Sitar led the Legions in the clean-up. The Legionnaires took cover behind rocks and focused on disabling enemy vessels by using lasers. The other main trick was to port inside, leave a string of explosives behind and port out to watch the show. Dragons, too big to play hide and seek, simply grabbed the command nacelle, and burned through the 20-inch plastosteel11 ("Plastosteel: A combination of steel laced with carbon nano-tubes whose main characteristic is its incredible resistance to impact, flexibility in moulding, a form memory, and an innate capacity to close breeches.") that composed the enemy ships' skin. The sudden decompression exploded the command crew even before the fires of the Dragons could burn them to a crisp.
«The FSS you adapted for us is a marvel», said Jormungandr, Harp's Dragon bonded. The FSS 'Dragon' profile had some very useful characteristics. First, it allowed the use of the wings, should proper conditions be found. If not, the 'wings' came with teleporting assistance allowing the Dragon to 'fly' anywhere, even in the void of space. Second, the Dragon could torch the target as the plasma passed out of the FSS without damage, but kept the Dragon's breathing safe and secure. Third, its retractable claws, made of Adamentium and Orichalque, stayed sharp rather than gain the dulled edges of the Dragon's natural claws during use, which required daily maintenance using rocks to stay sharp. Fourth, the jaws and of the FSS were also mobile and allowed the Dragons to take bites with the teeth embedded in the jaws, teeth several feet long, and made of Adamentium and Orichalque with a dash of Mithril to act as cover to give them the appearance of enamel, but billions of times more resistant to abrasion. Every mobile part of a Dragon was reproduced by the adapted FSS, even the tail, whose mass could be put to good use in smashing opponents trying to sneak on the Dragon from behind, or, as was demonstrating Thorsten's bounded, to smash open a ship like an egg.
Other profiles had been built to allow the wearer's natural fighting habits to be exhibited. Fang Chao had made its way inside one ship and was currently hunting the crew. Thorsten met him as he was gutting an enemy by using his rear paws' Adamentium claws while holding the poor sod by the throat with his jaws.
«Too bad we can not eat them,» commented Fang Chao, revealing to a casual listener that one characteristic of the FSS was total separation of the wearer from the external environment. There were many reasons for this, but there were exceptions: Dragon Fire and venom were carried outside should the wearer produce some.
«Do not complain. Their green blood tells me their oxygen transport is based on copper. You do not want to get copper poisoning!»
Sitar walked in on Greywolf disembowelling some enemies, his muzzle deep inside what could be their thoracic cage, tearing and spitting intestines around merrily.
«Eww! You make me feel sick!»
«That from the God of War. This is rich!»
Done with his current target, Greywolf lifted his nose out of the bloody mess, shook his head some to clear his vision since some blood had spread to the eyepieces, and jumped off forward.
«Do not follow me if you do not want to witness more of the same.»
Sitar took the advice and turned to a side hallway, to confront another group. He made his way unobstructed to what amounted to an armoury and decided to port everything into his laboratory on Thebes. Once the process completed, he resumed his hunt and found a few more to kill.
«Are you done in there?» asked Apalapa, Sitar's bounded. «I am sitting on its dorsal fin ready to port it in the primary.»
«Another one and I'm done. Anyone else in proximity, report!»
Three Wolves, two Sabre-tooth Tigers, a Fox and a a Wolverine reported done and ready to port outside.
«Do so. Sitar, clearing the area.»
«Okay. I am out... now.»
Greywolf appeared beside Sitar, which notified Apalapa that porting to primary of the ship was possible. A second later, the ship, several hundred times bigger than the Dragon, disappeared, its dorsal skin pierced deeply by the claws. A minute later, the Dragon was back, glowing brightly.
«Garbage disposed in Primary core. Ah, another target, right ahead.»
Even before Sitar could blink, he saw his Dragon dive and torch the command deck of the enemy. The cascade of explosions showed it had already been severely weakened by the battering it had taken. «Taking it to recycle bin.» said the ever so helpful Dragon.
Harp was busy expunging the biggest enemy ship left as he saw for the first time up close what happened inside a ship as it got hit by an antimatter mine. First came the cry of the torn steel produced by the bulwarks, and then a powerful shock wave that compressed the atmosphere to several hundred atmospheres, making it glow with heat, and crushing everything in its path. Then, the sudden decompression that followed the rupture of the outer shell had everything torn out of their sockets while the crew went from crepes to balloons before exploding into tiny drops. Objects flew out by the gaping holes, torn to shreds by the sharp edges of what was left of the hull. Only the FSS allowed Harp to survive the experience. Dizzy from the constant spinning, Harp saw the shadow of a Dragon dive and grab the ship carcass. He ported out just before the Dragon took its load to the Sun's core.
«Clean-up progress report!» asked a shaken Sitar.
«Overall clean-up at 60%; fighting down to sporadic!» replied Thorsten. «No losses reported. The FSS was up to par and beyond.»
«Overall clear-up of poison at 90%, sporadic pockets of concentrations are still found, mostly within the peeled crust's inner reaches. They are left alone. The Primary is capturing the first segments as we speak. The melt-down is destroying the poison, as anticipated by Paschal. The Star's corona is hot enough to ionise the product, contrary to what you thought, Sitar.» Paschal reported.
«What is the state of new outer crust?» asked Thorsten as he thought of the poison.
«So far, nothing deposited on it,» came the complementary report from the Prince.
«Let us use that grace period to recover the first ten meter of crust and process it. Port mining and raking equipment from our underground bases. Set them to automatic,» suggested Thorsten. «We may not have another occasion for a clean collection of resources.»
«Agreed. You have equipment control, Thorsten.»
Huge machines crawled out from the now completely abandoned bases and began eating away at ten metres of rock, digesting everything in their path, placing the dust they produced in accelerators that ionised everything to its basic nucleus, accelerated the plasma, and separated each atom into its specific class by virtue of mass and ionic charge. Each atom had its own private bin, and was kept separate from the others. As the gaseous super-plasma reached a critical pressure, the bin was ported to Thebes to be cooled down, while another bin took its place. Billions upon billions of tons of rock was thus transferred to Thebes, adding to its resource reserves. The Adamentium, Mithril, and occasional Ianium was stored in the Royal reserves, while the more common atom classes were stored for ulterior, more common uses.
