CHAPTER THREE: THE KHUL
Jace eyed Timmy Grace and Danny Wilson. The two boys were eleven-years-old, best friends, growing reprobates and they were lingering near the adult magazines. Walter kept the porn mags by the AARP fliers and crossword books. The last types of content that boys like Timmy and Danny would be interested in so they stuck out there like two sore thumbs.
The boys had already gone over to the aging refrigerator and taken out two soft drinks, a Cherry Coke and a Grape Fanta. These were the only outward purchases. Timmy though had some Twizzlers that he’d stuffed in the back of his pants while Danny’s sticky fingers were trailing over the candybar section. Jace was sure a few chocolate bars would end up in the extra deep pockets of his shorts.
Walter had caught them shoplifting bunches of times, but he didn’t want the cops called on them though, because he had a soft heart. They were kids. Kids do stupid things. Just confiscate the stolen items and send them on their way were his instructions to Jace. But while Jace had sympathy for Timmy, who lived at the edge of town in the trailer parks, he had none for Danny.
Their clothes told the story of their lives. Timmy’s clothes were worn and had stains on top of stains. Danny’s were not only clean and fresh, but were designer brands. He could have afforded to buy the drinks and snacks for both of them with no problem. But he didn’t. He took. And Walter wasn’t exactly rolling in dough.
Danny wandered to the end of the magazine rack and oh-so-casually tipped one of the adult magazines to the side so that it started to fall off of the rack. He caught it adroitly and slipped it up underneath his t-shirt. He bloused out his shirt to hide the evidence. Then they both sauntered to the counter to pay for the drinks but nothing else they had secreted on their persons.
They must think I’m blind.
Jace was wearing his sunglasses indoors so maybe they thought he was. Or asleep. Even though the Con-Ve was dimly lit, the shop windows were darkly tinted, and the counter was at the back of the store, it was still too bright for him that day. The strange clouds he had glimpsed earlier were still there. He’d caught sight of lightning in them every once in a while, but none of the needle shaped “ships” he’d imagined before. Thankfully, they often obscured the sun, but what he really needed was a completely black room for his head to get better.
Right now, his headache curled around the back of his skull almost as if it were hugging his brain in a painful embrace. With the sunglasses on and keeping himself totally still, the pain was just a throb, instead of a skullcrusher. But the pressure was building.
There was a sense of anticipation in the air. Everytime he looked at the clouds through the windows his heart would start to race and the bitter taste of adrenaline would be on his tongue. He was in fight or flight mode. He tried to tell himself that it was the upcoming “fight” with the boys that was causing this, but he knew it wasn’t.
Danny arrogantly set his pop on the cracked counter and gestured for Timmy to do the same. Timmy’s face was a little too blank as he set his pop there too. Danny fished out his wallet. Jace was pretty sure he hadn’t had a wallet when he was 11. He was positive that, even if he’d had one, that it hadn’t been stuffed with cash like Danny’s was. Danny gave Jace a little superior smile.
I’m rich. You’re poor. I matter. You don’t, the smile seemed to say.
Jace’s parents weren’t poor unless you compared them to Danny’s. It irritated him that this little punk honestly thought that because his parents made more money than gods that he thought he could act like a dickhead to everyone.
“How much?” Danny asked.
“For what?” Jace asked back.
“The drinks, stupid.” Danny let out a disgusted snort. “Take off your sunglasses and maybe you’ll be able to see.”
Danny looked over his shoulder at Timmy and they both let out unkind laughs. Jace gave them a bloodless smile. He did not say anything though in return.
“How much for the drinks?” Danny asked again, rolling his eyes as if Jace were the stupidest creature in existence.
“Oh? Those?” Jace smiled more broadly even though it hurt.
“Yeah, what else?” Danny scoffed, and there wasn’t the slightest bit of shame that he was stealing.
Jace’s smile became sharp and he leaned forward on his stool towards the boy. “What else? Well… I thought you might want to know how much the two Twix bars were in your left pocket.”
Danny’s arrogance faltered slightly. “W-what--”
“Or the Jugs magazine that’s poking out of your left side like a really square tumor,” Jace continued.
Danny colored and guiltily clutched his side. The magazine crinkled. Timmy looked down at his feet.
“And let’s not forget the twin pack of Twizzlers that you have, Timmy, down the back of your pants,” Jace said without remorse.
Neither boy could meet his eyes. Danny, of course, tried to bluster.
“We got this stuff someplace else!” Danny cried.
“Yeah? Now whose stupid? Put all of it on the counter,” Jace told him and touched the countertop for effect. “Now.”
