After weeks out of town on a recon mission in the worst of weathers, Stephanie’s desk at SafeOp Defence Services’ headquarters looked to her like the most comfortingly boring place to be. Reassuring, almost.

What wasn’t reassuring was Victoria Evans, the latest addition to the operation support team, a snoopy little woman who was already walking towards her holding a mug of coffee in each hand. “Hey, welcome back!”

Stephanie was sure she heard at least three exclamation marks. “Hey, Victoria, how’re things?”

“I got you coffee!” Victoria presented her with one of the mugs, her face begging for approval. “White, one sugar, the way you like it.”

Stephanie was a black-no-sugar kind of person through and through. She wasn’t going to tell Victoria that, though. Instead, she took the mug with a smile and placed it on her desk. “That’s very thoughtful,” she said, already planning her quick escape to re-gift the coffee to the Ficus in the lobby.

“Well, you know, first day back and all, I thought you deserved a treat. I bet Scotland wasn’t exactly a joyride,” Victoria resumed, leaning on the desk with both hands, as if trying to push it down through the floor. She was clearly after something.

“You know I can’t talk about it,” replied Stephanie. There were strict rules about clearance levels, and Victoria’s was as high as the basement.

“Oh, don’t you go all corporate on me!” was the reply, accompanied by a wide grin. “I’ve seen the weather was a nightmare, and that’s on the newscast, so hardly classified information!”

Her fake enthusiasm was starting to get on Stephanie’s nerves. She forced herself to smile back. “Yes, we had quite a bit of rain.” No point in disappointing the audience, she thought.

The comment seemed to be enough to make Victoria rather pleased with the interaction. She made to leave and Stephanie was about to turn on her laptop, when Victoria doubled back and leaned over the desk once again. “I almost forgot. The boss wants to see you.”

That was neither specific nor informative. Also, she should have led with that. “The boss?”

“Mr Cook,” she explained with some extra nodding. “The Chief of Operations. You know, our boss.”

As if we were on the same level, thought Stephanie.

Victoria gave one last smile for the crowd, then was gone, out the door and to her desk in the next room.

Stephanie exhaled. Her hand automatically reached for the mug of coffee and took a sip, only to spit it back into the cup right away. “How do people even drink this?” she murmured to herself.

Leaving the pale brew on her desk, she stood up and marched to the Chief’s office.

While field agents and operations staff shared an open floor office space, Edward Cook was the only one blessed with a door all for himself, the words Chief of Operations engraved on a shiny silver plaque, so as to prevent anyone forgetting who was in charge.

Cook wasn’t at the top of the pyramid, yet Director and CEO Robert Millican was too busy playing golf to pay attention to what was happening at SafeOp Defence Services. Because his golf partners were the main source of business for the agency – and because his personality verged on the obnoxious type – it was a widespread feeling that he could be excused.

As for Stephanie, she didn’t care much for Millican but was grateful for the Chief. He had welcomed her into the agency when she was little more than a teenager and mentored her through the years. It was thanks to him that she had become who she was.

After a couple of knocks, the Chief’s voice invited her inside. She took care to close the door behind her.

“Davis, welcome back to base. I trust you’ve settled back in at your station already.”

Stephanie thanked him politely, noticing how she wasn’t being asked to sit. That was unusual, though she couldn’t decide if it was a good or a bad sign. Either way, her interest was tickled.

“It’s good to be back, sir. Evans even made me coffee,” she offered. Victoria might have been new, but her coffee skills were already quite legendary.

The Chief furrowed his brows. “Oh dear, I’m sorry about that. What are you going to do about it?”

“The Ficus in the lobby looks a bit parched, sir,” she replied.

He nodded, almost to himself. “Quite so, quite so.” He stood up from his chair and walked around the desk, only to lean back against it, facing Stephanie. “What news from the Highlands?”

That all depended on what he meant by news. “No conclusive evidence of approach,” she reported. “If an aircraft landed there, they must have taken off again before we got there.”

“Could you at least confirm the beacon was activated?” he insisted.

She nodded. “We located the signal as originating near the Partridge Estate.”

“I see.” He dropped his head, deep in thought for a moment. “I will need you to leave today for your next assignment.”

“Sir, there won’t be time to complete the report for the last mission,” she pointed out.

