Galactica: Book 2 - Andromeda

Chapter 5 - Communication Issues

 

Viola ported on the outside of the strange ship and began crawling on its surface. The first thing he noticed was it had no magnetic metal on the surface. Using the FSS' deep spectral analyser revealed the ship was made of a polymer of Germanium, Gallium and Arsenic. Crawling slowly, Viola looked at a window and the FSS sensors reported it was transparent Aluminium. The room inside seemed to be a resting place for a rather strange species, that was a bit taller than the average Atlantean, more like the Trolls. Porting inside, Viola proceeded to an analysis of the atmosphere and its parameters. Oxygen: 30%, Nitrogen the rest, but damn this place was cold! The temperature was in the vicinity of freezing water!

«Viola to Thebes. I am in.»

«Acknowledged,» replied Spare Ribs.

«Spare Ribs? You are out of the tube?»

«Yes. And this time I shall not have to go back in it for 500 years, according to Harp. It was getting to be a nuisance to be sent into it every 15 to 20 years because my magical core was not fully developed. I was getting ready to bite a couple of heads off from my great-grand-children for their mockery. Harp rebuilt my genes, adjusting them to produce a bigger core. He promised me I would gain M-4 during the next cycle, and, if all went well, I could reach M2 afterward.»

«Congratulations! I am happy things went well. I shall get back to you when I move out of this room.»

Viola began examining the room in more detail. The first thing that attracted his attention was the resting place. It contained a life-form that seemed to be in a deep sleep, or in stasis. The life-form was four-legged, presenting palmed feet and rather long, yet half-palmed fingers. The body was greenish with brown and black spots all over the front, big, prominent eyes currently closed by a strange eyelid that split in the middle. The nose was flat, almost non-existent, the lips were purple and showed a set of prominent canines. There was no belly button of note, and the genitals seemed to be hidden in a protective pocket. No clothing whatsoever was visible on the body, except for a small disk stuck on the head and wired to the side of the contraption that acted as a bed.

Viola moved silently and reached what could be considered a desk. It had controls and electronics of some sort. At first, Viola thought he was faced with medical equipment, but a scan revealed it was a communication system. On the left of the desk was a drawer that was locked. It took no more than a second for Viola to unlock the drawer and discover it contained weapons of some sort, unless needles were huge in that community! No use leaving these things behind, so Viola ported the drawer's contents out in space, a good 5,000 miles off. Viola then closed the drawer and re-locked it.

On the right of the desk was a door. A quick look revealed it was a closed compartment with some strange objects sticking out. Could it be the water closet? Unable to decide, Viola left the place without touching anything, and moved to the door further right. There, a series of uniforms were on display, along with shoes, side-arms, which joined the rest now floating off in the void.

The last door displayed a wide-angle peeping hole which allowed Viola to verify the passageway was free of occupants. The Atlantean ported on the other side and proceeded to another atmospheric verification. The temperature was considerably warmer, but the atmospheric composition stayed identical. It also showed traces of humidity, which was conspicuously absent from the cabin. That troubled Viola. The species in the stasis chamber was evidently aquatic in origin and humidity should have been present in the room. Then, maybe the electronic was too sensitive to humidity. The mystery would have to wait for a solution. Viola turned left along the hallway, heading for the ship's Bridge.

Walking as silently as a shadow, Viola reached the end of the hallway without meeting anyone. The door in front was locked and seemed disabled so he moved back and checked doors, finally finding one that opened on a staircase. Viola climbed up and crossed three levels before reaching the last flat. The door, like the previous ones, slid in the wall and had no windows. Apparently, the doors were an integral part of the safety features of the ship in case of sudden decompression.

Pushing the door slowly, Viola extended the sensitivity of the FSS. At first, he heard nothing, but as he included higher frequencies in the range, sounds could be heard coming from across the hall. Adding low frequencies revealed a rumble that was way too regular to be anything but mechanical in origin. Viola decided to focus on the high-frequency sounds that seemed to be more variable, intermittent, and modulated, much like speech.

***

"I wonder what they are waiting for?" asked the Bashar, as he eyed the impressive number of ships encircling the Scout.

"I still do not understand how these small ones can move. There is no apparent propulsion yet they move around like they were dancing," commented the Engineer.

"Should we try to communicate?"

"Not yet, Provisioner. I have no idea of how they communicate, and it is not by visual signals," replied the Science Officer. "I am busy scanning radio frequencies, and it is more silent than a tomb. And, before you suggest it, it is not with the magical web. It is destroyed."

"Where did the one we saw crawl on the ship's skin go? It was there a blink ago then it vanished!"

"What do you mean, Weapons Officer?" asked an alarmed Bashar.

"I was watching the small ship crawl on our surface, not doing anything apparently, and then suddenly, it vanished!"

"Where was it the last time you saw it on the ship's skin?"

"One end was over the Communications Officer's porthole, the rest over the hull."

"Anyway, Bashar, there was no hull breach alert, and if there had been, we would be rid of another Communications Officer, not a loss if I say so myself," added the Engineer as he eyed the sensor array for any sign of decompression.

"Still, something is bugging me. Can we see inside the cabin?"

"Yes, I put in a micro-camera so we could monitor that pest once it is awake."

The Engineer activated the micro-camera but it revealed nothing worthwhile at first glance.

"I see nothing abnormal," said the Science Officer as he watched the micro-camera scan the room from the top corner near the door.

All seemed effectively in order, but the Bashar still was deeply uneasy.

"Do you have a view in the water room? I think there are two places to hide in that room: the wardrobe and the water room."

The Officer activated the camera there and again, nothing seemed out of place.

