CHAPTER FIVE: DON'T THINK
“Jace!” Sami cried. “Watch out!”
The note of warning and fear in Sami’s voice snapped Jace back to the moment. The Omull that had killed the soldier was still there. In fact, it was coming inside. It had to dip its head to pass through the window, but once inside, it straightened to its full seven-foot height. It loomed over him and the dead soldier. An axe whizzed through the air and hit the Omull’s dome of eyes. But it glanced off, making a sound like it had hit metal, and fell to the floor behind the creature. Sami grabbed another axe, but Jace knew it would do no good.
Only Altaeth weapons work against the Khul, Gehenna whispered in his mind.
Yes, I understand, Jace told her.
Without further thought or direction, he rose up. The weapon in his hand did as well and he aimed it at the Omull. His hand did not tremble. He felt quite calm and assured as if he had done this hundreds or even thousands of times before even though he had never held a gun, which this laser gun was the equivalent to.
You have done this thousands of times before, Jace. We’ve practiced in your dreams, remember? Or perhaps you don’t quite yet. But you will, Gehenna sounded amused. Don’t think. Just let yourself respond. The understanding of what to do is etched on your nervous system.
Her voice was clearer than it had been, but there was still a bit of a buzz and snap as if they had a bad connection or there was a storm in the area.
We will fix that later. We’ll fix everything with your head and your body later, I promise, Gehenna told him. We’ve found one another and that first step will lead to many others.
I don’t understand how this can be real, he admitted as he released a breath in preparation to fire.
He could smell the Omull’s dry, papery smell. He was reminded of when his father had found a hornet’s nest under the eaves of their house once. That strange smell that he could never quite classify. The Omull gave it off in waves.
It’s real, Jace, Gehenna assured him. You know it is. Just accept everything on its face for now and question later.
All right. Now really isn’t the time for talking! Jace agreed.
All of this had taken a fraction of a second to communicate between them. Later, Sami would tell him that he fluidly rose up and fired without any hesitation. His conversation with Gehenna had occurred so quickly that it hadn’t slowed him down at all.
Jace fired dead center at the Omull’s head. It jerked back at the last moment but the laser blast still sliced off its bottom jaw. Black and green liquid poured from the wound. The blood caused the old linoleum floor to blacken and smoke as if acid had been poured down upon it. The Omull’s head whipped around and droplets of that acidic blood flew through the air. Considering what that blood had done to the floor, he didn’t want to find out what it did to bare skin. And it appeared he was right to worry.
Move, Jace! Gehenna shouted.
And, for a moment, he thought he saw a holographic grid overlay of orange lines showing him where the blood would and wouldn’t land. Some of it was going to hit Sami in the face. Again, Sami would tell him that he seemed to shoot and move without any hesitation as if he and the Omull had choreographed the whole thing and practiced it endlessly.
He twisted and grabbed Sami around the waist before throwing them both backwards into a section of the grid where no blood would land. He spun them in mid air so that they both landed beside each other instead of one on top of the other. He twisted around--laser gun outstretched--and fired off two more blasts in quick succession.
The first shot hit the Omull’s body, vaporizing a chunk of its carapace, while the second shot penetrated its chin, blowing the top of its head off. The creature remained upright for a moment before collapsing, knocking over one of the shelves containing the chips. There was a sizzling sound as the plastic bags melted and the chips were cooked in acid. A foul smell rose up as well. A noxious chemical stink that had Jace’s head starting to ache again.
The pool of blood from the Omull’s body was spreading towards his and Sami’s feet. He jerked his feet up towards his body and stood up, dragging Sami with him. Not that she needed much help as she was scrambling to get up as well.
“Jace.” The way she said his name--full of awe and shock--had him turning to look down at her. “How did you do that? Have you been… training to fight alien invaders?”
She gave out a laugh that wasn’t quite a laugh. Her eyes said that she truly wondered at the answer.
Jace nearly dropped the laser gun as a sharp pain like a railroad spike drove through his skull. He brought both of his hands up to his temples as he hunched forward. The pain was horrible. The auras flared until everything from Sami to a can of nuts on a shelf had a different colored aura. He staggered and collapsed against a shelf containing the jars of salsa. He swept dozens of them onto the floor in his desperate bid to keep upright. Jars shattered and painted his legs with tomatoes, onions and jalapenos.
“JACE!” Sami cried as she caught him just as he was going to slide to the floor.
Gehenna! What’s going on? Why is this happening? Jace asked through the stabs of pain.
