CHAPTER ONE - GEHENNA
Jace Parker gazed down at Earth from the pilot seat of his Paladin-class spaceship, the Storm Spike. Other words--alien words--with sibilant syllables echoed in his mind. These other words were those of the ship’s creators, the Altaeth or as they were also called, the Precursors, which described the true class and name of the vessel, words very different than his own, and almost impossible for human vocal chords to reproduce.
The ship’s artificial intelligence, or AI, whispered these exotic words to him, reminding him that though the Storm Spike felt like it had been created for him alone, humans had not built this vessel or created any of its technology. It was almost as if the AI wanted him to remember the Altaeth and honor them, even as it accepted its new name and pilot without other complaint. But not even the universal translator could turn that ancient alien tongue into English or any of the other hundreds of thousands of known languages.
The Altaeth were long dead--or perhaps, as some thought, they had simply stepped away from this part of the universe--and had left their cities, ships and other technology behind like scattered children’s toys on a playroom rug for others to find.
But they had also left their enemy here. An enemy that only their technology could defeat. But few remained could use that technology to its fullest extent.
“All appears quiet, Gehenna,” Jace said to the ship’s AI.
“Yes, though that could change at any moment, Jace. The Khul have been too quiet as of late,” Gehenna reminded him patiently. “And that means they’ve been planning something bigger than usual.”
“You don’t think they’ve given up?” He lifted his right eyebrow even as a smile tugged his lips.
“The Khul will never give up. It is not in their nature,” she replied simply.
The AI had chosen a female voice similar to his mother’s, but a slight bit wryer in tone. He thought the choice was a good one. His mother Col. Diane Parker was head of the military air base known simply as Area 67, which was a top secret military installation tasked with the development and testing of experimental aircraft for the US military. Col. Parker was not only highly respected, but beloved by those who served under her, which included his father Captain Jack Parker, an experimental test pilot. So by choosing his mother’s voice for her own, the AI was cast in his mother’s reflected light. Yet the AI had also taken the name “Gehenna” which was in rabbinic literature known as a place for the wicked, or in more generic terms, it was another name for Hell.
The juxtaposition was strange to say the least. But Gehenna, for all their closeness, remained a bit of a mystery to him. Maybe more than a bit. She was opaque in many ways, which just intrigued Jace more. After all, she must know what happened to the Altaeth. She must know what their words meant, at least in comparison to his own, yet she did not translate them for him or for anyone. She professed an ignorance that he didn’t quite believe.
“You sound almost eager for a fight.” Jace grinned.
“I grow uneasy when the Khul are absent for too long,” she answered.
“Grow uneasy? That sounds almost… I don’t know, almost superstitious, Gehenna,” he teased her. “Are you going mystic on me? I thought you were all facts and figures.”
“Only as mystic as you wish me to be, Jace. After all, I have aligned my communication style to one that suits you best,” she stated dryly. “Such as your insistence that we speak out loud rather than simply mind to mind.”
“Only because it’s hard to tell where I end and you begin when we do that,” he confessed.
“But that is the point. We are to be one so that all systems perform optimally,” she reminded him and there was that slight chastising tone his mother had always used so well against him when he hadn’t done his best at something, choosing to be lazy instead.
But it wasn’t laziness that was holding him back now. It was the desire to remain himself. He sensed that if he ever truly gave himself over to Gehenna or any of the AIs that populated the Precursor technology he would change in ways that he wouldn’t like.
“You must know that these fears are foundless, don’t you?” Gehenna, of course, knew his real reasoning for everything. Her tone was gentle now. “You were made for this. If you changed at all from it, it would only be to become what you were always meant to be.”
Jace turned the topic of conversation, knowing that this was not an argument he wished to have right at that moment, “Earth looks beautiful tonight.”
“Yes, it always does,” she agreed and he believed she felt that herself as she had found Earth and determined to protect it.
