Arenaby Karen Hancock
Callie Hayes is living a life of fear and disillusionment when she volunteers for a psychology experiment that promises to turn her life around. As her orientation proceeds, Callie becomes frightened by the secrecy and evasion she encounters. When she demands to be released from the program, she is suddenly dropped
A Repackaged Award Winner From Karen Hancock
Callie Hayes is living a life of fear and disillusionment when she volunteers for a psychology experiment that promises to turn her life around. As her orientation proceeds, Callie becomes frightened by the secrecy and evasion she encounters. When she demands to be released from the program, she is suddenly dropped into a terrifying alien world and into a perilous battle between good and evil. With limited resources and only a few cryptic words to guide her, Callie embarks on a life-changing journey. Will she decipher the plans the Benefactor has established for her escape, or will she succumb to the deception of the Arena?
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Read an Excerpt
"If you seek Him, He will let you find Him."
1 Chronicles 28:9
"They won't be taking blood or anything, will they?" Callie Hayes looked up from the clipboard in her hands to the dimpled youth behind the receptionist's counter.
"Our physical evaluations are noninvasive," he assured her. "Completely painless."
"For goodness' sake, Callie," Meg Riley protested beside her. "It's only a psychology experiment. Why are you giving him the third degree?"
"I want to know what I'm getting into this time." Callie pushed slipping wire-rim glasses back up her nose as she flashed an accusing glance at her companion.
Meg was petite, freckled, and green-eyed, her face framed by chin-length black curls. She wore a white spaghetti-strap T-shirt with blue shorts, and she'd been Callie's best friend since fourth grade. Together they'd endured adolescence, the divorce of Meg's parents, a two-year obsession with Zane Grey novels, high school, and college. After graduating from the University of Arizona four years ago, they'd both settled into a holding pattern—Meg waiting for a teaching position at one of the Tucson school districts, and Callie just waiting. It was through Meg's temporary job with the university's Psychology Department that she stumbled onto the world of the paid guinea pig. "Easy money," she dubbed it.
But Callie discovered there were reasons guinea pigs got paid.
"Thirty dollars," Meg had promised last time, "and all we have to do is lie in the sun for a few hours."
Ha! It was bad enough having strangers smear squares of sunscreen on her bottom and peer at them every fifteenminutes, but when the local news crews showed up, Callie nearly died of embarrassment—and swore she'd never let Meg talk her into any such thing again.
"This isn't like the sunscreen business," Meg assured her. She turned to the receptionist. "We had one bad experience, and now she's paranoid."
The baby-faced youth nodded. His nameplate read Gabe, and though he looked like a high schooler, Callie guessed he was a college freshman.
"Ask as many questions as you like," he said. "I'll answer anything that won't affect the integrity of the experiment."
Callie frowned, fingering the end of the thick red braid that hung over her shoulder. "No drugs?"
Gabe's blue eyes widened. "Of course not! As our flyer says, we offer evaluation of and instruction in the decision-making process. There are absolutely no drugs."
"So what do we have to do for the fifty dollars?"
"You'll be negotiating an obstacle course and—"
"Obstacle course?" Callie looked up from the waiver. "That won't involve heights, will it? Rope climbing, that sort of thing?"
"Good grief, Cal," Meg cried. "It's not boot camp."
"Just let the man answer, okay?"
"It is on the ninth floor," Gabe said. "Are you acrophobic?"
"Only once I get to the tenth floor." She laughed nervously.
"Maybe we can help with that."
"I was just joking." The last thing she needed was another bout with a shrink.
Gabe shrugged. "Well, we've had good success with phobias—and fear in general, for that matter."
"See?" Meg's short dark curls brushed Callie's shoulder as she leaned close. "It's not like that other thing at all. In fact, it might even give you an excuse to miss your sister's birthday bash tonight. Unless you think the Mr. Right she's got for you this time really will be Mr. Right."
