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Since the 1950s, humanity has explored the many ways aliens could invade Earth, but the ugly truth is that no intelligent race need risk their own lives to kill humans while humans are still so willing to kill each other.
The Journey Begins
Jeff Smith walked quickly into the outer offices of the high-tech lab located under the rolling hills of Virginia. He walked right past the receptionist in his haste to reach Alon’s lab. One of Alon’s assistants was chasing Jeff, saying, “Sir, you must wait in the waiting room. You cannot just walk into the labs! Sir!”
Jeff spotted Alon and said, “Hi, Alon. What did you find out?”
Alon looked at his assistant. “It’s okay. Thank you for your help.”
“Why do you always do that, Jeff?” Alon asked, half-joking as his assistant frowned and walked off.
“We are 100 stories underground in a maximum-security lab. If I couldn’t be here, I never would have made it below ground.” Jeff was a senior CIA agent in charge of ten other agents. He hated waiting and was used to getting what he wanted when he wanted it.
Alon just shook his head with a smile. He then got very serious. “Jeff, where did you get the material you brought me?” Alon had emigrated from Israel with his parents when he was a teenager. He was a full US citizen and a gifted scientist, but some in the upper ranks of the CIA still did not trust him.
“Alon, this entire operation is now class 11 secure. You know what that means.”
“It is well over your pay grade,” Alon said with a smile.
“And probably not over yours,” Jeff said, smiling back. “But seriously, Alon, this is strictly need-to-know basis. No one can get this information without explicit authorization. Use me to request approval.”
Alon smiled and spread his arms wide. “I agree.”
Jeff looked around to ensure no one else was in the lab. “We found this material at a crash site, underwater.”
Alon looked confused, “Underwater? That cannot be. There is no corrosion. The surface is perfect—as if it were polished yesterday. Did you clean it up? What was it part of? What kind of water? Ocean? Fresh?”
“Slow down, Alon. It’s a long story. No, we did not clean it up. It was in the ocean, about five hundred miles south of Anchorage, Alaska, about five miles off the coast of Queen Charlotte Island. We don’t know what it is; some salvage company found the wreckage while looking for a World War II submarine.”
“The wreckage was confusing at first. There was a semi-circular pattern to the wreckage, but what we found were these flat, roughly triangular pieces like the sample I gave you, very neatly placed, each one slightly overlapping the next. The metal was in perfect condition. We thought it must be new, but the salvage company said it spotted it weeks ago and had just gotten around to this site. It was underwater at least a month. There is no telling how long it was there.”
“There are other ways to tell,” Alon said.
“You’re right; I misspoke. That part of the ocean floor has no direct inlets from rivers. The only deposits are from sea creatures dying. Based on the lack of any significant deposits on top, we know it has been there less than 100 years. We also know the salvage company spotted it about one month before. So, we know the wreckage is between two months and 100 years old.”
Alon was deep in thought now. Jeff decided to give him time to think.
Finally, Alon broke the silence. “Okay. Shall I share what I’ve found out?”
“This substance is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. After close visual inspection, I found nothing. No flaws, no cracks, no imperfections. Then I found nothing on its surface. No dust. No rust. Not even bacteria were present on the entire surface. That was strange, so I attempted to slice off a sample to analyze chemically. Guess what. I could not cut off a sample. I tried saws, torches, and lasers. Nothing worked,” Alon said as he raised his hands and dropped them at his sides in frustration.
“That’s not possible,” Jeff said.
“Exactly! The energy from the lasers and torches was just absorbed, and the surface never got hotter. The saws slid uselessly over the material without causing a single scratch. Hammer blows bounced right off the surface with no distortion. Then I decided to place it in a hydraulic press. I set up lasers to measure any change in the material’s surface. I clearly warped it at eighty tons of pressure, but when I released the pressure, it was back to its original shape with no distortion at all.”
“Wow! What did you do next?”
“I took that three-foot-long sample and placed it under some very powerful microscopes.”
“How did you do that?” Jeff asked, amazed.
Alon smiled because Jeff clearly appreciated just how hard that would have been to do. “It wasn’t easy. Eventually, I could analyze the structure of the metal and its composition.”