"Hey, look at that ice on the floor!" said the Provisioner.

"What ice?"

"Near the controls for the flush to dispose of solid wastes! That is not normal. The temperature is slightly above freezing, so there should be no ice!"

Effectively, there, on the floor, was a shiny patch of ice, and it did not match any footprint of the crew, much less the footprints of the Communications Officer. The crew looked at each other and began to worry.

"How? Who?" asked the Bashar, alarmed.

"The how is irrelevant; as for the who, we already have a good idea, but the real question is where is it?" asked the Science Officer.

"You mean it is inside? But that is impossible! There was no breach!"

"Bashar, when all other options have been eliminated, what is left is the most valid conclusion, however improbable it might seem. There is that fast disappearing proof in the water room, the sudden disappearance of the quote, space-ship, unquote, the fact that we see them move without propulsion, and without apparent communication but in a dance that smacks of highly co-ordinated activity."

"Ask the crew to search the ship! They are not to take any action if they spot the intruder. We have no knowledge of their capacity."

"The crew is composed mostly of sleepers in deep hibernation, Bashar. We only have four crew members activated, and the Officers, And all Officers are all present on the Bridge. The four crew members are distributed as follows. Two are in night cycle, two are awake. One is doing a food inventory and placement, the other is in sick bay undergoing medical training in hypnosis and therefore unavailable. The one handling the storage duty is so green he could panic and act inappropriately. He has enough issues with integrating with the members of the crew I do not recommend sending him on a a search party. Provisioner, would you mind doing the search while we continue monitoring the Bridge?"

After a quick look at the Bashar, that nodded his approval, the Provisioner left the Bridge, made his way to the elevator and dropped to the D floor that contained the Officers' cabins. Nothing seemed abnormal in the hall as he exited the magnetic levitator, so he made his way to the Communications Officer's cabin. A quick and discreet search revealed nothing out of place, so he concluded that the intruder had left the cabin without triggering the Bridge alarm in the Bashar's chair. Since it could get in across a thick layer of metal, nothing precluded it could pass through a much thinner layer of inner wall. Using the intercom, the Provisioner notified that the Communications Officer's cabin was empty of the intruder and that the search would begin at the far end, near the Engine accelerator coils, room by room.

The Provisioner left behind a tiny movement-sensitive camera after searching a room, thus insuring no one could come back to occupy the area just searched. Several cameras were left in the hallway, in the staircase landing, and in the rear and front-section magnetic levitators. The next, E floor, was the engine room and power plant, and had way too many moving parts to be controlled by a camera. The F floor contained the cryogenic cells for the stand-by crew, and the search took some time and cost a good 40 cameras to cover properly.

Moving back up, the Provisioner visited deck C, which comprised the food generator and the medical bay, both occupied by crew members, which received notification to stay put. By then, the Provisioner was running out of cameras and quickly created a new box of the required equipment at the food generator alcove, much to the crew's surprise.

"It's an override feature only available to Officers," the Provisioner informed the crew member. "Continue what you are doing. We may need as much food as possible stored."

Deck B contained the escape pod, the ship's transporter beam, the shuttle bay and the shuttle. All was quickly checked and revealed no intruder. That left the Bridge Deck, or A deck. The Weapons Bay, located at the rear, was empty and the gun seal closed, The next room, just below the gun turret, was the computer room, was way too cold for the Provisioner to visit without proper clothing, as it was bathed in solid Methane. The next room was the navigation room and was currently empty as its occupant was on the forward Bridge section. After making sure the rear staircase landing was bugged, the Provisioner checked the midsection and bugged the staircase landing. Only one section remained to bug: the forward staircase landing, just beside the Bridge door and bulkhead.

***

Viola watched the progress of the strange being along the hallway and then turn approximately where he had determined a vertical shaft was located. The sound of atmospheric movement told him a rather massive object travelled along the shaft. It reminded him of the elevators used by the Ancients, something his brother Paschal was eminently opposed to. He returned to listening to the sounds off the Bridge, trying to skim some knowledge off the minds of those present. However, nothing was forthcoming, much like they had no brain. This situation surprised him, to say the least, as no species had, so far, resisted a telepathic exchange in the billions that had already been rescued in the home galaxy. After all, even plants like the Ogres were reachable that way. If Beehives, with their diffuse brain structure, were amenable to exchanges, what was stopping him from communicating with these individuals? Robots would not be a big issue, would they? After all, there were quite a few Artificial Intelligences on Thebes, and all were telepathic to a rather high degree. And the body was organic, his sensors were formal. The life-form that had walked off breathed and exhaled a rather high level of Carbon Dioxide. No, it was definitely organic, If only because the body exhumed a rather important concentration of Terpenyl Butyrate, Geranyl Butyrate and Isobutyl Acetate. That individual smelled of fruit like it had taken a bath in cherry juice. Actually glad he was wearing a FSS for once, Viola resumed his attempts at spying on the mental contents of the crew.

An hour later, Viola was no closer to getting in any of the crew's brains, much to his increasing frustration. The sound of the elevator had distracted him several times and he was worried someone would finally make its way up the stairs from the landing below. He had watched with increasing anxiety the individual he had seen walk by put additional sensors on the landing below his current position and realised immediately that they were aware he might be inside the ship. It was pure luck, or maybe anatomic constraints, that the individual had not looked up on his landing where he had pressed his body against the furthest wall, activating the FSS' mimetic capacity to the fullest. Time to see if the conversion of photons to neutrinos so they could cross a mass was as effective as Paschal lauded it was to become invisible. After all, this was the trick used to hide Thebes, but on a much smaller, therefore much tighter scale.

