"Centurion - Mage Orange-Julep! Move your Centurie to that cliff face and be ready to collapse said cliff on the ship at my command!"
"As you order, Prince Harp!"
"Stay hidden! These holes we see on the perimeter of the ship speak of plasma cannons. It might grow a bit hot and I want to take that ship by surprise!"
After a curt nod, the Centurie left, vanishing from sight to occupy the top of the cliff and began to install plasma cutters a few feet behind the face of the cliff. The Mages noticed that the ground was shaky, which made installing the cutters difficult and slow.
"Imperial Legion! Port in front of that ship, just behind that pile of boulders it seemed to have dug out upon landing! Stay hidden! Mine the area with anti-matter, small charges, then move back here!"
After giving his orders, Harp jumped from his current location to what seemed to be the entrance to the ship. A quick scan confirmed that the big holes were plasma cannons, and he informed his command of the situation. Finally, using the FSS' advanced sensors, he estimated the thickness of the ship's hull, and, to his surprise, found it was no thicker than the Scout ship they had captured. If the Imperial ship design followed what they had figured out from captured Andromedan ships, that meant there was a second door creating an airlock. Now, the issue was to determine if it had been booby-trapped, as some locks in other ships. No one had been hurt amongst the Atlanteans, but they had lost a few Andromedan crews.
After some thoughts, Harp decided to port across the hull directly, bypassing the standard entrance. He materialised in a narrow passageway enclosed between huge metal crates. Walking as silently as a Cat, the Atlantean Prince made his way to the door of the rather huge storeroom he had ported into. Noticing that the area was under void, Harp ported across the door rather than produce a decompression accident. Once on the other side, he realised the hallway was much, much wider than those found in the Andromedan ships they had captured. Also, quite apparently, some crew members had experienced severe trauma during the emergency landing, and no effort had been undertaken to treat them or remove the bodies. Quite a range of species were visible, a good dozen or so from the variety of shapes found strewn all over the hallway. The number of corpses indicated this was no mere run of the mill military ship either. There were, at a glance, over 350 corpses laying haphazardly around.
Prince Harp decided to use the life-form sensor incorporated within the FSS, but readings were confusing at best. There was living matter everywhere, and it took some thinking for the Prince to realise that the sensor detected microbial life, busy digesting the corpses. Some adjustments needed to be done to get something worthwhile.
"The life sensors report life within cadavers; I need it to detect something more... substantial?"
"Right... Try some gaseous exchange filters?"
"I tried that before calling. These corpses have been busy rotting away and degassing methane liberally. The issue is the atmosphere is itself methane, at least in the section of the ship I am in."
"They breath their own rot? Eww! Let me think on it, Harp. That is a new problem, and I have not given thought to the issue. I am looking at archives dating from before the collapse of the last Earth civilisation, and hoping to get some insight on how they envisioned the problem."
"Yes. Remember we sent Data Collectors back in time. One of the thing we discovered was called NASA, and, after some serious translation issues, we managed to get a basic understanding of their work. They sent robotic machines to Mars in an effort to detect life there. Maybe there are ideas in these archives. I also recovered the Library of Congress, and the Library of Alexandria, to name a few important ones."
"The Library of Congress? I did not know Baboons had libraries! Given the amount of infighting a Congress of Baboons is known for, it comes as a surprise the Ancients managed to make them co-operate in a Library."
"Yes, I admit I was surprised too. But then, the Ancients were bright: they were on the verge of discovering the warp drive, and had a rather nice understanding of what happens without the the warp drive as a ship increases in speed toward the light barrier. Their issue was that they were stuck with what they called the Lorentz transformation which did not allow the speed to exceed that of light because it was based on extracting a square root. But then, that is Special Relativity, a subset of the Relativity Equation set..."
"Paschal, all that is interesting, but it does not solve my problem. Please focus!"
"Oh, yes. I shall be back to you shortly. Meanwhile, explore that ship. Just to close the topic, that NASA was working on a warp drive, based on a space bubble folding on itself, but the world blew up before they succeeded."
"I have been moving toward where I think the Bridge is. I should be there in half an hour," Harp replied, shrugging as the issue of travelling faster than light was a topic more for history than current issues.
"Half an hour? How big is that ship?"
"Oh, somewhere around three or four miles in length. It is not big diameter-wise, but length-wise it is huge, compared to the ships we have found elsewhere."
"Okay. Be careful."
Harp made slow progress. There were numerous locked doors he had to jump across before reaching the Bridge, and also over 30 levels to climb up before reaching the main passageway. As he reached the passage leading to the Bridge, he realised another thing: many life-forms were wearing space suits that had been breached on impact by either the wearer getting projected against walls, ceilings, or sharp objects, or they had been hit by falling debris, and had their suits torn to shreds. Reaching the Bridge bulwark, Harp ported inside and began looking around. Wires, instruments and some sort of fire had raged through the area, being extinguished by an automatic mechanism. No survivors seemed to be around, and the presence of a dark cloud of some nature clearly indicated the atmosphere was not breathable for the crew anymore.
Looking around, Harp found some documents within a container that had survived. Careful study revealed this was a map of the ship, and that he had been following one of the main axis of travel within the ship. Apparently, there were five major hallways organised in a pentagonal form around the Bridge's back-end. Some sort of electronic circuitry allowed atmospheric exchange with compression canisters right in the middle of the pentagon. Different symbols marked controls, in five different languages and graphs. The one he had followed was labelled something with four identical symbols around it, and tied together by lines. After trying to scratch his head in frustration, Harp moved to the other hallway doors and looked at the symbols. One had two identical symbols linked together, another had a similar pair of symbols, another had two different symbols, one of which was identical to the four symbols encircling a fifth one that marked the hallway Harp had followed. The last one had severe burn marks and all traces of writing had vanished.
"Paschal! I am sending you some images. Try to make sense of them!"