“You’ll have to type fast,” he replied. “An extra-terrestrial vehicle was discovered in the Forest of Dean on Sunday. Millican has taken an interest, and the site has been secured. There is an investigation going on. He asked for all resources set on the Highlands case to be redirected to the spacecraft in the Forest of Dean.”

An extra-terrestrial vehicle. A spacecraft. Those words sounded odd in her head. Also, Sunday was three days after the signal from the Highlands’ beacon had ceased. “Should I consider a connection to the Highlands, sir?”

She had been on two recon missions already to investigate suspicious sightings, both times hypothesising smugglers or terrorists. She had never considered something from another planet could be landing instead, and she certainly would have thought it a joke if it had been anybody else talking.

The Chief shook his head. “The beacon in the Highlands might have been a factor in directing them here. I wouldn’t assume any further connection at this stage. As far as we know, the two events remain separate.”

“Yes, sir.”

He paused before adding, “Between you and I, Davis, I don’t like how quickly Millican shut down the Highlands case as soon as he heard of it. Keep an open mind, would you?”

Stephanie nodded. “Was there anything piloting the vehicle?”

“Yes, there was a pilot,” he said. “A small snake-like creature, if a snake had eight legs, that is. A treacherous little thing. Our science division is taking care of it.”

He was choosing his words carefully. There was clearly only so much she was allowed to know. “Who found the vehicle?” she asked. He would tell her when she reached the boundaries of her clearance level.

“Three hikers. Two of them had physical contact with the vehicle, one of them with the pilot,” he explained.

All sorts of alarm bells started ringing in Stephanie’s mind. “What kind of physical contact? Was it an attack?”

The Chief sighed. “Would you call it an attack when the humans went knocking at the spaceship’s door?”

Typical. Trust humans to play Earth ambassadors and poke at what they shouldn’t. “Quarantine protocols?”

“Both of them are now held in a secure facility in the Mendips. They will remain there for four weeks, pending tests.”

“The Mendips are quite a way away,” she commented.

“It was either that or hold them in a room the size of a shoebox,” he replied. “We thought we’d bring them somewhere with a garden space.”

He sounded peeved, so Stephanie dropped the argument. “How are they coping?”

“They’re not significantly worse than they were before meeting E.T.”

With all due respect, that was lame. “Are we really naming the case after an 80s film?”

The Chief glared at her. “The creature calls itself Skaara, or at least a member of a species called Skaara. One of the lab coats seems to have grown quite fond of it and goes around calling it Gwyn, go figure.”

Suppose they had to call it something. “Should I understand the alien is of friendly nature?”

“On the contrary,” he replied. “Anyone who comes in direct contact with the creature seems to lose focus and starts talking as if they were the wretched thing themselves.”

“Are we talking psychosis?”

“More like mind control,” he replied. “Although it seems to disappear as soon as the alien and the human are separated.”

She chose to ignore her own scepticism at hearing the words mind control. “What about the hiker who found it? Was he harmed?”

“He’s physically well, nothing more than a few scratches on his shoulders where the alien was holding on to him. No weird extra-planetary infections either, if you can believe it.” He shook his head, as if he was the one who couldn’t believe the humans’ dumb luck. “Naturally, we’re giving him psychiatric support to process the experience. The poor guy doesn’t even remember the journey out of the woods.”

Stephanie took a moment to process all that. “How are you sure he’s not still under the alien’s control?” she asked. She was picturing a zombie-like young man walking the halls of the base, pretending to act human while an alien parasite leeched on his brain.

“The alien is securely locked away, and the hikers have been separated and confined to their quarters. We’ve done tests. The creature’s sway only works if it’s touching the person,” he reiterated. “We’ve taken precautions, Davis.”

Stephanie straightened up and held her tongue against further questions.

In the short silence that followed, she took a moment to gather her thoughts. A spaceship sighting didn’t have to be a threat. An extra-terrestrial creature landing on Earth still didn’t have to be a threat. Even telepathy could just be seen as a fun game. Mind control, however, was something else.

The Chief exhaled, his shoulder sagging for a moment under the weight of it all. “The laboratory and the quarantined quarters have been set up at the same base. I know what you’re thinking, and I’m not excited about it either, but Millican has taken charge, and he thinks it’s a brilliant idea. The science team is running tests on all subjects.”

