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The Anaz-voohri have returned from the stars after eight hundred years, to claim the planet of their ancestors... a blue orb named Earth. Since he witnessed the abduction of his baby sister by an alien creature, Zack will stop at nothing to rescue her, even if it means joining the Special Forces. But Tia Vargas, the reckless Amazon training the secret unit for a highly classified mission, has no use for this handsome, rebellious recruit, at least not on the battlefield, until Zack’s farfetched stories prove to be true, and tragedy strikes.



Publié par
Date de parution 01 janvier 2014
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9781773623634
Langue English

Informations légales : prix de location à la page 0,0032€. Cette information est donnée uniquement à titre indicatif conformément à la législation en vigueur.


Anaz Voorhi
Ancient Enemy, Book 1
By Vijaya Schartz
WEB 978-1-77362-361-0
MOBI 978-1-77362-362-7
EPUB 978-1-77362-363-4
PRINT 978-1-77362-360-3

Copyright by Vijaya Schartz 2 nd Edition2015
Cover Art by Michelle Lee
All rights reserved. Without limiting the right undercopyright reserved above, no part of this publication may bereproduced, stores in or introduced into a retrieval system, ortransmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical,photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior writtenpermission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher ofthis book.
Eight hundred year ago,
The Great Ones descended from the sky,
And their vessels hovered above the desert floor,
Like flocks of hummingbirds as big as houses.
They selected the best Anasazi warriors
To take them to their home in the stars,
Raining death and destruction
On the rest of the tribe.
But among the stars of the Pleiades,
The proud warriors found only slavery.
No more Anasazi but part man, part machine,
They became the Anaz-voohri,
The fiercest fighters in the known galaxies
When they finally spilled the blood of theircaptors,
The Anaz-voohri went in search of a home,
A safe harbor to grow in numbers and in might,
Before embarking on their conquest of theuniverse.
Remembering the legends told by the shamans,
They turned to the planet of their ancestors,
A mythical blue orb called Earth
Chapter One

Los Angeles - July 2003
Zack woke up with a start, unable to seeanything. Anything at all. Had the power gone out? A subtlevibration permeated the house. Earthquake? No. Earthquakes didn’tmake the walls sing.
Something was wrong. With no glow from thedigital clock or from his computer screen, Zack tossed his blanketaside and felt his way to the window. He pulled up the black romanshade and lifted the glass pane. The sweet fragrance of roses fromthe front yard filled the room. As he craned his neck outside, thesecond story view revealed a full moon but no street lights in thewhole residential area of Granada Hills. Had all of Los Angelesblacked out?
Outside, the strong vibration shook thefoliage of the eucalyptus trees. As far as Zack could see, thestreets and houses looked dark and quiet. Too dark, too quiet, withno breeze, no birds, not even the chirp of a cricket.
Moonlight filtering into the room illuminatedthe life-size poster of Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider. As thevibration intensified, something familiar tugged at Zack’s mind.Ashley? His baby sister screeched for help in his head! She wasterrified.
Rushing out of the bedroom, Zack stumbledover his sneakers and stepped into the ink black hallway. Thevibration shook the hardwood under his bare feet. The smell ofburnt rubber or heated machinery assaulted his nostrils. Howweird!
Feeling his way along the wall, Zack turnedthe corner and saw an outline of white radiance around Ashley’sdoor. He’d left it ajar last night.
Wearing only his boxers and tee-shirt, Zackshivered when a malevolent breeze coursed across his skin, as if tokeep him away. Was he dreaming? He bit his lip. It hurt, and thecoppery taste of blood filled his mouth. Wide awake! His heart beatso hard, it threatened to explode.
Outside Ashley’s door, their Persian catarched his back and hissed, spooked. His bristled tail rosestraight up in the air, sparking with static electricity.
“What’s going on in there, Dude?" Zackwhispered, his heart faltering. He swallowed with a dry throat,remembering the horror movies he used to enjoy watching. But thiswas no movie, and he couldn’t stand the thought of his baby sisterin any danger.
Zack moved sluggishly, like through waterwith weights on his ankles. Had the air become dense? Had he landedin the middle of a strange videogame? Finally he pushed the dooropen. Blinded by bright light, Zack stood paralyzed. He tried tostep inside, to no avail. His legs refused to move.
Unable to scream his frustration, he remainedfrozen in the doorway, immobilized by a strange force thatcontrolled his body. As his eyes adjusted to the brightness, theunobstructed view of his sister’s room chilled his spine.
Bent over the bed, a tall creature ofhumanoid proportions hovered above the floor, wearing a long,shimmering cape that accentuated its square shoulders.Seven-year-old Ashley, her blue eyes wide with terror, blonde curlsframing her tan face, clutched her favorite Barbie Doll, her mouthopen in a silent wail.
Get away from my sister, you freak! No wordcame out of Zack’s mouth.
The creature turned to face Zack. Under thehood, the bald skull glowed from within, blue, pink and green, likea see-through phone. The face had large oval eyes, milky skin,elongated cheeks, and a straight thin mouth etched with grimdetermination.
Hang on, Ashley, I’m coming. When Zackattempted to rush the creature, his feet stuck to the floor. Hetried to yell but his vocal cords remained mute. He wanted to breakthe freak’s skull, bloody the monster’s small nose, make it feelpain. What did this thing want with his baby sister?
The creature turned its attention to a smalldevice it held in spidery fingers. The bright light shrunk to awide oblique beam that angled out through the gaping window. Beyondit, an ominous shadow hung above the house. The vibration emanatedfrom it. Zack couldn’t believe what he saw. A spacecraft?
Howling inside, but unable to intervene, Zackwatched as the creature lifted his frightened sister from the bed.Ashley didn’t protest when the monster wrenched the Barbie dollfrom her grip and threw it back on the blanket. Then the monsterstepped into the beam of light and floated out the window with itsprize. The paralyzing hold ebbed. Zack staggered into the roomtoward the window. He wanted to call for help but his throat stillrefused to make any sound.
As Zack stepped after them into the beam oflight, the creature had almost reached the waiting craft. The alienpointed a small device at Zack. The shot sizzled and shook him likean electroshock. Zack’s legs buckled from the pain. He hit theplush pink rug and darkness engulfed him.
* * *
Somewhere above the Pacific Ocean
As her spaceship flew over the dark ocean,Captain Kavak, Exalted Leader of the Anaz-voohri fleet, cursed theintervention of Ashley’s brother. Surprised by his persistence anddistracted by the child in her arms, Kavak hadn’t checked thesetting on her weapon before firing. She hoped the charge hadkilled the young man. Well, even if it didn’t, it would definitelyscramble the memory of their encounter.
Kavak didn’t like sloppy work. She didn’ttolerate it from her underlings and didn’t want it known that shemay have slipped. This particular mission required stealth, notslaughter, and she should have avoided detection, not to mentionconfrontation. But the truth be told, Kavak lusted for bloodshed asmuch as the next Anaz-voohri warrior, if not more.
Through the clear hull of the piloting deck,an island chain appeared, like a line of ducklings floating on thedark waters below. Humans called these islands Hawaii. Tonight, thesand beaches sparkled in the moonlight. On her screen, Kavakpinpointed a precise cove dotted with sparse houses. Previousscanning of the area had revealed that an exceptional child livedthere, a little girl with great intelligence, a strong spirit, andeven an auspicious name, Celene, after one of the Pleiadesstars.
Human females, less intimidating than malesin that society, would provide the perfect weapon for Kavak’s plan.She would use these little girls as effective tools to bring aboutthe destruction of their own species. And they would destroyhumanity without further endangering the precious planet of Kavak’sancestors, already damaged by these careless fools.
Waving her hands over the panel in front ofthe pilot’s chair, Kavak linked her electronic brain to the ship’scontrols and brought the vessel to hover above a white sand beach.She set the small ship on idle and rose from the chair. Time to goget her last girl, Celene.
