The pilgrims walked and worked among the stones in the ejection field. They cleared a wide field. They carried away the black stones and piled others for future construction of the shrine.
Genet sketched the scene from a rise nearby from which Ephrim observed. Occasionally a pilgrim would come to him for direction. Always before the pilgrim left they would kiss Ephrim’s hand and bless him.
Miles away the Ring loomed. Genet caught Ephrim stealing glances at it, his eyes full of awe and anticipation.
“God is coming, Genet.”
“I feel it too.”
Ephrim kissed Genet’s forehead and Genet ached.
Cracking was not the worst job. There were latrines to deal with, after all. But cracking was hard.
Ellie brought the hammer down. The black stone was a little bigger than her head and it was defiant. She hit it again. And again. Finally it cracked. Ellie dropped the hammer and looked.
The inside was geode like, full of crystals. They were harder than diamond and conducted electricity better than anything. You couldn’t eat them or fill a half track’s tank, but you could trade them for food and gas.
Ellie sat and watched the sun go down.
One Ring stood alone, unwatched.
Like the others, it grew slowly. It began as a crater and ejection zone. Over years its base formed by the nearly imperceptible movements of nearly invisible machines. Then the arc of the Ring itself emerged. The arms extended to make a circle that would reach a half mile in diameter.
Like the others, it was close to completion and ready to achieve its purpose. But it was patient. It spoke to the others by means unknown to what remained of human civilization and they coordinated. Their growth would end and something new would begin.
Doctor Bae finished his presentation and then stood with his hands folded behind his back. Miss Ryu hurriedly took the tablet and the projector, bowed low to the Supreme Leader and scurried out of the room. When the door shut the Supreme Leader let out a sigh that Bae did not interpret as positive.
“Your Most Honorable–” Bae started.
The Supreme Leader waved dismissively. “You said seven months. Then what? What will happen?”
Bae, Minister of Special Sciences, had no answer.
The Supreme Leader sneered. “I thought so.” He waved again, this time a command.
Bae bowed stiffly and left.
Ephrim considered the wall of Genet’s sketches. They were displayed in chronological order, one each month over two decades. Genet had been just a boy for those first drawings but even then his talent was obvious. “God has gifted you in this way,” Ephrim always said to Genet, who always responded, “God has gifted me with you.”
“What will we do?” asked Genet.
Ephrim smiled. “We will pray, of course.”
Yes, thought Genet, pray that when the Ring is complete it will herald the hosts of Heaven to finish what God started with the rain of stone from the sky.
Ellie heaved the black stone into the trailer. Shadows stretched across the ejection zone. The sun dropped behind the Ring. She cranked the half track to life and made for home.
It was dark when she reached the cluster of trailers and RVs. Jamal and Paula were cooking and Hutch was working on an engine by lamplight. She pumped water to drink and wash, then found Luiz in his Airstream.
“Good batch today?” he asked from behind his paperback.
“Yup,” she said. Then, “It’s getting closer.”
“What happens when–”
“Don’t know,” he said. “Don’t worry.”
Ellie frowned. “Yeah.”
Monitors depicted the Ring from different perspectives: far enough away that waves could be seen lapping at its base; close enough to reveal the individual ridges in the structure; from orbit. Other monitors displayed only data: numbers, graphs, charts.
Bae Hyong stood, eyes flicking from one monitor to another as he tapped his tablet. One stream of code caught his attention and his fingers danced. It was replaced by a multicolored chart, jagged but its steady rise unmistakable.
“Miss Ryu,” he said into the air.
“Yes Doctor,” the intercom answered.
“Tell the Supreme Leader I must speak with him. Immediately.”
Genet sat on the boulder and studied the Ring before beginning to sketch. While his hands conveyed the structure of the Ring in charcoal, his mind drifted. He wondered if the boulder had been hurled up onto the surface by the impact. Perhaps it had flown so fast and high that it nearly escaped Earth altogether, only to tumble back down to where it began.
Finished, he compared this sketch to his earlier ones. The Ring was definitely closing. There was no doubt. Anticipation stirred in him.
Genet left to tell Ephrim that the time was near.
Ellie peered across the ejection zone. After thirty years, new life had begun to take hold in that wasteland. It was gnarled and mean and stubborn life, just like Ellie. And just like her, it lived in the shadow of the Ring.
The Ring stood as tall as the skyscrapers from Ellie’s childhood. It was a jagged circle against the sky, nearly complete. The gap was only a few degrees across now. Twenty years ago, the first time Ellie had seen the Ring, it had almost been a semicircle. At that rate, in another year it would complete.
Up until the moment that fragments hit London, Addis Abada, Beijing, Delhi and New York everyone still believed it was a meteor. Even after the rock fragmented, even after the pieces drifted differently than the models said they would, even after the first piece set off the Yellowstone caldera, we thought it was an accident or an act of God. But then the biggest cities on Earth were targeted, vaporized. Then we knew. We knew we had been attacked.
We didn’t really know. Not yet. We would not know for another thirty years, not until after the Ring was complete.