Galactica: Book 2 - Andromeda

Chapter 27 - Droids

 

Bjorn was taken aback by Sitar's declaration. He had expected someone else to take over and he felt totally inadequate for the task. He began, almost on automatic, to assign tasks and stations to everyone, gradually entering the Command Trance he had seen occur on occasion by the Royals. He thanked Harp in his mind for having rewired his body and mind to allow telepathy and a better speech pattern, shivering at the disaster this situation would have been had he not spent six months in a stasis pod to have his body regenerated, his genes fixed, and what not he was not aware of and not interested in discovering. All he knew is, even if he felt 'continuous', there was a gap where his body and his brain got totally revamped.

"Sensors, report!" he muttered, knowing his command would be picked up by the embedded microphones for those whom had lesser hearing than the Royals and the AIC would direct the command to the proper loudspeaker headset, at the proper volume.

He watched the sensors, whose variety still amazed him, peel distances as first, short-range, then medium-range, and long-range sensors projected their image of reality in differing colours, with red closest, orange at medium-range, and yellow at long-range.

"Overlay trajectory vectors!"

Instantly, a stream of yellow meshed together, showing that the long-range objects were in movement relative to each other, with a few on intercept course with Thebes. Medium-range vectors, in orange, were gradually aligning themselves to a target: Thebes itself. Short-range space was remarkably empty of objects other than random pieces of rock, a few red dwarf Stars with cold Planets orbiting at close quarters. These were probably old and abandoned nesting sites for the Slavers.

"Hide natural trajectories."

That suppressed stellar movement, as well as any trajectory that could be of natural origin: orbits, free-travelling rocks and Planets. It almost cleared Thebes' 'front yard' only leaving a couple of red streaks.

"Identify the red streaks' origins!" Another addition to his body he had not noticed, Bjorn thought. Red was not part of his visual range, and would have probably been seen as some other colour.

After a few minutes, the report came in.

"Scouts, of unknown origin, matching the latest catalogue entry UFO-14 we met during transit," replied a voice that matched Alexander's, Bjorn thought.

"Have we registered transmissions originating from them?" he asked the proper desk. Annabelle's voice replied instantly. "Nothing yet, but it should not be long."

"I want all transmissions fogged to the point they do not even know where to start looking for a frequency!"

"Blanket static, all domains, all frequencies, activated." Timor tipped a bank of switches mentally, using his newly acquired Magic for fine control for one of the first times.

"Send out free-floating portals in the path of the objects and port them inside Thebes, hood Z35. Harp, deep-freeze time on hood Z35. Ian, recover portals after use. No use leaving tools for potential enemies behind."

Once the two Scouts materialised inside the hood, the portals were recovered and stored back, Bjorn turned to Enron. "Find out all you can about the inhabitants of the Scouts, Enron." Not done, he looked towards Paschal and asked, in a no-nonsense tone: "I want to know everything about these Scouts. Dismantle them, piece by piece, layer by layer, atom by atom!" As those involved began to head to the door, he added a last order: "FSS are mandatory. We know nothing about them. AIC, full containment of hood Z35; decontamination protocol Omega." The last order produced some appreciative whistles from the other Royals. Nothing, not even an atom, would be left intact once the protocols had run their course. "Harp, you have time control of the hold. Remember, we must be able to study them without their knowledge. That means, YOU find a way to allow Enron and Paschal free movement while keeping them frozen more solid than a popsicle. Too bad FSS do not have time transit, it could be of use now."

"Time transit?" ticked Harp, trying to figure out what Bjorn was thinking.

"Well yes, the ability to activate the chronions frequencies as they do their work. That way, they could do their task by letting the clock tick at any rate, no thicker than the time wave, that is, almost zero thickness. They would be able to study anything, even life, without disturbing it in any way since they would be acting not on matter but on time itself."

"You are a genius, Bjorn! I'll get on that as soon as Paschal is back!"

"Mr. Time Prince should first focus on his current task..."

"Right, Bjorn. I'll try not to be distracted."

***

«Colibri, we are in the first Scout. They are staffed by what I would label Lizards... Their face has a long snout with, from what I can see from one that was busy yelling an order of some sort, a double rank of sharp teeth, of at least 4 inches, with rather prominent canines. The eyes are spherical, protuberant but not as much as some of our own Lizards... somewhere between the Crocodile and the Chameleon. The tongue is not forked, and deep-blue, rather than the usual black found in many Lizards. Skin colour is, from what I can see, rather greyish. They wear clothes, a thick layer of them in fact, probably because they are cold-blooded... no that does not make sense, unless the clothes have heating systems incorporated. We'll find out later. Enron out.»

«Who has engineering?» asked Paschal as he too began describing what he saw.

«Daniel. He has flair the new guy,» replied Bjorn.

«Okay. Daniel? Log in my report please.»

«Sure. Go.»

«The seating arrangement is in a triangle, all seats are staffed and facing each other; there seems to be a mechanism that allows the seats to convert to cocoons. The writing on the controls is yet to be decoded but remind me of Curvilinear B. the prime writing form of the Soul-Eaters, which, if you look at their evolutionary history, also had prominent claws at the beginning; the controls themselves seem to be accessed by little holes; from the hand position of one of the crew, they insert their nails into the control and activate them by pressing on them. They have five nails by hand, which allows them to access 10 controls simultaneously. I find the idea difficult to understand as it does not allow for quick change of configuration. I see no computer controls. Some lines are lighter than others; probably an indication of active controls. I am sticking micro-X-rays on their body, as is Enron. Be ready for a micro-release of the time freeze, Harp."

