Excerpt for Hena Day One by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

All characters in this publication are fictitious, any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Hena Day One

Copyright © 2018 Odette C Bell

Cover art stock photos licensed from Depositphotos.

www.odettecbell.com



HENA

Day One


What will you be doing when the world ends?

Nick Hancock’s waiting for a plane when someone tries to kill him.

He wakes up in a puddle of his own blood to a new world. A dying one.

An alien race has invaded Earth, and humanity can’t stop them. But there are others. Aliens from far and wide who’ve settled on Earth or crashed here. There is one among them with the power to save everyone, Hena. An alien of incalculable power, she now holds the world in her hands. She must rise, or all will fall.

Hena is a thrilling, action-packed invasion sci-fi sure to please fans of Odette C. Bell’s Axira.

Chapter 1

Nick Hancock

02:00 Heathrow Airport, London, United Kingdom

“Flight 747 for Sydney has been delayed. New estimated time of departure is 0400 hours.”

The clipped British voice came over the intercom, echoing around the cramped departure room.

Nicholas Hancock sighed into his hand as he clamped it onto his chin and drummed his fingers against his stubble-covered jaw.

More wasted time, ha? This ill-fated business trip had already gone on too long. The Brits weren’t interested in what his brother’s company, Nano-Wire Armaments, had to offer. And it was time to come to terms with that fact.

“Further delays may be expected,” the voice over the intercom advised to a chorus of groans around the lounge.

Nick kept his frustration to himself as he settled further into the unyielding plastic of his chair, crossed his arms, and tried not to count just how many hours this was adding to this worthless trip. If the Brits weren’t interested, he doubted the Australians would care, either.

Nick would pack it all in, if it weren’t for one thing – he owed his brother. Without him, Nick would have jumped off a bridge two years ago.

After a disastrous stint in Afghanistan in private security, Nick had returned to the States a broken man. The Army had chewed him up and spat him out, and private security had been worse.

For a man who’d once known exactly what he had to fight for, he’d returned a man who’d had his fight taken, broken, and twisted.

Even now, two years later, Nick could remember the moment his brother had dragged him off that bridge.

The look in Jake’s eyes. Nick would never forget it. And even now, as his frustration mounted at the continued delays, he could close his eyes and see it.

“You’ve got to live. Because you save people, Nick. That’s what you’ve always done, and it’s what you’re meant for.”

What I’m meant for, ha?” Nick whispered under his breath as he let his hand drop over his mouth. He breathed into it, feeling the air pressure pool against his palm then press through his fingers.

Nick took another breath, then finally let his hand drop.

He let his eyes scan the departure lounge around him. It was packed with pissed-off, tired passengers. Most of them were on their phones or buried in their respective devices. A few weren’t. A few, like Nick, were just waiting.

And, to a T, those not on devices were looking at the two massive TVs on either side of the lounge.

Nick frowned as he looked up at them.

He’d caught snippets of conversation through the airport and on the shuttle ride over here.

There’d been some kind of meteorite impact in the South China Sea.

At the time of the impact, there’d been a tsunami warning for southern China and Vietnam. A big one. But there’d been no tsunami. Not even a blip in wave height.

What was weirder was none of the space agencies had picked up the meteor in the first place. It had come from nowhere, struck the middle of nowhere, and disappeared without a trace, apparently.

Nick stared at the TV closest to him for a few minutes, but the banner down the bottom was just rehashing what was already known.

If Nick were in a different mood, maybe he’d care. As it was, he tilted his head back, checked the departure board, and sighed.

Time to get something to eat.

He stood, stretched his large form, and headed out of the lounge.

“It’s got to be the meteor,” he caught a couple saying in front of him.

“Meteorite,” he corrected under his breath, not interrupting. Though Nick had always been a soldier, once upon a time – a long, long damn time ago – he’d wanted to be an astronaut. Space… had called to him since forever. Fitting, considering his biological father had apparently had something to do with the space industry, though the exact details weren’t known.

Not the point. As soon as a meteor impacts the Earth, it’s called a meteorite. But that’s even assuming the object that supposedly struck the South China Sea survived its impact. Presumably it was burnt up in the atmosphere, and that’s why there was no tsunami.

The Earth got lucky today. Which was more than could be said for Nick. He glanced to the side as he saw two airport staff jogging past, their faces pale.

“They say they haven’t heard anything new – just what’s been in official communications,” one of them said.

“Why on earth is the government keeping us in the dark? If we have to cancel these flights, we need to know now, or we’re going to have a riot on our hands.”

Nick stopped, pivoted, and watched the two staff members jog out of sight.

… What the hell was going on?

He hesitated, wondering whether to head back to the departure lounge in case there was any news, but then he figured it would just come over the intercom, anyway.

Nick kept picking up snippets of conversation as he made his way to the food court.

TVs were on around the court, and people were glued to them as they ate their burgers and overpriced sandwiches.

Nick paused in front of one and watched as the animated news anchors discussed whether this could be the result of some secret Chinese weapon launch.

He doubted it. Likely it was some artifact on someone’s radar, and there’d never been a meteor in the first place. That, or it had burnt up in the atmosphere like he’d said before.

This would just blow over, and the news would move on to the next sensational piece.

Nick scratched at his jaw and yawned. Then he stood in line at the first café he could find and bought a sandwich with the few bob still in his pocket.

When he was done, he walked through the court, resisted the urge to stop and watch the TVs again, and headed back to the lounge.

On his way, he saw more staff rushing around. Their expressions were heavy with worry and stress.

Nick could ignore a lot, but his body was primed to pick up expressions just like those. It was in the way their eyebrows were flattened, in the stiff skin around their eyes, in the height of their shoulders. All of it suggested something was going on.