They were on the nightside of Earth and the lights of civilization stretched across the whole of the continent of North and South America below him. They reminded him of brilliant starbursts that were connected by glowing arteries of light. Though the lights were unnatural, they signalled that the planet was alive. They announced to all who saw them that there were beings below who thought, lived, dreamed and died.
It was like that moment in the movie Contact when Jody Foster’s character stopped in her journey through various wormholes only to see an alien world awash in light and realize there was intelligent life there. He remembered the electric feeling he’d experienced during that scene. To know that there were other beings out there was, to him, a religious experience. Humanity was not alone. Humanity was part of a greater whole. And it had a greater purpose, too.
He thought of all the people down on the planet, never dreaming that above them were thousands of spaceships protecting them from what lurked in the vast darkness of space where Earth spun. People like he had once been, but now the kid who hadn’t been able to get his driver’s license due to crippling migraines, seeing auras and the near constant tinnitus was a protector of Earth. And the disabilities that had held him back were what made him special.
“I am sorry for that pain, Jace,” Gehenna suddenly said. “But it was because you were not where you were supposed to be, doing what you were supposed to do. You are a pilot. And this determination to still hold yourself back is just as unnatural.”
“I’m more than a pilot, Gehenna. I’m more than just my ability to interact with Precursor tech,” he reminded her.
He stretched out his right hand towards the orange-colored holographic controls that appeared between him and the screen where Earth was projected. The wrist of his synthskin glove was not fully sealed. He tugged on the light material until it merged with the sleeve seamlessly.
Even with the glove on, he could still feel everything as if his hand was bare. The synthskin though would protect him from the vacuum of space or any number of temperature or atmospheric conditions. It also could change color with his mood, which sometimes amused him when he made the whole suit a fiery red, though mostly he kept it a shimmery gray with highlights of neon green.
It was then when he looked up between his spread fingers that he saw the warning light. Orange had turned to alarming red as the Storm Spike’s systems identified a threat. On the edge of his ship’s sensors, enemy vessels had been detected. The screen in front of him shifted from showing the peacefulness of Earth, to the ships that were streaking towards it.
They were long and needle-shaped. Khul vessels filled with drones ready to drop down onto any planet and assimilate the population into itself, food or even fuel. The process was just as horrible and destructive no matter what the end result.
And this time, they were here to assimilate Earth and humanity.
The bitter taste of adrenaline and fear flooded Jace’s mouth as he dropped his hands to the controls.
“Gehenna,” he said, “alert the others. The Swarm is here.”
And just as he was about to turn the ship’s thrusters on there was the blare of an alarm. Shrill. Piercing. Deafening.
“Gehenna! What the Hell is that noise?!” he demanded. “Shut it off! I can’t concentrate!”
In fact, the whole spaceship was becoming opaque, hazy, and strangely unreal. He put his hands up to his ears, trying to drown out the squawk, but it did nothing.
“I’m afraid I cannot, Jace. It is not coming from my systems, but yours,” Gehenna said, almost sadly.
“Mine? What do you mean?”
But then Jace jolted awake in his bedroom.
His phone’s alarm was going off. An annoying blare of raw sound. He flew upright in bed and sat there, unsure where he was for long moments. His heart beat wildly in his chest. He blinked his eyes rapidly as he tried to square this ordinary bedroom--desk chair covered in this week’s clothes that weren’t dirty enough for the hamper, desk piled high with his notebooks where he sketched and wrote, windows covered with shades that showed morning light around the edges, half-closed closet doors with shoes spilling out--and the clean, almost antiseptic yet cozy space of the Storm Spike.
We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto, he thought mirthlessly.
He managed to hit the STOP button on his phone and the alarm went silent. It was 7 a.m. on a Monday morning in Sunrise, Arizona, population 300, but if one added the military personnel onto that it rose to 3000.
Unlike on many bases where military personnel lived both on and off base and used the local city’s services, at Area 67 some unknown amount of people arrived on base, but never left it. They were working on such secret projects that they had to work, sleep and eat on base. Jace didn’t bother asking his parents if the rumor was true or what kind of projects would require such dedication. They would never answer him and betray the country they both served and loved so much. But still, Jace wondered.
