Thebes kept progressing further in the dust cloud, collecting tons upon tons of Orichalque, Mithril, and other magical metals. By means of surface percolation, the different products were decanted and separated into their pure form. Additional chambers were added as the ship expanded in diameter, and more fold space engines were incorporated to include the increased radius. More weapons were brought on-line, and antimatter mines were stored within the deepest recesses of the ship.
"How far to target system?" enquired Harold, as he watched the desolate view on the screen that rendered a stabilised image of the exterior.
"According to inertial measurements, we are 582 light-years away."
"Inertial measurements? Is that method still of use?"
"Oh yes, my friend, especially in a situation where no star is visible. We took a fix some days ago, before entering the cloud, but since then, nothing has been visible."
"When you say 'some', I suspect if I enquired how long you would prevaricate rather than answer."
"You know me too well."
Harp looked at the rather tall young Male standing in front of him, recognising him from the last promotion of Officers. He smirked as he saw the imposing erection the boy was sporting, a reaction he noticed often in Males in the presence of authority. The Roman collar with the single stripe of an Ensign did not hide much! "Yes, Ensign... Williams, is it? What is up?"
"Our furthest Scouts report a sudden increase in the density of the cloud. It is almost as dense as a planetary atmosphere of the Jupiter type, according to their reports. What is a Jupiter type, if you do not mind me asking?"
"You are young, Ensign, and you were born well after we left Earth, right? No need to answer. You still have a baby face, so I know you are young. It is not that you or me have any secondary sexual signs such as body hair, so common in our immediate ancestors, but you simply lack the fine lines that mark the acquisition of experience from a long life. They will show up in time. Now back to Jupiter. Jupiter was the biggest Planet of the Solar System before its destruction. It had numerous satellites, called Moons, and an atmosphere that was liquid at its base while being gaseous at its top, all this due to the pressure. I gather they found that the layer of dust is similarly structured to the atmosphere of Jupiter. This does not bode well for speedy displacement without creating a shock front. That would lead to us getting further noticed, and we do not need that."
After scratching his head pensively, Harp gave a nod. "Tell the Scout to hold station. We will recover him when we are near. Alexander? Get the position of the Scout, and estimate out arrival time. Report to me as soon as you have the figures. Thank you, Ensign. Dismissed."
After digesting the information further, Harp called Paschal to the rescue.
"Paschal, are you busy?"
"I am cleaning up in the high-energy physics laboratory. We, meaning Thorsten and I, decided to run a production line of antimatter mines. We now have in store a couple million of those, ranging from the microscopic to the Planet-buster size. I am closing down the particle accelerator while Thorsten is checking the last containment fields for any power leaks. What can I do for you?"
"Thorsten? Usually, he uses chemicals for his booms. Anyway, back to my problem. Ensign Williams says one of the Scouts is reporting a gas density similar to Jupiter's atmosphere that lays in our path. We are still way, way too far from our objective for it to be based on a gravitational confinement field. Do you have a suggestion to explain this?"
"Does it have a curvature?"
"Apparently not, but that does not make sense. I would suspect that the lack of apparent curvature is due to the fact that it encloses a vast volume."
"Send out a Scout to follow the Wall. We need to know what is the size of the space it protects. As for the density problem... We have been crossing numerous fluctuations of density in that cloud already, and the Andromedans we have on-board tell us these are either communications lines or magical highways. Maybe the target's external space is marked by this density gradient, held in place by Magic."
"If that is the case, when we ram into it, it might create a catastrophic cascade of power failures!"
"For them, yes. For us? No. And you do not need to ram the Wall. Our current size is such that I doubt there are any passages open big enough to allow us easy access. Ask the Scout already in place to send in beacons, in an attempt to measure gaps. Something tells me the biggest gap will match precisely the size of their biggest ships. Otherwise, this barrier has no purpose except expand energy."
"And if it is so?" asked Harold.
"We burst the bubble. I am not too much worried about protecting slaver arses." Harp replied, as if it was nothing.
"Okay. I forgot to tell you we also produced 25 star-busters. I hope this is enough?"
"Who knows? We know next to nothing about this area of space. The only thing we know is there are at least 50 black holes in the area, with the core one in the order of 1,000,000 solar masses. Ignorance sucks."
The Emperor of Andromedans kept trying to make sense of the data flux, but nothing added up. On one side, he had a small fleet trying to insert itself between the star-eater and the Imperial system; on the other hand, coming from the outside of the star island, another fleet was busy plodding through the dark mass and was headed to the Imperial System. Good luck with the shield, it thought. A pincher movement? If so, it was badly co-ordinated!
And where were the Fleets? The Emperor had received nearly indecipherable answers to its status quarries, and no fleet had shown up to answer its call for arms. Where were they? It had activated emergency contingency plans, but if the data it had managed to scour out of the history logs was to be believed, that was far from enough. That revolt, or whatever it was, had been macerating for thousands of years to reach this amplitude, nothing else could explain its state of development. But how could it had been left to fester so long? There were so many triggers to call the fleet to arms, and yet none had worked! The spy network, the technology surveillance network, even the magical power sensors, nothing, absolutely nothing, had triggered! And yet, there it was: their nesting Planets had been destroyed, their fleets subverted, their slaves, oh sickening idea, freed! But wait! That last item was his projection, not averred fact. Maybe the slaves were still just that, slaves.
Back to the main issue: To close or not close the Gates, that is the question... If the Gates were closed, no external reinforcements could penetrate; but then, if the Gates stayed open, the invaders could use them to enter the Inner Imperial System... but so could the reinforcements. Indecisive, the Emperor pondered and studied his options.
Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand was also pondering options. It had moved its fleets between the Imperial system and the star-grazer; that created a rather difficult situation due to lack of space to move its ships. It waited for the invaders to assault the Wall to infiltrate the Imperial system. But waiting was getting on its nerves. The Admiral had placed the consolidated Fleet in the best possible position, with the biggest ships aligned with the biggest holes, and the others graded accordingly. Not much else could be done but to sit and wait. The Admiral had instituted a physical exercise program to make sure all members of the crew had a fighting chance when the battle began, and as he had explained, a busy body keeps the mind off impending death.
The Admiral was trying to pinpoint what worried him so much. The lack of manoeuvrability was at the forefront of his thoughts, but he knew it was not what was making his bowels do hops. A couple of Scout ships had entered the Imperial Space by sliding beyond the Wall using inertia, but they had not been intercepted by the Inner Fleet, not that the Admiral thought they had been undetected. Probably, he thought, the Emperor considered they were not worth his attention. Why was the current Emperor so confident? Was it prepared? Was it setting a trap? If so, what kind of trap?
On board ASS Thebes, life continued as if nothing was brewing. More ships were being built, and a new class, the Swimmers, a play on how poorly the Humans swam, was being assembled to carry the first Dolphins to battle. The Dolphin ships had a strange elongated, teardrop form, pleasing to the eyes of the crew. The crew was rather limited for a ship whose mass was 2,500,000 tons empty, and reached 15,000,000 tons when ready for battle. It carried 16 antimatter guns, a mine dispenser, and an antimatter net with 16 anchor points. The Dolphins' admiral ship, the ASS Flipper, was currently out doing exercises with the fleet, behind the ASS Thebes.
Meanwhile, the production lines were building ships for other species: the Chimpanzees, the Gorillas, the Canines and Felines, and the Snakes. Rescued species were also being prepared and trained for a more active role in the Atlantean Empire, as was considered Thebes. Even the Fairies had their own small, very fast, and superbly armed ships.
More populations were being incorporated into the Empire as well. The number of new species were few but they were welcomed. Explorer ships were sent out across the Andromeda Galaxy to establish first contact, and, wherever possible, trigger a revolt against the Slavers. A search for the original Planet of origin of the crew of the Scout ship was undertaken. The Atlanteans held little hope of finding it, but for the Atlanteans, a promise was a promise.
"I wonder if they have an archive of sorts?" Harp questioned one day.
"What kind of archive?" Harold wondered.
"Well, where they took crews from, when, and such things. You know, it would help us locate the Planet of origin of the poor souls we rescue, and put them back in contact with their families."
"That is an interesting question, Son. Did you ask those we rescued about it?"
"No. I doubt a lowly crew of a last-order Scout ship would know where that archive is located, if it exists. We are on our own to try and find it."
"I would keep that in the Imperial Library. Or the Crew Registry or whatever name they give that place."
"You assume they keep a centralised recording system. Maybe it is organised regionally, or locally."
"The first data collection is probably done Planet-side, but, in order to have an idea of what is available, it has to be consolidated, Son. Consider Thebes: the kingdoms manage the Census every two years, they do their own business, but at the end, all data is merged so I can know exactly the resources I have at my fingertips."
"Dad! That empire covers 150,000 light-years minimum and probably a good million Planets. We are star-sized, a speck of dust compared to that!"
"Your point being, brat?"
"Collecting and centralising the data would be cumbersome. They would need an entire Planet just to keep records!"
"I doubt these crabs would be mindful of sacrificing a Planet for such a purpose."
"Probably where we are heading, Harp. The Andromedan emperor would like to have access to his archives easily, and it is a known behaviour of empires to collect arse-lickers near where there is a collection of arses to lick. Librarians collect dust and arses to lick."
"Are you telling me we are running out of toilet paper?"
"Err? Why do you ask?"
"You just nominated the Imperial Librarian to replace Old Grumpy yesterday. He's too cute to be spending his days..."
"Shut up! I am happily married, Son! I do not require his services!"
"Mom does it? I should reread the tasks expected of an Empress. I must have missed that part."
"Get lost, Harp, before I consider you Court Clown."
"You do not, already? That is news for me."
Harold snapped his fingers, producing a lighting flash, which Harp escaped by teleporting to his room.
"Temperamental, Dad! You are getting old!" was heard in the Imperial living room.
"That kid will be my death!" thundered Harold, as his wife made her way to the living room.
"What did he do again?"
"You do not want to know. If you knew, you would want to skin him alive."
Just then, Sitar made his way in the living room, carrying a 3D projector and a chip set.
"Where is Harp?"
"You do not want to see that brat. He is currently hiding somewhere in the suite."
"I need to talk to you, mom, and him."
"HARP! REPORT TO THE LIVING ROOM!" thundered Sitar.
"WHAT FOR?" came the thunderous reply, crashing one of the glass Insects suspended in mid-air.
"TO REPAIR MOM'S GLASS INSECT COLLECTION, YOU TWIT!"
Harp made his way to the living room, flicked a hand and the damaged Butterfly re-soldered itself into place.
"Is that all? You could have done it yourself, lazy arse."
"No. I need you for a strategy session. Paschal and the others are on their way."
Just then, Paschal walked in, followed by the other members of the Imperial Family. While everyone took seats, Sitar set up the projection in the centre of the room.
"Right. This is the best we know of the Imperial system and its defence sphere. I have skimmed the gate size reports and we can barely introduce a needle in that place. I have been studying the issue and I noticed a weak point."