Callie snorted. Her sister, Lisa, moved in an alien world—upscale, fashion-fixated, and socially saturated. Lisa's Mr. Rights were inevitably lawyers or MBAs, all acquaintances or co-workers of her husband's. Expecting another version of Lisa, the men were always disappointed when they met her short, dull, tongue-tied little sister.
Callie detested the whole scenario. And the possibility of having an excuse for missing the affair was a powerful incentive. "How long will it take?" she asked Gabe.
"Not more than a few hours if you follow instructions. We do ask that you commit to finishing the experiment, however."
"And we won't have to do anything embarrassing or improper?"
He looked amused. "Only if you choose to."
"Come on, Cal," Meg murmured. "You said you'd do this."
"Oh, all right." Callie signed the waiver and handed it over. It's only for a couple of hours, she consoled herself. And who knows—maybe I will gain new and powerful insights. Maybe I'll learn how to say no to Lisa. Maybe it'll even turn my life around like the flyer promises. There's no denying it could use some turning around.
Four years out of college, she was still making minimum wage raising rats for biology experiments. She still lived in a rented apartment, still had to endure her mother's lectures about finding a man and getting focused, and still wasn't any closer to doing what she really wanted to do—paint. Unfortunately that was something both her mother and sister considered completely unacceptable. A career in art was too unreliable. Worse, her deadbeat father was an artist—when he wasn't following the horse races or losing his money in Las Vegas—and she didn't want to be like him, did she?
At her mother's insistence, she had gone into pre-med. But she was not accepted at med school after graduation—much to her relief—and thus far the only thing her science degree had turned up was the rat-raising job. A job that somehow spilled from part time into full and consumed all her energy, so that little art got done, and she stayed where she was, trapped, frustrated, and waiting for a miracle to set her free.
Gabe told them to go on up and indicated an elevator panel in the textured beige wall beside the desk. Meg hesitated, looking uncertain, then leaned over the counter. "Alex Chapman was supposed to meet us—"
"Yes. He's waiting upstairs."
As they entered the elevator Meg nudged Callie's arm. "He's waiting for us! Did you hear?" She fluffed her black curls and groped in her purse for a breath mint. "Do I look okay? What am I gonna say?"
"Hello usually works." Callie tried not to think of the dark well of space beneath her feet, pushed away thoughts of cables snapping and cars plummeting. The last thing she wanted was to have an attack here.
"But what about after hello?" Meg persisted.
"You never had any problems talking to Jack."
"There's a light-year of difference between Jack and Alex. Wait'll you see him, Cal. He is so gorgeous."
"So you've said. Many times."
"Have I?" Meg giggled.
Callie watched the six blink out and the seven appear over the door. Uneasiness churned in her middle. She was okay up to the seventh floor, but after that, things got dicey. Floor-level fear was a fairly common manifestation of acrophobia, but because it didn't match the stereotypical fear of heights, it was harder for others to relate to. You were expected to freak out when you looked out a lofty window or stepped onto a rooftop observation deck, and most people nursed enough of their own latent acrophobia to sympathize. But falling into a full-blown panic just because the numbers changed on an elevator panel? Even she knew it made no sense.
Not that it mattered. Above the sixth floor, she got jittery. And above the ninth ... STOP it! Don't think about it!
"Frankly, I think you were an idiot to return Jack's ring," she said to Meg, desperate to distract herself. "He's a good guy, and he loves you."
Meg gestured dismissively. "Jack's even more predictable than you are. He's a stick-in-the-mud. I want some excitement."
"Excitement." The seven gave way to an eight. "You have lost your mind."
Meg grinned. "You mean my heart."
"You don't even know the man."
The eight changed to a nine, a chime pinged, and the elevator opened at the end of a gleaming, door-lined corridor. On the ninth floor.
Don't think about it. Everything's fine.
She followed Meg into the hallway, smelling the pleasant crayon scent of the floor wax and feeling abruptly disoriented. Hadn't the elevator faced across the building's width when they'd boarded it?