He rubbed his face with both hands, still feeling slightly foggy. Whenever he had these dreams, when he woke up he felt like he’d left part of himself behind. He’d been having these dreams for years, but only in the past six months had he decided to turn them into a novel or maybe even a series of novels. His unconscious mind must have liked that idea, because the dreams were coming to him more often and with greater detail.
He blindly reached for the notebook and pen on his nightstand. He had to write down everything he remembered before wakefulness washed it away. He certainly didn’t want to forget that the ship’s AI was named “Hell” for all intents and purposes. It amused him no end. He wondered why his unconscious mind had decided on that.
Was it because the AI would later be shown to be a villain? Maybe the true assimilation would come not from the Khul but from the Precursor technology that would mind meld with every human it could and turn them into pilots and not people. But he didn’t like that idea. It felt wrong to him. He was sure that in the story he was writing that the AI was trustworthy and his ally. He had learned to trust his gut instincts about what the story needed.
As he scribbled down the details in the notebook, he thought he would have to maybe change the AI’s name so people didn’t get the wrong idea, not even as a red herring. But that, oddly, felt wrong too as if the name “Gehenna” was right and had to stay.
Jace frowned at his unconscious mind’s stubbornness about this. Just because he dreamed something, it didn’t mean the story had to be the exact copy of the dream. Yet his fingers slowed as he tried to write down alternative names for the AI. None appeared. His forehead furrowed and he felt the beginning throb of a migraine behind his eyes. He quickly smoothed out his forehead and the pain retreated a little, but not much.
No, no, no, not today, he pleaded. I promised Walter I would man the store all day today so he could go to his granddaughter’s birthday party. I’m not taking that away from him.
Jace set the notebook back on his cluttered nightstand, knocking over a few books including a pile of The Expanse series. He grimaced as they fell to the floor and wedged between the wall and the nightstand. Getting down on the ground and fishing them out would likely just increase the pressure in his head that was already growing. He had to do everything he could to keep the migraine at bay so the books would remain there.
He carefully got up and padded over to his desk. His medicine was in the right pants pocket of the jeans he wore yesterday. He fished out the orange bottle and unscrewed the white top before popping a large gray pill in his mouth and dry-swallowing it. The medication didn’t have a name. It also didn’t come from a pharmacy, but was formulated by a group of doctors on base for him. The reason why was that nothing else worked and the reason for that was…
“They think it was something I was exposed to on base when I was pregnant with you,” his mother had told him several years ago, her head downcast, her eyes not meeting his.
He had been almost glad she couldn’t see her eyes. He hated the guilt in them. It was unwarranted. She loved him and would die for him. There was no way she would have knowingly done something that would have harmed him. It was a terrible accident and that was that.
He jammed the bottle back into his jeans pocket. He’d be wearing these today anyways. Best to keep the pills right there in case he needed another one later. Besides, these pants were his favorites. They were soft and worn in all the right places with a bunch of patches he’d sewn on when the tears had gone from “cool” to a little too revealing.
He grabbed them and a faded lime green t-shirt off the back of the chair. He sniffed the t-shirt. It didn’t smell of sweat or laundry detergent. His migraines could be triggered by anything really, but strong smells were thought to be a factor though he honestly couldn’t say that was true. Or rather, there were only certain scents that would trigger him, but they weren’t the faint floral or ocean breeze smells that were found in laundry detergent. It was often the smell of ozone that did it.
One whiff of that electric, bitter scent and his vision would flash black as if the Matrix were failing and he was seeing the “real” world, for a moment. But instead, his vision would come back and his head would merely throb. Auras would swirl around objects and the high-pitched ringing of tinnitus would be in his ears. He’d avoid that scent like the plague today.