"Oh? Where?" asked Annabelle.
"They have a group of six big holes located at co-ordinates 23˚ S., 45˚ E. Note this big chunk of the Wall being held in place by thin strands of... energy? The designer inadvertently weakened the defences by doing that."
"Still, the holes are too small for Thebes."
"True, dad, but I want to know if it would be possible to ram that segment which is only tied to the rest of the magical Wall and tear it up?"
"Why? The hole would still be too small for Thebes."
"Maybe, Harp, but think of this: we could create a catastrophic cascade of power surge, breaking down the Wall explosively. Thebes can siphon the energy off that shield and drain it dry. The more we insert ourselves in it the faster the drain. In fact, I want us to stay inserted at maximum radius until it collapses catastrophically."
"If you manage to burst that segment, we would only reach a third of the radius of Thebes."
"I know, but it could be enough to put a considerable stress on their shield, and by maintaining the pressure, we could expand the hole until we reach the half-point. Then we stay put until it blows up, draining it dry."
"What would be the impact on the existing gates?"
"I suspect some will collapse. The others will be closed, isolating whatever is inside from outside influence."
"How will the collapse progress?" asked Harold.
"Catastrophically, once it triggers. We will know when it is about to happen because there will be energy fluctuations that will increase in amplitude. The last stage will be a polarity reversal, in an attempt to drain Thebes of its own magical resources. I plan to over-saturate their regulators. They want energy, they will get energy. That will be the fireworks of the millennium."
"And what happens inside?" asked Annabelle.
"When the shields blow, the dust is compressed violently, triggering drastic changes in the star system. Any Planet-wide shield will burst, and space ships will be crushed. Outside, the energy will push the dust outward, destroying any communications and highways for several thousand light-years. New stars will be born out of this catastrophe. Any ship within 1,000 light-years will be reduced to dust."
"What about Thebes?" asked Paschal.
"Can Thebes sustain a pressure of 10500 Pascal?"
"Easily, brother. It is designed to resist a black hole."
"I worry about their archives," Paschal questioned.
"Do not worry too much. Yes, the planetary shield will be reduced to a shadow of its former self, but, if they did things properly, their library is underground."
"And what if they did not do things properly?"
"Too bad for the archives."
"Okay. Another point: how far are we from the Wall?" Harold asked.
Samson picked up his notepad and searched for the data. "Some 500 light-years away, or, at our current speed, 120 days off. I suspect that we will need a year to reach the Wall due to our ever-slowing speed. As you know, the density of the dust cloud is growing as we near the Wall. So far the equation predicts we will collide with it at warp two."
"I doubt this speed will be enough to dent the Wall and rupture the weak point."
"I figured as much. Does anyone have a suggestion?"
"What is the situation behind us as we progress?" asked Paschal.
"We suck up the dust but new dust migrates into the area."
"What if we backed up and created a void covering an ever-increasing range of space, say 10 light-years? After all, the surrounding dust can not move faster than the speed of light while we can. It would clear up the space..."
"That is an excellent suggestion, Paschal. How do you suggest we implement the idea?"
"We are already doing that, Harp. The Scouts and other ships we use already drain the area of dust we then collect when they report on-board. We have a cone of 5 light-years void of any significant dust behind us. Let us use this for some good. In fact, I suggest we use the Scouts to create a virtual planetary system eating up the dust over 10 light-years around. It will make Andromedan ships unable to reach us, increase our coverage, and clear the space ahead of us."
"I like the idea," stated the Emperor. "Implement it."
"Once the area is cleared of any dust, call back the leading ships and ram Thebes in the Wall at warp nine. That should be enough to give it a good shake. I doubt their design is made for the impact of a star-sized space ship travelling at a considerable number of times the speed of light..."
"How will the implementation of the 'Planet-sweep' influence our time-table?"
"It will bring back our expected collision to the Wall to 120 days. I see no way to shorten that significantly. We are already at saturation, with ships rotating every two hours. The only difference between what we do now and what Paschal suggests is the pattern of orbits of the Scouts and the FSS."
"Why can we not shorten that? I do not like to give them time to organise a defence!"
"Harold, the only way to shorten that is to jump. We could if we had a clear view of what lay ahead, but we do not. Imagine the major shock wave to the space medium if we did that given the density of the dust. We are already creating havoc. We need to consider we might be destroying potential allied races."
"This close to the core of their empire? I doubt it. Anyway, increase the speed to 9,999999999."
"That is pretty close to the ceiling for transwarp, my friend. It brings down the time to 5,4 days, or 129.78 hours. Should we slow down when we get close to the Wall?"
"No. Ram it at full speed."
"What if we run through?"
"Needle the damn Wall."
"Dad, that is going to be a major firework."
"So, Harp? Do you think you are the only one that likes to make fireworks?"
"I doubt that. It runs in the family."
"Oh yes. Recall everyone the moment the space ahead of us is cleared of dust."
"Okay," replied Iridia. "I notified the Bridge of the new directive. It is being forwarded to everyone as they rotate out."
"I contacted Helm. We are now picking up speed. We should reach the new cruise speed in a minute."
"Okay, Thorsten. How many ships are out clearing the path?"
"Over a million, sir. I do not have the exact number. Do you want me to enquire?"
"No, as long as we do not forget anybody."
The Andromedan Emperor received a report on the increase in speed from what it thought was the main clamp of the pincer movement. However hard it tried to figure out how a ship could penetrate the defence of the dust cloud and survive it without burning up, nothing made sense. It knew of the Wall, but something bothered the Andromedan Emperor. Unable to figure out what was unnerving, it decided to try and scry the immediate future. After all that ability to read the future had served well in previous situations.
