The decontamination of the Andromedan Scout ship took a full day. It had many crannies and showed it had received countless retrofits over time that created little nests for contaminants of all sorts. It had been used by a wide variety of life forms with conflicting needs, even different atmospheres, and the retrofits had left areas closed down for aeons allowing life to fester and grow. There were even pressurised canisters of Methane for a species of Methane breather that were relatively new given they still were not fully eaten up by corrosion. The decontamination team removed everything, dismantled the ship to its essentials, leaving only the power lines to the stasis pods.
Once this process was complete, the pods themselves were disconnected and brought to the General Hospital for deactivation as each container released its occupants. Yes, it became apparent that the long-term stasis pods contained two individuals apiece, facing each other head to foot. A total of 130 stasis pods were in use out of a total of 150 available. Since the current crew of the Scout numbered around ten, that left in question what had happened to the other 30 crew members. The Atlanteans had a good idea from the events that had transpired from their first contact as to what had happened: dispersal in space. The Scout ship only had a rudimentary sick bay, and no Medical Officer of note.
Release from the pods of a pair of individuals was always a rather elaborate affair. First, the pair was brought back to physiological temperature, reanimated, and then ported into the tessaract to join the first crew and get updated. Meanwhile genetic maps were processed, and, if need be, some were ported into an Atlantean stasis pod for repairs. To be honest, none made it directly from Andromedan stasis pod to the tessaract, as each had in their body a collection of rather disgusting object that needed to be removed. Overall, the entire cycle took an average of three days to complete per crew member.
Then began the immunisation of the 270 Andromedans before they could be released into Thebes. Colibri, in charge of the project, divided the immunisation into five phases. It began with the insertion in the blood stream of a powerful antiviral agent. That was left to rest for a week in an accelerated tessaract, The next phase was the injection if bacterial elements, divided into 25 major strains, at the rate of one strain at a time every two days. The next phase was the injection of antiretroviral agents, all in one go, thus removing one of the most potent source of sickness. That left the injection of prion shields, composed mostly of dedicated nanites that would lay dormant if the agent did not attack. Finally, another collection of nanites was injected to block histamines, thus reducing the allergy symptoms that might arise from contact with either microbial life or complex life-forms.
"Just how long will their assimilation into Thebes take?" asked Harold at vespers.
"Harp sped the time flow in the stasis pods by 1,000 times, so it will be done by prime. For them, it will have been instantaneous because they are in stasis and time stops in these things. By the way, they will emerge fully knowing what was discovered in their body and what was done to repair them."
"How do you think they will take that kind of news?"
"How would you?"
"I would be ready to hunt down these slavers if it was the last thing I did."
"I do not expect them to act any different."
"My friend, I have another piece of news for you."
"Samson, when you begin turning around the bush, I feel like the bush getting ready to be peed on: nervous."
"I did not know bushes could get nervous."
"It is the Lanteen that told me about this reaction from the bushes; the Ents confirmed."
"I am beginning to wonder if having sentient plants is such a good thing."
"Anyway, the more you delay, the more I want to lift root and run. Get on with it!"
After a smirk at Harold, Samson exposed his discovery.
"While Colibri was playing Immunologist and Harp the Time Lord, I looked at their memory of space. Their last map update represents the Andromeda galaxy some half a rotation ago, or, if you want a number, 125,000,000 years or so back in time."
"They have been in stasis for that amount of time, if I must clarify things for you."
"But... that makes no sense!"
"Harold, it makes no sense for many reasons. First, that fleet, the First Fleet, as they identify it, has been on hold for the next war for that amount of time, with everything moth-balled, including the crew. That means they have nowhere to go to call their home anymore. They could attack their own planet without even knowing it was so because a planet changes considerably in that amount of time, and their family is long dead, not only that, but their species as well!"
"Samson, while we were waiting on the Scout, the crew told us they had a family waiting somewhere, but that their Masters kept them in the dark concerning the position of their home-world to prevent them from making a run. Are you telling me they have no home world anymore?" asked Paschal, appalled by that discovery.
"They keep them in the dark on location and on elapsed time, yes."
"What are we to do?" asked Annabelle. "It is so unfair to these poor people."
"It is more than just unfair, it ensures a genocide because the only ones on-board ships are the males," added Aurora, shocking the others, as he contributed to the debate from his Magic-less space.
Ian sat, silent but very pensive. What to do indeed? Suddenly, he snapped his fingers.
"Paschal! As soon as we are done in here, your task is to send back in time ships whose sole role is to track the civilisations enslaved by these monsters and to flag them in space-time. Look at all the stars, even those whose primary has roasted the planets, and mark any with significant life-bearing planets. For now, I am not picky. Just flag them. We shall decide at a later date whom deserves saving."
"Are you aware of the number of stars this galaxy contains?"
"No, and I could not care less."
"The Ancients estimated there were 1012 stars in this galaxy," said AI-4, "or five times the number in the Milky Way."
"Loud mouth! I did not ask you for that number! I would chew you another one if you had an arse hole already!" said Ian. "But since you have your number, Paschal, get to work!"
"I sort of always felt we bit something bigger than we could chew, little Brother."
"Unless you want me to chew you a new one, you will ditch that defeatist attitude out the nearest airlock!"