A pair of clean boxer briefs and white socks completed what he needed to get dressed. He would get ready in the bathroom after a shower. He went to his closed bedroom door and paused. His gaze swung to the black Ray Ban sunglasses sitting on the edge of his desk.
Wearing them inside would be a dead giveaway to his parents that he was already suffering from a migraine and they would insist he stay home. He might be twenty-four-years-old, but they still worried about his fragile health. He gritted his teeth just thinking about it. Though he didn’t blame his mother for his conditions, he hated that he was so brittle.
Daily living was a stretch for him most times. He wasn’t sure how he was ever going to get a job that could support him. Forget about his dreams of being a pilot like his father--let alone a spaceship pilot like in my real dreams--he was lucky that Walter was willing to give him some shifts at his combo book-movie-convenience store.
But Walter was getting up there in years and even businesses in Sunrise, Arizona were feeling the Amazon pinch. So how long would Walter remain open? And who else would tolerate Jace’s significant absenteeism and other requirements like dim lights? He doubted anyone and a flare of panic filled him like it often did these days when he thought of the future. But he pushed it down. Maybe the doctors at the base would find some tweak to the medicine that would fix him. Maybe he would be able to parlay his story into something that could make money.
Yeah, right. Do I think I’m going to self-publish my book and become Richard Castle overnight?
He shook his head, which was as much a mistake as furrowing his brow as the pain of the migraine seemed to slosh around in his skull. He stopped the movement and held himself very still before picking up the sunglasses and firmly putting them on. He was glad he had because the moment he opened his bedroom door, the bright clear light of an Arizona morning blinded him as the big windows at the end of the hall didn’t have their shades drawn as they normally did.
Keeping his head down, he dashed halfway down the hall and zipped into the bathroom. He heard his parents talking together at the end of the hall where the kitchen was. Neither of them had seen the sunglasses. He sagged against the back of the bathroom door for a moment. He caught sight of himself out of the corner of his eye in the bathroom mirror. He turned his head and nearly laughed.
His dark brown hair was sticking up in every direction from sleep. His gray eyes were hidden by the sunglasses, but his thick, expressive eyebrows lifted in amusement. He had a strong jaw and high cheekbones. His olive toned skin looked even darker due to the sunglasses. He was reminded of Tom Cruise in Risky Business when the actor had danced in his underwear and sunglasses. He was in nearly the same outfit. Not quite as cool though. That caused a grin to light his face. The grinning hurt too. He sighed and let his face relax.
The medicine will kick in soon. It will be okay. You’ll be fine.
He forced himself to get ready. With only the frosted small window in the bathroom for light, he was able to take off the sunglasses to brush his teeth, shave and shower before dressing quickly. He, again, toyed with the idea of not putting the sunglasses on when he exited the bathroom. His headache was a dull throb at the base of his skull now. The tinnitus, too, was just a low ringing in his ears. If he was careful, things might remain this way: manageable. He slid the sunglasses on and popped his head out of the bathroom. The shades to the windows in the kitchen and eating nook were now closed. They had realized he was awake.
They’re forced to live in darkness because of me, he thought bitterly.
But he was grateful for the lack of light. He took the sunglasses off and hooked one arm over the neck of his t-shirt. He then strode down the hallway to grab some food before taking off to work on his bike.
His mother was seated at the three person wood table. She was in her dress blues. A dark blue skirt and blazer with crisp white shirt and tie. There was a cup of coffee in front of her and the remnants of toast. His father was in the kitchen, leaning against the counter in his green flight suit with his booted feet crossed at the ankles. They both stopped their conversation to greet him.
“You’re up early,” his mother said.
“Walter’s granddaughter is having her tenth birthday. He agreed to have it at his place so I told him I’d work the whole day,” he explained as he splashed some of the coffee from the pot into his dark blue to go cup.
His parents were quiet at this for far too long. Jace gritted his teeth.
Wait for it. Just wait for it.
His mother’s voice was strenuously neutral as she asked, “Is he going to let you close early?”
