As promised in my previous post, here is the first chapter of Operation: Jade Helmet. Preorder links are at the bottom.
Exhausted from a full two days of travelling, Hester Brighton sighed with relief while pulling the rental car into the driveway. The last leg of the journey from LAX airport to the house caused her shoulders and hands to ache from gripping the steering wheel too hard. The rental's GPS was on the fritz as was the one on her cell, so she got turned around twice and drove the wrong direction while evading throngs of people clogging the streets.
Snatching her cell phone, she pecked out a quick text to Jim, letting him know she arrived and would call him later after settling into her room. He responded back within two seconds with a smiley face and hearts and instructions for her to relax, have fun with her college roommates, and to be safe. It seemed her husband had gotten over their argument about her decision to take the yearly “girls’ trip” amidst all the chaos. Lying to her spouse made her stomach knot up, yet she had no choice. Her role as a Trusted Community Representative and Cryptographic Officer had to be kept a secret. Jim knew she was the head of the IT department for the largest accounting company in New York, but he knew nothing about her other responsibilities to the East Coast DNS server.
Looking down at the temperature gauge, she grimaced—125 degrees. Letting out a string of curse words that would make her mother turn over in her grave, she gathered her belongings. Leaving the cool confines of the car would be akin to stepping out into the Sahara. The line from her favorite movie when a child from Aliens popped out. “Yeah, but at least it’s a dry heat.” She chuckled at her own joke.
After shutting off the engine, she glanced around at the other parked vehicles, counting twenty, which was odd. It appeared some of the participants travelled together, and that was against protocol. She made a mental note to discuss the breach with Xavier to ensure it would never happen again.
She hated being late, especially for something as important as the ceremony. Punctuality was one of her many pet peeves, yet the delay could not be helped. Between the staggering heat and continuous rioting in New York and other major cities, several connecting flights were diverted, layovers lasted longer to accommodate flying at night when the temperature dipped back down to double digits, and one route through Minneapolis was cancelled when the city was besieged by rioters.
Grabbing her bags and titanium suitcase, she exited the car. Intense, dry heat slammed into her like the rough fist of a pissed-off bully. A slight breeze brought the fragrant scent of sea air to her nose yet made her face burn. She used to enjoy coming to the West Coast for the yearly key ritual yet due to the civil unrest and global heatwave, had yearned for a different option.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t one. To maintain the functionality of the IP addresses pointing correctly and verifying trusted sites, new information had to be uploaded.
She only made it two steps toward the small beach residence before the security guard whose fake identity included living year-round at the home and a cover as the “cousin” bounded down the stairs wearing beach shorts, flip flops, and a thin t-shirt.
Hester chuckled at his obnoxious attire. “You’re two days early for casual Friday, Xavier.”
“And you’re late for the party, dear cousin,” Xavier teased while reaching for the overnight bag. “Here, let me. Come inside before the pavement melts your shoes. The ground’s hot enough to fry an egg. I know because I’ve watched several local neighborhood kids do it.”
Relieved for the assistance, Hester let the bag slip from her shoulder. “Thanks. Good to see you again. Sorry I kept everyone waiting. I hope they didn’t rake me over the coals.”
Xavier’s dark blonde hair bobbed as he laughed. “Oh, once or twice but not too bad. I told them to cut you some slack due to the unforeseen circumstances we all are facing. Everyone is on edge since a full meeting with all of you in one place has never happened. We certainly are living in unprecedented times.”
Hester looked over her shoulder at the last rays of the setting sun caressing the Pacific Ocean. “I’m really sick of hearing that particular phrase.”
“Me too. The logistics of coordinating this unusual meeting has been stressful for me. Now, enough worrying about things neither of us can control. I occupied the downtime of the others by plying them with cold beer and hot pizza. I saved you two slices and three cold ones in the fridge in your room. Go freshen up, eat, and we’ll convene in thirty at the pit. Okay?”
Xavier placed his palm on the pad and then stepped aside for Hester to do the same. She did, and the door unlocked. “Shall we?”
“Yes. Cold shower here I come. Oh, please remind me to chat with you after the ceremony regarding which members broke protocol by riding together.”
“Certainly. Just don’t be too harsh. Like I said, these are...”
“If you finish that sentence, I may punch you in the face.”
“Such a badass. One of the many reasons I admire you.”
“I prefer fear rather than admiration,” Hester teased, half serious.
Once inside the brightly lit foyer painted in eggshell white and accented with subdued, casual decorations she picked out years ago, Xavier led the way up the stairs. Upon reaching her room, he leaned closer, body blocking the security camera in the corner. “Alexei’s waiting for you. He asked to speak with you privately before tonight’s ceremony.”