“And?” Jeff asked, intensely focused on Alon’s words.
“This material is not just metal. It’s an intricate matrix of nanites.”
“Nanites?” Jeff said incredulously. “I thought nanites were just a theory.”
“No, there are some molecular machines, but they’re very primitive. Nothing even close to this material.
“How could that be?” Jeff asked.
“Jeff, there’s more. I believe these nanites behave the way they do because they’re in a default state.”
“What’s a default state?” Jeff asked.
Alon struggled for words. “The default is when they have no other orders to reform into any other…configuration.”
“What?” Jeff asked more confused than ever.
Alon took another deep breath and said, “Jeff, I believe that some intelligence can control the nanites to form shapes. In fact, the nanites could reform into anything. It’s a smart material.”
Jeff was stunned. “Do you mean to tell me that the sample in your lab could turn into a swirling set of knives that kills everyone in the room?”
“I didn’t think about military applications. I was thinking only of construction and manufacturing.” Alon put his hand on his chin and started thinking about it. Then he decided, “What you are saying is possible, Jeff, but only if an outside force acted to control the material. The material is smart but not intelligent. It could change into a knife if something ordered it to, but it couldn’t spin around without some other force affecting it.”
“Smart but not intelligent?” Jeff asked.
“Yes; it cannot think for itself. Something or someone would have to control it to make it do anything. Otherwise, it will sit in its default configuration and do nothing. What you found could have been a systems failure that caused a ship made of this material to fall apart into its default state and sink to the bottom of the ocean.”
“But then wouldn’t the remains be scattered?” Jeff asked.
“Yes. Perhaps it was sitting on the bottom when the failure occurred. Either way, I think there’s a more profound question to ask: Could this material have been produced on Earth? I think the answer is no.”
“First, no one on this planet has this technology. Second, the nanites themselves appear to be perfect spheres.”
“What’s so important about them being spherical?”
“Not spherical, perfect spheres. Anything produced on Earth is affected by the Earth’s gravity. No manufacturing facility on Earth has ever produced a perfectly spherical object. It cannot be done because of Earth’s gravity.”
“Cars have ball bearings. Those are spheres, aren’t they?” Jeff asked.
“They’re spherical but not perfect spheres.”
“Where else could it be produced?”
Alon motioned upward with his eyes as he said, “Perfect spheres can only be produced in space.”
As Jeff headed back to Washington, DC, he mulled over how to communicate what he had learned to his direct superior.
He couldn’t help but think, How do I tell my boss that aliens left their footprint on Earth between two months and 100 years ago? He blurted out “Bloody hell!” before he realized it.
His driver looked back to inquire, “Sir, are you all right?”
“Yes, thanks for asking.”
The driver was perplexed but decided to let his passenger elaborate only if he felt the need.
Jeff decided to break out his laptop and write his report.
* * *
An hour later, as Jeff approached Langley, he was almost done with his report. His shoulders and back were stiff, and he was tired, but as the car stopped in front of the main entrance, he moved quickly through security and the main campus quad area to Assistant Director Zachariah James’ building.
Fortunately, James was there, even though he was on a phone call. Jeff paced nervously back and forth in front of his boss’ desk.
As James hung up, he said, “Well, what is it, man?”
“Do you remember the material we found off the Pacific Coast, sir?”
“It may be proof that alien life visited Earth.”
“Are you mad?” the director asked as he stood up.
“Sir, the material we found on the ocean floor is not metal. It’s a structure formed by nanites.”
“Nanites?” James asked.
“Yes, nanites. They’re smart microscopic machines that are not intelligent but do react to commands. They can reshape themselves and move to some extent.”
“Where did you get this fairy tale?”
“Alon’s team did the analysis, sir.”
“Alon is an Israeli. Why do you keep taking things to him?”
“He’s the best there is, sir. There’s more. These nanites are formed in perfect spheres. They’re tiny, but they’re perfectly round. Alon was adamant that a perfect sphere could only be produced in space.”
“You have a report?”
“I do, right here, sir,” Jeff said as he handed the micro-drive to his boss.
“Good. You’re off this case, effective immediately.”