The boys shuffled their feet, but they reluctantly put everything they’d been hiding on the table. Jace rang up everything except the adult magazine. Every clunking sound of every key on the old fashioned register had his head clunking, too. But there was something new. Something that had never been there before. A low whine. An electronic sound. Almost like a loose wire. Oddly, it reminded him of his dream of Gehenna. His head never hurt in the dreams, but when Gehenna was about to connect to him, he had experienced something like this. He found himself glancing over at the windows. Had those weird clouds gotten bigger? Darker? He couldn’t say.
If only Gehenna existed. It’s weird, I miss her.
He finished ringing up, but he didn’t tell the boys the total.
“Hey! What are you doing?” Danny cried as Jace picked up his wallet from the counter.
“You’re paying what you owe. Not just for today. But for some of the other times you’ve stolen things from Walter,” Jace said as he took two twenty dollar bills and put them in the register.
“You can’t do that!” Danny whined.
“Yes, I can,” Jace said. “And I’m going to keep doing it if you even so much as take a free sample without asking from now on.”
Timmy lifted his head and there was a faint smile on his face as if he was glad to see his rich best friend get his comeuppance. While Timmy had gone along with the stealing, Jace was pretty damned sure that he would have been happier with Danny paying for the food or not stealing at all. Maybe Jace could convince Walter to let Timmy help break down boxes and some other small things around the Con-Ve so he had a little spending money.
“And since you are a smart little toad, you know that this is far better than me calling your folks,” Jace said simply as he put the money into the cash drawer and shut it with a heavy thunk. He grimaced as the sound caused his head to throb and the whine continued to grow.
Danny looked at him mulishly. “My parents won’t believe you.”
“Yes, they would. Because they know what kind of toad you are,” Jace told him.
Another flush told Jace that he was right. The boys took their paid for sodas and candy as Jace held onto the Jugs magazine. They stalked off towards the door. It was only when the bell above the door rang as they were leaving that Danny got the “last word”.
“Asshole!” Danny called at him before running away with Timmy casting a “sorry” smile back at him.
Jace just snorted. He would have shaken his head, but it would have hurt too much. With a sigh, he stood up to go put the magazine back where it belonged. He had to steady himself with one hand on the counter though as the buzzing in his head suddenly steeply increased. He closed his eyes and prayed for this to pass.
Come on. Come on. Be okay. Retreat. Just retreat.
If he collapsed at the store, his parents would never let him work again. They might insist he stay in the house full time, or worse, that he go back to the military medical facility like they had when he’d started puberty. His hormones had played havoc with his already fragile system then and he’d been in the hospital for months. He couldn’t go through that again.
The ding of the bell at the front door forced him to open his eyes and turn his head. He hoped it wasn’t Danny and Timmy again. He really didn’t have the strength to deal with them. But he immediately saw it wasn’t. And a smile curled his lips.
“I thought I’d find you here today,” Sami said as she and her little brother George came into the Con-Ve.
He and Sami had met in high school during their sophomore years before he had to be homeschooled due to excessive sick days because of his headaches. But she, unlike so many others, had continued to remain friends with him. She’d always accepted his limitations without comment. Never making him feel fragile or a freak. They’d talk for hours, or she’d sit quietly while he rocked, trying to get the tinnitus to stop. Her acceptance of him was so complete, unlike his feelings about himself.
He didn’t blame the others for drifting away. It wasn’t like he could go out often or do many of the things that normal teenagers did. And then many of them had left for college or for work outside of Sunrise. The city wasn’t exactly a bustling place unless one was in the military. But Sami was a member of the Navajo Nation. She had stayed because her family were here. Her tribe was here. Her life was here and always would be.
“Where else would I be? After all, there is no more hip, happening place than the Con-Ve.” He spread his arms wide to encompass his “empire”.
She grinned. Her white teeth glowed against her brown skin. George, who was only six years old, held onto her hand, while sucking on his fingers. Jace quickly stashed the Jugs magazine beneath the counter and came out to greet them. His head was still buzzing and pounding.
“Why wear glasses?” George asked after extracting his wet fingers from his mouth.
“George!” Sami shushed him. She gave Jace a sympathetic smile. “The weather must be playing havoc with your migraines. Even I’m feeling the pressure.”
Jace smiled gratefully. “Yeah, it’s the weirdest weather ever. The clouds haven’t really moved.”
Sami turned to look at them. “They’re over the military base. Not some super secret weather research going on there, eh?”
Jace laughed. “I wish my parents’ work was so exciting. But I don’t think even they could hide some Doctor Doom-like weather machine.”
She turned back. “Darn. And here I was looking for some excitement.”
“Well, the most excitement I can offer is Pop Rocks candy and a soda,” he suggested.
“Soda! Candy!” George brightened considerably as he babbled between his fingers.
“I guess some can’t hurt,” Sami said.
“We’ll share. I think I could use some sugar and caffeine.” He turned quickly towards the refrigerator to hide the wince as the buzzing in his head intensified. He blindly moved to the cooler practically by memory alone as he said, “Have you seen any of the Naruto-runners?”