The dark-haired youth awaiting them distracted her from further musing. This must be the famous Alex—the handsome-as-a-Greek-god, I-die-a-thousand-deaths-each-time-he-looks-at-me real reason Meg was here. A graduate teaching assistant for Dr. Charis's Psych 101 and a doctoral candidate in the psychology of the paranormal, Alex was set to receive his degree in less than a month. Meg figured she had to make a connection today, or forget him.
Though Meg had billed the guy as movie-star caliber, Callie found him unexceptional. Dressed in a white tunic and slacks, he was of average stature, with glossy black hair and dark, long-lashed eyes. His face was open and friendly, but hardly stunning. Gabe, the receptionist, was better looking.
He did have a nice smile.
"Meg! Great to see you. And you brought a friend!"
As Meg introduced them Callie had to admit he was a likable guy, one of those people who instantly made you feel at ease.
"We really appreciate what you're doing here," he told them. "Without volunteers like you, our project would be nothing. I hope you'll find it worth your while." He motioned down the hall. "Shall we get started?"
"So what is this obstacle course like?" Callie asked as they walked.
"I'm afraid I can't tell you," Alex replied. "The experiment demands that all participants begin with the same level of ..." He smiled at her sidelong. "Well, ignorance."
"You mean we have to go into this blind?"
"More or less."
Alarms went off in her head. Red lights flashed around images of experimenters hovering over her posterior and TV reporters aiming large-lensed cameras.
"I hope the obstacles aren't tires and ropes," said Meg, "because we're hardly dressed—"
"Oh, we'll provide appropriate apparel."
"You mean it is tires and ropes?" Callie asked, aghast.
Alex laughed but wouldn't commit either way.
He led them to an L-shaped room where three people waited in white plastic chairs lined against peach-colored walls. A picture window dressed with vertical blinds—thankfully closed against the morning sun—filled the left wall. Callie took care not to look at the window and concentrated on following Meg and Alex to the counter. There a boyish Asian in a gray-yoked tunic gave them clipboards with medical forms to fill out, after which they were called to the examination room at the back. Callie went first, leaving Meg in happy conversation with Alex.
The exam was decidedly unorthodox. Instead of using blood pressure cuffs, thermometers, and blood vials, the lab tech, a handsome, muscular youth named Angelo, pressed her hand against a jellylike plate and flipped a switch.
"This is pretty fancy equipment," she exclaimed as the plate vibrated beneath her palm.
"Takes fingerprints, temperature, blood pressure, and blood chemistry all at the same time," he boasted with a grin. "State of the art. Now please step up onto this disk."
She complied, looking around curiously. "It must be a pretty physical obstacle course if you have to examine us first."
"Just follow the instructions, and you'll be fine. You need to put your jewelry and such in the bowl there." He gestured to a steel receptacle sliding out of the wall. "Glasses, too."
As Callie deposited watch, earrings, and glasses in the bowl, Angelo stepped into a cubicle across the room. Then a low hum sounded above her and a studded circular plate descended from the ceiling, stopping well above arm's reach. She heard some clicks, and the hum changed pitch. Abruptly, ribbons of multicolored light swirled around her, the incongruous scent of warm taffy tickling her nostrils.
"My goodness! What is this?"
"Organ scan," Angelo called from his booth. "Relax."
Again the ceiling plate clicked and whirred. The taffy scent faded, and now a tingle burred through her body like a tiny whirlwind. It stopped a moment later, and the humming ceased. As the lights faded Angelo emerged from his controls. "You're the picture of health," he said with a grin. "I'd guess you're a jogger."
"I do my share. Would you have disqualified me if I wasn't in good enough shape?"
"Well, if you had a bad heart or something, we'd have to address that," he said, helping her down from the raised disk. "But you don't."
He gave her a cream-colored jumpsuit and sent her off to a changing booth. Stitched with pockets and zippers, the suit was fashioned from a fine, buttery fabric that seemed unlikely to withstand the rigors of an obstacle course. Though she felt silly wearing it, it was very comfortable.