“I will have my own team verify this nonsense. In the meantime, I have an assignment for you.”
“But, sir—” Jeff tried to interrupt but was cut off by his superior.
“I need your full attention on an interdiction mission. The target is Amber van Hosteen.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“Silence. She is heading to Burkina Faso to investigate some companies. One of those companies is a CIA front. It’s your job to make sure she doesn’t link this company with her investigation.” The director handed Jeff a file folder with a micro-drive attached.
“Sir, I know you don’t like me for some reason, but this is not where I need to be.”
“I decide where you need to be. How dare you accuse me of favoritism when making assignments? Now do your job and get out of my office before I bring you up on charges.”
“Sir, I did not mean anything—”
“Silence. Is this micro-drive the only copy of your report on the Pacific material?”
“Then get going.” The director sat down and ignored Jeff.
Jeff walked out of the office and rested against the closed door to the director’s office. His face was turning red. The folder in his hand was crushed as his grip tightened on it.
Then Jeff heard the director say, “We have a problem with this Pacific site.” He could not hear the other voice reply. The director continued, “He’ll be out of the way for now.”
The director’s secretary noticed Jeff and asked, “Are you okay, Jeff?” She liked Jeff, even though he had successfully evaded multiple invitations to drinks or dinner from her.
“Yes. I’m fine,” Jeff said as he changed his demeanor, smoothed his suit, and approached the desk. “Not the best meeting this time around. Tell me, has our assistant director gone anywhere strange these last few months?”
“Strange? Not really. He goes to DC a lot for meetings and has lunch with his wife. That’s about it. Why, Jeff?”
“Nothing. It was just something he mentioned. Thanks.” Jeff gracefully exited the office and went down to his own.
Once he closed his door, Jeff threw the new file on his desk. He sat down and fidgeted with things on his desk while his mind raced. What had he stumbled upon, and what should he do next? If he disobeyed orders, his director could have him arrested for insubordination. He had already lied about not having another copy of his report. “I have to play my cards right or I could end up dead!”
The new assignment had him leaving the country tomorrow. “I’ll play along for now but cover my ass.”
* * *
Amber waved at Margo as she entered the cute little bistro in downtown New York. Amber’s copper-colored hair usually made her easy to find in a crowd.
“Hi,” Margo said as Amber took off her jacket and sat down. “You look great, Amber. You’ve got that look in your eyes like you have a really good story brewing.”
Margo was Amber’s best friend. They had met a few years after Amber moved from Vermont to the Big Apple. Amber had gotten her first solid reporting job at the New York Post and Margo had sat near her on the same floor. Although Amber had moved on to a bigger job at News Corp at 35 Rockefeller Plaza in the heart of New York, she still kept in frequent touch with Margo.
“Thanks, Margo. Yes, I do. I’ve been researching the activities of a few corporations that all tie back to a handful of really bad people. They have their fingers into everything from guns and diamonds to cargo freighters and political back office dealings.”
“Oh, this is the same story you’ve been working on for a while now. The corporations were rigging elections in some African countries?”
“Yes, and a lot more it seems,” Amber said with a grimace. “A network of holding companies appear to be hiding their wealth. But that can wait. How have you been?”
“I’m doing great. Work hasn’t been too crazy, but I still haven’t been getting my workout time in every day,” Margo said as she patted her belly.
Margo was a workout fanatic. You could bounce a quarter off her stomach or her butt. Amber had been jealous until she found out how much workout time was required. They had worked out together for a little while, but Margo was just in far better shape than Amber.
“Sam has been away on business trips a lot this last month. We’ve only been together for six months, but I really miss him every time he leaves,” Margo said.
Amber knew Sam was Margo’s new boyfriend. “Is Sam away now?”
“Yeah, he is—for the rest of this week,” Margo said. “Hey, maybe we could have dinner and catch a show one night this week?”
“I would love to, but I’ll have to take a rain check. The story I’ve been working on will be taking me to Africa soon.”
“Africa? Where in Africa? Will the cute CIA guy be following you there?”