"I think you redefined the meaning of arse-hungry. I wonder if 'until Hell freezes over' should not be replaced by 'until Ian's temper freezes over'?"
Ian looked at Paschal with looks that promised pain if he did not get to work.
"Okay, okay, I get it. I have 109 Time-line Data Collectors ready to distribute, and that means we need to work in waves. A rapid count tells me it will take 103 waves to scan every star at least once. And that is only to check if a star has planets that are in the viable area of the star. I need suggestions as to how to distribute these Collectors. I do not think it would be a good idea to disperse around the galaxy like kids in a park, especially with the slavers around."
"Work by galactic arm. There are five galactic arm, plus a core," said Anu3 ("Anu: Sumerian God of Heaven."), a Founder that had been assigned to learn Bridge duty as en Ensign.
"That makes sense. But what about the dark arms? They are dark for lack of stars, not total absence of them, and apparently, they are vital to the slavers. They might hide quite a few planets."
"Start with what we can see. Once this is done, extend to the dark arms. By then, I suspect we shall be involved in the internal politics of this galaxy to our ears. We should be ready to rescue those life-forms we meet during these battles and find out where these fleets are hiding. They must be based somewhere, and those bases must be anchored to planets, if only for resources, both mineral and of the flesh."
Sitar nodded toward Anu approvingly. "Anyway, Paschal, reactivate the production line for the Collectors. Harp, increase the space compression levels on the tessaracts by a fraction and ready a few million sub-segments for potential occupation."
"And what will you do?"
"I am calling in the Armoured Divisions to active duty. There will be a lot of Spider action in this campaign, especially on planetary surfaces. Yamato, that is your job. I shall deal with them in space, using the FSS and Scouts. It is time to bring the wrath of Atlantis to bear on slavers that seem to have reigned on a galaxy since it began to harbour life. Anu, inform the Founders they need to be ready for medical extraction of our Troops and civilians. Harp, meet with Paschal, Thorsten and an Engineering team to find a way to reduce losses in the slaves. I do not expect their Masters to go without some last-minute stand."
"Alexander, set course for that dark area, warp three. We are resuming our path," ordered Ian. "I am going to get some food. Fang Chao, Spare Ribs, Greywolf, Typhoon, with me. I feel the need to run and hunt down my lunch. We will be in the Earth Equatorial Ecosystem Tessaract number five. Zen is already there and will wait with a couple of his brothers to share in the thrill of the hunt. Where are Tom and Jerry? I expected them here."
"Hey, we may be smaller than you, but we do know the word duty. We have been quiet, listening in on the exchange. I am ready for Engineering and Jerry is taking in Deflector Shields, according to the roll call for this shift. Is there a change of assignment?"
"Iridia is too tired to take telecommunication. Jerry, take over for her. Call in a replacement at Deflector Shields, preferably someone of experience, since this soup is not likely to clear up."
"I was planning to train an Ent, but that will have to wait. I think I shall call upon Arnia, a Felis. He has been able to shift shape for a year and has been trying to become a more productive crew member."
"I just hope he has managed to put a cap on his purr. The last time, he put to sleep half the Bridge crew with it."
"Purr? Jet engine is more like it! Anyway, what am I to do with the Ent?"
"He keeps with you and goes to telecommunication. After all, I want well-rounded Officers, not specialists."
"Oh, his nuts are well-rounded!"
"But it is true, Ian. He is a mobile plant, but remains a plant. He carries his seeds openly. During mating season, he has flowers that are beautiful, colourful, and give off a heavenly smell, assuming heaven does not smell of Sulphur Dioxide and brimstone. The pollen is a superb gold colour, and gets blown by wind to the flowers; however, it is the only time I never go into their sub-segment because I am allergic to it. Then, almost two years later according to our time, but according to their own time-line, half a year later, they have these beautiful red fruits that smell so good you want to eat them right there, but you better not unless you got a steel-plated tummy because the fruits are extremely corrosive. Inside the fruits, protected by the chemical, are the nuts that will produce their descendants. They have no knowledge of family, of children, or lineage, because they are unable to control where the pollen will land. There is no notion of incest, sexual morals or whatever not. When the fruit falls, it falls wherever it does, and most do not find some fertile ground to grow into. They get carried away by water, some break on rocks and stay stuck, or others get water-logged and sink to the bottom to be lost forever. Yet, enough make it to a safe heaven to take root, grow until they are sexually mature, and then move out of the place they grew to explore the world and leave the nest for another to take over. What is wrong with that?"
"Nothing. I just remembered the Ents carry both sexes. That will be funny to watch our crew try to understand the Ent speaking Atlantean."
"Oh, me too. Their way with consonants is fascinating. They sound almost like vowels. I admit their original language, based on the noise of the wind blowing through the branches and leaves, is totally devoid of harsh sounds. Folding leaves to create variants in the sound of the wind is not likely to produce hard sounds. Their only harsh sounds are produced by rubbing branches together or slapping them on the trunk or other branches, and the sounds are limited in variety."
"You seem to have spent a lot of time studying them?"
"I do not know why I feel so at ease within their community. They let me climb all over them and we spend hours exchanging on different topics."
"Jerry, you were probably born in a tree, and spent most of your first four years eating, sleeping, and playing in one with your parents. I know it has been a very long time since you visited your village, but it is not possible you have forgotten your origins?"