Several minutes later for those on Thebes' deck, the countdown to the release was completed and the Lizards were unaware they had been searched inside and out by the radiation.

«I am returning to the Bridge, while Paschal begins peeling the ship to its components.»

«Do not forget bio-containment policies.»

«I am not stupid, Bjorn.»

Ten minutes later, Enron walked in the Bridge.

"Was there a problem?"

"No, Bjorn, if you except the need to dispose of yesterday's dinner."

"I thought that was dealt with when you were transferred from the FSS to the incoming deck?"

"It is. I was only feeling grimed up so I actually took a shower. Feels good after a stay in a FSS, believe you me. So, Colibri, have you had time to eye the X-rays?"

"Yes. These guys have strange bones, almost porous... I would say bird-like, but it is worse, like... they had stayed in zero-gravity for far too long to maintain bone density. I am sure if we put them in a gravity well, their bones would collapse to dust."

"Interesting. That means their ships can not accelerate much otherwise they would end up like gelatine," said Bjorn, adding another comment: "They also lack the technology to create artificial gravity or the ability to compensate for sudden changes of direction or speed, no dampeners. It will be useful. Sitar, prepare the strategy to force them to change directions and speed often."

Sitar had not waited for the order and was already talking with Samson about the use of Thebes' mobility and the presence of gravity wells nearby to play havoc on the incoming trouble.

"There is more. I noticed dense matter along the spine, the lower brain case, and within the brain-case itself. If I was more of a techie, I would say they are carrying implanted circuitry, a mix of organic and mechanical... They are Droids of some sort. As to the extent of the thing, how it is used, I have no idea. It is rather extensive, affecting just about every articulation, muscle and bone. From re-growth, it is implanted quite young at that, probably before the bones solidify from its basic cartilage. To know more, we need a complete anatomical study. X-rays do not reveal much of soft structures."

"Pretty good, so far, Colibri. I have yet to add anything."

"I suggest we port the three future corpses in stasis chambers and proceed to anatomic, and cellular analysis. We might be able to figure out more that way."

"Bjorn, your call. If you say so, they end up dead, reduced to their molecular components."

"Proceed. We are at war, and I do not give much credence to the Geneva Convention when we're dealing with that kind of life-form. They do not bother much about themselves if they implant those things in Children."

"Or before."

"Or before, Colibri?" wondered Bjorn.

"You believe they are Mammal; there is no indication of such a structure. But if you look at that one, on the central monitor, you see what looks like an egg in formation, indicating a female. It would fit with Bird or Lizard, but not Mammal, given the size of said egg."

"Will they suffer?" asked Annabelle.

"During the process? No. I know stasis pods allow stoppage of time, and also micro-surgery. We will simply stop time, record each cellular layer before removing it, and dispose of layers until there is nothing left. There is also the fact that cellular structures, links, and what not will be extracted by the process. It will not even be bloody since nothing well be able to move."

"But they are intelligent!"

"Intelligent but unwilling to use it since they fired before thinking. My decision stands, Your Highness," said Bjorn in a definitive tone that surprised the Royals. "And if you think about it, they implement these things in their Children. A species whom does not value its Children is dangerous. We have enough of those around already."

Annabelle nodded. She too felt uneasy about that kind of species.

***

"Paschal?" the FSS speakers uttered.

"Yes?"

"Ready them for porting into stasis pods for anatomical de-structuring."

"I will put a beacon on their thorax, and you ready the port."

"Do they have seat belts?"

"More like couch belts. It is a seven-point thoracic lock key."

"We will do this in three phases. Each time you are done placing the beacon, I will restart time at a very slow rate, allowing you to remove their belts. Once it is done, I will port the one you freed to an empty stasis pod," explained Harp, as he made his way to the portal controls beside Harold. "Back away after activating the beacon."

"Okay. Will you port their clothes?"

"Yes. There might be, or should I say, there are biological contaminants in those clothes."

"Acknowledged. Please separate biological from mechanical during port, we might learn things from that separation."

"That will be difficult, given they are Droids, Paschal. I suggest we port everything and do things in-stasis pod. After all their clothes can be analysed as well."

"I see, Harp. Do as you see fit."

***

Shortly, the three Lizards were held in stasis pods. Harp, Enron, and Colibri moved to the pods.

"I wonder if we should not wait on Paschal to deal with this? That neural interface is strange-looking, and, I, for one, do not feel comfortable even taking out layers without his presence."

"I think you have a point, Colibri. Even the clothes seem to be integrated with their nervous system. Stripping must be an elaborate affair. I do notice they have palmed fingers, which tells me their ecosystem is basically water-based..."

"Enron, water is not the only liquid in the universe..." commented Colibri.

"So, what do we do?"

"Harp, we wait. I really would like Paschal present."

"Okay, back to the Bridge, then."

Minutes later...

"Back already?" Sitar asked as he eyed them briefly before returning his attention to the motion of the ships.

"Ya, it was not edible."

"Harp!" exclaimed the two Exobiologists, making puking noises.

"Little Brother's humour is as bad as ever..." Sitar noted.

"And you like it!" deadpanned Harp. "Talking about Paschal, any news?"

"Hey, I thought I was the timetable-obsessed guy!" replied Sitar, "And no, nothing yet. All I hear is mumbles over the speakers, telling me Paschal is not liking what he's finding."

"Nothing is to his taste, the nuts and bolts maniac! Even his own designs!"

