The Atlantean ship had slowed to a rather sedate pace, barely above Warp three. The density of star dust around the ship made navigation difficult, as few stars shone bright enough to be visible for the fixed point done periodically by the Navigator.
"I wonder why Ian took us in this pea soup. It is a dangerous place with a considerable amount of dust and junk flying around. We have collided with enough matter to set the area on fire!" wondered Samson as he eyed the map being slowly built by the gravitational wave sensors.
"Some days, I feel like I am blind to his reasoning, my friend. I have no more knowledge of the reasons for his choices than you do."
"Are you aware we have added another mile of Orichalque to our outer crust? If it continues, this ship will be a Mastodon," Annabelle stated as she eyed the Science Station report.
"And it is not already?" smirked Harold.
"Anyway, we seem to be headed for that dark mass that blacks out everything. The only indication there is something ahead is the infrared sensor array."
"How far is it?" asked Timor, from the Captain's seat.
"That is difficult to assess. There is a lot of interference and rebounds in the signals. The dust acts like a dispersant."
"No gamma signatures, Queen Annabelle?"
"No, but a strong infrared one. I would say the dust hides a failed star."
"What about planets?"
"There probably are some, but their signatures are hidden by the primary. I suspect that unless they are very close to the primary, their surface is exceedingly cold, therefore unlikely to reveal much in the infrared range."
"Ian, report to the Bridge!"
"I shall be there shortly, Timor."
A few minutes later and Ian walked in on the Bridge, followed by the rest of the Protectors.
"What is the problem, Timor?"
"Is this our target?" Timor asked as he displayed the infrared map of the space ahead of the ASS Thebes.
"That is the star system, yes. The planet is on the other side, at 0.2 AU from the star."
"Is the planet trying to roll on the star's surface?"
"No, but it is the closest a planet can get to a star without being torn to shreds by gravitational waves. Reduce speed to below warp once we enter the Oort cloud. It will be densely populated."
"Should we fold back our defensive sphere?"
"As you wish."
"Felicia is taking the Captain's seat in two hours. Join us at the Lanteen Tessaract. I am planning the next stage for the Ogres' integration."
"I see, and what is that stage?"
"I plan to keep them longer in their vegetative stage, allowing for more through training and conditioning so they stop eating everything that happens to move within range of their vines."
"I see... That sounds like a domestication of sorts, Ian."
"It is. In their current stage, they are still too dangerous to be let loose anywhere, even after 50 years of constant genetic manipulations. Their low reproduction rate is partly to blame, but also the complexity of the genome, and the different stages to go from seed to walking tree."
"Why do you need the Lanteen?"
"The Lanteen are plants as well, and are easily able to restrain a full-grown Ogre. I have seen a small Lanteen Juvenile wrap a dozen vines around an Ogre and literally lift it off the ground before throwing it a good 100 yards off with a shrug. We are lucky the Lanteen lived on a planet where the biggest animal was a Dragonfly. They are precious allies."
"Yes, but what a Dragonfly! It has a wingspan comparable to the Ancients' Cessna 182 aircraft. We have done good in transplanting the ecosystem in a tessaract. But we do need to be careful. A level of Oxygen at 68% of the atmosphere makes for an easy inferno."
"That is why it is the tessaract with the wettest climate and the most integrated spraying system ever. There must be fire extinguishers every square foot! Thorsten made sure there was enough water backup to flood the place twice over. And Typhoon has banned the area to Dragons. As he said, one bad cough and it burns to a crisp. Dad, I am off to a quick swim before I get the Lanteen. It will be sweltering in their tessaract, and the Ogres' tessaract is not much better, if a lot less oxygenated."
"Okay, Son. I just wonder how the Lanteen adjust to the atmospheric change."
"They breath in Carbon Dioxide, and expel Oxygen. The concentration of the Carbon Dioxide is comparable to the standard ship atmosphere in most tessaracts, so they have no issue. Their only problem is they feel colder and turn lethargic on the ship's standard space. However the Ogre tessaract is as hot as their own space so they are functioning perfectly."
"Have we found a way to harm an Ogre, as Magic and fire seem to be of little use?"
"There is always lava, but that is extreme, and not applicable in their tessaract. I hard Thorsten was working on a chemical-propelled slug made of a super-heavy metal, called Uranium. But so far, he has not come back with a design that satisfies him. The issue is testing the design. Thorsten does not like Ogres one bit, but he is far from wanting to hurt them needlessly."
"Has he looked at Ancient designs? They seemed to have done a lot of research on these things."
"Yes. He tried using something called C4 as propellant. It was way too powerful. I think he is planning a continued accelerator process, a sort of miniature rocket. That way, there would be no recoil, and the slug could be continuously accelerated to five or six times the speed of sound. The impact would be mostly inertial in design so a tiny slug would pack a lot of power."