"I have not forgotten, Ian. But... I have no more family in there, and even my Female has died, refusing to undergo any life-prolonging process. My Children are either dead or on the verge of doing so. My Grand-Children barely know me. We are still trying to get our people out of the jungle, but it is proving extremely difficult. Only the very young, abandoned by their parents or orphaned at an early age, seem to be able to adapt. Anyway, Ian, in a way, I feel some shame. I feel every time I fall back on my arboreal behaviour I am suffering a form of regression. Yet, I need it, and the Ents and the Lanteen supply me and my Brothers with the feeling we need to mitigate the stress of living as fully integrated Atlanteans. I know Zen feels the same way and we share many trees. The Ogres are an entirely different matter. We keep away from them."
"I am sorry to hear this, Jerry. Unfortunately, there is not much I can do about the issue. Live as you need to, we never asked that you abandon what or who you were to become part of this."
"I know, but I want to be part of it. So I do what is needed."
"Okay. Good luck with the Ent. Do not hesitate to ask for help. To be honest, it is surprising so few planets produced intelligent and mobile plants. Just four out of several million ecosystems is troubling. Jerry, continue studying them. Colibri will gladly assist and so will Enron. Your research is as valuable as theirs is on animals." Just then Ian's stomach grumbled loudly, protesting the unjustified delay. "My body is telling me to eat, so off we go."
Far back in the dark arm, the Andromedan Armada moved slowly toward the core of the galaxy. So many stasis chambers had blown that Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand was running short on Mages to run the fleets his advance was collecting. He had to resort to slaves to command entire arms of military services and that left him feeling vulnerable, something he did not appreciate much. The only thing he felt secure about was that, so far, the enemy was ahead of him and he had yet to even meet a rear Guard. As he made his way to the Bridge, he met his commanding Officer in the Crew Mess Hall.
"Do you ever sleep?" he asked, surprising the Admiral.
"I nap, your Highness. I get grumpy enough the subordinates think twice before bothering me with stupid issues such as crew assignments and ship positions. That way, I get enough nap time to be functional."
"I understand. Your predecessor required a whole shift of continuous sleep."
"We have different methods of dealing with the need. How about you?"
"I have yet to be disturbed when I am in my cabin."
The Admiral almost told the Mage no one would dare, but kept quiet. Every time he opened his mouth, he felt like he was playing with fire.
"Your Highness, I have been wondering why we never find a trace of Scouts and, from the reports, the base diameter of the hole, the bore, is constant. It just does not fit."
"An invading force, unless it has a specific objective, searches around. They do not. How did they determine where they are going? It is as if they have a specific target in their eyesight, and do not change target for anything. However, this being said, it gets contradicted by the huge amount of damage found far and wide. And I have talked to all the Mage Fleet Admirals. None has even detected the passage of a ship, however tiny, in space. Yet the destruction is consistent with such a big fleet that even the five light-years bore is small to accommodate that kind of fleet. It does not add up. Nothing adds up."
"This is troubling."
"Your Highness, there is another issue: it has been a half-galactic rotation since the star maps were updated. We have no real idea what lies ahead of us."
"Half? Are you sure?"
"Yes. I had the Navigators of every fleet verify the data. The pulsars we use as fixed point have not moved, but those found within the galaxy have travelled around the star-eater a distance consistent with the main star bar rotating half the way around the core. The further stars lag behind in accordance to gravitational laws, but their position is in line with the elapsed time estimate."
The Admiral pushed away some food, clearing a long table, and unrolled a star map.
"This, your Highness, is the star map we found upon reactivation. By standard protocols established from time immemorial, I ordered the updating of the map. Given where we are, the task was arduous and took far more time than I anticipated. Given the state of communications within the Empire, updates from star systems were very slow in coming, and quite a few were not responding. Both factors told me it had been some time since the Fleet had been activated, but I never expected it to be that long ago. Here is the map as best we can get from reports, Navigators of the Fleets, and sensors. There are some 690 pulsars that are easily recognised by their basic frequency. Five percent are found in the galactic bar for the most part, but there are others found on the galactic edge and the Bulge. The result of this investigation gives this map. The fixed point pulsars are found in external islands of stars."
The Mage looked at the two maps, trying to make sense of what he saw. Giving up, he asked: "Explain."
"As you know, the star system where we were originally stationed was on the edge of the galaxy. The only way to explain what we see is if the galactic bar passed us while we were asleep, putting us in the opposite dark arm of where we expected to be. To believe the galaxy is a solid is preposterous. It is a rotating gas, and the gas rotates faster nearer the core than at the edge. The bar is not solid but a gravitational shock wave that lights up new stars by compressing the dark gases as it progresses. That, in itself, explains a good part of the perturbation in communications and why the only real surviving infrastructure of the Empire is located in the galactic periphery. It also explains why the Empire as a whole is having issues mobilising to handle the invader. Most of the Empire probably does not know about it yet, or thinks it is not of their concern because it is not in their vicinity, or so they think."
"Or so they think?"
"See, if the sensor code reports that the perturbation is detected by a sensor that they think is halfway across the galaxy, they think they have time to get ready. But what if it is right next door because the sensor has moved?"