“Burkina Faso is the country. It recently changed from a dictatorship to a democracy. It was a French protectorate. Its success at electing and keeping a government hasn’t been stellar. Lately, people have been disappearing in the Northern provinces. They are 60 percent Muslim in the North, and there are rumors that Muslim groups are trying to push other religions out.”
“How does that relate to your story?”
“Burkina Faso is one of the least developed countries in the world. It has few natural resources except gold. A lot of new money is flowing into the country from more than one of the holding companies I’m tracking. The company is building something, and I want to find out what it is.”
Here the waiter interrupted to take their order.
As they ordered, Amber wondered why Margo always asked her about Jeff Smith. She had only seen him once on TV. He was the only one who had ever stopped Amber from getting a story, a quid pro quo scandal she was working on. Jeff had suppressed the key evidence she needed to prove a National Security Advisor was cutting deals. She hated him for it.
When the waiter left, Amber continued, “As for Jeff Smith, I couldn’t care less if I never saw him again. He will not hide the truth from me.”
“Are you telling me you don’t find Jeff the least bit attractive?”
“He’s fine if that’s your type,” Amber said defensively.
“Tall, dark, handsome, muscular, intelligent…” Margo said.
“Know it all, self-centered, egotistical…and what do you mean intelligent?” Amber replied.
“From the last story you told me, he seemed to be pretty clever. He’d have to be to outsmart you. You’re one of the smartest people I know.”
“Thank you, Margo, but I have no interest in him.” Amber looked away. “I have no time for people who hide the truth.”
Margo knew Jeff must have hurt Amber somehow to get that reaction. “That is just his job. Outside of work, he may be really sweet.”
“I guess we’ll have to wait and see,” Amber said with a forced smile.
Following a Lead
After traveling from New York to Paris, Amber finally arrived at the airport in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. Her contact, a local Catholic Priest named Jean-Paul Mulifi, held a sign with her name just outside of customs.
“Hello, Amber, and welcome to Ouagadougou,” Jean-Paul said warmly with a heavy French accent as they exchanged cheek kisses. Jean-Paul was a black African about 5’ 5” and very thin with short gray hair. He was older, but his brown eyes were bright and his smile engaging.
“Thank you for coming, Jean-Paul. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you. The work you’ve been doing with the poor in this country is incredible.”
“Thank you, thank you. Come, I have a car,” he said, then motioned to two young Arab boys standing behind him. “Grab the lady’s bags.”
Amber never thought of herself as tall, but at 5’ 10” with two-inch wedges, she was taller than all the women and most of the men at the airport. Her red copper hair, light cream complexion, and bright green eyes made her unique among the Africans at the airport. Almost everyone was staring at her.
She turned back to her host and asked, “Where will we be headed today, Jean-Paul?”
“I will take you to the capital. There we have a room where you can rest. Tomorrow, we will head north to Djibo as you requested. We can stay at the church in that city and explore from there. My bishop is thankful to have a reporter with your reputation looking into the disappearances we have witnessed. International awareness can only help our people.”
“I’m so thankful for your support, Jean-Paul. We will get to the bottom of this together.”
They climbed into a white 2010 Toyota Land Cruiser Prado. Amber thought this vehicle should do well on city streets and dirt roads.
As they rode into the capital city, Amber noticed that most of the buildings were single-story earthen structures made with sun-dried mud bricks. It wasn’t until they reached downtown that more modern buildings appeared in this city of 1.4 million. Amber spotted a large white church as they approached the city center.
“Is that where we’re going, Jean-Paul?”
“Yes, but I will take you to your room first. You can then rest or sleep as you wish.”
The church was plain but clean and well maintained. The main building was tall, rectangular, and had a large spire in the front with a huge cross on top. A smaller two-story wing branched off the main building to one side. It looked like a series of apartments with outdoor walkways. Jean-Paul drove to one of them and escorted Amber to a second-story room. The room was plain but very clean with stone flooring, a main room, and a bathroom.
“I hope this is to your liking?”
“This is very nice, Jean-Paul. Thank you for being such a gracious host.”
“I will send a boy with lunch. The clock near the bed has accurate local time. Straight down the hall is a kitchen and dining area. I will meet you there at 5 p.m. if you wish.”
“Thank you. I’ll try to be there.”
Amber felt good to be alone. She freshened up and began writing her thoughts on the trip so far. After half an hour, a young boy knocked on the door and handed Amber a tray covered with a towel. Under the towel were two bottles of water and a small casserole bowl with rice, lamb, and vegetables. The boy stayed and watched her for a few moments.
Amber tried the meal. “Mmm, this is good,” she said as she turned toward the boy. He smiled and ran away toward the kitchen.
After eating, Amber went to sleep.
* * *
Jean-Paul arrived at 9 a.m. the next morning with oatmeal for breakfast. He and Amber sat and talked about their plans as they ate. “Today,” Jean-Paul said, “we will drive north for about six hours until we reach Djibo. We can stay at the church there and begin our investigations the next day. Does that sound good to you?”
“Yes,” Amber replied, “but I might want to start talking to people this afternoon as soon as we arrive.”
“The church has arranged interviews for you and will want to show you some locations.”
“That’s excellent! I’ll still need to do some of my own investigating.”
“As you wish. If you are ready, we should be off.”
As they left the city, Amber could see miles of savanna with sparse trees and rolling grassland. As they went farther north, the terrain became drier and eventually hilly. The people they passed became a 50/50 mix of black African and Arab.
As they entered Djibo, most of the buildings were mud-brick construction. There were even fewer modern buildings. The church and a mosque were notable exceptions.
The church was a two-story building with a cross over the front door. Behind the church was a courtyard with a few other buildings. Jean-Paul drove straight into the crushed-rock courtyard and parked in front of a small office building.
“Please come with me,” he said as he walked confidently into the building.
As Amber entered the building, she saw a waiting area with about ten people sitting, a small office area where two clerks were working, and another office to the side. Jean-Paul was at the office door waving at her to enter.
Behind the only desk sat a tall middle-aged Frenchman with thick, dark hair streaked with gray. He wore black glasses and a priest’s black robe with a white collar. He looked unsettled.
“Maurice, this is Amber van Hosteen, the reporter from the United States I told you about. Amber, this is Father Maurice Cantin.”
“Call me Maurice.”
“Maurice is the one who reported missing families in the mountains near here.”
Amber and Jean-Paul sat down while Amber asked, “Can you tell me more about what is happening, Maurice?”
“Until recently, there were a few families that just seemed to disappear from their land.”
“Until recently,” Amber prompted.
“Yes. Today I have a report of an entire town missing.”
“That cannot be!” Jean-Paul exclaimed.
“Can we go see this town tomorrow?” Amber continued.
“It is remote,” Maurice said. “It will take all day to get there.”
“We can leave early,” Amber suggested.
“I have about a dozen people for you to interview, Miss van Hosteen,” Maurice said.
“Please, call me Amber.”
“Amber, I can go and investigate this town tomorrow by myself,” Maurice said. “I can return late, and we can discuss what I find.”
“All right. I do have some other questions. A large amount of construction material is going somewhere in northern Burkina Faso. Do you know where it’s going?”
“Gold mining has been on the rise here over the last few years. We are the fourth largest exporter of gold in Africa now.”
“These materials do not make sense for a gold mining operation,” Amber explained. “There are too many high-tech materials and electronics for a mining operation. Is there any place that stands out as having ultra-high security?”
“A new mine in the north has very high security,” Maurice said. “The rumor is that the mine has found something other than gold. No one can enter, and few ever leave.”
“I’d like to see this mine before I leave.”
“How long were you planning to stay?”
“As long as necessary.”
“Very well,” Maurice said. “I have made arrangements for you to stay at the local hotel. We have very few accommodations here.”
“I’m sure it’ll be fine. Who are the people waiting outside?”
“Members of my flock with an issue or grievance to report. We help everyone we can. Two of them are from the town that disappeared. I was just going to speak with them.”
“Can I join you in this discussion?” Amber asked.
“Perhaps, but we should not have too many people. It will scare them.”
“I have business elsewhere,” Jean-Paul said. “I can go. I will get your luggage to your room, Amber. I will be staying at the same hotel.”
“Thank you, Jean-Paul,” Amber replied.