It was like his normal migraine, but turned up to 11.
The buzz and snap over their connection was worse as Gehenna said apologetically, Jace, it’s because our connection isn’t complete and we’re talking. You need to find me and we need to finish what we started.
Find you?! Where are you--ah, God?!
Jace clutched at his head as his tinnitus turned into a high-pitched whine. It felt like someone was drilling into his head.
You’re reacting to the Khul’s presence as well, Gehenna stated through the hiss and pop. I can try and block some of that out. There was a pause and then she asked, Did that help?
The pain retreated to a dull, angry throb around the back of his skull. The high-pitched whine was now muted. Jace was able to lower his hands from his ears and stand up on his own though he was shaky. Sami continued holding onto him tightly just in case he toppled over.
That helped a ton, Gehenna. The pain’s just a dull roar now, he told her.
It will go away once we complete our connection, Gehenna assured him.
For a moment, Jace thought of the dream he’d had just that morning about her and his fears that maybe the Precursors--and they were real too!--wanted to assimilate humans and were the real villains, not the Khul. But after seeing the Khul, that idea seemed downright dumb. Or, at least, it was clear that the Khul were definitely villains. Whether Gehenna and the Precursors were was not determined yet.
Jace, I know that this is confusing and you must have many questions, Gehenna began again.
But now is not the time for questions? Jace grinned and winced as it hurt to do that.
There was a chuckle from the AI. Now, you’re getting it. She paused and added, You’ve only seen a little of what the Khul will do to humanity. Even if I or the Altaeth had bad intentions to assimilate you in order to stop them, would that be so terrible? I assure you that we are not going to harm you. But the Khul… they will. And not just you.
Jace frowned. That was a point. A lot of points actually. He looked out of the broken window. The Khul and the soldiers were all gone. He didn’t hear any screams anymore from the Naruto-runners. Hopefully, some of them had gotten away.
A few did. But others will not be so lucky, Gehenna told him.
Others? Jace grew rigid as he remembered that Walter’s house was just around the block where a birthday party for dozens of excited ten-year-olds was taking place. A cold wash went through him. But surely the soldiers--
They are only able to use the basest part of the Altaeth technology, but you, Jace, can do so much more, Gehenna told him. And when we’re connected fully, you’ll be a terror to the Khul as much as they are to everyone else.
Is Walter in danger? He’s the man who lives--
I know who he is, Gehenna cut him off and he wondered if any of what he knew was hidden from her. Much is still hidden. I don’t intend to invade your privacy, but you wanted me to know this.
Right. So… Walter? Is he?
The Khul are all over that quadrant. It would appear that his house is within their control, Gehenna told him.
Then I have to go there! He tightened his hand on the weapon. It was cool despite the hot, sweatiness of his hand.
Jace, you need to come to me. There was a trace of alarm in her voice. He knew that she was thinking about how hard it had been to find him. She did not wish to lose him. You’re not ready yet--
Will Walter and his family die if I don’t go there? He demanded to know.
Jace, I cannot foretell the future. I--
Gehenna, you can guess! Your guesses are pretty good, he pushed her. I sort of remember that from the dreams.
There was a sigh, which was strange for an AI, but she had adopted mannerisms he would understand, he realized. The probability is high that Walter and his family will die unless there is some form of intervention.
And the soldiers? Will they intervene? He asked.
There was another pause. They are heading in the opposite direction of Walter’s home.
Can’t you tell them to turn back? He asked, thinking it would be good to have backup in any case.
They can’t hear me, Jace. Only you can, she explained.
What?! Why just me? They have the guns too! Jace cried.
The gun is a touchpoint that allows me to contact you, but that’s not what makes you special, Jace, she said.
But can’t you--I don’t know--take over their phones or computers or something and tell them where to go? He asked.
I will be able to do that when we are together, but right now, I am limited, she explained and there was frustration in her voice. Then with almost a wry tone she added, Besides, they aren’t as trusting of messages from strange AIs as you are.
Right. That makes me feel--
“Jace, what’s happening?” she asked, her dark brown eyes flickering over his face.
“I…” He was startled out of his conversation with Gehenna. He had no idea how much time had passed. “I don’t know if you’ll believe me. I don’t know if I believe me.”
Sami lifted an eyebrow and gestured with her axe towards the broken window of the Con-Ve. “We’re being attacked by gigantic insects from space. I just saw you take one out like a boss with a laser gun. I’m pretty sure I’ll believe anything. Now what?”