Most other passengers were in their own worlds, reading the news on their phones or chatting excitedly among themselves. If people did look up, it was only ever a brief glance before they buried themselves back in their devices.

He reached the split in the corridor that would lead back to the departure lounge to the left. He paused.

Jake had always told Nick that he had a talent for sensing danger. As kids, they used to head out to the woods behind their house and spend long afternoons in the fir and larch forests of western Montana. A few times, they’d crossed paths with bears and mountain lions, but every time – according to Jake, at least – Nick had sensed danger and saved their necks.

Nick knew he didn’t have some magical, god-given gift to sense danger before other people did. He had good hearing. He also had a body that was primed to adrenaline. Which wasn’t a good thing. It might save your life when you correctly interpret the crack of a twig as an enemy pressing in from behind, but it’ll ruin your life after you come back from war. Your adrenaline will tell you the whir overhead is a chopper. It’ll tell you the scratching sound at your back door is a burglar lifting the window with a crowbar. It will haunt your every damn moment, promising that there is nowhere safe in this world anymore.

Right now, Nick could try to convince himself that his adrenaline was acting up.

And for a few seconds, he tried to do just that as he tightened his grip on his sandwich and shifted a single foot toward the left.

Then he heard something.

A hiss.

It wasn’t someone breathing. It wasn’t some pipe leaking air.

It was way too mechanical for that.

Nick’s body reacted, charging with adrenaline that blasted through his torso and jumped into his feet like electricity grounding itself.

Before he knew what he was doing, he shifted to the right. He walked down a ramp, his heart speeding up with every step, blood pounding into his body, blasting into his chest, promising him it was time to act. It was time to run. It was time to fight.

As a kid, Nick had gotten into trouble too many times for starting fights. He’d flare up over the smallest thing. No, wait – though other people would tell him it was over the smallest thing, it never was. Nick could forgive and ignore a lot. But there was one thing his damn body was primed to react to. Injustice. If he saw a weaker kid getting beaten up in the playground, he would act. If he saw someone bullying others, he would act. If he saw someone stealing or breaking the rules, he would act. Because if he didn’t, he’d never be able to live with himself.

“So you live with yourself. If you can’t stop yourself from protecting others, then you do that to live.” That’s what Jake had told Nick up on that bridge, the rain pounding down around them, the wind slamming into Jake’s wet jacket. “If this is the only way you can live, then you live this way.”

… You live this way.

Those words echoed in Nick’s ears as he walked around another turn in a corridor.

That’s when he saw the guy in the hoody. The first two things Nick noticed was that the hoody was too large, the hood completely obscuring the guy’s face, and that he had his hands in his pockets, the fabric stretched, meaning there was something much larger in those pockets than hands.

Nick was instantly bombarded with images of his private security gigs in Kabul. Watching the dust-covered streets for trouble, checking cars, checking people, and knowing if you lost your attention or nerve for a second, it could be your last.

He’d lost count of the number of times he’d picked up a hidden weapon or IED others hadn’t.

Energy would always pick up through his back, race to his neck, and set his hair standing on end. It would always pluck at his senses, always tug his head forward and focus him on what needed to be seen.

And right now, nothing would be able to tear his gaze away from the man in the hoody.

The guy had his back to Nick now. His gait was slow but determined, apparently easy, and yet obviously measured. It was the unmistakable walk of someone trying to look innocuous.

Shit.

The guy was up to something.

Nick jerked his gaze down the corridor, searching out security or a staff member, but in the time it took him to scan the crowd further down the corridor, the man moved. Quickly. With the snapped efficiency of someone who’d been trained their entire life to use their body as a damn weapon.

He closed the distance to a door – a security door – and jammed something from his pocket onto the keypad next to it.

“What the hell are you doing?” Nick spat.

He could only see the side of whatever device the guy had in his hand. It was bulky and looked home-made.

A thrill of terror shot up Nick’s spine.

“Hey, security!” he bellowed at the top of his lungs, his voice carrying right through the corridor like the blare of a horn.

But the guy was too quick, and his home-made device worked. With a beep, the door unlocked and swung open. The guy ducked through.

Nick had a moment, a moment where he had to decide whether to throw himself after this guy or wait for security. But, despite his bellowed words, he couldn’t hear them or see them.

So Nick went with the words of his brother, instead. “If you can only live by saving others, then that’s how you live.”

Nick threw himself forward.

Back in the Army, he’d grown a deserved reputation for having a turbo mode. All soldiers will find their reaction time shortening in the height of deadly battle. The body pumps everything it has into surviving.

But there were some soldiers, like Nick, who could give even more, who found not just their reaction time shortening, but their strength and speed increasing almost exponentially.

Which is precisely what happened now as Nick somehow closed the several meters between him and that door and managed to grab it before it could close.

He wrenched it open to see some kind of machinery room.

“Security!” he bellowed again.

Or at least he tried to.

The guy in the hoody spun out from the side of the door, grabbed Nick’s collar, and yanked him forward.

The guy was a good half-a-foot shorter than Nick and didn’t have Nick’s brick-wall build.

That didn’t matter. Call it momentum or plain training, but the guy wrenched Nick out of the doorway with the ease of someone hefting a butter knife.

Nick’s rubber-soled shoes squeaked against the floor as he struggled to grip his assailant.

The door swung shut behind them.

The guy flipped Nick right over his shoulder. Nick tried to control his descent as he struck the concrete, immediately pushing forward into a roll.

The wind was knocked out of him by the time he pushed onto his feet and pivoted to face the guy.

The guy looked down at Nick.

Nick looked up.

… And he swore he saw something under that hood. Something that shouldn’t be there. The glow of two red lights.

What the hell have you got planned?” Nick spat as he rose and backed off, not stupid enough to throw himself into a fight after this guy had shown his considerable skill. The best thing Nick could do right now was wait until security came.

If they were coming.