Stephanie nodded, yet her mind was still elaborating on the information. “It can control you only if it touches you.”

“Quite so.”

“Then it’s likely it can’t control more than one person at a time.”

“We’re still investigating that,” he replied.

That cautionary tone again. Stephanie had to tread lightly. “What are my orders, Chief?” she asked, placing him back on the pedestal and rebalancing the equation.

He straightened up and crossed his arms. “Take base in the Mendips and question the subjects. The alien didn’t kill them, so it’s possible there’s something else it wants. Find out what that is and report to me directly. Understood?”

Stephanie nodded. “Understood, sir.” Delete Created with Sketch.

The subjects quarantined at the Mendip base were Frank and Lucy Campbell, siblings who had stumbled on the alien spacecraft on a Sunday hike and had taken it upon themselves to welcome the visitors to rainy old England.

He was a highly-praised PhD student of Chemistry at the University of Bristol. She never graduated secondary school, had a criminal record, and her residential address was a friend’s couch.

The call to SafeOp Defence Services had been made by the third hiker, Matthew Cavell, supposedly Miss Campbell’s boyfriend.

According to the first response team, Mr Cavell hadn’t followed his sweetheart into the clearing, leaving the siblings to explore the findings on their own. Once at the base, in reward to either his wealth or his smarts, he hadn’t faced more than half an hour in a doctor’s office before signing a non-disclosure agreement and riding off in his father’s Mercedes.

As influential as Mr Cavell could be, it was odd how easily his son had gotten out of the whole business – unless Millican had been involved. Not to mention, there was something familiar about the name. Anthony Cavell, father of Matthew Cavell and married to Lady Eliza Jane Cavell. He couldn’t have been a nobody. The call had been made directly to SafeOp, so maybe one of Millican’s connections.

A full search of the agency database was going to give her some answers. She put a pin on it for the time being.

The first person she was going to talk to was Frank Campbell. He had been confined to his quarters: a couple of rooms and a small yard where he could stretch his legs and get some fresh air.

The room chosen for the interrogation had been partitioned by a plastic wall, which separated Stephanie’s allocated side from Frank’s. A couple of measured openings were strategically placed to allow them to talk to each other. It wasn’t the warmest room, neither by temperature nor by atmosphere. She made a mental note to ask for an upgrade – there was no point in treating these people like criminals.

She sat down at the table and opened the thin folder containing all that Frank had remembered of the events. It wasn’t much. The psych evaluation was longer than the witness statement.

When the door opened on the other side of the plastic partition, a tall young man hesitated on the threshold.

Stephanie stood up to welcome him. “Frank, please come in. I’m Agent Davis of SafeOp Defence Services. How are you?”

He nodded, pressing his lips together in an uncertain smile. “Yeah, fine. Thanks.” He closed the door on the escort agent standing behind him and sat down at the table.

“Normally I’d get you coffee, but I wasn’t sure you would want that,” she added with half a smile, returning to her seat.

“Is that even allowed? I’m a potential biohazard,” he replied, his tone full of resignation. His arms were stretched on the table, right thumb forcefully rubbing into the palm of his left hand. “It’s okay, anyway. I already had one.”

Stephanie cleared her throat and leaned forward on the table. “Before we start, there’s some formalities we need to go through,” she said. “There are cameras recording in this room, and this conversation will be recorded and used as part of the investigation into the extra-terrestrial landing in the Forest of Dean.”

Frank blinked at her, unresponsive.

“Do you consent?”

“Yes, of course,” he replied. His thumb was rubbing the palm of his hand. “Listen, I don’t know what happened. That thing took hold of me, and it just went dark.”

“I know,” intervened Stephanie. “Your statement is very clear about that, and it’s okay.”

He wasn’t listening. “I wish I could tell you more, but I really don’t know what happened,” he repeated, as if to himself.

It was hard to understand across the plastic partition, but Stephanie could see that he was stuck in a loop. She had to take him out of the small burrow of guilt he had made for himself if she wanted to get anything out of him. “What is the last thing you remember?”

“Looking into the opening, I guess,” he offered. “I couldn’t see anything, but I remember thinking there was something hiding in the dark. Never thought I’d regret being right.”

