“Are they weapons?” asked General Namgung skeptically.
Hyong noted that since his passage through the Ring, the General was less demanding, less certain.
“I do not think so,” said Hyong as he peered at the streams of data flowing on his screens.
The cavernous warehouse was full of alien devices, many of which Hyong and Miss Ryu had fitted with sensors.
“They were surely stockpiled here.”
“General, little is sure here. We know nothing of the aliens, not even what they looked like.”
The General grunted his dissatisfaction.
Hyong said, “But we will discover their secrets. That much I promise.”
Jazarah waited while Genet touched the foreheads of one pilgrim after another. When the last one had gone, she said, “Mother is ill. Come home, if only for a short time.”
Genet smiled weakly. “I cannot.”
“Surely Ajani can handle things for a few days.”
“No, sister, I cannot leave. I am bound to heaven–”
“I know it is hard to–”
“Genet, stop it.”
She crossed her arms. “This is not heaven and you are not God’s chosen prophet. Stop playing at it.”
Genet scowled. “These people need me.”
“Your family needs you,” Jazarah said and then left.
Hutch stood beneath the alien heptahedron that hung from an engine crane. Only the bottom was not smooth: seven randomly arranged spheres peaked out.
“You don’t see it?” asked Hutch.
Ellie and Luiz waited.
“Damn! Look at the wheels.”
Ellie moved next to him and peered up. “What?”
Luiz said, “We give up. Tell us.”
“You asked me to crack one of these damn things open, right? I figured out how. If those wheels come in and out, that means there’s space, right?”
Ellie stared at Hutch. “You’re going to pump it full of nitro.”
“You’re damn right.”
Miss Ryu drove Doctor Bae Hyong through the lanes of Imperial Outpost One. Their small electric cart passed many prisoners laboring, soldiers drilling and peasants farming. She navigated via signs installed by the Imperial Transport Office. The pathways of those beings that had built the place could not be trusted otherwise.
“General Namgung believes this cache is the most valuable yet,” she said.
Hyong sniffed. “The General thought that of the last one, too.”
Hyong’s irritation was partly feigned. In truth the General’s desires were his own: to understand this world and those that had built the Ring.
Genet tore the page from his sketchbook and crumpled it. This obelisk, with its wrong angles and eye confounding silhouette, had refused his hand for five years.
“Enlightened One,” said Ajani from behind. Genet waved him into the courtyard. “We have completed our survey of the temple.”
His failed sketch forgotten, Genet said, “Did you find anything?”
Ajani pushed his glasses up. “I’m sorry, sir, we found no scripture.”
Genet’s face fell with his heart. Lord God, he prayed silently, where are you?
“But there is much archaeological–”
“No,” barked Genet. “We seek The Lord, Ajani. Do not get distracted.”
Standing under the oddly angled canopy, Ellie filled up her canteen with runoff. She dropped two tablets in, closed the canteen and stowed it.
Rain never lasted long in New Deaver City. Minutes later she was back where her half track sat. She checked the chain at both her vehicle and the weird wheeled heptahedron.
She towed it for a mile before her truck jerked to halt. No amount of gas would budge it: the heptahedron had inexplicably retracted its wheels.
She pulled out her radio. “Hey, Lu, I got another paper weight. Bring the lift?”
“Sure thing,” he answered.
The hurricane gale lasted for months as the air, both in pressure and composition, reached equilibrium between Earth and the world beyond the Rings. In the end, Earth was measurably cooler and drier but not inhospitably so.
Within a year of the opening of the Rings, the Imperial Expeditionary Force, the Seekers of the Light and a few dozen desert prospectors had all passed through a Ring to an alien world beneath an alien sky and into an uncertain future.
Through each Ring the first travelers found a vast city, empty of life and covered in the dust of eons.
END OF PART ONE
The sea was black in the moonless night after the Ring had gone dark. The awed silence gave way to fervent whispers among the usually stoic troops. Hyong felt General Namgung’s eyes on him as surely as he felt Miss Ryu’s grip on his elbow.
Hyong exhaled. The General’s would certainly, mercifully order an end to his torment.
No order came, or it was lost in the cacophony: first, an explosive pop, followed by screaming wind and thundering waves, then the groaning of the destroyer as it listed hard toward the Ring, and, not least, the screams of the soldiers.
It began as flashing lights, like a thunderstorm on a distant horizon. The electrical arcs within the Ring started sporadically but increased in frequency and brightness until the whole body of the Ring was pulsing. The bursts made no sound.
The singing of the pilgrims faltered. Genet raised his arms to heaven and sang the prayer more loudly, bolstering the flock. “God comes!” he bellowed. “God comes!”
Jazarah huddled behind a pile of stones outside the mass of Genet’s faithful. Where they felt ecstasy, she felt fear: for herself, and for her brother.
The Ring went suddenly dark.
Marco stood between Ellie and the bus, his face placid but his massive frame tense.
“Ellie,” said Monica.
“Stay here if you want,” said Ellie, “but let me get the kids away. Please.”
Whispers passed through the crowd of citizens of Deaver City. Monica started to speak again but silenced suddenly.
A shadow fell, like a cloud passing in front of the sun. Ellie looked up and saw the murmuration. It was a black mass of every kind of bird. It twisted and undulated but it was clearly flocking toward the Ring.
“It’s too late,” said Ellie. And it was.