There was every chance that with the hubbub going on in the airport, they wouldn’t be called until it was too late.

“Nicholas Hancock? Son of Sergey Petrov?” the guy asked, his tone oddly breathy, as if he had asthma or something.

The hair on the back of Nick’s neck stood even further on end until every strand felt like little lightning poles. “What the hell?”

“That was the name of your registered biological father, correct?” the guy asked, his breathy tone efficient and clipped as if he’d been taught to speak by an artificial voice assistant.

Nick had no idea what his biological father’s name was, or what the term registered referred to. The only fact Nick had ever learned was that his dad had been interested in space.

But this….

“Answer,” the man spat.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about. I never met my father. What the hell is this, anyway? Why do you know my name? Are you here for me? Did you lure me in here?” Nick realized as he paled.

The guy tilted his head to the side, the movement too quick, almost as if it wasn’t made by muscles, but pulleys and levers that had just been released. “Yes. To all of your questions for which yes is a suitable answer. As for your other question? What the hell is this? This is you dying. You match the biological signature we’re looking for,” the guy said as he finally pocketed the odd, jerry-rigged device in his hand.

Nick’s life came down to a point. A sharp one. All his memories clumped together until he felt a race of nerves like no other plunging into his spine. It shifted through his body, biting into every muscle, blasting through his nervous system with all the power of lighting.

It left his whole body tingling.

He didn’t have time to question what the hell it was. The guy threw himself forward.

Somehow Nick managed to roll back over some kind of air con unit. It was just in time, and as his feet flipped over his head, he pushed the ball of his left foot into the guy’s shoulder and threw him off.

Nick landed on the ground on the other side, then pushed forward, his muscles straining like stretched springs.

His head was… filling with this dense ringing. Picking up in his ears, filtering through everything, shaking his damn skull.

He wanted to clap his hands on his temples but couldn’t dare spare the momentum.

The guy didn’t hurry to catch up. He slowly walked around the side of the air con unit.

By that time, Nick had ducked behind another machine, then another.

In a few seconds, he was out of sight.

But not out of mind. The guy started whistling.

It didn’t sound right. Dammit, it didn’t sound right. There was a sharp edge to it as if it was being played through a broken speaker.

“Shit,” Nick breathed, never letting the word echo from his lips.

He needed to get back out into the corridor to raise the alarm and get some help.

He ducked down behind the console in front of him. But as he did, his chinos caught on an unprotected screw.

That slight tear of fabric was all it took for the whistling to stop. Nick picked up the pound of footfall, then felt a rush of air as the guy jumped right over the console behind him.

The guy came at him so fast, by the time he was upon Nick, he didn’t even have time to stiffen.

The man wrapped his fingers around Nick’s throat, slammed Nick’s head against the unpolished concrete, and hissed.

It was the mechanical hiss he’d picked up in the corridors, the same damn hiss that had seen Nick head here in the first place.

The guy kept his white-knuckled grip on Nick’s collar as he yanked Nick’s head back and slammed it against the concrete.

Nick’s world started to fracture. A ringing filled his ears as the wet press of blood filtered out from the wound to his skull.

But he didn’t stop fighting; he started. He wrapped what was left of his weak grip around the guy’s wrist and tried to yank him off. But Nick’s body was starting to shut down.

And that ringing… that ringing was growing unbearable.

His life flashed before his eyes. His adoptive parents, his school, his job, his ex-girlfriend. Everything and everyone blinked away in his mind’s eye as that ringing continued to fill his ears.

The guy leaned forward, the hood of his over-large gray sweatshirt never falling from his face as his white lips pulled back hard over his neat, perfect white teeth.

Nick tried to wrench the guy’s arm off one more time, but it was useless. His assailant was too strong.

Way, way too strong. Because as he yanked Nick’s head up again and slammed it against the concrete, Nick heard the stuff cracking.

It took a lot to crack industrial concrete. A lot more than the impact of one man’s skull against it.

One more time. The guy did it one more time, jerking Nick back and slamming him against the concrete with such force, blood splattered out over Nick’s neck and down his back, over his face, and up over the guy’s hood.

… The ringing still wouldn’t stop. It filled Nick up, more and more, finding cracks in him he’d never known had existed.

The guy pressed a hand forward, cupped it over Nick’s blood-covered lips, and paused.

Nick heard something click and the faintest buzz.

But it was on the edge of his hearing. His body was shutting down, succumbing to his irreversible brain damage.

The guy let out a soft laugh, then stood and walked away. “It’s done,” he said to seemingly no one but himself.

Blood seeped out of the injury to Nick’s skull, pooling behind him and slicking over his torn shirt. He stared up at the ceiling as his life left him. Just out of the corner of his eye, he saw his assailant as the guy continued to walk away.

The last thing Nick saw before he died was the man’s hoody. The blood-covered hoody.

The splatters disappeared. The guy didn’t wipe them off – they simply melted away as if they’d never existed.

Then Nick Hancock died.

For now.

Chapter 2

Kim

11:30 Seoul, South Korea

“Ah, really? Can’t it wait?” Kim rubbed the back of his head as he walked out into the yard.

“The car’s broken, Kim. Without it, you won’t be able to go to work.”

“Fine, fine.” Kim shrugged as he let his hand drop, grabbed the handle of the back door, and wrenched it open.

A chilly Seoul morning hit him, prickling over his freshly shaven chin. He grabbed a hand to it as he tilted his head up and stared at the clouds.

They were different. Wrong.

The current wind speed and condensation couldn’t seem to account for how large they were.

He shoved a hand into his pocket and pulled out his phone. It was nonstandard. Like everything else in his life. He’d modified it.

“Fix it properly this time,” Mi Na said from the kitchen as she leaned against the kitchen bench, crossed her arms, and shot him an angry glare.

