Jazarah staggered through the snow. People ran in all directions, unsure of where to go but knowing the approaching planes could only promise doom.
She saw tents and shelters and launched herself toward them in deliberate if shaking steps. Her loose desert robes were useless against the cold, however, and she fell.
A moment later an arm scooped her up. It belonged to a big, mustachioed American. A woman with him said in English, “Come on. We’ve got you.”
She pointed at the tents with her blackened fingers.
“We’re going there, too,” the woman said and they carried her forward.
Ellie stood, dumbfounded: so many machines, so many people, all in the shadow of the biggest Ring she could imagine. Also, a Giant Fucking Robot.
Her own name yelled on the freezing wind grabbed her attention. She turned and was tackled “Holy shit, Ellie!” cried Hutch.
“I thought you were dead,” she bawled, hugging him.
“I thought I was dead!”
“What the hell is going on?”
“Damned if I know. I was in a big tube with others and—”
The way he stopped scared her. She followed his gaze to the sky and saw the planes coming. Big ones. Bombers.
The darkness split open. White light and freezing air rushed in. Eberardo gasped and threw himself into the light.
He landed on a great snowy plain among thousands of other machines, also ejecting people. Some singly, others by pairs or even dozens.
“Lajos!” he yelled, searching. “Where are you?”
His eyes landed on the Ring. It was immense compared to his own. It was not quite complete.
A rumbling sound made him turn. Others turned too. Many gasped or cried and some even ran. All he saw were three black smudges that grew larger as the rumbling sound grew louder.
“You can’t!” screamed Miss Ryu.
General Namgung frowned, stepped forward and swung his fist. She blocked it but the power of the blow knocked her down anyway.
“There is no choice,” he sneered.
“You will kill them all,” she said, standing.
“No sacrifice is too great,” he said. Then to the guards: “Arrest her.”
“You can’t kill the machines! All you have done is kill people.” She let them lead her away.
“All bombers to the north Ring,” ordered General Namgung. “Leave nothing standing.”
Down the hall, Ryu kicked, chopped and punched. The guards unconscious, she ran for Hyong’s lab.
Jazarah clung to the shell of the machine and pressed herself low to hide from the biting wind. Every part of her ached and she was sure she would lose at least two of her fingers to frostbite.
The machine rolled to a stop. Disoriented, she lifted her head and saw a great snowy plain. Domes and tents and tracked vehicles formed an active camp. Surrounding that camp were thousands of alien machines, hers among them.
Beyond the camp loomed a massive humanoid machine, and beyond it a Ring that dwarfed the one that had brought her to this world.
Ellie did not like riding inside the machine. It was cramped and dark and she had no control over what was happening or where she was going. But the message had been clear: the machines were not the enemy.
When she had stood out in the open field, weaponless and alone, she nearly panicked. When the heptahedron had rolled at her, she nearly shit. But she stayed.
Now she was moving northward, toward the “others” as the last cryptic message had put it. In the close darkness she prayed a little, despite being a very long way from Sunday School.
Captain Kim said, “Multiple contacts are incoming.”
“How many?” asked Hyong.
“Hundreds. Thousands, maybe.”
The makeshift base was at full alert and consumed in the chaos of panic. Soldiers ran out of the shelters while scientists ran into them. Searchlights scoured the camp and approach.
“Do not escalate the situation, Captain,” said Hyong irritably. “They will not attack, and if they did your weapons would do no good.”
Kim snapped, “How could you know?”
“Twice now General Namgung has deployed our greatest weapons, yet we still live.”
“Hold your fire,” said Kim over the radio as hundreds of machines arrived.
Jazarah stood on blasted earth next to Ajit’s body. Their worm-like conveyance, having disgorged them, undulated northward. More rolled, flew and trundled past her.
She realized she was sweating. The ground radiated heat and likely something worse. The sky was pale blue. The bomb had not created a mushroom cloud or even smoke. It had simply turned the trees to ash.
She was too shocked even to weep. Alone in a desolate waste, if she did not succumb to radiation poisoning she would die of exposure.
She glanced at Ajit’s slowly cooking corpse, then ran to intercept one straggling machine.
Monica crossed her arms and set her heels. “No fucking way.”
Ellie gesticulated but did lose her shit. “If Jordan is right, we are in the middle of a war.”
“If he’s right.”
“I’m right,” said Jordan.
“We don’t know that. We lost contact–”
“We lost contact because they fired nukes. Again.”
Monica shook her head and sat down. “It’s impossible.”
“No,” said Jordan, “we know the language now.”
Ellie added, “And we know there are others. We can do this.”
“To what end?” asked Monica.
Ellie knelt and grasped Monica’s hands. “Our destiny. We were meant to do this.”
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.