The hush of the elevator door opening suddenly caught Viola's attention, and his miniature telescopic eye allowed him to watch the individual move toward the far end of the hallway. Time was running out to find a way to communicate! As he watched the individual explore each room carefully, his initial conclusion was confirmed: it was searching the ship systematically and that could only mean one thing: he had been detected somehow.

While the individual was searching one of the rooms, Viola ported in the hallway and made his way slowly past the door of the room the individual was currently exploring. Now was not the time to trip or make anything fall! The searcher exited the room and put a camera barely an inch above Viola. Had its hand moved any further, it would have touched the FSS before touching the wall! Viola sagged to the floor to be as small as possible. The searcher then made its way further down the hall, and Viola followed closely, staying as low as possible and out of reach of the individual's arms. After ten minutes, the individual reached the landing where Viola had been hiding all this time and it gingerly opened the door, expecting to find the intruder lurking. Not finding anyone, it quickly lay out the cameras and retreated to the hall. The only rooms that had no cameras installed were the Bridge and the forward observation deck, the later because it had its open control panel shorted.

The Provisioner opened the door to the Bridge and made to signal to the Bashar it had not found the intruder. Then something bothered the Provisioner: If the individual could pass through doors and walls, what stopped it from passing through a shorted one?

***

Viola quickly closed the distance separating him from the door, intent on sliding inside the Bridge without being seen. Unfortunately for the spook in training, the Provisioner turned on himself and made to run out of the Bridge. The Provisioner stumbled over Viola, who, taken by surprise, straightened up like a Jack-out-of-the-box, sending the Provisioner flying through the open door and across several feet along the hallway. The Provisioner let out a shriek that alerted the Bridge crew to the event. Shaken by the situation, Viola ported behind the Bashar's station, leaving behind a shadowy, barely visible precipitate due to the instant condensation of the esters that had crystallised at the icy contact of the FSS. The deformed, low-lying condensate did not go unnoticed by the Officers, who panicked at the image it displayed as it slowly fell on the ground before disappearing by evaporation.

"What is that thing?" asked the Bashar freaking out of his mind, as he pointed at the slowly falling cloud.

"Did we kill it?" wondered the Science Officer, shaken more than he was willing to admit.

"Where is it going? It is like it is infiltrating between the atoms of the metal!" asked the very alarmed Engineer.

«Viola to Thebes. First physical contact established!»

«I know you like petting, but that is not the goal, Prince Viola!» replied Spare Ribs with a very audible smirk in mind-speech.

«To each his own, and I have yet to see you refuse a good rub! You sound like a diesel without a muffler! Anyway, it is not what you think, pervert! I happened to be in the way of one of them as it turned back on its steps quickly and it fell on me. I stood up quickly and it went flying along the hallway.»

«I see. Is it hurt?»

«It is standing shakily at the door now. It does not seem hurt, only shaken.»

«Anything else?»

«Not really. They are exchanging while looking at the ground where I was crouched. Spectral analysis reveals a high concentrate of esters evaporating from the floor, of the same type I mentioned earlier. The different members of the crew seem to emit a rather impressive variety of volatile chemicals.»

«That space ship must be smelly! Better you than me handling them.»

«Is Colibri available on the Bridge?»

«He just walked in with a sandwich to replace me. Hold on.»

«To what? Your tail?»

«No, my prick!»

«That confirms it! Big Cats are as perverted as big Atlanteans!»

"Colibri here. What can I do for you?"

«Let us use telepathy, Colibri, just in case they can detect sub-vocal vibrations. The atmosphere is relatively dense.»

«All right.»

«The situation is as follows: I have been unable to establish a telepathic contact, as if they were actively blocking any attempt. That is a new experience. I need to find a way to communicate with them. They emit a wide range of high-frequency sounds, but without telepathy, the language barrier seems insurmountable. Your knowledge of animals and their behaviour might shed light on how to communicate with them. I am sending you a visual.»

«I have it. Let me study their interactions for a while.»

"Provisioner, are you doing okay?" asked a concerned Navigator, as he eyed the shaky Officer.

"Yes, I am fine, I just fell pretty hard when I got thrown. I might require a visit to Sickbay to get checked. My head spins."

"Report to Sickbay Provisioner. We shall deal with the intruder... if we can find it."

"Thanks, Bashar."

"Hey, before you leave, where were you running to when you collided with the intruder?"

"I thought the only place without any cameras is the forward lounge deck, where we placed the communicating devices bypassing standard communications systems. I thought it might have been hiding there since it can apparently cross walls. I was proven blatantly wrong."

"That was a valid idea, and since the lounge deck is just below us, an appropriate one still. I shall send the Navigator to put the sensors in place, for what good this will do," decided the Bashar.

"You seem sceptical, Bashar?"

"Navigator, the sensors react to movement. If there is nothing to see, how can they react? Anyway, go do it. Science, accompany Navigator since you know how to bypass the failed circuit."

"Bashar, should we wake up the Communications Officer?" the Engineer asked.

"No. We have no idea of what means are at his disposal to enforce the Masters' edicts. I, for one, feel no rush to find myself ejected in space because of a fanatic applying an unknown protocol that is hard-wired in the vacuum that is supposed to be his brain. Who knows? Maybe there is a fail-safe we have not detected somewhere on this ship to be triggered should it be 'invaded' by a 'hostile force'."

"Hostile to whom? The hegemony of our slave drivers? And the fail-safe may be within us, Bashar. There is no guarantee the trigger is not a form of collective suicide. I would not put it beyond these bastards to have done such a thing, given they have used hypnotic conditioning to teach us our tasks and the low value they attach to life."

