Chapter 1

Earth

Lieutenant Yusef Ibrahim can feel the roar of the fighter’s engines as he accelerates down runway 13R at Shahrokhi Air Force Base. He rises above the shroud of smog, and a river of stars greets him, making him feel small despite the 12000 pounds of thrust at his back. Banking his jet northeast, he sets a course to intercept the anomaly sighted over Tehran.

Yusef listens incredulously to the radio as the lead fighter pilot, Lieutenant Fazel, reports that his instruments have ceased functioning. His UHF and intercom went out as he approached within five nautical miles of the target. Systems returned as Fazel aborted his approach. Knowing Fazel is not the best of pilots, Yusef assumes the problem is likely pilot error.

He systematically runs through his weapons readiness checklist as he approaches within fifteen miles of the coordinates. He sees what looks like a bright star at his twelve o’clock—much larger than any celestial body should be. He adjusts the brightness on the HUD to compensate. His hand briefly touches the photograph of his wife and two-month-old child taped next to the tactical display, steadying himself before approaching the target.

Yusef adjusts his course to approach the unidentified object at an oblique angle to allow him more room to maneuver, and he hopes he will seem less threatening to whatever this object is. He continues to close at a speed of one hundred fifty knots. When he reaches a point ten nautical miles from the object, it moves away from him, maintaining a constant distance between them. Yusef can’t believe the size of it. It is enormous. But, because the light emitted from the object is too fuzzy, Yusef has trouble discerning its exact size or shape. It is like an optical illusion. It is like a smooth, symmetrical cloud.

The strange object then flies off on a northwestern trajectory, and Yusef continues to pursue it. Suddenly, a smaller object, just as bright as the primary object, breaks off and heads straight for him at an incredible speed. Yusef reacts quickly. He reports he is going weapons ‘hot’ and arms the AIM-9 missiles strapped beneath the wings. He is about to fire a missile when the weapons control panel dies. UHF radio also quits working. Remembering what happened to Fazel, he initiates a sharp bank combined with a negative G dive, hoping to escape the impending object.

Yusef’s eyes widen as he sees the strange object hurtling toward him. An oblong cluster of ever-changing colors, blue, green, red, and orange, strobe wildly in the darkness. As soon as Yusef has come about 180 degrees, it changes its course without any turn or bank, like a cue ball ricocheting off the rail of a billiard table.

“Impossible!” He shouts in frustration. “That is a Djinn!”

The unknown craft is again on an intercept course with Yusef. It approaches him rapidly from starboard. Before he can react, it is in front of him, filling his vision with an intense blinding light. His eyes are unable to process what he is seeing. He freezes at the controls. Forcing composure, he feels for and engages the autopilot, hoping it will keep him from crashing into the ground.

It takes almost two agonizing minutes for his vision to return. He quickly spots the shape of the parent ship, but the small craft that has come dangerously close to colliding with him has vanished. Without hesitating, he guides his fighter towards the main object, keeping a safe distance from what he judges to be its engagement threshold.

Once again, another small object detaches itself and starts descending toward the ground at breakneck speed, seemingly set on crashing into it. But instead of doing so, it surprisingly stops, without slowing, just before impact, hovering right above the ground and illuminating the terrain with an intense brightness for several kilometers.

Yusef makes a low pass over the mysterious object and reports its coordinates to the air base at Shahrokhi. He circles it for a few more minutes until it suddenly returns to the mother ship where it originated. Soon after, the parent object takes off in a blindingly fast dash toward the west and is out of sight before Yusef can even blink.

Yusef begins his course back to base. As he starts his final approach, another of the small objects overtakes him and positions itself less than fifty meters directly above his plane. It is cylindrical with steady bright lights on either end and a single flashing light in the middle. He feels a chill slide down his spine. Just as he pushes the throttle to afterburner, all electrical systems on the fighter quit again. He is helpless as he witnesses the mysterious figure descend ever closer.

The airbase tower has Yusef on the radar as he begins his approach. The controller witnesses the object come up on the fighter, and they appear to merge into one. The object is so bright that the tower can not see the fighter, even though its landing lights are on. The object continues straight toward the airbase control tower and flies directly over it. As it does, all electrical equipment in the tower quits working. The object continues in a westerly direction. When the power returns to the tower, there is no sign of the object or Yusef’s fighter.

* * *

Seven hundred kilometers northwest of Tehran lies what was once the largest lake in the Middle East and the sixth-largest lake on Earth. A veritable oasis, it was a diverse biosphere that included brine shrimp and flamingos. Its coasts drew crowds of visitors seeking both relaxation and adventure. But eighty-eight percent of the water has disappeared, leaving only bleak desolation. Empty docks, like skeletons,  litter the shoreline.

The day after Lieutenant Ibrahim’s mysterious disappearance, General Jafar commandeers a helicopter with Lieutenant Fazel in tow. They fly to where Ibrahim had reported the smaller object landed—a spot on the dry lakebed near a small town. A peculiar pattern catches General Jafar’s eye as they hover over the dry lakebed. Tendrils of black swirl through the scorched lakebed. 

“It’s like the photos of English crop circles I saw in college!” exclaims Fazel. 

“What could it mean?” General Jafar murmurs.

The General orders the pilot to land one hundred meters from the outer edge of the design. General Jafar watches an investigative team beginning their examination of the area. It is an otherworldly scene. They step onto parched ground transformed into an alien canvas. 

Investigators march forward shrouded in antiseptic white jumpsuits and tinted goggle-like sunglasses that protect their eyes from the searing sunlight and blowing sand. Each of them holds a variety of hand-held instruments as directed by the General.

One technician kneels at the edge of the craftsmanship in the sand. “Only an immense heat could have done this. I know nothing that could have done this with such precision for such a large area.”

The General nods and commands Fazel to take the chopper back up to search for clues in a nearby town on the former coast of the dried lake. “Speak to anyone who may have seen something unusual last night,” he instructs.

Fazel sees the rusting hulk of a freighter listing in the bleached salt of the lakebed as the helicopter approaches the town of Sharafkhaneh. He tells his pilot to land on the flats a hundred meters out. As he emerges from the whirling dust kicked up by the helicopter, a group of locals watch him with mild curiosity. 

The salty wind stings Fazel’s eyes as he lumbers toward the town and asks the whereabouts of its administrator. He soon finds himself speaking to the mayor. After interviewing some people who witnessed last night’s events, he goes back to his chopper to rejoin the team with General Jafar.

Tension is palpable in Fazel’s demeanor as he disembarks.

“Lieutenant,” General Jafar said sternly, “what is it?”

Fazel stands at attention, rigid as a stone, “Sir, it’s Lieutenant Ibrahim.” He swallows hard before adding, “His wife and child are missing.”

“Start from the beginning,” commands Jafar.

Fazel pauses to take in the surreal scene before him. The white figures with large black eyes wander the enigmatic pattern embossed on the white sand. He reported to the General, his voice betraying a hint of confusion and unease, “The town chief says that several people reported loud noises and seeing bright lights last night. I talked to several of them, but the only thing they know for certain is a woman and child have gone missing. The town is the home of Lieutenant Ibrahim’s wife’s family, and his wife and child were visiting. After the events of last night, the wife and child are gone, vanishing into thin air. There is no trace of them anywhere. The women’s parents think the military must have something to do with it.”

“His child?”

“Yes, sir. Ibrahim has a two-year-old.”

The General’s face grew solemn as he listened to Fazel’s report. He tilts his head toward the sky, silently praying to Allah for their safety.