After feeding the information to Paschal, Harp looked around some more. To the side was a big room, severely damaged by the fire before it was put out. Directly in front of the bay windows was a station covered by a corpse impaled on it: the Helm, surmised Harp; beside the Helm, in a hemispheric desk-like setting, were sheets that made Harp believe he was looking at star maps. Shrinking them magically, Harp placed them in a side pocket of the FSS. Further away from the Helm, Harp saw a severely burned-out series of desks, that seemed to have been cut by a torch from the inside. Navigation and, possibly, firing stations? Anyway, the entire section was melted, wires sticking out in every direction, and some sparks were still seen occasionally, clearly indicating that the area was still live if severely damaged.
"Harp! These are chemicals. From what you indicate, the first one you sent is Methane, CH4, and the other is possibly H2S; another is probably O2, another is probably Fluorine or F2, another gas, maybe Chlorine, whose symbol is Cl2, but I can not assess which one. Sample each hallway, and we might get a lead on their table of elements."
"That might explain what I see. I can just imagine the intensity of the fire in the area if there was a rupture in the containment wall between that hallway and the Bridge when they crashed, accompanied by the beginning of a fire and sparks flying everywhere. A whole wall is melted right beside the hallway."
"I can confirm the Oxygen for the hallway adjacent to the fire. I can also confirm that the containment failed: there is a huge crack visible from the hallway side, and marks of burns and melting. The area is also filled with fire retardants and suppressors. Corpses are severely burned."
"What about the other sections?"
"The next hallway is H2S, the next one fluorine, F2, and the last one is Chlorine, Cl2. Quite a few reducing atmospheres! That means we may need to prepare some areas for these kinds of atmospheres if we are to rescue species across the board."
"Agreed. I am on it. Any progress on that map?"
"The most complex part seems to be the one with the Methane atmosphere. There must be a reason, so I shall venture in that area last. The smallest section is the Fluorine atmosphere, followed by the Chlorine, the H2S, and the Oxygen one. I suspect the size of areas reflect the size of the crews breathing that type of gas."
"A viable explanation, Harp. Are you progressing from smallest to largest area?"
"Yes. I shall report at the end of each search."
"I shall plan stasis pods accordingly, then. We should team up on designing their living areas after you have explored what they had and how many crew members have survived."
"Agreed. I am beginning the Fluorine section now."
Harp jumped across the thick wall separating the Bridge from the Fluorine segment of the Andromedan Imperial Ship, finding himself in a thick, yellowish atmosphere composed of free-floating Fluorine gas. The hallway was unoccupied, contrary to how cluttered the Methane hall had been. Looking around, the Prince of Magic spotted doors and locks that had symbols similar to those he had seen in the previous segment he had explored, clearly confirming to him this was a form of universal writing used by the servants of the Andromedan Empire.
Moving quickly, Harp marched to the end of the sub-segment, some 1,000 feet off, jumped through the door, and found himself stopped by a scene he had not expected. A group of crew members were busy butchering a couple of others, and others were eating raw pieces. Apparently, they were in the process of cannibalising some crew members, as shreds of space suits were visible, dangling from the members stacked in a pile against a wall.
His sudden appearance stopped the action, and the cannibals turned to look at the intruder, stumped by his materialisation at the end of the hallway segment. Unfortunately, the shock did not last, and a group converged on Harp. The Prince of Magic did not bother trying to establish diplomatic relations and opened fire by creating a powerful jet of pure Hydrogen, which reacted violently with the atmosphere of Fluorine. The blast blew the crew members right across the full length of the hallway, burning quite a few to a crisp in the process.
Harp made his way slowly along the now blackened hallway, opening each door as he progressed. He found a sort of brig, where living specimens of those he has found being butchered were cowering in a corner.
"Paschal? How are the fluorine stasis pods progressing?"
"I am having issues, since I do not know the nature of the gas exchange going on within that type of atmosphere."
"Hydrogen does not seem to be part of the equation. I used it to blow my way into a tangle of crew members that were intent on converting me to hot Dogs."
"Since you seem to convert hot Dogs into food, it is about time you have a feel of their plight!"
"Go play with your sausage, brother mine!"
"When I am done. Meanwhile, use spectral analysis to figure what comes out of their breathing cycle."
"I am on it. From what I see, I have two output forms: CF4, which is a gas, and C2F6, a liquid, but it may be because they are sick."
"I suspect the episode of cannibalism I found is due to severe rationing of food supply. Things must not have been yellowish around here."
"Yellowish? They have liver issues?"
"No, no! When we want to say something is not going well, we say it has not been all that rosy. Since their skin colour is more on the yellow, deep yellow side, I adapted the saying!"
"Harp, some days, I should whip your arse!"
"The last time you tried, you ended up on yours."
"Anyway, mark the Brig, I shall send a number of Atlanteans to recover them later."
"Fine by me! I have left a transponder in the middle of the Common Room of the brig. I am continuing my progress further off."
Harp quietly left the brig and moved further down the hall, finding a room that seemed to have been living quarters for the cannibals from what he could make of the clothes laying haphazardly all over the place. Someone needed to teach them housekeeping! In the rooms off to the side, he found three of the cannibalistic species hanging upside down by their 'feet', which looked more like forks, apparently asleep. The Prince decided to keep them immobilised and slammed a stasis spell on their sleeping forms.
Moving back out, he quickly made his way through the rest of the segment, jumped across the door, expecting a similar scene. This time, the gas had increased in density, and was markedly colder. A new species was apparently occupying that new segment. For some reason, the hallway was much brighter than the previous one, but no one was around. Making his way through different rooms, Harp noticed a kitchen, some storerooms, and finally, a living quarter, much better kept than the previous ones he had visited. Bedrooms were on one side, and common rooms on the other. The brightness in the resting quarters was blinding. Getting in contact with the resident Ethologist, King Enron of the Elves, he informed him of his observations.
