The girl flipped the picture over, and Mitch recognized it immediately. It was he and Kali after one of his games. He was in full gear, drenched with sweat, and a little bloody with eye black streaking down his cheeks. Kali was clean, shining, and as beautiful as ever. It was the special picture that he jokingly signed and gave to her after the big win. Multiple levels of concern jolted his lower gut and his brow creased with immediate concern. "What did you do to Kali?" His voice had gained animosity at the fear of her being hurt. "I swear on my life, if you lay a freaking finger on her I'll kill you right here." The girl drew her hand back and looked at him sternly again.
"Mitch," she halfway pleaded, worried he might not recognize her at all. "It's me, Ham."
No. How did she know that was Kali's nickname? How could a complete stranger know that? Mitch was in disbelief, so much so that he had begun to think he was in a dream. Most dreams were like that too, right? You find yourself out of context in a completely random place and then have odd conversations with people that you may or may not know. But there are always little details that you would know, that the complete strangers would never have heard of. Yes, Mitch was convinced he was in a dream. But, if he was, how could he have recognized he was in a dream so easily?
"I told you I'd see you soon, Mitch." She snapped him out of his debate between discerning dreams from reality. "I sent you that text just before we left. I said, 'See you soon'. I hoped you would remember when we got here, but you're not letting yourself tie the knot. Breadcrumbs buddy. Breadcrumbs."
That was exactly what she sent him.
"I didn't fall asleep, I was abducted. And drugged."
"Quit making it sound like you've been harassed, you're a luxury! We are only going to help you."
"Then get a head start and explain to me what the hell is happening. Or let me go."
"But you don't even know what's in store for you. I don't want you to make a mistake while you're fuming like this."
"I can stay angry for a while, trust me."
"I know you're tough. But where are you going to go? Twenty feet to the left? Maybe huff and puff it to the other wall?"
"So I don’t have much of a choice?"
"How about we look at this situation a different way. Firstly, try and consider the wild notion that you aren't in harm's way. Some things are just supposed to be done in secret. Sometimes they operate like this on Earth too, you know like your CIA and FBI? Similar deal."
Mitch caught something, "I don’t like the way you said that."
"Did I stutter?" No. She said Earth in the third person. As if it was a distant place. As if they were away from Earth.
"Where are we?" He drew his own conclusion before she even had to tell him. Everything around him was too flawless and inorganic. The floating chairs were beyond any kind of technology he had ever heard of before. And this girl, this individual he was speaking to, was not human. His eyes were stuck on an imaginary point on the wall and his ears perked to receive the worst news yet.
"Makes you feel small doesn't it?" Mitch withered away in the cushion as his mind’s gears churned and sputtered. Could it be true?
"Nothing here is… Right."
"See, now you’re thinking bigger. Come on, glide with me."
His egg obediently teetered behind her as they floated on through several similarly blank rooms, ultimately ending up in what felt like an elevator. They were sent up at high speeds, and the floors around them blended into a pastel sequence of stony grays and blacks with the rhythmic streaking of tiny blue lights.
"My real name is Kalína, by the way. But you can still call me Ham if you want. Some of the others changed their names because of the culture change, but I decided to keep mine." The way her voice bounced from word to word was achingly similar to Kali's. If this imposter was trying to play as the friend he once knew, she was too close to par. It was a damn good trick.
"You're not her."
"You'll come around to it. I won't stand by and pretend that I don't understand why you're confused. I couldn't even imagine. I just recommend that you be more open minded in the next few minutes than usual."
"You can try and fake it, but you don’t know her like me."
"No one knows her, Mitch. She was a mirage." Mitch bit his lip at the insult and primed his tongue for an acidic comeback. "Oh, so you're going to put up walls about that? You don't know half of the arsenal they sent in for you." The elevator slowed to a stop, but his heart rate was still going up. "Okay I’m sorry, that was harsh. It’s been a long trip for me too. But, let's be real," Kalína reduced her tone to calm him. "You can be mad for a while, because I know that's how you cope with adversity. But imagine the border between where you were and where you are. I'd compare it to putting a caveman on a cruise ship and expecting him to be okay with it. From your perspective, this should be impossible to conceive. But from mine, I need to know if a change of face is going to clog your thinking for a while. Specifically, mine." She intertwined her fingers and looked at Mitch like he was her stubborn little child. He lost the urge to speak until he had logistical answers.