"He is always trying new explosives. I wonder when he will stop."
"The day he beats the Big Bang. I think he is jealous of Harp's blow-out!" replied Ian with a snicker, while Harp looked at his younger Brother with a frown.
"Hey, look who graces us with their presence!" said Harp as Sunrise, Sunset, and Aurora made their way to the Bridge.
"Do not piss us off!" said Aurora at Harp.
"I gather getting your nuts roasted in the Dragons' Barracks for a month has not improved your temper, young one. Maybe a stay in the Polar tessaract could cool it off?"
"I do not know about that option, Harp," said Runt as he walked in behind the three Princes.
"Hey there, I thought you had a Magic course to give this morning?"
"I still have half an hour before it starts. I brought them here with me after they appeared in my family Den. Apparently, one of the Dragons has a the Fire-Sneeze and almost roasted them inadvertently. It is unsafe for them there until they can shift shape."
"I see. Typhoon knows about the Fire-Sneeze?"
"Yes. He is getting a medical Witch to the Dragons' Barracks as we speak. The issue is that Magic is not very effective on our Dragon Brothers. Enron and Colibri are also looking into the issue."
"I just hope it does not spread. Dragons are notoriously immune to disease, so it comes as a surprise they can catch anything."
"I hope so. These three were sleeping in the paws of the one with the Fire-Sneeze and instinctively ported to my Den when the Dragon began to take in breaths prior to a mighty blow of fire. It saved their hide."
"Okay. Boys, you are coming with me to the General Hospital for a quick check, and then to the College of Magic."
"Why?" asked Aurora, the most vocal of the three, looking defiantly at Harp.
"For a medical check, and then I want you to try the translocation intentionally. If it can be done on instinct while you sleep, I want to know why you can not do it wilfully while awake."
"What will it give us?"
"If I can fix the reason why you failed so far, you will begin training a Dragonling and get bonded. The easy-go-lazy period is over," replied Harp as he looked at Harold meaningfully.
The three Boys looked at Harold wanting an escape from the grips of their older Brother but met with cold eyes and a nod. They would not get away from Harp this time.
"Off we go, Boys. I shall get this sorted out quickly and join you in the Ogre tessaract afterward. Runt, since you have half an hour, would you accompany us to the General Hospital?"
"Sure. My Dragon Bond will meet us there. I am told there is something that is is of interest for the sneezy Dragon to pick up, but it is confined to Barracks for the duration. It is called something like 'cold medicine', whatever that is, and is supposedly designed to alleviated sore throats."
"Is the Dragon a shape-shifter?" asked Sunset.
"All Dragons of the Royal Guard are shape-shifters, young Prince."
"I do not get how someone can treat a Dragon if they are insensitive to Magic. I thought all medicine was magical?"
"No, Sunset, not all medicine is magical. Quite a lot of it is based upon the use of proper plants and minerals that have nothing to do with Magic," replied Harp. "I think they will have the Dragon shift to Human-Atlantean shape, and treat the sore throat the classical way, with the proper medicine to ease the burning sensation, reduce the symptoms and the like. That is how I would do it. I can not imagine making a sneezy Dragon drink 45-gallon barrels of sore-throat medicine when a simple change of form brings the volume back to a couple of tablespoons. Seven days later, everything should be back in order."
"Oh!" said the three Boys, fascinated by the prospect.
After a quick medical check at the General Hospital, the group left for the 12th Magical College Campus, where the Runt taught advanced Doctoral Magic twice a week. It had become apparent that keeping every Mage within a single campus was impractical as their numbers exploded over time. Millions of Mages graduated each year and found work in handling the ship's expanding magical needs. The arrival of Harp, the Prince of Magic and General Inspector of the Colleges took the staff by surprise. After some boot-licking, Harp put a term to the effusion.
"Dean, continue like that and I shall believe you have something to hide!" said the Prince coldly.
"I have nothing to hide, my Lord!"
"Are you sure? The last time I saw someone act like this, there was a serious flaw in magical etiquette courses."
The wolfish grin the Runt gave to the Dean of the College sent shivers down the Elf's back. What had that huge prick of a Wolf told the Lord about the College?
"Why thank you! I did not know you were interested in my male anatomy!" said the Runt, much to the shock and shame of the Dean. "Do you really think your pathetic effort at shielding your thoughts have really succeeded in hiding anything from the Imperial Mages? And no, I do not dip in the cesspool of your brain, you project your thoughts loud and clear for anyone wanting to listen. Too bad there is no bleach available for minds, I would gladly drown you in a basin of such a product. The Ancients' notions of brain-washing may have had appeal but it was over-estimated. You know, you picked your name quite appropriately?"