As the captain of the Anaz-voohri fleet,Kavak didn’t have to participate in the harvesting of human girls,but she had a weak spot for this little blue planet and nevermissed an opportunity to study or visit Earth. She’d offered tocollect two girls out of twelve. As she glided down the light beam,a dog barked in the distance. Kavak willed the silly animal tochoke on its tongue. The barking strangled then stopped. She’dbetter not attract attention this time.
Glancing up at the night sky, Kavak admiredthe multitude of stars. She breathed in the salty ocean air anddelighted in the sound of the surf on the shore. She would enjoyliving on this beautiful planet. Maybe she would raise a batch oflittle warriors, realizing the dearest dream of her declining race,or better yet, she’d run a military academy for the miraclegeneration that would bring new hope and glory to the Anaz-voohrination.
Kavak approached the modest bungalow shadowedby palm fronds that trembled from the vibration of the shiphovering nearby. How serene, how peaceful... An assortment of shoessat by the side of the door, but Kavak following her instinct,circled the house toward a sealed window pane topped with two rowsof open louvers. She couldn’t see through the drawn curtains, butshe could sense the chosen girl sleeping inside, breathing,stirring.
Humans thought themselves safe inside closedrooms. How naive of them. The weapon at Kavak’s belt flew into herhand. Adjusting the setting, she linked her mind to the weapon,focused on the glass and fired. With a soft whooshing sound, thewindow vaporized into a cloud of glittery dust, sending thecurtains billowing.
After brushing the residue off her shoulders,Kavak pushed aside the curtains as she rose and floated inside theroom, approaching the small bed. Sleeping peacefully with no sheetsor blankets, Celene sucked her thumb. Unlike Kavak, the child hadtwo perfectly formed hands. How unfair. The girl looked about six,wearing red shorts and t-shirt. A sweet, subtle flower scentemanated from her tan skin and long auburn curls. What was it aboutthe human fascination with hair?
A large white cat on the child’s bed hissedand meowed aggressively at the intruder. Not one of those again!The pesky beasts seemed immune to mind control. The feline swattedat Kavak, all claws and fangs, scratching her skin veneer, then itscampered away. Too late. The stupid animal had disturbed thesleeper.
Kavak had no other choice than to neutralizethe waking child. She switched the controlling device from herdeformed four-fingered hand to her thumbed hand. When she pushed apictograph on it, a high-pitched whine, an ultrasound meant toincapacitate humans, filled the room. Green eyes wide with terror,little Celene opened her mouth as if to scream, but no sound cameout. A tear rolled down her face as the child lay helpless on thebed. Kavak snatched Celene, slung her over her shoulder thenlevitated out the gaping window. Carrying the child back to theship, she ascended along the shaft of light.
Once inside the ship, Kavak deposited theneutralized Celene on a long couch next to little Ashley, who laymotionless. When Kavak pushed a dial on her handheld instrument,both girls closed their eyes. She’d induced deep sleep.
This completed Kavak’s collection. Shereturned to the piloting seat. A good harvest, according to thecommander in charge of gathering the other girls. Linking her mindto the ship’s controls, she passed her hand across the console andwelcomed the familiar vibration as the ship soared toward thestratosphere.
Once in high orbit, Kavak rendezvoused withthe two other collecting ships. Together they flew toward the hugescience vessel hidden from Earth on the dark side of the moon.After docking, Kavak picked up both girls, slung one over eachshoulder, then hovered through hatches and corridors into thenursery prepared for them on the science vessel.
The scientist in charge had insisted thatthey decorate the dome with painted-desert colors, to make theircharges feel more at home. And what could be more auspicious thandepictions of Kokopelli, the flute player, a motif already familiarto many humans?
“Where are the other girls?" Kavak asked amedical attendant.
The female medic in a white gown saluted.“They are docking now, Exalted Leader. I’ll help bring themin."
The medic rushed out of the nursery. Withinminutes, each of the twelve beds had an occupant. The human girlsranged from two to nine in age. At the head of each bed, engravednameplates labeled the occupants.
Collecting charges made Kavak thirsty. Shewilled a cabinet door to open and linked her brain to the dispenserinside. “Martini, make that three,” she uttered, “after all, it’s acelebration." She could hardly wait for the heavenly drink.
The machine poured a clear liquid into threeconical glasses and dropped two olives in each of them. The ritualwarmed Kavak in anticipation. She took one glass, sipped the drink,then sighed. “Delicious."
A replica of the earthly martini to be sure,but still quite good, it made her throat tingle. Like mostAnaz-voohri, Kavak had a weakness for liquor, the only worthwhileproducts humans had ever engineered. When she controlled Earth, shewould drink only the real thing.
Glass in hand, Kavak glided toward the chiefscientist already examining the oldest girl, a tall pale child withlong blond hair. The plaque on the bed read Tierney. Kavak noddedtoward the girl. “This one looks much older than the others. Willthat be a problem?”
“On the contrary, Exalted Leader. She isexceptionally strong, healthy and willful for a human." Thescientist beamed, no doubt flattered by the special attention fromhis leader. “She will serve us well.”
Kavak only hoped the scientist could deliver.“Are they strong enough to survive the procedure?”
“Difficult to determine at this point,Exalted Leader." The scientist made a disgusted face. “Humans aresuch weaklings." He smiled as if to reassure Kavak. “But I will domy very best to implant the new hardware and reprogram their DNA assmoothly as possible.”
“I am counting on you. The future of ourpeople is at stake." Kavak dared to hope. It would take twentyEarth years for this project to mature, but for Kavak and her race,time passed differently. They didn’t age and enjoyed healthy livesthat lasted many centuries. The human girls, however, did not, sothey had to hurry.
Kavak’s first Commander, who had collectedmost of the girls for the experiment, entered the room. Kavakwilled the tray holding the two extra martinis to levitate towardthe Commander, who smiled at the rare gesture and took one glass.Kavak directed the tray toward the surprised scientist, whoaccepted the drink with excessive gratitude. Kavak didn’t trustscientists, never had. Then the tray levitated back inside thecabinet.
“You did well, Commander." Kavak turned tothe scientist. “Make sure your work goes without incident." Sheraised her glass in the human traditional toast, inviting them todo the same, and declared solemnly, “To the end of humanity.”
“To the end of humanity!” the other twohailed with enthusiasm.
* * *
Zack opened his eyes, prompted by the loudpurr of Dude, who kneaded his chest and licked his face with ascratchy tongue. Green, round eyes blinked at him, and Dude meowedsoftly.
Zack tried to get up from Ashley's pink,shaggy carpet and regretted his sudden move. His head pounded likean anvil under a sledge hammer. He shivered despite the morning suncoming in through the open window and the slight motion made hiswhole body ache. When he glanced at the empty bed with the Barbiedoll askew on the blanket, the horror of the night rushed back tohim. Ashley!
Zack struggled to his feet and inspected thegaping window. The glass was gone! How could this happen? Why hadthe freaking alien taken Ashley?
Stumbling to the bathroom, Zack splashedwater on his face and grimaced in the mirror. His aqua-blue eyeslooked almost gray today. Not a good sign. He finger-raked hisrebellious chestnut hair away from his high forehead, then snatcheda pair of jeans from the floor. He shook as he slipped them on, andthen staggered into the hallway. He had to hold on to the railingto make it down the stairs.
He resisted the temptation to call forAshley. No one would answer, Ashley was gone... What should he do?His stepfather would kill him when he learned Ashley had beenkidnapped while he babysat.
Zack crossed the living-room gingerly, pickedup the phone and dialed nine-one-one. Not that the police couldhelp much, but he had to do something, notify the authorities. Asthe phone rang on the other end, he wondered what he would tellthem. That an alien creature had abducted his sister in the middleof the night? Who’d believe it?
“Nine-one-one operator, what is theemergency?”
Zack took a deep breath. “My baby sister ismissing.”
“How old is she?" The friendly female voicesounded genuinely concerned.
“She’s seven, her name is Ashley.”
“Taken from her bed at night?”
“Yeah, how’d you know?”
“Another missing girl!” he overheard theoperator calling to someone else at the dispatch center. “What’syour address, sir?”
