I wore a navy blue blazer and a red tie that I hoped looked professorial. Rachel wore jeans, sneakers, and a Harvard sweatshirt. I looked her over. “Harvard?”
“I found it in a resale shop.” She tilted her face. “What? I don’t look like I could be from Harvard?”
“You look great in anything.”
She slugged me. We walked out to my Honda.
The drive to Naperville felt shorter today, maybe because I was nervous. What we were planning was probably illegal entry, even if it wasn’t breaking and entering. I wasn’t sure how much trouble we could get into.
But if they were experimenting with kids, I was pretty sure they could get into a lot more trouble.
“Did she call you?” Rachel watched the traffic on the expressway.
“Yeah. Lynne’s fine, all the scans were negative.” The twisted look in her eyes as she threw her head back, moaning and gasping, had kept me from going to sleep for a long time. “They kept her overnight.”
“Did her father come? Hey, watch out for that truck!”
I swerved quickly. “She said he was in the room. I don’t know what she told him.”
Rachel chewed her lip.
We parked in the Bracken Tech lot again and made our way to the lab building. I hoped Craig was taking the day off. His daughter was in the hospital, after all.
No one paid us any attention as we headed down the hall. Inside one lab a group of students was building a circuit board. Or possibly taking one apart. Or maybe just eating lunch around it.
The AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY sign was still taped to the door. I took the keycard out of my pocket. “Can you tell if anybody’s in there?”
“Maybe.” Rachel put a hand on the door, then yanked it away as if it burned her fingers. “It’s still got a bad vibe, but I don’t think so. What if someone comes in?”
“We get out as fast as we can. I’ve got a story, but it won’t hold up. I’m thinking they don’t want a commotion any more than we do.” I swiped the card.
The red light at the top of the device turned yellow. I punched in the code. Green. The lock clicked.
I pushed the door open.
Fluorescent lights glowed in the ceiling. Computers lined the walls, humming quietly, surrounded by a web of cables and cords. A folded cot sat in one corner, underneath a cabinet mounted on the wall with a big red FIRST AID cross.
In the center of the room sat a gray booth. Nine feet tall, with eight sides, maybe ten feet in diameter. More cables extended from its base. A lever extended from a hatch in the side facing the door.
The door closed behind us. I hoped we could get out.
Rachel leaned over the monitor on the nearest computer. “Huh.” She crossed her arms, peering at the data scrolling across the screen. “If I had to guess, maybe they’re monitoring some kind of communication. But it’s no language I’ve ever seen. Hey—” She picked up a Post-it note from a phone handle. “Nah, it’s just what somebody named Vlad wants for lunch.”
We walked around the room, looking at all the computers, but neither of us could figure out what they were doing. A few more written notes—phone messages to call somebody, lunch orders, random times and other numbers—told us nothing more.
Nothing else to look at. Except the elephant in the room.
I walked around the booth. Gray metal, eight sides, no windows. I ran my hands over the surface. It felt smooth and cold.
I knocked a fist. It felt solid under my knuckles. I pushed on the lever.
“What are you doing?” Rachel punched my arm.
“I’m a detective, remember? I’m curious.”
I swung one foot over the bottom of the hatch. A metal folding chair sat in the center. Black panels covered the interior walls.
A metal disk hung from the ceiling. Lighting? I lifted my arms but couldn’t reach it. Maybe if I stood on the chair—
The hatch slammed shut.
“Tom!” I could barely hear Rachel’s shout through the metal and the darkness inside. I leaned on the door. It wouldn’t move.
Damn it. I grabbed for my cell phone.
The disc began to hum over my head. I looked up—and dropped my phone. A white glow spread across the surface of the metal, growing brighter and brighter until it stung my eyes.
The humming became a loud buzz, then a deafening howl like a hurricane crashing against rocks. I pounded at the door, shouting to Rachel outside, but I couldn’t hear my own voice over the rising roar. The light overhead felt like a supernova in front of my eyeballs. I closed my eyes and dropped to the floor, covering my face. Oh god, oh god, oh god . . .
My life flashed in front of my eyes. Well, some of it. Mostly the parts with Rachel. She’d be so mad at me. Damn it . . .
I felt warm and thirsty. My arms and legs hurt. I opened my eyes and tried to sit up. But my body was too weak to move.
I sank back down. I was lying on top of some kind of couch that seemed to realign under my body with every shift of position, like a web holding me down.
I turned my head. The room had gray walls that seemed to glow with pale light. I looked down at my body. I was still wearing the same clothes. With some effort, I managed to reach up and loosen my necktie. My muscles shook with every movement.
What the hell?
A section of the wall split open, and a creature walked into the room.
One of Lynne’s aliens.
This one was tall, seven or eight feet, with a thick leathery torso and four appendages like arms around its chest. The stalks twitching from its bulb-shaped head had violet eyes that flickered as they moved. It breathed through a slit in its neck.
It stood over me, its eyestalks wandering up and down my body. It placed a hand—six stubby fingers in a starfish shape—on my chest for a moment, then let its arm drop.
It spoke. I couldn’t understand the words, or even be sure it wasn’t just one long word. Then it stopped, as if waiting for an answer.