The Emperor moved deep within the Imperial Palace basement, to a place visited rarely, where not a single sound could be heard, not a single vibration felt, and whose heat was constant and set to be in equilibrium with the optimal corporal body temperature for a person in search of stasis with the universe. It took hours for the Emperor to reach the proper state, but it had grown to expect these long sessions when anxiety ate it from the inside.
Finally, it felt ready to penetrate the mysteries of the future and opened its senses to the flow of time. At first, as normal, darkness met his senses, but then, light came forth in ever increasing brightness. In fact, it became so bright it felt like the source of the universe was looking at the Emperor, whom tried to close the connection to no avail. Its senses had been captured like a moth by a lamp light. Unable to escape the blinding light, the Emperor tried to curtail the brightness; it took a long time for the Emperor to begin discerning the fibres of time lines in the space-time continuum, and then these fibres seemed to converge in a tight, dense, and immense bundle where it could not see the beginning or the end. Yet the Emperor could put a label to this: This is a focal point! I am at the crux of a focal point! The Emperor knew this meant one thing: a major change was coming for the Empire and it was not something that he had control over! It had seen other focal points in his long life, but all had been external to his own identity. It had managed to navigate around them, to let others fall to their traps, but now, nothing could take it out of that situation since the focal point was itself.
Yet the Emperor was like a fly in a Spider web: wanting out but knowing it could not. Realising the situation was hopeless, the Emperor began studying the web structure and quickly realised that there was more than one focal point, there were three in fact. What could that mean? It certainly did not help understanding the path to an honourable exit.
Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand was intercepting the incoming communications from the rest of the Galaxy. Things were difficult to fathom as he began to realise that a change of dynasty was not something that could be done as easily as he thought. There were troop movements all right, but apparently, there were also immense divisions within the Andromedan society. The cement that had held it together, fear of the Emperor, was washing away. In fact, the only substantial force of the Empire left seemed to be his own, and he had no idea of the real strength of the opponents. He called in his Admiral and bluntly exposed what he has understood of the situation.
"What do you think is happening? Did I miss anything?" he asked.
"From the data the communications services have given me, which, I suppose, are similar to yours, you missed nothing. I was going to come and visit you with similar conclusion, your Highness."
"Do you have a suggestion as to what to do given the situation?"
"I suggest we leave the galactic forces hash out their differences. We need not involve ourselves in the galactic-wide civil war for now. We have a sizeable force, and by staying put and leaving the invaders deal with the Imperial Star System, we give the current Emperor more than he can chew, and we meet them when they exit the star system to continue their ravages, weakened by the campaign."
"I suppose that is the best. What if we let them deal with the civil war as well?"
"I thought about it, your Highness. The problem is two-fold: first, we are too close to them for them to ignore us. Second, there is no reason for them to bother cleaning up the Galaxy for us and push the current factions into our hands. I assume they want the Emperor out, and will return home when this is done. It is unfortunate we can not fake a
peace treaty with them, to better come on their back once they have returned home."
"And why is that impossible?"
"We have no idea who they are, we hear no communication, we do not even see a ship. And, your Highness, would you trust yourself? I doubt they would trust you more than you would them."
Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand was green with shock. No one had ever talked to him so bluntly. At first, he considered clipping the neck of the Admiral, but he happened to look at his image in the reflective metallic curvature of the room and admitted that the alien had a point. He would not trust himself with a knife in broad daylight!
"Admiral, you are skating on thin ice, you know that, do you not?"
"Life is a skating rink, your Highness. Consider this: you are also skating on thin ice. This is because you face an Emperor that has been on the throne for who knows how long; that individual has more experience in back-stabbing than either you or I. I am useful to you, but so are you to me. I consider this arrangement mutually beneficial."
On the ASS Thebes, the Atlanteans were holding a meeting in the Imperial throne room. Time had passed quietly with no significant changes. A few more members had been recognised, but still no trace of a replacement for the god of healing, much to the displeasure of Harold. The Nest Mother of the Seraphrim had graced the assembly with her presence, shining like a polished diamond. Her presence attracted the attention of the Emperor.
"So, Nest Mother, what exceptional event brings you to our meeting?"
"Nothing much. I decided to take a walk and report that the eggs are good as new. I did an inventory of reserves for the next generation and found them adequate. I noticed one thing that is new and I wonder if you or that young one, Harp, might have an explanation."
"What is it?"
"The eggshells seem to accumulate a veneer of Magic."
"Given the absolutely huge density of magical energy, it is not something unexpected," replied Harp. "Even non-magical beings, the few that are left that is, can feel it as prickles on their skin. The eggshells contain minute amount of mithril and a dusting of orichalque, so it should not come as a surprise that they shine."
"Will it affect the hatchlings, Son?"
"Definitely. The Nest Mother has some magic, but the hatchlings will outshine their entire species. It is all for the better. They will need training, but that is why we have a school."
"Not that we know much about the Seraphrim species, Harp!" said the Emperor. "Do you think there are any more nests of your kind?"
"I can not say. After all, our dispersal was hectic and the meeting of a proper fertile ground for our young to mature problematic at best. I do not exclude it, since this nest exists, but our number must be limited. Is anything planned to recover them should the need arise?"
"Paschal?" quarried the Emperor.