"That is very troubling. Have you talked to others about this interpretation?"
"And why not?"
The Admiral looked around, and finding the Mess Hall empty, climbed on the table to lean closer to the Mage and whisper: "There is another issue. No member of our species must be alive by now. The time elapsed since we visited our home world guarantees the family members are long dead, and that our species have either become extinct or evolved beyond our capacity to mate. I doubt your species would survive a revolt of crew members that have no hope of finding their family because it has been so long since they were taken out of stasis."
"And why do you tell me this? You know I could kill you instantly and no one would know of this."
"I am an orphan, your Highness. My own people threw me away when my parents died during the conquest of my world. All I have known is your kind. I feel no attachment to my world, and could not care less about them. And I never did know where it was. Even if I did, how could I find it now? For all I know, the world we enslaved some time ago could well have been it. And my family is on-board. I have no anchor to a world."
The Mage was in a dilemma. That Admiral had more courage than most of his blood Brothers, more intellect than most of them, and was precious beyond reason, but yet he represented a threat of galactic proportion. Then something sent the Mage in panic. If that analysis was correct, his assumption that the Imperial System was on the other side of the Star-eater was off, terribly off! Could it be that the Imperial Star System was the target of the invader? How could it? Its location was known only to the Mages! And it was unthinkable any Mage would betray the emplacement of the Throne to outsiders!
The Admiral saw the Mage change colours very rapidly. He wondered if his days were at an end, but then he noticed the Mage was looking far away, not at him. He kept absolutely still. Finally, the Mage seemed to settle. Bad or good sign? Time would tell.
"Tell me, Admiral, what have the long-range sensors discovered so far?"
That question took the Admiral by surprise. He had expected to be grilled on his thinking processes, but not on down-to-the-stars sensor results.
"So far, we have no sign of the enemy yet. We still find those planets that have been ravaged by gigantic explosions. However, the time elapsed between the events and the present is diminishing, which tells me that we are catching up on the enemy. Either it has slowed down or stopped, or has reached its objective."
"What is the freshest destruction you have?"
"The last fleet to add to our armada was taken out of stasis seven planet rotations ago, which means we are very close to them. However, we have not found a single trace of their attack vessels and no survivors. It is a genocide of galactic proportion. They moved to the Planet only to find it undergoing violent eruptions that blew plumes of the Methane oceans high above the atmosphere. It was too dangerous to even consider getting near it. Whoever did this assault intended to leave nothing behind. And there was nothing, not even a scrap of a shadow of who did it. The only thing the Admiral told me was that the engines were very unsteady, sometimes almost burning from excess Magic and then almost stalling. The Admiral decided to back off rather than crash his fleet."
"Has the Second Fleet continued to follow the intruder?"
"Yes, but they are fanning out rather than stay on its tail. That was what doomed the First Fleet. Those ships of the First Fleet that survived are being incorporated in the Second Fleet. The Admiral ship of the First Fleet has gone missing."
"I never thought they..."
"Oh, it took the Flag Ship to go missing for them to listen to my orders. The Admiral was a staunch believer in his superiority because he commanded the First Fleet and systematically ignored anything I said that did not have your seal attached to it."
"I wonder about one thing. Simply put, how did the enemy select its objective?"
"I wish I knew, your Highness. As it is, I do not even know what is its objective. Long-range sensors are useless because of the dust, and, as far as I know, there is nothing in that galactic sector."
The Mage decided to trust the Admiral with what he suspected. After all, that genius of strategic reasoning might be able to resolve his problem.
"I know their objective. It is the Imperial System, where the Emperor has his seat of Magical Power. It is also my objective, to sit myself on the Imperial Throne. However, I have so many questions to answer."
"How do they know where the system is? It is shrouded in dust right to the core, dust that is held in place by Magic itself."
"That is but one question, your Highness. However, maybe they have Mages?"
"Traitors to our cause?" said Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand, with what could be interpreted a a shiver of fear.
"Maybe, but it does not fit what we know. I suspect they have their own. It is more likely they are following the trace of Magic left behind by the passage of the Star Island in space."
"Come with me to my cabin. I think we have prevented the crew from feeding for long enough, and I do not want our discussion interrupted by anyone for a while. Fear not, I have no intention of throwing away a scarce resource, namely, you."
Aurora woke up from his last transit through the FSS with a mild headache, much less than what he was used to after previous stays in the body-sized space ships.
"How are you doing?" he heard over speakers.
"I am doing better than I thought."
"Do not try to use Magic. You are in a Magic-suppressor bubble. Currently, it is set at 100 percent, and will gradually be brought down to zero as training progresses."
"Is that Harp? Your voice sounds strange."
"It sounds strange because it is the first time you hear it alone. Usually, you hear it in your head and with your ears so it has this deep echo-like quality."
"Ah, that explains it. What now?"
"Now, I want you to focus on who you are, namely your emotions and feelings. For the first time in your life, you will only feel what you feel as an individual, rather than the entire sea of feelings that washes over Thebes at every instant."
"Okay. Funny thing is, I feel empty for now."
"That is normal. Your own feelings have not been allowed to grow while you aged because you were overshadowed by the emotions of others. For the next week, I will teach you how to identify each emotion, and then let them grow."
"Will this be in accelerated time?"