"Harp, maybe they are nocturnal, and sleep during the day? Let me consult with Colibri. We can not be sure until we figure out their diurnal cycle. Notify Paschal to light up their stasis pods so they stay asleep. It shall help us manage the transit. How many are we talking about here?"
"If the organisation is sustained, about 500 of them. I am nearing the end of the ship in that atmosphere. The residual segment should be about 220 feet long. Either it is a small contingent or it is used for other purposes."
"How many species did you find so far?"
"There is a change of species every 1,000 feet, and the ship measures 21,220 feet or so. Most are mono-species segments, except where I met the cannibals, which housed two species. That means we have 22, maybe 23 Fluorine breathing species in all. Given the number I did on the cannibals, I think we lost a species."
"I am not complaining, nor shall Sitar or Paschal. We have enough issues as it is."
"I am in the last segment. It contains power sources and filters for that type of atmosphere. Paschal? I need a group of Engineers at Beacon B2. I am moving back to the B0 Beacon, the Bridge."
"Okay. A group is ready to move to Beacon B1B, the Brig, with directional port keys so they materialise directly into the stasis pods. I am assembling further groups for port key transfers from Beacons B2B to B22B, once they are fully activated."
"I am now back to the Bridge, and activating the delayed beacons. Do you receive?"
"Yes, Harp. What next?"
"I am entering the Chlorine segment after shielding the FSS. I do not want to produce unexpected chemical reactions."
What met Harp in the Chlorine section took him by surprise. The area was exceedingly cold, -34,1 Centigrade and Harp noted his passage created puffs of chlorine vapour as he walked through the hall. Thinking things over, he verified the pressure and noticed it was at 1,013 bars, or exactly one atmosphere. Strange, he thought, but suddenly remembering his basic chemistry from being harassed by Paschal on the subject, he remembered that -34,1 Centigrade was the exact boiling point of Chlorine at that pressure. This did not bode well for any living in that type of atmosphere: they were likely cooked! He made his way through the section and ported across each door as quickly as possible. Things did not look good at all: all life forms were apparently as cooked as a Lobster, with no breathing of any type. Moving into the area quickly, he found a stasis pod block containing 150 pods with three, two, one, or no bodies. The conclusion was clear: those corpses he had found had been taken out of pods for a crew shift, but something had happened to the atmospheric controls!
"Paschal, I need a crew of Engineers! Beam them to my location, pronto!"
"Okay. They are being called. What is the issue?"
"The Chlorine crew out of stasis is dead due to faulty atmospheric control. I need them to fix the controls before doing anything so we have a measure of their basic survivability conditions!"
"Should I go?"
"Do you trust them to do a good job?"
"Then let them do it. Otherwise, you are undermining their self-confidence."
"Okay. They should be popping near you now."
"I have them. Thank you."
"Guys, I need you to fix atmospheric controls here. This atmosphere cooked every crew member in it, so it tells me one thing: the temperature is too high. Bring it down. To know what is the target temperature, try to read the controls of the stasis pods. I have no idea if these pods are cryogenic or not. That is for you to determine. Also, if it is the case, you need to find what is their standard live-in conditions, including atmospheric pressure. Do not trust the current pressure value, which is the result of the liquefaction of Chlorine. I am continuing the exploration of this ship. If you need any help, contact your boss, Paschal."
"At your command!" replied one of the Engineers, whose name evaded Harp's memory, much to his shame.
With that, Harp left the Engineers to their job and moved out to the Bridge to resume his exploration.
"I am porting in the H2S section. So far, nothing worth mentioning."
"Timor here! I am back on Thebes. I got assigned to monitoring your progress, Harp."
Harp made his way in the highly corrosive atmosphere, porting across doors. He found nothing alive nor dead in the first segment, composed entirely of a variety of stock rooms that were empty. Moving through to the next segment, he heard a clanging noise coming from a wall. Intrigued, he moved toward it and noticed a door. Rather than open the door and risk contaminating either atmosphere, Harp ported across the entrance.
There, he found a life-form busily hammering at something, apparently trying to repair some equipment. The Prince of Magic moved silently, and watched the worker as it tried to dislodge something in what appeared to be a breathing apparatus.
"Paschal? I am sending you an image. Feed-back as soon as you have an idea."
While waiting on Paschal, Harp received a message from the Engineer.
"Your Highness, we found out their range. They were not cooked, but frozen to death."
"Sir, they breath Chlorine and that gas is in liquid form because it got liquified by a sudden drop in temperature. Their atmospheric pressure is in the range of 5 atmospheres, not one. Their stasis pods are effectively cryogenic in nature, but their body temperature in them is several tens of degrees above the current value."
"Okay. Establish the parameters for preserving the bodies of the dead, have a morgue designed on Thebes and move the corpses there by porting. We need to keep them for identification purposes once we reanimate those in stasis."
"Also, inform Paschal of the stasis pods' parameters."
"It is already done, my Lord."
"Harp, that guy is fixing a pressure regulator. It is a breathing equipment it is trying to fix. By the way, eight arms, and four legs! I wonder why I am surprised by anything, nowadays, but nature seems to be very versatile."
"As long as it survives..."
"I do not recommend taking it by surprise. Pop across the door, leaving a monitoring device behind, and knocking on the door to attract its attention. Who knows what experience it has had."
Harp did as Paschal suggested, leaving behind an invisible camera, and ported across the door before knocking on it. He silently thanked Paschal for his suggestion as the life form suddenly dropped its tool and turned toward the door, razor-sharp claws extending from its members, and a set of extremely impressive mandibles appearing in the field of view of the camera, associated with an impressive row of sharp, shark-like teeth.
"Whoa! That does not look like a Faun!" exclaimed Harp, taken aback by the frontal view of the extra-terrestrial life. The back view, mostly covered with a space-suit, had not prepared Harp for the ferocious appearance of the extra-terrestrial.