"We left portals in space. They emit signals to attract Nest Mothers to them and the portals will deliver them to the portal gates room when they touch the surface in any way. So far, there has been no activation of these portals. The chance meeting of one of your sisters some time back has allowed us to fine-tune the portals so they will actively search for your species' signature and home on it. In case you are worried, the portals are not affected by distance."
"Son, are these portals two-way?"
"Yes. One of these portals is stationed at the rupture point with the negative universe we accidentally met. It is by the transmission in the mother node that is there that we can keep contact even if we jumped Galaxy."
"I thought this rupture point was closed?"
"it is Dad, but represents a weak spot in our universe and theirs, weak enough that we can detect and amplify any signal sent through that border."
"Do we have new external species to integrate?"
"Unfortunately, the presence of a central government in the Andromeda Galaxy seems to have destroyed biodiversity," replied Zen. "However, this may be due to our path. We entered the Galaxy in dark matter."
"We are closing in on the Wall. We are two point five days off. All ship are on-board. The last Scouts are being recalled back as we speak. Orders are being given to move the last crews to the weapons. Layers are readied for impact. Rotation of the ship is set to eat the Wall at maximum speed, with all repair Spiders brought back within the ship. All indicates that the rotation of the outer surface of Thebes will chew up the Wall," reported Paschal. "Outer rotating speed is near c, but not fully the speed of light. Given how Thebes is built, each pin is kind of like the tooth of a saw. Combine that with the impact of the mass and it will drill into the Wall. We should eat our way through the defence Wall. Sitar selected an impact point that should produce the maximum damage. As soon as we are beyond the Wall, the FSS will port out and begin damaging their defences."
"Who will lead the FSS?"
"Sitar jumps in. Then the Scouts, led by the Trolls."
After talking about the Wall some more discussion turned to inner politics. The Emperor brought the topic up.
"Is there any issue with the life forms we have on-board?"
"The Dragons are doing fine. So far, we had no issues. They love the new range we installed for them," replied Sitar.
"Are they ready for FSS service?"
"No. I think they will be good as planetary surface troops."
"Okay. Next. Snakes?"
"These are pretty good at sneaking on enemies, and would do good at finding information. FSS works fine with them as long as they are ported directly into the area. We tested them in a very dense jungle area and they managed to get within inches of their target without being detected. It is too bad they cannot inject poison, but then, who knows, poison for one life might be a stimulant for another..."
"So far, it is not working much; collectively, they are formidable, but individually, they are... too dumb. We dare not increase their individual brainpower. It is too dangerous."
"Just imagine the following scenario: a Bee hive suddenly finds each member of its hive with the brainpower of say, a cretin. They try to break the chemical bond that binds the Bees to the the hive; not only is the hive left without what constitutes its nervous system, but we are faced with 50,000,000 idiots. Do we need that? The more we raise individual awareness, the more the need for independence increases. We just cannot afford that luxury."
"They work for us in helping to maintain the ecosystems. They will not fight our battles," Sitar concluded.
"However," Paschal commented, "should we be invaded, they will fight alongside us. We are establishing protocols depending on scenarios."
"Assume there is an invasion of a level. Bees can be ported into the level, except for the queen and her retinue, and assail the enemy by stinging them. We have rather quick means of porting the fighters to just about any segment of the ship. We have broken down the Bee chemical language code and can have them do just about anything, as long as it is built from their basic natural individual behaviour. That applies to all Insects, including the Spiders we rescued along with the Fairies. I must say the knowledge of the Fairies on Insects has been extremely precious and has helped us immensely in communicating with the hives. Some Insects are not hives, and can be sent out individually or in a group to assail an enemy. These are as valuable as hives."
"Okay. Since we are on Fairies..."
"They are able to use the FSS and are training. We gave them laser guns, because these have no recoil. I know that a Fairy looks diminutive, Dad, but armed with a one-giga-watts pulse laser, the Fairy can cut down a ship in flight, as long as the reflection index is below one."
"We tried continuous firing, but the laser overheated. We decided to have a pulse of 0,1 seconds followed by a cooling period of 0,001 seconds. The power loss was minimal. They also keep their bows, arrows, and knives. We are in the process of designing a disperser without recoil as well."
"Something that dissociates molecule bonds. We abandoned the idea of atomic dispersers because of the power of the explosion. It is not fully out of the drawing board, but is now reserved for long-distance fighting in space."
"Dad, you certainly saw the superb explosion in front of us a few days ago?"
"That was a test of the atomic disperser... at 1% of power, and a range of 300 light-years."
"I do not understand? How come the detonation was so far away?"
"We had a FSS follow the target path for 300 or so light-years, did a recall, and fired in the hole left behind by the FSS. The beam was narrow and, as you know, gases tend to fill in the space we clear. The detonation occurred when the atomic disperser beam met enough matter to react, 300 light-years ahead of us. It is important to note that this told us the minimum density for a beam to trigger an atomic reaction. According to our model, there was 5 atoms per cubic feet when things went boom. The principle is this: the FSS travels so fast it creates a shock wave that spreads from its origin to its apex. The closer to the origin of the FSS we are, the lesser number of atoms there are in the vicinity, statistically. We tried several shots at the tunnel and noticed the rather strange behaviour of matter. It dispersed rather than try to fill the void. Models revealed it was due to shock, and that the longer we waited, the further the dispersal propagated, up to the last position occupied by the robot FSS."
"Yes, however we dare not test it on real solid matter, given its violent reaction. We reserve that to break the Wall."
"How do you plan to do this?"
"Simple: Our reports show that the Wall is designed to allow ships of specific shape and sizes in. We will fit a mass, probably uranium, in one of the biggest holes we have spotted, then we back up 5 light-years and fire the atomic disperser gun into it. I can guarantee you the explosion of the century. We ram the selected area at warp nine."
