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.
Ajit sat with his eyes closed. Exhaustion was a bone deep ache.
“You should sleep,” said Jazarah, a voice floating beyond his eyelids.
“I should,” he said. “I can’t.” He snapped his eyes open and stood.
“Easy.” She caught him before he stumbled.
He smiled weakly then pulled away. He touched the wall of the machine and it exploded with texture and color.
Jazarah watched in awe as Ajit manipulated the kaleidoscope. Finally its chaos settled into a pattern.
“Are you sure anyone is there? Maybe they bombed America, too?”
“They’re there,” said Ajit. “I just hope they can see.”
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.