“What? No, why?” Jace grimaced when he asked the last.
His father’s handsome square-jawed face smiled at him. “Because that’s a sixteen hour day, champ.”
And I can hardly handle half that. That’s what he is thinking.
Jace kept his own voice easy as he shrugged and said, “Should be slow today with the base on alert about those Naruto-runners. The run to get past security is one today, isn’t it? They’re going to find all those spaceships you’re hiding.”
His mother gave out a laugh that was laced with annoyance. “It’s so ridiculous. Hardly anyone showed up at Area 51 and those who did attempt anything were caught right away. Nothing more will happen here considering we’re not half as known for having alien technology.”
His mother put air quotes around “alien”. Jace wished his parents were working with alien tech, but no, it was all human made. He would be the first one there otherwise.
“Area 67 may have less people who know about it, but they’re more passionate,” his father stated mildly and took another sip of coffee. “So I wouldn’t discount what they might try.”
A flicker of worry crossed his mother’s face. She tucked a loose brown curl behind her ear. It had slipped out of her bun already. “I just want to ensure that no one gets hurt. The people who come here are mostly harmless. She stood up and grabbed her cap. “Do you want us to give you a ride to work?”
Jace had just put some toast into the toaster. He shook his head. “I’m going to ride. Besides, you guys need to get on base.”
His mother hesitated and he felt his parents give each other worried looks. Jace pretended he didn’t see as he grabbed butter and grape jelly from the bridge.
“Okay, well… if you need anything you’ll call, right?” His mother’s voice was artificially bright.
He replied in kind, “Sure. Absolutely.”
How about never? I won’t ruin Walter’s day or my parents’.
His mother headed out of the house while his father lingered behind, rinsing out his coffee cup.
Wait for it, Jace thought again.
He almost smiled as he anticipated what his father was going to do. The light hand on his right shoulder was the start.
“Jace, I know that you’d rather gnaw off your own arm before you admit you don’t feel well, and by don’t feel well I mean you’re in agony,” his father said.
“I’m fine, Dad. Really. I mean I’m just going to be sitting behind the counter. I’d just be sitting here otherwise,” Jace told him as he concentrated on buttering his toast. It was easier to lie if he wasn’t looking into his father’s gray eyes.
His father squeezed his shoulder. “I know you say that, Jace, but you--”
“Dad.” Jace accidentally slammed the knife on the counter. It clanked loudly. The sound had his tinnitus flaring. He drew in a deep breath. He modulated his voice as he said, “If I can’t sit behind a counter then… what can I do?”
His father was silent for a long moment, but then stated firmly, “There are lots of things--”
“No, Dad, there aren’t! You know there aren’t.” Jace’s hands fisted on the counter. He was shaking. His vision started to blur as the stress built up in his neck and shoulders.
“It’s going to be okay. Your mother and I have plans in place that will make sure you’ll be taken care of, no matter what,” his father said quietly. “You don’t have to worry--”
“That I’ll never be able to live or work like a normal person? That when you guys die that there’s plenty of life insurance?!” Jace’s voice was strained. The thought of his parents dying was beyond hideous, but he also knew that he should be grateful for what his father was saying, what his parents were able to do. So many others weren't so fortunate. Yet he shook his head, the headache sloshing around inside like acid, and continued on, “You can’t possibly understand. You’re a goddamned fighter pilot! You’re a--a hero! You and Mom serve our country, save countless people, and do important work. I can’t even work a cash register for too long before I need to lay down in a dark room with no noise!”
Heat flooded his face and he felt his headache pounding like a drum. This was bad. Getting upset just made things ten times worse. He tried to breathe, but his chest was so tight now too. He really hated himself right then and there. He knew feeling sorry for himself would do nothing good, it certainly wouldn’t change anything, and taking it out on his father who was just trying to help was wrong. But he couldn’t help it.