"I did, your Highness?" replied the Dead in a shaky voice, as the Princes eyed the exchange with smirks. They had never liked that guy, and it seemed he was getting his arse chewed up and served back to him.
"Double-doors is just how wide your ego has inflated since you got that nomination to Dean of the 12th College of Magic. At the rate you inflate your self-importance, you might well find yourself in a FSS on the next battle front."
"But we have not had a battle for quite a while!"
"So nice of you to volunteer for the next battle then! We are headed into a battle zone according to Ian, and you will lead the assault team. Shore up your battle skills."
Harp joined the three Boys in a grin that brought home the reality of war to the ballooned Mage.
"I suggest you also get fit. You have enough blubber to compete with the Dolphins around the waist, and they live in cold waters! I expect you on Training Ground 39 in fifteen minutes. Come with your Battle Stave."
"Yes, my Lord," replied the Dean shakily, as he turned around and rolled off to his office to retrieve his Battle Stave.
"That rolling ball-bearing of fat will lose a few pounds! If it was not for his Magic working double-time to save his heart from clogging, he would die instantly." smirked the Runt. "Will you join us?"
"I shall first see what is wrong with these three, and then we shall join you. Just make sure he is still functional for target practice."
"Do not worry, I plan to pit him against my worst students."
"I wonder why he did not carry his Battle Stave with him?" asked Sunrise. "I looked in the other dimensions and it is not stored in a space bubble for easy retrieval."
"So, you do know how to do that, you little bugger!" replied Harp, as Sunrise realised too late he had revealed more than he intended. "If you think you can escape a full training session from now on by pretending lack of power, you have another thing coming! No need to go check on your power levels, then, we are going with you Runt. You three Boys are going to fight and there will not be any holdbacks this time! Get it?"
The two others looked at Sunrise with murder in their eyes. Their long plans of coasting in life was in jeopardy, all because of his big mouth! The Runt and Harp eyed each other, laughing silently at the very apparent exchange going on between the Boys. That exercise would reveal a lot more than the Boys thought if things went as planned.
«Do we tell them we can read their minds?» asked the Runt.
«Oh no. I want them to think they still can pull the rug over our eyes. This is proving to be so much fun!»
«You are even worse than what they think of you, you know that, do you not?»
«Oh yes, and I enjoy being the bad guy in this little comedy.»
The Boys and two Adults made their way to Training Ground 39 with five minutes to spare. The Boys watched as the Mages in training slowly entered the Arena, composed of a very diversified terrain. Lakes, sand dunes, grasslands, forests, meadows, hills, cliffs, ice floes, snow fields, just about everything was condensed in an area of approximately 20 square miles. On the far edges, away from where the Mages were coming into the battle field, a thunderstorm was brewing, almost hiding a snow storm behind it, and totally masking a sandstorm.
«You have been brewing a combination of weathers that will put the students through their paces, Runt!»
«I keep telling them to expect the unexpected, Harp. These are Doctoral Students, they need to be ready for anything. We still have quite a few non-Mages in our forces as well, and they too have to put up with weather. We live on a space-ship, sure, but nature still reigns supreme outside, and we must be ready for its worst nightmares.»
«I am not about to complain. I approve wholeheartedly of this approach. Maybe, one day, a Mage will give me a run for my money! I wonder where that over-fat Double-doors is hiding?»
«He is not with the Students, that is for sure. He would probably make the bleachers bend under his weight!»
Just as the exchange came to a close, the Dean lumbered into the Arena, carrying his Battle Stave as if it was going to bite him in the arse. He huffed and puffed his way up to the last landing, turning almost purple from exertion.
"I see you deigned join us for training, Dean," said Harp, bringing the Students' attention to the puffing and huffing figure. "I hope you will have better chance at blowing the house down than the Wolf in Red Riding Hood! You do seem to have some practice at the windy aspect of it!"
"I... huff, huff, do not... puff, puff, know what... huff, huff, you are puff, puff, talking about?" replied the purple-faced Dean.
Quite a few Students giggled openly at the reference, including the three young Princes. Those who had not read the story were quickly brought up on the underlying reference and added their own snickers to the mix.
"He fits the Pigs better than the Wolf in that story!" commented a Student from behind the group, producing an explosion of laughter and giggles that took some time to die down.
The Runt called the attention of the Students to himself.
"We have spent the last three months studying weather control. Today, you will have to use it to fight, hide, or otherwise put it to your advantage. Half of you are Mages, the other half are not. This exercise serves another purpose. The non-Mages have developed fighting skills that Mages have little use for, while Mages have their own methods. Today, you will be paired, one Mage with one non-magical being. It so happens that the three Princes even up the numbers. I was wondering how to solve the issue this morning when they popped up in my Den after a close call with a coughing Dragon. As for the Dean of Magic, since he is so powerful, he shall hold his own. Remember the rules: everything goes short of killing curses. That goes for you as well, Dean. The winner is the pair that stays intact the longest. And I mean both members of the pair, is that clear?"