"Knock again, and watch its behaviour," suggested Paschal.
Harp did as suggested and studied the camera's image. At first, the life-form stayed at the desk and eyed the door suspiciously.
"Life must not be a bed of roses for these individuals if its suspicious behaviour is any indication."
No acknowledgements came from Thebes, as Thebe's Bridge crew observed the transmission from the camera. Another knock from Harp made the E-T jump, and move to a locker, quickly opening it and taking out a strange-looking object.
"It is now armed," declared Harp. "I wonder what type of weapon that is."
"And it is moving toward the door now. Where is your position relative to it?"
"I am hidden from view until it moves around the door itself. The hinges are visible on the wall so I know how it will open. It is opening now."
Harp created a dense dust shape on the other side of the door, more to observe the reaction than anything. He was not deceived, as the extra-terrestrial spotted the shadow and fired a powerful beam of light that dissolved the dust and dug a rather impressive groove in the wall behind where the shadow 'stood'. The life-form moved toward the groove in the wall, and studied it as it tried to locate the residue of what it had destroyed. It held tightly to its weapon, much to Harp's worry. It would be difficult to port the object to himself without bringing the person holding it with it. Rather than risk a confrontation, the Prince of Magic made himself invisible, even going so far as to hide his magical and heat signature.
The crew member finally left the wall it had been touching delicately alone and turned on itself to look around the hallway, a number of antennas moving frantically in a circular motion. It moved slowly along the hallway, getting closer to Harp's position progressively. The Prince of Magic watched the life-form coming closer and closer with some trepidation. As it passed by his position, but on the other side of the hallway, Harp ported himself to the end of the wall already explored by the worker. Barely had he left the area that it turned and fired at the exact point Harp had vacated bare milliseconds earlier, blasting another gouge in the ceramic wall. By then, ceramic dust was floating all over the hallway, while two long and narrow indentations marked the impact points.
Harp was impressed by the power of the weapon. How was he to disable it without killing the crew member? Reflecting the jet of light would protect him, but also kill the weapon bearer, not very conducive to establishing contact, be it friendly or otherwise! Then he remembered that the light was dispersed by the dust, losing power with distance. That gave him an idea!
Harp materialised a thick soot cloud all over the hallway, making it darker than a Gnat's arse hole. The anxious extra-terrestrial began firing everywhere, but Harp noticed that the bluish light turned a dull red rapidly as it left the tip of the weapon. Success! The soot absorbed the energy quickly, dispersing it in a convective atmospheric current.
The ET (or was it Eat-Tee? wondered Harp, mockingly!) took some time to realise that the thick cloud made its weapon ineffective. By then, the original beam was itself a dull red and could no longer penetrate the thick gaseous dispersant. After firing a few last sputtering shots, the crew member stood still, disoriented by its constant movements to find an elusive target.
Harp observed the being for a few minutes before dissolving the cloud. The still immobile being fired a parting shot that was so weak it barely registered on the FSS sensors, and then threw the useless weapon on the floor in disgust. A very Human reaction thought Harp, and maybe a basis of communications.
Harp slowly deactivated the photon dissociation field that allowed him to create an invisibility shield without recourse to Magic. No use giving too much information to an unknown entity. As his shape progressively gained definition for the being, its anxiety level rose as its agitation became ever more frantic.
"Visual contact established!" Harp reported to Thebes. "He is agitated."
"I would be at less!" replied Timor.
Suddenly the life-form charged Harp, all claws out! Harp ported behind it silently, greatly surprising the extra-terrestrial. It pivoted on itself in a flash and charged again!
"Toreador! Toreador! Prends garde à toi!4 ("French: Toreador! Toreador! Take care of yourself! From the opera Carmen, by Georges Bizet.")" sang Harp mockingly as the extra-terrestrial crew member charged again and again. It took ten minutes for the charges to stop, a remarkable effort, ascertained Harp. Now to establish contact. Harp focussed on the 'panting' or more like 'smoking' crew member and began assessing the mental frequency range of the new species. It was quite low, well below standard Atlantean range, which would present some issues: lower frequencies meant a slower transmission speed. Bah! Make do with what you have when you can not change it, says Paschal.
«Who are you? I am a visitor, and my identity is Harp.»
The transmission was slow, painfully so, but Harp repeated the message until he could pick an answer from the jumble of emotions and questions that assailed him from the mind of the Extra-terrestrial life-form.
«Slit! Name Slit! Name is Slit! Why here? Crash? Planet was supposed empty!»
«Yes, your space-ship crashed. The control centre, what we call the Bridge, is not viable for your species. We may have caused the crash by compressing the Orichalque when we burst through the gates. And no, we did not crash. Our ship is bigger than a dwarf star. If we crashed this Planet, it would be reduced to dust.»
«So far, you are the only one I found in this segment, but I have not explored it in its entirety. You were repairing something, a breathing apparatus if I am correct, when I saw you first. It was the noise that brought you to my attention. Show me.»
The last comment worried the life-form, even if it did not show it with signs Harp could identify. Recognising there was not much it could do but show its current work, it let Harp to its workshop. It allowed Harp to examine the control valve.
«Clogged. Must be removed, and cleansed. Do not have proper tools. Crew member being negligent in maintaining vital equipment.»
«I see. Dirt. Let me.»
Harp focussed on the dirt, dissolving it into vapour and expelling it in a bluish cloud.
«Test it now.»
After some tests the Extra-terrestrial life-form recognised the part was now in working condition.
«Must assemble breathing set. Will take time.»
After studying the pieces, Harp used Magic to reassemble the entire set-up in a flash.
«Test. Then we find your crew.»
The tests conclusive, the Extra-terrestrial put on his space suit and fixed the breathing apparatus on its back, before sealing the suit close.