“What do you mean? There are others?" Zack’sknees weakened and he dropped to the couch. This was huge. He feltit.
“It’s all over the news, sir. Several girlswere reported missing from their bed this morning. The reports keepcoming.”
Cradling the phone with his shoulder, Zacksnatched the remote and turned on CNN.
On the screen, a female reporter in araincoat stood before a two-story gabled house with harvestedfields in the background. “We are speaking with Rich Porter, fatherof a missing two-year-old, here at the family farm." The reportersounded almost casual. “Tell us how you first discovered your childhad been kidnapped?”
“My wife heard some noise in the middle ofthe night and went up to check on Maya..." The young man triedvaliantly to control his facial muscles, but his voice broke. “Thebed was empty, the window wide open. Anybody could have come in. Assoon as my wife told me, I ran outside. I didn’t see anybody, butthere was some kind of humming, like a gigantic bumblebee. Then Isaw a one of those things, like a flying saucer. It took off thatway." He pointed toward the sky then his face contorted. He buriedhis head in his hands and sobbed.
The world was going mad. Alien abductions onCNN? Had other people witnessed the monster? It seemed unreal.
The camera focused on the reporter’s face.The woman looked embarrassed at the unexpected live testimony.“This man is obviously distraught and there is nothing to confirmhis allegations and no reason to believe them. The flying machinewas probably a helicopter if anything. The department of HomelandSecurity has not raised the alert level. However, nine children,all girls, have been kidnapped in the same strange circumstances, aseemingly synchronized operation spanning five states. Theauthorities are expecting more victims.”
Zack remained in shock. Nine girls? WithAshley that was ten, and they expected more?
“...the FBI is leading an investigation andconsiders claims of alien intervention preposterous. They are notruling out, however, the possibility of a sinister act ofterrorism.”
Terrorists? What Zack had seen was noterrorist. It was a freaking monstrosity from another world whocalmly snatched Ashley from her bed. Anger welled in Zack’s chest.He wished he’d had a gun. He would have shot the bastard instead ofthe other way around.
But the awful thought of his baby sisteramong such monsters angered him the most. What would they do toher? Dissect her alive, like a frog in a science lab? He didn’twant to think about that. What could these aliens possibly wantwith human children?
Zack remembered holding Ashley’s hand on herfirst steps, helping her open her Christmas presents, teaching herto read. They’d played Pokemon videogames on his X-box. He’s sungBritney Spears songs, just to please her, and she’d crack him upevery time she tried to rap with him to Eminem. One night, Ashleycaught him in his room, making out with a girl while their parentsworked on another one of their news assignments, but she neverratted. A true sister.
Zack dreaded telling his parents, but he hadto reach them somehow. Slowly, he picked up the phone again anddialed the Hollywood studio. The production assistant answered. AsZack feared, his mom and stepfather couldn’t be reached at themoment.
“Tell them it’s an emergency,” Zack said withall the authority he could muster. “They have to take the firstplane home, come back immediately.”
“I’ll have them contact you,” was all theassistant said.
On the screen, no more reports of aliensightings, but the frightening count kept increasing. By now elevenlittle girls had disappeared from their bed in the middle of thenight in the continental US, and Ashley was one of them.
When the doorbell rang, Zack saw no LAPD cop,but four men in black suits, white shirts and sunglasses. Theyflashed FBI badges and three of them rudely pushed their way insidethe house, taking pictures.
The fourth agent, who seemed to be in charge,introduced himself as Tolek Michalski. He invited Zack to take aseat on the living room couch. He set a small recorder on thecoffee table, opened his jacket and eased himself into an armchair.“For the record, state your name, age, occupation.”
“My name is Zack Duncan. I’m eighteen,working on a Masters at Berkeley and baby-sitting for my parentsduring summer break.”
The agent frowned. “A Masters at yourage?”
Zack half-smiled at the man’s surprise. Hewas used to such reaction. “Investigative journalism. Love thestuff.”
The agent shook his head. “Where are yourparents?”
“On a news assignment in Guatemala.”
“Reporters? Have they been told?”
“Not yet.”
“Tell me what you know.”
Zack steeled himself for the emotionalassault of the difficult memories, but he wasn’t going to wimp out.“Some alien creature took her. I saw it all happen,” he declaredboldly, then described the scene to the best of hisrecollection.
Listening, the agent seemed absorbed in thetask of cleaning his sunglasses with a white handkerchief. “Was theperpetrator male or female?”
“I couldn’t tell for sure. It was freakingtall with a shimmering cape and floating in a beam of light.”
The agent didn’t flinch. “Could you describehim or her?”
Zack tried to remember all the details.“Tall, no hair, pale, almost translucent skin, some kind ofelectronics showing through the skull with blinking lights inside.One hand had only four fingers. Very long fingers...”
“Any weapon?”
“Some kind of zapper. He did zap me, and Ipassed out. Boy, it hurt.”
“Can you describe that zapper?”
“About the size of a cell phone. It shot likea strike of lightning, but no thunder, just a sizzle... Felt likean electric shock. Took me out cold. I woke up this morning on thefloor with a mega-headache.”
“Anything more?”
“Yes." Zack realized he’d registered manydetails in his mind. “Some kind of vibration throughout the house,and the power was out in the whole neighborhood.”
“What else?”
“That’s all I can remember.”
Michalski turned off the recorder and slippedit into the pocket of his black jacket. “You are very shaken by theevent. Obviously what you think you saw never happened." He flasheda fake smile. “You watch too much television. You need some restand maybe some medications for your overactive mind.”
Zack couldn’t stand the attitude. Why didn’tthey believe him? “I don’t need drugs, and I didn’t make it up. Itwas real.”
The man in black offered a condescendingsmile. “It’s amazing what the mind can cook up to avoid facing afrightening truth." The FBI agent motioned to one of his men torecall the others then faced Zack. “We believe it is a covertterrorist attack. Be assured that we are doing everything in ourpower to bring those responsible to justice." He stood up thenasked, “Do you have a picture of your sister? Somethingrecent.”
Zack went to the shelf and pulled out photoalbums. He had to brace himself against the smiling face of hisbaby sister. He selected a photograph taken on her last birthdayjust a few weeks ago and handed it to the FBI agent. “How are yougoing to rescue Ashley?" Zack doubted they could do anything at allbut had to ask. “What can you possibly do if you don’t even believeme when I tell the truth?”
Agent Michalski pocketed the picture thenclosed his jacket slowly, as if giving himself time to think. “Atthis point, we are still investigating. We’ll let you know." Hesignaled the other agents, now standing around the living room, tofollow him out.
Furious at being dismissed, Zack yelled attheir retreating backs. “I know what I saw!”
Agent Michalski turned about, his face hard,eyes glinting like steel. “You didn’t see anything, young man." Hisvoice carried an unveiled threat. “You understand me?" He slippedon his shades but Zack could still feel his stare. “And not a wordof your absurd story to the press, not even to your parents,understood?”
The truth suddenly flashed in Zack’s mind.The FBI believed him all right. They knew he’d told the truth. Theyhad taken his testimony and would study it, but publicly they woulddeny everything, like in those conspiracy theories he’d come acrosson the Web.
Zack realized he’d better not argue, or harmmight come to him and to what was left of his family. The FBI hadthe power to silence anyone, if it threatened a governmentcover-up. Uttering a deep sigh, Zack let his shoulders drop. “Yeah,whatever.”
As soon as the FBI left, Zack ran up to hisroom and rebooted his computer. Fortunately, before falling asleep,he’d saved the documents written for his Masters in InvestigativeJournalism at Berkeley. Nothing damaged.
First, Zack retrieved his email. The webbuzzed with testimonies of UFO sightings. His friends at The DailyCalifornian, the students’ newspaper for which Zack providedarticles, sent him links on the topic. Dedicated Yahoo groupsstarted on the subject, and Zack joined them all, adding his ownstatement to the slew of reports. Maybe the Web would provide theright tool to start looking for answers.
Perched above the monitor on a bookshelf,Dude encouraged him with loud purring and swept the screen with hisbushy tail for good measure.