Only one person remained in the waiting room when she returned—a thin man seated by the hall doorway whose open stare made her even more self-conscious about the jumpsuit. Keeping her distance from the window, Callie sat as far as she could from the pointy-chinned stranger. But she'd no sooner settled when, to her chagrin, he got up and sat one chair away from her, regarding her with an almost leer. "You here for the experiment?"
Suddenly aware that even the Asian receptionist had left his post, she nodded and looked around for a magazine. There were none.
"Better reconsider," he said. "Strange things go on around here."
Curiosity made her look at him. His hair was lank and gray, his skin waxy pale, and he had an unpleasantly strong earthy smell. "Like what?"
His black eyes bored into hers, and she thought—absurdly—that they weren't quite human.
The chair squeaked as he leaned close. "Have you noticed ... that none of the workers here"—he looked around conspiratorially—"have beards?"
Callie blinked. She tore her gaze away, flushing. "No, I hadn't noticed," she said, thinking of going back down the hall to look for Meg. Or even the lab tech, Angelo. And where was the receptionist?
The stranger leaned closer. The earthy odor acquired a taint of decay. "They're aliens," he whispered. "Can't grow beards like regular men. And they're plotting to kidnap you. Better reconsider."
Callie rose, heading for the hall to the examination rooms. Before she reached it, however, the stranger stood and, chuckling softly, left the room.
Breathing a sigh of relief, she sagged into a chair. No beards? Aliens? What nuthouse did he escape from?
She was almost giggling when first Meg, then the receptionist, and finally Alex returned. When she told him of the incident, he wasn't surprised.
"Calls himself Hermes. I think he's one of those homeless guys from over on Fourth Avenue. I'll send someone to escort him out."
As they headed for the next station, Callie asked about the project's sponsor, which Alex identified as a private foundation called Aggillon, Inc. When she asked why they were interested in this project, he looked at her askance, one dark brow raised in amusement.
"It just seems like a lot of money's being spent here," she added hastily. "I wondered what the justification was."
"You don't think turning people's lives around is sufficient justification?"
She opened her mouth to contest his overblown claim, but saw Meg glaring at her from Alex's other side and swallowed her words.
He stopped outside a pair of double doors. "I'm afraid these psych profiles are tediously long, but try to answer as honestly as you can."
"Where is the course?" Callie asked suddenly. "Is it on this floor, or will we go somewhere else?"
Alex grinned. "You are the curious one, aren't you?"
"Paranoid is the word," Meg muttered.
Alex laid a hand on the door handle nearest him. "You'll enter on this level." He pulled the door open for them. "While you're completing the profiles, I'll program your starting sequences. One of the techs will take you to an orientation room when you're ready."
Program your starting sequences? Could the course be computer generated? With a virtual reality unit they could set up any sort of obstacle course they wanted, in no space at all. Perfect for a ninth-floor operation like this. It also explained the ritzy jumpsuits. But virtual reality units had to be expensive—just like every other piece of equipment they had in this place.
"Are we not going through together, then?" Meg asked, stepping into the opening.
"You might meet each other once you're inside, but at the beginning, each of you will enter on your own." He paused. "Any more questions?"
They shook their heads. As he walked away Meg leaned against Callie and whispered, "I haven't talked to him this much all year!"
"I didn't think you'd have trouble talking." Callie steered her friend through the doorway. "Have you asked him out yet?"
Meg looked chagrined. "Every time I start, my throat freezes up."
"Don't worry. I'll do it."
The room beyond the doors held rows of white Formica-topped tables lined with more plastic chairs. About twenty people sat scattered throughout, bent over legal-sized sheets of white paper. Callie was relieved not to find the alien-obsessed weirdo among them.
