Ellie did not like riding inside the machine. It was cramped and dark and she had no control over what was happening or where she was going. But the message had been clear: the machines were not the enemy.
When she had stood out in the open field, weaponless and alone, she nearly panicked. When the heptahedron had rolled at her, she nearly shit. But she stayed.
Now she was moving northward, toward the “others” as the last cryptic message had put it. In the close darkness she prayed a little, despite being a very long way from Sunday School.
Captain Kim said, “Multiple contacts are incoming.”
“How many?” asked Hyong.
“Hundreds. Thousands, maybe.”
The makeshift base was at full alert and consumed in the chaos of panic. Soldiers ran out of the shelters while scientists ran into them. Searchlights scoured the camp and approach.
“Do not escalate the situation, Captain,” said Hyong irritably. “They will not attack, and if they did your weapons would do no good.”
Kim snapped, “How could you know?”
“Twice now General Namgung has deployed our greatest weapons, yet we still live.”
“Hold your fire,” said Kim over the radio as hundreds of machines arrived.
Jazarah stood on blasted earth next to Ajit’s body. Their worm-like conveyance, having disgorged them, undulated northward. More rolled, flew and trundled past her.
She realized she was sweating. The ground radiated heat and likely something worse. The sky was pale blue. The bomb had not created a mushroom cloud or even smoke. It had simply turned the trees to ash.
She was too shocked even to weep. Alone in a desolate waste, if she did not succumb to radiation poisoning she would die of exposure.
She glanced at Ajit’s slowly cooking corpse, then ran to intercept one straggling machine.
I have always had a bit of a tumultuous relationship with (writing) rejection. Of course there’s a sense of failure and the creeping feeling of imposter syndrome, but the thing I really hate is form letters. The sense that there’s an algorithm accepting, reading and rejecting submissions has always bothered me. I know intellectually that it doesn’t really work that way (I don’t think). I assume there are real people going through the slush pile, and my stuff is just not good enough to get through the sieve.
A couple months ago DAW Books opened for unsolicited submissions. I decided to send Elger and the Moon in. I really like that novel and feel like it could be great with a real editor and publishing resources behind it. That a rejection letter did not come back immediately gave me a little hope, as did seeing some random reads on my Kindle reports. Were they looking at it seriously? Did it have a shot?
Alas, the Rejectron 3000 just spat out its form letter and all those feelings of failure, imposter syndrome and being subject to the whims of algorithms come rushing back, no matter how foolish they are.
Writing is lonely and hard, and yet here I am.
Monica crossed her arms and set her heels. “No fucking way.”
Ellie gesticulated but did lose her shit. “If Jordan is right, we are in the middle of a war.”
“If he’s right.”
“I’m right,” said Jordan.
“We don’t know that. We lost contact–”
“We lost contact because they fired nukes. Again.”
Monica shook her head and sat down. “It’s impossible.”
“No,” said Jordan, “we know the language now.”
Ellie added, “And we know there are others. We can do this.”
“To what end?” asked Monica.
Ellie knelt and grasped Monica’s hands. “Our destiny. We were meant to do this.”
The Inquisitor was surprised. It had not expected such a thing was possible. But here it was: a hole in its perception, an unknown floating freely amidst the known. Perhaps had it been allowed to remain the Envoy, it would have understood. Alas, it was now the Inquisitor.
The unknown would have to wait. The network blinked: certain proof of another fission attack. Protocols demanded an escalation in response. A warning had not been enough. It was unfortunate, but not unheard of: not all contacted worlds desired contact.
Yet that unknown was worrisome, far more dangerous than a crude explosion.
General Namgung watched the screen. Seen from far above, machines, nearly one hundred in all, moved northward through a forest. He gave the order. Momentarily the screen was washed out by the blast. When it cleared, the forest was gone and the machines lay scattered.
Nearby Corporal Ryu stood rigid.
“These machines will not defy us.”
Minutes passed before the screen blinked with data. The machines were moving again.
“Impossible!” cursed Namgung. “It must be this thing at the polar Ring!”
“Sir,” she said.
“Redirect the bombers!” the General bellowed.
Ryu nodded and bowed and screamed silently within.
Jazarah watched Ajit attempt to communicate through the alien machines. That he had come to understand them so quickly scared her, but it was far too late for that fear.
She turned to a wall and it became transparent. A snowy forest of alien trees rolled by, undulating with the strange movements of their conveyance. More machines traveled beside them. The sunlight was pale and cold. She shivered instinctively.
Suddenly the view filled with white light. Then darkness swallowed her and she was hurled forward.
Illumination returned. She stirred, aching. Ajit lay nearby, twisted unnaturally, his blank stare on her.
“Why aren’t they swarming us?” asked Luiz, brandishing his bang-stick nervously.
“There’s a signal coming from this one,” answered Jordan.
“That’s weird,” said Ellie.
“Just hurry,” radioed Monica as she watched through the periscope.
Ellie pointed the jerry-rigged camera at the orb. Jordan tapped and swiped wildly at his tablet. Luiz waved his weapon around and sweated. The orb flashed color and texture.
“Is it working?” urged Ellie.
“No,” said Jordan. “I mean, yes, but this can’t be right.”
“What?” Monica asked.
“The pattern is like morris code.”
“Who’s sending it?”
“A person,” he stammered. “A human, I mean.”
Hyong entered the shelter and unzipped his parka.
“You were gone a long time,” said Captain Kim.
“Yes,” Hyong said and reached for the tea kettle. “The Inquisitor had many questions.”
Kim grunted. “I do not like that name.”
“It is certainly a translation, but it is not a mistake.”
“Now I like it less.”
Now Hyong grunted. “It has reason to inquire.” He paused. “Any word from home?”
Kim shook his head. “No. Interference remains strong. We know they are trying to make contact but we cannot connect.”
Hyong sipped his tea and grimaced. Miss Ryu made it better.