Authors: Whitley Strieber
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did every morning, Flynn Carroll was going through police reports on his iPad, reading them quickly. Then he stopped. He flipped back a page. As he reread, his eyes grew careful.
He didn't look the part of a careful man. His appearanceâancient chinos and a threadbare teeâwas anything but. Duct tape repaired one of his sneakers. His hair was sort of combed; his beard was sort of shaved. But the stone gray eyes now stared with a hunter's penetrating gaze.
In two respects, the report was right in line with the others that were of interest to Flynn. A man had disappearedâin this case, two days ago. This morning he was discovered murdered in a characteristically brutal and bizarre manner. What was different was that the body had been found very quickly. Usually, corpses were located days or weeks after the murders.
Not only was this a case for him, but it also represented a rare chance. The killers would generally do two or three or more victims over a period of a few days. The first body would rarely be found until at least two or three more killings had been done. There had been no other disappearances or characteristic murders reported anywhere in the area. If this was the first in a new series, it represented both a major change and perhaps a major opportunity.
The change was that this victim wasn't an anonymous homeless person picked up off the street. This was a citizen with an identity and people and a place in the world. The opportunity was that the killers might still be operating in the area, and Flynn might have a chance to get them.
He unfolded his lean frame and got to his feet, striding off between the rows of consoles and neatly dressed technicians who manned the command center.
As he passed one of the linguists, he asked, “Got any new messages?”
“This week? Two lines.”
He stopped. “And?”
“A complaint, we think. They seem to be saying that you're too brutal.”
“Me? Me personally?”
He laughed. “All their messages are about you.”
They'd been asking their counterparts on the other side for six months for more information about these killers. All they had been told was that it was a single, rogue band. From the amount of activity Flynn guessed that it consisted of about seven individuals.
Another of the techs sat before a strangely rounded device, beautiful in its darkness, but also somehow threatening, a glassy black orb that seemed to open into infinity.
Flynn went over to him. “Jake? Got a second?”
The man was intent on his work, peering into the blackness. Within this small, very secret working group hidden deep in the basement of CIA headquarters in Virginia, this device was known as “the wire.” It provided communication with their counterpart police force. This other police force was headquartered on a planet our experts had decided was called Aeon, the government of which was eager for open contact with mankind. Supposedly.
The problem wasâagain, supposedlyâthat they weren't entirely in control of their own people. Aeon, our experts had decided, had evolved into a single, gigantic state, but it was free, and so, like any free country, it had its share of criminals.
Flynn's take: Let's see this place before we decide what it's like. Nobody had ever been to Aeonâexcept, perhaps, the people who had not been killed, but had instead disappeared without a traceÂ â¦ like his wife, Abby.
“Let Aeon know we've got another murder.”
“And if there's any response, anything at all, get it translated on an extreme-priority basis.”
As far as Flynn knew, only one remaining alienâa creature that looked humanâwas responsible for the original crimes, the disappearances. These new crimesâall killingsâwere being done by things that looked, frankly, alien. They weren't the “grays” of popular imagination, with their huge eyes and secretive ways. Flynn had never encountered one of those creatures. Apparently, they weren't from Aeon. With such a big universe, so incredibly ancient and complicated, who knew what they really were or where they were from?
The ones he was trying to take off the map were wiry creatures with narrow faces and blank shark eyes. They had four supple fingers and long, straight claws that could also be used as knives or daggers. They were biological but not alive, he didn't think, in the same way that human beings were. Their rigid determination and ritualistic, unvarying murder techniques suggested to him that they must be robotic.
He did not hate them. His objective was to clean up the alien criminal element on Earth so that the public could safely be informed that contact was unfolding. To the depths of his soul, Flynn wanted open contact.
There was one exception to his dislike of killing them. The first alien criminal known to have arrived on Earth had called himself Louis Charleton Morris. He used a highly sophisticated disguise that gave him human features that were regular and spare. His hair was black, his lips narrow but not cruel. His expression was open, even friendly. If you encountered him in a dark alley, you wouldn't think you had a problem. You'd also be just as wrong as a person could be, because Louis Charleton Morris could do far worse than kill you. He could take you into the unknown and do to you there whatever he had done to Abby and so many others.