“Yes, aunt,” Kim managed as he quickly scanned the data on his phone. He was right, the wind pressure, current temperature, and condensation didn’t account for the meteorological show those clouds were putting on.

He frowned.

He shoved his phone back into his pocket.

He walked around to the garage, kicking an old empty plastic pot out of the way and watching it tumble down the steep drive to the rusted metal gate beyond.

He took a moment and swept his gaze over the small slice of the outskirts of the city he could see from the top of his drive. Or at least, the top of his aunt’s drive. Kim had very few things in life, save for those he’d made himself.

He didn’t have ambitions for much more, either.

And though that was a perpetual frustration to his adoptive family, such was life.

Kim had a higher purpose.

As he watched the cold morning mist settle over his neighbors’ houses, he ground his teeth back and forth. Just beyond the enamel, he felt the reassuring clunk of metal.

He pivoted on his foot, headed over to his garage doors, slid back the bolt that kept them locked, and opened them.

He walked inside and was instantly met by the musty smell of dust and petrol.

Though the cold, smoggy air of the morning infiltrated the cramped room, it was no competition for years of oil, grease, and solvents.

Mi Na hated the smell, and so did the rest of his family. Kim really didn’t care; though he could detect scents, he rarely had emotional reactions to them.

Starting to whistle under his breath, he shifted around the old, red Hyundai Excel that took pride of place in his aunt’s garage. Popping the hood, he reached in and started messing around.

In reality, he knew exactly what was wrong with the car. It was an inefficient combustion engine that wasted precipitous amounts of energy to power four rundown rubber wheels.

There was only so much fixing you could do. The concept itself was broken.

Glancing over the engine chassis, Kim brought his face close and sniffed.

One smell was all it took.

The fuel line was clogged.

He stood up.

And that’s when he heard it.

The lightest sound of footfall on gravel.

It wasn’t Mi Na or her kids.

It wasn’t one of the neighbors coming around with grilled mackerel.

It was something that was incalculably light on its feet.

Kim paused.

He stared right ahead.

So they were here.

And it was time.

He reached up, and with one white-knuckled hand, grabbed the hood of the car. He lowered it just as he reached down and grabbed up the can of oil beside him.

The crunch of gravel echoed out again. But it was quiet. Muffled, too. It wasn’t muffled simply by the efforts of the owner of the foot to remain quiet.

No. All sounds were muffled. From the constant noises of traffic further into the city, to the sound of his neighbors waking up. Everything sounded as if it’d had a blanket thrown over it.

Slowly, Kim locked his hand around the oil can.

He focused his senses on the movement of air around him, on the subtle changes in the scent carried along by the cold morning breeze.

There, just at his side, he smelt it. Something that shouldn’t be there. Something mechanical, something sophisticated, and something hundreds upon hundreds of years beyond the car in front of him.

Just as Kim saw a flash of light to his side, he reacted, locking a foot on the car and pivoting backward. He threw the contents of the oil can to his left, at the precise point where he smelt the machine.

His move was quick, calculated, and paid off. The contents of the oil can splashed out, covering the previously invisible creature.

As the oil splashed along its form, minute holographic panels flickered as they attempted to instantaneously adjust to the presence of the viscous substance covering them.

But it was too late. Even though they reacted quickly, for a fraction of a second, Kim saw the outline of a body in armor.

Kim kept abreast of technological advancements. Nobody had this technology.

The man shoved forward, the holographic sensors covering his armor finally reacting to the oil until he was once again invisible.

But Kim didn’t need to see to track him. Kim’s sophisticated sense of smell was enough.

Dogs may have 300 olfactory receptors in their noses – Kim had 100 times as many, and unlike a human hound, he could readily categorize each scent.

His armored assailant took another step forward, and Kim’s sophisticated hearing managed to discern the sound of almost imperceptible joints – technology that had been developed to ensure that it made barely any sound.

But even the slightest creak was enough for Kim’s ears.

He didn’t say a word. He didn’t scream. And God knows he didn’t call for help.

There was nothing in this city that could help him now – except his own ingenuity.

His assailant didn’t say a word.

Neither did Kim as he backed off, locked a hand on his phone, and clutched his fingers around it until they started to press in against the metal.

Every engineer knows that the quality of your finished product depends on your tools. You cannot make a sophisticated computer out of a chunk of metal and silica unless you possess other sophisticated devices.

But everybody equally knows that a truly talented engineer can make miracles where others can only make mistakes.

Just as his armored assailant came up to him again, Kim yanked his hand out of his pocket, drawing his phone out with him. His fingers were crushing the case, warping the metal, bending it in until the sound of metal fatigue crunched through the garage.

Kim hadn’t lost his mind.

But his assailant was about to.

Kim didn’t know that much about the exact quality of the armor he was facing up against, but he could predict its security defenses based simply on the oil test. The fact the holographic sensors had taken about 0.9 of a second to react to the oil meant this wasn’t a particularly sophisticated setup. Whoever had sent it here had obviously assumed Kim wouldn’t put up much of a fight.

A dangerous assumption.

As Kim’s fingers twisted the metal of his phone, electrical discharges started to zap across it. It wasn’t the lithium-ion battery of his apparently simple cell phone reacting to the torsion of its metal casing. It was the disruptor chip Kim had spent the last five years perfecting. One that was designed to do one thing.

Just as the man in armor pivoted around the car and threw himself at Kim – obviously wanting to kill Kim with his own hands and not a particle weapon – Kim threw his phone right at the guy.

As it whistled through the air, more energy discharged over it. Though it tickled along Kim’s fingers and sank into his flesh, it did nothing more.

His internal endoskeleton could absorb far more without complaint.

Plus, he’d programmed that chip not to disrupt his own processes.

The man in the armor would not be as lucky.