After getting nods from everyone, the Runt continued.
"Prince Harp and I will act as Proctors. If one member of the team gets hurt and the other can patch things up before we get to remove them from the battle field so they can continue to fight, it is acceptable. Do not be obstinate and risk your life needlessly. Sometimes, knowing when to back off a battle is the best part of valour."
After a minute for the group to swallow their fear, the Runt resumed his speech:
"In this box is the name of a Mage. Each non-magical being is to pick up a name and find the person identified on the paper strip. This will be your partner. Proceed."
After twenty minutes, everyone was paired off, with the Dean standing off on the side, his ruby cheeks finally recovering their natural colour.
"Mages, take the left hand of your partner. Then use your right hand to pick an object in the hat. These are port keys and will bring you to your staging point, dispersed around the arena. Just one last word before you begin. There are predators in that field, and they are untamed and highly dangerous. Be on your guard not only for the other teams, but also for these predators. Need I remind you to be aware of your surroundings at all times? Quicksand and tar pits abound, as well as avalanche areas and unsteady footings. This is as close as we can bring you to a war scenario as we can without actually being at war. Double-doors, you pick first!"
The walking Whale bleached and put his plum hand in the hat as if he expected a Rat trap to bite his fingers. Barely had he closed his fist on an object that he vanished away. The others followed suit, and took off to their staging area.
"I wonder how the Dean will do?" asked Harp.
"Badly. He already managed to twist an ankle while walking along a river bank. The fool seems to have forgotten the basic healing spells or even first aid. A wet birch bark tied around his ankle with a twine would reduce the pain and inflammation, but the fat slob does not even dare sit down. Given how much problem he had standing up after falling due to a rolling stone, I can imagine the reason! He could at least use progressive translocation to ease the weight on his foot!"
"I can hear him singing from here anyway, and it is not rock and roll! He could give lessons in blasphemy to heavy metal bands!"
"I wonder how they will tackle some of our allies in that battle of wits. Zen has lent us a few hundred Snakes, there is a Wolf Pack led by one of my Brothers, and Spare Ribs is waiting for them with his family in the hills."
"Do they know?"
"Oh, come on! Remember the first lesson you gave me, Harp! Expect the unexpected!"
The Prince of Magic snickered as he remembered the Runt's discovery of that principle of War Hunting. The big Wolf had ventured on a dock made up of wet, very slippery tree trunks and fallen in the swift river whose water kept lapping over the dock's top due to a very strong wind. As the Wolf made his way out of the river, a fresh-water Crab had taken a bite at a front toe, much to the Wolf's discomfort. The Hunter can always become the Prey, Harp had told the discomfited Wolf.
The two Proctors kept an eye on things from high up, well out of sight of the contestants. The two Proctors were invisible from below, and flew in a leisurely figure-eight pattern, mimicking the hunting pattern of the Eagles they had taken the shape of.
Within an hour, the first confrontations occurred. A pair met with the Wolf pack and had to jump into the river to escape their snapping jaws. The Mage managed to port himself from the raging waters to an overhanging branch and then to rescue his partner by doing the same. However the non-magical member of the pair had lost all weapons to the greedy grip of the river and a good portion of his clothes as well. The two made their way to the other side of the river by walking the branches, only to be confronted with a hissing Snake. The Mage was feeling magical exhaustion and tried too quickly to dispose of the Snake, only managing to get it pissed. His partner tried to hit the Snake with a branch, only to slip and fall down, breaking a leg.
«One team out!» exclaimed Harp telepathically as he ported both members to the General Hospital.
«And to think they could have solved the issue by triggering a couple of lightning strikes to keep the Wolves at bay. They are double failures! Grr.»
The next confrontation occurred between a pair and the Cats. This time, the Mage triggered a hail storm, forcing the Cats to find refuge in a cave. The Trainees left the Cats' assigned patrol area unscathed because the other member of the pair used his shield to cover them from the falling ice.
«That is what I am looking for, Harp. Teamwork. I hope they continue to work together.»
«We shall see, as they are entering the quicksands.»
«Yes, I know. Hey, that other pair set the savannah on fire!»
«True, but the idiots set it so it is they that need to run from the fire, not the Lion pride! What a pair of nuts!»
«If the Mage does not douse the fire, they will have roasted nuts for dinner: theirs!»
The two Proctors watched from above as the two Elves ran their arses out trying to reach a river. However, the riverbed they crossed was dried up and only slowed down the progress of the fire as it had to jump the sandy bottom to set the rest of the yellowish dried-up grass to burn. The two fools continued to run mindlessly and were near exhaustion when the Warrior of the pair found a hole under an overhanging rock and dove into it, pulling his partner inside just as the fire roared its ugly head at their doorstep.