“Oh, yeah, there are so many of them in town. They’re actually wearing t-shirts identifying themselves,” Sami said and he could hear the roll of her eyes in her voice. “It’s like they want to get caught.”
Jace was fishing out a glass-bottle of Coke when the buzzing in his head became screaming. With a cry, Jace put his hands over his ears and sank down onto his haunches. Sami was immediately by his side, holding his shoulders. Even George got into the act and was patting his back with slobbery hands.
“Jace, are you okay?” Sami asked. “Stupid question. You clearly aren’t. What can I do?”
But before Jace could ask her to get his medicine from his pocket, there were half a dozen cracks. The whole of the store was filled with silvery-white light as these cracks were seemingly caused by lightning strikes. One was so near that the world went white for a second. The building shook. Bottles, boxes, and cans fell from the shelves into the aisles. The lights in the Con-Ve went really bright for a second and then the electricity died. The pain in Jace’s head receded slightly and he was able to turn to look outside.
The sky was completely covered in those clouds now. Lightning rippled through them, but it was purple, not the usual white. The sun was completely obscured. Jace took off his sunglasses. His lips parted as a needle-shaped ship exploded through the clouds and raced towards the ground. When it struck there was another blast of light and a rumble.
They’re real, his mind said, but he immediately told himself, No, you’re not really seeing this. These can’t be alien spacecraft. The Khul can’t be here. They’re only in my dreams.
“Scared, Sami!” George burbled and held onto her bare leg and Jace’s back.
“It’s okay, George,” Sami’s voice was faint though and she was staring outside at the empty street. “That last strike seemed nearby, didn’t it?”
She didn’t see the ship. I must have imagined it, he told himself but he didn’t believe it.
“Y-yeah,” Jace agreed with her. He forced himself to his feet. He had to go outside. He had to see if… if what? If there are alien spacecraft sticking out of the Earth like metal flowers? But he said, nonetheless, “I’m just going to take a look outside. You and George stay here, okay?”
She nodded as her fingers laced through her brother’s black hair.
Jace walked unsteadily to the door. His breathing came rapidly. His eyes flickered all over the place. The buzzing grew louder as he neared his objective. He put a hand on the door bar. He heard what sounded like… yells? Screams? No, not possible. He pushed the door open and the sounds of screams became louder and more real. He popped his head out and glanced down the street.
It was there.
The Khul ship.
He recognized it.
It was a matte black in color. It truly was needle-shaped. The sharp part of the needle had driven itself deep into the street. The asphalt had ruptured around it. Steam was rising up from its sides. Those sides were not smooth, but there were raised rectangular sections that were several feet long. There were no windows on the vessel. But there was a single opening with a black ramp made of the ship’s exterior leading down to the street.
Gehenna… he whispered. Are you real too? Are you here?
The buzzing sound almost like static now. He thought he might have heard a word or two. Something. He winced as pain burst like fireworks in his brain. The screams though had him focusing again, cracking open one eye to see what more was happening.
The screams came from a half-dozen Naruto-runners who had gathered around the ship in amazement and shock. Like Sami had said they were wearing shirts with the iconic image of the anime character with his arms behind him.
The screams were not from the sight of the ship which would confirm all their hopes and dreams. Aliens real! Spacecraft land! No, it was what had come out of it that was causing the cries.
There were three of them with another coming down the gangway. The three were over seven feet tall. Their bodies were covered in a shiny black carapace. A circular dome of dozens of red eyes looked in every direction. Their mouths were circular and ringed by sharp teeth. There were tentacles sprouting from a point at the back of their neck and top of their spine. Those tentacles had mouths too. The fourth creature coming out of the ship was more like a caterpillar with hundreds of legs, a segmented body and a central maw large enough to swallow a human whole.
One of the tall Khul--an Omull, that’s what these are called--he heard in his head from a voice that sounded like it was coming over an old-time radio, advanced on a guy with a scraggly beard and a generally unwashed appearance. But Jace didn’t care about that. He was focused on the voice. There was that stereo-turning sound as he heard next, and that kind of Khul is called a Cetix. The buzzing and crackling subsumed the voice.
“Gehenna?!” he burst out.
Could it be her? Could the AI be real? And what of the ship, the Storm Spike? Was it real too? Was all of it real?
He felt a strange floaty sensation. He realized he was in shock and yet… yet this felt right, too. As if he had been waiting for this.
“Gehenna?!” he called again.
“Jace, what is it?” Sami asked, casting her voice low, which he was grateful for.
“Ah… stay there! Don’t come near!” he hissed as he grimaced, realizing he had shouted the AI’s name.
Sami’s dark brown eyes were wide with fear. George was practically surgically attached to her leg. He held up a hand to keep them back though he guessed that George more than his request kept Sami back.