The idiot didn’t dodge out of the way, and instead brought up a hand and caught the phone, just as Kim had calculated he would do.

The sound of invisible armored fingers crunching around the phone and holding it in place echoed through the garage.

The armor’s holographic sensors were now functioning perfectly, and to the naked eye, it simply looked as if a contorted metal phone was hovering in the air unassisted.

“What is this?” Kim had the time to ask.

“An invasion,” the man said, his voice twisted and crackling, coming out of his armor’s external audio feed.

But not in English, and not in Korean.

He was speaking in one of the eight ancient languages of the universe – Cartaxian.

Just before adrenaline – or his body’s synthetic equivalent – could rush through Kim’s body, his armored assailant crushed the phone completely.

And the disruptor chip did the rest.

There was a jolt of energy as sparks erupted from the contorted case. They powered into the alien’s arm, instantly disabling the holographic sensors along his gauntlet and finally making it fully visible.

The Cartaxian jolted to the side, grabbing his wrist with his free hand as the rest of his armor became visible.

“What is this?” he demanded in Cartaxian, the guttural, spitting blasts of his words bouncing through the room.

“Insurance in case I was ever disturbed,” Kim explained as he brought his hands up, dusted them off, and took a step toward the alien. “You miscalculated how much of a threat I would be.”

“The Cartaxians never miscalculate.”

Kim had a moment. A single moment of recognition, then the bastard in armor exploded and took the garage and half the house with him.

Chapter 3

Linh

10:00 Da Nang, Vietnam

She shoved her hands further into her pockets as she strode along Non Nuoc beach. Though it was usually cram packed with tourists, considering the devastating tsunami warning, there was hardly a Westerner to be seen.

“Hurry up,” Harry Edwards called from behind her.

When Linh didn’t immediately pull her hands from her pockets and hurry up to the cameraman, Harry jogged up to her instead, his heavy boots churning through the sand as he lugged his camera with him, the big rig jostling over his shoulder.

Linh still wouldn’t turn to him. With her hands pushed all the way into the pockets of her jacket, she caught herself staring out to sea.

“You heard the network – they want footage, and they want it now. They want peaceful shots of the beach to show there was no tsunami,” Harry repeated their brief, even though Linh had read the exact same message.

She still didn’t reply. Slowly, she found her head tilting up to watch the clouds.

She knew the clouds of Da Nang. She’d been here for years. From the forests and Buddhist temples inland, to the sun-kissed beaches, she understood the weather patents that predominated on the eastern coast of Vietnam.

She understood them, in fact, in a way no one else could.

They flowed through her. From the temperature, to the wind speed, to the condensation, to the pressure. She experienced it in a way no other person would understand.

Humans are good at dealing with variables, and their machines are even better at the task. But there is a state beyond variables that one must access to truly predict. A state of flow in which data becomes more than mere points and numbers. It becomes a movable, living reality.

And as Linh tilted her head back and watched the massive cloud mass, her eyes darted over the bulbous gray brain-like upper stem that penetrated high into the sky. It looked like cumulonimbus flammagenitus – a meteorological event that would only form above a source of heat like a wildfire. Except it was forming above the ocean.

Something wasn’t right.

When Linh had been woken abruptly this morning to the shocking warning of a tsunami, she’d felt that same feeling. The one that had rushed down her back, the one that had sliced high into her neck, chilling her flesh, pulsing over her cheeks and sinking into her jaw.

The one that had reached right down deep and told her that peace was over.

And now that feeling rose, higher and higher, almost like the cumulonimbus as it reached further into the heavens.

“What are you doing?” Harry asked, exasperation clear.

Slowly, she tugged a hand out of her pocket and pointed with a stiff, slightly shaking finger at the cloud form.

Harry glanced at it, then shrugged. “You get weird clouds over oceans all the time.”

“Not like that,” Linh commented, her voice quiet with knowing.

Harry dismissed her comment with a shrug. Then he patted the expensive case of his camera. “We gotta get this footage now. Or the network is gonna be on our backs.”

“Hmm,” was all Linh managed as she tore her gaze off the clouds.

“Let’s get the shot here. The tourists are starting to come back,” Harry mentioned as he jammed a thumb over his shoulder. “We gotta get this footage before they return. The network wants you to highlight how false warnings like these can have deleterious effects on terrorism.”

Linh still didn’t comment.

She pulled her other hand out of her pocket, walked to where Harry was pointing, and got ready for the shot.

She tried to neaten her short black bob that was cut to her jawline, but at the last moment, a quick wind coming in off the coast cut a few strands over her face, sending them slashing against her nose and eyes, but more than anything, grabbing her attention.

Again she angled her face toward the ocean.

One of the greatest features of flow was the ability to discern when one was in danger.

If you truly attuned to all of the information coming to you from every angle, you would always be in a constant state of readiness.

From the subtle sounds, scents and movements around you, you could detect what was about to happen.

“You’re running in five,” Harry said as he brought up his free hand and started to count down silently.

Linh’s eyes widened as she stared out to sea. She detected certain scents being pushed along by the wind.

“Hey, Linh, look at the camera already. I’m going to start the countdown again. Five—” Harry began.

Linh turned.

Humans feel fear when they encounter danger. It’s how they’re built. When the correct stimulus arises, their limbic system reacts, increasing adrenaline, heart rate, and breathing – getting ready to protect the body in any way it can.

But there’s a state beyond fear. One Linh hadn’t been forced to enter for years. She’d always fondly named it sharpness.

When your body and all of its senses narrow down into a single point and all other distractions fall away until you’re left with the focus of a laser.

And that happened to Linh now as she turned fully toward the clouds. There was now no doubting it. The cumulonimbus flammagenitus reached high into the sky, growing with every second.

“Hey, Linh,” Harry snapped.

People further down and up the beach started to point to the shoreline.