"Should I?"

"Harp, to be or not to be, that is the question..."

"Are you telling me, Sitar, that Paschal's temper is so hot it would be suicidal to bother him?"

"It's your funeral."

"I get it. I'll be taking a bath for a while. The Royal Baths are calling..."

«Can I go too?» asked Greywolf, «I got some Fleas that need to learn how to swim.»

"Fleas! You got Fleas? Where did you get them?"

«I went hunting with Fang Chao in one of the Earth Tessaracts, the 'Northern American Pre-Historical Tessaract – Time Frame Quaternary' to be exact, and we have a complete duplicate of the area some 4,5 million years after the beginning of the Quaternary Period, including Parasites, much to my displeasure.»

"And I thought I had shielded that Tessaract so Parasites would not carry when you left?"

«They did not. I just itch. I do not expect to see Flea floaters in the water.»

Harp released a breath he did not know he had been holding. "You had me scared! If Parasites made it out of Tessaracts, any Tessaract, we would be in deep trouble. Forget the notion of isolation of Epochs and worse still, Planetary Ecosystems. Can you imagine the catastrophe if a single Bacterium made it from say Mars Ecosystem to an Earth Ecosystem? Panspermia of that scale could well kill our entire work! The Earth shows repeated exposure to interstellar contaminants, and we now have records that confirm some of the worse cases of Planet-wide Plagues were caused by viruses surviving re-entry into the atmosphere by hiding in Meteorite showers. The Ancients were right in believing Life got seeded. But they were wrong in believing it had stopped. The Planet was pepper-sprayed regularly by the passage of Meteorite showers, Comets, and the occasional crash of a bigger piece of junk. Mars was worse off. And our life time-trackers have shown that Mars had a nice habitat for a while. We even have a series of Mars ecosystems we recovered from the past in storage... somewhere. There are even Human historical records matching epidemics with intensive Meteorite showers or the passage of Comets."

"That is interesting, Harp. I think I should go visit..."

"Sure, Mom. Just do not forget to wear a FSS... Atmospheric pressure was never that high on Mars, and it has its own nasty cuties as Colibri calls them. Exobiologists! I wonder if he has a hidden Jurassic Park somewhere... 'These creatures would not hurt a Fly!' he would probably say, unaware they would not because the Flies would not even register to them!"

Enron blinked and made for a discrete exit from the Bridge, intent on intercepting Colibri before he came back from the restroom. Making his getaway, he ported to the nearest restroom.

"Colibri? Are you in here?"

"Yes, what's the problem?"

"I suggest you project an image of innocence when you get back to the Bridge. Harp is thinking you have a hidden Dinosaur play-park in a Tessaract."

"How in Hell did he find out?"

"You do?!"

"Well, yes, it has been hidden in one of the backwater Tessaracts, almost frozen in time to prevent too quick of an evolution. And he can not complain; he copied an entire Planet's ecosystem history, including their last stage of life before it got blown up by its Star, which included Dinosaurs. He fed them the revolutionaries, remember? The selfish hard-head did not even leave me one to feed the baby Rex..."

"Baby Rex?"

"Tyrannosaurus Rex. I've been feeding it since the Mom got killed during a scuffle over a Brontosaurus carcass with a male of the same species. I've been studying their behaviour, territorial attitudes, and the likes. Rex's territory was in the order of several thousand square miles, and they did not put up with competition... They tolerated the females during mating, but she had better exit the area once Mister Rex had satisfied the Need or she could well end up as dinner. The Baby is a Female. I am trying to teach it how to hunt. Not a piece of cake, believe me!"

"You are not hand-feeding it?"

"Hey, I am not that dumb! It needed regurgitated meat for a few weeks, and it grew by several feet before it could begin eating dead preys. But now it's hunting small animals. I keep an eye on it, taking care to keep her out of trouble and teaching her the basics of detecting trouble before trouble finds her. It's an apex predator, and she acts as if the world was hers, but she got to realise there is always a bigger bully in the back yard."

"Regurgitated meat? Eww!"

"Yes, that," said Colibri, shivering in remembrance.

"How did you manage to control the time flow in the Tessaract? I thought it was Harp's prerogative."

"I can read, you know. He has this Ridulian scroll that gives the entire equation set, with solved examples and how to do the whole thing, from A to Z... or should I say from 1 to 1,000? The number of things to control is frightening. I used AI-1 to resolve the equation set. I may be intelligent, but Harp reduces me to the intellect of a Flea. When I think he does this in his head, on instinct! What actually brought Harp on the topic?"

"He said something to the effect that he wondered if you had a Jurassic Park somewhere. claiming the Dinosaurs were misunderstood cuties that 'would not hurt a Fly'. He said the Dinosaurs would not hurt a Fly because they would be too small to be noticed by them."

"Damn! He knows me too well. But he is wrong. The Dinosaurs do notice the Insects. It's hard to miss a Mosquito the size of the plane of the same name! And Dragonflies that could probably compete with B-29s... Actually, I am pushing. Dragonflies grow to a wingspan equivalent of a Cessna. Mosquitoes are smaller, but not by much!"

"A Cessna?"

"An Ancient plane, for a strange activity called tourism, with a wing-span of 36 feet... That was due to the Oxygen level in the atmosphere, that was well over 50%. The Tessaract recreates the environment. They have a sting fit for their size too. And they have feathers. Damn, they are beautiful."

"The Insects have feathers?"