Zack scratched the cat’s big black head.“Thanks for your support, Dude. At least I know you believe me. Youwere there.”
Time to revamp the website Zack had sorelyneglected in the past months. He pulled out a portrait of hissister from her seventh birthday album and gazed at it. Wiping hiseyes, he reluctantly set the photograph on the scanner. Then heposted the picture on his homepage with the legend:
Have you seen me? My name is Ashley. I wasabducted from my LA home by an alien creature on the night of Julyfourth, 2003. If you have any information at all that could helpfind me, contact my brother Zack.
No FBI clown in a black suit would preventZack from getting to the bottom of this mystery. Zack owed it toAshley to help her, and he would stop at nothing. “Ashley, if youcan hear me, girl, tell me where you are,” he prayed, while hisfeverish fingers flew over the keyboard.
Zack had not finished uttering the words whena clear image formed in his mind.
The place looked strange as he stared at apurple domed ceiling with designs that looked vaguely familiar,like stylized figures he’d seen on Native American jewelry or maybeon some pottery at the mall. He had the sensation of lying on aflat surface that felt like warm skin.
When the vision dissolved, Zack realized he’djust communicated with Ashley. He’d been in her body for a briefinstant. Had he really seen the place where the monster kept her?Was she lying on that skin-like surface? Ashley must have read histhoughts as she often did. Still reeling from the psychicexperience, Zack realized Ashley was letting him know she wasalive. She’d called him for help.
“Thanks, little sister,” he whispered. “Don’tworry, I’ll help you." He grabbed the cat and swung him up into theair. “Dude! She’s alive!"
Now he must find out where the monster hadtaken her. Full of hope, Zack ran down the stairs, snatched hismother’s car keys from the dish on the table by the sofa and ranfor the door. Zack’s first stop would be the Native American shopat the mall. He could probably find out what this stylized figureplaying a flute represented.
Chapter Two
West Point Military Academy 2004
Tia easily climbed the seven-foot wall andpaused at the top to observe her target through the night goggles.The downpour obscured everything, but the poor visibility alsoworked to her advantage. She dropped on the other side, landing inthe mud with a soft thud and readjusted the net on her camouflagehelmet.
Lightning illuminated the isolated cabin onthe hillock. It stood in a clearing and didn’t seem heavilyguarded. According to Tia’s calculations, the prisoner she neededto liberate would be inside. Ignoring the cold rain and the fatigueof a twelve-klick trek through the rocky forest, she flattenedherself in the muck and reapplied mud to her face. At night, evenher tan skin would reflect light.
She crawled between rocks and bushes,pretending a barbwire net was stretched overhead, like in ITTtraining. In this weather, even a sharpshooter with a telescopecouldn’t see her in camouflage gear. She moved smoothly despite thehelmet and the armored vest. Tia valued protection, exercise ornot, and victory demanded she stay alive.
Unwilling to slow down for anyone, Tia hadleft the other cadets far behind. Always ahead of her class, shehad to be first. Never mind the fact that she was a woman or thatshe’d added ten pounds to her pack as a personal challenge. Sheintended to win this law of the land warfare exercise. The enemybrigade didn’t stand a chance.
Lightning flared and Tia counted the secondsuntil thunder. The storm was getting closer. With all the metal onher body, she hoped it wouldn’t strike overhead.
Tia stopped crawling to survey the only treein the clearing, a tall pine with enough low branches to climb. Asshe suspected, it concealed a guard, but he hadn’t seen her. Verystill, she aimed her C-7 rifle and waited for the next lightningbolt. After waiting three more seconds, she fired. The crack ofthunder covered the shot and the sentinel fell. Gotcha! Even rubberbullets at fifty feet could leave mean bruises and that fall had tohurt. This cadet would hide better next time.
Slithering toward the tree, Tia glanced atthe fallen cadet. He looked miserable, but seemed all right.“Sorry, amigo. Nothing personal,” she whispered. Reaching for thelowest branch, she climbed up the wide trunk and found a hiddenperch. From there, she observed the cabin through her nightbinoculars. The wide open space around it looked like it had beencleared. Her instincts made her think of a mine field. It madesense. She would have done the same if working for the otherteam.
She sighted another sentinel posted on theroof. She aimed and waited for lightning, then fired with thethunder. Perfect shot. Two down. She wondered how many guarded thecabin.
She looked for more sentinels but saw none.She should probably wait for the rest of her team before launchingan assault, but in these perfect conditions, Tia decided stealthwould serve the mission better. The enemy wouldn’t see hercoming.
Climbing down the blind side of the tree, shedropped to the ground. Mine detector in one hand and rifle in theother, she crawled through the cold sludge, advancing toward thedark cabin. Was it equipped with night cameras? The rainintensified. Given this deluge, it didn’t matter much. Even a keenobserver would miss her progress.
Something flickered at the edge of her fieldof vision to the right. With natural ease and speed, Tia aimed,waited for the lightning, counted, then shot again. The soldierfell. She wondered how many cadets waited for her inside, or hadthey posted experienced soldiers? Tia didn’t mind a challenge. Sheneeded to make her training as rigorous as possible.
When the mine detector vibrated, she stopped,glanced at the instrument, then moved to the left around the bleep.The fake mines wouldn’t explode, just trigger an alarm. Still, toTia, it was more than simple training.
In order to survive the challenges to come,she had to be better than the very best. She needed to trainherself to survive at all cost, in any conditions. Tia intended tovolunteer for the middle-east as soon as she graduated from WestPoint, and she wanted to be ready to kick terrorist ass.
She unhooked a tear gas bomb from her belt,pulled out the safety and calculated the distance, so the canisterwould break the window and not bounce off. She aimed and threw.Perfect pitch. She followed with three more gas bombs.
Soldiers rushed out of the cabin, coughing,blind, and disoriented. Tia shot them one by one, then stood andnegotiated her path between the mines toward her target. It was allover.
* * *
After a sleepless night, an 0500 barrackinspection, an 0600 call and a morning run, Tia faced her superiorofficer.
The man’s face remained unreadable. “The COwants to see you in his office, Cadet, on the double.”
“Yes, Major." Tia saluted and smiled. Did theCO want to compliment her on last night’s exercise? She’d rescuedher prisoner and brought him out by the scruff of the neck,completing the mission single-handedly against all odds. The othercadets arrived on the scene too late. But, of course, when it cameto physical endurance or even intellectual challenges, Tia alwayswon.
The major frowned. “The General didn’t soundvery happy.”
Damn! The old grump was never happy, nomatter how well she performed. Tia saluted, then crossed thecourtyard and hurried on the road along the Hudson toward HQ. Sheclosed her gray-blue coat against the cold. Yesterday’s rain hadturned to wet snow. The old man could be unpredictable, andalthough he was a friend of her father’s, Tia didn’t pretend tounderstand him at all.
In the midst of such natural beauty, with theriver to the left and the forested hills to the right, some cadetsfound it difficult to concentrate on their studies. Not Tia. Sheexcelled at everything, except maybe relationships. Why didn’t menflock to her Latina charm? She sighed. The male cadets found herunapproachable. What a bunch of wimps.
Despite her undeniable skills andintelligence, the complicated nuances of human relationshipsescaped Tia’s grasp. Her prowess made the men in her lifeuncomfortable, her father and uncles, not to mention romanticinterests. It would take a very secure man to date an Amazon likeher.
When she reached the HQ building, Tia stompedher feet on the mat and shook the snow off her coat beforeentering. The General liked his cadets impeccable at all times. Shesmoothed her long black hair under her cap and checked herreflection in the door’s window pane. Despite her lack of sleep andthe thick uniform, she looked as good as Jennifer Lopez.
At the end of the hallway, Tia removed hercoat, straightened her white shirt and black trousers and salutedthe General’s assistant. The officer took Tia’s name and went toannounce her. She came back a few seconds later. “He’s expectingyou, Cadet.”
Upon entering the General’s office, Tiasaluted. “Cadet Vargas reporting, sir.”
