Drinking a glass of Cabernet faster than I would like, I nod politely as my date rambles on about dividends and IPOs. The online profile made Thad look like a nice guy—young and charming. His close-cropped, bleached blond hair and wind-burned face lift in a smile that would be handsome if he hadn’t just paired it with an account of his latest hostile takeover. There’s an edge in his eyes that makes my skin crawl. Cocky as an aging rock star, but boring as a tax audit, he’s oblivious to how badly I want this date to end.
Maybe I could stomach his personality a little better if he hadn’t used a college photo when he’s easily in his forties. I’m only twenty-eight, and while I don’t mind an older man, I can’t stand the blatant lie.
“Anyway, Jillian,” he says, cutting into his extra rare steak. “What is it you do again?”
“I’m an analyst at the International Space Governance Agency,” I say, amazed he’s actually asked. “I assess potential dangers and liaise with—”
“So you’re looking for aliens and shit?” Thad asks, cutting me off.
I roll my eyes—at this point, it’s a reflex whenever I hear the a-word.
“My job has nothing to do with aliens,” I sigh.
“What about asteroids?”
Oh, good. The other a-word.
“If there’s an asteroid coming, it’ll be my job to let everyone know how fucked we are.”
Thad laughs, mid-chew. “Oh, man. That’s freaking great.”
I’d actually be happy to discuss my work—like my recent project assessing solar flares and their effects on weak power grids in the developing world—but I can just picture his eyes glazing over. Or maybe he’d stare down my dress a little more. I wore my favorite one: a burgundy sleeveless V-neck that still fits since I bought it in college.
He didn’t even fully tighten his New England Patriots necktie.
Looking down at my Caesar salad, tuning out Thad bragging about meeting some astronaut in Houston, I’m not paying attention when a group of men approaches our table.
“Jillian Wexler?” says one, a man in a sharp blue suit. Surrounding him are six soldiers in full combat fatigues, armed to the teeth. For a second, I’m not sure what I’m seeing is real.
“Ms. Wexler? My name is Corporal Dutton Bradley. I need you to come with me immediately.”
“Is this some kind of joke? What’s going on?” I ask, getting up.
Bradley scans the restaurant, aware he’s causing a scene. Both the staff and the patrons have stopped to watch. “It’s classified. We need to go now.”
Classified? That doesn’t make any sense. I’m not involved in anything secretive. “Why me?”
“I really can’t say any more here,” Bradley replies, gesturing at the crowd. “I have orders. If you don’t come willingly, we will escort you.”
“Hey, what the fuck is this?” Thad says, getting up too. “Are we on one of those prank shows?” he asks, pawing at Bradley’s uniform.
In response, two soldiers rush into motion, flanking Thad and training their rifles on him at point-blank range. Staring into the barrels, he backs away, raising his hands. “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” he mumbles. The tan of his khakis darkens, starting at his crotch and then moving down his leg. I’d laugh if I wasn’t also on the verge of freaking out.
“Alright,” I say, grabbing my purse. “I’m coming.”
Bradley takes the lead in guiding us all outside, with his soldiers surrounding me on all sides. When we exit, I see that the commotion isn’t limited to just inside: several police cars, lights on and flashing, and a limousine have formed a motorcade outside on the street. I follow Bradley into the limo, and as soon as we’re inside the car pulls away, screaming through downtown toward the freeway.
Bradley gets out his cell and dials a number. “We have her,” he says. “We’re on the move. Be there in a few hours.”
“Where are we going?” I ask him, noting the way his sapphire eyes look reflecting the police lights: blue, black, blue, black. Though he’s by no means ugly, he has a plain, round face, with short, dark hair that’s starting to show signs of gray. He’d have a good look for a spy: forgettable, easy to blend in.
“I can’t divulge anything else at this point,” he says.
“Why?” When Bradley ignores me, I keep pressing. “Something’s going on, isn’t it? Something big. Why else would you grab me out in public like that?”
“There’s a developing situation,” Bradley admits. “You will be told everything you need to know, as soon as you need to know it.”
“This is about that supposed satellite demolition that was in the news a few days ago,” I say, realizing with grim certainty that I’m right. “You know, the one my agency was given no forewarning about and was barred from investigating?”