"You understood me perfectly, Engineer. So far, the visitor has shown no sign of hostility, and it had all the occasions to render us impotent."

«Are you getting anywhere, Colibri?»

«Not really, Viola. They do not move much, and without some action, I can not associate sound to movements and meanings.»

«We are stuck.»

«No. We know the significance of our moves. Maybe if both parties were involved in solving this conundrum, we both might get somewhere. Let us play the mime game. That could lead to some progress.»

«Okay. I shall make myself progressively more visible, to prevent violent reactions.»

Viola silently moved in the middle of the horseshoe created by the control desks of the alien ship's Bridge and began a slow 'materialisation'. He was still 90% transparent when the Bashar noticed the deformation of light produced by the slowly appearing FSS.

"Hey! Look!" he exclaimed, pointing at the progressively opacifying form and the darkening shadow that confirmed its reality.

All those present on the Bridge froze, except the Weapons Officer, which called back the Navigator and Science Officers to the Bridge. They returned quickly to the Bridge, accompanied by the Provisioner. By then, Viola had reached 50% opacity, and continued 'solidifying' under the eyes of the amazed Alien Officers.

«They are all present minus the four that seemed to be occupied elsewhere. What now, Colibri?»

«Use the FSS' capacity at generating sounds within their hearing range, and identify yourself. Point a finger at yourself and give out your name. Do not forget to adjust the intensity of the sound so they do not jump through the roof!»

«Me civilised, you savage?» taunted Viola.

«I doubt this would be constructive in the long run! And 'me Dick, you Dike' will not work either, Viola.»

«I agree. Let me start on something more positive.»

"Viola!" said the Atlantean Prince, pointing at himself, then waited. After a few seconds, he repeated the gesture and the sound.

"I wonder what this means," asked the Bashar. "I believe it is trying to tell us something..."

"A request for food?" asked the Provisioner.

"I doubt that very much. I believe our physiology is too different for food to be exchanged."

"Thank God! I was not too enthusiastic at being served on a plate!" noted the Engineer.

"We have been dealing with the Masters for too long, we are painting everyone in the same colour."

"And I wonder what plate the Engineer is talking about? They eat us raw, still kicking!" added the Navigator.

Viola was at a loss. The crew was acting as if he was not even there! They did not react to his presence at all! Maybe they did not see him? Maybe they had eyes that allowed for another range of electromagnetic radiation, such as infrared or ultraviolet? After all, if they were space-farers, it sort of made sense that they would focus on detecting infrared or ultraviolet rather than the standard electromagnetic spectrum, given the importance of these two types of radiation in space. Or could they be using radio waves to see? It was a difficult choice for Viola: if they were sensitive to infrared, ultraviolet might kill them or burn their retina; if it was ultraviolet, they could well see nothing. And if it was microwave? If it was not, he could cook them in an instant!

«Colibri? They behave as if they do not see me?»

«Are they looking your way?»

«Sort of...»

«They see you, then.»

«But why do they not react to my move?»

«It might not mean what you think.»

«Do you have a suggestion?»

«Yes. Try using your major finger to signal for them to come closer, you know, bending it repeatedly? Even Wolf Pups understand that.»

«Okay...»

"That is a strange claw. It is divided in three segments, contrary to ours?" noticed the Engineer, who was the first to note the change.

"It must not be too dangerous..." added the Provisioner.

"I would not wager on that. It might be as venomous as the pincers!" noted the Science Officer.

"It does not leak..." the Bashar commented. "Maybe it is only waiting for us to be within reach?"

"I do not know, but we can not stay in this situation much longer. I shall endeavour to get closer. If I get killed, you will know they are hostile. Tell my replacements all you know," said the Provisioner.

The Officer slowly made to walk around the Captain's desk and moved within reach of Viola, who was surprised by the move and stopped his invite movement. He replaced it by an open palm, hoping this would be seen as a gesture of good will.

The Provisioner was taken aback by the change but did not back down. Maybe that claw was effectively inefficient at gutting preys. Now what? He looked at the others from his precarious position.

"Touch the paw gently with your claw?" suggested the Science Officer.

Finding nothing else to do, the Provisioner touched the outer shell of the FSS only to remove his own paw quickly.

"That is icy cold! How can this live? At that temperature, I would be sleeping the soma night!"

"Hey, we forgot one thing: it came from outside, from the absolute death of space! It either wears some protection or is actually boiling in here!" said the Science Officer. "Logic dictates it is wearing protection from either environment, and what we see is the outer shell, still at quite close to the temperature of space."

"What do I do? If I touch that, my paw will fall off, frozen solid!"

"I am not too worried. I just pointed a thermocouple on the surface and its temperature is slowly rising. We need only wait until it reaches thermal equilibrium and you will be able to touch the outer shell safely."

"How long before this is reached?" asked the Bashar, getting impatient.

"Half a period. If only we could tell it to speed up the process if it can."

"I wish. I have a bad feeling about the Communications Officer. If it wakes up..." said the Bashar.

"We kill it." said the Weapons Officer.

Viola looked at the being extending a hand to touch his very slowly then retract it at lightning speed. Something was wrong, but what?

«One of them touched my hand but pulled back in the blink of an eye. Do you have a suggestion? It seemed like I burned it.»

«What is the exterior temperature of the FSS compared to their living environment?» asked Harp, from the Science Station on Thebes.

«I have not checked. Let me see. Oh shit! At -400 Fahrenheit, I must be feeling deadly cold. I was wondering why I was whitish! It is water crystals on the FSS! I shall bring the temperature to match the environment!»