After a drawn out hiatus, Kalína reached over to the wall and slid her finger around a holographic dial. The lights in the elevator went off and they were instantly bathed in darkness. "You're in time out until you cool down." The condescending remark made him even more livid than before, but the pitch black gave her control. He could either sit there forever, or proceed and get home faster.
"I can handle it," he said lowly. The lights immediately returned to full burn and Kalína smiled.
"Stubborn as a Stolruk," the glassy doors opened and she led them through.
They reappeared at the end of a massive corridor. The walls of the hallway were made from a smooth, furnished metal, as was the floor, but the ceiling was made from a continuous pane of glass that let warm sunlight pour through unimpeded. Mitch's skin tingled to life again from its warmth and the change of setting increased his morale.
Thin, white-light strips that were cut into the walls guided them as they drifted along. Every ten feet or so, the strips would jag outwards to connect to other points trickling along the walls like a miniscule highway. It was impossible to tell if they served any real purpose other than making strangers wonder if they served a purpose. At the end of the hallway, the lines came together into an impossibly complex web across the wall of metal. The lines tangled their way to a centerpiece in the wall and bordered three, golden, overlapped crescents that radiated from the mixture of warm, natural light and poignant web light.
“Dead end?" Mitch asked.
“Door!" she bounced. The eggs stopped, but Kalína rotated both of them to face each other. “Again, I'm sorry this is all so rushed. Just try to take in as much as you can before making any decisions. You are about to be offered a huge opportunity, and I recommend you take it."
The steel curtain slid away with uncanny ease, speed and reticence to reveal a stunning chamber. Enormous fountains lining the walls spouted a mercury-like fluid that cascaded down mossy stones and flowed into a brook that trickled beneath the transparent floor. Magnificent flowers bloomed from the many fruitful plants growing all around and added to the sweet aroma. A thick canopy of intertwining treetops served as the roof letting little sunlight trickle through. Petite, balloon shaped bugs floated carelessly around them as they walked towards the far side of the chamber. Mitch was in awe of the grace and peacefulness of the ambiance, and the serenity came like honey to his nerves. It was a direct contrast from the lifeless, white limbo room he woke up in just minutes before. Perhaps it was just the cold and lack of life that made him an angry young man.
Out of blue, a woman dropped from a tree onto the glassy floor in front of the eggs. She was the same race as Kalína, but showed slightly more blemishes of age. She held her hands behind her back and beamed at Mitch. He held her glance for a few moments until she shifted to Kalína. "He's even more beautiful in person," she chirped.
"You should see him when he's not a vegetable," Kalína teased.
"A specimen nonetheless," she switched back to Mitch. "Hello, my name is Drestique. I'm the reason you're here."
Mitch stuck out a pale hand, "Mitch."
"Ah yes, the hand shake." Drestique put her hand in his. Neither contributor made an effort to squeeze so the greeting fell apart quickly. "I've studied your species extensively, Mitch. Fascinating creatures, similar to us! Really! Still infants with your technology, but climbing the ladder like we did nonetheless." Her eyes were alight again like if she was as amazed to be speaking with him. Like he was a living fossil.
"How are you speaking English?" Mitch asked Drestique and then turned to Kalína with the same question in his eyes.
"English! Your native tongue, correct? It was simple once our lingual decipherer determined the basis of the spoken word, then the written language, and so on. It was interesting studying cultural dispersion and identifying the invisible borders you set amongst your own species. Why is that so? I have my own inquiries but have never heard a human's opinion on the matter."
"Why do we have borders? Well, I don’t know. Don’t you have different territories or nations?”
“No. We exist as a single entity.”
“Oh. We have had countries for as long as history has been recorded. That’s how we identify ourselves I guess.”
"But, why do you separate yourselves? You are of the same species! Would it not make more sense to unite and find strength in a global community?"
"I suppose so."
“What differences push you apart?”
“Why are you asking these questions?”