“Do you remember seeing the Skaara?”

He exhaled and shook his head. “It’s weird,” he said, then paused, lips parted as if words were due out any second.

“What is weird?” she encouraged him.

“I don’t remember seeing the, you know, the alien,” he continued, “but I know what it’s like. Not as in what it looks like, but what it feels like.” He shook his head. “It sounds crazy, doesn’t it?”

“We’re talking about an extra-terrestrial creature landing on Earth and mind-controlling people. I think we passed the line of crazy a while back,” she said with a smile, trying to encourage him.

Frank looked unconvinced. His eyes roamed the room, as if trying to get a grip on thin air, just like his mind was likely trying to get a hold of memories that weren’t memories after all. “The thing is, I don’t remember any of it. It’s like I dreamt about it and then I woke up, and the dream kind of stayed with me, but I couldn’t say what it was that I was dreaming of. Do you know what I mean?”

Stephanie leaned forward on the table. “I think so.”

He bit his lips and furrowed his brow, then continued, “If the thing took hold of my brain, it’s possible it left some kind of impression. An after-image, maybe.”

“Let me see if I get it. You mean like when you walk on fresh snow and leave your footprints behind. You can’t remember the creature, but you can still see the footprints.”

He nodded.

Stephanie glanced down at the file, which was open in front of her. None of what Frank was telling her had made it into the notes. “What is the next thing you remember, after the creature got hold of you?”

“Waking up in my room, here in this place,” he replied. “As I said, I don’t remember anything that happened in between.”

“No, I know,” interrupted Stephanie. He was getting frustrated once again, with his arms wrapped around his chest, defending himself against the humiliation of not having all the answers. She softened her tone and said, “Your sister remembers well enough, so it’s not a problem that you don’t.”

He looked up, surprised. “My sister told you what happened?”

Stephanie ignored his reaction and carried on. “Also, that’s not what I’m after.”

A confused frown wrinkled Frank’s forehead.

“Your friend Matthew is the one who organised the hike for the three of you, isn’t he?”

“What are you getting at? That we went alien-hunting in the forest or something?”

Stephanie could see him stiffening through the plastic barrier. “I’m just trying to put the pieces together. Do you know why he chose that particular trail?”

The way Frank breathed out of his nose reminded Stephanie of an enraged bull. “Is that all you care about?” he snapped. “Placing the blame on somebody? It was his mother who came up with the idea. Matthew has done nothing wrong. Leave him alone.”

Interesting, thought Stephanie. The psych evaluation mentioned something about the young man’s attachment to his sister’s boyfriend, but this hit a whole new level.

“Let’s talk about something else,” she said with a wave of her hand. “You compared the experience to waking up from a dream.”

“I was never asleep,” he replied drily.

“How would you rather describe it?”

He hesitated, pursed his lips, then shook his head. “I don’t know. I remember feeling helpless. Something was pulling me down, or backwards, I mean, away from the real world. I couldn’t figure out where I was. I couldn’t see anything. I couldn’t feel anything around me. It was all dark, and empty. And silent.”

He didn’t look enraged anymore, but the more he talked, the more his frustration grew. When his voice started to crack, he stopped talking. His hands went to rest on his lap, where he rubbed his palms for a moment, before catching himself and bringing them under his thighs, locked against the seat of the chair.

It was hard to see clearly through the plastic wall, but Stephanie thought Frank’s eyes looked shinier than they had before, as if he was on the verge of tears. The Skaara hadn’t just been guiding his actions; it had held back his whole persona, closed him in a box, deprived him of all senses, for hours.

“How do you think the creature did that?” she asked. “I mean, from a biochemical perspective. You’re a scientist. You must have thought about it. What do you think brought you to such a complete sensory deprivation?”

She didn’t need the answer – the science team had already theorised a whole encyclopaedia about it – but it was worth a shot, if it brought Frank out of the downward spiral he was sliding on.

Slowly, he leaned forward and rested his elbows on the table. “Well, I’m not a neuroscientist, but I know there are areas of the brain that are responsible for our relationship with the environment. If the…” He paused, took a breath, then continued, “If the Skaara took hold of the central nervous system, controlling the voluntary impulses and leaving the autonomous system to keep life support functions online, I suspect that might explain the sensory deprivation and, you know, everything else.”