“No,” he replies, but there’s a crack in his poker face and I know I’ve got him.
I pull out my phone to check my mail and the news to see if anything has been reported, but the second I do, Bradley swipes the phone from my hand.
“Sorry,” he says, pocketing the device. “Contacting anyone at this point is forbidden.”
I want to argue that for all they know, I might have a roommate who will get pretty upset that I went on a date with a creep from the Internet, and now I’m not answering my phone, but I don’t bother. If they know who I am, they probably know that I live alone. They know my parents passed on a few years back; from my absence on social media, they might be aware that I don’t have much of a life outside of work. So, no one is going to report me missing until Monday, and Bradley’s people probably know it.
We’re only on the road a few minutes before our convoy takes the turnoff for the airport; from the road, I see several more flashing lights of official vehicles. I’m not surprised when we head straight for them, eventually reaching a small helipad where a chopper waits, surrounded by soldiers.
“Whoa, hold on,” I say, as Bradley forces me out of the limo and points toward the tarmac. “I am not flying anywhere until I know what the hell is going on. You can’t just detain someone without—”
Two of the soldiers grab my arms, interrupting me; a third locks a set of handcuffs around one wrist, yanks my arms behind my back, and secures the other cuff.
“Hey, what the fuck!”
Bradley reaches into his suit jacket and pulls out a black cloth. He feels around it, finding a large opening.
“No no no, you can’t—” is all I have a chance to say before he pulls the hood over my head and tightens it around my neck. I can’t see anything through the opaque material, but I can feel two pairs of strong hands take hold of my arms. Together, they force me to march toward the helicopter; I can hear its engine starting to power up.
Since I can’t see, but I can hear, Bradley instructs me on where to go; not wanting to fall and get hurt, I reluctantly obey until I’m sitting inside the chopper. I feel a seat belt harness against my body, and then a headset being positioned on my ears to muffle the noise of the vehicle.
Holy shit, this is so messed up!
I clasp my fingers together to keep my hands from shaking, and I lean back in my seat, focusing on my breathing. Have I ever been so scared in my whole life? Probably not. Still, I refuse to let it show, waiting patiently for the helicopter to take off.
In my head, I run through the plausible scenarios for what could be going on. Maybe the satellite demolition was legitimate, but it’s led to an expanding debris field that could affect the world on a global scale? Or maybe they’ve detected signs of a highly damaging solar flare about to occur? Could there be some kind of emergency situation onboard the International Space Station? Even if any of those situations were correct, I fail to understand the need for such secrecy.
When at last we take off, Bradley’s voice finally crackles through my headset. “Ms. Wexler, I’m sorry we were forced to apprehend you in such a manner. Please believe me that my superiors have requested your presence. My orders were clear.”
“I believe you. Just tell me, where are we going?”
“A base,” Bradley replies.
No kidding, really? If my sense of direction isn’t mistaken, we’re heading west—but that hardly narrows down the possibilities. “Which one?”
“I’d tell you, Ms. Wexler, but trust me when I say you haven’t heard of it.”
This is ridiculous.
“Are you sure you have the right Jillian Wexler? There isn’t some spy who has the same name, is there?”
He chuckles. “No, ma’am. Not that I’m aware.”
“So what do you want with me?”
I wish he’d take off the hood so I can see. The thrum of the chopper is comforting, in a strange way, but I’d love to be able to look out the window.
“I can tell you this: you will be responsible for keeping your agency up to date on a developing situation. I know that’s vague. It’s all I can say. Now, please, we will be airborne in a few hours. I recommend getting some rest.”
Though I have my doubts that I’ll be able to sleep with my hands cuffed and a hood over my face, I’m quickly proven wrong: my adrenaline rush is wearing off, and the movement of the chopper makes me drowsy. Before long, I nod off.
A sharp descent rouses me from my light sleep; I turn back and forth in the darkness, momentarily forgetting where I am. The whole situation could have been a bizarre dream, but as I fight against the cuffs still around my wrists, reality hits me hard.
This is all real.
“Hey, are we almost there or what?”
“We are,” Bradley replies.
After a second I feel my headset pulled off, and the full noise of the helicopter hurts my ears. Fortunately, he removes the hood too, allowing me to see. I wait as he replaces the headset, then thank him.