"Try not to repeat the incident on Earth, boys!"
"l hope not..."
"Do more than hope. Make sure!"
"Back to the overview..."
"Trying to escape critiques, Son? I would never have thought that possible. I must be getting good at something, And there I was, thinking I was suffering from senility."
"Alzheimer maybe, senility? Maybe not! Anyway, back to the inventory of life forms and their respective readiness..."
"Watch your arse, Sitar... Revenge is best savoured as a cold dish. Horses?"
"They are learning FSS use. Their advantage is mass, but we are having issues with hoofs. It is hard to control a FSS without hands. The issue is generalised across most life-forms, Canines including Wolves and Foxes, Felines of all sorts, and Dolphins."
"Have you tried telepathic control?"
"We are working on it. The issue is each species has a range, but so do individual members within that species."
"I figured as much..."
"What you do not understand, Dad, is that the FSS is multi-form and takes on the natural form of the species that it encapsulates. Just about anyone can mould a FSS. It is the control that is difficult, especially when they have additional tools such as a gun."
"So, overall, only the Primates are able to use the FSS to their maximum possibilities?"
"Actually, Primates and those life-forms we rescued that had developed space travel."
"How long before the FSS become fully usable by anyone?"
"I would say ten months or so. Even if I put everyone on the problem, we will step on each other's feet."
"Paschal, we are barely three days from the Wall!"
"Two and a half. My idea is we only use the FSS to mine the Wall, and call back everyone when we are ready. I recommend we halt half a day off the Wall, fill in one cavity and blow it up."
"That seems prudent, Sitar. What about ramming the Wall you mentioned earlier? What do you expect?"
"To the second question, a cascade failure. To the first, I hope the ramming to produce sufficient damage to reduce the need of mines."
"First, given our current speed, we ram at full speed, back up out of there, stop approximately at 4.37753x1014 miles from the Wall. That allows us to escape any shock from the perturbation, then boom. It takes us 12 hours to back out to that position, time we use to mine the Wall with our biggest Planet busters. Then we use the atomic dispersers."
"How far is that?"
"Slightly over 46 light-years away, Dad." Paschal replied in a meek voice.
Harold had a discreet cough, but refrained from any comment.
"Continue your explanation..."
"As you know, we found the Wall rife with holes, more like keys fit for the Andromedan fleet. We fill the biggest hole with plutonium, call back our FSS, and emit that powerful disperser beam. The combined effect is, according to our simulations, as follows: the beam is not intercepted by any matter until it meets the uranium, thus making it particularly intense since we are already in the process of removing the dust used by Andromedan ships as fuel. The beam hits the plutonium, triggers a nuclear reaction by dissociating the atoms, which creates a cascade of nuclear explosion demolishing the Wall. The fun only begins, as the explosion exerts an intense pressure on the Wall, pushing it inward and compressing the gases found within the sphere. The gases exit the sphere by the other holes, tearing the Wall down in the process. We continue firing on masses of matter to add additional havoc to the mess. Inside, the gases compress, and apparently, reach ignition density, creating a new star. As you know, the ignition of a star is accompanied by a terrible explosion that pushes the outside envelope outward. Now, normally, this is without much consequence, but in this case, the detonation will pressure the gases to escape via the ship gates. Anything within the sphere of influence will be severely mauled, including the imperial Planet. The new star, according to the model, will be a very small brown dwarf, due to insufficient mass, but it is more than enough to put the imperial perimeter into severe shock."
"What happens to the government?"
"Anything on the surface will be destroyed. Underground survivability will depend on depth and geological stability, two factors we have no forward knowledge about."
"What about archives?"
"The same issue applies. Dad, you must understand that this solar system will go from a single red or brown dwarf system to a dual-star system comprising a slightly brighter dwarf star, and a brown dwarf star. Too many unknowns are involved beyond triggering the explosion to model with certainty the result. We do not even know how many Planets are held behind that Wall. Depending on what happens, we may destabilise the Planets completely."
"I wanted to find where our new allies came from..."
"I know Dad. That information may, or may not, be recoverable."
"Are there other things you can tell me?"
"Sensors report a massive amount of troop movement trying to get between us and the system. They stand no chance of intercepting us given they are forced to follow the dust paths while we are free to move as we wish. Also, behind the star, there is another fleet waiting between the core black holes and the Wall. I would not want to be in it when things go south! That is why I had the area leading to our target key cleared of all dust. They are unable to find a road to us. Samson had calculated there are over 2,000,000 ships in that area. Moving around must be like ants walking on a sugar cube."
"They will be caught between a suddenly expanding and exploding Wall and the black holes. Some will survive, but the vast majority will be sucked by the star eaters or crushed by the expanding Wall."
"Should we warn them?"
"They would not listen. Our allies tell us that this kind of fleet is commanded by one of the Princes, and these Princes have never backed down, whatever the circumstances."
"That reminds me of a species..."
"The Black Dragon..."
"Behaviours may be repeated even without parental links. After all, environments can be replicated thousands of times, creating conditions that give rise to similar behaviours."
"I feel sad for those under their command. It is as if they do not value their helpers."
"According to those we rescued, they do not. Only the empire matters."
"Sick, if you want my opinion."
"If we can capture more ships, Sitar, do it. I want a sample of the species represented here in this battle, in the hope of creating 'zoos' to reproduce them."
"Even the so-called Princes?"
"If they can be captured, why not?"