"No. This is real time. Thebes is moving very, very slowly, at barely 5,000 miles per second so that there are no dilation of time or other relativistic phenomenon."
"What will happen?"
"Oh, actually, you will be faced with different events that induce emotions, so you can learn to identify them as your own and in others."
"But how will that help me learn to block emotions coming from others?"
"Once you have learned to sense and control your emotions, I shall diminish the shield progressively so you regain your empathy. The idea is that you will progressively block emotions coming from others unless you want to learn what they feel. For now, you are like a river in flood season: you lost your identity, your banks, and mix the waters of every river in the area to your own."
It took a few seconds for Aurora to figure out the picture, but he had to admit it fitted his feelings of being drowned in emotions quite nicely.
"Okay. How do you plan to give me emotions? After all, you can not use Magic in the bubble any more than I can."
"Pheromones do the trick nicely."
"I thought these chemicals were only good to attract mates?"
"That and a lot more. Do not worry, I do not plan to put you in the presence of sex pheromones with an old, hole-filled tree in need of being hugged on its death bed."
"I am more worried about your fascination with cacti, you prick!"
Harp exploded in an evil laughter that sent shivers down the back of Aurora. What evil plan did his big Brother cook up? Just as this thought came to him, he felt an urge to rub himself against a steel pole, an uncontrollable urge.
"Harp! No! No! No!"
"Identify the urge?"
"Sex drive!" replied a clattering and totally shocked Aurora. "I could drill a hole in concrete!"
"Good! And it was only one molecule per trillion. I just wanted to test your sensitivity. We have a lot of work ahead of us if that ratio is a measure of how far we need to go. Here comes some purified air."
"How many molecules of that Devil's Lure did you put in the air?"
"Three. Brother, this is not going to be fun. I never knew you were that sensitive to pheromones! It is a wonder you are even sane."
"Am I? I have my doubts."
"We had too. Are you ready for the next molecule?"
"Yes, but try to cut the concentration!"
"It is difficult, Aurora. I do have to put a minimum. There were only 3 molecules in the bubble. I have recovered two intact, the third got degraded by a biological process, so it is the one you absorbed. I can send one molecule at a time, but if the reaction is as intense, it will be very difficult. I just hope this reaction was an exception or we are in for a long day."
"How many pheromones are there?"
"For your standard form, Atlantean-humanoid, about fifty. For the Dragon form, add another 250 or so. Luckily, you have not collected too many genetic maps. Insects have several thousand."
"Oh shit! We did collect the Bee map during training!"
"Damn, you are right! I forgot! Well, let us get to work! I am sending in the next molecule now."
Just as he said this, Aurora fell on the floor, crawling in the corner, and crying his heart out.
"Fuck!" said Harp, clearing the air as quickly as he could.
"No. Abject fear! I always feared fire, and I felt like everything was burning around me!"
"Sorry Aurora, it tells me you are as sensitive to that molecule as the other. You will have a miserable day, Brother, and for that I feel terrible."
"Just promise me when I say enough, you will stop?"
"That goes without saying. We shall just ask Thebes Bridge to hold to its current speed for a longer period of time."
After two hours of sensitivity tests, Aurora could not take any more, and Harp stopped the test.
"When will you be ready to continue? We tested a molecule every 30 seconds, and that allowed us to cover 240 molecules. That leaves us with 60 Dragon pheromones to cover, and then it is the Bee pheromones we need to cover. I also need to repair the back wall. I never knew Dragons had that kind of fire in them!"
"Neither did I. That seemed to be like a blowtorch."
"Yes. I need to talk to Typhoon. He has a better knowledge of Dragon physiology. Have you given thought to how you felt at the time and how you would label it compared to what you had experienced before?"
"A sort of protective rage, like I was protecting my young from a predator."
"That is surprising, given that Dragons had next to no predator except members of their own kind."
"Maybe that was it, Harp. I saw, felt, sensed an attack from the exterior on the nest and reacted instinctually with all the fury I could muster."
"It is lucky you are in a Magic-suppressor bubble; otherwise, who knows what you would have done. Lunch is served at the door, Aurora. We shall meet to resume the sensitivity test in two hours. Rest."
"Hey Harp, how is Aurora?" asked Sunset as they met near a table for a quick lunch.
"Tired, emotionally and physically. He is resting."
"Can I visit?"
"No, he needs to rest."
"Is training that hard?"
"I do not know about training, Sunset, because it has not yet begun. He is undergoing his placement tests and it is wringing him thoroughly."
"I see Typhoon coming in. Please excuse me, I need to talk to him."
Harp quickly moved to Typhoon and explained to him what he had seen with Aurora.
"So, you managed to trigger the maternal protection response? That has not occurred in thousand of years, not since the Covenant. I suggest you try not to produce that too much. It allows for very intense emotions and rapid adjustments to circumstances, including the nature of Dragon Fire. Be careful."
"What do you mean, adjust the nature of Dragon Fire?"
"It failed to pierce the 'enemy' so, unconsciously, Aurora's Dragon form is adjusting the Dragon Fire's form to do so. Next time, it might succeed in cutting through the wall."
"BRR! I get it."
"It is a real application of playing with fire, Harp. Do not get burned."
"How long must we stay at that slow speed?" asked Alexander, which had joined them during the discussion.