“Sit back and relax,” he says. “We’ll be landing shortly. Then you’ll be briefed by—”
Our helicopter turns sharply, cutting off whatever Bradley means to say next. I nearly fall out of my seat, but manage to grab a seam in the cushion with my fingers.
“Pilot, what was that?” Bradley shouts, bracing himself in the corner of the cabin.
“There’s something there!” the pilot replies, ending the craft’s bank and hovering in place. He turns the chopper around to face where we were headed.
“Good God,” says Bradley.
It’s too dark to see clearly, but there’s definitely an obstruction of some kind in our way. When I look down, I see it’s directly overhead a base of some kind—I can make out a handful of buildings and a line of lights for a landing strip. Whatever this thing is, it’s enormous: as wide as a city block and several stories tall.
It’s not from Earth. It can’t be.
I can’t believe it. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
As the three of us watch, it slowly descends, eclipsing our view of all but the ground.
“Sir, look!” the pilot calls out, pointing to a line of jets waiting outside the base’s main hangar. Some invisible force passes across the ground, plowing into the planes and knocking them into one another. Pilots jump from the cockpits and run, getting away seconds before the force smashes into their jet, turning the planes to scrap.
“Sir, we’re under attack!” says the pilot. “I have a missile lock on the unknown ship. Permission to engage?”
Wait, what? If that truly is an alien ship, then—
“Stop!” I shout. “First contact! There’s protocol! You don’t know what will—”
“This isn’t first contact,” says Bradley. “Permission granted. Fire at will.”
As I watch, a pair of missiles shoots from our chopper, streaking toward the giant ship. However, they’re barely in the air for a second before their rockets stop firing and the missiles simply fall from the sky.
“Weapons… failure,” the pilot reports. “Firing secondary—”
The air inside the helicopter shimmers, and then an image resolves in front of us. Looking completely real and three-dimensional, as if it was right inside the cockpit, the image turns into a man.
He wears a suit of armor of some kind, but that’s not the first thing I notice, as odd as it is: his skin is purple. Maybe it’s just the light in the helicopter or a trick of the eyes, but his skin looks truly purple.
“This is Commander Vol of the Dominars’ Forward Delegation. Cease fire immediately and land your craft.”
“Sir?” asks the pilot. “What should I do?”
Bradley’s face contorts with fear, and my gut churns.
“This is your last warning,” the hologram says.
“Sir! Your order?”
“Follow protocol!” I shout. “Don’t engage!”
I can hear my heart beat as a second passes, and Bradley stares at the hologram, seemingly frozen in place.
He has no idea what to do, I realize, though it seems fair, considering the situation.
“No,” Bradley says. “Fire again!”
I’m about to protest when all the power in the helicopter goes out: the lights, the engines—everything.
And then we fall.
My squad follows my lead, moving in tight formation. Weapons pointed outward, ready for any conceivable threat, we jog through the clearing toward the downed helicopter. In my mind, there’s no question the passengers survived; my ship, Redeemer, used a power field to slow the disabled craft’s descent, cushioning it just before it could hit the ground. The occupants should be shaken, but unharmed.
Weapons on stun, I command my men. The message travels directly from my mind to theirs through our interconnected nanites. I could speak out loud, but there’s no need—and if by some unlikely chance the humans are planning an ambush, they won’t have heard me.
However, as we approach the downed chopper, it doesn’t look as though anyone has come or gone; the doors to the vehicle are shut, and no tracks have been left leading out of it.
They’re still inside. Let’s have a look.
I focus on the door with my personal power field; feeling its hinges weakening, I exert force until the metal fatigues and the door rips away. When we see no one stirring inside the craft, we approach with some caution.
On board the chopper are three humans. As I peer inside, two males are awake and pointing their guns at me. “Hello,” I say. “We mean you no harm, but please relinquish your weapons.”
One of the men, wearing what I think is an officer’s uniform, peers over at his colleague, whose weapon shakes in his hands. He’s dressed in what appears to be a flight suit, and I assume he’s the pilot. He returns the look from his officer, and then the two open fire.
Muzzles flash and the sound deafens; sixteen bullets hammer against the barrier fields projected by our armor. The fact is, humans do not pose a threat to me or my people. We’re so much more advanced than them, they’re practically primitive. Their weaponry may be deadly to one another, but not us—especially not to warriors like me and my squad. Again using my power field, I snatch the guns from their hands and crush the weapons into unrecognizable pieces.