"No, the Dinosaurs. It proves that a feather is a curved scale..."

"And would not hurt a fly..." added Enron with a trace of irony.

"They try, but the Insects fly too fast for them. Now, how to hide that Tessaract from Harp, that is the question."

"If you can, that is..."

"I have succeeded for 40 or so years... I see no reason for this not to continue..."

"Forty years? Forty years?!"

"Ya," replied Colibri in a blasé tone.

"And what else did you hide from us?"

"It is for me to know and for you to find out!"

"Colibri! GRR! I better not learn you have a pet Soul-Eater!"

"I am not that dim-witted. Anyway, go eat something while I return to the Bridge. It would seem odd if we came back together."

"Some days..." moaned Enron, "Some days!"

Enron made his way to the First Legion's mess hall, trying to act nonchalant. He did not see the number of eyes watching his back as he made his way down the hall to the food line to pick up some pasta, Fettuccine Alfredo, his favourite comfort food. Whispers spread rumours faster than a fire in a dry pine forest.

Colibri, unconcerned, made his way back to the Bridge and sat discretely in Enron's station, passing under Harp's radar, or so he thought, because said Harp was speaking with Timor, Tom and Jerry. He focussed on the log Enron had left before leaving the Bridge, and tasked himself with monitoring the progress of the tasks Enron had logged in for surveillance. He did not see Harp eye him while talking to Tom about the Insects they had collected from another Planet, as Tom was showing growing interest in Entomology, more specifically Butterflies. As it was, Tom had come looking for the two Exobiologists and found them absent, had queried of their location to Harp, whom ticked at their simultaneous absence. Bjorn's comment that Insects were as crunchy as Sesame seeds when eaten had made sure Harp would not forget the topic!

Leaving the Science desk, Harp made his way to stand behind Colibri noiselessly.

"What is so fascinating at the biosciences desk, Harp?" asked Bjorn, unaware of the situation.

Colibri, taken aback by the question spoken on the almost silent Bridge, fell off his chair and knocked his head on the control desk.

"Nothing much except the guilty look of Colibri here," replied Harp, in a voice so filled with honey it almost had the Bridge invaded by Bees!

"Guilty?" stammered Colibri, "Of what?"

"How about you tell me, Mister Exobiologist? And no use looking for an exit route. Your Deer in the headlight looks is proof enough for me! Now?"

Colibri was not easily intimidated, and Harp had long lost his god-hood status in his eyes, so he replied, flippantly, "Now what?"

"Tell me about that hidden cache of Dinosaurs, Colibri."

"A hidden cache of Dinosaurs? How in Hell can you hide these things?" asked, awed, Tom.

"The same way we store ecosystems, Tom. He uses a Tessaract."

"But only you know how to set these things up!" noted Jerry.

"Apparently not. So?" asked Harp, eyeing Colibri, that was standing up from floor, and rubbing his bums.

"Prove it."

"Easy. Tessaract Z-191, found behind the one containing the Egyptian museum, and which I had completely forgotten the existence, compressed by 1e10, divided into 36 time layers, slowed to 1/31,557,600 of normal speed so one second in there lasts a full Thebes year. I verified, Colibri. I am surprised you even managed to fold space and time properly. I was sure no one knew how except me! Mind telling me how you did it? By the way, each Tessaract Portal carries my signature. I only needed to ask a search for one not carrying that mark for me to find it. And it carried your signature, Colibri."

Unable to hide the facts anymore, Colibri looked at Harp with pride in his eyes.

"I can read."

"Read? I sure hope so! But what does it have to do with it?"

"Hieroglyphs, Harp. You seem to forget we have archives, and that, as part of the Royal family, I have access to all. So, do not worry, that nice step-by-step description is safe and has not left the Imperial Library."

Harp kept scratching his head, trying to figure out what Colibri was talking about. Then he had a flash-back!

"The Ridulian scrolls! Those we stored the plans of Thebes on, and took out of Atlantis before the Flood! That is not from yesterday! I knew Ridulian scrolls were long-lasting, but that is the Cherry on the cake! Did you find anything else?"

"There are millions of scrolls in there, you know. I was removing dust from a pile when that one fell and I saw your signature on the seal, that had cracked when it fell off the shelf. I wondered how to repair the seal, but the moment I picked it up, it fell to dust. Wax seals are not permanent, except on Ridulian, but that one was tied to a red ribbon that turned to dust, destroying the seal by the occasion. Ridulian scrolls are not Papyrus so I managed to unroll it, especially after my curiosity was piqued by the outer title: Time, Space, and the Physics of Magical Energy, by Merlin Ambrosius Myrrdin, Great Grand Mage of Atlantis. I knew it was you."

"It has been ages since someone said my family name, Colibri. Ambrosius was my paternal Grand-Father; he died on the day of the exodus from our Home World. We were still mortal in those days. We honoured our family, our Fathers, in a prayer to the Souls of the lost, which gave rise to the Latin prayer: Pater Noster, qui es in caelis, sanctificetur nomen tuum. Adveniat regnum tuum. Fiat voluntas tua, sicut in caelo et in terra. Panem nostrum quotidianum da nobis hodie, et dimitte nobis debita nostra sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris. Et ne nos inducas in tentationem, sed libera nos a malo. Amen."

"Sobering, Harp. Sorry my indiscretion brought back sombre memories."

"Time has passed, aeons to be exact, and the pain has dulled, if not vanished."

Colibri gave a heart-felt hug to Harp, tears in his eyes. "Family, real family, can never be lost, because it reminds with us until our last day."