There had been a police officer here from Aeon, until he was killed. He had two legs and two arms, and a face with lips that were somewhat human, but the eyes were those of a fly. Oltisis could not expose himself to our atmosphere, and had worked out of a hermetically sealed office in Chicago.
Disguising oneself as Morris did was, it seemed, so illegal that not even a cop could get a clearance to do it. Since Oltisis's murder, though, Aeon had apparently changed that policy. No replacements had showed up, however.
Flynn's theory was that the killers belonged to Morris. They were something he had created and was using to get revenge.
Flynn's previous life as a detective on the police force of the city of Menard, Texas, had hardly prepared him for this work. Get your wife taken right out of your marriage bed in the middle of the night, though, and you'd change, and change a lot. You would go on a quest to find her, or find out what had happened to her. To serve that quest, you would learn whatever you needed to learn, and do whatever you needed to do. You would push yourself hard. You would not stop.
He walked across the room to a door marked only with a plastic slide-in sign:
On the other side, there were more desks; more computing equipment; more quiet, intense men and women. Saying nothing, moving with the supple energy of a leopard, he went through into the inner office.
“I've got one I want to move on right now.”
Operations Director Diana Glass said, “Okay, what are we looking at?”
“Town in Pennsylvania. Guy disappeared yesterday. He's been found. First report from the area.”
“They could still be there.”
“That's what I'm hoping. There's a strange kicker, though. He's a neurologist. Dr. Daniel Miller.”
She raised her eyebrows in question.
“It gets more interesting. He worked at Deer Island.”
“On the cadavers?”
“Possibly. There's a neurobiology unit there.” He paused. “So maybe he hit on something somebody would rather we didn't know.”
“Official Aeon would never do this.”
“Maybe it has to do with his work, but I also think a citizen was involved to make sure you'd come. It could be an ambush, Flynn.”
“How did it go down?”
“He went out on a mountain bike. When he didn't return at sundown, his wife called for help. The bike was located at dawn. The cops brought hounds, but his scent was only on the bike.”
“But they found the body anyway?”
“In a wetland a few hundred feet from his house. Same condition as the derelicts. Lips cut off, genitals and eyes dissected out, drowned.” So far, more than twenty homeless people had been taken off the streets, mostly in the northeastern United States, brutally and bizarrely mutilated, then drowned in the Atlantic and returned to locations near where they'd been picked up.
“We need some advice from Aeon,” Diana said.
“And how are we going to get that?”
“The two police forces, working togetherâ”
“Don't even start. There's one police force: us. Ever since Oltisis, Aeon's side has been all smoke and mirrors.”
“For God's sake, don't do any more killing.”
He locked eyes with her.
She looked away. “The other side objects more strenuously every time you kill another one, Flynn. They want them back.”
He said nothing.
“They have laws just like we do! They want these creatures back for trial and punishment.”
“No, they don't. They're not creatures.”
“That's a matter for debate.”
“You haven't fought them. I know when I'm dealing with a machineâbelieve me. No matter how high-end its brain is.”
“They don't want them killed. Bottom line.”
“If they want them back, tell them to damn well come and get them.”
“If you're wrong about what they are, you're committing murder.”
“We're disabling machines, not killing people. Anyway, this is our planet. So, our laws.”
“Which don't include blowing away perps likeâ” She hesitated, unsure of how to continue.
Flynn knew exactly how. He said, “Like they're broken machines and cannot be stopped in any other way.”
“Aeon is far in advance of us technologically, Flynn. Far more powerful. When they complain, we need to listen.”
“âAeon' consists of messages translated from a language we barely understand, coming from someplace we can't even find, that will not send a replacement for the one policeman they did give us, or even explain what they think happened to him.”
“Oltisis was killed in Chicago, not on Aeon.”