“No! No! What are you doing?! We come in peace!” Someone screamed.
Then there was a wet, sucking sound.
His head whipped back around. One of the Khul--one of the Omull, he corrected himself--had sent one of its tentacles through the unwashed Naruto-runner’s mouth. It was down his throat. Jace could see the man’s throat pulsing as the Omull pumped something inside of him.
...assimilate… the staticky voice said.
The other three Omul were advancing upon the other Naruto-runners. Their eyes were wide and they were backing away. One of the men tripped and fell backwards, landing painfully on his ass. The Omull was on top of him in an instant. Two tentacles streaked into his mouth. He choked. His eyes rolled back in his head as the Omull pumped something inside of him. Maybe many things.
No! I have to save them! Jace yelled internally.
He pulled back into the shop, looking for a weapon. Walter had some axes, hammers and other stuff that could be useful.
… won’t work against them… the voice crackled in his mind. There were pops of pain, but he ignored them, focusing on her voice.
“But I have to do something!” Jace cried
“Jace?!” Sami’s hand had fisted in George’s hair. She had no idea who he was talking to. George was struggling against his sister’s grip. But he was pale.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry.” Jace shut the door behind him. “There are…”
“You need to stay here. Actually, you should hide in the back,” he said as he moved over to the handyman’s aisle. He found two axes. He grabbed one for himself and another for Sami.
“What? What are you talking about? What’s outside--oh, my God!” Sami screamed and put a hand over her mouth.
Jace swung around to the front of the shop. In the window there was the Cetix. It truly looked like a centipede, but the size of a tiger and twice as long. It was looking in the window. It had heard him, seen him.
… weapons… coming… weapons… Jace…
It slithered towards the plate glass window. Jace stepped backwards. Could it see him? Yes, it must be able to. Even with the reflection and the tint, he had a feeling it didn’t see like they did, but perhaps by heat. He tightened his hands on both of the axe handles.
“Sami, take George and go out the back,” Jace said, not turning to look at her.
“Are you crazy?” Sami asked and from the sound of her voice, he realized she was behind him. He turned and saw she was right there. George was crouched by the back door. “You think you can take that thing out on your own? You could hardly stand a moment ago!”
“Yeah, my head… it’s…” Jace realized it was better. A lot better. His head still hurt, but it wasn’t overwhelming.
Sami grabbed one of the axes from his hands. She hefted it expertly. “We should go for its head. Its body looks pretty well protected.”
“Uhm, yeah.” Jace glanced back. The Cetix was practically pressed against the glass. Had he locked the front door? No, he hadn’t. Would it matter? He somehow doubted that. “You seem… pretty cool about this.”
“About the monster?”
“It’s an alien. It’s a Khul. A type known as a Cetix,” he found himself telling her automatically.
Her eyes shifted to him. “So Area 67 really is an alien research center?”
“Uhm, I actually don’t know. That’s not where I got my information,” he told her, but he was wondering if that wasn’t also true.
“Where did you--”
The Cetix slammed its head against the glass and they both jumped several feet into the air. A starburst-like mark appeared on the glass. One more slam and it would shatter the glass completely. Bitter adrenaline flooded his mouth and Jace got up on his toes.
“Damn… maybe we should retreat?” Jace suggested with a wild laugh.
Sami gritted her teeth and shook her head. “It’ll just follow.”
“Yes,” Jace stated and tightened his hand on the weapon. “You’re right. We make a stand here.”
The Cetix drew its head back, preparing to slam into the glass again. Jace braced for it. Sami did the same. Suddenly, red laser beams--LASER BEAMS!--streaked through the air. They hit the Cetix’s carapace and left baseball sized holes through it. The thing let out a terrible scream and charged at whoever was shooting.
Soldiers appeared. They had weapons that he recognized from his dreams though no synthskin uniforms. He couldn’t remember the name for the guns. It would come to him. But he knew that they were laser guns. Every sci fi story told him that.
The Omull were suddenly in the fight. Red beams grew thicker in the air. But the Omull kept coming even as their limbs were blown off or disintegrated. One soldier let them get too close and a huge clawed arm sent him flying through the plate glass window of the Con-Ve. He landed at Jace’s feet. The soldier’s throat was opened down to the bone. Blood pooled around his head.
“No!” Sami cried as she took in the horror of it.
But Jace was focused only on the weapon the soldier carried, but no longer needed. It called to him. He dropped the axe and reached for it.
“Jace, what are you doing?” Sami cried.
His fingers closed around the weapon and the staticky buzzing sound quieted. His mind completely quieted. And in that silence a voice rose up, warm and inviting.
Jace? Gehenna asked.
Jace smiled. Gehenna?
Yes, he could hear her smiling though she was an AI. Finally, I’ve found you.