Raising an eyebrow, Hester wondered why the lead security guard decided to break yet another strict rule. Keyholders were not allowed to socialize in any way outside of the bi-yearly meetings, which included visits to the rooms of others. They were not authorized to be connected through social media, did not communicate via any means available, nor were they allowed to discuss their important roles in keeping the security of the internet safe with the DNS. Sensing something was wrong, she remained quiet, nodding once before entering the dark room.
“Trust me. See you in thirty.” Xavier flicked on the lights and set the bag on the floor before shutting the door.
Hester waited until she could no longer hear his footfalls before addressing the figure seated on the couch. For some weird reason, she hesitated letting go of the titanium suitcase containing the new keycard. There was an almost electrical current in the air; a sense of something inexplicably wrong coiled in her gut. “Alexei? Xavier said you needed to speak with me?”
“Correct. Please join me. My request will be brief.”
His voice sounded wrong. Hester secretly nicknamed Alexei the Russian Bear due to his heavy-set body, brusque demeanor, and growly tone tinged with an accent. Her grip tightened around the suitcase’s handle as the other hovered near the panic button by the door. “I’m sure you understand why I can’t do that.”
A heavy sigh followed by a phlegm-filled coughing spell made her stomach churn.
“Da. Prosti. Day mne minutku pozhaluysta. Rak legkikh.”
Hester’s Russian was rusty at best. She knew Da was yes and Prosti sorry. Wracking her brain to decipher the remaining words, she drew a blank. “English, please.”
With slow, hesitant movements, Alexei rose from the couch, turning to face her. Hester did her best to keep her facial expressions from giving away her shock at his appearance. His once headful of thick, black hair was nothing more than a few wisps sticking up in patches. Gaunt, pale, face and neck full of wrinkles, he looked more like her ninety-six-year-old grandfather than a fifty-five-year-old man.
“I’ve lost the battle with lung cancer. We must pick my successor tonight from one of the alternates.”
Hester let the hand near the panic button fall to her side. No wonder his body and voice were so ravaged. “Oh, Alexei. I’m so sorry. When were you diagnosed?”
“March. However, choosing a successor is not why I asked to meet with you.”
“What is your reason then?”
“I should think it’s obvious. Ponder upon it while getting ready. I’ll head down to the pit.”
Hester watched in silent awe until Alexei left the room, reeling from the unexpected news. “The Russian Bear taken down by cancer in less than six months. Damn but 2025’s been a horrible year. Now I know why we all are here. Yes, Alexei, I know what you desire, and I will do my best to make it happen.”
Exactly twenty-two minutes later, Hester stepped into the hallway, sporting a flowy sundress, a full belly, cold beer in one hand, and the titanium case in the other. Pausing at the stairwell, she slugged back the remaining liquid. Alexei’s sad news made her consider her own mortality, which was a subject she did not enjoy contemplating and had been at the forefront of her mind during the last several months, just like everyone else around the world. Setting the empty bottle on the small table below an ornate mirror, she adjusted her hair one last time. Satisfied she looked somewhat refreshed, she gazed out the floor-to-ceiling window to the Pacific. Bright, silvery moonbeams replaced the orange and yellow rays of the sun. Though she’d seen it numerous times over the years, the stunning view never failed to take her breath away.
Winding her way down the stairs to the main level, she walked with purpose into the den. The first entry door to the “pit” as they jokingly called the ceremony room was located behind a large, solid teak bookcase. Looking up to the designated spot on the ceiling, she closed her eyes, waiting for the infrared light to scan her face.
The bookcase slid open without a sound. She stepped inside to a dimly lit hallway, not even wincing as the wall closed behind her. The first few years she attended the key ceremony she had to fight back bouts of claustrophobia. Twenty-five years of performing the same steps allowed her to finally master her fears.
After six checkpoints, three pin codes, two biometric hand scans, a swipe of her smartcard, and an iris scanner so technologically advanced even world governments didn’t have one, she was inside the ceremony room where the cryptographic keys were held. Gazes of thirteen other keyholders from around the globe, three alternates, six Recovery Key Share Holders, four security guards, and one auditor from the world’s largest investment firm stared at her as she strode over to the metal-enclosed cage containing the hardware security modules. The competing scents of personal body odors, lotions, and colognes made her nose twitch. She cast a sideways glance at Sharlene Heffren and Collette Goddard. Their sickeningly sweet perfume was so strong she could taste it as though they sprayed it directly into her mouth. The duo of statuesque blondes from Europe refused to meet her gaze. Apparently, they forgot yet another protocol—no strong perfumes or scented lotions.
Setting the suitcase on the long, metal desk in front of her, Hester offered a thin smile to the familiar faces. “Good evening, all. My apologies for getting started so late. At least it’s temperature-controlled down here.”