"True. You will have to bring us to that part of the Imperial Library, Colibri. I, for one, can not ever remember seeing it. It probably got moved with the sections that we moved to build Thebes as we know it now."

"Well, yes, that is one aspect of it."

"There is more?"

"Paschal sent back Collectors, remember? That also brought up a rather huge pile of stuff. Ridulian scrolls were automatically moved to the Imperial Library, as well as Papyrus scrolls written in Imperial Hieroglyphs, and let us not forget the baked clay tablets from Babylon, and, well, I think I saw a huge volume of them containing Cuneiform B, you know, the writing of the Soul-Eaters. We do need to figure out how to read that more easily. It might tip us off on what to expect and might even explain how Cuneiform-B is found in this Galaxy. I do not expect the language to be the same, but symbols tend to stabilise when writing is concerned. Paschal would know more. Maybe the Soul-Eaters swarmed from outside the Milky Way. We have no definitive proof they originated in the Milky Way Galaxy. If so, that might explain their presence here, and forewarn us of their presence elsewhere."

"Damn it! Colibri's right!" swore Sitar. "We never did find their original world even with the Collectors! And we are almost done skimming the Milky Way. The chances of them originating at the Galactic core are almost nil. All we found was vast proofs of their depredations. When is Paschal due to report?"

"At dinner, in an hour." replied Bjorn.

"Okay. When dinner comes by, call him. I know my Brother: he will probably work non-stop until he falls over. And Bjorn, you need to rest too, and eat. You have been in that seat since midnight, that is almost 18 hours! Go take a shower, pee, do whatever is necessary. You need to rest and no one will steal your station. You will be called back should anything develop while you are off Bridge," ordered Sitar.

***

Paschal began looking at the controls the moment the last Lizard was ported out. The first thing he noticed was the presence of sockets in the seat. He photographed them and slowly began dismantling everything, recording by video every step, and taking an insane amount of still photographs, X-rays, and what not. The thing he noticed rapidly was that those that had assembled the ship had used coded colour schemes, which would allow for a quick following of circuits. Sockets were also designed so there was only one way to insert the male into the female (Eww, he thought, why am I having mating thoughts? It's not the time!) As he progressed in his investigations, he ported each component to his forensic laboratory, along with paper drawings, and the omnipresent imagery. Everything was numbered, and the individual components catalogued, with comments on potential use. Eight hours in the process, he received a call from the Bridge reminding him he has to close the investigation for the day. An hour later, another reminder came from Bjorn, which he ignored. Believing he had been forgotten, he was surprised to receive a stern warning from Bjorn.

"Five minutes to automatic recall, Paschal! And I mean it! So wrap it up!"

"But I'm not outside of Thebes!"

"Maybe not, but you are out of this world. You need to rest before you make a blunder. You have been at it 12 hours minus 5 minutes. At 12 hours... So, wrap it up!"

"You are worse than Mom!"

"Glad to hear it! That's the best compliment you ever told me!"

Paschal quickly brought his paper trail to a folder and ported to the Disembarkation deck he had set near his laboratory. The folder materialised in a high Gamma ray environment for a few seconds then was moved to his work station. Paschal, rid of his FSS, moved to the laboratory to study the paper and the components... only to find himself ported to the Bridge.

"What's the big idea, Bjorn?"

"Harp told me you would abide by the letter of my ruling, not by its spirit. You will rest, Paschal, and that means no work! Now, we're going to the Mess Hall, and you better be doing a mess of that plate of food!"

"Can I at least talk about what I found, mummy?"

"After supper. And you better wait or I'll tie you up! And feed you with a spoon!"

"Kinky... Didn't know you liked that..."

"Get the brain out of the sewers!"

The other Royals watched the exchange with smirks hidden behind hands. Bjorn had matured considerably since he had been rescued all those years ago, much to their pleasure.

***

After dinner, the Royals made their way to the Bridge for a short discussion. Bjorn presided the table, as current Captain.

"Okay. Paschal?"

"Their circuitry is colour-coded, which tells me they see in colour; next, there is a rather impressive number of connection sockets on the seat, which is strange. I wonder if their integration between machine and life has not reached a point where the Droids are now dependent on the machine to survive. Remember the Cyborgs? They were what Enron and I labelled L8 integration, L9 would have removed everything BUT the brain, and L10 would have replaced the organic brain by a form of positronic matrix. These Lizards are at L5: They seem to be somewhat in the middle ground, and moving towards the cybernetics aspects of things. I would not put it beyond them to have replaced a computer interface by logging directly their extremities to the interface. Remember, guys, we saw these holes where their fingers were lodged. I would not put it beyond them to have installed in their suits interfaces that would allow control by sending nerve pulses. Furthermore, the total absence of monitors tells me they probably used heads-up displays integrated into their suits."

"Or connect directly their brain to the feedback sensors of their ship."

"Yes, Colibri, that is another option, and would probably move them closer to the side of the Borgs than we would feel comfortable with."

"I seem to remember a book about neural integration dating just before the last nuclear war..." noted Annabelle.

"Yes, they were working towards L1 integration, in order to repair spinal injuries," Enron informed the others.

"Back to the Lizards... We ported them from the seat to the stasis pods. What, according to you, happened when we did this?" asked Sitar.

"If we had done it in real time, we would have on our hands dead aliens. The neural trauma would have been considerable. It is only the fact that they are in zero-time that they are 'alive' but the moment we restart the clock, they will die. It is PTSD on a vast scale."