Linh glanced down as she walked toward it.

Fish were washing up. Boiled fish, their once scaly, wet flesh cooked to beyond recognition.

“What the hell?” Harry spat. “We need to pick this up,” he added as he turned his camera on and started to take wide sweeping shots of the beach line.

Linh moved toward the waves. One step after another. She tilted her head back, her black bob flaring around her face as the wind picked up off the ocean. It brought with it two things. Heat and a very specific smell.

Most humans wouldn’t be able to detect what it was. They would assume it was some kind of acrid smoke.

Those involved in the space industry, however, would be able to correctly identify it.

There’s a certain scent that accompanies something falling through the atmosphere of a planet. It’s the scent of burnt up ozone.

It could be mistaken for the sweet, tangy scent that accompanies the onset of rain. But not in this quantity.

Chills started to race down Linh’s back as she took yet another step toward the shoreline.

“Linh, start speaking or I will,” Harry said as he thumbed the button on the microphone of his camera.

Linh would not start speaking. She walked, like a woman possessed, over to the shoreline. Then she stood there as the lapping waves traced over her shoes.

She knelt down, pressed a finger forward, and pushed it into a wave as it scattered the sand over her black shoes.

Instantly, the tip of her finger scolded. She didn’t yank it out of the waves. She left it there, focusing on the sensations that pushed through the innumerable specialized receptors embedded into her apparently human skin.

“Shit, what’s that smell? Is that your skin? What the hell is going on? Is the ocean boiling?” With every new question, Harry became more and more terrified.

Linh could start to hear screams picking up over the beach as locals and tourists alike realized what was happening to the ocean, as they tilted their heads back and saw the clouds reaching higher and further into the sky as if they were attempting to penetrate the upper atmosphere and punch out into orbit.

Finally she stood. She paid no heed to her fingertip.

She closed her eyes.

They were coming.

She knew it from the direction of the wind, from the heat still tingling against her fingertip, from the scent of the cooked fish.

They were finally here.

Linh snapped her eyes open.

“Run,” she said with finality as she shifted forward, looped an arm around Harry’s, and started pulling him back.

“What the hell are you talking about? We need to pick this footage up.”

“We need to get to safety, if it still exists,” she added.

When Harry resisted her pull, she put more effort into it, until her diminutive form managed to drag his six-foot broad build backward with little more resistance.

Something passed through Linh. Passed through the beach. It passed through Da Nang. It pushed into Vietnam, it echoed out across the world.

A jolt of recognition, if you will.

A final realization of what was about to come.

Linh ground to a standstill, her eyes opening wide as her hair fanned in front of her face.

“What—” Harry began. He stopped.

Every single person on that beach stopped. And all of them looked up.

The top of the cloud formation burst apart as the bottom of the great, undulating mass suddenly shot into the ocean.

From far out to sea, light built at the base of the clouds. Red and glowing like the center of a furnace.

People finally started to scream.

It was too late.

Linh shoved into Harry, yanked the camera off him, and placed it down on the beach, careful to ensure the lens was directed right at the ocean. Then she lugged the cameraman backward, her shoes with their partially melted soles digging holes into the sand as she hauled his heavy body back toward the edge of the beach.

Were they coming for her?

Or were they coming for humanity?

Did it matter?

“That camera is expensive,” Harry tried to point out, but his voice was husky, his throat compressed, his force becoming weaker with every second.

Linh didn’t stop pulling him until they reached the edge of the beach and ran up into the car park.

Around her she saw people standing and staring.

“Get out of here while you still can,” she snapped in Vietnamese then repeated in English and Chinese to warn the tourists as well as the locals.

No one paid heed.

Though some obviously had an admirable sense of self-preservation that saw them shrink back, others brought up their phones as if the glowing red ocean was nothing more than an Instagram-perfect curiosity.

In her peripheral vision as she yanked open the passenger door of her Jeep and shoved Harry inside, Linh saw the beach.

The glow now permeated the entire cloud bank, making it look as if it were now a pyrocumulonimbus, a superstorm created by violent heat and condensation.

Sure enough, lightning started discharging through the massive cloud stack.

Harry shrunk back in his chair, his head banging dramatically against the leather headrest, a few slicks of sweat from his neck transferring over the mottled black fabric. “What the hell is that?”

“An invasion,” Linh said.

“What?” Harry turned to her dramatically, his shoulder-length sandy hair scattering over his unshaven chin as his round green eyes opened wide.

Linh didn’t pause as she gunned the engine, thrust the gear stick into reverse, and slammed her foot on the accelerator. The jeep’s old tires squealed as she forced them to churn over the gravel of the car park as fast as they could. She slammed on the brakes, shoved the car into drive, and threw her foot onto the accelerator with all her weight.

The car shuddered as it shot forward.

Harry gripped the side of his seat, his pale skin becoming all the paler, looking like a corpse that’d had the blood squeezed from every last capillary.

As Linh drove, she watched the cars and motorbikes paused on the side of the road, the passengers leaning out of their doors, their phones lifted to the heavens.

She honked at them, her window down as she tried to wave them to safety.

Some ran, some didn’t.

Harry no longer said a word.

Linh drove. She drove where her body told her to. She shoved the fear away, throwing her mind into her sense of flow instead, allowing every movement, every muscle contraction, every damn breath to push her forward.

And as she was pushed forward, the world behind her fell apart.

For the day she had dreaded was finally upon her.

The invasion had begun.

Chapter 4

14:30 Southwest National Kim, Tasmania, Australia

“She’s not the greatest tour guide,” Shane muttered under his breath, fixing the straps of his pack as he tightened them and pulled them closer to his already tired shoulders.

“She’s silent, but she always seems to know what to do when things get rough,” Rachel replied gruffly.