The humans stare, their jaws hanging in disbelief. I’ve conquered enough worlds to recognize the look: my men and I are more than seven feet tall, and our skin colors span the entire visible spectrum.
On some planets, the inhabitants sink to their knees, mistaking us for gods. From their perspective, the difference is minor. These humans have the sense enough to raise their hands in surrender.
Take the males into custody, I command my squad. I believe there’s another human on board.
When I communicated to the helicopter before through a hologram, I saw into the craft as plainly as if I’d truly been there. I saw a female, one who warned the others not to fire, and spoke of protocol. She was also very beautiful, with a lovely, slim figure flattered by a tight dress. Her long brunette locks looked mussed for some reason, and she held her arms behind her back. Had she been in some kind of distress prior to opening communication with them? I’ll have to ask.
I search the helicopter, and sure enough, the female is still on board, but unconscious.
I touch my hand to her forehead and instruct my nanites to pass through my skin and into hers—a number of the microscopic machines comply, passing through her cells and into her brain, where they can begin replicating themselves to spread throughout her body. Once enough have taken residence, they perform an anatomical scan: she’s concussed, but alive. I instruct them to begin repairing the damage immediately. It shouldn’t take more than a few seconds for the machines to do their work.
Watching the woman carefully, I find myself smiling; her face is so pretty, I can’t help it.
Then she wakes, shouting and shaking in fear.
“Hey, hey,” I say. “You’re okay. Just relax.” My scan confirms the injury to her brain has been completely repaired.
“Did we… crash?” she asks in a groggy, throaty voice that’s so sexy, I want to rip her dress right off.
“Sort of. But don’t worry, it’s okay now.”
She takes a deep breath and looks at me more closely with her bright, blue eyes. “You have purple skin,” she says.
I laugh. Fixing the concussion is one thing; she’s still in shock.
“That’s right, I do,” I say. “Don’t be afraid, okay? I’m not here to hurt you.” Getting up, I help the woman to her feet and remove the metal cuffs binding her. “What’s your name?”
“Jillian,” she replies, rubbing her wrists, which are no doubt sore. The nanites will fix that soon. “Thank you,” she adds.
“Of course. I’m Commander Vol.”
She nods, blinking repeatedly. “Vol. Purple… skin…”
Reaching out, I grab hold of the woman before she falls. Grinning, I lift her in my arms—she’s not the first being to faint after meeting an alien for the first time.
Leaving the downed helicopter, I start to walk to my ship, which has landed on the tarmac that was once occupied by the humans’ warplanes. Destroying them without killing any of the pilots took some careful targeting, but my crew has lots of practice. Fortunately, it makes the rest of the mission fairly easy, as the humans present flee or surrender.
Not all, however: dozens of the humans at this base—which our intelligence on Earth indicates is a secret installation—are now my captives. And, of course, Jillian.
Few Dominar commanders would bother joining in on missions such as these, but I enjoy the task; it earns me respect from my crew and my direct involvement ensures my exact parameters are always carried out—in particular, the absolute necessity of avoiding fatalities. I’m not foolish enough to expect the humans to like being conquered, but hopefully they will accept it, in time. If they look back at the invasion and struggle to find examples of humans being killed in the process, I will consider the mission a success.
The humans we’re detaining watch me with stoic faces; they’re clearly brave men and women, though they are afraid. It’s only natural. I don’t smile at them as I walk past with Jillian cradled in my arms, but I do wear a face of calm and authority.
“Commander Vol!” comes a voice at the end of the docking bay. I turn to see Agent Briette, one of the Dominars initially responsible for this invasion. She’s striding toward me, grinning.
“I take it you found Agent Kest?” I ask, interpreting her expression. Finding him was a secondary objective of our invasion, but for her personally it was the top priority.
“Yes, Commander. Alive and well, with his human.”
“Good. I’ll want to see them later.” I look down at Jillian. “For now, this human should be taken to the infirmary to rest. I gave her nanites; they need a little more time to fully propagate.”