"I had thought I would be done in a week, but I think two weeks will be necessary. Do you think this will cause issues?"
"No. We shall drift closer to that black mass, and it is actually pulling us in. By the time you are done, we shall be slightly closer."
"It is pulling us in? I do not like this."
"Neither do I," replied Sitar, "so I sent out robotic sensors ahead of us. They are four weeks off the cloud. I put in a full array of sensors, including magically enhanced ones."
"You expect something?" wondered Sunset.
"I expect the unexpected," replied Sitar as a true God of War.
"Have you talked to our last 'lost puppies'?" queried Harp as he looked at Sitar questioningly.
"Yes. The more I talk to them, the more I want to blow up. These 'Masters' have been playing a number on them. This galaxy is a mess."
"I doubt you could call the Milky Way a clean-cut civilisation! We have nothing to glorify ourselves about!"
"True, Harp, and the Soul-Eaters were no better than these Andromedan Mages. I wonder if there will be a more peaceful galaxy on our path, one day."
"Somehow, I doubt that. Fighting for survival is the core of life. War is but an extension of the process, a systematisation of the act."
"Are you sure you are not running a fever, Sitar?"
"No Alexander, why?"
"The God of War asking for a peaceful galaxy seems so out of character!"
After a few snickers, the group dispersed and returned to their work. It took three days for Aurora to identify all the pheromones that produced emotions given his genetic maps.
"Okay. The first step is blocking pheromones from entering your detector systems. For Humans and Mammals, it is through the nose. For the dragons, it is through the tongue, as for Snakes. For Insects, it is through the long hairs of the front paws. For the Fishes, it is through the long hairs found each side of the mouth. For Batrachians, it is through the skin. As you add maps, we will review each class' specifics. You will notice that the number of entry points is limited, being reused by numerous species. That will speed up training."
"That is nice, but how do I block these molecules?"
"By producing generic neutral molecules that occupy the receptors, thus blocking the real ones from producing the effect. It is like putting a key in a lock without turning it. You can not put two keys in the same lock."
"Okay. That seems to be relatively simple."
"It is, but it is like cutting your nose off. It is a bit radical. The next step will be learning to neutralise the pheromones as they enter your body yet allowing you to identify them. That is a bit more complicated."
"Because the concentration of a pheromone can tell you how strong an emotion is. The next step will be to count the molecules, catalogue them, and assign them to specific individuals, including to yourself. After all, you do emit pheromones on a continuous basis."
"Aurora, have you ever smelled your underarms when you are anxious?"
"You better not, a Skunk would probably fall in love with you!"
Aurora frowned and punched Harp on the shoulder.
"That is another source of pheromone, if you need to know!"
Harp waived a hand in front of his nose, making a face. "The Roses of Corfu would wither and paint would fall off the Mona Lisa!"
Harold walked in the Tessaract segment assigned to the crew of the Andromedan Scout Ship, accompanied with Paschal. Their arrival had not been announced and took the Andromedans by surprise.
"How may we help you, Paschal, sir?" asked the Bashar, eying the person that accompanied the one he knew already.
"Oh, not much, I am afraid. I have been rather busy since your entire crew has been taken out of stasis. I need to talk to you about some things. But first, may I introduce you to my Father, the Emperor of Atlantis?"
After some courtesy exchanges, Paschal took over.
"As you probably are aware by now, your species has vanished a long time ago, due to how long you spent in stasis. We have begun exploring the galaxy searching for your planet of origin, using automated time-travel data Collectors. However, we could speed things up if we had even an inkling of how the stars were distributed in your night sky the last time you went to your planet."
"How so? And we only have a vague memory of that."
"Each of you has a portion of the total memory. We shall copy these memories and merge them to create a view of the night sky."
"Is that painful? And shall we lose the memory?"
"No. It is painless. And it will only refresh the memory for you, not erase it. As for the mapping, it is based on an algorithm that tags significant star patterns. Once this is done, the map is constructed. It will probably have gaps, but the more contribute, the smaller the gaps."
"Can I watch?" asked the Navigator, as the Science Officer made it known he was interested as well.
"Sure. Constructing the sky map of your home world is only the first step. The next step is identifying stars that still exist today, and their relative position. Once this is done, we backtrack their displacement in space by numerical modelling of the Galaxy and establish a time frame for your last visit. It will not be a very narrow time stamp, but it is better than nothing."
"I see. But how do you find where our home world is?"
"Trigonometry does the rest. We track the intercept points of the different stars so they point to a restricted area of space from the angle of view of the surface of your planet of origin. Then we find a star in the map that intercepts this area in space-time and send a Data Collector back in time to see if it is the right star system. If we are lucky, there is only one star that fits, and we get a time anchor in place."
"What will this give us?"
"Once we have verified that we have the right time, the right planet, the right everything, nothing stops us from collecting your family, your people, and save them in one of our tessaract. And there is a side-benefit. Each time we harvest a planet like that, we undermine the Masters' empire. From what I gather, they never did notice the harvesting in those millions of years, probably because they have their spy system geared to detect rebellions, not a civilisation's disappearance. Once we have collected you, we will back-track from the present to your time, collecting successive evolutions of your species, and then further back. I would not be surprised to discover that your planet harboured distinct civilisations that got harvested by the Mages over time."