“Not the point of a tour guide though, is it? These people paid top dollar for this.”

“They haven’t paid top dollar for us to natter in their ears about how damn special this UNESCO World Heritage site is,” Rachel said, repeating that phrase as if she’d rote learned it. “They paid for peace and quiet. And nothing says peace and quiet like the Southwest National Kim.”

“She hasn’t said a thing to a single one of the guests, and be damned if I’m gonna let her ruin our Yelp rating.”

Rachel rolled her eyes as she navigated around a tricky section of rocks. “You think top-rated executives care about Yelp ratings? They care about this.” She thrust her hand to the side, indicating the sweeping Western Arthur Ranges. From the high ridge they stood upon, dotted with the wind-beaten grasses and gray, starkly jagged rocks, they stared down into the untouched wilderness of the Southwest. “You don’t get views like this in downtown Sydney and Shanghai.”

It was Shane’s turn to roll his eyes. “And there are a million other tour operators who could be running gigs just like ours. We need to offer full customer service,” Shane said through clenched teeth as he ticked his gaze toward the object of his ire once more.

Alice Edwards. A 20 or 30 something diminutive woman who didn’t say a word and never revealed anything about herself. At 5’3, she had no commanding presence, and yet somehow managed to lug around a 30-kilo pack with ease.

Shane didn’t doubt that she was a good walker. She was sure on her feet, and she never complained about extra weight being put in her bag when one of the guests realized that running a high-powered business did not mean they had the wherewithal to trek these great ranges.

But Alice lacked one thing. A pretty key thing in someone who was meant to guide others. A personality.

She was a blank slate. Her expression was almost always neutral, her attention almost always turned within.

Rachel sighed, tipping her head back, bringing up a hand, and scratching her short nails through her brown hair. “Would you just give it a rest, already? She can probably hear us, you know?” Rachel said as she dropped her voice down low.

Shane snorted. “She’s upwind. And no one has that good hearing.”

“I don’t know. Alice has always given me the impression she can do anything.”

Shane snorted derisively. “Except hold a conversation for longer than 10 seconds. I don’t care what you say. When we get back, I’m making a complaint.”

“Then you’re a dick,” Rachel huffed.

Shane opened his mouth to snap a snide reply, but then heard one of the guests – a highly paid, highly powered, highly arrogant executive from Shanghai – muttering in excitement.

The guy had his satellite phone out and was presumably spending an insane amount of money using it to check his messages.

The entire point of this trip was so that the apparently stressed out executives could tune into nature and tune out for a while.

“Be kind,” Rachel said as she caught Shane’s expression. “These people have businesses to run. Plus, with the amount of money they’re paying for this experience, who cares if they want to surf the net while walking through some of the most unique scenery in the world?”

Shane didn’t bother to reply, and instead pushed further ahead. “What’s going on, fellas?” he asked.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Alice.

Though she’d been walking quickly before, she suddenly stopped. And it was the exact way that she stopped that caught Shane’s attention.

Her back became rigid, her overly large pack pushing out and up as her head twisted to the side. The movement was slow, precise and controlled like a snake tracking its prey through the grass.

At first her gaze darted over the side of the ridge, then up, locking onto a point in the sky.

The movement sent a pulse of nerves pushing through his stomach, even though it was just that – a simple movement. But there was something—

The executives started to talk quickly amongst themselves, and though Shane spoke a little Chinese – the entire reason he’d got this job – their muttered Mandarin was too quick to discern completely.

He picked up several words. Tsunami and impact.

He frowned, walking up to the group. “What’s going on?”

Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Alice’s head jerk all the way up until the long line of her neck revealed the ridged muscles of her trachea.

“Something’s going on in the South China Sea,” one of the Chinese Australian guests, Chan, pointed out.

Shane tried to shake off the blast of adrenaline that pulsed through his body, sending biting tingles down into his toes and fingers. “What’s going on? Some kind of tsunami? Where has it hit? I have friends in—” he began. He didn’t get to finish his sentence.

More people were checking their sat phones, and a real fear pushed through the group.

Shane had an imagination. One he sometimes couldn’t switch off. Sometimes when he lay awake in his tent at night, he’d stare up at the canvas flapping in the wind and wonder what it would be like to ride out the end of the world far away from civilization in a place like this.

Countries could go to war, there could be large-scale cyber-attacks, and whole cities could fall to untreatable viruses, but you wouldn’t know. Not out here. Without a phone, you’d have no idea civilization was crumbling at all.

“There’s live footage, live footage,” he picked up broken Mandarin from one of the walkers as they shoved their phone in front of one of their friends.

This far out, far away from the comfort of the modern world, everything humanity holds dear – from the Internet, to distributed power grids, to technology itself – could all crumble, and you wouldn’t know. Your friends and family could die, and you’d have no clue. Whole governments could crumble, and it wouldn’t matter.

Rachel wasn’t saying a word. Neither was Alice. But while Rachel had moved toward the group to pick up the footage on their sat phones, Alice hadn’t moved at all.

She was still standing exactly where she was, her head tilted up, her eyes never blinking as she stared at a single point in the sparse clouds shooting through the otherwise blue sky.

Rachel suddenly gasped. “What the hell is that cloud? What’s going on?”

“It appeared over the east coast of Vietnam,” somebody replied, their words quick, harsh, and full of pressure.

Shane might’ve imagined what it was like to ride out the end of the world in the Southwest, but he hadn’t ever bothered to fill in one detail.

Fear.

The primal, gut-wrenching, spine-climbing fear of someone who has no idea what’s going on and who can’t even begin to gauge the level of threat out there.

Sweat slicked his brow, trickling down the sides of his temples and splashing over the waterproof fabric of his windbreaker.

Rachel shunted forward, grabbed a hand over his arm, and pulled him in, showing him one of the sat phones.

