backpack leaning where he’d left it. Twice the size of hers, it had a dog-sized lizard tied across its top. Rock dragon, perhaps?
“They’ll be hunting soon,” he added. “I’d rather not be here when they break.”
The old pressure-sale method, Callie thought wryly. Pitch your product and give the customer five minutes to decide. Come on, Alex, do you think I can’t see through that?
She motioned toward the canyon walls. “By all means. Don’t let me stop you.”
He frowned, regarding her with those intensely blue eyes.
She waved him on. “Go ahead. But thanks for the warning.”
“Those things will kill you, miss.”
“I’ll take my chances.” Callie headed toward the trees, feeling his eyes on her back.
Ahead, the pale blob fluttered and rippled.
Avoid all distractions, the manual said. Don’t leave the white road.
Except … he was right about the first branching. She’d avoided the whiter path because of her fear of heights. A fear Alex must have known about, since she’d mentioned it to the receptionist.
She glanced back, but the stranger was gone.
Surprise gave way to smug assurance. See? He was a distraction. If these things were as bad as he said, he wouldn’t let me walk right into them.
She’d nearly reached the grove now, the gray blob differentiating into pale lavender wings and flat manta-ray bodies. Layered onionlike, they slid over one another in a writhing mass, a translucent wingtip occasionally stretching out from the huddle. The sphere began to pulse. She slowed, staring up at it. Fear needled her extremities. Her intended route passed directly beneath the throbbing mass.
So what’re you going to do? Go back? Callie chewed on her lip, waffling again, her stomach quivering. Irritation overwhelmed her fear. He was just trying to scare you off. Now get on with it.
Resolutely she forced herself forward. A comb-and-waxed-paper trilling danced around her, and the breeze carried a sweet, musty odor. She walked faster.
The old cottonwood loomed above. As she drew under it the trilling mounted. Then the quivering blob contracted, throbbed, and burst like a grenade, flinging pale, purplish manta shapes into the air. They flapped up through the branches to the open sky, whirling like debris in a dust devil.
Callie wanted to run for the rocks, fifty feet away now, but that would take her off the path. Doggedly she followed the pavement as it curved away from safety. Her scalp prickled, and her hands shook. She broke into a trot, rounding the hollow and coming out into the flat.
The stranger’s voice rang out from the rocks across the clearing. “Here they come!”
A pale shape dove by her. She dodged sideways, glimpsing shiny, jointed appendages dangling wasplike from its posterior. A turquoise beam shot from the rocks to the beast, now a yard in front of her. Thwip, thwip, thwip. Its body deflated in a puff of purple smoke, fluttering to the path like an empty sack. Two more beams burst from the rocks, downing two more harries as they swooped.
Ahead, the stranger rose from his hiding place and told her to run. Again she was tempted to leave the path. But nothing had touched her yet, and she wasn’t convinced anything could.
A series of beams slit the air in a succession of rapid thwips. Callie was aware of more hits, more puffs of purple gas, more falling sacklike bodies. Car-sized boulders loomed ahead on the left. Maybe they would afford some protection.
But then a harry caught her from behind, tentacles slapping along the left side of her back in lines of tingling heat. She staggered, crying out more from shock than pain.
The lavender shape skimmed by and imploded in a puff of purple. She dodged the plume as best she could, coughing on the sickening-sweet smell.
But I’m on the path, Callie protested, looking down through watering eyes to be sure. Nausea and dizziness churned in her. The heat on her back gave way to numbness.
More thwips. More beams. Tentacles came at her face. She spun away into another attack, and fire tracked along her upper arm. After that, reality devolved into nightmarish chaos. Shadow shapes whirled around her—malevolent wing flaps, hirsute tentacles, bulbous bodies bursting into purple at the ends of blue-green lines of light. Dead rays littered the ground, tripping her. One burst over her head, dowsing her with the eye-watering, stomach-turning gas. She doubled over, staggering on wobbly knees. Tentacles slapped across her back, and new waves of hot numbness sent her reeling. As she sought to regain her balance, a harry clamped on to her right hip, tentacles winding down her leg like a tetherball round its pole, a thousand burning needles pumping venom into her flesh. The wing flaps clutched her leg. The mouth bit through fabric and skin into her waist.
Panicked, Callie beat at the leathery body, white light spreading in amebic splotches across her vision. Someone was screaming hysterically.
I’m going to die. I’m going to die here, and I don’t even know where I am!