"You are not encouraging, Enron. It is rather difficult to establish exchanges with corpses."

"Harp, we already planned on vivisection, so the result will be the same. However, Paschal, do you think a neural imager would work for them?"

"We can try, Colibri, but for this to work for sure, we would need a complete neural map first with proper modelling of behaviours. We have nothing of the sort. Yes, I can image, say an alligator, not that it is of use, but I can; but that is due to the fact that I have a complete neural map and how the biological brain works. I would be hard put to guarantee the behavioural fidelity of, say, a Crocodile Priest, if only because their anatomy has retained some Human structures, while regressing in others, and diverging in another group. Here, we are talking of what looks like reptiles of the crocodilian family, but the key word here is 'looks'."

"What are your plans concerning the three in stasis, apart from vivisection?"

"Is there anything else to plan, Bjorn? We slice them one cell layer after the other, and record every single bit of what we find. I do not plan to eat them, in case you are thinking along these lines."

A general "EWW! Colibri!" was heard.

"Colibri is as direct as ever. However, we need to go through their suits first, before we begin the dismemberment. And here, we need Paschal. He's the engineer here, and we do not wish to miss something he would not," Enron said.

"I thought you had begun?"

"No, we looked at the suit, and figured you would be best at dealing with it," replied Colibri.

"Then, maybe, and it is a small maybe, we can protect their nervous system. After all the feedback produced by taking them out of the cockpit has yet to reach their nerves due to the port from one zero-time to another. Are you still interested in vivisection if this is the case?"

"No. But we will keep them in a slowed-down Tessaract after removing their suit, and analysing the neural plates we are bound to find under the suit to interface with their body. If necessary, can you install a null feedback loop so they are not deprived of sensations? It would be useless to do all that only to get nut-cases due to sensory deprivation."

"I think it is possible for me to design this, once I have analysed the neural plates. It will not be done overnight."

"We are not rushed. And do not forget that Tessaracts can be sped up as well as slowed down. I'm sure I can move the clock rate on your design lab so you are out of there in the blink of an eye... for us!"

"Okay, Harp. That is acceptable. I estimate I will need a fortnight to do what is needed."

"Get going, I will set up the Tessaract so you come back out in 15 minutes. One minute out here will give you a day to work."

"Thank you, Harp. Colibri, Enron? Let us go examine these suits while Harp sets the laboratory for my needs."

***

The three looked at the Lizards floating in the suspension liquid. Paschal placed the Lizards in a zero-gravity environment, and then, with the help of the two Exobiologists, began removing slices of the suit, one atom layer at a time, while mapping everything. Gradually, a three-dimensional image of the suit emerged, including a full map of the electronic circuits, the neural plates, and everything sticking out of the Lizards' skin.

"Rotate the bodies so we have a dorsal map!" ordered Enron as the last atomic layer got removed. Paschal did as asked, and the process resumed. The number of connections at the spinal level was astounding, shocking even Paschal. The presence of a rather thick tail that seemed to be prehensile added another dimension to the analysis.

"That tail is like a fifth hand!" exclaimed Colibri at some point. "That must require a lot of fine co-ordination!"

"I have gained a lot of respect for those that designed these things," replied Paschal. "However, I do wonder how they add these connections on the body. Even with general anaesthesia, the pain must be maddening!"

"Did you notice they have even integrated circuitry in their genitals? BRR!" shivered Colibri.

"Probably as a positive-negative feedback loop to ensure a quick learn and instant obedience. Talk about slavery! The Sumerians, under guidance by the Soul-Eaters, instituted circumcision as a means of breaking resistance in a male that was less damaging than castration, as it allowed the slaves to reproduce. Had they found out how to implement that method, I would not have put it beyond them to do it in Humans. The Soul-Eaters relished the trauma and pain induced by circumcision and erected it as a God-given directive."

"I agree, Enron. Humans suffered much, but these Lizards suffer much too. Paschal, we are done with the suits. What next?"

"Next? We rest. Tomorrow, I bring these maps to the laboratory Harp has so graciously time-clipped and I analyse everything in detail. I then design the feedback loop to plug in their neural plates and, once this is done, you and I come back here so you and Enron implant the feedback loop. If I were you I would plan to do a full biological mapping while I'm busy, because, once the feedback loops have been plugged in, I intend to design and build the brain imager."

"That gives us 15 minutes to do the biological map tomorrow morning... Not much."

"Colibri, remember they are in pods. The pods have a complete biological mapping capability. You can start them tonight, and they will be done by morning! Guys, read the user manual, once in a while! Some days, I wonder why I bother writing anything!"

"A user manual? I thought it was a technical specifications book... given its 6,400 pages!"

"Do not judge a book by the covers. The technical specifications book, if I ever print it, will have over a million pages."

"Paschal is optimistic!" said AI-5 over the speakers. "The Pods' technical Manual is 3,200,313 pages thick, legal format..."

"Paschal! You are worse than Harp!"

"Glad to hear it, Enron!"

***

Bjorn was woken up around 0200 local Time by the Bridge Watch.

"Sir, there is movement from the fleet in front of us."

"Thank you. Wake up Sitar and Enron. I am porting to the Bridge."

"Acknowledged."

Bjorn made his way to the Bridge, followed shortly by Enron and Sitar.

"Situation report?" he asked as he sat on the Imperial Command Chair.

"There are over 3,000,000 ships converging on our position, accelerating at an astounding 12 G. They should reach light speed in 5 months if they continue that acceleration."