“Ah, Cadet Vargas." The General, tall, thinand wiry in his pressed blue uniform, pronounced her last name likea gringo despite the fact that he knew better. “As you were.”
Tia relaxed her stance and tucked her handsbehind her back. Did the General resent her Latino heritage?Although born in the United States, Tia had spent her childhood inVenezuela and felt proud of her ancestry. Her other country had along tradition of warrior women, Guerrillas and revolutionaries,who had contributed to the liberation of the people, from Bolivarto President Chavez.
The General cleared his throat and rubbed theback of his shaven scalp, as if embarrassed by her direct stare.Tia had that effect on people sometimes. Intimidating even to aGeneral… No wonder she couldn’t make friends. But she had to hideher softer side. A soldier could only be strong.
The old man opened a drawer and took out amanila envelope. From it he pulled out a set of eight by ten glossyprints and spread them out on his desk facing Tia. “Take a look andtell me what the hell I’m looking at.”
Tia approached the desk and recognizedherself. On the snapshots she wore a red beret and scarf, and thebanner behind her read, Chavez won’t go! How did the old man gethis hands on those?
The General drummed his fingers on the desk.“Cadet? I’m waiting for an explanation.”
Straightening her back, Tia looked himstraight in the eyes. “This was a protest last summer in front ofthe Venezuelan Embassy in Washington, DC, sir.”
“And what are you doing among thedemonstrators?”
“Permission to speak freely, sir.”
The General waved his assent. “Go ahead,Cadet. Something tells me you will anyway.”
“It was for a good cause, sir. There-election of President Chavez, sir.”
“Are you aware that the US Governmentdisapproves of President Chavez?" The General cleared his throat.“Some say that the CIA may have orchestrated the missed coupagainst him.”
“That’s only a rumor, sir."
“Still, how could you, a cadet of West Point,participate in a public demonstration to support that roguepresident?”
“President Chavez was legitimately elected bythe people, sir. He is good for Venezuela, sir. He stands for thelittle people and gives them hope, sir.”
“I don’t give a fuck what President Chavezdid for the little people of Venezuela. You are an Americansoldier, Cadet. Do you remember the oath you made on the paradegrounds on your first day here?
“Yes, sir." Shocked, Tia repeated the part ofthe oath he referred to. “I will maintain the sovereignty of theUnited States, paramount to any and all allegiance, sovereignty, orfealty I may owe to any state or country whatsoever.”
The General’s eyes narrowed. “And you daredishonor this prestigious institution by demonstrating support forits enemies?”
The old man still didn’t get it. “With alldue respect, sir, President Chavez is not our enemy, sir. And asfar as I can tell, democracy is the highest American ideal,sir.”
“Stop being a smart ass, Vargas." The Generalshook his head. “You are too bright for your own good. What am Igoing to do with you?”
Was he really asking her? “Assign me tospecial forces in the Middle East, sir.”
“I know what you want, Cadet, but you bettercontrol that eagerness of yours. Getting you killed will not bringback your brother.”
The thought of her brother Felipe, fallen toAl-Qaeda in the Nine-Eleven Trade Center attack, constricted herthroat, but Tia swallowed her grief and bit her lips.
“Your father would never forgive me if I sentyou to the battlefield, Cadet. He already lost a son...”
Battling tears, Tia wouldn’t accept hisargument. ”I still wish to apply after I graduate, sir.”
“Do not make me pull strings, Cadet. I canrecommend you for an elite unit. Someone of your exceptionalabilities is certainly a first choice for a new and very specialbranch."
“What branch of the military is that,sir?”
“It’s top secret." The General paused andwent to the window, gazing outside. “I’m not at liberty to tell youanything, except that you will have the state of the art weaponryand experimental technology at your disposal to fight against theworst of evil.”
The worst of all evil had to be terroristscum. Tia couldn’t refuse such an opportunity to get back at them.“Tell me more, sir.”
“It will require a lengthy specializedtraining, but you are only twenty years old, Cadet. First Airborne,then Army Rangers in Fort Clayton in Panama, followed by SpecialForces at Fort Bragg, and Delta Force exercises.”
Even if it required more training, Tia wantedto become the absolute soldier, invincible, with the best weaponsand tactical knowledge. “I accept your recommendation, sir."
“Duly noted, Cadet." The General nodded.“Dismissed.”
Tia saluted, and as she left the General’soffice, she smiled. After she completed that special training, shewould make Al-Qaeda pay dearly for her brother’s death.
Chapter Three
Anaz-voohri Fleet - Pleiades System
In her shimmering gown, Kavak reclined in herchair beneath the large dome of her private quarters. She couldn’tstand permanent watch on the science vessel. Unknown to the medicalstaff, however, she kept a constant scrutiny on the operating roomfrom her personal view screen.
On the viewer, the surgeons in white robesand clear face masks measured and marked the head of one of thegirls in preparation for surgery. The children, asleep orunconscious, lay on operating tables, arranged like the spokes of awheel, feet toward the center, heads on the periphery, completelyshaved. Kavak could hear the medics’ quiet conversations, theelectronic chimes of the monitors and the whiz of the lasercutter.
The DNA modifications and brain inserts onthe abducted girls were taking much longer than Kavak anticipated.The special abilities they needed to perform their future tasksrequired surgical implantation of miniaturized electronic devices.The medical staff kept complaining about the humans’ lack ofresiliency. If they botched this batch, it would take time to findmore subjects of this caliber. Besides, after the uproar ofhumanity following the abductions, it might become difficult torepeat an operation of this magnitude unimpeded.
On the screen, the surgeons delicately cutand removed the top part of the cranial bone, unveiling the girl’sbrain. What a primitive brain, what fragile biologicalcircuitry!
Kavak felt righteous spying on the medicalstaff. She’d never trusted scientists. She gazed at her hands, oneof them lacking a thumb, a common defect among her people. Repeatedcloning had weakened the Anaz-voohri gene pool, hence the frequentdeformities. Kavak suspected the scientists often used that excuseto cover up for their mistakes and inadequacies.
Sipping a martini, Kavak turned away from thescreen and swiveled her chair to gaze through the clear bulkhead atthe multitude of ships constituting the Anaz-voohri fleet. When atrest in safe space, the three thousand vessels linked together toform a three-dimensional city. A shame that there were so fewinhabitants. The Anaz-voohri had dwindled in numbers and dropped toa critical level, less than fifteen thousand, barely enough tooperate the fleet, let alone build a new empire.
Not only had reproduction almost ceased dueto cloning defects, but many warriors had died in the battles towin their freedom from their galactic masters. Now a free nation,the itinerant Anaz-voohri needed a base of operation to replenishtheir numbers and establish their own culture. Kavak had promisedthem the planet of their ancestors, and she would keep herword.
Kokopelli decorations adorned the domedceiling, painted in soft purple and turquoise on the sand-coloredmetal skin of the ship. The frescoes evoked the legends of theancient Anasazi. Who would be simple-minded enough to believe suchstories and worship a hunched flute player as a fertility god?
The Anasazi ancestors might have beenuneducated and gullible, but Kavak and her people had superiorintelligence. The Anaz-voohri would make their own destiny throughconquest. Kavak would take over Earth, not to fulfill the religiousprophecy, although it helped gather the support of the religiouscast, but because it offered the best logical habitat for theAnaz-voohri to thrive.
Kavak’s mind wandered to the glorious battlesyet to come, when the Anaz-voohri would conquer the universe afterreplenishing their numbers. The surgeons’ conversation, however,intruded upon her reverie.
“Be careful with that nerve or the timetrigger will shift,” said one.
“You are going too fast,” said another withalarm. “Watch out, we’re going to lose her!”
Kavak sat up in her chair at that lastcomment and stared at the view screen. The girl’s open brain pulsedwildly under the touch of minute instruments. The monitors next tothe operating table flashed warning lights in a cacophony of beepsand muted sirens and chimes. Bunch of incompetent idiots!
“The heart stopped,” a surgeon exclaimed asthe beeps flat-lined.
