An hour passed, and another hour. The predators were on station now, moving in wide and random circles beyond the drones’ honeypot. The supervisor spoke at intervals, telling the jockeys to stay frosty, chiding one or another of them if they exceeded error parameters.
And, in the south, a star fell.
It fell in a long curve, arcing in above the cloudscape. It was small and faint and white, suddenly flaring blood-red and winking out. For several seconds nothing else happened. Then new stars appeared amongst the fixed stars. Two sets of them, moving quickly towards each other in short brief arcs, radiating out from opposing central points, passing in opposite directions, flaring, vanishing. All in perfect silence and without registering on any of the drone’s senses. Whatever it was, it was happening beyond the planet’s atmosphere: Ori used a simple triangulation method to determine that it was slightly over fifteen thousand kilometres away.
And more of these patterns were appearing all over the black sky in the south and east, tiny and bright and sharp and distinct. Ori, still flying her drone point to point with mindless regularity because she hadn’t been told to do anything else, imagined opposing fleets of ships firing at each other as they passed. A hundred of them, two hundred. Guttering out one by one until the sky was quiet again. Then something flared dead ahead, a little way above the area where the enemy was expected to enter the atmosphere. It brightened and spread, a kind of gauzy grid of faint electric-blue lines defining a loose net that was growing across the sky, dividing it into cells hundreds of kilometres across. It was the defence net, generated by forts orbiting at the inner edge of the rings.
Soon, tiny lights began to swarm inside the net’s grid, swirling and darting here and there with quick and seemingly aimless agitation. Lights in a particular patch of black sky would turn towards each other and suddenly swarm together and there’d be a terrific flare and when it faded the net in that part of the sky would be dimmer. And while this was happening, stars began to fall. Some fell straight down. Others corkscrewed violently. Some flared and expanded into pale blotches that dropped ragged clusters of tiny tumbling contrails and went out; others vanished below the horizon. Little bursts of radio noise, hardly distinguishable from the fraying crackle of lightning storms. Blips of high-energy particles. X-rays and gamma rays, intense fluxes of neutrons.
‘Here we go,’ the supervisor said. ‘Stay on station. Whatever happens, do not deviate.’
The enemy had arrived.
From In the Mouth of the Whale