"Bashar, the being has noticed the discomfort of touch and has begun increasing the surface temperature at a vastly increased rate. It should be comfortable to touch in a very short time."

"I wonder why it did not do so earlier."

"Who knows? Maybe it did not notice anything abnormal. Anyway, see the water melting and forming droplets on the surface already. If things continue, we will see water vapour... There! It is smoking like water on a cold surface. That effect should disappear shortly."

"I just hope it does not get too hot. A cold burn is unpleasant, a scalding one is not any better," said the Provisioner.

"I shall tell you if it is too warm for you to touch."

"Thanks."

After a few seconds, the FSS cut the external heat and let the outer skin temperature climb to equilibrium on its own. The change in the rate of progress was noted by the Science Officer, and he notified the others.

"The rate of climb is dropping. It can probably measure our temperature. If things continue, it should stabilise well within the margin of error of this thermocouple. That is one fine thermal control the shell has. There! It stopped climbing and seems to be stable. It is slightly above what the room thermostat says should be the programmed room temperature. I always thought the thermostat was off but I could not prove it. I think we have the proof. You can touch the skin safely, Provisioner. Meanwhile, I shall recalibrate that crap."

The Provisioner moved his paw slowly, and, finding no more discomfort, placed it on Viola's hand.

"This is a strange feeling. It feels like a liquid and like a metal. If... like Mercury, but it is not behaving like Mercury."

"Try scratching the surface."

"The claw slips without any vibration... like it was passing through water, but only atom-deep. I feel no resistance, no vibration, and my bones carry back no sound of scratching like I would get on a standard metallic surface. If I was not seeing it with my own eyes, I would believe I hold nothing, touch nothing, as if it was not there. It is even silkier than glass, yet it is flexible. I see no joint at the claws. It bends and stretches without any discontinuity, Science Officer. This is the ultimate space suit. It is like a skin."

Meanwhile, Viola analysed the claw as it rubbed on his palm. Keratin, with added molecules to make it harder, layered thinly one over the other repeatedly, much like an ice plate, therefore very resistant to tear and wear. Viola slowly moved his left hand above the paw and lowered it gently without moving, sandwiching the paw between his own two hands. The upper side of the paw revealed the presence of numerous pores emitting various esters, water, oils and fatty excretions. It was also rougher than what Viola expected. Finally, there were very fine keratin protrusions between small areas.

«Viola, have the FSS tactile sensors examine what you are touching visually. I have a haunch.»

«Okay, Colibri.»

The visual inspection revealed extremely fine and transparent hairs, sticking out of the edges of the thin plaques of skin, which seemed to present light and dark lines encircling the centre of the plaque.

«These are very fine scales, Viola. The overall body colour is produced by the eye averaging the microscopic pigment variations we see. As you notice, the pigment seems to gradually darken as the growth rings appear around the periphery, which tells me their pigmentation is dependant on age. I just counted 350 rings as you passed over one of the plaques. This person has seen 350 growth seasons! The next thing is the hair. It is not very effective as thermal insulator, so it must have another purpose. I think its role is as neural sensor, much like in the Cats' facial hair.»

«Why is it transpiring so much?»

«That is not transpiration. There is very little water coming out of the pores but a lot of oily and fatty excretions. That species marks its passage by pheromones. What you see is the process of marking, which is continuous apparently. Yet, the composition must change, to indicate emotional status, sex, sexual readiness, territoriality and mating intents. It must be a very complex and odorous environment you are currently immersed in. Note the species is not the same as the first one you met. For some reason, the one in the cold box is designed for a wet environment, while this one is more for dry land, and, given the claws, a wooded hardwood one at that. The claws are more apt at climbing trees and holding to branches than to walking on the ground. They are too long for effective displacement on the ground.»

«They must have serious issues handling tools with these claws.»

«I do not think so,» commented Paschal. «After all, they are flying that space-ship and must be able to maintain it. Give them the proper tools and I am sure they can fix most of the issues that can come up in space travel.»

«It is clearly a different species from the one in the freezer. Here it is Bornyl Acetate that dominates the atmosphere.»

«Pine. That is not too bad a smell.»

«Maybe not for you, Colibri, but I am allergic to pines. I doubt they would appreciate seeing me balloon up. It might be seen as a precursor to aggression!» replied Viola. «Funny thing, though, is that I was not allergic until we worked on the rafts to ride down that river oh so long ago now. It has been worse, but I do not want to take any risks.»

«Do not worry, I do not plan to ask you to make your way on board that ship without a FSS,» replied Ian from the Admiral's chair. «I, for one, am not ready to expose them to our pheromones. They might indicate things we are unsuspecting of, and elicit unintended behaviours... from both parties!»

«I wonder what they are talking about? We still have to establish some form of communications.»

«Try anatomy. After all body parts are relatively common.»

«Oh, yes. Since we are holding hands...»

«Do not fall in love!»

«Colibri, some days, I wonder if some soap in your brain would not be a welcomed thing. You have the most sex-obsessed mind of us all, and that speaks volumes!»

«What can I say? Sex is the only reason we have a body!»

«Let me focus on body parts...»

«In the mid-section...»

«Colibri! Grr!»

Viola reddened but his face was masked by the reflective surface of the FSS' helmet, so the Aliens did not notice any change. He began by rubbing the Alien's hand, repeating 'hand' then the claws, with 'claws' the extension of the palm, with 'finger' and so forth. Hoping they would associate sound to object and group the components under the word 'hand'.

"I think it is trying to establish the name of body parts. Give the corresponding name as best you can, Provisioner!" said the Science Officer, creating the first breakthrough in communication between them and Viola.

