by Karen Hancock
Bethany House Publishing
Adult science fantasy/allegory
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?
– – – – –
Excerpt from Chapter 1
“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,” Med 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 stranger smear squares of sunscreen on her bottom and peer at them every fifteen minutes, 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 May 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 swell 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!