"That is slow, way slow!"

"I know. I think they expect us to ignore them if they do things slowly."

"Sitar? Do you agree with the strategic analysis by the Ensign?"

"Yes. They certainly have the capacity to move a lot faster, and accelerate accordingly. I wish we had a full capability check of their Scouts."

"Call Paschal to the Bridge!" ordered Bjorn. "He is the best source for that. Get me Harp on the horn. He is to speed Paschal's laboratory early."

A few minutes later, Harp grumbled on the Bridge speakers: "You better have a good reason to interrupt my play-time with Thorsten!'

"There is action. Activate Paschal's Tessaract laboratory to the programmed time speed-up immediately!" said Bjorn, in a no nonsense tone.

"On it. It will be set in five."

"Days?"

"No, Bjorn, minutes."

"You are getting slow in your old age, Prince of Magic!"

"GRR! Go play with your stiffy!"

Paschal walked in on the Bridge as the last exchange between Bjorn and Harp resounded over the Bridge's speakers.

"Bjorn, I am getting worried about you. Never, before, have you shown such aplomb in handing Harp. Are you sure you are fit to command?"

"Paschal! It is not the time to instil doubt in Bjorn! So keep your crap thoughts to yourself!" exclaimed Colibri, shocking the other Royals. "Anyway, you guys sowed the field, now you reap the rewards. You keep blowing smoke up each other's ass and now you are surprised we do the same?"

"I admit we are one bunch of irreverent loonies. Sorry, Bjorn, I did not mean to imply you were unfit for command."

"Thank you for the vote of confidence. I will need it. Please report to your laboratory. From last night's report, your analysis of their ship was not completed. I need it yesterday. Harp is setting up your forensic laboratory with the proper clocking. Proceed with diligence, but safely. We need the analysis as quickly as possible. Enron, how is the biological mapping progressing?"

"That is the first thing I checked when I logged into the biosciences desk. It should be complete in a couple of minutes. By the time Paschal enters his Tessaract, the data should be at his fingertip. I woke up Colibri, Paschal; he should be waiting for you at the entrance to the laboratory. You might need his help in understanding the reports."

"Thanks. Enron, do you know if they are clones?"

"The Lizards? No. But I think it could be the next step in the integration process since it would standardise the connections, which, for now, need to be designed individually."

"That sucks. I will need to design three sets of null-plates."

"I know. The earlier you start the earlier it's finished."

"Well, I'm off. See you tomorrow morning, if not earlier."

***

Colibri and Paschal made their way into the laboratory and split the work. Colibri analysed the biological reports while Paschal quickly proceeded to focus on the propulsion aspect of the Scouts. He kept mumbling into his microphone as he proceeded to the dismantlement of the propulsion section.

Colibri read the biological reports, taking extensive notes concerning genetics, implantation of neural pathways, and creating a three-dimensional map of the nervous system. He noticed the presence of deeper electronic circuitry directly in the brain stem and the forebrain. He pulled out a magnetic resonance map of said circuits, and produced a map of their connections, both outside of their box and within the boxes.

Three Tessaract days later, as the 'day' came to a close, the two Boys sat for a well-deserved diner.

"What have you found so far, Paschal?"

"They have Warp speed, to a maximum of Warp 2. They have also installed buffering so they can accelerate from near immobility to Warp in a few minutes. Their buffers are not as good as ours. Our Scouts can reverse direction on a dime. They have to turn. There is no indication of functioning teleportation devices, but remember, these are Scouts. They may have those on bigger ships. Sitar has managed to instil in me the notion that one must never underestimate another."

"I thought it was Harp? That little bugger scares me every time we train!"

"That one too. And you?"

"Well, I have a genetic map... there are important variations from one individual to another, but I think you would be interested in their neural pathways. Those, albeit varying considerably, do show common structures. One missing structure is the speech pathways."

"They can not speak?"

"I did not say that. It is missing because it was replaced by an electronic circuitry! Their brain has a series of 'black boxes', to retake an image from the Ancients, that substitute the nervous patterns. I have figured out that they exchange via electronic signals either via the ship's electronics, radio signals from ship to ship, or radio signals from individual to individual. It is a form of artificial telepathy. I also have figured out the encoding of the messages."

"Interesting!"

"Very. They use noise to transmit information."

"Noise?"

"Yes. They saturate the bandwidth with noises, and superimpose their signals. At the reception, there is a filter that knows exactly how to remove the noise by inserting a similar noise but of inverse polarity, thus clearing the signal of any perturbation. The Ancients used that in Boise speakers."

"Remarkable, truly remarkable. No wonder we never figured out their signals! How come you thought of this?"

"I have installed a Boise speaker system in my room... so I can sleep while Harp and Thorsten are doing it. They are so noisy they could wake up the dead."

"Why am I not surprised? The smaller they are, the more they have to prove something!"

"Better not say that to Harp or Thorsten. You might have to hide! Anyway, I found the noise generator, and created a copy. We only need to put it in the incoming path of a noise-saturated signal to get the cleared up result. We can also use the same to contact them."

"Why? After all, we send clear signals!"

"Which get noised over by their filtering system, so they do not recognise our signals."

"Ah yes, I understand, now."

***

"Are you done with the ship's analysis, Paschal?"

"Yes. I am preparing to create the null-plates for installation."