***

Way behind Thebes, in fact, several thousand light-years behind, Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand made slow progress toward the core of the Andromeda galaxy. Reports were getting progressively more alarming. It became apparent that the nests had been ravaged to the last inhabitant, and that not a single egg had survived. Not only that, but the containers where the Mages hibernated had all been systematically destroyed, visited without exception and reduced to boiling gases, with no trace of survivors. The only positive thing this represented, in the eyes of the Imperial Mage, was it gave him more Mage Fleets to control since those for whom they had been destined no longer were alive to claim their heritage. It also opened a wider breach leading to the Imperial Throne as the very power-hungry Mage made no mystery, at least to himself, that his goal was to replace the Emperor by himself. Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand was not foolish enough to claim this goal openly, as there was still a good chance he might need to walk on the Emperor pincers down, and he did not want any rumours to precede him in the Imperial nest before he could get close enough to clip the Emperor's genitals off, thus removing a contender to the dynasty. For now, he was content at hunting an invader at a slow pace, leaving all the dirty work to the intruder, and wait for his chance to grab the fallout when things came to a head.

His second in command was being very obsequious and did all the necessary things to glorify his master, well aware that each time Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand gave praise, he was closer to being lunch. The Master did not like to be overshadowed by a servant, however bright it might be, and the Officer knew he was threading a very thin line between displeasure from failure and displeasure from too much success. He also suspected that his Master had ulterior motives to the pursuit of the Invader, probably a promotion of some sort, and that anything that might in any way turn the light on a slave was a certain path to dismemberment. He had no idea of the political play and structure of the Mages, but it was apparent, to him at least, that it meant something big, really big, was in play. So he played his cards carefully, accepting more and more responsibilities as fleet after fleet came under the control of his Master, yet remaining modest, almost reclusive, and only suggesting things when he was totally sure no one could overhear his exchanges with the Mage. Now was not the time to shine by intelligence, leadership, or in any other way if he was to survive until the next sleep cycle!

He also kept a tight clamp on his inner feelings about the numerous strange reports about these cold Moons and Planets that seemed to worry the Mage. He acted the perfect idiot, not showing any sign of ever associating things together. Not that he did not understand what these places might have been, but without finding a single intact one, it was mere speculations. Only the reaction of the Mage, which seemed to oscillate between gleeful and morose, told him of the importance of these places. The glee was associated with a new fleet adding its numbers to the now giant armada, and the sombre mood with the destruction of something, but it was not as deep as one might expect. It was almost as if the Mage was conflicted between enraged at the destruction but also happy for some reason it had happened. The Mages were never easy to read, and that one was particularly difficult, with his mood swings. Luckily the Officer seemed to have a certain sixth sense to know when to make himself scarce.

The First Fleet had been reduced to a mere shadow of its former glory, and yet, not a single energy pulse had been fired. That troubled the second in command much more than it did Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand. For the Mage, it was a guide to follow to its prey; for the Officer, it was a strategic nightmare. At some point, the Second Fleet would begin to pay a similar price.

***

The split between Sunrise, Sunset and Aurora had been a long time in coming, but it finally came to a head when Aurora confronted Harp and lost miserably. The twins had tried all they could think of to bring Aurora to reason, but he called them all sorts of Bird names, and refused to admit his views of reality were flawed. For him, others were there to serve him not the other way around, and it produced increasingly numerous clashes between his family and himself. Finally, Aurora had made his way to a deep jungle tessaract, refusing to talk to anyone either physically or mentally. He isolated his mind in a vapour of self-pity, aggressive mental diatribes toward the others, and rancour about what he thought was and what should be.

At some point, he heard about the ship now lurking some 250 light-years ahead of Thebes, and he took a quick look at the video feeds visible from any terminal on Thebes. He wondered how this could be of use for him and his vengeance against those that had 'ridiculed' his grandeur. He began walking mindlessly in Thebes, fuming at anyone he crossed, yelling for no reason at walls and doors that did not open fast enough for his glorious self, and showed a progressive degradation of contact with reality. It so happened that during his peregrinations in Thebes, he walked in on FSS deck 36, which was currently empty. On impulse, he jumped in the FSS vat, ordering it to port within the Alien vessel. He had no idea what he would do, but he was out of reach of his family, finally!

Iridia had been napping in his outer ear as a mite when she was suddenly awoken by the dive in the FSS metallic liquid. Before she could do anything, she was included in the FSS and ported on the Alien ship. The joy that rang through Aurora, accompanied by a considerable amount of gloating, rage, and uncontrolled emotions did little to help her understand what had happened and where they now were. She began sensing around, and was shocked to notice there were no mental contacts within the immediate vicinity except the foggy mind of Aurora. She was not willing to alert him to her presence so she continued to extend her mental tendrils until she finally recognised the mental signature of Viola.

«Viola!» she whispered, intent on establishing contact without alerting the mentally unstable Prince.

«Yes? Who is talking?»

«Iridia. Can you change to Centaur frequencies, please?»

«Viola to Thebes Bridge, changing to Centaur dissociative frequencies.»

«Acknowledged.»

A second later Paschal asked why the change of frequencies.

«Iridia here. I do not know where Aurora and I are, but the closest contact seems to be Viola. I asked the change because I know for certain Aurora has not acquired Centaur gene maps and dual mental frequencies. We can now exchange without him noticing anything.»

«If you are close to me, it mean you are either in the space near the Alien vessel or inside,» Viola informed her. «Is there anything else you can tell me?»

"I am compressed between his left ear lobe and the FSS apparently. I never thought he could do this without planning somehow, and all the alarms were bypassed. He acted purely on instinct, without any premeditation whatsoever.»