«Lead the way to the crew quarters. You will enter first and I will follow. I do not wish to have either you killed or to have to kill one of them. Life is rare. Especially your type.»
The life-form 'nodded' or so Harp interpreted the movement of the sensory antennas. It led Harp further along the hallway, typing a sequence on a touch-pad. Unfortunately, no response came forth and the extra-terrestrial looked at Harp 'questioningly', or so thought the Prince of Magic.
«There seems to be no power to the control.»
Harp touched it and after finding the issue, noticed the power had been turned off by an automatic regulator.
«It is turned off. What could cause a regulator to turn off the control?» he asked.
«No idea. Never happened before.»
«If I remember my spaceship design lessons, the automatics would be activated by contaminated atmospheres, de-pressurisation, abnormal and deadly living conditions. Wait. I will go see over across the door.»
Harp ported across the wall, leaving the crew member shocked, again. It took him a second to find out the issue. There was a lot of grey smoke all over the place, a form of H2SO4 or sulphuric acid vapour, a highly corrosive reactant. Harp ported back across the wall, making sure to leave behind any trace of the acid.
«The atmosphere is contaminated with a powerful acid. I saw a few skeletons. Is every side-room sealed?»
«Yes. And atmosphere is auto-filtering.»
«Apparently, that failed in the hallway. Is your suit able to resist the contamination?»
«Depends on concentration and duration of exposure.»
«I should have thought of it. Is the crew room within that next segment?»
«No. This was... crew freezer segment.»
«Crew freezer? Oh! Stasis chambers. Let me check on them. It will take a short time. Hopefully, they survived!»
Harp made a quick run of the stasis pods, and found all 1,200 intact, but some were showing signs of corrosion in rooms whose seals had leaked. He marked them for priority removal and then went back to the extra-terrestrial.
«Seven blocks need to be moved quickly. I have signalled them to our rescue team so they will be prioritised. They were in rooms whose seals were faulty. I also did a quick check on the next segment and that one is viable for your species, whatever its name.»
«We are Erebus. We number many on ship. But suit will not allow crossing of section to reach crew chambers...»
«Erebus? We heard of your species an eternity ago. You were at war...with us, the embodiment of disorder and destruction. We come from another Star Island, that we call a Galaxy, the Milky Way Galaxy.»
«We were a warring people. We fought everything and anything. We met our doom. And we lost. Yet you do not look like our slavers, those who hold our Planet hostage to keep us quiet and enslaved us. But you said you heard of us? How? When? Where? Because the last Freedom Fleet vanished oh so long ago it is lost to history.»
Harp blinked. Another doomed slave race! Damn it! He decided to keep his knowledge of what the Slavers had done to himself, so he focussed on history. «It must have been very long ago indeed. They reached our star island when we were expanding in it for the first time. Remember! I never said we met them in this Galaxy! They were weak, but still tried to conquer... and lost to us. We were never aware of their origins. They visited a Planet we used as a refuge when our home world got destroyed. They left an abandoned forward post, and moved further in, confronting us. We found the outpost much later.»
«They travelled from Island to Island? That will rekindle our pride!»
«As long as that pride does not inflate your brain, I see nothing wrong with it. Now, to get you across that contaminated segment. Let me touch you. I will not crush you.»
«What if the next segment is contaminated?»
«Let me check. It will take a simple jump.»
Harp moved quickly to the end of the next segment, and then ported across. The H2S atmosphere seemed relatively pristine, so he moved back to the crew member and ported him alongside to the segment.
«A strange feeling this does.»
«Probably. Since we do it instinctively all the time, we tend to ignore any feelings we get. However, our young probably do feel disoriented. I shall enquire with them. Now, where next?»
«The first door is the leaders; the second and third include sub-leaders; and the rest are crew members. I am crew member and my own rest area is near the end.»
«Is this a measure of grade?»
«Well, your Officers, or Leaders as you call them, are in for a sobering experience. Signal your presence.»
«That is not within protocols.»
«And meeting an inter-galactic traveller is?»
Harp pointed to the door and the extra-terrestrial being pressed on a red triangle. After a few minutes, a series of sounds that made Harp think of a mix between clicks and a bird singing with a throat problem was heard. The crew member replied using a sequence of sounds that was within the same range.
«They have their doubts. They say I am trying to make myself important.»
«I gathered that much from reading their minds. I shall show them importance!» replied Harp, whose patience was not even skating on thin ice. «I have work to do, and they are holding me back!»
Harp touched the 'pincer-pad' and entered the unlocking sequence without much bother, much to the surprise of the crew member accompanying him and the alarm of the Officers.
«So, my companion was playing the important? Since when is a situation assessed by rank rather than by fact? No wonder you lost wars!» thundered Harp through the minds of those within telepathic range. Now, get your cloaca seated before I use it to skewer you! We have things to settle, and little time to do it, given the situation aboard this ship!»
A couple of hard-shelled Officers tried to assail Harp but found themselves on the floor, paralysed by a single look.
«You did not do this with me...»
«I was looking for first contact, not establishing power level and such. I am in no mood to play with these two.»
«How? You did not even get near them!» asked an Officer, the first one to catch that it had only to think to communicate.
«Magic. I am known as Harp, the Prince of Magic, within my people.»
«... Are a bunch of Slavers who abused their powers for undue gains,» interrupted Harp. «We have been kicking their arses ever since we made our way to this Star Island, or, as we call the star collection, a Galaxy. Slit, explain what I have told you. I am receiving a message on the progress of our work on-board and I need to give orders.»
While Slit explained things to his Officers, Harp was receiving reports from Paschal and the Engineers. Paschal was already linking some stasis pods to power supplies on Thebes for the new life-forms, and a Centurie of Engineers were fixing the atmospheric controls in the last segment visited by Harp. Another group of Engineers were preparing replacement stasis pods for those that had been too corroded by the sulphuric acid and another Centurie of Mages was readying itself to port those threatened by the imminent collapse of their stasis pods due to the same corrosion. Once updated, Harp listened to the exchange between Slit and the Officers. The two still paralysed were only thinking of vengeance, and nothing else. At a break, Harp re-entered the mental conversation.