"Will this not create conflicts?"
"Who said you will occupy the same tessaract segment? Yes, the different species will interact, but certainly not to compete for land or territory. Removal of a segment of your contemporaries will have an impact on the evolution of your species, so we shall do it carefully. It is only if we find out that the star is about to blow that we remove a planet's ecosystem to the bedrock."
"Is that a common occurrence?"
"Fortunately, not that common. Still, we plan to scrape the planets that currently supply the slavers off to the bones. If we miss any of the Mages, they will have to work their own arses to get anything done rather than count on slaves to do their dirty work."
"I understand, I hope."
"Navigator, Science Officer, please follow us. You will be the first to undergo the rekindling of your memory. Bashar, you and the rest of your crew will be next."
"How long does the process take?"
"It is very short."
The group followed the Atlanteans to the General Hospital.
"This is cold!"
"Sorry. We forgot you were used to a more humid environment. It will not take long. There we are. Colibri? Have you activated the Pods?"
"Yes. I reserved a room for this purpose. We can do all of them in a single sweep, then they can go back to their tessaract and comfort."
"Okay. Please climb in a chamber, one person per chamber please."
The crew did as asked and lay down on the bottom.
"Relax. The process will take a very short time," said Colibri, as he activated the soma units, putting everyone asleep instantly.
"Honestly, how long will it really take?" asked Paschal.
"Two hours and thirty minutes. They will not be aware of it and we shall duplicate their entire memory banks, which will ease finding their family later on. They will not need to come back in here for a re-read."
"That is a good idea. Hey, Samson, what brings you here?"
"I want to supervise the map building process."
"You are welcomed. I have enough work to keep me busy as it is."
"Admiral, for some very apparent reasons, the only ones allowed into the Imperial Star system are Imperial Mages. To break that rule is an open declaration of war on the Empire."
"That makes sense, your Highness."
"Yes it does, but I plan to break that rule... once the Enemy has reduced the Imperial Planet to take the enemy by surprise and install myself on the vacated throne. Why dirty my pincers when the invader will do the job for me and I shall be seen as the Saviour of the Empire."
"So, we hide behind the protective cloud of the Imperial Star System, wait for the Enemy to be fully engaged, and come riding the Axirs to save the Empire, but not the Emperor and his family?"
"Oh, these are life-forms we rode into battle a long time ago, your Highness. Riding Axirs into battle is a way of saying we would come to the rescue... too late."
"I like the image. That is exactly what I meant!"
"I shall have the Fleets move between the cloud and the Star-eater. It will be iffy, because the Star-eater is always hungry, but I think I can pull it off."
"Why is it difficult?"
"We need to maintain the engines hot, your Highness, and the amount of Magic in a given space is limited. I shall only move the biggest ships in place. We can not afford to consume magical fuel for ships that will only contribute marginally to the upcoming battle. Anyway, your Highness, if they detect the small ships, it will give them a misplaced feeling of superiority which we can exploit to our advantage."
The Mage had to admire the Admiral's thinking. It would have completely passed over his head to think things that far off in the future. For him, if it was a battle, all forces must be engaged.
"And what will those left behind do?"
"Collect the garbage, your Highness. The Enemy will run, but will be severely weakened. There comes into play our smaller ships, to finish them off. By closing behind them, while staying clear of the hole, our ships will cut off their retreat."
Meanwhile, Paschal began sending out the Collectors, searching through time and space for life-bearing Planets. The easiest to locate was the one that used to shelter the crew of the Andromedan Scout ship. It had moved off, following its Primary in its errant path through the Galaxy, passing through the galactic Bar twice in its rapid rotation, located as it was at 1/3 of the galactic radius from the core Black Hole. Yet, the two passages had left no apparent traces on the Star system, except for a serious period of pummelling by meteorites, comets and other far-flung visitors to the inner Planets. Each phase had been accompanied by massive extinction of life and destruction of civilisations. Oddly, each mass extinction gave rise to a new dominant species, which collapsed before it managed to escape into space the next wave of comet shower. The data also revealed that life had a limited set of options for advanced life: birds, mammals, reptiles, and, much more rarely fish or sea-crawler. The last extinction had left the planet so ravaged the only thing alive was moss.
Backtracking in time allowed the recovery of eight civilisations layered in time, none really very technical except those from which the Scout Crew had been extracted. Very careful analysis revealed that the civilisation from which the Crew had been extracted did not survive the passage of the Mages as most of the advanced technology got destroyed, and its technical elite had been forced into slavery. Less than 5,500 years later, the next wave of space debris fell on the planet, putting down the survivors. Life struggled through the passage of the Star in the galactic Bar, and, by the end of the period, no trace of its existence was left for the new dominant species to ponder about.
"You know, Dad, I think this explains a lot about civilisations," said Ian at the table, one evening.
"What do you mean, Son?"
"Well, we always thought that the lack of civilisations near the core of the galaxy in the Milky Way was due to excess radiation. What if they never had a chance to survive long enough because their primary crossed the galactic bar too often, throwing garbage at the inner Planets at regular intervals?"
"And we attributed the state of affairs to the Soul-Eaters. Maybe they were not the only culprits," added Harp.