Seeing the machines at work always awed the Princes, but left speechless the Legionnaires. They knew of Atlantis' power, and they lived it every day, but seeing this utter and systematic cannibalism of a Planet left them shaking in their proverbial boots.
Within 60 minutes, Thorsten reported that the first ten metres had been eaten up and he was putting the machines to work on the next ten.
«Estimate to completion?»
Thorsten had anticipated Sitar's always nervous approach to timetables, so he knew exactly what to answer.
«Residual crust is at 30 kilometres to 50 kilometres, and we removed somewhat around one one and a half kilometres with the blow-out. That means the continental crust will be breached in 5,000 hours, or about 208 days with the current equipment. Thebes should begin porting in additional mining and separating equipment, as soon as the space around us is a bit cleaner. I remember my inventory is for just such a situation. We should get enough down on the surface to bring the removal of the crust to about 28 days. Once the crust is removed, we are done, for the most part. Only needing removal is the Orichalque embedded in the mantle. Normally, it should pop out by itself, freed from the crust's imprisonment. We collect the popping Orichalque and we are scot-free. We move the residual planet into the primary core. By the way, we could collect heavy metals off the planetary core. It normally collects things such as gold, platinum, silver, and other heavy metals, including, unfortunately, a lot of iron. But the core will hold the highest concentration of the heavy metals, and we need them.»
«How much time would that add?»
«A day and a half. Since the core is already liquid, centrifugal forces will suffice to separate the iron from the rest.»
«Acceptable.» replied the worry-wart, surprising his Brother.
«Are you running a fever, Sitar? You consider a 29 maybe, 30 day delay acceptable? Now it is my turn to be worried.» said Harp.
«It better be 29, because 30 is too much!»
The others laughed at Sitar's sharp-witted reply.
A few more hours passed, and Sitar kept collecting reports on the hour. Finally, he heard what he had been waiting for: the all clear around Solarius. Nothing was left of the poison, the outer crust, the invaders, and the sky was now clear, with Solarius being joyfully cannibalised.
«I am done here, guys. I will port into the Sun to remove any residual poison. Better be safe than sorry. Thorsten, you have command. Bring my troops back intact, you hear? Harp, Paschal, coming?"
The two Princes accepted and ported within the Star before porting again in Thebes Incoming FSS Deck A.
"Damn it feels good to be out of that suit! I was getting itchy! Bath, here I come!" said Sitar, as he ran off to the nearest pool, took a running dive in it, and swam its whole 100 yards length underwater before jumping to the deck. The others followed suit and the three nude Princes shook off the residual water before walking to the Bridge.
"Home! Finally!" said Harp. "What are the news?"
"Mostly bad," replied Harold, not one to mince words. "We had an attempted palace coup."
"What? I hope things got cleaned up? At least, my own would never get involved."
"Right... They led the coup. The Military Police was in on it, and was directed from Alpha Security. The first heads to roll were theirs, Sitar."
The Prince became white as a ghost, and then furiously red.
"I want them skinned! Alive preferably!"
"Too late, when I said heads rolled, I meant it; Mitsuko was busy!"
"What was the cause?"
"What Colibri calls the Mandarin or Bonze mentality. People carve their own little empires within the Empire, ignore Our directives and instructions, and consider Us a mere figure-head. One went so far as to insult Annabelle, calling her a Bitch."
By then, Sitar, Harp and Paschal were shaking violently enough to create a drumming noise on the carpeted floor of the Command deck.
"We are cleaning up the ranks, with the help of the Artificial Intelligence Collective, and Colibri, and Daniel."
"That kid is a genius forger..."
"There are quite a few that are good metallurgists," said Harp as Paschal wondered why a good metallurgist would impress Harold that much as he was, himself, a marvellous one.
"I am not talking about simply smelting metals, but making forgeries, fakes if you need a drawing. That kid showed me how to make a false Imperial Seal using simple impediments, and signed the death warrant of his sperm donor in front of me and even I could not tell if I had signed it or not. Since he had good reason, I had AI-1 record the execution order and had it applied."
"What I find hilarious," said Annabelle, "is that the Alpha Security station left-overs raise their hands to ask for a bathroom break, even if Harold has long left their abode. And to add to this farce, he makes them wait, then activates the communications with an apparently pissed-off attitude and a 'What?' that probably makes the station snow-bound!"
"I want to talk to that Daniel. Where can I find him?"
"For now, Paschal, he is at the Royal Military Academy, undercover."
"I had him and Colibri ported to the Academy recruitment centre, by surprise. Colibri understood his mission, I hope. He is very bright. And he will protect Daniel with the ferocity of a Mother Tiger."
"Harold, I heard some noises from contacts in the Academy... Maybe it is Colibri at work. The first thing was a report about a doormat getting rubbed raw. I dismissed the report as unimportant, but I am having second thoughts, as it occurred shortly after you sent Colibri on in mission there."
"That might be worth digging into."
"Ah, but there is more, and it definitely carries Colibri's stamp. He tackled a Wont... barehanded since he had no weapon on himself due to your bright idea of stripping him bare before sending him out. All this occurred in the dorm that same night, in plain view of his dorm mates, but none of the 120 dorm mates wants to say a thing, telling the Staff they prefer death to talking."
"A what?" exclaimed a shocked Harp. "If Enron hears of this, there will be a blood bath in the Elevation department. The Wont are just not ready to be released to society, and certainly not in a Military Academy where the young are only beginning to train!"
"Enron better get a number. Colibri has them in his cross-hairs. Then, there is a missing Guard, who went to deliver the Wont 'kid' to his tribe. He disappeared."