“T-tom.” I cough. “Tom Jurgen. Human.”
It started talking again. This time I made out gaps between words, like it was trying to speak slowly enough for me to understand. But nothing sounded like any language I’d ever heard. Until I thought I made out one familiar sound—“Lynne.”
“Lynne!” I nodded. “Yes! Lynne.”
“Lynne.” Its stalks fluttered. Then it went on, taking even more time between sounds. I made out some human names—Michael, Lloyd, Ann—and repeated each one I heard.
The wall split again, and a second alien came into the room. This one had only three arms, just like the one Lynne had drawn.
The two beings spoke to each other simultaneously, in long strings of sound without pause. It was like they were transmitting streams of data across a high-speed connection.
Then the three-armed creature approached the couch.
Bands abruptly sprang up around me, trapping me on the couch even thought I doubted I had the strength to stand up. They didn’t do much to make me feel calm.
Like the first, this one planted a hand on my chest. It felt warm through my shirt, and its fingers pressed down, as if probing my body. I wondered what it thought of my pounding heartbeat.
It took the arm away. After a moment, it spoke. Slowly like the other. Again, nothing made sense until it murmured the word, “Human.”
“Human! Yes! Human.” I swallowed. “Tom Jurgen.”
“Boku.” It tapped its own chest. “Human. Boku.”
I nodded. “Boku.”
Another stream of nonsense, as if it was searching for the right words. Then: “Speak.”
“Speak,” I repeated. “Yeah, I can speak. But I don’t understand you.”
“Human speak. Boku speak. Human boku speak.”
“I’d love to speak to you.” I shook my head. “How can we?”
More words. Finally: “Child.”
“No. Not a child. Adult. Mature.” I could imagine Rachel snickering at that. “Old.”
It turned away. The two aliens spoke to each other again for a long time—or what felt like a long time.
The wall opened, and they both left.
The restraints disappeared. I tried to push myself up from the couch, but my muscles were still shaky.
The ceiling suddenly began to hum.
Oh, no. I closed my eyes. Please, God, get me out of this place . . . Please . . .
I was still lying down when I opened my eyes, but this time I was on the cot in the Bracken Tech lab. Two angry scientists, plus Craig Winters, leaned over me. One of them shined a pen light in my eyes. He was African American and balding. “Don’t try to sit up just yet—”
“Move!” Rachel shoved Winters to one side and bent over me. “Tom? Tom! Are you all right?”
“Please let us examine him, Ms. Dunn,” said the other scientist, an annoyed frown on his face.
Words I could understand. I wanted to weep.
“Tom?” Rachel put her face next to mine. “Are you okay?”
I nodded. “I think so.”
She punched my shoulder. “You idiot.”
Yeah, there’s no place like home. Rachel helped me sit up. “What happened?”
“I . . .” Damn it. Already the memory seemed to be fading from my brain. “I was on the ship. Lynne’s aliens. They were—trying to talk to me.”
“You weren’t supposed to be in there!” The first scientist put his pen light back into the first aid kit. “You’re not supposed to be here at all! This is illegal trespass! Breaking and entering—”
“We didn’t break anything.” I swung my legs to the ground. “We got the code and the keycard from your daughter.” I looked at Craig.
“Lynne?” He pushed the other two scientists. “How do you know my daughter?”
“Your wife hired me. Ex-wife. After she started drawing the aliens again. You put her in there, didn’t you?” I jabbed a finger at the booth. “You let your daughter be taken by aliens!”
“You don’t understand—”
“And all those other kids too.” Rachel stepped between us. “Don’t forget that.”
“It’s confidential!” First scientist. “And very important! You’re not allowed to disclose—”
“I’ll disclose anything I damn want.” I grabbed Rachel’s shoulder and stood up. “Come on, Rach, let’s get out of here.”
“Dr. Materson, please.” The second scientist, white and also balding with a thin beard, put a hand on his shoulder. “Mr. Jurgen, Ms. Dunn, I’m Dr. Fredrick Denzinger. Let me explain.”
I sat back down onto the cot. I was too tired to walk right now anyway. And even though my curiosity had gotten me abducted by aliens, I wanted to hear his explanation. “Go ahead.”
“We made contact with an alien civilization two years ago. They seem friendly and eager to communicate, but we haven’t been able to get through to each other.” He pulled a chair over and sat in front of me. “Their abductions of humans were simply attempts to establish a common language, but nothing worked. Except . . .” He took a breath. “When they took children.”
“Like Lynne.” I looked at Craig. He winced.
“Children pick up languages more easily.” This was Materson. “Their reports indicated that they were able to learn a few basic words, and teach the aliens some of our language. So we—”
“Found kids who had been abducted and sent them back.” I nodded, angry. “You told the parents it was psychological testing.”
“We have to control the information.” Denzinger leaned forward. “This will change everything. Once we know how to talk to them—”
“Shut up.” Rachel turned on Craig. “Do you know Lynne was abducted last night?”
His eyes went white. “What? No. Melissa just said—”
“And at least one other of your subjects has had seizures too.” I rubbed my head. Would I start getting them? “You found them through Lena Stone’s website.”