«They made it safely!» said Harp.
«Yes, well, wait until the fire is past; they will find out they landed in a Snake pit. Luckily for them, the Snakes are not venomous!»
«Anyway, one other lesson learned: do not play with fire unless you have water at hand.»
«Yes. They should have considered the wind as well.»
«The ones we see at the edge of the tree line seem to have found another use for wind: they are using it to misdirect the pack of Hyenas on their trail. That is a good use.»
«Yes, but they are too busy thinking of their rear to notice they are walking into an area of tar pits. Yet, the smell of tar should be unmistakable.»
«The Mage got the two on a volcanic column. They have a nice view of the area from there. I just hope the Warrior understands what he sees on the horizon and figures out their path leads to a trap.»
«If he does not, he needs cold medicine!»
The two Eagle Proctors watched the Hyenas reach the end of the trail left by the Mages they had been tracking, then turn suddenly to their left, away from the column. The Hyenas moved in a half-circle, crouching on the ground and using every bit of cover to progress toward a slightly darker patch of dirt.
«Oh, oh! There is another pair down there, trying to pass unnoticed, but the Hyenas have smelled them. Watch the show!» said the Runt.
Right on time the Hyenas howled victory as they charged the pair forcing them out of hiding. The Mage fired lightning bolts, the Warrior pulled his sword and began defending their hide. The two trainees fought back to back, trying to make their way to a higher and more defendable position. It became apparent that, had this not been an exercise, the two would have ended up in the belly of the Hyenas, so the Runt called an end to the battle and removed the two as 'lost'.
«That was a good exercise, Grand Master Runt Wolf. My Pups needed the fun.»
«I am glad you appreciated the training, Mother of the Den. Do you want to retire or are you still in training mood?»
«I need to feed them, so I shall retire to the den.»
«So be it, then. Thanks again for your assistance,» replied the Runt as he ported the Hyena family back to their home.
Hours passed with more and more of the trainees losing to the environment, much to the chagrin of the two Proctors.
«They are supposed to use the weather, not fall victim of it!» exploded Harp, looking at the Runt with a furious glance.
«You know how they are. The Mages believe they are better than the non-magical and refuse to work as a team with them, or, for that matter, with anyone else. Meanwhile, the non-magical distrust the Mages and do not believe they have anything to do in a fight. We have the same issue with them as with the Mages. The only ones that have a semblance of team work are the Legionnaires, and it is because we kick butt so hard their balls dangle from their nose.»
«Are you trying to tell me that the Legionnaires do not need to eat Mexican to get a burning arse hole?»
The Runt exploded in cackle, a form of Eagle laughter, and nodded.
«How many are left?»
«Three pairs. The three are those comprising Sunrise, Sunset, and Aurora.»
«What? Are you telling me the three little Devils have been hiding their level intentionally for all those years?»
«It seems so.»
«Call a close to the exercise. Runt. The three Boys are getting their Dragon and thrown in the Pyramids for their final test this instant!" exploded Harp, furious at having been had for so long by the little pricks. He took a nose dive for a protruding rock and shifted back to his Boy form, quickly followed by the Runt.
The three young Princes and their assigned Warrior suddenly found themselves in front of a very red-faced Harp.
«Brothers, I think the jig is up!» said Aurora.
«You can say that again, you little liars! And do not look so surprised. You should know no one can hide something from me once I put my mind to it!»
"What did we do wrong, your Highness?" asked a shaky Orc, eyes wide with fear.
"Oh, you three Warriors did nothing wrong, but these three Mages did! They hid their true power for years! They will undertake their Ordeal this very instant!"
The Orc, the Elf, and the Xila, a bipedal species that seemed to be a mix between a Reptile and a Mammal, looked at the three flabbergasted Imperial Mages, unsure as to what to do.
"Try as you might, you are going! As soon as we figured what was up, I notified Typhoon, and three Dragons are being prepared for their own Ordeal. You will be assigned to three different teams, starting one minutes apart, in five minutes flat."
"But we have no team!" exploded Sunset.
"And I want to be with my Brother!" added Sunrise.
"That is not going to happen! Had you been honest, you would have had your pick of team members. Given what I found out today, you can shove that option up where the Sun never shines!"
The three Warriors had been holding a low-level conference while Harp gave his three Brothers a long overdue ear-bashing. Finally, a consensus emerged.
"Your Highness, we would like to be part of the team of our respective Mage," said the Orc, surprising both Proctors.
"But you are not ready for an Ordeal!" exclaimed the Runt.
"Maybe not, but we would feel like cowards if we left them go alone in that Ordeal, whatever that is. We learned to trust them today, and we are willing to put our lives on the line for them."