«Who are the two stiffs?» asked Harp, pointing at the two very immobile bodies on the floor.
«They were contacts with our Masters. They gave the orders. They monitored our exchanges and reported to them.»
«Oh, I see. Political Officers. They are useless.» Instantly, the two were converted to pieces of coal, some water, and a block of Sulphur. Very dead. «Apparently, your masters never developed telepathy, or they would not have need for this kind of spies within their ships.»
The shock within the Officers was immense, but before any questions could be clearly thought, Harp answered all: «Magic. It is called transfiguration. I choose a deadly one. I could have made them into food. Now, Slit, we need to get to the rest of the crew. Do you know if there are many crews breathing the same atmosphere as yours?»
After some exchanges between the Officers, one took to answering. «To our knowledge, we are single of our type. But then, there are huge sections of this ship we do not have access to.»
«Given that this is only segment 4 of the 23 available, do you have access to the segments further back?»
«The next two segments are storage and food production. The food production is synthetic. Nothing is lost, everything is recycled.»
«That is standard aboard any spaceship. I just informed our Engineers of the nature of the next two segments. They will use the design until a better one is constructed for your crew onboard our ship.»
«What do you mean?»
«This ship is no longer functional. You are doomed if you stay. There were major structural failures during the landing. We are moving you and those in the freezers to our ship. It is a rescue. I thought this was clear already?»
«Not really. I thought we were just changing Masters.»
«In a way, that view may seem correct. After all, you will be aboard our ship. We just hope your species will contribute positively to our mission. There is one thing I have not told Slit. The Slavers destroyed your species. I would not be surprised to learn you are of the same gender and unable to reproduce. This is intentional on their part. But before blowing up at us for our message, learn one thing: We are the masters of time. We are sending Sensor Ships back in time to locate all Planets within this Galaxy that once harboured life. In due course, we will find your other gender.»
«We had four. Male, Female, Hermaphrodite, and Asexual. The most numerous Caste is the Asexual. We are members of that Caste.»
«I am not surprised. The Andromedan Slavers always separated the sexes, keeping one as crew and killing the other. It was their way of controlling their empire. But they never told of their policy given that it would have removed hope of finding home to their crews.»
«Too true. But you mentioned time? Why not just try and find our home?»
«Because you have been in stasis for millions of years and your home world probably does not even look like it did when you were captured. Millions of years have gone by since your last call to duty. Your Planet, or even your Sun, may have been destroyed. Life as you remember it no longer exists.»
«We have no homes left? Is that what you are saying?»
«That is what I say. It does not mean we can not collect your species by sending Collector ships across time. The issue is, to be honest, complicated by the fact that we do not know neither where nor when you were conquered by these aberrations and abducted. And, to further muddle the issue, it has been so long since the last wake-up cycle that evolution has had time to create new intelligent forms, new ecosystems, and new living conditions, which must also be rescued even if we are destroying the Slavers. The Universe itself is time-limited, and we are dedicated to saving as much life as we can. Do not despair. You will be put in stasis until we have located your time and recovered your species, and also the ecosystem that existed before the Slavers reduced you to slavery. Once that is done and the environment is rebuilt in one of our Tessaract rooms, you will be brought out of stasis to live your life as if you were on your home world. Even the stars visible in the night sky will look the same.»
The last revelation shocked the Officers and Slit.
«And if we want to travel the Stars?» asked another Officer.
«Then you will be incorporated in our crew, and become members of our ship's assets rather than being passengers. It will require a lot of work, both on your part and ours, since we do not live within the same conditions: our gravity well is different and so is our atmosphere. But it is possible to succeed. After all, the Slavers did. And maybe, over time, your species can have a directed evolution toward our atmosphere. That will depend on your own choices. I must now progress toward other segments of this atmospheric type. Slit, I will stay in telepathic communication with you to answer any questions asked by the Erebus crew. Once I am gone, inform the others. By the way, expect to see some of our crew members. We are all wearing space suits since your atmosphere is toxic to us. Look for the Galactic Spiral, our symbol. They will be either Engineers or Mages. The Engineers carry a symbol like this, representing a hand-held calculator; the others carry a head with a halo around, a sort of crown. Shape has little meaning on standing, both figuratively or physically. After all, we have a Snake, Zen, that might show up, depending on rotations and assignment.»
Harp disappeared from view and appeared in the other segments used for storage and food production to make sure all was functional and safe for the Erebus species. Things seemed in order, so he made a hop across the next locked door. There, he found another H2S breathing species, but definitely not the Erebus type! However, the issue was that the only members of said species were in stasis, with no member awake. That left Harp with a plethora of issues: Was the current atmosphere he detected viable for them or not? What were their minimal living conditions? What would be their reactions to being awakened? Could they be awakened safely? One question had been bugging Harp across the board: were the species organised in a specific order, such as first conquered first segment, or was it the other way? After marking the pods for recovery, Harp made his way across the next segments. He found five more species within the 15 segments of H2S atmosphere before hitting the reactor and propulsion segment.
«Timor? I am finished with this atmosphere of Hydrogen Sulphide. Signal to Paschal he has a variety of species to collect that are in stasis. I marked their location. I am progressing to the Oxygen atmosphere. That is the biggest segment after the Methane one.»
«Acknowledged. Did you do a map?»
«A sketch. It is not to scale, since I have only a vague idea of the real scale of each segment. Have Samson send in a team of surveyors and ask Paschal if he can spare a Centurie of Engineers to record the inner structure of the ship. It might be vital in understanding how to regulate the living conditions within the areas we will dedicate to the rescued species.»
