Slowly, Harp brought down the Magic shield. Each reduction of one percent brought its load of training for Aurora.
"Why is it so hard?" asked Aurora, a few weeks after they had begun the training.
"As far as I know," replied Harp, "it is because we have to retrain everything, not only your empathy. You try to recover the other things you had too fast, and that gets in the way of training empathy."
"Some days, I just want to give up!"
"I know. Hey, it was not fun for me either. Landing in the middle of a lake during teleportation was not pleasant! Or dropping a rock on my foot during telekinesis! Luckily, it only weighed a pound! Now, focus! I should be the only one you feel the emotion of!"
"Is it boredom or frustration?"
Some hours later, Aurora managed to filter out the rest of the group, while keeping only Harp's feelings flowing in.
"I think I am beginning to understand things. Each emotion has a taste and each of you has a specific taste that is the combination of these individual tastes. The distance of a person is measured by the 'tint', with a far-away person almost white-washed. And I think the purer a 'colour' the more intense the emotion. It can be useful. Not only can I tell what is the dominant emotion of a person, but how far it is, and how intense the emotion is."
"Good. Since you are our only true Empath, Aurora, you have free reign in defining the environment you live in, and assigning terms to what you perceive. Using colour as a reference is valid, as long as it does not block you in exploring the empathic environment."
"There is one thing I would like Aurora to do."
"Can he project an emotion toward someone else? It might be a very powerful weapon."
"That is a good question. However, we need to complete the filtering training first, if only because it might have a backlash effect and I doubt getting 'shot' by your own 'gun' is an effective way to handle a weapon."
"Back to work, it seems," complained Aurora.
"Yes, see if you can jump from me to Sunset and back without too much trouble. It is good you can filter just about everyone, but you must be able to open a window to someone's emotions, taste it or see it, whatever, and then hop to another."
At first, the hop from one to the other tired Aurora considerably. Harp could not figure where the problem came from and could not help the young Prince deal with it.
"What is it you do to change from Sunset to me and back?"
"I do not know exactly. It is hard to put in words..."
"Do it slowly, and try to describe what you do."
Aurora focussed on Harp first.
"Now I feel you. You seem to be intensely curious. You are also tired, and hungry. And now, you added a flare-up of surprise. Now, I am detaching myself from you, cutting you off. I start with the most intense feeling, and I progress from there. I have cut off your emotions now... I am searching for Sunset. Since you are closer, Harp, I must actively ignore you because your emotions override the immediate environment. I found him... He is surprised. I grab to it and follow to his core. Now I have access to his entire repertoire."
"Okay, stay there. You mention a core. What is that?"
"Emotions seem to come from a specific bundle of nerves, located in the lower brain stem. For me, it is like I can taste-see it."
"You do need to focus on one sense to represent this. It either tastes or it is seen. Maybe that will help."
"Okay... I shall focus on the visual analogy. For now, his emotional focus is bluish with a slight flick of gold. I have come to associate blue with surprise, and gold with... anxiety."
Days passed very slowly for Aurora as he gained more and more control over his gift of Empathy. Three months passed before Aurora confronted another issue.
"Hey, Harp, I have a question for you."
"Do not be so cocksure, big Brother. Maybe you will not know the reason for this."
"Get on with it?" replied an irate Prince of Magic.
"Why is it all emotions I feel are from Mammals? I have tried to feel Empathy from Dragons, and it is only my Bonded that seems to register."
"Did you try shifting since you acquired your Bonded?"
"To a Dragon?"
"How many maps do you actually have?"
"Err... a dozen?" said the little Prince, cowering as he saw the thunder flash in the eyes of his big Brother.
"A dozen? A measly dozen? Why so few?"
"I have not been in contact with many species, Before gaining control, I ran away from just about any contact, and since I have begun training in Empathic control, I have been relatively isolated," mumbled Aurora.
Harp scratched his chin. He had to admit Aurora's justification held the road, so he had to accept it.
"Okay. Convert to a Dragon."
"Just do it, damn it!"
Aurora took his Red Dragon form and waited.
«Sense the nearest Dragon.»
After a few minutes, Aurora noted «It is Grandpa Gold, you know, the Father of Ian's Bonded, Typhoon. He is happy, he just devoured an Ox as an appetiser and is looking for a real meal.»
«Good. Keep the link and convert back to your base self.»
"Shit! I lost it the moment I converted back!"
"I think I understand the problem. Let us go visit the Bees. You have their map, if I remember right?"
"Port. I think you have enough control to leave this sheltered area without going comatose."
"Okay," replied Aurora, not so sure.
An instant later, both Princes materialised in one of the fruit groves, containing over six hundred varieties of apple trees from comestible to decorative. The trees were in different stages of bloom and the perfume was heady and intense. Bees flew around pollinating and collecting nectar to produce honey.
"Okay. Now, can you feel the emotions of the Bees?"
"They have emotions?" said Aurora,totally surprised.
"Oh yes! Kick one of their hives and see what happens!"
"No way! You had me stung by one so I could collect the genetic material, but there is a damn difference between that and getting assaulted by a hive!"
"Good sense prevails, finally. Okay, convert to a Bee. Just remember, we are not here to collect nectar or pollinate."