“I’m talking to an AI in my head.” Jace lifted up the weapon which was sleek and light and made of some kind of silvery metal. He felt a sense of unreality as he looked at it. He recognized it, but something wasn’t complete about it. It was like the first form of a Pokemon or something. “This--this is letting me talk to her.”
“Artificial intelligence,” he said. “Alien tech.”
Sami’s eyebrows rose. “Not those aliens, right?”
She gestured towards the Omull.
“No, not them. Others… uhm…” He ran a hand through his hair. “I don’t know everything. It’s all sort of… crazy. But I’m going with it.”
“Okay.” She nodded and gave out a slightly hysterical laugh. “I guess that’s the best way.”
“I’ve got to actually go. I need to go save Walter and his family--”
“I’m going with you!” She hefted up another axe.
He smiled. “What about--”
“Sami! Are the monsters gone?” George’s voice came up behind her.
“--George?” Jace finished.
The little boy’s eyes were huge when he caught sight of the Omull and the soldier’s dead bodies, which--to Jace’s horror--were both slowly dissolving in the Omull’s blood. He stepped in front of the horror, not that he could completely block George’s view, but the little boy focused on him instead of what was behind him.
“It’s okay, George!” Jace wondered if he sounded at all convincing. He doubted it.
Sami quickly dashed down the aisle towards her little brother. When he saw the axe in her hand his eyes grew even wider.
“Daddy says we’re not supposed to touch sharp things!” George cried.
Sami picked him up in her arms and clutched him to her. “Yeah, but today is an exception.”
“You stay here with George, Sami,” Jace told her again. “Like I said, I’m going to go to Walter’s. Maybe I can bring them back here.”
But Sami was shaking her head. “We’re staying with you. That weapon seems to be the only thing that hurts them. So… the safest place is with you, Jace.”
He opened his mouth to object. Was it the safest place? He wasn’t a trained soldier. He was just a clerk and a guy with crippling migraines. Yet here was Sami putting her and George’s lives in his hands. He opened his mouth to tell her that wasn’t a good idea, but then Gehenna was speaking.
She is right, Gehenna said. Nothing but the weapon you have will affect the Khul and they have sent their drones out here to capture as many humans as possible. Sami and George will be captured unless you protect them.
Why did the soldiers leave then? Jace asked, feeling ready to pull his hair out. This was insane. He was not a soldier.
Because they have realized that this is a ruse, she answered.
A ruse? Jace frowned.
What the Khul want is… is back at the base, she said. The soldiers are returning there to defend it.
Jace frowned deeper and was rewarded with a throb of pain so he quickly smoothed out his expression. The base?
She meant Area 67. Where his parents were. His stomach roiled. Those things were going towards his parents! But then he realized that the soldiers with the weapons came from the base. Those soldiers were likely under his mother’s command. So she knew about the aliens and the tech. His parents would be safer than Sami and George.
Mom and Dad know about the Khul and the Precursors? Know about all of this, Gehenna? He asked as a stab of betrayal went through him. He had always known that his parents were involved in things that they couldn’t tell him about. But he had always scoffed at the idea of Area 67 having an alien connection. And I feel a little pissed about it now. Aliens… Knowing that aliens exist… that would have mattered to me!
Yes, if it gives you any solace, keeping this information from you--especially after what happened--was very difficult for them, she said. Nothing I did would cause them to bring you back to the base.
He almost frowned again, but a warning throb kept him from doing so. After what happened? Something happened at the base?
He suddenly remembered his mother’s downcast eyes when she told him how she had been exposed to something at the base that had caused his illnesses. What had she been exposed to?
Again, I know you have questions, Jace, and I have answers, Gehenna reminded him. But we do not have time right now if you wish to save Walter.
I do, he said firmly. I won’t let him die!
What the Khul will do to him is worse than death, Gehenna said.
A chill went through Jace. He didn’t ask her to explain. He didn’t want to know right then, especially since he was going up against these creatures. But he also knew that this meant he couldn’t risk any further delay.
“Okay, let’s go. Stay behind me, Sami. Keep an eye out for more of those things,” Jace told her. He swallowed.
“Oh, I will,” she promised as she hefted George higher up in her arms. The axe she still carried along with her little brother was pressed flat against George’s back.
They picked their way out of the store, avoiding the corpses and went out onto the street. There was blood on the asphalt, but no bodies. Jace squinted behind his sunglasses as his light-sensitive eyes watered. But he saw that the needle-like ship was still there. It smoked. The gangway was down.