What had they done now? Pandemonium spreadamong the medical staff. The aids ran to and fro with supplies, oneknocked down a pan of surgical tools. A surgeon stuck a long needleinto the little girl’s heart in an attempt to restart it. But thegirl’s body remained lifeless on the table.
The procedure failed? Kavak let out a cry offrustration. Scientists could be so unreliable.
The chief surgeon turned off the dead girl’smonitoring device, silencing the flat-line beep. “This subject wastoo weak." He moved the surgical cart toward the next shaved headaround the circle of spokes. “Let’s start on this one.”
An assistant pulled the edge of thesand-colored sheet over the dead girl’s face. “I’ll call theshaman.”
The shaman? Kavak wouldn’t tolerate religiousmumbo-jumbo and certainly didn’t want it interfering with her mostimportant project.
With a hiss of irritation, she set hermartini on the floating tray and rose from the chair, then hoveredout of her private quarters through the iris door that opened ather approach and closed after she had gone through. As she hurriedalong corridors with Anasazi markings on the bulkhead, Kavakwondered why she had to intervene, again. Couldn’t anyone doanything right without her supervision?
An attendant coming toward Kavak in theconnecting passageway saluted as he walked by. Although allAnaz-voohri could hover and ascend on their own power, only thestrongest could manage it for long periods of time. Hovering asoften as possible asserted Kavak’s authority. She didn’t return thesalute and hurried past the attendant without a glance. She hadn’tgained her command post through polite behavior but throughruthless aggression. Showing any kind of empathy would translate asweakness in the minds of her subordinates.
When she reached the vertical shaft, Kavakhovered inside then ascended to the level of the hatchcommunicating with the science vessel. Ducking into the hatch andthrough the passage between ships, Kavak hastened toward thesurgical unit. The panels of the iris door opened as she neared it.She entered the sterile room, taking in the sight. The table onwhich the dead girl lay had been moved to the side.
An attendant hastened to give Kavak a clearmask and a white sterile robe, but she waved him away. “I’ll keepmy distance from the operating tables.”
Unaware of the recent incident, the othergirls slept. Their shaved heads bore precise markings inpreparation for the delicate surgeries. Kavak could almost relateto them as worthy beings without all that ugly hair on their heads,but she knew better. Humans were a plague.
The surgeons on the outside of the circlefocused on the shaved head of the next girl. They dialed delicatesettings on the laser cutter, matching it to the markings on theskull.
Noticing Kavak, the chief surgeon looked upfrom the sensitive dials. “Continue the fine tuning,” he orderedhis aides, then came to meet her, shoulders drooping as if inapology.
Kavak found his lack of backbone irritating.“Why did she die?” she asked bruskly.
“They are too weak, Exalted Leader. We mustslow the process or they may all die and we’ll need newsubjects.”
“Unacceptable. We have to do it with whatwe’ve got, and we have a specific time frame. Any delay in any partof the project could have disastrous repercussions." Kavak hated tomake concessions, but she had little choice in this case. “Slowonly as much as absolutely necessary for their survival. Thisproject already has a twenty year timeline for them, due tospace-time shifts, and synchronized timing is critical to oursuccess.”
At the sound of the concentric panels of theiris door, Kavak glanced over her shoulder to see the shaman enter,carrying his flute. The elaborate headdress of synthetic red andyellow feathers fluttered as he bowed to Kavak.
“The planet of our ancestors awaits,” theshaman uttered, in the greeting of the religious cast, then kissedthe amulet pouch hanging from his neck. He hovered respectfully afew inches below Kavak’s level and glided to the table where thedead girl’s body lay under the sheet. Playing a mournful melody onthe flute, the shaman lowered his feet to the floor and starteddancing around the table.
The sound of the instrument frayed Kavak’snervous circuits. “Cease this instant!”
The shaman stopped his dance and took theflute out of his mouth, gazing at Kavak, a confused expression onhis face. “But, Exalter Leader, the girl’s spirit was scared whenshe died. She needs the sacred music to help her ascend.”
Out of patience, Kavak glided toward theshaman, her head looming menacingly a few inches over his. “Humansare substandard. They do not ascend! Why can’t you and youracolytes admit to the simple truth?" Kavak also suspected that noone ever ascended spiritually, even the best behaved Anaz-voohri.These religious lies only weakened her people.
The shaman swallowed audibly and his eyesrounded with outrage. “Are you implying that our Anasazi ancestorsdid not ascend because they were human? This is blasphemy, ExaltedLeader! Beware, the gods will not grant you victory in battle ifyou ignore their teachings.”
“Watch your tongue, shaman! Such languagecould cost your life.”
The shaman rose to hover at Kavak’s level andstared into her eyes, an open challenge and an insult. His glarehardened, and he spoke stiff-jawed. “The ancestors can see yourblack heart, Exalted Leader. You are a traitor to your own race. Wewere human once, these people are our people.”
“Nonsense!" Kavak couldn’t tolerate such anaffront, even from a religious leader, especially in front of themedical staff. The shaman had gone too far.
Crossing his fingers in a curse, the shamanrose even higher than Kavak. “May the gods curse your militarycampaign and ridicule your reputation!" He uncrossed his fingersand gloated.
The phase weapon hidden under the flap ofKavak’s gown flew to her hand. Without hesitation, she fired.
Under the lethal beam, the shaman writhed anddropped to the floor in a crumpled heap. A surprised expressionfroze his face, even in death.
A collective gasp told Kavak the medicalstaff had witnessed the confrontation. Good. She returned theweapon to its hidden pocket. “May his stupid sacrifice serve as anexample to you all. No one questions my authority with impunity,not even a shaman. Now get back to work. We don’t have the luxuryof time.”
The soft sound of a mournful flute filteredinto the surgical dome and grew in intensity. Furious, Kavak turnedtoward the shaman. How could he still be alive? But the sight shebeheld sent static up her brain circuits. It couldn’t be!
Although the shaman’s body lay crumpled onthe floor, his likeness rose and hovered, playing the infernalflute as if to goad Kavak. The shaman’s ethereal body approachedthe table of the dead girl. As he touched the sheet, the child’sform floated out of her body, complete with hair and earthlyclothes.
Kavak looked for any sign of trickery but sawnone. Could this really happen? Was she hallucinating? No. Themedical staff, too, stared at the two apparitions in awe.
The little girl smiled at the shaman. As heoffered his hand, the child took it. The sound of the flute stillpermeated the air although the shaman’s spirit didn’t play anymore.Slowly, the two figures ascended to the top of the dome thendisappeared through the ceiling.
The sound of the flute stopped, leaving anuneasy silence in the surgical dome.
“Cool!" said an enthusiastic voice, that of ahuman child.
Kavak turned about to face the source of thesound and saw one of the girls, Ashley, sitting up on her operatingtable. Fully conscious, she showed no fear, only wonderment at whatshe’d just witnessed.
“Why isn’t this child sedated?" Kavak seethedwith barely restrained rage.
“She received the same dosage as the others,”the chief surgeon protested. “She must be more resilient.”
“I hope that’s good news. Take care ofit.”
An attendant touched a few petroglyphs on theconsole at the head of the girl’s bed. Ashley’s eyes closed as sherelaxed back onto the table.
Kavak turned to the chief surgeon. “Make surethis doesn’t happen again. We don’t want them to have any memoriesof their sojourn here.”
“Of course, Exalted Leader. There will benone.”
“One more thing." Kavak paused and thesurgeons and attendants stopped to stare at her. “Not a word ofwhat happened here must get out of this room, understood?”
As the medical staff remained silent, Kavakglared at them one by one in a threatening manner. To leave nodoubt as to what would happen if anyone blabbered, she added,“Whoever says one word about this won’t live long enough to regretit.”
“You can count on our silence, ExaltedLeader,” the chief surgeon sniveled.
Kavak certainly hoped so and left thesurgical dome without a backward glance. She dreaded theimplications of this incident. If this were known, the concept ofhumans having souls could have momentous repercussions on how theAnaz-voohri people viewed her strategy. The leaders of thereligious cast would use it as a pretext to reinforce theirposition and maybe even attempt a coup against Kavak. In thesetroubled days, Kavak couldn’t afford a mutiny.
