The town hall meeting took place outside: good weather, Monica wanted to project the view from the telescope in real time, and too damn many people to fit inside.
Surprised gasps gave way to concerned mumbling, which gave way to frightened shouts.
“Who survived the rocks well enough to put up satellites?”
“Do they know we are here?”
“How long have you been hiding this?”
“How do you know it isn’t the aliens?”
Monica did her best to answer everyone, mostly with a comforting version of, “I don’t know?”
Ellie passed Luiz and Hutch a concerned look of her own.
“The energetic event was almost certainly another Ring attempting to open,” said Hyong to the monitor.
General Namgung looked unconvinced. “Almost certain?”
Hyong stifled an exasperated sigh. “Science is never perfectly certain, General.”
“We will retask the satellite to locate this new Ring,” Numgung said before the monitor went dark.
Hyong rubbed his eyes.
Miss Ryu handed him a cup of tea. “The latest data is compiled,” she said.
“Thank you,” he said. He started toward his desk, then added, “Miss Ryu, we will be working late.”
“Perhaps we can have dinner together first.”
“Yes, sir,” she smiled.
Ajani fell. He landed and felt his wrist snap just before his head bounced off the floor. Darkness.
Later he woke. His face was sticky with dried blood. His wrist throbbed. Ten meters above, the pit gaped at the wheeling alien stars.
He heard the rustling flap of scavengers and shuddered. The stench of decay was overwhelming. He could not see bodies but he knew they must but near. The pit had become Genet’s symbol of exile from paradise.
Ajani did not pray. Nor did he weep. He crawled carefully into the darkness, feeling for alien sigils on the floor.
Ellie crested the hill out of breath and more irritated than she had been when Monica’s call interrupted her sleep.
“What the hell–”
“This is Jordon,” interrupted Monica. She indicated the skinny black kid standing next to an impressive amateur telescope.
“Ok,” said Ellie. She liked being Monica’s de facto second in command most of the time. Most.
“Tell her,” said Monica.
Jordon read Ellie’s expression. “Let me show you,” he said and pointed to the eye piece.
Ellie sighed and bent down to look. “What–? Oh. Oh shit.”
“Yeah,” said Monica.
“It’s a satellite,” said Jordon. “A manmade satellite.”
On the ice covered plains of the north pole, the Great Ring, far larger than the others on the planet, completed. It crackled with energy and burst with light and then, as it had thousands of times before, it failed. A portion of the Great Ring exploded, showering the plains with giant black stones. The missing section was nearly half a degree wide and would take months or longer to repair itself, as it had thousands of times before.
Elsewhere, very far away, the Sentinel watched its Ring open briefly and then close, as it had thousands of times before.
“There are nine Rings on this world,” Hyong told the Supreme Leader, “two more than on Earth.”
The Supreme Leader’s eyes shone hungrily. “Where do they go?”
“Unknown,” said Hyong with an apologetic bow. “They appear to be inactive.”
“Find out!” demanded the Supreme Leader.
General Namgung bowed and said, “There is something else, Supreme Leader. Our satellites show that two of the active Rings’ cities are occupied.”
The Supreme Leader’s irritation only increased. “Which ones?”
“The North American Ring and the North African Ring, sir.”
“They are of no consequence,” sneered the Supreme Leader.
Hyong was not so certain.
Genet paced thoughtfully. Ajani stood uncomfortably with Turiq so close behind him he could feel the man’s breath. Finally, Genet said, “Leave us,” and Turiq did. Ajani relaxed but only a little.
“I am worried for you, Ajani,” said Genet. “This report you sent me. This blasphemy.”
Ajani shook his head. “No, Enlightened One, not blasphemy. I only applied the–”
Genet silenced him with a motion. “You are confused.”
Genet came close and met Ajani’s eyes. “No? Then you intend to blaspheme?”
Ajani trembled. “I only told you the truth.”
Genet kissed his forehead and then summoned Turiq.
The key were the crystals, the ones found in the black rocks in the ejection zone. They were batteries.
Hutch who figured out how to install them safely in the alien machines. It did not take long for New Deaver City to come alive with rolling heptahedrons, floating spheres and giant undulating robot worms.
The Ring builders had stocked the city with millions of the devices and the crystals were plentiful Earthside. No one had to fight over access; right of way was a different story.
Mayor Monica worried aloud, “I don’t think these things were left here for us.”
Hyong felt a sense of relief upon examining the data. Up until that moment, it was not quite real. But with the satellites it became certain and true: he stood on a world other than Earth.
Miss Ryu stood nearby with a data pad. “Where are we?” she asked.
“Very far away,” he said.
Miss Ryu bowed. “The General has asked about the other Rings.”
“Yes.” Hyong frowned. “This world is large, at least twice the circumference as Earth. It will take time.”
Miss Ryu’s expression did not change but he sensed her apprehension.
“I will tell him,” said Hyong.
Ajani hunched over the battered tablet with its cracked screen. He did not complain. He was happy that it worked at all, so long after the stones had fallen.
It was not the only working computer in the Holy City, but it was the first he had found that contained the necessary programs. Even now its ancient processor churned, examining the glyphs and icons he had meticulously entered.
He rubbed the bruised bridge of his nose and winced. He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes.
He was just fading into sleep when the tablet bleated at him.