Harp and the Runt blinked several times. By then, three Dragons flew overhead and landed, accompanied by 18 other individuals of varied origins. A giant Gold Dragon then landed and resolved into Typhoon.
"Hey guys! What is going on?"
"These three little pricks have been hiding their magical powers for years, scamming us of valuable resources in the process. They are undertaking their Ordeal as members of three different teams, that is what!" said Harp in a tone so frosty the water in the area began to freeze and fog at his mouth.
"The three non-magical have asked to join their respective team. What do you suggest, Typhoon?"
"Let them. They can only learn more out of the Ordeal."
"Agreed. Separate in three groups!" ordered Harp.
The new arrivals did as asked, each group finding shelter under a Dragon. Harp looked at his three Brothers with ice in his eyes
"You!" he said, pointing at Aurora, "Go there!"
"My name is Aurora!" exclaimed the shocked Boy.
"You will regain your name only if you succeed in your Ordeal, you deceiver!"
Aurora moved under the indicated Dragon with his head low. Barely had he joined the Orc and the other members of his group that they vanished into the Blue Pyramid.
"You! There!" ordered Harp as he pointed at Sunset, who balked. That got him a powerful thunderbolt on the arse that left him shaky and stunned. Harp then used Magic to forcibly move the miscreant to his group, which also took in the Elf. The group then got moved to the Blue Pyramid for the Ordeal.
"Next!" said Harp, looking at Sunrise and the Xila. Sunrise did not offer any resistance, not wanting to experience twice the shock he had felt through the twin link. Once the last group had been moved out, Typhoon looked at the two Proctors.
"What are their chances?"
"It all depends on their behaviour. No more slacking because they are Harold's Sons."
On the main Bridge of the ASS Thebes, Ian, Harold and Samson were busy looking at the forward screen.
"This pea soup is getting ever darker," noted Harold.
"Yes, and that makes navigation more difficult. Stars are getting rarer. I have changed my means of detecting from the standard infrared to ultra-violet range and gone to gamma bursts, It is less precise, but the gamma rays are just about the only thing powerful enough to penetrate this miasma."
"I hope you took into account the increased diffusion, Samson?"
"Hey, I am not born of yesterday, Ian!"
"I wonder where Typhoon went? He left in a hurry."
"He said something about an urgent meeting with Harp and the Runt, but nothing else, Dad."
"Hey, have you guys noticed the exponential increase in Orichalque as we progress? This is so different from what occurred in the Milky Way," noted a Founder from the Science Station.
"Yes Ardennes, Harp has been trying to figure out what is the reason for this," replied Ian.
"I noticed fluctuations that give the impression we are travelling through a web. This gives me the creeps."
"A sort of web? Like a Spider's web? Or are you telling me it's like a communications web, or something else?"
"The feeling I have is we are the Moth flying into a Spider's web, but the very high oscillations of the Orichalque leaves a feeling of a high-density signal travelling along lines of transmission. We are cutting them too fast for me to make sense of anything. The only substantial data stream we might have collected was an hour ago, when we inadvertently followed a stream."
"Call Yamato to the Bridge. He's our specialist in encoding and transmissions," suggested Harold.
"He got it in his mailbox. He should get here soon."
"What is the impact on the mass?"
"We are adding 2,000,000 tons of Orichalque per hour, and it is gradually increasing. We must leave a substantial gap behind us."
"Yes, we know already, Ardennes."
"Oh, okay, Ian."
"Timor is waiting on the FSS deck for the return of Harold-Ian. The Boy is leading the FSS Scouts today. It is his first major command as Marshall of the Scouts."
"I hope he is not too anxious, Ian."
"He was until I told him that there was little chances anything surprising might pop up in that soup."
"I do not like what Ardennes is saying," noted Samson, trying to bring the subject back to the overall situation.
"And why not?"
"Harold, there must be a reason for Orichalque to be organised that way. We know it usually comes in clumps, embedded in normal matter. Never have we met this kind of organisation in the Milky Way. I believe it is artificial."
"Can you clarify your thoughts?"
"First, Orichalque is organised along lines of various density. As to the reason of the variation in density, I have no idea. We should ask Paschal what he makes of this. Second, we have fluctuations that seem to indicate a form of data transfer. Ardennes? What can you tell us about these data lines, without bothering with encoding and whatever not?"
"The smaller lines are transmitting at a lower frequency than the bigger lines, but, strangely, the biggest seem to be silent, producing white noise rather than clean pulses. That mystifies me."
"I would be mystified at less."
"Have you been able to detect a signal indicating we have ruptured a transmission line?" asked Ian.
"No, but that does not mean it does not happen. Those lines, if they are transmission lines, are particularly difficult to tap without creating a rupture in the transmission. It is the most sensitive telecommunication system I have ever seen to eavesdropping. It stops the moment something external affects it."