Harp ported to the Imperial Ship's Bridge, and then jumped into the first atmospheric Oxygen segment. The area was relatively warm, certainly a lot warmer than the segments Harp had visited so far. The Atmosphere was a mix of 50 percent Oxygen, 50 percent Nitrogen, traces of Carbon Dioxide and Water vapour. The concentration of Carbon Dioxide was so low it precluded any greenhouse effect. Exploring the first locker, Harp found traces of an intense fire, and some F2O, along with a plethora of other oxides, all concordant with an intense, if brief, fire. A thin layer of Sodium Chloride, the fire extinguisher, was covering the metal surfaces. Luckily, smoke had not spread far, contrary to the other fire. A study revealed the rupture was much less extensive this side as compared to the one he has seen earlier. This confirmed his belief the fire had originated at the Fluorine section and spread to the the Bridge, shorting quite a few controls.
A hop back to the O2 hallway, and Harp began exploring further along, entering each room systematically. It took him more time, as each room led to a veritable labyrinth of smaller hallways, rooms, and cabins of variable sizes. Some chambers contained stasis pods and were ear-marked for collecting. Others contained extensive freezers of what appeared to be food; others had dried-up seeds, and finally, a huge block contained animals in stasis, probably food in reserve. However, Harp found no one moving, but also, no corpses. That segment, quite huge compared to the others he had visited, seemed to be awaiting a wake-up call.
Moving to the next segment, Harp found himself face to face with a Lion with wings, of all things! A Sphinx! And it roared defiantly at Harp, making the Prince laugh, much to its insulted surprise.
«Ah! A Sphinx! That is missing to our collection of mythical animals!» thought Harp.
«I am not an animal!» replied the Sphinx, outraged!
«You breath? Eat? Drink? Shed? Piss? Shit? Mate?» asked Harp in quick succession, getting a nod from the Lion. «Then you are an animal! And so am I, in case you have your doubts, Sphinx!»
«So, Animal, how come you know our secret name? Not even the Masters do!»
«One or more of your kind were met some time ago by people of our refuge Planet, called Egyptians, and they veneered your kind for its intellect. The name Sphinx is how they identified themselves. I say they, but there is no proof there was ever more than one. The Egyptians built a giant statue of a Sphinx resting. History says the Sphinx asked a riddle.»
«Ah, the test! I almost forgot about it! To...»
«...To earn respect and the right to live, one must answer the Sphinx's riddle. I know. Not that anything could ever kill me. But let us see what riddle you can come up with.»
«My first opens doors; my last is born; my middle hides; yet my whole locks. What am I?»
«The what makes me believe it is an inanimate object; the first unlocks doors, so it's a key; the last is née, or né, depending on the spelling, a French word meaning born; and you tried to mislead me with the word stow-away, of which only the first part matters; the whole is a keystone, that locks domes, vaults, walls, and other rock constructions.»
«I am impressed! I first thought to use the 'drugged' or 'sick from abuse' for 'stone' but it was too simple. I figured someone that managed to reach this velvet prison had enough intellect to deal with a more complicated riddle.»
«That one was easy. Now, back to our problem.»
«Is there one?»
«Yes. That ship crashed. We are here to recover as many life forms as possible. So, how many of your species are currently roaming around?»
«Let me see... Three dozen are awake, and well over 2,000 are sleeping. There are other life-forms further off, past our segment, but we have never met them.»
«That is the usual methods of the Slavers. Will I need to pass another riddle for each of you? I hope not! I have other issues to deal with.»
«No. I will personally record your identity and signature in the Hall of Riddles.»
«Does that mean that each and every one that must meet your kind needs to resolve a riddle? You will run out of riddles quite quickly!»
«What do you mean?»
«We are several billions! And there are so many species it is beginning to be difficult to keep track of all! There is an archive, a record of births and deaths, that keeps track of everything, but it is the job of AI-2, and it has been complaining about the workload. Imagine, an artificial intelligence complaining about workloads! It must have met Micro-shit! That thing froze more often and more solidly than the Antarctic Ocean in winter.»
«I see. I will need to talk to the others of the Council. We can not spend our life designing riddles. We must eat too!»
«Meanwhile, would you accompany me along your segment until I reach the next lock? There are many more segments after yours.»
The Lion stood up from its sitting position and led him along the hallway. They met about six more Sphinx, who watched Harp pass with curiosity.
«I must warn you. Past this door, we smell walking death. We never even tried passing through. I hope for you that this suit you wear, that false skin, will protect you from what lies in wait beyond that door.»
«Thank you for the warning. I too, feel the cold of unnatural life, of walking death.»
Harp quickly added a magical shield to the already impressive FSS ones, called for his Magical Staff out of the magical pocket of space he kept his tools, and also took the sword he had made out of Ianium to tie it on his back. Finally, he took out his wand, something he had not done in years!
«What are those?»
«They are magical focusses; they allow to multiply my power. The wand, by a factor of two; the staff, by a factor of 10, and the sword by a factor of 50. Pray I do not need that one; it could destroy this ship in a wink.»
«I see and I wish I was blind.»
«Do not wish that. Too many are blind seers.»
«That is a good analogy. Be careful, little one.»
«I plan to. I shall meet you on our ship. The Engineers will be coming shortly, accompanied by Mages. They will teleport you and your kind on-board our ship. Expect to spend a few days in stasis, because we discovered that the Masters destroyed your immune system to make sure you could not leave ship. We plan to rebuild it to our specifications.»
With that, Harp ported across the door. His first impression was of a very dark place, and he quickly realised that it was also colder than the segment he had left. He quietly made his way across the segment, sensing nothing. Finally, he found stasis pod chambers, several hundreds, in fact. What bothered him was that the pods were full, but gave no sign of life. Yet, he could see that the contents moved.
Harp felt uneasy, increasingly uneasy. Suddenly, he ported right back in the hallway, feeling a cold grip him from behind just before he took action.