A table near the door was manned by yet another youth in a gray-and-white uniform who looked as if he hadn't graduated from high school. Perversely Callie found herself studying the smooth skin on his face, realizing the business about the beards was true. Not only did none of the workers sport one, none even looked capable of growing one. From Gabe to Alex to the muscular lab tech, Angelo, to this desk worker, they all looked too young to be doing what they were doing.
She settled with Meg in a corner of the room, skimming the questions as she chewed on the end of her braid. It's nonsense, surely. But ... what about that organ scanner? The jumpsuit's strange fabric? Even Alex's evasiveness about the obstacle course became suspicious.
"All right, what's wrong?" Meg's whisper cut into her thoughts.
"What makes you think something's wrong?"
"You're chewing your hair."
Grimacing, Callie dropped her braid and picked up her pencil.
"So what's the problem?" Meg repeated.
"I don't know. Just ... well, there are things that don't make sense around here."
"The money. The equipment. Why anyone would be interested in such a dippy project."
"It wouldn't be the first dippy project a private foundation financed. Maybe they're using it as a tax write-off." Meg paused, studying her thoughtfully. "You don't like it that they won't tell you what to expect."
"Not at all."
Meg grinned. "Where's your sense of adventure, girl?" She leaned on both forearms. "So what do you think of Alex?"
"He's cute enough, I guess."
"Cute! Are you blind? He's gorgeous."
"He's attractive, Meg, but no more than anyone else here. Not as much as some, in fact. And that's another thing. There isn't one ugly guy in this whole operation. Not one zit, not one speck of dandruff, not one head of less-than-lustrous hair. No one's too fat or too skinny, or has buckteeth or clunky glasses. Don't you think that's a little weird?"
Meg's green eyes widened. She shook her head. "I think you're a little weird."
"I'm serious, Meg—"
"They're probably too old for zits—"
"Too old? Some of these guys have barely hit puberty. I doubt even Alex has to shave more than once a week."
A crease formed between Meg's brows. "So what's your point? You think there's something fishy going on because a few guys can't grow beards? That the crazy guy was right, and they are a bunch of aliens?"
It did sound absurd, stated flat out like that.
"What do you think they're going to do? Rape us? Kill us? Take us to Mars and perform weirdo examinations on us? Look around, girl. We're in the middle of Psychology East, Room ... I don't know, 910 or something."
Callie frowned at her.
Meg frowned back. "Your sister's right. You are getting paranoid."
That was the word for it, wasn't it? Embarrassed, Callie tossed her braid over her shoulder. "Never mind."
"No, you're right. I'm being ridiculous. Forget it."
She focused on the questionnaire. Alex hadn't exaggerated—it was long. Two hundred multiple-choice questions filled both sides of the two legal sheets, covering all manner of preferences, from food to climate to religion. She found them depressing, for they reminded her of all the ways she was failing at life and what a total wimp she had become.
Meg finished first and left to turn in her sheets. Some time later Callie submitted her own sheets, then followed the attendant to a windowless cubicle that smelled of ozone. A small Formica-topped table, two plastic chairs, and a tall blue locker comprised the room's furnishings. She sat at the table and waited, feeling claustrophobic and fighting off unpleasant notions of alien kidnappers. Surely, she reassured herself, if Alex and his crew really were kidnapping people, they wouldn't let that nutcase wander around warning everyone.
The door swung open, startling her, and Alex entered with a blue nylon day pack, which he dropped on the table. "So," he said, settling across from her, "Meg tells me you're an artist."
She looked away, embarrassed. "It's just a hobby."
"But one you'd like to see become a career."
"That doesn't look likely."
He smiled. "Life has a way of changing rapidly, often when you least expect it."
She shifted uncomfortably.
He unzipped the day pack's top compartment. "This holds everything you'll need to—"
"What do we need a pack for, if the course is going to be virtual reality?"
He cocked a brow. "Who said anything about virtual reality?"
"If there are different obstacles for each individual, I figure they must be computer generated."
She frowned at him. "You don't have room up here for a limitless array of real obstacles."
"You seem to know more about what we're doing than we do."
