The sphere hovered above the hatch, pointed at their periscope. Its surface rippled with color and texture.
“That’s new,” said Ellie.
“There’s a pattern,” said Jordan. He swiped frantically at his tablet where a grainy loop of the sphere’s oscillations repeated. “It’s fuzzy. The data is corrupt. I need hi-res to crack it.”
Monica frowned. “Hi-res?”
“He means he needs to go outside,” said Ellie.
“No. Too dangerous.”
Ellie looked at her. “It’s the only way to know what it’s saying.”
“Monica, it is the only one ‘talking’. That means something, maybe everything. We can’t keep losing people.”
Eberardo awoke in darkness. Was this death? No. He hurt, and one did not hurt in death.
He was in a small space, barely large enough for him curled into the fetal position. It was cool but not cold. His flesh pressed against what felt like stone. He could hear only a constant, even hum that seemed to come from all directions.
He did not know how long he was there. He faded in and out of consciousness. He tried to remember what had happened but only recalled fragments: he and Lajos hunting, a sphere attacking, Lajos calling his name.
General Numgung watched the battle from the bridge of the juggernaut as it rolled through the streets. Alien machines burst into clouds of lightning and debris, targeted by his troops’ precision weaponry, but not quickly enough. The enemy seemed limitless while his soldiers were stunned by lightning and whisked from the battlefield.
“Corporal Ryu, do you have the Supreme Leader yet?”
Sitting at her comms station, wearing her uniform for the first time in years, she said. “No, sir. There is too much interference.”
“Keep trying,” he ordered.
She did, continuing to signal Hyong, not the Supreme Leader, and hoping.
Ajit and Jazarah watched the landscape roll by, climbing and diving, through the windows. The worm-like machine in which they rode undulated, yet they could feel nothing. If Ajit looked too long out the window he fell nauseated, while Jazarah sat unperturbed, staring ceaselessly and wordlessly.
Ajit busied himself by tracing alien sigils and calling up images of the other Ring cities. He wished he could do more to protect the people in them but the nuclear attack had put the machines on alert. All he could do was watch. For now.
Every moment they drew closer to the Inquisitor.
The shelter was cramped. It was meant to store supplies, not people. Ellie sighed. It was less cramped every day, every time the suddenly hostile machines stole someone.
“To Hutch,” said Luiz, handing Ellie a cup of moonshine. She took it and drank but did not bother to hide her grimace.
“It’s my fault,” she said. “I missed.”
“Everyone misses sometimes.”
They sat in silence until Jordan found them.
“Mayor says she needs you,” he blurted.
Luiz groaned. Ellie swore.
“It’s serious. It’s about this machine.”
“What machine?” Ellie sneered. “What about it?”
“We think it wants to talk.”
Captain Kim shook his head. “Under no circumstances. I order–”
“Captain,” said Hyong, “I am not under your command. You were assigned to protect me.”
“That is what I am doing!”
“Captain.” The word was enough. Hyong zipped his coat and looked from the guarded door back to Kim. Kim scowled but nodded to his men. They let Hyong pass.
The Inquisitor stood where the Envoy had disintegrated. It was ten meters tall and humanoid. Hyong could make out hundreds, perhaps thousands of figures moving around the borders of the Ring.
The Inquisitor turned its attention to Hyong. Hyong bowed.
Jazarah prayed. Ajit stood by solemnly, impatiently. Drones floated, rolled and trundled around them.
Jazarah had only ash to pray over. The Holy City had not been bombed but cleansed, though Ajit. The tentacled scavengers were gone. The flowers and trees were gone. The people were gone. Except them.
A heptagon approached him. He stroked it, running his fingers over the sigils precisely. It’s surface flashed like a cuttlefish.
“We have to go,” said Ajit. “More planes are coming, with soldiers.”
“Where,” whispered Jazarah. “Where would we flee?”
“We do not flee,” he said. “We go to answer the Inquisitor.”
Ellie ducked beneath the outcropping. She balanced her blast stick while she dried her hands on her vest.
The orb appeared. Ellie shoved the stick at it and pulled the trigger. The stick fired a crystal but it shattered ineffectually against the surface of the orb a centimeter from the seam she had been aiming for.
“Shit,” she said and ducked below the orb’s electrical arc.
“Get away from her!” she heard Hutch yell and then the bang, bang, bang of his pistol. The orb left Ellie and chased Hutch.
She swore and bolted for the safety of the hatch.
The manmade miniature sun existed for only a heartbeat but still it cleansed the Holy City of nearly all life. Many of those that had fled through the Ring died, too, since the Ring did not stop the blast.
When the blinding light faded, the Ring remained. The city remained. The machines remained.
Thousands of miles away, across the surface of this world, the machines came to life. The nuclear strike did not go unnoticed and would not go unanswered.
On the frozen plain, the Envoy disassembled itself. In moments, it reassembled, not as the Envoy but as the Inquisitor.
END OF PART TWO
Hyong approached the immense machine. His eyes flicked between it and his display. Technicians pointed sensors at it while Captain Kim walked beside him nervously.
“There,” said Hyong. He stopped moving and stroked the tablet. “That’s the frequency.” He was just meters from it now and it loomed over them all. Hyong tapped the display and the robot’s monstrous head tilted to regard them.
“Wait.” said Kim. He touched his ear piece, listening, and then paled.
“What?” asked Hyong but it was too late. The data stream on his display garbled with interference.
The alien machine began to glow menacingly.