If anyone was brought inside there, it is too late for them, Jace. Concentrate on those you can save, Gehenna told him.
What do you mean?
The Khul infect the people they take with larvae who nest inside the bodies and then eat their way out when they’re ready to hatch. They place the infected in pools of a liquid that softens flesh and bone to make this process easier, Gehenna explained almost briskly. They are able to absorb a species’ traits this way and also what an individual knows.
That’s--that’s horrible, Jace said as he swallowed down the bile that rose in his throat.
Doubly so, because the people are alive throughout this process, she stated flatly.
Oh, God… I can’t let them get anyone else! Jace cried. A wash of fear and uncertainty went through him again. His palms sweated more heavily and he had to wipe them on his pants. He was insane to take Sami and George towards more of these things. He could barely handle a register and now he was going to go into battle with giant insects? Are you sure there’s no way to call the soldiers back? Maybe I can call my parents--
The phones are being jammed. Human technology is nothing compared to the Khul’s. Even what humanity has gleaned from the Altaeth is not yet enough to defeat them, she told him.
People have really gotten the raw end of the deal if I’m their only hope, Jace told her.
Jace, you’ve been training for over a decade to fight the Khul, she said with a firmness that had his back straightening. You’re not fully ready yet, but… well, you can do this. Just let your body react to the situation. Don’t overthink.
Jace wanted to believe her. But all of his life he had been fragile, brittle, unable to do the simplest things that most people could, but now he was supposed to act all space marine? On its face it was ridiculous. He could almost hear his father saying, “Champ, I love you, but you’re not really cut out for this. It takes training and you just don’t have that.”
But you do have that, Jace, Gehenna insisted. Though you cannot remember all your dreams with me, I assure you that you have been training extensively for over a decade. Believe in yourself. Or believe in me, if you can’t quite believe in yourself yet.
I have to keep Sami and George safe, he said.
You will. You’re the only one who can. I know you can do this, she told him.
He held onto how easily he had shot that Omull. He hadn’t been thinking and the shots had gone perfectly. So that’s all he had to do now. Not think.
How hard can that be? He laughed mirthlessly to himself.
Jace hustled down the block in the direction where Walter had headed. The laundry where Mrs. Lo--a sweet elderly lady with a dumpling face--was usually behind the counter had its windows broken too. Jace saw a splash of blood along the front of the counter and a smear along the floor as if someone had been dragged out. He wondered if he would ever see Mrs. Lo again.
“Sami, have George close his eyes,” he said over his shoulder as he felt the color leave his own cheeks.
She saw where he was looking and she quickly turned her body so her little brother wouldn’t see. “George, we’re going to play a game, okay? But you need to keep your eyes shut.”
“Okay,” George said around the fingers he was sucking in his mouth.
Jace reached the corner and turned it before backpedalling. He held up a hand to Sami and she skidded to a halt right behind him. Walter’s house was just down the street. In that brief moment that he had glimpsed the house, he had seen that there were two Omull and a Cetix in the yard.
“What is it?” Sami whispered.
“Three of them. In Walter’s yard. I think everyone was inside already when they landed,” Jace answered.
Again, he wiped his hands on his pants to dry them. He closed his eyes and breathed. His heart was triphammering in his chest. He felt the bitter taste of adrenaline on his tongue. Auras were flaring uncontrollably and the trilling of the tinnitus was back as a constant background noise.
I can do this, Jace told himself.
You can, Gehenna told him. You were born to do this, Jace.
Jace’s heart rate slowed. His breathing evened out. His head still throbbed. His ears still rang. When he opened his eyes, he still saw auras, but he felt calmer. There was this cold place inside of him that was prepared for this. He let go and allowed himself to simply act.
Jace pressed himself against the building and peered around the corner again. The front bay window had fancy white wrought iron bars on it, which likely was what had stopped the Khul from simply breaking the glass like they had at the Con-Ve and the laundry. The curtains were drawn, but Jace saw them twitch as someone looked out. The nearest Omull raced over to the window. It popped two of the Happy Birthday helium balloons on its way. Some of the bright birthday streamers wrapped around the Omull’s back and it wore the streamer like an obscene sash.
One of the tentacles on the back of its neck whirled towards the window, slipped between the bars and hit the glass with a wet smack. Jace heard muffled cries from inside the house. That just excited the Khul more and they started to systematically go after the house’s soft spots. The doors. The windows.