Annoyance flared. "Well, if it's not virtual reality, what is it?"
"A course with various obstacles—some decisions to make, instructions to follow. I'm afraid that's all I can tell you."
She frowned at him again, tapping a fingernail on the table. Baby-faced researchers, science-fiction technology, secrecy and evasion. Her fears might be unfounded, even paranoid, but every fiber of Callie's being was screaming at her to beware. And now that it looked like she wouldn't be with Meg anyway, what was the point of staying? Was it really worth the fifty dollars?
She drew a deep breath and stopped tapping. "I think I'd like to withdraw. I just can't go into this blind. I'm sorry for wasting your time, but if you'll return my—"
"Unfortunately that's not possible."
She stared at him.
"Miss Hayes, you didn't come here because of your friend. You came for yourself. Why not give yourself the chance to find the answers you're seeking?"
"What do you mean, ‘that's not possible'?"
Alex sighed. "I'm afraid you've already entered the experiment. Your only way out now is through the Arena."
She blinked in confusion.
He drew a slim black book from the pack. "This is your field manual. You'll need it to find the exit."
He's not going to let me go.
"I advise you to heed its warnings," he went on, "for there is—"
She stood and strode to the door. Alex made no move to stop her, and in the three steps it took her to reach it, she realized it must be locked. Clenching the unmoving knob, she struggled to control her rising panic and finally turned back to him.
"You can't do this," she whispered.
He regarded her with something like compassion. "You did agree to take part, Miss Hayes."
"I agreed to inkblots and fitting pegs into holes."
"You knew it would be an obstacle course when you signed on."
"No legitimate experimenter ever refuses his participants the right to back out. It's not even legal."
"We operate by a different legal system. Surely you read the waiver you signed?"
She stared at him mutely. Yes, she'd read it, but not that closely, not all the paragraphs of fine print. And shouldn't they have made it plain to her what she was signing?
Continued protest, however, seemed useless. Perhaps if she refused to listen to his instructions, refused to pick up the equipment, refused even to look at him—she shifted her gaze to the blue locker—he would conclude she was too much trouble and let her go.
From the corner of her eye, she saw him frowning.
"Refusal to accept our instruction is itself a decision which our experiment is designed to incorporate," Alex said. "We will not suffer, nor will the project, but you will find the experience disagreeable."
She looked steadfastly at the locker.
"Miss Hayes, if you continue to refuse me, I'll have no choice but to deposit you on-site, utterly unprepared."
She said nothing.
He sighed. "Your initial objective will be to pass through the Benefactor's Gate. A guide will lead you from it to the exit. As long as you follow the instructions, you'll have no trouble."
She maintained silence. He went on, but she tuned him out. The remark about depositing her on-site had unnerved her. Surely, he was bluffing....
Then it hit her—illegal as this was, they could never just let her go. They'd have to kill her, or wipe her memory, or addle her mind.
Suddenly she couldn't breathe. Swallowing hard, she interrupted him. "Why are you doing this?"
His expression was genuinely pained. "You'll understand in time," he said. "The white road will lead you to the Gate. Stay on it and keep moving. That's very important. There is evil in the Arena. But as long as you stay on the road, it cannot harm you."
He stood and stepped toward her, offering the pack. She backed away, and he stopped with a sigh. "We intend this for your benefit, Callie. You've come to us because you don't like where your life is going. You want something better. Don't let fear and stubbornness keep you from finding it."
He held out the pack again. She backed against the door, half angry, wholly terrified. What would he do now? Make her take it?
He just stared sadly into her eyes. And vanished.
The pack fell to the floor with a muffled clatter, and she flinched back, gasping. Before understanding could sink in, the table, chairs, and locker followed him into oblivion. Then the cubicle's four white walls pulsed with red light and drew in around her. Just when she thought she would be crushed, they too dissolved, and she fell into nothingness.
Arena by Karen Hancock
Copyright © 2002, Karen Hancock