"Okay. What I have discovered allows me to believe we could implant a Boise generator on their communications systems. I have figured out there is a Boise for each sense: vision, hearing, touch, speech control via electronics. They even have one installed in their motor controls. Those that did this have total, and I mean total control of their body. They can make them orgasm or have a heart attack from pain. It is the ultimate slavery. They can stop the autonomous nervous system, control it so the body freezes or overheats, stops breathing or hyperventilate, stop excretion until they burst... it's an horror story."

"Do we need to implement one for everything? And if so, how many?"

"No. We need to install our Boise system in their communications system only. Once we have hijacked that, we have total control, especially since we will effectively block external signals from reaching them by means of the null-plate associated with the communication system. It is their weak point. We do need to install null-plates on their external connectors to prevent static from entering the electronic paths, but that is it."

"How many?"

"Null-plates?... About 250 per individual, mostly along the spine and the digits."

"Two hundred and fifty? That represents 750 neural plates!"

"I know. And each one must be designed specifically for an individual!"

"I hope they recognise the hard work."

"I doubt it. They probably will feel isolated. If you live in a mental collective, even if it is artificial, you will feel lost without it when you find yourself isolated from it."

"I see. Well, let's get to work."

***

Two and a half years later, Tessaract time...

"Well, we are done, Colibri. That was one heck of an endeavour."

"You can say that again. We should implant the neural null-plates in here, if it is possible. Enron and I can each work on one, and you check our work. How does that sound?"

"Yes. That is a good idea. AI-1? Time-dilate the following message to wherever Enron is."

"Recording."

"Enron, we need you to join us in the forensic laboratory. Bring the three Lizards in their stasis Pods. Also, bring Colibri's and your surgical kit. We are going to implant the neural null-plates here. Verify that there will not be any unwanted interactions between the stasis Pods' timing and ours with Harp. If he needs to come to fix any time issues, so be it."

Shortly, Enron ported to the Tessaract entrance, pulling three gravity gliders behind him.

"So, no time issues?" asked Paschal.

"There might have been, but Harp synchronised the time so it is an harmonic of yours. Their time is still slowed down relative to yours, by a factor of several billions, but they are in harmony. Let's get to work."

"Easy for you to say. We have been on this for two and a half year!" said Colibri, from his bench.

"Wow! I did not figure it took that much work. Here's your kit, Colibri."

"We have time for a good breakfast before we begin. It won't be a piece of cake, let me tell you!" replied Colibri, as he pulled out the socket map for one of the Lizards. "I will have to explain things as we progress. Each Lizard is unique, and requires, for each neural plate, a specific nullifier. Furthermore they must be implanted in a specific orientation and order, before being individually activated and verified by Paschal for functionality. You following me so far?"

"Hey, I may be older than you, Colibri, but I'm not yet senile!"

"I have my doubts!"

Paschal snickered, unable to hold it in.

***

A month later... (laboratory time!)

"That's the last one to implant. Paschal? How is the verification progressing?"

"I'm keeping up with you guys. I'm barely 20 neural plates behind you, Colibri. I should be done in 20 minutes. It is lucky you guys began slowing down on the last one..."

"We were in each other's way..." Enron said, to justify the slowdown.

The two Exobiologists watched as Paschal systematically checked each connection by using a circuit mapper, and approved each one once every light on the mapper turned green. The mapper was ingenious: each neural plate had to report a sequence of numbers that mapped its circuitry in a specific order. If one fired off sequence, it needed to be rebuilt. There had been five such instances, a remarkable feat considering the complexity of each null-plate design.

Twenty minutes later, Paschal let out a breath of air as he relaxed.

"It's done. We bring them back to the hospital wing. I want Harp and Sitar present when we bring them on-line."

"Agreed," said the two Exobiologists.

***

The three left the forensic laboratory bringing with them one of the anti-gravity carriers containing the stasis pods. Thirty minutes later, they reached the hospital wing, having taken the long road rather than the portals to reach the Hospital. Paschal was not too trusty of Portals combined with time dilatation, so he had convinced the other two to walk rather than destroy their hard work. Once they had locked the Lizards' Stasis Pods were locked in place and logged to the Hospital AI, the three made their way to the Imperial suite.

"What a long day. I need to sleep..."

"And shower, Paschal! We could compete with Skunks! And win!"

"I know, Colibri. Stress does it. Tell me, how much time has passed since we locked ourselves in the forensic laboratory?"

"Six hours, 25 minutes, 31 seconds." replied AI-1, without being prompted. "Do you need a more precise evaluation?"

"No, no. So It is what, early morning?"

"Yes. The day shift just took over."

"Forward my report on the Scouts to the Bridge, to the attention of the Strategic Desk."

"Done."

"I'll head to bed. They don't need me to read it."

"We'll do the same," added Colibri and Enron. Wake us up for dinner."

"Acknowledged."

***

"So, you have finished installing the neural plates? How did it go?" asked a curious Harp.

"The design stage was a pain in the butt..." replied Paschal

"You are familiar with pain in the butt, brother. Ever heard of lubricants?"

"WD-40 does not help in either case.... as you know, Harp!"

"WD-40?" asked a curious Colibri.

"A lubricant created by the Ancients. It's so good I could not resist recreating it from its original formula I found in a pick-up report Harp forwarded to me from his searching the history of Earth."

"Curious... Very curious..."

"Why? What is curious?"

"Paschal, why would Harp forward you a lubricant formula? Was he sending you a message?"

"Colibri! Get your brain out of the gutter!"

"You are projecting your own view of things there, oh engineer of all engineers!"

Harp and Paschal's red faces told another story.