"Too bad it is full sunshine. I would have appreciated to do some nocturnal pollution!"
"Aurora! You are raw down there!"
"What can I say? I can not mate without feeling the emotions of others and it becomes overwhelming rather quickly! Why do you think I fire so quickly in the Nest?"
"Empathy for an explanation of premature ejaculation! I have heard everything!"
"Somehow, I doubt that."
"You are right, probably not. Bee?"
Aurora flicked to Bee form and began flying around Harp haphazardly.
«Can you feel the Bee?»
«Very little. Purpose, satisfaction, fear, that is about it.»
«Try to incorporate more than one Bee at a time. They are generally so attuned to each other they form a Gestalt hat create the Hive consciousness.»
Aurora gradually added more Bees belonging to the same Hive and began to feel the depth of emotions felt by the collective Conscience.
«I feel contentment, a need to... reproduce? And a feeling of diffuse danger and anger. It is not us, it is some Fire Ant colony close by that created this anxiety.»
«Can you see how this emotional Gestalt is built?»
«It is diffuse. Every Bee contributes, and a delicate balance of pheromones, neurotransmitters, and hormones come into play to create the Gestalt. No single Bee holds the key, or the feeling. It is built from a synthesis of all their feelings, with a constant flow of chemicals interacting to create the delicate balance.»
«If you were to transpose this to our Mammalian brain, how would it compare?»
«The pair of grey matter nucleus that control our emotions are also affected by the same things. We too have neurotransmitters, in fact they are the same. We also have hormones and pheromones that drive our emotional state.»
«While we are doing this, Aurora, maybe you can answer a question for me.»
«Now look who is cocksure!»
«What can I say? Maybe it is contagious!»
«Try to assess where the rest of your brain is. It is something that has been bugging me since we could shift shape. Where does our brain go? And, for that matter, our body mass? We know our brain can never fit in a Bee, much less our body mass...»
«Wow, big Brother, you do have tough questions! Are you aware you are asking a Bug to answer a bugging question?»
«Hey, you do not have the monopoly on tough questions, smart arse! Now, how about trying to explain what you think of the problem?»
«To be honest, I never gave thought to the issue. Off the cuff, this is what I think happens. Remember when you said that we are energy that flows from one form to another like water flows from one container to the next? What if our form were windows into a much vaster pool of energy? By changing shape, we show part of ourselves, of our true nature, in a crystallised form, be it Dragon or Bee. Our brain is only partially materialised, whatever form we take. This would also explain why we maintain our identity and consciousness in whatever form we take. Bees must have a similar structure because Hives maintain their identity wherever the individual Bees are. Now, if this is correct, by teaching the Hive how to merge into its magical core, like we do, it might be able to gain access to a vaster reservoir of resources and change shape, to the point of becoming fully part of Atlantis, something they have been aspiring for years.»
Harp looked at Aurora, bug-eyed. If the Prince had been in Human form, he would have probably laughed at the face his big Brother was making. After waiting some more, Aurora continued.
«That is what I think of it so far, Harp. I need to think on it more in depth.»
«You! You played dumb all those years! You just solved a problem I have been trying to tackle for years! You are hereby assigned to Biology team Alpha, headed by Enron and Colibri. And I shall not tolerate any arguments!»
«But I have to return to the Andromedan contact!»
«I know. One does not exclude the other. For now, Brother, since we are here, you will do massive genetic collecting. I want you to collect from every damn Insect species in this ecosystem!»
«Only the Insects?»
«For a start! Then I shall bring you to the Zoo and you will collect everything there is. No longer will it be acceptable to surf through life. Is that clear?»
Aurora mentally showed Harp a finger, making it clear he was not impressed one bit by the speech.
"Bashar, what are we waiting for? I do not like being on hold!"
"Engineer, these people seem to believe it would be unsafe for us to leave our ship, and I agree with them. We never did go on to planetary surfaces in our many wars under the guidance of the Mages of Andromeda, did we? Has it ever occurred to you that the reason is because, for all their bloody knowledge about war, our old Masters knew next to nothing about medicine? They could not care less, but one thing they did notice and learn is that dumping their slaves into a strange ecosystem was a sure-fire way to lose both the Planetand their slaves. What these people are doing is protecting us from their system and protecting their system from us."
"Anyway, their guy, what is his name, Colibri? He said it would take a few days to develop a vaccine for us and construct the proper delivery medium. I just wonder what a day is."
"Bashar, from context, I believe it is a measure of time," replied the Science Officer. "Now, as for how long a day is, I have no idea. Another issue is where is their Ambassador? I thought he was to stay with us?"
"I believe they are also studying our ship's microbial life so their Ambassador can survive in it safely. Therefore he must be vaccinated as well."
"Why bother, Bashar? They only need to dispense with the ship, or sterilise it from top to bottom, and they would not need vaccines."
"Sometimes, Provisioner, their behaviour mystifies me even more than the actions of our old Masters."
"Occasionally, when I look outside, I feel like I am living in a scaled-down museum piece. Do not misunderstand me: I know this technology is as ancient as the Masters, and, as such, is a museum piece, but it is the first time I feel like I am on a shelf, being watched by some gigantic life form."