"You may see, Harold, but I sure do not," replied Samson, smirking.
"If I get it, my friend. These transmission lines can detect the passage of a ship from anywhere. If this is the case, we have been detected and created havoc in communications."
After eying the mass of dust colliding with the shields and being separated into standard matter, Orichalque, Adamentium, Mithril and the occasional Ianium atom, Harold turned to Ian.
"Son, do you have an idea of where we are going?"
"Yes and no. Yes, because I see a very black and dense dust cloud as our objective. As to why it is our objective, I have to answer in a single word: intuition."
"How far are we from that place?"
"At current speed, we are a few weeks off the target. But since we may have to slow down to prevent collision with more substantial objects, it may add a month to the trip."
"Bashar, we have reached the target," said the Navigator.
"Hold station. Use passive sensors only. We must stay as discreet as we can."
"What are you up to, Bashar?" asked the Telecommunication Officer, eying the Commanding Officer warily.
"Doing my job, that is what. Focus on yours!"
The Telecommunication Officer knew he was not well-liked by his colleagues but he had no reason to override the Bashar... yet. Everything had been according to rules so far. All his reports had been unanswered, but, given where they were in the galaxy, he had no reason to expect any reply for quite a while. Little did he know that none had ever left the ship for the outside world. As the Scout ship came to a halt in the thick cloud of dust, he decided to retire to his cabin and send out another confidential report about the decision of the Bashar. Maybe there would finally be a reply to his first message about the death of his predecessor.
Once the Officer had left the Bridge, the Bashar signalled to his Science Officer.
"How many messages has this pincer-licker sent so far?"
"Over 250, Bashar. You can not even go to the restroom without him writing a report. I wonder what those reports contain."
"You have not broken the code yet?"
"No. I admit it is difficult to do anything with that cloaca sniffer around. You know how he monitors everything we do, even in our private quarters. Luckily, I installed a feedback loop on the camera in my room so my desktop terminal can work on the code while I am not there. I have to stop it every time I go into the cabin to rest. Political Officers are the bane of society!"
"Yes, the pest eat them. Restart the feedback to his cabin, he should be almost there now. Politically correct talk, everyone!"
The Science Officer continued working on the sensor array, actually detouring the information from the duplicate found in the Communications Officer's room so it would seem nothing was changing outside. The entire crew had gelled together to circumvent the Political Officer aka Communications Officer and prevent the despicable individual from continuing the task of snooping everyone's life. The verbal exchanges were limited and directly related to the task at hand. No one wanted to slip and let on that something exceptional was going on.
"How far are we from that huge cloud?" asked the Bashar.
"The last parallax measurements places it at several Planet rotations of our current position at maximum speed."
"I wonder what hides behind that dust cloud."
"Probably a dead star or two," replied the Science Officer, signalling to the Bashar to come look at the long-range sensor readings that had been reactivated the moment the Communications Officer had left the Bridge. At the extreme range of sensors, a blimp had appeared.
'Size?'1 ("Text between ' ' are signed language.") signalled the Bashar, using claw signs.
'Unknown,' replied the Science Officer, using the same sign language. 'Distance unknown as well, the dust masks it.'
'Yes. The trajectory is too linear.'
The Bashar moved to the Helm and set a quick pulse as if the ship was making an adjustment to its station-holding, making the ship drift toward the blimp. He then signalled the Navigator, who had been looking at him questioningly.
'Do not ask questions!'
The political Officer heard the engine engage briefly and figured it was nothing of importance. He resumed writing his report and asking for instructions. A quick look at sensors revealed nothing out of the ordinary.
"Scout Ship E-235 is reporting a contact, Marshall!"
Harold-Ian, that had been getting bored out of his mind, jumped awake as the message was relayed.
"What type of contact?"
"The sensors are perturbed but the Lanteen is sure it is a ship. The echo is too strong for it to be anything else. It is adrift."
"Adrift? It may be damaged. Order SSE-235 to move toward the contact."
"SSE-235 just signalled that the ship changed trajectory and is headed toward its position."
"That means it still has propulsion. Organise a defensive bow with SSE-235 at the apex."
"Acknowledged. The reorganisation is starting. It should be completed in five minutes."
"Harold-Ian to ASS Thebes!"
"ASS Thebes, Bjorn speaking."
"Hello Grandfather. I called to report a ship that is headed toward the position of SSE-235. I have sent SSE-235 to intercept. It should be on visual in six hours. That soup is a pain."
"Okay. Timor is waiting for you on the FSS deck."
"Tell him I shall be late."
On Thebes, speculations ran wild. Who could that contact be? Would it be friendly or hostile? Samson plotted the position of the mysterious ship relative to the Atlantean Armada, revealing that the bogie's position was almost tangential to the defensive sphere enveloping the Atlantean World protectively. The readjustment of the sphere to intercept the ship gradually appeared as green blips moved in place, changing the shape of the virtual surface of the sphere.