And Shane stared at the end of the world.

But as the group stared down, Alice continued to look up.

The first hint something was wrong was a sound. So sharp and piercing. It started off low, but then arced up.

It finally got the group’s attention.

People pulled their gazes off the phones and stared at the clouds.

“What the hell?” Shane had a chance to say, then he saw it. This black dot, punching through the clouds, getting closer every second.

No one said a word. Except for Alice. Her lips slowly parted as a single word echoed out. “Invasion.”

Shane had a second – a second where his blood ran cold and his heart skipped several beats. Then an almighty boom split the air, and he was forced down to his knees as he clamped his hands over his ears.

The rest of the group fell like daisies, too – everyone except for Alice.

She kept her head directed up as a black shape suddenly appeared above them.

It was more than a shape.

It….

Impossible. It was impossible.

It… was some kind of ship. But it wasn’t a jet, and God knows, despite the fact it was jet black, that it wasn’t a spy plane.

Shane’s brother worked maintenance at Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne, so Shane knew a thing or two about airplanes. About their inherent design. You needed a certain aerodynamic shape and a specific engine design in order to get a chunk of metal off the ground for any prolonged time.

But as far as he could tell, the sleek black shape that now hovered right above the ridge didn’t even have any engines.

People screamed. And yet, their screams didn’t echo. They didn’t punch out over the ridge, sail down the side of the mountain range, and bounce through the valley. It sounded like they’d had a blanket thrown over them.

“What?” Shane managed, his lips wobbling.

A hatch opened in the side of the black vessel, a cloud of white atmosphere escaping around the door as it didn’t open upward, but instead disappeared into the side of the ship, sleek shards of metal breaking apart and somehow re-knitting themselves against the hull of the hovering craft.

He heard two metal clunks – but the sound was as soft as two droplets of water splashing against wood.

A black shape appeared in the shadow of the hatch, sunshine instantly glinting off its smooth metal body.

It was a man. Dressed in full boot-to-head armor.

The sun glimmered along his gauntlets as he gripped the side of the ship, tilted his head down, then pushed off. He sailed the 20 meters down to the ridge, then landed. Though his heavy, armored form should have clanged against the dolerite rock, it didn’t. Those two solid black boots striking the stone was the equivalent of two feathers falling from the sky.

The man punched his gauntleted hand into the ground and rose.

The hovering ship closed its hatch, lifted several meters and shifted in direction, turning with all the ease of a bird on the wing, then shot off back into the clouds, disappearing until it was little more than a dot on the horizon in under three seconds.

As it flew away, Shane flinched, expecting a sonic boom as he wrapped his hands around his ears, his shoulders punching high, the sound of his wind breaker scrunching indiscernible.

But there was nothing.

Nobody screamed anymore, and nobody ran. The entire group stared in awed shock at the black armored man.

And the man stared at Alice.

She hadn’t moved.

Her expression was unmoved, too.

The man took a step toward her.

Alice stood her ground. “Why are you here?” she asked. There was no passion in her tone. Nothing at all. She had the same blank expression as she always did.

She was facing off against some kind of armored warrior, and she looked as if she was talking about the weather.

“Taking,” the man said.

The word you’re looking for is invasion,” Alice said.

Shane didn’t bother to ask what the hell was going on anymore. He hunkered down with everyone else, a protective hand on Rachel’s shoulder.

“Invasion, then,” the armored man said as he tilted his head to the side, the sun glimmering off his helmet.

“But why are you here? Have you come for me?”

What the hell was going on here? Why wasn’t Alice reacting? What the hell was this creature?

With no answers, all Shane had were questions, and they felt as if they were tearing him up from the inside out.

But more than anything – more than anything – he couldn’t take his eyes off her.

She looked… like a pillar. She wasn’t tall, she wasn’t broad, she didn’t have a body that suggested strength at all. But as she stood there and faced the armored man who was a good two feet taller than her, she didn’t shrink back.

And the effect was like staring at an anchor weighing down a ship in a storm. The rest of the world might be crumbling, falling apart under the wings of uncertainty, but Alice stood still like a homing beacon calling everyone back to safety.

“Detected nonhuman sophisticated bipedal readings,” the armored man said as he extended a finger toward Alice. His armor didn’t creak – there was no sound at all. In fact, there was the absence of sound, almost as if something was actively blocking it.

But that fact could not detract from what he’d just said. Shane had read enough science fiction to understand what non-human bipedal reading meant.

Alien.

… What…?

He didn’t get the chance to finish that thought.

Alice laughed. It was low and unquestionably emotional. He simply couldn’t figure out what that emotion was.

If you’d asked Shane before, he would’ve said 150 percent that Alice didn’t have emotions. She was one of those closed, blocked-off people who reminded you of a robot. Sure, some psychoanalyst might say she was just repressed. Shane would’ve doubted it. Shane would’ve told you there was nothing going on behind Alice’s vacant brown eyes.

Now he detected more.

“So you’re here to kill me?” Alice asked, her tone back to neutral. “I see you’re going around the world as we speak killing every single nonhuman sophisticated bio reading you can find.”

Correct. First wave,” the man said.

Shane didn’t think he could feel any more adrenaline. He was wrong. His back practically shuddered with it as his muscles begged him to do something. Fight or flee – just do more than kneel here.

“I need to warn you of something,” Alice said as the man took a step toward her.

The man brought his fingers forward, spreading them. It was then that Shane noticed there were seven.

He… Jesus Christ, he was a goddamn alien.

This… it couldn’t be happening.

But the situation had no intention of slowing down to allow Shane the time to process the literally world-shattering news.

As all seven of those appendages stretched out, the palm of the alien’s armor changed, little fragments of metal parting, again with no sound. They shifted up around his wrist, sinking back into the metal as if they weren’t a solid but rather a liquid.


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