Briette nods. “Of course. I’ve already summoned a medical team. In the meantime, the base is secure. We’ve detained sixty-two humans. Many Dominars were attacked by the humans, but their shields were fully effective against human weaponry, as expected. No lives were lost on either side.”
So far, so good.
“Thank you, Agent Briette. Well done.”
“Thank you, sir.”
The medical team arrives and I set Jillian down on a floating platform; I watch as they take her away, sorry to have to send her off. I’ll check in on her as soon as I’m able, I promise myself.
I smile and nod to Briette. “Go see to your friend. I’m going to address the detainees.”
She thanks me, then turns to go. I take a deep breath and make for the detention center on the lower level of Redeemer. It’s not a large space, and the dozens of captives are fairly cramped in the facility, which consists of one general holding area and a series of singular cells intended for particularly dangerous individuals. There are no bars, but energy fields keep the prisoners locked in. It’ll do for now, but they’ll either have to be transferred to a bigger ship or be released. Fortunately, more of my fleet is already in route to Earth.
Whispered conversations taper off as the humans notice that I’ve arrived. I can feel their gazes, and on their faces I see their conflicting emotions. Fear saturates the room—it’s more than a smell; it’s practically an energy of its own, dark and cancerous. It’ll cause lasting psychological damage to these people if they are not somehow put at ease.
Not wishing to speak to the humans from a distance, I stride into the detention area, passing through the center’s energy fields, which shimmer in my wake. Unconcerned about being surrounded by the humans, I rake my eyes across the room, making sure I have their attention.
“My name is Vol, and as you can plainly see, my people and I are not from Earth. In time, you will learn all about us, the Dominars. For now, I understand you are scared. Let me set your mind at ease: we do not intend to kill any of you. In a short matter of time, you will be returned home. While you are here, we only ask that you remain calm and not act out violently. You will be fed. You will not be experimented upon. You have my word on this.”
“Your word?” one human cuts in. “And who are you?”
I recognize this person: he’s the one from the helicopter who authorized an attack on my ship. I already told him exactly who I am. Maybe this time his memory won’t be so short.
“I am commander of the Dominars’ Forward Delegation. I specialize in conquering planets, and doing so without unnecessary harm to its indigenous people.”
“Bullshit. I’m Corporal Dutton Bradley, and you nearly killed me and two others when you shot down my helicopter.”
Unbelievable. I could argue with this man, tell him that I did not ‘shoot’ down anything, and if I’d done so, there’d be nothing left of him but ash drifting on the breeze. I’d like to tell him this, but it won’t help with allaying the humans’ fears.
“Everyone with you is alive and well,” I assure him. “Isn’t that your pilot, standing next to you?” I ask, pointing to the man.
Bradley sneers, but nods. “Where’s the woman who was with us? Where’s Jillian Wexler?”
So that’s her name. Jillian Wexler.
“She is in our infirmary, recovering from a fainting spell. She will be fine.” I swallow my indignation at the fact that she’d not have been in any danger if Bradley hadn’t fired on us. “Now, you tell me: who is she? She wore civilian clothing; is she with your military?”
“Don’t tell the aliens anything,” Bradley calls out, turning around to face his people.
Enough’s enough. I grab Bradley and clap my hand against his forehead to transfer over some nanites. In an instant, I can peer into his thoughts.
Jillian Wexler… analyst… International Space Governance Agency. Recruited for expertise… space threat assessment… and foreign relations. Responsibilities to include… coordination and liaising… with world governments… throughout invasion.
I release Bradley, who shakes his head and stumbles backward, dizzy. “What did you just do to me?” he asks.
“Relax, Corporal,” I reply, rubbing my chin and thinking about the human female. “I just needed a little information on Ms. Wexler. Thank you for bringing her here. She will help smooth relations between the Dominars and the humans during this time of transition.”
I turn to leave, passing back through the energy field as I go. Bradley attempts to follow, but the field brightens, warning him back. He pokes a finger at the barrier, earning himself a mild shock.
“I demand you return Ms. Wexler to us immediately,” he seethes, flexing his numbed finger.
I haven’t met many humans yet, but I hope they’re not all as annoying as this man. I’d laugh at him, but I don’t want to appear petty.
“You brought her here to work as a liaison, and that is what she will do,” I say, glaring at Bradley in warning. “Don’t worry. She will be perfectly safe working for me.”