The Andromedan Emperor was in his Throne Room, walking back and forth nervously. It had been years since his position had been threatened, and the upcoming contester seemed to have a huge advantage over him. The reports were clear. Two forces were involved and his own forces had been taken by surprise, in a powerful pincer move. The simple fact that it was a pincer move reinforced his analysis that it had to be a Royal trying to overthrow him. Well, it was not done yet.
"How is the mobilisation progressing, Admiral?"
The Admiral of the Imperial Fleet was no fool. He knew better than to tell the Emperor that communications with local defences had all but stopped, and that mobilisation further into the Galaxy was spotty at best. If only he could figure out why communications were so bad, it would help figure out the issues.
"According to plans, your Highness."
If ever there was a lie, this was one. Yet the Admiral wondered why the Emperor had not taken notice of it. Maybe it was effectively time to replace the Emperor?
"Have you moved my immediate progeny?"
"Yes. They are now inside the fifth moon of the eight Planet, as you ordered. Their cistern is at level 12, and an entire fleet is above, shielding them from assault."
"And what about Our security?"
"Your safety cistern is ready. It is aboard the Carrier U-Chick, which is in orbit. A shuttle is awaiting for your boarding. The Imperial progeny cistern will be ported in the Carrier the moment we move."
"What is your idea of the events?"
The Admiral was a bit taken by surprise. Usually, the Emperor decided without counsel.
"I assume you mean how things will progress?"
"The first signs of imminent troubles would be the breach of the Wall. So far, nothing of the sort has occurred. The Wall may be like a sieve, but it does its work properly, by forcing an invader to enter via the holes. We have moved the fleets we have at our disposal to defend the biggest holes and smaller ships to patrol and destroy invaders trying to penetrate via the smaller ones. This is how this system was designed. The objective is to block the holes by using the invading ships as obstacles. The more they attack, the more holes clog. We need only wait for the arrival of the Galactic Fleet to clean up the outside and it will be the invaders that will be caught in a pincer movement. Again, that was the objective of the Wall."
The Admiral was not going to tell the Emperor that the vast majority of gates were closed to traffic because there was just no more fuel for engines! All highways had been wiped clean, an unheard of situation!
"And, Sire, no enemy ship has been seen yet, so we are relatively safe. However, communications keep deteriorating."
Let him ponder this, thought the Admiral.
"May I retire? I have yet to verify further preparations."
The Admiral left the Throne Room with a sense of intense relief. He had survived another tense encounter. He decided to move toward the left edge of the sphere, where the communications and roads were still functional. It made sense: First, if there was a spy for the Emperor in his Command, and he was sure there were quite a few, it would seem like the Admiral was interested in getting first-claw information. Second, if an escape route existed, it was by using a very small ship to pass the Wall and escape in the myriad of shipping lanes still working there. He would hop from ship to ship using a shuttle and try to stay on-board the shuttle as much as possible. Killing a single Pilot was a lot easier to do than disposing of an entire crew. Maybe he would be lucky and be on-board the shuttle when the attack came.
He moved to his cabin, and told the cabin servant he needed rest. It was not a false pretence, by far: if he had slept a click in the past 48, it was a miracle. Once alone, the Admiral locked his room and silently unscrewed a plate of his floor. Sliding it slowly so as to make no noise, he uncovered a second plating. Using a long beam that presented screws hidden inside recesses. Using a long beak and a magnetic head, he removed the eight screws, stored them in a canister, and used a magnet to lift the cover.
There appeared a recess in the beam that contained some 40 navigation maps detailing the Galaxy's evolution and the origin of each and every species found in slavery of the Andromedans. These maps were a gold mine for locating where his family was and where to find resources should the Empire fall. Further inside was a navigator-lock, the key to accessing the navigation system of a ship. This one was a global-lock, meaning it worked for any ship of the fleet.
Also found in the box was a personal weapon, used by the marines of the fleet when they landed. It was dismantled into its components, but the Admiral had learned how to assemble the weapon blindfolded and in record time. He had killed the marine himself during transport and disposed of the body in space, keeping the weapon. Always be prepared was his motto.
The Hell with that Emperor, he thought, the battle is lost already and he does not even know it. I am not going to stay and wait for him to become pissed and kill everyone in sight.
The entire kit was now secured between his breast plate and his body. He filled the empty volume with high explosives, making the entire cabin a death trap for anyone that might try to determine if something had been hidden there. He closed the hole, screwed the cover back in place, and set the pressure triggers in place. Then he replaced the flooring, screwed that in place as well, and rolled back the carpet. In all, one click. No one had come to knock at his door, which was fortunate. He hid his tool kit on himself in specially designed insets of the breast plate and lay down. All was ready. He could rest, the next few days would be difficult.
Sixteen clicks later, a gentle rapping at the door woke him up, and he acknowledged the knocking.
"The ship is now within sight of the western fleet, Admiral."
"Move into position between the Wall and the fleet. Ready my shuttle. I will examine the gate security."
I hate nosy political officers, thought the Admiral, as he checked in his mirror if the breast plate was properly affixed to his armour. After some minor adjustments, he left his cabin after a thorough visual inspection. He knew the political officer, more a religious fanatic than an Officer if he thought things out, would search his cabin the moment he left it. He booby-trapped his resting place: a trap was expected; more than one was not. Not leaving a trap would also seem suspicious.
"How many crew on the shuttle?" asked the Political Officer.
"The usual complement. After all, we are under threat of invasion, but not invaded yet. What is your planned route?"
"The needle and the thread. I will go out by a portal, and come back by another. I plan to circle the main gate. I will inform the gate keepers as I progress. If I see something wrong either on exit or on entry, I will halt the examination."