“I know that things seem hopeless right now, Jace, but--”
“Because they are! But I’m still going to work the whole day today so that Walter can have a good time with his granddaughter. That means I’ve done something good,” Jace stated as he slipped out from under his father’s hand.
He went back to his bedroom and slammed the door shut behind him. He sat on his bed, in the dark, head in his hands. He waited until he heard the front door open and close and the sound of his parents’ car leaving the driveway of their stucco ranch home. He stayed there for another ten minutes, left leg bobbing up and down, feeling guilty and sorry for himself.
I’ll call Dad later and apologize. I can make that right at least.
He stood up, grabbed his notebook and made his way back outside his bedroom. He was running late so he crammed the toast in his mouth and took a slug of coffee before he headed outside. This time he didn’t hesitate to put on his sunglasses.
The heat took his breath away. Even this early in the day, it was already in the nineties fahrenheit. It would be over 100 that afternoon, cooling in the evening, but still not dropping below the seventies. Walter’s shop wasn’t that far away, but still he’d be sweat drenched when he got there. After slipping his journal into his bike’s saddlebags and the coffee into the holder, he swung his leg over the bike and took off. It was a mountain bike and cruised over the hot asphalt smoothly.
He was squinting behind his glasses and there were auras around cars, but he didn’t care. The hot air was running through his hair. The drive chain was singing. He wasn’t going all that fast, but there was a freedom to it. And he needed that right now. He zigzagged through the streets until he came to Walter’s shop called the Con-Ve, which was a “cute” name for saying convenience. No one though ever got it.
Walter came out the moment Jace rounded the corner. He was in his late seventies with wispy white hair that barely covered a spotted scalp. He had lean legs and arms, but a pot belly that hung over a belt that had a large eagle-shaped belt buckle. Walter shaded his watery blue eyes from the already bright, burning sun. He waved as Jace glided over to him and pumped on the brakes. He dismounted.
“Hey, Walter, I’m sorry I’m late!” Jace said, slightly breathless. Sweat ran along his spine and down his temples, but he felt refreshed.
“You’re fine, Jace. I’m just eager to get back and start decorating. The expectations of ten-year-olds are higher than you might think!” Walter said with a deep belly laugh.
Jace grinned, even though his head hurt from the movement. “I bet.”
“I want to make it perfect for Jenny, you see. Since her dad passed away last year…” Walter’s usual rubbery smile died for a moment. “Well, I just want her to have a good time.”
“She will. She definitely will.” Jace felt so damned glad he was doing this. It gave him strength to ignore the pain he felt. He touched Walter’s forearm gently. “You go on and start the preparations. I’ve got this.”
“Are you sure, Jace? I’m asking an awful lot of you.” Walter’s face was creased with concern.
Jace kept his smile firmly in place as he said with certainty, “Absolutely. I’m good. Don’t worry about anything.”
Walter looked relieved and immediately brightened. “Well, I’ll be back around closing time tonight. If you need anything, call and I’ll be right over. I’m just--”
“A block away. Don’t worry, Walter, I know, but I’m not going to need you,” Jace assured the older man.
“Well, I do so appreciate it. Lunch and dinner is on me. You order whatever you want from Lulu’s,” Walter said, naming the diner down the block, which had the best food.
“Sounds great! I…” Jace broke off as suddenly a cloud covered the sun.
The hair on the back of his neck stood on end. His headache pounded so hard he felt it in his bones. The tinnitus whined like a hornet. He turned his head to look up at the cloud. It was more than a cloud. It was a bank of dark clouds, boiling along the horizon. He thought he saw lightning in them.
“Whoa, where did come from?” Walter asked as he stared at the clouds, too.
For a moment, Jace thought he saw something long and needle-like threading through those clouds, but it disappeared. But Jace knew what it looked like. It looked like one of the Khul spaceships that he had dreamed about.
But, of course, that must be impossible, because that was a dream.
There were no Khul.
There was no Storm Strike or Gehenna.
Aliens, if they did exist, were not flying spaceships above Sunrise, Arizona.