Ellie said, “Something has happened.”
Monica responded, “No shit.”
The hundreds of alien machines tamed by Deaver City were no longer responding. Instead they sat or floated in formation, pointed at the Ring.
“What happened?” asked the Mayor.
Hutch shrugged. “No idea. One minute everything was fine. Then they just lined up like that.”
Luiz added, “We got a spike on the radio. Some kind of signal.”
Ellie saw the question rise in Monica’s face and said, “Unknown. The signal registered as just noise.”
“But it wasn’t just noise,” said Monica. She looked up at the sky. “It was them.”
The Sentinel waited, its attention entirely on the Ring. The Envoy waited, too.
For the thousand thousandth time the Ring activated. The Sentinel saw the frozen plains on the other side of the Ring and sentinel absorbed every sliver of data those few milliseconds allowed.
In the same moment, the Envoy acted. It rushed forward. Its timing was imperfect. The Ring went dark. The Envoy collapsed and remained with the Sentinel.
Only after collating and storing all of the Ring data did the Sentinel realize that something was different this time: only approximately thirty nine percent of the Envoy remained.
Hyong sat in the back of the plane amid soldiers and technicians. Despite the parka he wore, the cold sliced through him. He resolved to accept it. Whatever shelter had been built at the Ring site would be no warmer.
He was glad Miss Ryu remained back in the city. He would not like to see her so cold.
He fell asleep only briefly during the long flight. He did not remember the dream but it had woke him in a sweat despite the chill. Hyong did not believe in premonitions but could not shake the feeling of doomed inevitability.
Genet sketched. He stopped, examined his work, frowned and crumpled the paper into a ball. He had intended to draw Ephrim. Why had it looked so much like Ajani?
Turiq stepped onto the patio and waited.
“What is it?”
“Enlightened One, it is your sister.”
Genet blew out a sigh. “See her in, I guess.”
“Sir,” said Turiq with a scowl, “she is not here. She is in the square.”
Genet stood and scowled himself. “What do you mean?”
“She is preaching.”
Genet fumed. “Unacceptable!”
Turiq asked, “Do you wish me collect her?”
Genet considered his answer.
“Or silence her?”
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.