"There, it is not surprising!" said Harp. "Wont culture considers a dead corpse as food. The Wont kid was eaten... as a delicacy for its tender meat; along with the Guard, as they consider strangers as standing stock. We have not succeeded in breaching that mentality, even with genetics. The moment a child is born and shows any weakness whatsoever, he gets eaten. And cannibalism is a rite of passage that starts at birth. Eat your siblings or be eaten. It reminds me of the Crocodile Priests. If it was not for the definitely Human form of the Crocodile Priest, I would have tried to figure out if the two species were not related."
"How reliable are these reports, Annabelle?"
"Harold, until Colibri sends in something, these are rumours only. I considered sending someone to verify, but I do not want to compromise his cover. You know how 'discreet' officers act when you ask them to do something. You might as well blow the trumpet, beat the drum, and holler 'official enquiry' at the door... a week in advance."
"What if we sent in Sitar and Harp, supposedly on an inspection?"
"If there is any foundation to these rumours, you might as well send the death warrants for Colibri and Daniel and be done with it. They will do anything to keep us in the dark, including murder disguised as accident. The image Colibri gave us of the need for power and control found in Mandarins is such that they are willing to go as far as necessary to protect their rear from the heat. Look at what happened in Alpha Security Station, Harold. That was only a skirmish."
"I could go in incognito... invisible, that is," said Harp.
"And blow the school up? I know your volcanic temper, my Son," noted Annabelle.
"I get it, I get it!"
"You could help speeding up the cleaning by pruning the top end of the tree while Colibri clears the root of the problem," commented Samson, remembering with some trepidation the Elvin Kingdom's blood bath as they waged war with the Orcs and the Crocodile Priests.
"Yay!" said an enthusiastic Sitar. "More blood!"
"You are bad, Sitar. And I really mean prune, not cut the tree down!"
"I am not stupid enough to remove my livelihood by cutting its main source, Dad!"
In the Academy, the alarm forewarning of a port had made everyone scramble for their assigned dorm, intent as they were to reach their bunk and tie down for the imminent transit. Unfortunately for the Princes, they met a collection of bullies more trouble than their worth.
"You think you can intimidate us because you got rid of the Wont? You got the wrong number, little twits!" exclaimed the leader of the gang.
"Hey, I do not even know who you are, how can I be interested in intimidating you?" replied Colibri, feeling time slip as the bullies circled them, bats out.
"You beat him so you are running for top of the ladder, and, before that walking mountain of muscles was brought into the school, it was my gang that ran the show. I am not going to let power slip out of my hands again."
«Daniel, we will port merely a fraction of a second before the transit. It will be rough. I want us in that dorm we occupied the first night. Relax, and do not let go of me, whatever they say. Pride and prejudice go hand in hand, and they will show prejudice and pride in whom they are. I plan to use it against them.»
«What do you expect?»
«A lot of name-calling.»
Daniel touched Colibri's shoulder casually, like a friend would, but the gesture was interpreted differently by the bullies.
"As we thought! A sissy asking for protection from his sugar dick! Does he feel good in you, little wimp?"
Daniel became red but kept quiet.
"Given how you hang with Boys, twit, you probably have a lot of experience in the matter," casually commented Colibri, while keeping an eye on the group around them. He noticed some tense at his reply. "Ah, I see he has enjoyed your body. And how many enjoyed his? All of you? A convent, then."
"A convent?" asked one of the bullies, not understanding the reference.
"A convent is a group of same-sex persons that bound. Now, they usually claim it is for spiritual support, but we all know that it is their body, not their mind, that do the bonding. Mental strength is not their forte."
"Uh?" was heard from some of the dimwits.
"They bind through sex. Is that clearer?"
«Six seconds to port according to internal clock.» Colibri informed Daniel.
"What's wrong with that?" asked the same dimwit. "I like them tight and previously lubricated with juice..."
"Shut up, dim-wit! Why not tell him you like them to cry too?"
"But I do!"
"So your induction ritual is a gang-rape. What a fair justice between bullies. You certainly do not induct clean as fresh air by-standers."
"Why should we? We are the leaders, we take what we want. Even the Teachers consider this normal. 'Boys will be Boys' says one of the discipline prefect. So we spot the bullies, and take them, after breaking them in properly so they know their status in the pecking order."
Colibri read the prefect's name off the bully's surface thoughts for further remedial policy. «Three seconds...»
"He does not look anxious..."
"He took the Wont by surprise. Now the roles are reversed, and he wants to show bravado. The moment I take out his little cute buddy, he'll ask mercy for him, which we shall give... after enjoying both for a few hours!"
The group closed in. As soon as the lead bully came within reach, Colibri let out a punch that broke his nose, sending him stumbling backward.
"You might try to get to my friend, but it is not done yet."
"Attack from behind."
"Cowards. All of you! Six against two, and you are afraid to attack together." «Two seconds to transit.»
The bullies looked at each other, hesitating.
"I gather your balls are wrapped in diapers..."
The last insult triggered the charge. As they reached Colibri, he ported into the bed and locked down he portage net. The bullies collided and fell all over themselves. As they worked to stand up, the transit occurred. The result was ugly and deadly. The transit took them in motion and, unable to resolve the six bodies as separate entities due to the excessive motion, mixed their signals. On emergence from transit, body parts materialised completely mixed up. Lungs and brains outside of the body, legs sticking from the back of the spine, eyes crossed from one side to the other, arms where legs should have been and legs where arms should. Overall, the bullies did not survive more than 10 breaths before death claimed them... when they could breath.
"What happened?" asked a stunned Daniel.
"A merging of common interests by the bullies: the need to breath. They probably thought that the transit alarm was for sissies... while it is designed to allow them to stay alive, in one piece, and with said pieces in their proper relative positions. The transit termination bell has not yet rung so we stay in here."
"That means every teleport is fraught with risks?"
"Yes. Even the portals found everywhere on board Thebes. That is why they are disabled during a transit."
"How long will we be in transit?"
"Not long, or otherwise there would have been a release from the alarms, letting us move around while in that mode. The distance is either short, or the ride ahead bumpy."
"How can a transit ride be bumpy since it occurs outside of the standard space-time continuum?"
"Something about hyper-orbital curvature... The good thing about being in school is I'll be able to learn more about this stuff."