“That kook.” He shook his head. “I should have never—”
“You should never have done a lot of things.” This time I managed to stand up. “Lena Stone and I are going to be best friends now.”
“No one will listen to her.” Craig grimaced. “Or you.”
“You have to understand how important this is!” Materson looked ready to fight to keep me in the room. “The technology they could share—like that chamber—”
“It is worth it, Craig?” I stared. “Do you really have to think about it?”
He said nothing.
“First . . .” I leaned on Rachel while talking to Craig. “You’ll give Melissa full custody, and never bring her back here again. Second—” I turned to Denzinger. “Stop with the kids. Find some other way to get through to the aliens. Maybe no one will believe me or Lena Stone, but come on. We live in a world where people will vote for Donald Trump. It’ll get out, and people will want to know everything about it. That’s how information gets around. I used to be a reporter. I know.”
Materson seemed ready to argue, but Denzinger stepped out of the way. “Maybe you should go.”
Craig followed us out the door. “I didn’t think any bad would happen!” His voice was a hoarse, pleading whisper. “I really didn’t. They told me . . .”
I believed him. But I didn’t want to let him off the hook. “Just don’t let it happen again. Full custody. All right?”
He nodded. “Fine.”
Rachel drove. I narrated what I remembered into my cell phone before I forgot it all. Already I had trouble remembering how many aliens I’d seen, and what I’d heard them say. Lynne . . . human . . . old . . .
Was that what they called themselves? I wondered if I’d be hearing it again.
Rachel said nothing as she drove. When we got to our building she helped me up the stairs into my apartment. My legs felt stronger, and I was breathing better. I dropped onto my couch.
“Let me get you a beer.” She headed for the kitchen.
“Water.” My voice was a croak. “And, yeah. Beer.”
She shoved a bottle of water in my face and set two beers on the table. “Here.” She was still mad at me.
“Th-thanks.” I guzzled most of the water, and then grabbed the beer. “S-sorry.”
“What the hell were you thinking?” She stalked around the table. “That door closed and it wouldn’t open.”
“So what did you do?” I threw my necktie on the floor and pulled off my jacket. “Where did those guys come from?”
“What do you think? I grabbed a phone and yelled.” She sat down next to me and kicked her sneakers off. “I wanted to start smashing their computers, but I was afraid that would screw their machine and you’d never get back. Two minutes, and those morons were inside, running around and yelling at me.”
“What’d you tell them?”
“I didn’t have a clever cover story.” She gulped her beer, glaring at me. “So I just told them. They called Craig. He got there two hours later, and they were still trying to locate some kind of signal—”
“It’s eight-thirty, asshole. You were gone for six hours.”
Six hours? Lost time. One of the basic elements of alien abductions. “I swear, it felt like—20 minutes. Maybe half an hour. I’m sorry.” I bent over, feeling like I might throw up. “Damn it! I’m so sorry . . .”
I might have cried for a few minutes. Rachel held me. Then I sat up and wiped my eyes. “Thanks for saving me.”
“Jerk.” She patted my shoulder. “I didn’t do that much. But if you ever do something that stupid again . . .”
My cell phone buzzed. Melissa Ames.
“I ought to get this.” Although I wasn’t sure I was up to talking to anyone. “Hello? Tom Jurgen here.”
“Mr. Jurgen.” Melissa still sounded angry, but her voice was quiet. “I just talked to Craig. He says—he said—I can have full custody.”
“Good.” I nodded to Rachel. “How is Lynne?”
“She’s home. She’s watching a video. Not drawing pictures.”
“Are you okay?”
“I haven’t slept. I don’t want to. I’m afraid of the dreams.”
I shuddered. What kind of dreams would I have? “Get some sleep. I think it’s going to be fine.”
She took a breath. “I’m, uh, sorry. I know I was angry last night—”
“That’s okay.” She was a parent, protecting her child. In the end, Craig had apparently decided to do the same thing. “You were just doing your job. I’m sorry for what happened.”
“Send me your bill. And—oh yes, honey? Lynne wants to talk to you.”
My stomach tightened. “Hello?”
“Mr. Jurgen?” Lynne sounded tired. “Hi. It’s Lynne.”
“How are you feeling, Lynne?”
“Fine. I hated the hospital.”
I nodded. “Most people do.”
“Did you see them?”
Oh god. Were they still communicating with her somehow? “Y-yes. I saw them today.”
“They’re nice, aren’t they?”
I remembered their hands on my chest. The restraints over my body. The bright light and the pounding noise—
But they’d let me go. “Yeah. They were nice.”
“Okay. ‘Bye!” She hung up.
I dropped my phone on the table and grabbed my beer.
“You okay?” Rachel rubbed my shoulder.
“I think so.” I was getting paid. That helped. “Let’s order pizza.”
“Better than me cooking.” She picked up my phone. “But hey—what was it like?”
The aliens. I rubbed my eyes. By now I could barely remember anything. “They were—weird. But they just wanted to talk.”
Rachel sighed. “Don’t go away again.”
I held her hand. She didn’t pull away like usual. “Not without you.”
# # #