"You are not the only one, Engineer. We see thousands of space ships that seem to float in space without moving relative to each other, as if they were sitting on a glass pane. At any time, I expect to see a huge duster pass nearby removing the dust from the shelves, or even worse, a giant pincer lift the ship to dust under it!"
"If this happened, Navigator, I doubt my sanity would survive."
"Neither would mine, Medical Officer."
"Hey, Ian, can I ask you a question?"
"As long as it is not about flowers and Bees, Dad...?"
"Do not give me cheek, I can still spank you, you know."
"Oh, fancy trying?"
"Get a room, you two, this is the Bridge, not a Dungeon."
"Mom, you are no fun."
"Anyway, Ian, why are we going so slowly?"
"We are waiting on something, Dad. And you certainly noticed we are collecting Orichalque by the giga-tonne every minute that passes by. It is increasing exponentially."
"That is to be expected, given our size."
"There is that, but there is more. The density is increasing as we progress. There are consequences."
"Consequences? Which consequences?"
"First, the radius of Thebes is getting bigger, a lot bigger. We are currently adding a mile to it per hour. That means we have our structural teams busy expanding within Thebes and adding more levels. Just about every team is busy, in eight hour shifts. We add a new level every hour, but it is not sufficient to maintain the outer crust of Thebes at a constant thickness, and by far. I have Engineers adding more firepower, more engines, more of everything I can think of. I have asked Colibri to design a reach for the Dolphins, a shallow ocean that covers sixteen times the area of the combined oceans on the old Earth, for their exclusive use, with zero compression. And that barely shows at that level. The rest is unoccupied. Why consume energy to sustain a compressed environment when we can go without?"
"I see, I think."
"There is another point. The dust that envelops us is so dense it troubles sensors, and we get reports from our Scouts that things are far from improving as we go forth. In fact, it gets so bad I have shortened the Scout rotation to six hours. Past that, their reinsertion within their berths is compromised by the amount of dust that sticks to their outer shell."
"But these shells are made of Orichalque. Nothing should stick to them!"
"Except for one thing, Dad, Orichalque. That dust is almost pure Orichalque, salted with Adamentium and Mithril along with an occasional bonded Ianium atom."
"You seem scared, Ian. Why is that?"
"Do you know the current diameter of Thebes?"
"We entered this Andromeda with a diameter of 862,231 miles; we gradually have been adding mile after mile to the diameter, and we are now at 902,822 miles, adding 24 miles per day. We were about the size of a small yellow dwarf, close to the size of the Earth's Sun. At this rate, when we are done, we may well reach the size of Alpha Centurie shortly!"
"So? Do you have any idea of the size of that star? It has a diameter of 1,034,400 miles!"
"That will not happen tomorrow, so why worry?"
"Dad, did you take lessons from politicians of old, that waited until shit hit the fan before dealing with problems?"
"On the contrary, Son, I do not believe I can solve everything myself. I trust you and your gang to face things. I am sure you have looked at the consequences. Again, giving that the rate increases, what are you expecting?"
"To be honest, the Scouts showed that the density of the dust is getting such we may have to slow down our progress even more. This, in turn, gives more time for the dust to collect on Thebes, because we attract it selectively. The slower we move, the faster it collects for a given density of dust. And, as I told you at the beginning, the density is increasing. We will reach that landmark in three weeks at most, probably sooner, according to AI-2."
"How far are we from your target?"
"Six months away, at our current speed."
"Some of our furthest sensors just reported the passage of numerous ships headed ahead of us. The count is at several thousands and rising."
"Are they on intercept?"
"No. They seem to keep away from us, and from your objective."
"Ignore them, but keep track of their displacement."
"I think they plan to ambush us when we emerge from the dust cloud."
"Okay. Take this in consideration for strategic purposes."
"Also, they seem to use the Orichalque dust as power source."
"Like the ship we recovered?"
"Visit our guests, and ask questions. They might have information we did not ask for."
"Okay. Timor? Take my place. Where is Harp?"
"Dealing with Aurora. Sunrise and Sunset are off collecting more genes."
"Colibri to Bridge."
"Yes, Colibri," replied Harold, curious as to why telepathy was not used.
"I finally managed to figure out the immune system of our guests. It has been purposefully damaged. If they ever landed on a Planetor contacted any space-faring species, they would die. It is rife with traps of all sorts. We need to rebuild it from scrap. Is Harp available for direct port from their ship to a stasis chamber in view of reconstructing said immune system?"
"I can ask. He is not on the Bridge."
"We need Aurora as well."
"That Boy will be glad to be of need, I think."
"I know. Please ask Harp to report to Alpha Lab, with Aurora."
"It is done."
Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand kept eyeing reports from his Scouts. They had kept losing some ships as they progressed toward the galactic core, but then, suddenly, it stopped. What could explain this? Unable to figure out the reason, he paid his Admiral a surprise visit to his cabin. That was unheard of! Usually, the Mage summoned, but never left his station.
"Have you seen the latest reports on our losses?" he began without even a hello.
"Yes. We seem to have caught up with the invader."
"Why do you say that? I do not understand."