"Why do it yourself?"
"Because, so far, there is a relaxing of security norms that puts the entire Imperial City and the Empire at risk, and the Emperor is furious. Do you want to go face him? I can put a shuttle at your disposal if you think you can overrule the Emperor's concern with political considerations!"
The Admiral walked to the shuttle bay and looked at the collection of shuttles, watching the bleaching Political Officer. Some were too big, others too small for his overall project. The biggest problem was outsmarting the Political Officer and making the bastard select the shuttle he wanted for his escape plan. He needed one that had a minimal crew, but also a food synthesiser and an atmospheric recycler. Fuel was a secondary consideration as all ships were designed to use the environmental fuel. As the Admiral was considering his options, he began telling his thought processes, or so thought the Political Officer.
"The Star-Gazer series has advantages to do this, but I would only have space for myself and I want a pilot so I can spend the time writing the report to the Emperor, not piloting a ship. The Land-Cruiser class is too big: I am not trying to invade the portals, and I need to be able to go in and out all gates of importance. The Star-Gazer class had the advantage of allowing the exploration of all gates of minimal importance..."
The Political Officer did not notice that the Admiral missed the long-distance shuttle intentionally. For one, there was only one of them on-board, second, it was hidden near the exit gate; third, it had the capacity to travel way further than what was needed by the Admiral, with a top of the line communication system, food supply, a crew cabin that was limited to one, and a powerful shield. The Star-Runner class was rarely used, and that one had been collecting dust for years except for exercises to keep its crew of one on its toes.
As the Admiral moved amongst the ship, there was a shudder that threw everyone on the floor. Immediately, a klaxon was heard, revealing a breach of atmosphere in one of the segments of the ship. The Admiral moved to a telephone and connected with the Bridge.
"What is the problem?"
"Breach in an Officer's cabin, sir."
"Minor, sir. Reports are flowing in."
"Do I need to get to the Bridge?"
"No sir. However, do you know where the Political Officer is? There is a casualty in his section."
"He is with me. I am sending him to you."
"We will await his presence to investigate further."
"Do you know where the explosion occurred?"
"In an Officer's cabin, sir. However, we cannot tell which cabin is the origin of the explosion."
"Fine. Admiral out."
Turning to the Political Officer, the Admiral informed him of the exchange.
"Get to the Officers' cabins deck and undertake the investigation of the event. Inform me of all anomalies."
"And what will you do?"
"Continue as if nothing happened. We cannot afford to look nervous if we want the crew to perform."
"Acknowledged. I planned to accompany you during the portal examinations..."
"Thank you, but this investigation is more of your expertise and gating is more within mine. You can always suck my tail, but it would lead to disturbing feelings of inadequacy from the rest of the crew concerning its leadership. If we distribute the work amongst ourselves, the crew will believe we trust each other and be more likely to respond quickly in an emergency without trying to play us against each other. Your pick!"
I just hope the fool tries to open the beam! Open the beam! Open the beam! Oh please, thought the Admiral, do so and render a real service to all life forms! Opening the beam would detonate the charges hidden under the floor of his cabin, making the ship blow up.
"As you please."
"I do so."
The Political Officer moved away and left the shuttle bay to begin his investigation, much to the Admiral's relief. As soon as the dual air lock closed, the Admiral moved quickly to the Star-Runner and moved to the passenger resting quarters. Now, to wait for the single pilot to come on-board and leave the carrier to run its exercises. He had ordered daily exercises on the Star-Runner, with only a single pilot on-board until a passenger was aboard. Using the free time, he had a small shuttle needle its way through the smallest gates, as if the Admiral was on-board and doing inspections. Once the orders given, the Admiral 'disappeared' aboard the ship's cargo bay and began assembling his weapon. According to his watch, he had less than 0.2 clicks to do it and put in a suit. The cargo bay would be de-pressurised before leaving the mother ship.
The Admiral finished putting on the suit, and checked his seals. He moved to the air lock that separated the passenger side from the stock side, well aware that the Officer would check the passenger side before triggering the release from deck and the automatic vacuuming of the storage bin. Shortly, the Admiral heard the atmosphere begin its exit. He closed the door lock between himself and the storage bin, moved across the lock and opened the lock to the passenger side, which produced a gentle hiss. An instant later the cabin pressure was equalised and he moved to the passenger side before closing the lock and blocking it. He knew the pilot would be busy doing his checks before departure and would be too occupied to notice a minor variation in atmospheric pressure, since the lock to the outside was now sealed and any breach would trigger a major alarm. The Admiral moved to the crew quarter as silently as possible, removed his suit and stored it in one of the lockers. Now, to wait for the Navigator to take a nap on his bunk! The Admiral had fed a navigation plan that would force the Pilot to sleep at some point. It would be his final sleep.
Shortly, the ship got ejected into space and began moving toward the Wall, following its navigation plan and its avowed mandate: Map the outer reaches of the Wall and determine where weak spots were. According to plan, it would be some time before the Admiral would show his hand and dispose of a negligible quantity. There would be a sudden change of plans, transmitted by the Fleet Command in a narrow beam, and the Pilot would conform, escaping with the Admiral by the nearest gate. Once the ship was across the gate, the Admiral would dispose of the Pilot and take over, going into invisible mode, again in conformity with instructions received by the Pilot and the Admiralty. For now, patience. It needed a trigger, and that trigger would come from the first assault of the Wall. The Admiral estimated the interval was very short and the chances of his being missed or needed very thin.