Jace pulled back and said to Sami, “There’s only three of them. I can take them out.”
Sami stared at him and simply nodded. Her knuckles whitened on the axe.
“I’m going to surprise them. You two need to hang back, okay?” he asked.
Sami nodded again. “Right.”
She was trusting him. She believed he could do this. He would do this. He reached over and squeezed her shoulder. Then he turned and went back to the corner to take another look.
The sounds of breaking glass and snapping wood, not to mention terrified screams, told him that he didn’t have much time. He had to act now.
Jace found himself moving, keeping himself low, and holding the weapon in both hands. He moved silently and used the cars on the street as cover as he made his way down the block. The Khul were making such a racket that they likely wouldn’t have heard him if he’d been playing a tuba and had a marching band behind him.
He crouched behind a car that was directly opposite Walter’s front door. One of the Omull’s shredding the front door as if it were made of tissue paper. Jace was careful not to touch the likely searing hot hood of the vehicle as he took aim at the back of the Omull’s head.
Breathe into it, Jace. Just like we practiced, Gehenna told him, her voice soothing.
He breathed into it and time seemed to slow.
Yes, good. Now squeeze the trigger, she told him.
He squeezed and the Omull’s head exploded. The creature’s body did this jiggly dance as if attached to an electric wire but then collapsed outside the door. The other Omull, which had been plucking at some of the other smaller windows on the house’s side, immediately whirled around towards the sound of the weapon’s discharge. Jace was already aiming at it.
Breathe then squeeze, Gehenna told him. It rhymes. That’s how you remember it.
The weapon felt so familiar in his hand then. His heart rate was lower than before he had killed the first Omull as he killed the second. It was as if ice water moved through him. He’d shot the second Omull right through the throat. Its claws reached upwards even as its body went down with a crash.
The Cetix veered around from the back of the house. It was moving frighteningly fast on its hundreds of centipede-like legs. The round mouth--showing many layers of fangs--was open and it made a hissing, rattling sound that had the hair on the back of his neck standing on end. But Jace did not blink. He smoothly moved his weapon to line up with the long, snake-like neck of the Cetix. He breathed and squeezed repeatedly. The Cetix’s head separated from its body as he managed to hit the thing three times in the throat, severing it entirely. The creature flopped forward. Dead.
Jace continued to remain crouched, weapon out, breathing steadily. The ringing in his ears was so loud that he didn’t hear Sami calling his name. He whirled around and nearly shot her when she tapped his shoulder.
“Jace! It’s me! You did it! You really did it!” There were tears in her eyes.
“You killed the monsters, Jace,” George said around his fingers. He had opened his eyes again.
“Get in here, you three!” Walter cried. He had opened the front door and was gesturing for them to come inside frantically. “There’s more of those things out there!”
“Yeah, we know,” Jace told him.
“I think we should try to get out of here,” Sami said. “That house wasn’t going to hold them out.”
“I agree with Sami, Walter. Let’s get out of here,” Jace said.
Gehenna, is there a safe place I can take these people? Jace asked.
Yes, but--Jace! There are more! Many more! Converging on your location! Gehenna shouted. Get inside the house!
Jace saw dozens of the Khul suddenly appear from between nearby houses and businesses and come slithering down the streets from every side towards them. Jace grabbed Sami’s hand and hustled her and George past the dead Omull and into Walter’s house. He slammed the door and locked it with shaking hands behind them.
In Walter’s living room, Jace saw a dozen ten-year-olds clustered around Walter’s wife. Fear was written large in their eyes. When he turned to see Walter’s face, the old man looked to have aged ten years from that morning. He was sweating profusely and clutching at his chest. Jace prayed he was not having a heart attack.
“Can you kill them all?” Sami asked, gesturing towards the weapon in his hands.
As the front yard filled with countless Khul, Jace realized he couldn’t.
There’s a way, Jace, Gehenna sounded apprehensive.
There is? How? Jace asked her as another Omull started to pick at the door and the Cetixs filled the windows.
Metal Rain, Gehenna said.
Something that you can call down. But… she paused and said, Jace, this is going to hurt. Maybe even--
Kill me? His eyes went huge as he read that thought from her. But then he was shaking his head, even as the pain of the migraine sloshed around inside. The Omull started to throw itself at the door that suddenly let out a frightening crack! Doesn’t matter, Gehenna! We’re all going to die here if I don’t do something.
All right, Jace, she said sadly. Just like we practiced…