"In a way, the Earth was lucky. It was located 2/3 of the way off the core, and slightly off the galactic Equator for most of its life, and at the outer reaches of the Galactic Bar," noted Samson. "It probably was unlucky maybe once in its lifetime, getting caught at the galactic Equator just as the galactic Bar's tip reached it. Otherwise, life would have been extinguished a lot more often and more thoroughly than it did over the course of its existence."
"And, from what we know of other galactic civilisations, including Atlantis One, most were located slightly further off the core than Earth, thus less exposed to fluctuations in spatial environments," added Sitar. "The only exception were the Cyborgs, and we never did bother studying their evolution in time, more interested in getting rid of them than in doing some research. Maybe their primary motive for the conversion was the fact that it was the only way for them to survive repeated smashing of their planet, until it met its match and they found themselves thrown adrift in the galaxy."
"Who said the Cyborgs were originally from there anyway, Harp?" questioned Ian. "To reach the basic level of technology to create Cyborgs requires a long period of growth, which is next to impossible near the core. No, the more I think about it, the more I believe the Cyborgs were born somewhere else. Granted, they migrated to that junk yard, and probably benefited from the rich supply of flying debris, but that was well after they had become independent Cyborgs. Remember the first time we hear of them, from our discussions with the Matriarch. They were more independent, and somewhat less robotic in nature. Their final form, the Cube, seemed to have emerged later, much later."
"Ian is right. The data Collectors that scoured the Milky Way reveal civilisations that talk about them from well before Atlantis One, and a study of their structure clearly show a progressive integration of robotic elements in an organic structure, until the Cube contained only one Carbon-based organic component: the brain."
"Paschal, the issue is moot. I do not think we will ever go back to the Milky Way to validate one hypothesis or another. Our task is the Universe, and we can not keep going back to our cradle every time we think about an unsolved mystery of the Milky Way. Thorsten, what is the situation in the Seraphrim nest?"
"According to the Nest Mother, all is on schedule. I admit it is impressive to see the Babies take shape. The shells are getting more and more transparent. She says that she expects the first hatchlings in 40 years, right on time, Harp."
"Do we have enough food reserve for them?"
"Yes, for twice their numbers as far as the Nest Mother is concerned."
"What about the other one, the one we picked up in space?"
"The thawing process is markedly slow. It is quite apparent they need the thermal shock of a rapid atmospheric insertion to really wake up and become functional."
"Well, from comparing the internal temperature of the Nest Mother and the internal temperature of the rescued individual, I was able to estimate it will be another 100 years before it wakes up, but since we know next to nothing about their internal functioning during the emergence, I can not be sure."
"It is sad we never did find any more of them."
"I agree, but there is nothing we can do about it. The Cubes did a number on them and, unfortunately, their migration exposed them to incalculable risks and odds."
"I just hope we have enough to insure genetic variance and survival."
"I hope so too, Colibri. As soon as they hatch, we shall take a scale sample from the broken egg and do a genetic map. If what the Matriarch said is true, there were many sperm-sack contributors to her brood, so we should see some variance. It is possible there will be enough, especially if we manage to establish a colony in one tessaract and merge it with the brood the other Female is holding."
"It will be a while before she can lay her eggs,"
"I know, but from what I understand of their life-span, they will share the tessaract for quite a while before the oldest start fading. For them, a thousand years is like a day for us, much like for the Dragons."
"I am off to help Aurora master his gift of empathy. He must be rested by now. We have another long session tonight."
"Okay, Harp. I would say hurry up, but I know this is not possible."
"Are you worried about something, Ian?"
"Yes. Somehow, things do not sit well with me. We need to make our progress slow, so I have set us on a gravitational path to our target, but without power so we leave no energy signature."
"As soon as I am done, we hold a meeting."
Off-path, near the galactic edge, a lone space-ship activated its power-up cycle, connecting its control set with the slowed-down brain of its single passenger, deep in stasis. The Admiral that had escaped the pincers of Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand was brought to minimal functioning so it could guide the ship's trajectory to an unknown destination.
The sensors revealed there were no ship around, even at maximum sensitivity, so it was truly alone. The computer heated up, beginning the collection of fixed point to determine its position and eavesdrop on communications. The silence was deafening as it processed the data much more quickly than the Admiral's brain was ready to accept it. Days passed before it had calculated its position and compared it to the star map.
After that, the artificial intelligence waited patiently, content to let the survival capsule drift toward the core of the galaxy at half the speed of light, for the decision of the slowed-down brain of its occupant, or a question. Months later, the Admiral's brain managed to form a question for the artificial intelligence that ran the survival capsule: resolve the galactic map inconsistencies.
The life-boat's limited processing power was completely inadequate for a quick answer, but time was irrelevant to the Admiral. Years passed before the map was fully updated, and several hundred years passed before the Admiral came to understand why it had changed.
Despair settled slowly in the Admiral's brain as reality sank in: there was no place to go, no family waiting for him, not even a planet for him to live on, and suicide was not an option, as the ship could and would keep him alive in stasis indefinitely. His mind slowly sank into the despair of the damned: an eternity lay ahead, an eternity of solitude, of life without life, of living death. The ship would not even allow itself to be destroyed by entering a star or get captured by a star-eater! The Admiral wondered if the Masters he had escaped had planned it that way or if it was coincidence. But did it really matter?