«Timor! Who knows about legends of living dead on Thebes? Give a general call! I need the information! Now!»
«I just asked and Greywolf says he has been looking into it for several decades. He just ported on Bridge!»
«Greywolf! List the living dead species we know of and their characteristics! Quickly!»
«The Wraiths: they extract life essence by contact; the Vampires: they suck blood; the Veelas: they drain emotions; the Shadows: they drain light for its energy; the Soul-Eaters: they suck souls; the Dementors, a species we never met but claimed to exist in literature, that also suck souls. Finally, the Inferi: they feed on living matter, extracting living essence directly, contrary to Vampires that get it from blood.»
«Could any of these travel in space? Or have moved from Galaxy to Galaxy?»
«Two: the Shadows and the Dementors.»
«How do I differentiate the two?»
«The Shadows are formless, being visible only when there is light to make them stand out as a shadow. The Dementors are skeletal in looks, with bones visible through a paper-thin, translucent skin, eyes deep, no nose but two breathing holes that are unused, probably residual from an anterior life form, and a lip-less mouth with no teeth. They are portrayed with a black cloak.»
«The Dementors: how do I kill them?»
«You do not: they are dead already. What you need to do is dissociate the Magic that is holding them in one piece. The Shadows are easier: if you put on enough light to remove all shadows where you are, they dissolve. The Vampires, you kill by removing the heart, which is hard to locate since it is not beating; the Veelas and Wraiths are by far the hardest to deal with. One solution for Veelas was becoming emotionless, but that is difficult, and it only delays the issue. Have you ever tried becoming emotionless in a battle? It is near impossible. There has been no recorded death of a Veela in a battle. For the Wraiths, it implies destroying them to the atom level. The consequence is a nuclear detonation for each of them. No one survived that.»
«You are encouraging. Anyway, it seems I am dealing with Dementors.»
« Do not complain! You might be faced with Inferi! These bastards multiply by dividing, so you end up with more each time you blow one up! Good luck with the Dementors. Dissociating them from their magic will require destroying the sum of the soul energy they sucked up in their life.»
«You do have encouraging news! I wonder who was the mother fucker that collected these things, He, she, or it must have a death wish.»
Harp produced his staff and added a thick layer of heat to his environment. Just in time, as it became apparent the Dementors did not need to open doors to cross from room to room. They converged on the Prince of Magic, which began firing spells at the approaching army. Nothing seemed to work.
After hopping around the segment for half an hour, Harp was getting short on ideas. Then it came back to him: Conjure a Soul-Eater under his control and have it feed on the Dementors! But the issue was that Soul-Eaters were hard to conjure, and he did not have time. Realising that the Dementors were slow-moving, he ported to the furthest reaches of the segment and began the conjuration ritual. Hopefully, he would have the time to complete it before he needed to move again.
It took him another half an hour to finish the conjuration: by then, he had to hop for the third time out of the way. With a swat of the staff, the Soul-Eater appeared in the middle of the Dementors and immediately jumped at the throat of the first Dementor it met. The ethereal life emitted a high-pitched whine that rose crescendo to a peak before suddenly stopping, the Dementor exploding in a tempest of blackness that seemed to cover everything with a gooey substance that gradually dissolved.
Meanwhile, Harp kept control of the Soul-Eater and sent it right on another Dementor, all the while hopping around the concentration of Dementors to try and keep them in a small area.
Suddenly, the Soul-Eater stopped feeding on a Dementor, looked around, and blew up, taking Harp by surprise. The destruction of the Soul-Eater was accompanied by a thunderous rushing sound, and waifs of blindingly bright lights were seen escaping out of the ship, chased by the Dementors. From what Harp could see, the Dementors were easily left behind by the souls, and the Dementors were left on their appetite.
The dance to create another Soul-Eater began anew and half-an-hour later, Harp had another one at hand for feasting on Dementors. What a shitty job this was turning out to be! Chances were that he would have to create at least one more Soul-Eater, maybe even two.
«What the Hell happened?» came from Sitar. «I saw a powerful flash of light then darkness, accompanied by freezing cold that gripped my soul!»
«You were not alone!» thundered Enron.
«Sorry, guys, be ready for the backlash. The Dementors will be coming back for us,» explained Harp.
«Oh shit!» Paschal moaned.
«Oh no, they will not! We are like a feeding lot for these aberrations! Let them try entering the ship after I have activated the Veil!» thundered Sitar, as he ported to the control centre of the defence of Thebes.
"AI-6! Activate shields as per protocol Dark Feast!"
A humming sound was heard around the Atlantean space-ship and suddenly, a powerful, blinding light appeared around the construction. It gradually gained brightness and consistence, expanding to a considerable distance from the ship's hull.
As the white light spread across Thebes from its core, inhumane cries could be heard, as dark shadows coalesced to pin-pricks before exploding violently. Outside, the Dementors tried to converge on Thebes, only to be met by a shield that enveloped them in a compressing light that crushed their darkness to dots before they too exploded in a shower of darkness.
"Sitar! What is it you triggered?" an alarmed Pharaoh exclaimed.
"Oh, that is simple, Dad. Protocol Dark Feast is what I created after I studied how the Soul-Eaters fed. I figured out that their sustenance being souls, they drained energy from emotions. The thing is, you can drink water, but can also drown in it. I just drowned the Dementors by putting them in their food stuff to the point they got crushed by it."
"But we are talking about two things here: Soul-Eaters and Dementors, according to Harp."
"Hey, there are many species of meat-eaters, as there are many species of Soul-Eaters."
«Dad, that was also my reasoning, but I put the two in competition here. I recreated Soul-Eaters for my need. Let me tell you it is one major piece of conjuration!» Harp explained.
«Recreate Soul-Eaters? Are you nuts?»
«I used two. The thing is, it worked. And now I can resume exploring this ship.»