She saw her mother. Lisa. Daddy …
Suddenly the stranger was looming over her, firing the rifle with one arm as he ripped the harry off her leg with the other. He lifted her effortlessly. Her legs and left arm were numb and useless, but she clung to his neck with her right arm as he carried her among the rocks, firing as he ran.
It grew hard to breathe. The white splotches swelled. Something slapped her ear….
The next thing she knew, she lay on her back at the rear of a low-ceilinged cave. The stranger crouched by the entrance, shooting at the harries outside. Beside her lay his pack and the rock dragon, dried blood caking its pointed teeth. A milky eye stared at her alongside a serrated blue face crest. It stank of sour socks.
Thwip, thwip, thwip. Turquoise light flared pink and faded.
The man drew back, opened a panel in the rifle’s side, and pulled a small pink cube out of it. Tossing the cube aside, he slapped in a replacement and resumed firing, all one-handed. His left arm dangled at his side, his shirt sleeve slit in several places to reveal a bicep scored with red welts. Another welt seared across his cheekbone, and his eyelid drooped above it.
Callie knew she should help him, but it felt as if a boulder lay atop her chest. She couldn’t feel her left arm or either of her legs. Was the poison spreading? Would the numbness soon creep to her heart? And if it wasn’t spreading, would it wear off? Or would it leave her paralyzed for life?
The amebic lights returned to carry her into oblivion.
When she came to, she was alone in full darkness and still unable to move. She thought the dark bulk beside her might be the pack with its smelly burden, but where was the man? Had the harries gotten him?
Panic rattled through her, and she fainted again.
When she awoke for the third time, the man had lit a small three-legged lamp and was laying sticks for a fire. The pile of branches to his right revealed where he’d been earlier—collecting firewood.
Her mouth was cotton dry, her head ached, and her stomach felt as hollow as a dead tree. But at least she could sense her limbs again—cold and tingling unpleasantly. Her pack lay at her feet, but her attempts to reach it only proved she couldn’t even roll over, much less sit up. After a brief struggle she sagged back onto the dirt, gasping.
The stranger squatted beside her. “Want some help?”
“A drink,” she croaked, shocked at the inhuman sound of her voice.
The smell of him was strong as he lifted her to a sitting position against the wall. His nearness made her uneasy, and she kept her eyes off his face, concentrating on the water pouring over her parched lips and tongue. Seeing she could handle the bottle on her own, he let go and eased back. She drank eagerly until he stopped her, then licked her lips and dropped her head back against the rock.
When she opened her eyes, he had returned to arranging the firewood into a small teepee. Her glance flicked to the scarlet welts on his face, the clumsiness of his left arm. “You saved my life,” she rasped.
He didn’t look up. “We’re not out of this yet.”
“Surely the worst is past.”
“Look, I’m sorry I didn’t believe you.”
“I’m sure you are.”
She frowned, her good feelings toward him evaporating. “Well, it’s only my first day—”
Callie snapped her lips shut. All right, forget it. She let him work in silence for a few moments, then said, “I don’t suppose you have a name.”
“Pierce.” He positioned another stick.
“I’m Callie Hayes.”
Great, Callie thought. A macho male with a chip on his shoulder. Well, two can play this game. She drew the manual from her back pocket and started to read. But she’d lost her glasses in the harry attack, and the dim light made the print too fuzzy to see without a struggle. In the end she had too many questions and not enough patience to ignore him, so presently she tried again. “You said there was no point staying on the white road. What did you mean?”
Pierce laid the last stick onto his teepee, then drew a long-barreled handgun from his holster and fired a burst of green light at the wood. Yellow flames licked greedily upward.
“The gates are there,” he said, pulling two metal stakes from his pack. “You just can’t get to them.”
“You know this for a fact?” She pushed a lock of hair out of her face. “You’ve actually seen one?”
“Well, maybe it was an exception.”
“I’ve been to all fourteen.” He began to pound a stake into the hard earth on one side of the fire. “The routes to reach them are different, but the gates are all identical—and all identically unattainable.” Rocking back on one knee, he met her gaze. “This place is like a doughnut—the Inner Realm’s the hole, the Outer Realm’s the cake, with a ring of cliffs between the two. All the gates stand atop those cliffs, and all the roads end at the bottom. So while you can see the gates just fine, you can’t get up to ’em. Though believe me, many have tried, long and hard—myself included.” Grimly, he finished pounding in the stake.
Callie watched him, frowning. Maybe he’s lying. Maybe he really is a distraction and this was all staged.
But she couldn’t believe that anymore. He seemed too bitter, too frustrated, too much like her—another victim trapped in the same nightmare. A sick feeling settled into her middle. Fourteen gates, but not one was accessible?