"As it progresses, it sucks off Magic, depriving us of our resources in the area. Each time one of our ships drifts too close to the course followed by the invader, the engines stall. Now, it seems this phase is over. It can only mean we are at their level and passing them."
"Should we close on them, then?"
"No. We are not numerous enough to do a pincher move. I would prefer an ambush, with our resources laying in wait, somewhere where they do not expect us. Direct confrontation of a fleet this size is suicidal. We need to push them against the star eater. It is invisible because it has nothing to gobble."
The Mage had to admit he was outclassed by his Admiral, and that he was not surprised, if he gave it some thought. The Admiral had been remarkably efficient in dealing with the repeated catastrophes that had beset his fleet constantly so far.
"A further warning, your Highness: we may have stopped losing ships, but reports continue to indicate that the places you pinpointed have been ravaged, well ahead of our position. It indicates, so far as I understand this, that the enemy fleet is much bigger than what we anticipated. After all, we are confronted with a genocide of unheard magnitude, and yet we have to even detect a single one of their Scout ships. These ships must be extremely numerous, powerful, fast, and stealthy. They come in, destroy everything right under the nose of the Guard Fleets, and disappear out without a trace. I have been interviewing the Admirals of these fleets, and they are unanimous: the only sign of trouble was when their charge blew up, and they never saw anything coming in or going out. I am trying to find a way to detect their passage through space, but so far, the Engineers, which comprise the best the Fleets have to offer, have come out blank."
"Is that all?"
"No. Has it ever occurred to you that they seem to know exactly where everything is? They hit us with total impunity. They know where our fleets are, they know where lies whatever they are guarding, they know of our strengths and weaknesses like they could read our plans. Either they have an extensive spy network of which we are totally unaware, or we got traitors, and not just one or two, but a complete network. I just wish I knew what they were hitting."
"The nests. When you said genocide, you were very right. These areas are the cisterns where the Mages lay their eggs and they are left to mature until such time they are called upon to take the place of their Elders."
The Admiral was shocked. He had suspected as much, but for some reason, he held back on acting on his suspicions and mentioning them to the Mage.
"Why are you telling me this, your Highness? Have I become expandable already?"
"You always were, but that is not why I am telling you. It is so you understand why this has become critical for the Empire. We used to count on secrecy to protect ourselves. It is now past that time. As your value increases with each contribution, your disposal becomes both more tempting and more costly."
That comment confirmed the Admiral's view of his importance for the Mage, in short, as long as he was useful, he would survive.
"Aurora, how is the Insect collecting going?" asked Harp after a quick visit to the College of Magic to supervise yet another exam.
"I feel like a flea-bitten varmint. Does that clarify my view on the issue?"
"That is not the question I asked."
"I have 3,000,000 species scanned and integrated into my genetic maps, excluding Arachnids and Centipedes. I hope you are happy. I focussed on species that build nests, such as Bees, Wasps, Ants, and others this morning, and I have spent the rest of the day capturing just about anything else. I figured we needed to understand Insect collective minds in order to make them part of our Empire."
"That is fine. You get to bed, and tomorrow, report to the Andromedans. We are ready for the inoculation, but there is a catch."
"They have no immune system worth mentioning."
"That means direct transfer from their ship to a Pod, right? Do you think you can manage it?"
"Yes to both questions. Now, get lost. Tomorrow will be a long and hard day for everyone."
"Has the ship returned to its original speed?"
"No. We are slowing down even more due to the density of the Orichalque cloud. It would not do to have a mass collecting in one spot, so Alexander is having the ship move very slowly while spinning on itself at a very high speed. He showed me what it looks like. We are being painted by Orichalque at an increasing rate, adding thickness equally all over the sphere."
"How long before we reach our goal?"
"According to Ian, somewhere around six months. It seems we will be slowing down even more as we get nearer."
"I just hope we shall not be sitting Ducks."
"Do not worry. If Ducks had guns, Hunters would stay home."
"Mom is looking out and saying if she sees one of us come in without brushing our feet on the carpet, she will force us to vacuum. She told me that after I visited the Andromedan Scout Ship."
"That is ridiculous. We are aboard a space ship! And we only go out in space suits!"
"Maybe Mom is trying to tell us it is getting dusty in here?"
"Why not say it without all the drama? Women!"
"Harp, Prince of Magic or not, if she hears you say that, you will have problems sitting for a week!"
"She has been trying to catch me for fifty years or more and she never did."
"There is always a first time. Anyway, it is getting dusty! Who is handling cleanup this cycle?"
"The Argos. And you are right, it is getting dusty. I think they have a different definition of cleanliness. Water is so rare on that Planet it was considered the beverage of the Gods. Given their Planet was mostly desert, and dust was omnipresent, they probably feel like they are doing a good job. I, for one, do not want to wear breathing masks in Thebes. Get to bed, Aurora, I shall talk to Paschal about the issue."
"You should not have reminded me of that. I always wondered what they drank..."
"You do not want to know. BRR! But Thorsten's brilliant idea of bringing them to the Great Lake at the core of Thebes broke that religion for good. They fainted! What a show!"
"I remember watching the video. That High Priestess lost all colours, even before falling in the lake! That made quite a splash! I laughed so hard I fell off my chair. And when the Dolphin picked her up and threw her back on the beach, the other priests tried to climb up the bulwark wall! It is a miracle they did not stampede each other to death to escape the 'evil of the Great Divide'. Has anyone found a way to make them shower or take a bath?"
"Paschal has decided to use the fire extinguishers. However hard they try to escape a morning soak, they get it. At 50 pounds per square inch, no area stays dirty for long. Given they have no clothes, no possessions, and only oral traditions, it works fine. Their quarters are Spartan, to say the least. Some tried to escape the morning ablutions by hiding in the hallways between their individual abodes, but they learned quickly the pressure in the halls' water system is twice the one found in individual rooms. The Dwarves did a good job of tiling the area from ceiling to floor and putting central drains. Eventually, things will normalise... I hope. The Adults are stubborn, but the Children seem to appreciate playing in the water during the shower."
"What was that Priestess covered with for everything to vanish after a dunking?"
"All these markings were chalk lines. Each colour represented one attribute. She had her acolytes redo the drawing every morning."
"Ah, so that is why the water became like a rainbow before turning muddy. I was wondering... Something just does not add up in that planet's history."
"Think on it while you sleep, Aurora. I have to visit Paschal. That amount of dust is unacceptable."
"Yes, we really do not need electrical shorts."
"Paschal? What are you working on?"
"Hey, Harp. Have a look!"
There, on the floor of the laboratory, was a strange contraption that used wheels to move. At one end was an extensible hose, and at the other end a bag. Between the two ends was a water container that was spinning at high speed, rather noisily at that, and an air pump.
"What the Hell is that?"
"A prototype vacuum cleaner. Mom has been bitching about the dust everywhere, and I admit, after a bout of coughing, that she has a point. So I decided to get that thing built."
"I thought we had all the plans from the Ancients at our disposal? Why build a prototype?"
"For two reasons: the Ancients' vacuum cleaners used air dust filters and, after building one from their best model, I noticed it clogged quickly and then it became less effective."
"It did not give good blow jobs?"
"Harp! Grow up!"
"Why? Just your red face was worth it!"
"Whatever! No, the filter clogged and stopped filtering. The electrical motor then began overheating. After the model caught fire, I decided it was unsafe. So I considered other means of filtering the dust, and here we are: a water filter. It uses water to capture the dust from the air flow, and centrifugal forces to separate it from the water and drop it in the bag."
"That is one reason. What is the other reason?"
"I also read articles about the use of these machines. The Ancients complained to their manufacturers about back pains pushing the hose repeatedly on the floor, walls, and ceilings. After giving it a try, I had to admit this complaint was amply justified. So I put in a computer in this machine. It has sensors that tell it where it is, if there is an obstacle, and what area it has sucked up. It also has a polishing brush system that allows it to keep cracks clean. The hose itself is mobile and slowly covers an entire area from ceiling to floor, without missing a single area."
"It is damn noisy."
"Yes. I have been refining the water filter-centrifuge so the entire process becomes a sort of whine rather than the clunky thing you are hearing now. Once the noise level drops below 10 decibels, I shall add a sound neutraliser and we shall be in business."
"How long before it is done?"
"The new centrifuge is done. I just need to install it. Give me a hand! Unscrew the old one while I finish installing the fittings on the new one. We should have a test ready in ten minutes. I designed this so everything was modular."
As Harp stopped the machine, he let out a breath of respite.
"Yes, it does grow on your nerves..."
"What do you mean, modular?"
"Well, for instance, the bag eventually gets full. Once the bag is full, a detector is triggered and the machine moves to the as yet to be designed and assembled service station, where the full bag is unclipped and replaced by and empty one. At 250 pounds per bag, it will be vacuuming for months before reporting to the service station."
"What about the water?"
"That is simple. It is always the same water. But since the dust will evidently be wet, water will be added using a service hose, that red one. It is long enough to reach a ceiling fire extinguishers and lock into the outlet. As you know, all fire extinguishers have a pressure point to verify their functionality individually. That pressure point gets depressed until the water container that supplies the centrifuge is full. And as a bonus, each time one of these machines does that, the fire extinguisher is automatically tested for water pressure and the result is logged. I did several dozen tests in the carpentry laboratory, where wood dust is omnipresent. It worked fine."
"And what about positioning?"
"The machine builds a map of its working area as it works. Once it has reached its capacity, it moves back to its starting point and begins anew. Each machine has a very small memory, so it maps about a cubic mile. To clean up Thebes will require millions of these little beauties."
"Beauties?" asked a dubious Harp as he eyed the ugly assembly. "It is true that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, but I think you need new glasses. If you have only one service centre, there will be a processions of these machines in the hallways."
"I figured as much. So each service station can serve only 100 machines. Each machine gets completely rechecked and components get replaced as needed. Each machine uses the ambient Magic as power source, as seen by this inductor-capacitor visible in the underbelly. It is very efficient."
"Where do you plan to put them to use first?"
"I had thought in the Imperial Suite, given Mom's obsession with dust..."
"No way! Can you imagine that machine gobbling Dad's Seal off his desk?"
"I forgot to tell you there is a pre-filter at the mouth of the hose that allows only small particles in. But you are right, so I decided to give it the run of the Argos' area. They have nothing, and therefore there is nothing but dust to suck up."
"And mud. Did you visit that place since you have put the Argos – wash cycle in place? Yes they wash up, but they do not clean up their own nests. Birds are cleaner!"
"Then it is good this thing has a high-speed rotary brush. It will bring things back to a sparkling shine, whatever the wishes of our resident Mud Devils."
"I want to see that. I noticed the floor is so covered with detritus there are some areas that seem to be growing plants! I just wondered who was the idiot that put them in charge of general maintenance during this cycle?"
"Someone that did not bother reading the reports on them we did before doing the intergalactic jumps. I will also check the draining system. If it is as bad as you say, the drains may be in need of cleansing."
"Oh, they are! I could not find them! The dirt is too thick."
"Let us test this new centrifuge. If it works within parameters, I have a waiting production chain for these things."
The centrifuge hummed almost silently and the machine quickly sucked up the last shards of polymer that had been laying on the floor after the final adjustments. Paschal added the cover and the machine became totally silent.
"We are in business. Let us go visit the Argos. They occupy a cubic mile so one machine will suffice for their needs. While it works cleaning up their Pigsty, I shall assemble the components for the first service station and render it functional. By the time the bag is full, it should be ready for use."
"In your dreams, Paschal. Given the condition of these rooms, it will need service in half an hour!"
"Surely, it can not be that bad?"
"Yes it is. You know, I think we need a team of Mages to clean up this area, one that is good at vanishing stuff to the recycle bin. While you get there by conventional means, let me pop to the 22nd College of Magic Campus and collect a class of students learning vanishing charms. Practice makes perfect! And it will be a good introduction to Exobiology. Sensitive stomach, abstain! The smell in these rooms gets to you pretty quickly."
"Why is it that they were not put through re-education?"
"I wonder. I shall have to enquire with Enron. He is on the Bridge today at Communications."
"Do that, Harp, after your visit to the College to pick up trainees. All I remember is the Argos were one of the last species we collected before the Jump."
"Enron, before I go pick up some trainees for practical Magical exercises, I need to know if you brought the Argos to re-education after we picked them up?"
"Why ask me? Ask the Hospital AI. I have long lost trace of my old agenda, Harp."
"You have a point. Bridge to General Hospital AI. Access historical logs. Verify if the Argos species underwent re-education. Report STAT."
After five minutes, the reply came in on the Bridge speaker. The General Hospital's AI spoke with an icy voice that sent shivers down everyone's spine.
"General Hospital to Bridge. No trace of their population ever undergoing re-education has been recorded."
"How many are currently within your limits?"
"Right now they stand at 22, but it will drop to 20 after the last patients gets released later today."
"Withhold the patients and begin re-education protocol Delta-nine-zero. Notify every Argos family unit of the need to report to your location for an update on their medical files. Once in stasis, proceed with re-education protocol Delta-nine-zero. No exception shall be allowed. You have two hours to initiate protocol. Override Harp-Alpha-four-four-two."
"Override Harp-Alpha-four-four-two recognised. Argos currently in their rooms are being teleported directly into stasis and protocol Delta-nine-zero is being applied. Those on work are told to report to my location. At current, sixty-six percent of Argos Adults are undergoing protocol, and 100 % of Minors are undergoing said protocol."
Sitar looked from his station at Harp with some surprise.
"What brought this arm-twisting?"
"I happened to visit their quarters, that is what. Aurora mentioned something before going to bed and I decided to verify by myself. It was far worse than his report. By the way, find out who is the incompetent goof that assigned them to ship maintenance so I can twist some balls off!"
"AI-six, when you roll the red carpet out, it is generally to give me some bad news. Get on with it!"
"Fine, you prick! You put them on that roll some ten years ago, and it was their turn." Each species takes its turn to handle these tasks. You said yourself and I paraphrase here: 'No species is above getting dirty, no species is better than the other, no species is be above grunt work, or it is above living in Thebes.' All that just before putting out the roll on the call board. Now, so as to be as helpful as I always am, you will find on your desk a pair of hair tweezers to handle your sunflower-sized balls."
Harp became redder than a tomato, as everyone on the Bridge exploded in laughter. Just then, Paschal contacted the Bridge.
"Hey, what is Harp doing? He is supposed to be here with a bunch of Mages in training and I have yet to see a single one of those lazy gits! Tell him to stop playing with himself and get moving! And where are all the Argos? I just hope they are not off dirtying another part of my space-ship or there will be hell to pay!"
"Enron from the Bridge, Paschal. Harp is getting his balls twisted..."
Enron vanished into the central lake in a boom, as Harp was too furious to bother doing the dual-exchange transfer.
"And Enron is swimming with the Dolphins in the lake, the jerk!" thundered Harp from across the Bridge.
"I do not want to know who tickled your balls with a Porcupine quill, little Brother, I want you here on the double! I am practising in-situ levitation not to sink in the shit so get moving!"
"Should he not be coming," asked Sitar, in an ironic voice, "since, according to Enron, he is playing with himself?"
By then Harp was turning purple.
"Harp, go burn some rage on the shit. You might consider going there first to cool down. After all, the trainees are not responsible for the situation," said Harold from the Imperial chair. Harp left the Bridge in a shower of magical sparks.