"Assuming they know..."
Just then, an arch of colours crossed their view.
"A change of whatever I was telling you about. That is why..." Another change followed, then five or six in close proximity.
"Don't be sick on me, Daniel."
"I don't plan to but I feel like I've just taken a ride in one of those roller-coasters I read about..."
Another quick series of flashes told the two Boys the ride was not over yet.
"Why is this ride so tough?"
"That is the Omega Emergency Recall in action. Sitar must have activated it. Usually, within a Galaxy, transits are short, with long periods where the ship is in normal space. That allows for precise, but discontinuous transits. On the other hand, normal equals slower. Now, we are headed for a Star system located almost right across our original position, non-stop. Each time we pass a transit port point... Hold on, we are not done!" Another very long, sickening, series of flashes occurred.. "What was I saying? Ya... Each time we cross a transit point, the AI collective instantly adjust that curvature thing. It took us about 20 days to reach Zen's fleet to help him deal with his troubles from where we are going. We just crossed the galactic core from the number of flashes, as stars are usually less than a light-year apart. There will be some more transits changes but we are now, first, below the galactic plane whereas we were above, and second, in a dark arm, which much fewer stars to collide with."
"Stars have presence in hyper-space, Daniel. They do not really create threats to Thebes, it is the other way around. We do not wish to leave behind a trail of destruction in the form of unexplained black holes and supernovas. So we go around them. Especially since some of these Star systems harbour life which we are dedicated to saving."
"Okay. But what happens to life-forms that... well... do not know of the meaning of the alert?"
"The alert is only for those life-forms that have reached a certain level of Elevation, Daniel. The others are confined to their own ecosystem. Each ecosystem, each Planet we recreate the surface of, is kept in isolation, within a complex space-time fold or Tessaract that allows many things, under Enron's control."
"The fold can compress space to a mere dot, while maintaining the integrity and consistency of its internal dynamics. The fold allows to set the internal clock of the Planet, in such a way that, for instance, evolution can be slowed, sped up, or even suspended. That is vital for transits."
"Insects would ignore the alarm, so their environment is in suspended animation during a transit change. They are unaware of the change, and never need to be aware of it. On the other hand, higher-function animals, even wild, can be conditioned to lay still until a release signal is given. Sometimes, it is not the wild animals that cause us the most troubles, it is so-called civilised ones. They refuse to obey good sense because they do not understand the need. We then resort to what we do with Insects, Fishes and other low-level animals. This also goes for freshly rescued ecosystems. We do not have time to visit and explain everything."
"Why not put everyone in suspended animation and leave things in the hands of the Artificial Intelligence Collective?"
"The Royals considered. The AI Collective refused the responsibility. They want at least one organic brain available for counsel. It is not that we do not trust them; it is they that do not trust themselves... for historical reasons brought about by the Princes' Ordeals."
"Do not worry, I did not have to undergo one, and neither will you..."
"Do you know what the Ordeals entailed?"
"Vaguely. Each Protector had a different one."
"The six dedicated to protecting Ian."
Shortly, another transit change occurred, followed by two others in short order. Then the release alarm sounded.
"Finally! I was getting sick from all the changes!"
"You were not alone. I wonder where we are..."
"Let us ask the Navigation desk there."
"It might be a good idea... if you want to blow your cover, Colibri. We are supposed to be first year trainees... not experts at interrogating machines we should not even recognise."
"You have a point. The others are still out of it badly. Let us act like we are too."
An hour later, the dorm was empty of occupants. The students had made their way to the mess hall, eating in an effort to stabilise their stomach. An older student brought into action a front view of Thebes, that showed the rescue mission in full swing. One student asked what was going on and where they were. The questions were forwarded to the Navigation desk and a reply in the form of a scrolling text appeared at the bottom, along with a location: Oort cloud, Solarius, Andromeda.
"Ask for verbal. I can barely read!" complained an older student from the back of the hall. A couple of touches to the touch pad had the text replaced by a verbal report in Atlantean, the common language of the ship. "Location: Oort Cloud, Solarius, Andromeda. In progress: recovery of Admiral Zen's fleet, 99% completed. Complete. Activation of recovery protocol of life-rafts launched from surface of Solarius... Beginning recovery..." Then, the recovery's progress was tracked by percentage point. Then the voice noted, in a clinical voice: "Solarius surface separation beginning... completed" less then 10 minutes later, marking the next phase: "Battle beginning in close proximity between Enemy and Atlantis Swarm." As each enemy ship exploded, the cameras zoomed on it, showing the body count on the enemy side as best as could be estimated from what was flying out. The by-play could only show outside action, thus not revealing the grim reality of war in close quarters. The Dragons' actions were, on the other hand, clearly visible, as they torched ship Bridges, cut holes in hulls, tore them apart, or otherwise disabled them before porting them into the Star's core. Their white-hot glowing figures gave an eerie look to the unfolding carnage. Each Dragon's action was described in minutia, the tactics involved explained and the reason for their use expanded upon by the icy voice of the commentator. An occasional laser beam could be seen as one or another of the Legionnaires fired at a target. Unfortunately, their diminutive sizes did not allow certified identification. "The laser beams are so narrow we only detect the occasional reflections off a hull when it it properly slanted," explained the voice of Death. "There are millions of Legionnaires involved in this battle and you do not even see their efficiency."
Some time later, the same voice added a comment to its running commentary of the battle. "Clean up beginning. Surface of Solarius falling into primary Star." It then continued commenting on the on-going battle, until it called it in its final phase. "Enemy fire sporadic, mostly internal to their ships. Atlanteans retiring. Dragons porting the last points of resistance to the Star core. Battle terminated. Surface of Solarius being mined by our Planet miners. Notice the wide glow of the reapers as they devour the rock of the crust. The Dragons are completing the space cleanup. The last remains of the enemy ships and primary surface of Solarius have been removed to the Star's corona for disposal. The Military leaders, Princes of Atlantis, are in the Star core for a bath. preparing to port inside Thebes. They are on-board. Still on duty outside are the Princes dedicated to mineral recovery. The mining process will take 208 days... Revised estimate: 28 days." As the voice said that, an explosion of activity on the distant surface of Solarius brought it to a glow.