"You know, we look like an Amoeba ready to eat a morsel of food!" said Enron.
"Indeed," replied Ian.
On the Andromedan Scout ship, the change of trajectory confirmed for all present on the Bridge they were faced with a ship.
'Should we ring the alarm?' asked the Security Officer.
'No. If it is one of our Masters, there is no reason. If it is indeed that ship we are looking for, it may be the only way to escape our slavery,' decided the Bashar. 'You know that the Political Officer would order us to fire and damn the consequences if it is not one of ours.'
The Political Officer peeked on the sensors a last time before going to rest phase. Nothing was out of place, and the chat on the Bridge, minimal as it was, had not revealed anything. Nonetheless, the Officer felt something was odd, but could not pinpoint it. Maybe his paranoia was overruling good sense. He would do a quick review of the Bridge exchange before leaving his cabin when he woke up, decided the Officer.
'The fucker is going to sleep,' signed the Security Officer.
'Give him a click to really fall asleep, and flood the cabin with sleeping gas,' said the Bashar. 'Renew the dose every click.'
'Too bad we can not put him to sleep permanently.'
'Do not tempt me!'
'What are you planning to use?' asked the Science Officer as he looked at the Medical Officer.
'Tetra-hex-fluoride. It is tasteless, odourless, colourless.'
'At least for his species. That gas makes me want to vomit.'
'It is a good thing we had to put him under for a minor surgery, or we would never have learned of the effect of that gas on them. Thank the Tooth Fairy!'
Quite a few Officers had to bite in their notepad not to laugh aloud from the Bashar's comment.
'The convergence of the mystery ship puts it at six clicks, Bashar.'
'We will wait. I do not wish to risk waking up that pest before we have first contact.'
'I have a second contact at extreme range, Bashar.'
'That is to be expected given the track print we crossed.'
'Hey! Another one... and another... This is not an isolated ship, it is a fleet!'
'All the better for us. Keep giving the change in case he is listening while playing the tree trunk in his bed! Continue all activity as usual. Any change in rhythm could alert the bastard.'
The Science Officer nodded and kept informing the Bashar as the number of blimps appeared on the long-range sensor. He quickly ran out of digits, even at six per hand, and resorted to flashing the four hands each time the number increased by 24. Then the number of blimps exploded. Shocked, he called the Bashar to his desk again.
'The number of blimps has exploded. I think what we detected is the equivalent of our station in the Fleet: Scouts.'
'I agree. But are they not much smaller?'
'Yes, it is like foot Soldiers in the Army of old, described in the history books we managed to hide from the damn Masters.'
'How far are they?'
'Three clicks off.'
'I wonder what they are. No space ship that size can survive effectively in space.'
The poor Bashar could not imagine the existence of the FSS, much less their autonomy.
'Should we try contact?' asked the Engineering Officer.
'No. We may have missed something in the circuitry of the bugger, and I do not want to give him any time to plan a dirty trick.'
'What if they try to contact us?'
'We shall have to chance it.'
"Two hours from visual contact, Marshall, Sir." informed SSE-235.
"Okay. Keep radio silence from now on. Do you have a telepath on-board?"
"Use laser beams to establish contact with the second wave behind you. They will relay any message backward using the same method."
"The FSS should now register clearly on their sensors. It must be a mystery to them. These FSS are really strange with their infinite sizes and shapes."
"I know Strategic Officer. I wonder how they will react to Thebes when it registers on their sensors in an hour!"
"Not too badly, I hope. I already expected them to bolt given our numbers."
Time crept slowly, and gradually, the fog cleared, allowing SSE-235 a clearer view of the ship it was getting closer to. The vessel looked strange, with its absolutely huge ventral reactor carrying a sleek superstructure. Some light was visible in what was assumed to be the Bridge, in the deep infrared range. Behind the ship was a light bluish beam barely changing the ship's position in space.
"Hey, a ramjet in space. Who would have thought this possible!" reported the SSE-235 Science Officer.
On the Andromedan ship, the Bridge Officers watched the approaching strange ship with trepidation. It looked extremely dangerous with its needle shape, the powerful bluish-white reactor exhaust and the warp bubble masking it almost entirely as it plodded in the space dust. More ships appeared, and the move became apparent for them. They were being encircled.
'Do not do anything rash. We must absolutely establish a pacific relationship with them if we are to have a chance at survival!'
'Do we wake up the Communications Officer?'
'Are you suicidal? Let him sleep. In fact, add another dose. We shall try to bypass the jerk for first contact. His orders are simple: challenge anything and anyone. Given the present conditions, it is a sure path to disintegration.'
'I agree,' added the Science Officer. 'Their weapons give me the shivers.'