Stephanie nodded. “A bit like being kidnapped and thrown in the boot of your own car.”

“Except I couldn’t even feel the turns and bumps in the road,” he corrected.

“It sounds terrifying.” Truth was, she knew that feeling way too well, back when she still trusted people, until the one she trusted most turned his gun on her and locked her in the boot of the car.

Frank’s boot might have been metaphorical, but she doubted it had been any less scarring.

Both sat back in silence for a few moments. The room was still carrying the words, and Stephanie was gathering them, placing each piece in its spot, trying to push the memory of the boot out of her mind.

“The thing is,” started Frank, then hesitated as he looked for the right words. “The thing is, I don’t think it wants to harm anyone.”

Stephanie didn’t think so either. “Could you elaborate on that?”

Frank, however, shook his head, like he couldn’t see a way to do that. He started saying something a couple of times, then changed his mind. Finally, he said, “You know that feeling when somebody walks into your room when you’re not there?”

If there was a connection, Stephanie wasn’t seeing it yet. “Go on,” she encouraged.

“You walk into your room, and everything looks the same, and nothing has been touched, but there’s something in the air that tells you somebody has been there, that the space is not as safe as you thought it was.”

For being a science guy, he’s good with metaphors, thought Stephanie. “How can you be sure everything is the same?” she asked, trying to follow the thread. “Maybe the intruder stole one of your socks, and you won’t ever find out.”

There was a pause. Frank was giving it some thought. In a metaphor where memories were socks, he was likely counting how many he had left in his drawer.

“Do you think the alien was rummaging around your sock drawer?” she asked.

For a moment, it looked as if Frank hadn’t heard the question. Then he said, “It felt like that when I woke up. As if someone had invaded my personal space.” He scoffed. “Heck, it was in my head. It wasn’t just my personal space that thing invaded.”

As she noticed Frank’s hands clenching into fists, Stephanie decided it was a good moment to drop the topic. “We’re going to stop here for today,” she said. “With your permission, I’d like to pass the recording of this conversation to your assigned psychologist.”

“Yeah, sure.”

There wasn’t much more Stephanie could get from him, so she was about to stand up when he asked, “What happened to Matt?”

She settled back down, elbows on the table. “He gave his statement and went home.”

He seemed pacified by the answer. Odd that he didn’t already know.

“And my sister?” he persisted.

“Quarantined, just like you are.”

“Is she okay?”

All tests came out clear, if that was what he meant. “She’s okay.”

There wasn’t much more to say, and Frank understood that. He let the escort bring him back to his quarters without as much as a wave back to her. Delete Created with Sketch.

Later that day, sitting at her desk, writing her report of the interrogation, Stephanie couldn’t stop thinking about the metaphor of the intruder in the room.

She doubted the Skaara’s plan was for world domination, and yet a crew of one only made sense as a scout mission, a single spaceship sent to gather intel before a larger fleet came flying across the sky.

If that was the case, there was no way of knowing what kind of information the alien could have found in Frank’s mind. Even so, it all depended on what the Skaara were after. Considering how easily it had taken control of the human brain on the first try, massacre didn’t have to be an option. Mass enslavement, however, seemed very likely.

It was already dark outside when she wrote the last line of the report and turned off her laptop. Everyone had already left the base, with the exception of the security guards and the quarantined siblings.

The Skaara was under lock and key on the east corridor of the ground floor. Stephanie had read all about it, yet she still hadn’t had a chance to see the creeper from outer space with her own eyes.

She walked to the reinforced double door at the end of the hall and used her pass to open it. There wasn’t any specific reason for her to be there, except the need for a reality check, to clear all doubts that the alien really existed. It wasn’t a figment of anybody’s imagination, nor an elaborate prank of some sort.

When she walked into the laboratory, the creature was huddled in the corner of three concentrical boxes. It looked to be fast asleep, its long, thin body coiled up on itself. Not one of the spare hairs on the creature’s back was moving. It must have been hiding its legs between the coils because, from where she was standing, it looked no different than a snake, albeit an ugly one.

Even though she couldn’t see its eyes, Stephanie was sure she had the Skaara’s full attention.

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