"Wow. I wonder what makes the surface glow?" asked Daniel. His question was heard by the reporter, and the answer came swiftly: "The Planet miners melt and separate 10 metres of rock at a pass for a width of one kilometre. What you see is the cutting face of the machinery, using lasers to cut the slices on the side of the block, the front cut that melts the rock to a depth of 10 metres. Occasionally, you see a streak of light, as the horizontal cutter beam meets a hole in the surface, but mostly, these beams are invisible, busy cutting away the 10 metre slice's underground surface. The accelerators that ionise the rock are dark because their energy is focalised in such a way that none is lost by dispersion. Each time you see a white-hot flash, it means one container of purified matter is ported on-board Thebes. All atoms are represented, from hydrogen to Ianium, kept totally separate, by atomic species, and sub-species, called an isotope. Some atoms are more common than others, so their containers port more often. It is the case with hydrogen, the lightest of atoms. But even it has isotopes, in the form of Deuterium and Tritium. They too are kept separate. The particles are separated by the accelerator, the massive circular thing you see behind the cutting tool. The rock is ionised and each atom that composes it is accelerated with a powerful magnetic field contained in a super-conductor. Each atom has a specific mass and ionic charge. The combination of both allows for complete separation according to mass and charge."
The electronic Teacher continued to drone on, but Daniel ignored it, more fascinated by the spectacle shown on the screen. He kept munching on Carrots like a Rabbit discovering the garden. Finally, Colibri shook his shoulder.
"Daniel, classes. Let's go."
Daniel stood up on automatic, and began following Colibri while keeping a close watch on the screen, to the point he crashed in a table and fell face-first on it.
"Daniel! I know this is fascinating, but you can watch a recording later. Focus on the here and now!"
Daniel reluctantly agreed and accepted guidance by Colibri out of the Mess Hall. As they neared the area where the bullies had intercepted them, they saw the mess of body parts and mismatched segments visible on the floor, with clean spray of rust and green streaks where different types of blood had dried up.
«This is what I meant about them becoming merged.»
«Yes. But they brought it on themselves.»
The Teachers were currently trying to identify whom was in the bloody mess, but things were proving difficult. The Boys that shared the Princes' dorm were giving them side-glances, but saying nothing.
«Do they know?»
«Not with certainty. And if they did, they would be too scared to talk to the Teachers or even between themselves. This is a case where I find Omerta useful.»
«We have reached the class. We sit in the last row as usual.»
«First, it allows me to watch the other Students' interaction and detect trouble-makers. Second, the Teacher only asks questions to the idiots who sit in the front row, trying to be Teachers' pets and pass without really trying.»
The Teacher finally made his way to his podium, some 30 minutes after class had supposedly started. Discussion amongst students of what they had seen on the monitor in the mess hall and then the scene they had walked upon while returning to class had occupied their time, two discussion groups having been formed to cover the topics. Colibri and Daniel stayed away from both, just listening from a distance.
"Students, what you have seen coming back in class gives me the occasion to discuss safety measures and policies. As you should be aware by now, we live on a space-ship. Usually, it is not apparent, but under certain circumstances, usually ugly, it shows... bloodily. Without entering into details as to the cause, let me say the ship ported from one location to another by hyper-space. The process is complex, but the result is that objects disappear from one point and reappear in another, without travelling the physical distance separating them. You have been conditioned, since birth, to seek refuge in portal nests, when the alarm rings. In your case, the 'nest' is your bunk. Once you leave the school, you should always be aware of where the closest communal nesting site is located. It is open to all species, and the individual nests auto-configure to match your form, much like the bunks. So far, you have lived in the family nest, the village nest, and, in some rare occasion, your species nest. Few of you have ever left your native environments until coming here. You were invited here because you were deemed responsible enough to act with good sense and seek refuge when ordered to. For some reasons, these students ignored the alarm and paid the price: they transited while in close proximity and unsecured, a major sin, but more deadly still, while in rapid motion relative to each other. The materialisation after transit was... excruciating, to say the least, but their misery, for the worst case, probably lasted less than 10 breaths. Most died instantly. You have now seen, yourselves, the result of neglecting the most fundamental security measure Thebes has to offer. When you go home for break, next time, describe to those you meet what you have seen. You will receive a video recording of what we found, and an explanation of what is seen, done by an Anatomist. That should make the message a little easier to pass."
The Teacher took a sip of his favourite juice to humidify his throat. He had been shocked by the discovery, and, although she could not recognise the students from the mess, he knew from relative size he probably had taught them earlier. This left a sore feeling.
"Now, what I will tell you is vital. What do you do if you find yourself far from one of these shelters and a transit alarm rings?"
He looked around and found no one volunteering to answer.
"First, lie down, preferably between two immobile objects tied to the environment. That may be a rock face and a tree, but they have both to be unlikely to move. Second: Relax and slow your breath. The objective is to minimise motion and a moving thoracic cage might cause you severe discomfort on materialisation, but nothing as deadly as what you saw earlier. If you have enough self-control, practice relaxing exercises and bring your heart rate down as well. Panic leads to chess pains, and possibly a minor heart attack. If you are far enough from a shelter, you are also too far for immediate medical assistance!"
Another sip later, the Teacher concluded: "Some of you probably noticed there were several flashes, indicating a change of trajectory while in transit. This is unheard of, but verification was made to the Bridge, and all we were told is it was needed. The need was not explained to us, and we did not ask, as it is not our job to criticise the Bridge's decisions. If you want to take the decisions, become a Bridge Officer. Meanwhile... keep your critiques to yourselves."
"What about what we saw in the Mess Hall?"
"That was a Planet-wide rescue."
"Is it normal to eat up a Planet like that while doing a rescue?"