“Why give us a task that’s impossible?” she wondered aloud. “Why give us a manual—”
“Who knows?” he snapped. “As for the manual, obviously you haven’t read it. The thing’s about as useful as your boots.” He pounded the second stake into the ground opposite the first. “The part you can read is cryptic or flat wrong, and the rest’s gibberish.”
“Maybe it’s some sort of code, and we just need to find the key.”
“If there is a key, I’ve never heard of it. And I’ve been here long enough, I should have.”
She frowned. “How long have you been here?”
He gave the stake one last blow, then sat back on his heels, staring at the flames as they crackled among the sticks. “Five years this summer.”
Not five days, not five months. “Five years?” she whispered.
Bitterness twisted his lips. “Some experiment, huh?”
“But … how? They said …” She’d long ago stopped believing she’d get out of this mess in a few hours. But five years?
“Like I said, it’s not for lack of trying,” Pierce added. He got up and drew a haunch of meat from a tarp-covered pile near her feet. As he impaled it on a spit, she realized the carcass of the rock dragon had disappeared.
While the meat cooked, he went through the jumble of components in her pack, noticing right off that she was missing some pieces. She told him about the cactus grass. He listened without comment, and she trailed off to a halt, feeling embarrassed and stupid. “I do have this, though.” She showed him the key-stylus-pen she’d made.
He took it from her, turning it between his fingers.
“Do you know what it is?” she asked.
“No.” He handed it back. “I had one, too, once. Never did figure out what it was for.”
“Then maybe it is significant.”
“I doubt it. They gave us a lot of useless stuff. Probably to confuse us. They’re like that.”
Pierce surveyed the remaining parts from her pack, then began fitting some of them together. Swiftly, one of the long-barreled hand pistols took shape. She didn’t recall seeing instructions for that in the manual.
“It’s a SLuB 40,” he said, handing the weapon over. “See here?” He pointed a grimy finger to the inscription at the barrel’s base.
Callie peered at it. “Those aren’t letters.”
“No, but it looks like ‘SLuB 40,’ so that’s what we call it.”
He started to assemble a rifle similar to his own, but ran out of pieces before he finished.
“Looks like the SLuB’s gonna be it. At least you’ve got plenty of E-cubes.” He scooped up four of the blue boxes. “They power everything else. Mind if I take a few?”
Balancing two cubes on his thigh, Pierce slid another pair into his rifle’s side chamber, then replaced the cubes in his SLuB. By that time their dinner was ready.
The lizard meat had a strong muttony flavor. Callie would never call it tasty, but once she’d tantalized her stomach with the first bite, she all but inhaled the rest, even ate a second slice. As she wiped her greasy fingers on her jumpsuit, the comb-and-waxed-paper trill of a passing harry drew her gaze to the dark opening.
“They won’t bother us in here,” Pierce said. “Not at night.”
“And in the morning?”
“They’ll hunt a few hours past dawn, then swarm again for the day. We should be able to move out after that.”
They lapsed into silence. After a few minutes, Callie leaned her head against the rock and closed her eyes. “I assume I’ll be able to walk in the morning?”
“Should be, yeah.”
She sighed. Five years. Were there others who’d been here as long? Longer?
Her thoughts drifted to home. Lisa’s party would be well under way, her sister waiting with her latest stockbroker prospect for Callie. Eventually she’d call Callie’s apartment, and Mom would begin preparing her lecture on being considerate. By evening’s end they’d be miffed. But not worried. They knew Callie disliked the glittering, semiformal bashes. Even aside from the matchmaking, she resisted getting dressed up, had no taste for mingling over cocktails, and loathed the incessant one-upsmanship. Her conversations—if any—were brief, dribbling into awkward silences as she and the other party struggled to find a way of escape.
No, her family wouldn’t start worrying until morning, and the police wouldn’t start searching for twenty-four hours. By then Dr. Charis’s experiment would have vanished, likely leaving no clues and no one to question. Even if there was, what could the police do against beings who defied the laws of physics and zapped bodies through space in the blink of an eye?
Callie’s throat tightened. Tears blurred her vision. What she wouldn’t give to be home painting right now—her cockatiel pacing along the bookshelf—to hear Meg’s bubbly laugh and endure her latest dumb fad, to be able to clean the rat cages on Monday. Right now, she’d even prefer Lisa’s party.
Because deep down she knew there was a real possibility she would never attend another of Lisa’s parties again.
Arena by Karen Hancock
Copyright © 2002, Karen Hancock
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited