The weird little vehicle trundled forward, then back, then made a K turn.
“Holy shit,” said Mayor Monica.
“You haven’t seen anything yet,” said Ellie. She motioned to Hutch. “Do it,” she chirped.
Hutch manipulated the controls — an unwieldy old console sprouting wires like ivy — and the vehicle suddenly flipped upside down and landed on the ceiling as natural as could be.
“Jesus,” said Monica. “How did you figure this out?” asked Monica.
“You told us to,” said Hutch.
“We screwed with it on end until things started to happen,” said Ellie.
“Now we put them to work.”
Lajos and Eberardo dashed through the vine covered ruins. They hopped over shapes unseen beneath the growth and leaped alleys between mysterious structures.
“There it is!” yelled Lajos.
Eberardo glimpsed the flapping, fur covered tentacles of their prey long enough for him to stop, draw and fire. His arrow whizzed past Lajos and just missed its mark.
“Get out of the way next time!” laughed Eberardo.
Lajos out of sight and Eberardo followed him by his jubilant cries. A worrisome memory clawed at him but he rejected it.
In these new hunting grounds Lajos was the best of the hunters.
Thousands lined the lane as the parade marched through the Ring into Imperial Outpost One. They watched as columns of high stepping soldiers flanked stoic workers and peasants. Then came the cars, trucks, tractors and tanks. Overhead flew fighter jets and cargo planes.
Even beneath the roar of the airplane engines a cheer rose. The rocket rolled through the Ring next, pulled by an immense machine.
Finally came the Supreme Leader in an armored vehicle. He and his wives smiled and waved.
General Namgung applauded furiously. Hyong clapped politely, ignoring the knot in his stomach that the Supreme Leader inspired.
Genet came into the dusty square where the newcomer Turiq stood over Ajani. The scholar was akimbo, arms raised in defense. Genet noted Turiq’s bloody fist.
“What is this?” he demanded. The crowd milling around the fight stilled.
“This dog blasphemes!” Turiq roared.
Genet smiled and approached. “Surely not, brother. Ajani is a scholar.”
“Scholar!” Turiq spat. “A liar who says God is not here!”
Genet shrugged. “Would you call a blind man a liar if he said the sky was green?”
Turiq shook his head.
“Then Ajani is only blind. Come.” He stepped over Ajani and led Turiq away.
The drone lay in pieces on the workshop floor. Seeing the insides, they were certain that’s what it was. Its interior was too densely packed for a driver.
“What if the aliens were liquid?” Hutch had offered helpfully.
“This is way above my pay grade,” said Luiz.
“All of ours,” said Ellie, then to Monica, “except yours.”
Mayor Monica Deaver stared at the spread out crystals, plates, cogs and various unidentifiable bits. A heartbeat later she said, “Yeah, well, I’m delegating,” and left.
Ellie shrugged. “Fine. Let’s do it, boys.” She grabbed a sledge and chisel and went to work.
The eagle scanned the ejection zone and the wide lanes seen through the Ring. He saw something scurry and banked to pass between worlds.
The sunlight was sharper in the drier, thinner air. The eagle flew in an arc, eyes ever on the small creature trundling between the devices that had sat still for uncounted eons.
The creature waited in the open for a moment too long The eagle folded its wings, extended its talons and dove.
The eagle carried the furry, anemone like creature back to his nest where it would lay its eggs in panic before being devoured.
“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.