On the way back to her quarters, she tried tocomprehend the deeper ramifications of what she had witnessed, butshe didn’t have the luxury of pondering spiritual values. Kavak hada job to do, and whether or not humans had a soul, whether anyonehad a soul at all, didn’t matter in the end. For the survival ofher race, Earth had to be purged. That’s all she needed toknow.
Chapter Four
Berkeley Campus – spring 2005
Trying to empty his mind of the never-endingsearch for his sister, Zack straightened his Karate uniform as heentered the Berkeley Martial Arts Dojo. In the vast empty room,amber rays of sunset blazed on the light parquet through thecathedral windows. Several rows of chairs lined the central square.Zack had come early on purpose, to find peace and quiet before thebig event. Tonight, in front of an audience, he would take hisblack belt test.
His bare feet made no sound to break theserenity of the place. He bowed to the front wall where heavybranches of silk cherry blossoms framed a vertical banner. In fluidcalligraphy, the Japanese ideogram on the fabric spelled Kokoro,which meant heart, but also courage.
Too anxious to sit and meditate as hesometimes did before class, Zack struck the first pose of the firstkata and focused on the ritual movements meant to imitate asuccession of attacks and counterattacks. He controlled hisbreathing, aiming for perfect form, infusing strength into his armsand legs, maintaining balance, in absolute control of his mind andbody. Only the sound of his breath and the purchase of his toes onthe hard floor intruded on the silence.
As he checked his posture in the wallmirrors, Zack hardly recognized his reflection. Who was thiswarrior he had become? Fierce, determined, dangerous. Something inhis aqua-blue eyes had taken a hard edge. In almost two years, Zackhad gone from a normal teenager to an investigator, driven to solvethe mystery of his sister’s abduction. In the process, he’d lostmuch of his former innocence and realized that despite his manysupporters on the web, he was alone in his fight, like a warrior ofold, facing new challenges each day. Zack knew he could rely on noone but himself.
Martial arts didn’t belong in his curriculum,but his sister’s abduction had changed Zack’s outlook on life. Herealized how ethereal freedom, life, even health could be. Hedidn’t take anything for granted anymore. Zack had sworn he’d fightto keep and protect what he held dear. And for that he must becomestronger mentally, physically and psychically. Somehow he knew theday would come when he would face the monster who took away hisbaby sister. When that time came, he wanted to be ready.
The familiar tug of his sister’s call in hismind broke his concentration. Zack stopped in mid movement.“Ashley?”
I’m scared, Zack. They know I’ve been talkingto you since I’ve been here. They want to fix me. Please, Zack,come get me! I want to go home.
The tenuous connection severed before hecould respond. Zack’s heart beat wildly. What could he do? Howcould he help? He imagined how the nine year-old would look now andblinked back tears of frustration. He let out a low growl. For thepast two years, he’d communicated at length with Ashley every day.This contact was cut short? Why? She’d never sounded so scared. Thethought that irreversible physical harm could come to her at thehands of these degenerate beings was too much to bear.
Heading back toward the shower rooms asstudents and spectators started to trickle into the dojo, Zackreturned to his locker. Out of his pack he took a black spiralnotebook and a pen, checked the wall clock then dated the entrywith the precise time. His pen shook as he scribbled the shortmessage Ashley had given him, as accurately as he could rememberit. Although he doubted this one would help find her, it was themost desperate. Besides, if the aliens knew of their extendedregular mind contacts, this might very well be the last.
Zack was writing a book about the abduction.All the details he’d learned from his daily psychic contacts withAshley mattered. Over the years, he’d spent many hours linked tohis sister’s mind, observing, studying the Anaz-voohri. He knewmuch about her captors, probably too much. If they suspected howmuch he knew, would they come after him, too? Zack secretly hopedthey would show up soon. They were his only link to Ashley.
Zack’s best friend, Lobo, rushed into thelocker room, out of breath, his long black hair falling like acurtain on each side of his coppery face. “Dude, the websitecrashed again!" Lobo dropped his pack on the wooden bench andbraced his foot to remove his Nikes.
“You sure?" Zack couldn’t believe it wouldhappen again so soon. “It’s nine times in six months!”
“I know. But this time, it’s really cool."Stripped to his boxers, Lobo waved his fingers in a descendingmovement, like a hula girl imitating the rain. “Green and blackrain runs all over the screen, like it’s dissolving the data. It’sawesome!"
”Crap." Zack refrained from using the F-word.Not because of the dojo rule. He didn’t believe in rules anymore.But he’d learned in Martial Arts that using vile languagedemonstrated lack of self-control. “The Feds again?”
“Looks like it." Lobo pulled his whiteuniform out of his locker and slipped on the pants. “We have allthe firewalls money can't even buy, and this kind of virus is notyour garden variety. It’s not just a prank, it’s amazing." Lobograbbed his white jacket. “Has to be the Feds.”
“Good thing we back up all our files." Zackremembered the first time it happened. It had taken two weeks torepair the damage.
“No shit." Lobo tied the brown belt aroundhis slim hips. “Just when we almost reached a million hits, too.The counter will go back to zero again. Bummer." He gathered hisslick hair into a pony tail with a rubber band and winked. “Goodluck on your black belt test, dude. First time I see someone try itafter only two years. The master sure likes you a lot."
“It’s just that I train hard." Zack thoughtof skipping the test to go repair his website. What did he careabout a black belt?
But this represented the perfect opportunityfor Zack to test himself under pressure. Could he control hisnerves and empty his mind to perform flawlessly, knowing his sisterwas in distress, the website crashed, and the Feds were after himagain?
“I’ll rush home right after the test, care tojoin me?" Zack chuckled. “We could be up all night debugging thisthing, eating Chinese takeout.”
“Sweet." Lobo smiled then sighed. “We reallysound like geeks.”
“Dude, we are geeks, the masters of virusattack recovery." Zack laughed nervously. “We don’t havegirlfriends, and we have a website about alien abductions. Howgeeky is that?" Zack regretted the no girlfriend part, but althoughhe had opportunities, his all consuming mission didn’t allow forleisure time.
“What about your anthropology paper?"Planting his legs apart, Lobo crossed his arms on his chest like achief of his tribe passing judgment. “Isn’t it due tomorrow?”
Zack thought about that. “First things first.Not everything is about nice initials after your name.”
Lobo shrugged. “You’re such an amazingstudent the teacher might give you the grade anyway." Throwing hisarms up in the air, he turned away. “Whatever, dude, it’s yourlife.”
Zack forced a smile. “Right." There didn’tseem to be a career out there for him, except finding his sister.He slapped Lobo’s back. “Let’s go kick some butt."
The two friends entered the dojo and mixedwith the other students in the center of the room. The chairs hadfilled up and it became difficult to ignore the audience. Themaster’s assistant walked to the front and began to conductstretching exercises while the dojo master conferred with two othereminent Japanese teachers invited to judge the test. After the warmup, the old masters took their seats in the first row alongside thedelineated area.
The rest of the session passed in a blur.While waiting his turn, Zack emptied his mind of any thought. Whenthe time came, he focused on the movements, the target, the actionrather than the man.
As if he watched his own performance fromoutside his body, Zack marveled at the strength manifested evenbefore the plank snapped around his extended foot, before thebricks crumbled under the blade of his hand. Each time, theappropriate yell liberated his energy at the crucial moment,directing his will against the target. Amazing what the power ofthe mind could do on solid matter, how will and intention couldintensify the force of a blow.
At the end of the session, the judgesdeliberated, then the old teacher called the names of the threestudents who passed the test out of five. Zack was among them. He’dsucceeded at his own test of concentration. The rank meant nothingto him, but it mattered to his teacher. When the old master calledZack’s name to receive his black belt and certificate, Zack saw thepride in the old man’s eyes. So, out of respect and gratitude forthe knowledge imparted, Zack accepted his reward graciously.