"I do not know. However, I suspect, and that is only an hypothesis, that the ecosystems of a Planet are carried off to be brought on Thebes, leaving behind a dead Planet, unable to sustain life anymore... As to the why this is done, I heard the explanation is given in later years by the Royals. I feel uneasy around them so I have abstained from assisting to their conferences on the subject. I find I now regret this lack of courage."
"Do you have any idea why this was done so quickly, almost as an emergency?" asked a student sitting in front and on the side of the Princes.
"The Planet's ecosystem had been destroyed by an invading force, poisoned to the point its entire surface was unrecoverable, according to the electronic Teacher I consulted before coming to class. We recovered what we could. The ecosystems we recovered are in stasis, and in due time, will be brought on-line and activated. As to when, that is not of our prerogative to know. I asked what I assume will be your next question: is this poisoning common? Yes, but never to that extreme extent. Many Planets get poisoned by their own life-forms, and lose the capacity to sustain life. More often than not, it is civilised life that poisons its own nest. This is not, unfortunately, the only type of issue the electronic Teacher told me of: Planets regularly get bombarded by comets, meteorites, and, on a couple of occasions, miniature Planets, and life gets erased. Less common still is Nova or Supernova explosions irradiating a Planet. In the current rescue, it was a combination: An advanced life-form blew up two Stars close by, and added a meteorite fall that carried a poison. Naturally the primary of a system may also explode. No need to tell you what that means for the life on the Planets orbiting said Star."
"Do you think they would come if we asked?" said a tiny voice, from the right side of the room, a voice no one had ever heard since the beginning of the year.
"Who knows," replied the Teacher amidst the laughter of the other students, minus the Princes. "To be fair, I doubt it, but then, there have been stories about the Princes running around this school ever since its inception, and they have shown up unexpectedly, usually to fix policy issues, and they do run the exams for the upper years. I will ask the Principal to forward your request... if he even listens to me. I am a Teacher, nothing more. Now, the incident that led to the death of your colleagues, of which I have yet to know for sure the numbers, has brought forth the fact that we live on a space-ship. What does that mean? And why do we do so? Planets are, in a way, space-ships, slaved to a star by its gravity well, and exposed to the void of space. Planets are, as I said, space-ships, and they too are exposed to the danger of space. Life is born on them, and dies on them. To harbour life, a Planet requires specific conditions: an atmosphere, a surface, and, so far, water... for those we have had contact with that is. You certainly remember your history lessons about the Lobsters-Scorpion of the Andromeda Galaxy, known as the Slavers for short, which we are still fighting, by the way? Yes, you are part of history in the making. History is the life of people in the past, not some dreamed-up story line! The Andromedan Slavers live on worlds were water is unknown, but liquid methane replaces its function. Their primaries are red dwarf Stars too cold to sustain liquid water."
The Teacher droned on, answering questions from students, which, for once, paid attention rather than fall asleep. The students' attention span was artificially stretched by the events of the day, and the Teacher was not one to miss an opportunity. The most dangerous part of the day was when the Teacher talked about the Royals and their history. Luckily for Colibri and Daniel, he did not have portraits to show, or the cover would have likely been blown. He expanded a lot of energy explaining their roles on Earth, the birth of Thebes as a space-ship, the battle with the Soul-Eaters, the destruction of their Refuge Planet by a rain of smaller Planets and giant meteorites, their effort, even before leaving their shelter, to save as much of its life-forms as possible, and the birth of the 'Save Ecosystems!' prime directive that had been driving Thebes' interventions across the Galaxies. The plural was missed by students, until it was brought to light by the fact that they were in Andromeda and that their birth Galaxy went by the name of Milky Way.
"Most of you come from the Milky Way Galaxy. Only one or maybe two of you come from Andromeda. Not that the Prime Directive excludes Andromedans. It is just that we are yet in the primary phases of rescues, as you just saw. In time, your numbers will increase." The Teacher looked at the Princes, and asked them their galactic origin.
"We are from the Milky Way," replied Colibri, proudly. "However, our Planet got destroyed by our primary going supernova by artificial means, our parents told us."
As this was rather common, the Teacher ignored them from now on, curiosity satisfied. They were probably fresh releases from the Elevation department.
«That was close!» said Colibri to Daniel. «But the truth sometimes is the best lie. He could verify: Earth's Primary did turn supernova from an external action, much like the primary of our distant ancestors. It was common practice by the Borgs to blow up a Star once they had mined the Planetary resources, making sure they did not leave potential threats behind.»
«What if he links Earth to us? The cover would be thin!»
«True, but thousands of systems got blown out in the history of the Milky Way. He needs to insure he has the right time-frame, a one in a trillion chance. We may be coming from deep in the past of the Galaxy for all he knows. And I do not count the absolutely astronomical number of errant Planets, not bound to Stars, that got thrown off their orbits by the merging of the primordial Galaxies to form the Milky Way. We still receive a remarkable number of transits from the Milky Way to store in stasis coming from that time-frame.»
The class was finally released, and the Princes made their way to their dorm to change. The Teacher watched them go, scratching his scaly head in wonder. Who were they? He made his way to the Teachers' Lounge and walked in to be met by another Teacher, a bit higher in the hierarchy.
"You have two new students?"
"Have they stood out?"
"No... they hide, they do not want to be seen taking too much place, and keep to themselves. I would say they are very shy."
"Shy my cloaca. They are the only survivors of a scuffle... that killed 6 students. The cameras recorded the incident. A fraction of a second before the transit, they were encircled, once the transit was done, they were nowhere to be found... until they showed up in your class as if nothing wrong had occurred."
"A territorial fight. The group was not pleased of them for some reason, and decided to teach them a lesson... They paid their dues by killing their Teachers."
"Come on! The bullies got what they earned. They should have been more attentive to the alert and delayed their teaching lesson. It is not that pair that killed them, it is the refusal to abide by the Security Directives prior to a transit by the bullies!"
"I stand by my position, and you will take the same stand if you know what is good for you. The Staff stands together."
"And you better abide by that order if you want to keep breathing. We have yet to figure out their role is the disappearance of the Wont, but the Elevation department is furious their prize Bull got castrated! They are after heads, and these two will do just fine!" added the Principal.