In numerous languages, her apology was accepted. A few chuckled at her joke. She smiled again, and this time it was genuine. “Since 2025 has been rather odd, to say the least, I would like to add one more oddity into the mix. My request is against protocol, which seems to be a common problem this year….” She paused while glancing over once at Sharlene and Collette. Their cheeks flushed in unison to a deep crimson. “Yet, I believe the request is the right thing to do under the circumstances. Our longtime associate, Alexei Ivanov, is passing the torch to another after tonight’s ceremony due to…”
“Cancer,” Alexei interrupted. “I waited too long to quit smoking. Death is imminent.”
“Which is why we decided everyone needed to be in attendance rather than only seven of you,” Xavier added.
“Ah, now we know the reason.” Sharlene’s piercing blue eyes sparkled from the slightest hint of tears. “I shall miss you, Alexei.”
Hester nodded in agreement while taking a deep breath, still somewhat stunned by Alexei’s bravado while facing his demise. “While it is a privilege to be the administrator during a ceremony, I have done so before, so I propose bypassing my turn to lead us this evening and bestowing the honor upon Alexei. He’s been a part of us for over twenty years and deserves our highest respect. Any objections?”
The room remained silent as everyone shook their heads. Sharlene swiped at a straggler tear. Hester rolled her eyes—the ceremony was neither the time nor place for emotional reactions.
Alexei stepped forward. Sharlene and Collette, the only two other females in the room, let out small gasps after he removed his hat. Hester shot them both a dirty look.
“Thank you, Hester. As I mentioned, time is short for me, so shall we get started?”
Hester handed Alexei the list from her bag with instructions. “Certainly. Xavier, are we live with ICANN?”
Nodding toward the camera in the ceiling, Xavier provided copies of the day’s newspaper to Alexei and the others. “We are. Proceed.”
All keyholders representing numerous countries took their places in front of their assigned boxes, including Alexei, as the final step to unlock them began. Left and right retinas were scanned, confirming identities of each participant. One by one, they removed the old cards held inside as Alexei’s raspy voice gave instructions regarding their destruction and proper steps to activate the new one.
Hester’s nose twitched again. She tried to ignore it, wishing she would have taken her allergy medication prior to the ceremony. Being crammed in the small space with so many bodies and smells sent her allergies into overdrive, which is why she added the ban to the protocol list. The urge to sneeze built in intensity.
Burying her face in the crook of her arm, three exploded out of her with enough force she lost her balance. Reaching out a hand for the table to steady herself, she missed, pitching forward, arms flailing. Her right temple caught the edge of the thick metal. Pain exploded inside her head, filling her vision with stars.
It took her several seconds to regain her composure and to clear her vision. She expected someone to laugh or at the very least chuckle, yet all she heard were a few sharp intakes of breath and numerous thumps. The temperature in the room skyrocketed. The weird electrical current was back, making the hairs on her body stand erect. A strange whooshing sound surrounded her, which she attributed to damn-near knocking herself unconscious.
Heat radiated up from her chest as embarrassment made her cheeks flush upon touching the gash on her temple. She hoped the wound would not require stiches. Blinking twice to clear her vision, she fumbled for the edge of the table to assist her in standing. Instead of a hard surface, she touched something warm. “Wow, am I a klutz! I’m so sorry…”
The words dried up in her throat the second her gaze settled on Xavier’s face. He was on the floor inches away, and her hand rested on his hairy thigh. Yanking it back, she focused on his swollen, pale face.
Damn, am I unconscious? I must be out cold be because there’s no way Xavier’s dead. He looks like someone sucked out his soul and bled him dry.
Three distinct thumps from behind pulled her from the dazed funk. The sound of metal crushing and the stench of burnt matches made her stomach flip-flop.
Scrambling to her feet, she spun around in a circle, taking in the unfathomable images bombarding her mind. Her respirations increased; blood pumped at an accelerated rate as adrenaline shot through her system, causing the cut on her head to gush rivers of red down her face. Xavier, and all the others were dead, their lifeless bodies lying in crumpled heaps, faces ghostly pale and contorted in fear.
A wave of disbelief made her body sway a fraction. Was this some sort of biological attack? Did someone release a deadly chemical into the air filtration system? Panic welled up from the deepest recesses of her mind. On instinct, she covered her mouth with a trembling hand.
What she saw next made her doubt her sanity.
Dropping the destroyed keycards from his hand, Alexei moved with unnatural speed. One second, he was on the opposite side of the room over twenty feet away and the next, he was millimeters from her face. Hot, foul breath wafted from him, making her gag. The once familiar face contorted into an unrecognizable mass before his body crumpled to the ground at her feet.
Dumbstruck by the carnage, she finally found her voice. “Alexei!?”
A shimmering, ethereal form burst from Alexei’s corpse, writhing and swirling until it converged into a solid, human shape. Bright, intense light beamed from its face. On instinct, Hester shielded her eyes.
In a voice loud enough to cause the entire room to vibrate, it answered. “The Clearing begins.”
Hester Denise Brighton never had the chance to look toward the camera and scream for help, run, or even gasp as a strong set of hands latched around her neck, squeezing until everything went black.