After the showers, most of the studentsplanned to celebrate at their favorite pizza place. Zack slipped onhis jeans and alien-head sweat-shirt in a hurry, then pulled on hishelmet as he rushed outside. In the parking lot, he secured his gymbag on the back of the Kawasaki. Lobo hurried after him, stillbraiding his wet hair, and mounted the motorcycle behind Zack, whorevved the engine. Night had fallen and the cool air smelled ofspring rain. They stopped at Wei Pei for takeout on the way toZack’s home.
As Zack leaned into the bend, the motorcyclebeam swept over a black van parked across from his house. The goldlogo of a flower shop decorating the sides didn’t look familiar.Zack sighed. “It’s the Feds all right,” he yelled in Lobo’s ear.“They probably bugged the house again.”
Lobo’s helmet shook as he laughed. “Poorbastards could be up all night. I feel sorry for their wives.”
“At least they have wives,” Zack railed.
“Dude, if they stole the bogus files from thecomputer in your room, they are in for a surprise.”
“That’ll keep them busy for at least a week."Since the last time the Feds had stolen his files, Zack hadbooby-trapped his old computer, which had become a bed of viralinfection. The real files remained safe with him at all times, onCDs and the laptop he carried in his back pack.
“About time we give them something to worryabout." Lobo chuckled. “Might be fun to get these guys scared for achange." He seemed to think of all this as fun.
Avoiding a glance toward the black van, Zackpulled into the driveway, next to his mom’s car. No need to leavespace for his stepfather, who’d taken yet another assignmentoverseas. It happened a lot lately, and Zack couldn’t blame him.The atmosphere in the house had become rather depressing since hismom had stopped working and vegetated on the couch like a recluse,finding refuge in her bottle of Blue Heaven, the new liquor thecolor of sapphire that matched her eyes.
After his sister’s disappearance, his parentshad sold the house in Granada Hills. Too many memories of Ashley.They’d bought another home close to Berkeley campus, so Zack couldstay at home while going to school. It made his mom feel lessalone. A lot of good that did.
Zack and Lobo entered through the frontdoor.
Sitting alone on the fancy sofa, Zack’smother glanced up from the television. “Hi, Lobo. Hi, Hon. How didyour test go?" Her speech sounded slurred, and Zack noticed theglass of blue liqueur on the coffee table. His mother had lost herprofessional polish. She looked old and tired and frail in thesemi-darkness. But he understood her pain and couldn’t blameher.
Zack held up his black belt and diploma forher to see. “Got it, Mom.”
“I’m glad." Her smile waned and she turnedher attention back to CNN.
Zack knew she still hoped the CIA would findAshley among the terrorists, somewhere in Iraq or Afghanistan, soshe kept up with all the developments in the middle-east. Zack feltbad about it. He’d broached and lost the argument so many times, hedidn’t even try anymore.
Zipping through the kitchen, Zack snatchedtwo cans of soda from the fridge then bounded up the stairs withLobo. Once in his room, he locked the door and dropped all thestuff on the desk. He glanced through the window and considered theblack van with foreboding. Would the Feds really hurt his family ifhe went too far? They would go ballistic when he released his book.They were in it, with all the dirty little tricks they’d pulled onhim for the past two years. He closed the navy blue roll up blindbefore turning on the light.
His space had a very different feel from hisold room in Granada Hills. No posters of Angelina Jolie here. Onewall featured detailed renditions of the alien Zack had seen thatnight, along with other alien portraits from his mind contacts withAshley. Maps of the stars covered the ceiling. Another wallfeatured artist sketches of what Ashley would look like now, withlong hair, short hair, no hair at all. Anasazi drawings andpictographs Zack had gleaned from his psychic travels on the alienship dotted the other walls. Among them, many representations ofKokopelli, the legendary flute player.
Zack had met Lobo while researchingKokopelli. Although his friend was Apache, he had connections withmany tribes. So Zack had learned from an old Hopi artist fromArizona that Kokopelli was actually a well-endowed fertility god,and what he played wasn’t a flute at all. That’s why he alwayslooked bent, not because of the sac of grain on his back. They’dhad a good laugh that day.
Lobo, who knew the debugging routine by now,already checked the room with his latest spy gadget. The twofriends didn’t exchange one word while combing the room. Dude, theblack cat, opened a tired eye from his nap on Zack’s pillow. Hepurred loudly when rewarded with a scratch behind the ears.
Lobo’s detector chimed and he flashed Zack amischievous smile. Delicately, Lobo pulled the miniature microphonefrom behind the desk, laid a finger across his lips, brought themike to his mouth then screamed, “Banzai!”
Zack chuckled. “This is lame, dude. Growup.”
Lobo ground the device under his shoe on thehard floor then set the detector on the desk. “I’m starved." Hepopped the tag off a soda can, opened a fried rice container andgrabbed a pair of chopsticks.
“There could be more bugs." Zack seized thedetector and continued scanning the room.
“Don’t think so,” Lobo managed on amouthful.
Finding no other microphone, Zack finallyrelaxed and sat down on the bed. He accepted the other carton fromLobo and ate, sharing bits of fried rice, eggs and shrimp with Dudethe cat, who always perked up at the smell of food.
After setting aside the container, Zackpulled his laptop out of his backpack, opened it on the bed, thenwent online through the remote router to check the server. All thefiles on the website looked like a jumble of broken codes. “What amess!"
“Told you." Lobo finished his container. Hepointed at Zack’s unfinished carton with his chopsticks. “Youeating that?”
Zack shook his head. “You can have it." Oneby one, he deleted the files.
Lobo smiled in gratitude. “How far are youwith your book?”
The deletion was taking time. Zack glancedover the laptop screen. “If Ashley can’t communicate with meanymore, I guess it’s time to finish the book and get it outthere.”
“On the web?" Lobo licked his chopsticks.
“Where else? We are getting so many hits onthe site, we can sell a million of this thing in no time as long asit’s cheap enough.”
Taking a gulp of soda, Lobo set the canloudly on the desk and burped. “You talking download?”
“Sure, like a buck a piece. Then when we haveenough money, we can get the darn thing printed ourselves." Even toZack it sounded too easy.
”Put that way, it sounds doable." Lobo aimedand pitched the empty container into the waste basket.
“I even know a few radio and TV guys eagerfor a controversial story. My stepfather will hate me for this, butI plan to talk to his friends from the studio. Several of themproduce talk shows.”
“Sweet." Lobo paused, his dark gaze searchingZack’s eyes. “So, what’s the catch?”
Zack clucked his tongue. “The Feds aren’tgoing to like it. It could become dangerous for anyone associatedwith me.”
“I don’t care about that." Lobo’s even faceturned serious. “The Feds have persecuted my people for over twocenturies.”
Zack hadn’t thought of that angle. All thefiles were now deleted. “There, all gone." Zack cleared the siteand closed it. “Time for plan B." Zack dialed a fresh server’saddress. He’d learned to have several in reserve. He started theset up process and entered his trademark domain name, He’d discovered through his psychic contacts withAshley that was the name of her abductors’ race. “Are the bozos inthe black van still here?”
Lobo went to the window and lifted the sideof the shade. “Nope. They scrammed.”
“Good, that means there was no otherbug.”
It took the best of two hours to finish thejob, during which Lobo made useful suggestions, but mainly he keptZack awake and entertained. Moral support, as he called it, andZack appreciated that. Then Zack loaded all the pages and graphicfiles from a backup CD and started testing the site.
Lobo followed him every step of the loadingprocess. “Seems to be working.”
“Looks fine to me. Check it out." Zack turnedthe laptop, dialed the website, then he clicked all the links. Allthe pages appeared as they should—his blog, his drawings, theportraits of Ashley, and some of the information he’d gleanedthrough his communications with his sister.
The thought of Ashley squeezed Zack’s heart,but although she probably wouldn’t communicate anymore, he believedher to be safe. If the Anaz-voohri had wanted her dead, they’d havekilled her long ago.
Lobo stretched on the rug and yawned. “Got ablanket?”
Zack threw him a pillow and a comforter, thenslipped between the covers, exhausted. He’d probably flunkanthropology by not turning in his paper tomorrow. So be it. Hissister came first.

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