“Pure, reckless curiosity.”
Drestique gave him an eerie smile that supported Mitch’s theory about her being a textbook example of a mad scientist.
“In the past, countries have separated because of religion, I know that. Um, there’s also the idea that some races are superior to others and also for economic reasons, greed, conquest, and so on.”
"Is there more than one human race?" Drestique's tone changed. She was now hinting at a notion instead of inquiring about it.
"Yes," Mitch stopped himself. There have always been different races, but she's asking about the human race. "No. But there are different races of humans is what I meant."
"Is being human not a singular, defining attribute that is equal amongst all humans?" She cracked a smile.
"It is," Mitch almost smiled too. Though kooky, she was insightful, and talking about his own culture on a level he could operate on was better than Kalína abrasive information something down his throat. He liked Drestique more already.
"Food for thought. As far as learning English, we searched for a suitable candidate for my research here and pulled you out of a pool of billions. That was four Earth years ago. Kalína was sent to study you at first and then gain your trust so this process could run smoothly like it is today. When she identified the correct language you spoke, we used the IL technique to expedite her lingual development. She had every word, rule, and tone usage rule that we could find in the English language down in a few days. Then we altered her appearance and… Voila! Kali Strykland," Drestique held her hands out at Kalína as if she were a trophy.
As "interesting" as it was, Mitch felt betrayed. Drestique might have studied human emotion extensively, but she messed up on him.
"How? Kali? Our whole friendship was a façade? A role? A joke that you could tell to your buds after it was all said and done?" Mitch directed all of his venom at Kalína. The imposter. All of his best memories were with her, at least the most recent ones he knew he would never forget. But now it felt like the last four years of his life had been ripped from him and God knows how many more to come will be lost now.
Drestique stepped in, "That's not how it is at all, Mitch. She was assigned to develop a relationship with you and that's what she did. It was not merely for the purpose of manipulation."
"Oh? Then what exactly?" Mitch's voice rose. His blood had been flowing long enough for him to put more emphasis behind his scold. "Just because you call it a relationship does not justify the feelings I've wasted on her."
"You said you could handle it," Kalína said dimly. Mitch turned to back to her. Her eyes were dark and far away with tears threatening to roll. "And I thought you would be more forgiving."
"That's weak. What did you expect?"
"I expected you to listen. I'm not done with you yet."
"Neither am I,” Drestique resumed. “It was her order to follow, and I gave it to her. So direct your spite to me, but I wouldn't suggest you waste your energy on that." She looked at Mitch sternly. "You have been brought here for a reason and I'm not going to let you waste it. For the benefit of the human race and your own future, will you comply?"
Mitch tracked slowly to Drestique's face. He could see genuine concern and empathy. But then again, what is genuine anymore? "I still don’t know where I am or who you are, but seeing as I don't have a choice again, please feel free to continue," he gave her the most cynical response he could muster.
Drestique attempted to mollify her tone, "Humans are indeed on an approach to making technological breakthroughs that will catapult your species into galactic prominence as we did. That is inevitable. I am the GAN's lead xenobiologist. I petitioned for the-"
"The what?" Mitch interrupted.
"What's the GAN?"
"The Galactic Allied Nations. The first Barrine diplomats to establish contact with other intelligent species created the GAN to ensure peace and security between both species and others discovered thereafter. Furthermore, I petitioned for the allowance of the human race to join the GAN. You are so close to reaching prominence and joining on your own, it is tormenting! But I decided to speed up the process because of some turbulence. One of our former allies broke away from the organization and violated the sacred armistice just recently. We are essentially at war with them, which is dangerous as it stands. But we are even more cautious of their aspirations to colonize. They could possibly seek out terrestrial planets to use as strategic bases, and if they found Earth," Drestique let Mitch finish the message by himself.
"We wouldn't stand a chance."
"You wouldn't know what hit you. It would be like a caveman against a… Fighter jet!"
"Yeah, I've already heard the caveman reference. So why am I here?"
"For science's sake! The prospect of losing such a bright and prospering species as a casualty of war is horrifying and must be prevented at all costs. However, it would be highly frowned upon for a civilization such as ours to assist the natural progression of your own species. That decree has been established with the GAN for eons and the head diplomats have already assured me that they will not move on the matter. I did find a loophole though, which states that we can offer assistance if official consent is given to us by a representative of that species. I'm speaking to him now."