"He is too stressed," said Annabelle, standing behind her Husband. "He needs to have some tension release."
"I agree Mom, but he is anxious about the confrontation with the Andromedan Mages. For some reason, he is insecure."
"I would be at less," added Sitar. "It is the first time ever we meet a species that is a match for our Magic."
"Tonight, get him laid. That is an order, Boys."
"Yes, Dad." replied those on the Bridge.
"We will have our work cut out for us in bed. The Magic spikes in the Argos sector are phenomenal. He is not cleaning up the area. He is disintegrating and materialising replacements as he goes through their living quarters. Thorsten, you better swim in lubricant if this is any indication!"
"I know, Enron. So shall we all. I have been contacting all our Brothers for that evening and rescheduling their duties. I have explained the situation to everyone involved and he will burn that anxiety, by whatever means necessary."
"Where are they?" asked Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand for the nth time.
Consulting the cut communications link list, the Admiral replied placidly to the enquiry.
"They have slowed down, your Highness. At the current speed, they will hit the Imperial Veil in half an orbit of the Imperial Planet."
"I wish I knew why. This is getting on my nerves."
"I wish I knew too, your Highness. The number of communications nuclei getting destroyed is increasing exponentially, which might explain their decreased speed. But this is only a supposition. After all, they must have limited resources, and I am currently trying to estimate these resources from the reduction of speed we observe. Do you have a measure of the density gradient in communication nexuses around the Imperial System, your Highness?"
"Unfortunately, that information is confidential and I do not rank high enough in the Imperial family to access that data."
"We also noticed the number of Imperial fleets joining us is decreasing, which means the number of destroyed nests must be decreasing as well."
"That would make sense. The number of Imperials of the Throne must be limited, given our means of transferring power. The current Emperor must keep his potential competition to a minimum."
"I do not really understand..."
"Simple, really: we climb the hierarchy by in-fighting. The closer to the Throne we get, the more powerful we are. Right now, the Invaders are undermining this well-oiled structure and opening a big hole to the Imperial Throne, a hole I intend to use to climb on it. My calculation is that, by the end of this fight, the Emperor will be so weakened or dead to offer much resistance, and so will the Invaders. I shall collect the spoils. The Imperial Fleet is aware of this fact, if only by the implicit rules of engagement in these conflicts. They can oppose my progress when they lie between me and the Throne, but they must pay obedience to me once they are behind and that I have vanquished the other Imperials. The fact that the nests are destroyed by an external Invader never came into consideration, and they are now bound to me by that vow of fealty. Who am I to complain if the Imperial Rules help me out? Add to this the fact that the current Emperor was, rightfully, paranoid about having powerful Mages near his soon to be carcass, and we are seeing what the result is."
The Admiral kept for himself his considerations. That Imperial was, by all accounts, magically weak, and even if he won that gambit, he would not stay on the Throne very long, if ever he did sit his exoskeleton on it. Had he eaten his way through the different rings of competition to the Throne, it would have been a different matter, since he would have accumulated both experience and Magical energy. But this was a coup, not the classic method of handling over power. He remembered the history of his own people: those that gained power by overthrowing the legal government never lasted long because they were ill-prepared to manage what they inherited.
"Your Highness, may I retire? I need to sleep, I have been awake for eight consecutive shifts, and I doubt anything extraordinary will arise while I recover some semblance of thinking process."
The Mage dismissed his Admiral with a move of his left pincer. He too had some thinking to do.
Deep within the dark cloud where the Imperial Planet was orbiting its Red Dwarf, a process was triggered by the destruction of the outer communications nodes. The Emperor was slowly brought out of stasis, and his guards reactivated. The First amongst Equals, the best of the best of the Imperial Fleet, slowly emerged from hibernation in total darkness. The Emperor was fed prisoners of the last Imperial battle for the Throne, some of which were his own Children, so he could regain magical energy without an all-out battle in the cistern.
Once it emerged from stasis and left the cistern, the Emperor moved to the control room of the Empire and began assessing the situation from the limited information it could collect from the disintegrating communication network. At first, nothing attracted its attention as it studied the data, until it noticed an entire section of the Galaxy in the dark. That was not enough to warrant being woken up from stasis, since it had happened before without much consequence. It was the discovery that all outer cisterns were destroyed in the sector that began unnerving the Emperor. For this to have happened so quickly meant there was a very powerful Mage intent on taking his hard-won seat on the Throne. That would not go without a fight.
The Emperor's next move was to look at the location of the First, Second, and Imperial Fleets. The total disappearance of the First Fleet in the sector took it by surprise, and the rather thin Second Fleet shocked him even more. Then the amount of Imperial fleets following the would-be regicide nailed his impression this was indeed a coup in progress. Only an Imperial could muster the Imperial fleets into action. Apparently, the contender had cleansed the slave fleets, probably because they opposed his progress.
Something bothered the Emperor through. The Second Fleet should have had a wide variety of ship sizes, and all he could read were Scouts. Where were the Troop Carriers, the Fighters, the big Cargo Ships, including the Planet Busters? If the would-be Emperor thought it could win with Scouts, it was severely mistaken.