Maurice got up to escort Jean-Paul out and bring two young women back to the little office. The women’s clothes were dirty, as if they had just arrived after hard travels. The younger one could not stop twirling her hair. The older one, who was maybe eighteen or nineteen, just sat and stared at her hands.
“Young ladies, are you hungry or thirsty?” Maurice asked.
There was no reply.
“Please look at me. I am here to help you. Can you tell me what happened?”
The younger girl began to speak rapidly in French and cried as she spoke. Amber knew a little French, but she could not keep up with the rapid flow of words. When the girl stopped speaking, both girls looked at their laps and cried.
Maurice turned to Amber and said, “These girls were tending to goats their family owned. The goats got away from them and started to scatter into the hills when some large trucks approached. They did not want to get in trouble with their father, so they chased the goats and brought them back to their house. When they returned, everyone was gone. They stayed one night in their town, then came here for help.”
Maurice went around the desk to comfort the girls. He was asking them in French for more information, but they had nothing else to share.
After the girls settled down, Maurice led them out of the office to a clerk. When he returned, he explained, “My staff will find them a place to sleep and a nun who can help them through these trying times.”
“That is very kind.”
“It is what we do for our people.”
“Tell me, Maurice; isn’t slavery still practiced in this part of North Africa?”
“Burkina Faso has outlawed slavery!”
“I know, but isn’t it still practiced in some parts of North Africa?”
“Unfortunately, yes,” Maurice admitted.
“On the surface, this sounds like slavers.”
“They could never be so bold. They took an entire village.”
“If I had to guess, they took these people to the new mine as workers.”
“That is pure conjecture. We need to verify there was a disappearance before we raise alarms.”
“Yes, it is only a guess. You know your country better than I do, but shouldn’t we report this to the authorities?”
“The capital of this province is 170 km to the east. Our nation’s capital is 190 km south.”
“What about the local police?”
“I called them earlier today. They have not arrived yet. Our police force is very small. We only have ten officers in Djibo, a town of 22,000. I will get a police officer to join me tomorrow. I will go to this village and see what happened for myself. If it is as the girls say, the officer and I will raise the alarm. In the meantime, I have twelve people who want to talk to you tomorrow. You can use my office. When I return, we can decide on our next step. Agreed?”
“I agree. When should I come here tomorrow?”
“About 9 a.m. is a good time to start. My staff will let you in.”
“Thank you for your help, Maurice.”
“The pleasure is mine.”
Amber walked out of Maurice’s office and sat in the waiting area until Jean-Paul returned.
* * *
After going to the hotel to freshen up, Jean-Paul and Amber ate dinner together at the hotel restaurant.
“I was surprised,” she told him, “that Maurice did not immediately take the disappearances to the police or other authorities.”
“We are a small country, Amber. The local tribes do a good job of policing their own. Do you know what Burkina Faso means?”
“No, I don’t.”
“It means ‘the fatherland of honest people.’ I take great pride in that name.”
“It is a wonderful name. I had no idea.”
“We have over sixty native tongues, but we are united by the French language. Those girls could be running from an angry father or a failed marriage. We do not know. Communications in our country are not so good. We will find out the truth tomorrow.”
“Then I look forward to tomorrow.”
Finding the Truth
Amber returned to Maurice’s office early to organize and prepare herself for multiple interviews. She snooped around Maurice’s office but found nothing unusual.
After a long day with twelve interviews, Amber was studying her notes when Jean-Paul came into the office. “How did your day go, Amber?”
“Tiring. I’m seeing some disturbing patterns in these stories. Seven out of twelve had family members go missing when they traveled north for business. Two had property seized by the government. The other three are indirect stories of people missing. I mapped the locations of the disappearances. They’re all along the road to Mali. I need to go north.”
“I’m returning to the capital tomorrow,” Jean-Paul replied. “I can arrange for a car and a driver, but we should wait for Maurice to return first.”
“Any ideas on when that will be?”
“I would guess 8 p.m. at the earliest.”
“Can you and I meet here before you leave tomorrow? Either Maurice will be back by then or he won’t.”
“That’s fine. I can take you to the hotel now if you wish.”