«I can force a recall, but it would also recall the entire Swarm, including Viola. It is not the moment for such an action as Viola just made a breakthrough with the Aliens. Try to see through his eyes and figure out where he is and what are his actions,» said Paschal.

«Okay.»

«Believe me, when he gets out of that suit, he goes straight into psychiatric treatment, even if that means rewiring his entire brain!» thundered Harp, not at all pleased by his little brother's recklessness. «Just too bad Dad will not let me give him a hiding to remember me by!»

«He has gone overboard. I try to read him, and all I see is jumbled, disjointed thoughts, all focussed on getting even and some slights made to him by just about everything and everybody. Even walls are blamed for existing as obstacles to his progress. It is nuts.»

«Wait until I squeeze his nuts! He will be singing soprano for a very long while!» replied an infuriated Ian. «His lack of good judgement is on the verge of compromising a first contact, and that is beyond the pale!»

«I just managed to piggyback his eyes. We are in a room where there is this pod, and an individual seems to be in stasis in it. I can not control Aurora's actions. He is punching at everything on it with his fists in a fit of uncontrolled rage!»

«Oh shit! And I can not get out of the Delta Contact Protocol. If I do, it may be impossible to re-establish! Send in someone, quick!»

«I am porting to a FSS deck as we speak!» replied Ian.

«Hurry! I see the wake up cycle engaging and it is moving forward pretty quickly!» replied Iridia.

Quickly was the understatement of the year, as Aurora had managed to type in the emergency reanimation cycle. By the time Ian made his port behind the brat, the Alien Communications Officer had woken, and was in the process of trying to strangle the Atlantean Prince, whom was blocking his way to the hidden triggering mechanism that would blow up the ship and send out a powerful signal across the galaxy declaring the ultimate alert level.

Ian's sudden materialisation behind Aurora took the Communications Officer by surprise and allowed Aurora to violently push it back into the cryogenic chamber.

"Exos es22 ("Exos es: Is (or be) boneless.")!" exclaimed Aurora, as he violently threw his assailant back in the cryogenic chamber. The Magic called upon was powerful but well within the range of a M-1 Mage such as Aurora: the bones dissolved to nothingness, and the muscles no longer had anything to put traction on and move the body around. The Alien was much like a 4-member Octopus. Its body collapsed on itself, breathing became sibilant, and the brain flattened to a soft gelatinous substance.

«Fuck! How can I repair that?» wondered Ian as he eyed the protoplasmic mass now imprisoned in the open pod.

«Do not! He wanted to blow up the ship! There is a hidden antimatter mass near the Magical Condensate Storage that would have torn space open for several light-years around!» said a frightened Aurora.

«Ah! Could it be your brain finally caught up with your actions, you big prick?»

«But...»

«No but, your butt is mine, little brother. Now where is that trigger?»

«Just under the small decorative plate under the desk surface. I suggest we get Paschal, Harp and Thorsten to handle the disposal of that explosive charge.»

«And why do you pick them for this task?»

«Paschal is the Engineer and can spot design anomalies faster than anyone else; Harp the Prince of Magic and can scan this ship from bow to stern, creating a plan; and Thorsten knows explosives better than anyone else.»

«I agree. Paschal, Harp, Thorsten, report to my location in FSS as soon as possible!» ordered Ian. «Viola, gently pull the one that is playing hanky-panky with you toward our location. We need to show what we found. Maybe they were unaware of the situation.»

«Okay. It so happens we are touching each other just about everywhere and naming body parts. It is progressing nicely.»

«We all know where you want to go!»

«Stop it! I am not as obsessed as certain brothers of mine.»

«Tell that to a non-telepathic person, Viola, not to me! By the way, do we have an Empath on board?»

«Strictly? No, usually they have telepathic capabilities as well.»

«Who is the best at our disposal?»

«Aurora. I guess his going nuts was due to being untrained at filtering emotions. We have no one to help him train at his level, contrary to telepaths.»

«That might explain the situation. He is a lot more calm inside his head while he is here. If he is unable to filter out conflicting emotions, Thebes must be a nightmare for him.»

«Hey! Stop talking like I am not on the communal line! But I admit my mind has cleared considerably since I made the jump! Maybe you guys are into something.»

«Oh! Sorry, Aurora. On Thebes, we need to shock you out of your self-centred attitude to get anywhere near you telepathically, so it comes as a surprise you are as good as us.»

«It is okay, Ian.»

«Guys, I am in the elevator. I have yet to figure out if these symbols are letters or numbers, but their position matches the order of decks.»

«Okay. Did you have any issues?»

«No, they are all with me. They followed me the moment I moved toward the door into the deck. I indicated the deck I wanted and one of them pressed a claw in a hole. I thought these holes were screw sockets when I examined the box. I had thought the signs were genetically enabled controls because they did not work when I pressed on them the first time.»

«Alien technology,» commented Paschal, «but adapted to their physiology.»

The Provisioner had felt the two paws clamp gently on his own and pull, so he obediently followed the stranger. He was surprised to be led off the Bridge and to the elevator, then inside the cabin that still was on the same floor he had left it previously. The stranger then moved inside but seemed to be uncertain as to what to do, pushing on the Officers' deck sign repeatedly.

"I think he wants us to go to that deck, Provisioner. Engineer, oblige him!" ordered the Bashar.

The Engineer inserted his central claw in the recess and pressed hard, activating the elevator.

"I wonder why it wants to go there. I know it came from there by way of the Communications Officer's cabin, but why go back?" asked the Science Officer.