Yet... There was those anomalies between the Star-eater and the Imperial Planet, but they could be anything from left-over star systems to gamma-ray bursts as the star-eater digested its last meal. Or could they be ships? If so, that would mean the regicide planned a pincer movement to nail the Emperor's fleet between the big ships and the Imperial Fleets it had collected on its way to the Imperial system.
The Emperor decided to call in some fleets from the other sectors while he still had contact with them by means of the Imperial network. Also, a Scout ship was dispatched at the edge of the cloud toward the star-eater to assess the situation and report. The Emperor hoped to get numbers and class types from this foray, but even if the Scout never came back, it would have information: a missing Scout would simply confirm a pincer move.
The dispatch left the Imperial Planet just in time. Thebes collided with the relay barely minutes after the message left the Imperial communication clusters to spread into the galaxy. The Emperor noticed the destruction of the node almost immediately and knew there could not be any acknowledgement coming from the Andromedan fleets to his call to action.
While the Emperor waited on the galactic fleets to converge and respond to his call, it began planning the defence of the Imperial Planet and star system. The first order was to insure the Imperial Fleet was fully operational, and that all ships were in top shape and located in strategic locations. Defending a star system from a pincer move was a difficult task at best of times, and the Emperor knew it had very little time to prepare.
The first order of the day was dispatching Scouts at the edge of the cloud to monitor the action of the upstart. Then the big ships were dispersed around the system, hiding in gravity wells to render their detection more difficult. The objective was simple: Let the big ships think it had a free reign to travel in the system to the Imperial Planet and attack from behind once they had passed the orbits of the big gas giants where the Emperor planned to hide his huge ships.
The next objective was the construction of more ships, including a very fast ship that the Emperor planned to live in so it could be used as a sophisticated escape pod. He had no intention of being a meal, and if the situation arose, he would leave with his last brood and come back at a later date to take back what it considered its own by right of conquest. This had never been done before, but the Emperor was not new to unorthodox tactics. They had served well during the ascension. They would serve well during an escape and a reconquest!
The issue with new ships was the severe lack of crew members, until the Emperor remembered that each ship had on the ice six full crews. It could field six times more ships than the current numbers present in the system with complete crews. That last issue solved, the Emperor freed the machines to eat their way through the impressive amount of rocks and detritus that occupied the star system to build the required ships. Even planetary masses were drilled in, their crust reduced to hollowed out shadows of their former glory. The impact on the planetary orbit was marked: as each Planet lost mass to space ships, it gradually moved away from the star, as the red dwarf lost its grip on the planet. The Emperor did not give a damn. After all, once the Imperial Cisterns had been evacuated and their contents moved to ships, thePlanets themselves lost any value proper. The only exception was the Imperial Planet, whom was left intact. It would not do to make it more accessible to the enemy.
On Thebes, Ian recalled the last FSS and Scouts. Their use in this pea soup was proving more problematic than useful. Alexander had the Atlantean space ship rotating at 1,000 rotations per minute, and the shearing force applied on the dust made the ship shimmer in the darkness.
"We are visible, Alexander."
"Tell me something I do not know, Ian."
"We have no choice in this, Ian," intervened Enron. "The density of the cloud is such that if we do not rotate this quickly, we shall get unbalanced and that would make Thebes hard to manoeuvre around."
"Furthermore, the dust cloud now presents clumps of increasing mass. We must shear these clumps and the rotation of Thebes does this very effectively", said Paschal, as he walked in on the Bridge. "Mom, you will be happy to notice that the dust in the vicinity of the Imperial Suite is dropping. I designed a vacuum cleaner that does the job on its own. We no longer need to count on the Argos for clean-up during this shift."
"If a god existed, I would thank him!" replied Annabelle.
"Why, thank you mom!" Paschal said cheekily.
"Where is Harp? I was expecting him with you?" asked Harold.
"He is venting some frustrations. The Argos will have completely new and redesigned living quarters. From what I have seen, it will have a lot more than the daily dousing of water to clean it up. Drop something on the floor, and if you do not pick it up in the next five minutes, it gets disintegrated. Throw something on the wall, and five minutes later it gets vapourised. The only exception to the floor rule is living matter, so Children can play and lie down safely on the floor for a nap. Adults too, for that matter. The Argos have no beds and just collapse where they stand and fall into a coma for 28 hours. Their circadian clock is very difficult to adjust to Thebes' 24 hour one. I paid a visit to the General Hospital. The reprogramming is going on schedule and they should be out in six days, completely reprogrammed."
"Recreated, you mean?" asked a sneering Sitar.
"Stop it with your biblical references, Brother. We got rid of that Soul-Eater crap and it is not so you could keep reminding us of it!"
"Look who is talking! A god player!"
"Are you sure you do not need to get laid too?" Samson asked from the Navigation Desk.
"Who does not. I just hope Harp tires himself out with all the Magic he is expanding, but somehow, I doubt it. He seems to be a bottomless sea of the Magical fluid."
"Since he discovered he could drain Magic from the environment directly, it is very unlikely that he will run out of it. His only limit is the width of his channels, but the more he exercises, like now, the wider and the more numerous they become," noted Ian. "He is definitely the next to reach the Omega stage, but you guys are not far from it either."