“That would be great. I’ll take dinner in my room and work on my interview notes tonight. I’ll see if I can find out anything else about this part of the world from my colleagues in the United States. I left my hotel room phone number on Maurice’s desk and with the head clerk.”
“All we can do is wait,” Jean-Paul said with a smile.
* * *
There were no calls that evening. Amber met Jean-Paul the next day at Maurice’s office.
“There is no sign of Maurice.”
“I feel something bad is happening, Jean-Paul. I need a car.”
“Are you sure you want to go there now?”
“Yes, I am. I can’t find the truth sitting here. I was thinking last night that my driver should be Muslim. If there are religious issues at the heart of this, I can dress as a Muslim and hide my identity.”
“As you wish. Please be careful.”
Within an hour, Amber was on the road north with Malik, her Muslim driver. She also had a black dress to cover her body from the neck down, and a hood that covered everything except her eyes.
Amber’s data gathered so far placed most of the disappearances around a small town named Diguel near the Mali border. They would stop at the village Maurice was headed to first. It was on the way to Diguel.
The trip was uneventful until they came close to the village. Amber put on her disguise just before trucks loaded with armed men forced them off the road. They were both scared, but the trucks did not stop.
“Is there a military base near here?” Amber asked Malik.
“No. Border guards only. Burkina Faso has small army near capital.”
They continued to the little village and found nothing but empty houses, a few goats, and some chickens. As they explored the little village, it was as if the residents had dropped everything and run away. “There was food still cooking when they left,” Amber observed. “The wash is still hanging on lines even though it’s dry. Windows are open. Tools are sitting out as if they were set down in a hurry.”
Malik was silent.
“I noticed crosses in almost every house. Was this village Christian, Malik?”
“I think so.”
Amber took many photos and some video before returning to the car. As they started to leave, Amber saw a reflection between some buildings. “Let’s drive behind those houses, Malik.”
As they drove around the houses, they spotted a pickup truck like the one they were in with the doors open. No one was around.
Amber got out to inspect the Toyota truck. The keys were still in the ignition. She found paperwork written in French that looked like the registration. She walked back to Malik.
“Malik, can you read this paperwork? Is this truck registered with the church?”
Malik was nervous and looking everywhere. He was ready to drive away. He took one quick look at the paper and said, “That truck is owned by the church. We must go!”
“Don’t leave me, Malik. We need to see if Maurice is here. He may be injured.”
Malik said nothing. Amber took his silence as consent and started looking around the nearby houses. She could follow the tracks of two men exiting the vehicle. They appeared to enter a house. Amber went inside and found a patch of blood on the floor, but no sign of Maurice or the police officer.
Amber decided not to press her luck with Malik. She took a few more pictures of the village, then told Malik she was ready to leave.
Malik calmed down once they were back on the road—until another convoy of trucks forced them off it. After the last truck passed, he put his face in his hands and started shaking.
“Malik, what’s wrong?”
“I cannot continue. I want to turn around now.”
“Okay,” Amber said slowly. “Let’s go back to the village. I can take Maurice’s truck and you can go home. Okay?”
Malik looked at Amber and said, “I do not want to go back to that village.”
“Okay, just take me near the village. I can make it from there.”
“You shame me with your bravery.”
“There’s no shame here. Let’s just take it easy and go back near the village.”
Malik turned the truck around and drove cautiously back to the outskirts of the empty village. “I will wait here for you, and then go home.”
Amber grabbed her bag and walked into the empty village. The truck was where they had found it and the keys were still in the ignition. She closed the doors, started it up, and drove out to meet Malik.
He got out and put a gas can in the back of her truck, then waved and drove away.
Amber was on her own, but that didn’t worry her. She drove north toward Diguel and looked for signs of heavy traffic or construction. She stopped at a crossroad about ten miles from Diguel and hid behind a small hill. The road looked worn and heavily used by large trucks. She waited for about two hours before a convoy of trucks pulling flatbed trailers flew by. Their cargo was in large boxes covered with a beige canvas. She jumped into her little white Toyota truck and followed the convoy.