"Well I appreciate the selection, but wouldn't a more experienced human make this more official? Like a president or an actual diplomat? I’m not very politically inclined yet."
"That's just the thing, it is because of your age that you have not developed steadfast biases, rituals and beliefs. You showed me exactly what I was looking for with the question about Earth’s territories. Being so young, you have only heard the facts of why things work the way they do. I'm being very general, so stay with me. You told me that Earth had countries and territories with borders put down because of other men's beliefs. You are not yet old enough to experience for yourself the impact of those beliefs. Because of that, I have confidence that your decision will not be seasoned, but raw. It will be a better representation of your species as a whole because you still revert to your instincts, not a detached strain of thinking that will benefit a specific group of humans. Your decisions will justly benefit, or harm, humanity as an entire species."
Mitch cleared his throat apprehensively, "I understand that, but if you want instinctual thinking, why didn't you scoop up someone from a third world country? As far as humans go, I've had a much better education than most of the world. Some people in Africa haven't even had the opportunity to touch a book. I think your selection process is flawed."
"While a lack of bias is required, it is also good that you are informed. You are the perfect balance between the two."
Mitch started to feel the gravity of the situation. "So once again, why, specifically, me?"
"I told you there were millions of candidates. You were a lottery ticket."
"That's fair. So what do you need my consent for?"
"On the off chance that our recent enemies choose earth as a suitable offensive position, we need your allowance to defend you against an invading force and reveal our current technology to the general population if absolutely necessary."
"You're asking for my permission to fight on our side?"
"If need be."
"But you will otherwise remain out of our business if they don't invade?"
Drestique chuckled. "Well I'd say we have done a pretty good job for the past 2,000 years."
What more was there to argue against? Just a simple ‘yes’ and he can go home. "Then by all means, be our vigilantes."
"So that's a yes?"
"Yes ma'am." Mitch made a conscious decision to change his attitude. When someone has you between their gun barrels and under the microscope at the same time, they deserve respect.
"Wonderful!" Drestique raised her hands in mild celebration and reverted to her outlandish scientist demeanor once her business was out of the way.
"So was it really that hard?" Kalína had long since gained her poise. Mitch was still unsure if he could look at her, but he knew he had to man up.
"No, it wasn't. But why did you have to bring me into space to ask me that if you have been with me for the past four years?" The venom was absent, but he still spoke critically.
"Because of our next offer. Just in case you said yes, we figured we could knock our two birds with one stone and see how you fared with our technology." Now Kalína sounded formal, since her business wasn't settled.
"You figured? That’s a big gamble. What if I said no?"
"You would probably be sent back to your room the same way you left it and end up like one of those crack-jobs claiming to the world that you were abducted by malicious beings that extracted something from your brain. But instead, you are going to say yes and my four years have not been in vain."
"Like mine?" Mitch let it sting and then went on, "By what terms do you want me to test your technology, and does that actually include surgical procedures?"
"How is your finger doing?" Drestique asked.
"It's fine, no thanks to that necklace," Mitch said.
"The necklace worked perfectly, and now it's your own unique identification tag. Your DNA will be crystallized forever can never spoil. It's not sharp anymore either, so I recommend you wear it around your neck for future use."
"I'll hold onto it. Don't distract the point though, that’s where I draw the line on cutting skin."
"All surgery has been completed, but we need something more important from you than that," Drestique said.
"The reason I'm here,” began Kalína, “and why I dedicated four years of my own life to befriending you is so you can join my Vanguard squad."
Drestique glowed and said, "This was my idea too!"
"Yes, Drestique created the Vanguard program to test our most cutting edge military technology and how different species cope with the advances. Only three squads are being created with five soldiers each. The other two have already been organized and are ready for training and testing, and ours is just waiting on you."
"Nah, I’m good. Now you need to seek counsel with the Army."