The Teacher decided not to ask about a visit from the Royals. Now was not the time. He left the Lounge deep in thought. His errant steps brought him to the dorm of the Boys just as they made their way out to go for dinner.
"Boys! Follow me!"
The two Boys trailed the Teacher to an abandoned classroom used for Dragons. He looked around, making sure the class monitoring system was disabled.
"Boys, you are in danger. The Principal has in his mind you are a danger to his station. They plan something dirty. I would not put it beyond them to try murder-suicide or an accident. They believe you are involved in the Wont disappearance and are not above manufacturing 'proofs' to get you killed. Further, they blame you directly for escaping the private lessons of the bullies. They want you dead."
«Should we include him? After all, he is taking huge risks warning us!» Colibri asked Daniel, as he thanked the Teacher for his warning.
«Yes, Trust must be rewarded.»
Colibri gently snapped his finger, locking the door by Magic as the Teacher was distracted by Daniel asking a question about the Principal.
"Now that we are locked in safely, time to come clean, Man. We are here under cover by order of the Emperor. The Royals are aware of the shenanigans that are flowering up everywhere on Thebes and have decided to take action. We are here to figure out how widespread the corruption of the Ideal proposed and defended by the Royal Family has spread. So far, we have seen it starts right in class, with cliques of Students carving their own tiny empires in school. To say that we are surprised would be a lie. Corruption grows like Thistle in turd. We expected as much. However our research is only at its beginning. Maybe you could help us by telling us what you know?"
The Teacher gave them a thorough overview of the systemic system of cliques, territories and other inner divisions of the school, starting with the entrance.
"We dealt with that one on our first day. And yes, we are responsible for the disposal of what you and they call the prized Bull, the Wont. We are also responsible for delaying the bullies until it was too late for them to take cover..."
"But they could have survived if they had not been charging us when the Transit occurred," said Daniel.
"And how did you survive?"
"We ported to a safety net. Yes, we are Royals. Please keep that to yourself."
"Colibri, the Principal is searching for the Teacher. He is in danger as well!"
"Ah, your telepathy is growing, Brother. Let me see... Ah, here it is..."
The huge keypad, covered in dust, had gone unused for decades. Colibri levitated to its surface, and pressed with his feet on the keys to activate it. It glowed back to life. He then danced on it, establishing a primary contact with the Bridge.
On the Bridge, the emergency call registered and was forwarded to the Command Deck.
"Hey, it is an emergency call from Colibri!" Said Timor, catching the attention of the Royal family. "Putting it on vocal."
Barely had the connection been established that the voice of Colibri resounded across the Bridge.
"I need emergency assistance at the Royal Military Academy. Our lives are in danger. The cover is not blown but should be shortly. Transferring the report to AI. Our location is the old Dragon classroom. I locked the door and put up shields. That should give us some respite, but it will not last. The Principal is in on the overthrow of the Royal family, as is a fair share of the Staff. Do not trust anybody. Colibri out."
Harp and Sitar looked at each other.
"Annabelle, I need your Legion, since it is the one currently assigned for close protection," decided Sitar. "Meet me at their barracks. Full gear, everyone. Lock-down the Bridge the moment we leave, Dad. You will be without protection. Should things degenerate, activate the Emergency Bridge Protocol and Recall."
Harp and Sitar ported to the Barracks, surprising everyone.
«Battle Stations! Full urban warfare complement. We port in five minutes. Move it!" Less than a minute later, Annabelle ported to the barracks herself, and noticed the Bee hive of activity.
"At your command, God of War!" she said formally, thus transferring command of her Legion to Sitar officially.
"I have command. Porting in 2 minutes. Come on, move it!"
"Colibri? I think the Principal has made the connection. He is moving toward a room where he plans to activate a doomsday device to blow everything up. Here is the location..."
Colibri read the location and popped in it barely seconds before the Principal opened the door. Not giving the Principal time to react, he stabbed him expertly between the second and third vertebrae, paralysing him from the neck down.
"I always wondered why conspirators plan on using doomsday devices that inevitably fail at the critical moment?" he asked as he kicked the Principal in the genitals. "As you see, you can feel quite well, but you can not move. I locked that door tight and put in a silencing spell to keep any noise from leaving the room. I'll be back later to proceed to the interrogation. I can be creative... So, worry, a lot!"
Colibri then popped back to the room where he had left Daniel.
"Taken care of. Let's recover our friend."
«Radius Breaker? Do not react to this telepathic contact. Your life is compromised. If you are out of the school, stay out and go in hiding in one of ecosystems. If not, leave. If you cannot leave, come to the old Dragon classes section, the flying lessons classroom. It is on the 9th basement. Hurry!»
"Colibri?" said a freaked-out Daniel, "They want to interrogate our dorm mates!"
"Some are worth saving... I'll pick them up and leave the others to foot the bill. Bullies will taste bullies."
Colibri made a quick visit to the dorm, and found most of those he wanted safe huddled in a corner. Not bothering to ask, he ported them in block to the Dragon classroom. He then tracked down the other five, dispersed everywhere from the library to the rest-room. That last pick-up gave rise to some hilarious situations: two Boys were busy satisfying each other's need in a stall and suddenly found themselves in the Dragon classroom, pants down and on the floor as the one getting serviced lost his support. Red-faced and worried their secret was out, the two Boys backed in the furthest corner, shaking like coconuts getting a blow-job from a hurricane.
"Do not worry, guys. You are under my protection. No one hurts my friends and gets away with it," said Colibri.
"Will you ask us 'services' for the 'protection', like the others do?"
"No. I do not need 'services', nor do I require them. All I want is your fidelity to my family."
"Your family? Aren't you an orphan, like most of us?"
"Yes and no."
The two Boys exchanged glances, clearly demonstrating they could not compute the contradictory answer.
"Yes, I am an orphan, but I got adopted, so I have a family too."
"Oh! You are lucky, then. We were always looked over when some people visited the orphanage," the other Boy nodding vigourously.