"We shall know shortly. Provisioner, let him lead you."

The moment the cabin stopped, Viola turned exited and turned toward the Communications Officer's cabin, alarming his hosts.

"He is going back there. I am sure of it! The question is why?" commented the Weapons Officer.

Shortly, the strange visitor stopped in front of the Communications Officer's cabin and seemed to wait for something.

"It wants us to open the door. Why will it not go through the wall?" asked the Bashar.

"Because the Provisioner can not, and it is aware of that fact," mentioned the Weapons Officer.

"I shall override the door lock," replied the Bashar, as he moved closer and began pressing into a grid of claw-sized holes. After an instant, the door opened, revealing the presence of other strangers aboard his ship. He counted five more, all looking at the door.

The stranger that had brought them down to the cabin moved in and pulled along the Provisioner. The crew dutifully followed in the rapidly overcrowding cabin. Then the stranger pointed at the strangely gelatinous and deformed shape of the Communications Officer.

"What happened to that bastard? All his bones seemed to have vanished!" exclaimed the Science Officer. "If looks could kill, we would be dead right now! Listen to the tone of the sounds he is emitting. He must be enraged, but does not seem to be able to voice anything. I am not about to complain!"

"Neat. I wonder if we could ask them to do the same to the one in cold storage?" asked the Engineer.

"Later, when we overcome the language barrier. Now that one is pointing at something under the desk. Engineer, look at it."

After crawling under the desk and noticing the removed decorative plaque, he noticed a claw hole for a very small claw, one fitting for the inner claw of the front paw.

"Damn! You were right! We did not find all the triggers. They found one. I wonder where this leads."

"Come back up. I think that one wants to touch you."

The Engineer stood up and felt the liquid feel of the strange space suit touch his head. At first, nothing strange seemed to get through, but finally, he felt a warm, loving feeling. As the feeling deepened, he felt a new world open to him.

"Hey, they do not want to harm us, but to establish contact I think. I am learning a new form of Speech, called Atlantean. That one is helping me learn it, and also how to break down the barrier against what it calls telepathy. It is their preferred long-distance way of communications it seems. It seems one of them is an Engineer Officer as well and wants to show me something. I am getting a headache, and the one talking to me by mind says he will stop for my comfort."

«Paschal, show him the plans of the ship and point to the antimatter mine. He will not be able to focus much more, but I think he will understand the issue. He is developing a headache of first magnitude. By the way, all crew members are male. This is to prevent the establishment of wild colonies.»

«I see.»

Paschal moved to the side and pulled out a flat display screen out of thin air, and displayed the Scout ship.

"That is our ship! Look at the precision! I think if I could control this, I could count the screws!" said a flabbergasted Engineer.

Paschal slowly brought the Communications Officer's cabin into plan and displayed the electrical wiring and communications controls. Every Officer present recognised the drawing and set-up. Paschal then zoomed on the trigger, and began following the wiring to its final destination, along with the bypass for communications that the crew had missed.

"That thing is a marvel! I can see the wiring as if I was walking on it! Hey! What is that shit?" said the wide-eyed Engineer.

"Let me see!" interjected the Science Officer.

The Weapons Officer, whom took a peek over the Science Officer, swore like a trucker in a traffic jam. "That is an explosive device, and from the configuration, it is an antimatter mine. From the flux size used to keep the antimatter isolated, it would blow everything around for quite a distance, and tear the space continuum to shreds. That thing is a stellar system destroyer. Our masters have taken absolutely no chances with us or their technology falling in the wrong hands."

"I see! Provisioner, get a pail, put that mass in it, and put it in the nearest locker before decompressing. Weapons and Engineer, pick the one still in cold storage and throw him out the same way. I do not want any more of these bastards around. Once you are done, invite our guests to that mine and ask for assistance in disposing of it safely. I will not sleep until the entire ship is checked from one end to the other," ordered a pissed Bashar.

«I wonder what they are doing with that individual you reduced to a Cephalopod without feet?» asked Paschal.

«Maybe I can find out?»

«Go ahead.»

Slowly moving toward the Bashar, Aurora extended his hands and touched him.

«He seems relieved for some reason. From the images I glimpse, that individual was loathed and he is happy he is in this situation. By the way everyone is male on board, confirms the Captain or Bashar as they call the station. There is another in stasis somewhere to replace that one and both are to be moved to the nearest space lock and thrown out by explosive decompression.»

«What?»

«There are three political Officers on-board. One died by the hands of the Bashar, the other is in that pail, and a third is in stasis. All are viciously brainwashed and would do all they can to destroy us, including sacrificing this ship. It does fit with what Paschal discovered.»

«Have you found more about their language? Do you think we can communicate shortly?»

«They could be telepathic, but they block it for survival. We can use their language shortly. I only need more samples from different contexts. I dumped our language set into the Bashar. If we do this with every crew member, the communication problem will be solved.»

«Do it.»

«The only issue is their hearing range is way different from ours and our voice box is not fit to produce these sounds. It will not be an issue as long as we stay within a FSS, but the moment we exit the suit, we shall have problems.»

«That is not likely to happen soon, Aurora. I shall create a portable voice box for the occasion, until we have incorporated their genetics. Tell me Aurora, how come you acted so childishly before and now act seriously? Was it all a play to lead us on?»

«Oh shit! Maybe it was at the beginning, but as the noise grew, I used it as some form of protection. It is so quiet in here compared to Thebes, I find it relaxing.»

«That can be trained. Too bad you never trusted me enough to tell me about the issue,» replied Harp. «Plan to stay on-board this ship as an Envoy. It will be some time before we can train you to block the flow of external emotions.»