For about forty-five minutes, Amber drove though deep canyons following the dust kicked up by the trucks before the convoy slowed down. Then she pulled off the road and climbed a rough shale hill with her camera. The trucks stopped in front of a barbed wire gate. Guards armed with AK47 machine guns were talking to the drivers and inspecting their cargo. The small convoy had ten trucks. One of the guards boarded each truck before allowing it to move forward into the facility. About ten minutes later, ten different trucks left the facility, each dropping off an armed guard as it left.
As the sun began to set, Amber decided to leave and spend the night at the empty village. It had food and shelter, and no one was there. She could also spend some more time investigating the village. She slid down the little hill, made her way back to her truck, and headed back the way she had come. The road was empty all the way back to the little village.
She found her way to a small house she remembered had food and candles. She closed the shutters, lit a candle, and made herself something to eat before falling asleep.
* * *
The next morning, Amber heard voices. She looked out one of the shuttered windows and saw two men with rifles. They were thieves stealing from the empty village. She could not understand what they were saying, but it was definitely not French. She had hidden the truck behind some hills near the village. She doubted these men knew she was there. The house she was in sat right in the middle of the village. She could not leave without being seen.
As the men approached her house, Amber became scared. She had no weapons and no way to escape, so she hid under the bed with a rough woven cloth over her. A man tried to kick open the door. When it failed to open, he shot the lock and kicked it again.
Amber fought to stop shaking with fear. Who were these men? What would they do to her if they found her?
The man kicked the door again, shattering the lock. As the door swung open, Amber froze in fear.
Automatic weapons began firing and rifles were firing back. The man at the door fired three times, then ran away into the village. Suddenly, the weapon fire stopped. Amber could hear feet walking toward her house. A man stopped in the doorway and said, “Amber, you can come out now.”
She was still scared, but she really had no other options, so she crawled out from under the bed to see Jeff Smith standing in the doorway with a machine gun in his right hand.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Amber asked.
Jeff smiled and said, “How charming? I would have expected ‘Hello’ or maybe even ‘Thank you.’”
“Why are you here?”
“We’ve been tracking you since you arrived in the country.”
“We?” Amber asked as she dusted herself off.
“Let me introduce Dureau from the French Directorate-General for External Security and Emil from Burkina Faso Border Security.
“Thank you for your timely arrival, gentlemen.”
“You’re welcome,” Dureau said with a bow. Emil just smiled at Jeff.
“We surprised the thieves,” Jeff said. “They outnumber us and might return with more. We should go.”
“Do you know what happened in this village?” Amber asked.
“No,” Emil answered.
“The entire village disappeared,” Amber said. “A priest from the church I’m working with came here to investigate and also disappeared. I have his truck behind the hill over there.”
The men all looked at each other before Emil spoke, “I have heard rumors of other disappearances.”
“I interviewed twelve people yesterday who all had family members or friends disappearing around this area. I followed some large trucks to a secure facility north of here. Look at these photos.” Amber shared the pictures on her camera of the facility’s front gates and of the convoy entering. “I believe this facility has something to do with these disappearances.”
“Officials for this region visited that facility a few weeks back. They never returned,” Emil said.
“We need to go,” Jeff repeated.
“We should investigate the village,” Emil said.
“Jeff is right. We can always come back with more men,” Dureau said.
Emil looked at them a moment and said, “All right. You take the girl. I’ll take her truck. Keys?”
“Now wait a minute,” Amber said. “I’m not some cargo you can haul around.”
“If we stay here any longer, we could all die. We need to go!” Jeff said as he grabbed Amber’s arm.
Amber pulled away from Jeff and slapped him hard across the face. “I will not be manhandled,” she stated.
The other two men snickered. Jeff gave them a look, asking for their help.
Dureau walked over to Amber and said, “Please, Amber, will you come with us to a safe place to talk? We really cannot stay here much longer.”
Amber gave a cross look at Jeff and then smiled at Dureau. “I accept your offer. Please lead the way.” She pulled her bag onto her shoulder, threw the truck keys to Emil, and followed Dureau to their black SUV.
Jeff looked over at Emil, wondering what had just happened. Emil laughed and walked off to find the church truck.
When they returned to their safe house, they would be in for multiple surprises.