Drestique said, “Like I said earlier, those in leadership positions will utilize the knowledge they acquire to their specific organization’s advantage. We need you to test the weapons yourself because you have no expertise in this kind of field. We simply need cause and effect, Mitch. If Earth is attacked, we need to know if a boost in military power will be possible for your professional forces and possibly the general public.”
The fact that they had prepared for all of his answers bothered him. Perhaps they had actually practiced this procedure for the whole four years. Though it was tough to resist, Mitch had to say no. Everything was simply too far above his head. He couldn’t jeopardize his football scholarship. “Define testing,” he said.
Drestique replied, “shooting the weapons, operating equipment, analyzing the effectiveness of armor, etc. Testing. Everything we need to assess to make sure humans can adapt quickly and efficiently to our technology in a crisis. Truthfully, it will be quick and relatively painless. And you have my word on surgeries being completed.”
“That doesn’t sound too bad, but what is Kalína’s squad for?”
Kalína interjected, "The testing-specific missions we do at the barracks. We do everything in a controlled environment, and sometimes have competitions. But everything is carried out in the form of a mission to make sure the testing is as accurate as possible. It’s taken me four years to discern if you were suitable for this position or not. From what I’ve learned, I know that you’re a heck of an athlete, I know that you’re a strong leader, and I know that I love you. I really want you on my team."
"This a different kind of team than the one that I play games with every Friday night, Kalína. And if you say you love me, than you would very kindly show me the door and let me get back to my real life.”
“Too bad that I do love you, and won’t let you walk away so easily because I don’t want you to miss the opportunity of a thousand lifetimes. No other human in the history of Earth has been offered the chance that you have right now. If you want, you can become the forerunner of your entire species. The most advanced and enlightened human being in the galaxy. Or, you can be so near-sighted and concerned about your own future that you just leave your whole species out to dry. You could be a hero. Just remember that not a single legend has succeeded without sacrificing something. I am here to assure you, as Kalína, Kali, or whoever think I should be, that this small sacrifice is nothing compared to what others have made for you.”
There was a point he hadn’t touched on internally. Other than himself, there were millions of other people that could have been in his position. Someone would have had to stand up, and it just so happened that it was Mitch Kroy being called to carry the burden. Or was it a blessing? He could become the person solely responsible for signing Earth’s contract to salvation. It wasn’t that he deserved the opportunity, but rather that he owed it to those who have served to make his life better; those who gave their lives so that he could offer a small sliver of his to this purpose. Mitch assented, “I guess it’s the least that I can do. But, what kind of time frame are we talking about? I will need to say something to my family.”
“They think you’re on a road trip to Sedona with me and will be camping there for three days. I bet we can think of something during that time period,” said Kalína.
“Okay. I do have one more request, though.”
“What’s that?” Drestique asked.
“My family is… Do you have anything that could help us out financially if I go through with this?”
"We know Mitch, and that can be dealt with when you would like it to be," Drestique dismissed, sensing victory.
"Okay. I’ll do it," he said before anxiety bit his tongue again. Her eyes burned with ambition as she bounced looks back and forth between Kalína and Mitch. She tightened her face into a fanatic smile and approached Mitch with poise again. She truly acted like the creatures she studied.
"Excellent" she attempted another handshake, and Mitch grabbed it to squeeze again. When they made eye contact, she drew her face uncomfortably close to his. "Just excellent," Drestique's hands came together below her chin. She made a certain smile that was unnervingly subtle, and contained a curious hint of accomplishment. Like she received more than a simple yes.
"What now?" he asked tensely.
"Now,” she drew her face away. “Kalína will show you to your quarters so you can get some quality rest. I need you in top condition to get things started on the correct leg! Tomorrow, you will be introduced to your squad and begin the program."
Mitch nodded in acknowledgement. There were no words left for him to give, his mind was already overwhelmed from a cyclone of thoughts and emotions.
"I don't expect you to say thank you right now. But just know that you are in a position literally unlike any other. Be proud of yourself Mitch, you're stronger than you think." Again all he could do is nod. On this ending note she spoke passionately, "now you can find out what you believe in, and never forget whom you're fighting for. Do it for your people."
Drestique curled into jumping position and gracefully bounded up into the tree, leaving nothing behind but a very confused young man and a teardrop.