"It is better to be looked over then enslaved to a family whose intent is cheap labour, when it is not cheap sex," said another Boy from the first group Colibri had rescued. "That is what I lived until I came here... only to undergo the same treatment here, but worse. At least, at home, it was only the older 'Brothers' and 'Dad' that enjoyed my arse. Here, it is every gang member that manages to catch me alone in the dorm, the showers, the bathroom, or the 'restroom' where my arse doesn't even get a rest."
More ugly stories came out, shocking Colibri and Daniel even more than they were already. Colibri vowed magical vengeance on the abusers, be they immediate family members, Staff of orphanages, the school, or bullies of all creeds.
«The vice-principal is searching for the Principal, and us by the same occasion. He has taken three of the bullies out of the dorm to interrogate them. They were busy when you picked up these Boys and saw nothing. Their lack of attention to their environment is costing them...with interest.»
«I wonder what is holding off the Legions.»
A brisk knock at the door and a port later, Radius Breaker was with them in the classroom.
"What is this about my life being in danger?"
"Simple: my cover is blown. The Principal tried to activate a doomsday device seconds before I contacted you, and I paralysed him. The device is disabled, the door to the room locked and sealed, the vents secured. The Principal has at best, 24 hours of oxygen reserve in there. This being said, the vice-principal is looking for anyone who had contact with us. The Guard, the Teacher there, our dorm mates, in order to interrogate everyone, namely, torture them until they tell what he wants to hear. The Guard, he won't find since he got disposed by the Wont as side-dish to his delivery of the Wont Boy delicacy. The Wont are not too watchful of their diet to eat that fatty long-Pig. They are searching the school level by level, and they started at the top, so we are, for once, in luck, since we are at the 9th basement, the lowest. Had they started here, you would not have been able to reach us. Do you have family?"
"Yes, a Son and a Daughter. They are at their Grandmother's place."
"Focus on the location, please."
Shortly, a shocked Grandma and two small Children appeared in the classroom, joining those under the umbrella of Colibri.
"Teacher, same treatment for you. Think of your family."
"I have a Boy, and my Wife. My parents died some years ago. She is an Orphan. Before you do anything, my Wife is... rather heavy on contesting the Royals. She believes in democracy, unaware that democracy is only a license to exploit obtained by a group more efficient at giving voice to the majority of idiots by lying to them and letting them hear what they want to hear, while working for their own benefit."
«A scathing analysis of a political system if ever there was one!» said Daniel.
«And how true.»
"So, we pick your Boy and leave her behind?"
"Yes. She got brainwashed in the orphanages, to the point the brain drained by the nose while the head got filled with a sterile saline water solution. She could see murder, and, as long as it is done for what she considers her idea of what is right, it is acceptable. Luckily, my Son is too young, being two, to be contaminated by that nonsense."
The Boy appeared in the classroom, looked around, got up from the floor and flung himself at his Dad, dripping wet and all.
"So I see, Son, and so I feel too! Was Mommy with you?"
"No, Mommy put me in bath to play while big people talked to her."
"She left you in the bathtub without supervision?"
"Yes, says me big Boy now," pointing at his stiffy in the process.
"May I go kill her?" said the Teacher. "She left my Son in a dangerous situation without supervision."
"No, you may not. The big people your Son mentioned are looking for you."
The Teacher retired to a corner, pouting, and dressed his dried Boy with clothes supplied by Colibri.
«Colibri? We are ready to assault the Academy. What is the situation inside?» asked Sitar
«The Staff is busy searching for us, and torturing left and right to get information no one has. Most are concentrated in the higher levels, with some in the dorm and service areas, nine levels above us... Contact Daniel. He has been tracking them very efficiently while I do the rescues and protect the classroom.»
"Harp, break us in! He is safe for now. We will meet some resistance in the services areas, and in the upper reaches. It seems Daniel has gained some of his Royal traits, as he is now telepathic. I'll leave that to you, Harp, once we are in. I have an operation to direct and can not afford to be distracted by a new telepath."
Shortly, the front wall melted, leaving the doors and their frames standing alone.
"The doors were booby-trapped. You needed a code to open them safely. Now they are standalone testaments to stupidity."
Sitar nodded and led the Legion inside, taking quite a few Teachers off foot in the middle of torturing some of the Princes' dorm mates. The mess was bloody, as one would expect, and the Staff's blood soon joined the one 'gifted' to the 'cause' by the bullies.
"Mages, port those under torture to stasis pods. We need to interrogate them to find their level of involvement before deciding their fate. Stasis pods will stop their suffering." Harp ordered.
"Up I go, Sitar. I feel like a Great White that has been on a diet. I got to bite something..." Harp changed to a Sabre-tooth Tiger and teleported to the level just below the one being searched by the Staff. He did not wait to be seen before beginning his killing spree, taking the search party from behind and killing silently the laggards. Shortly, silence reigned supreme in the upper levels.
«Upper areas clean-up done, Sitar. Ah, the benefit of some exercises! I was feeling a bit too fat around the waist!»
«I am reaching level B-8, one level above where Colibri is. So far, once I passed level B-3, no one was found, except for the paralysed body of the Principal, a few seconds ago. I walked in as a Wolf and gave him a good scare... I learned a lot by licking his bits as if I was preparing them for dinner!»
«Hey, his sausage would easily fit the cocktail party size even inflated, and then on the miniature canapés at that!»
«He could not resist your ministrations?»
«Who can resist a Feline's tongue even if it is hidden in a Wolf's mouth?»
«You are bad!»
«Can you port the Principal to the Bridge for Interrogation, while I take care of Colibri. We just reached the classroom he is in. Put him in inter-space. I think we are not done and just removed the small claw of the conspiracy by dealing with the school. The pain has yet to reach the brain of the Mandarin beast.»
«Okay. I was reviewing my history. I noticed we have lived that experience repeatedly over time. It is our third, maybe fourth major clean-up. I wonder when things will settle down.»
«I know, Harp, and it sucks. As to your implied question, never. There will always be unsatisfied idiots who, having everything they need, ask for the Moon and are furious because it did not get delivered, along with a side-order of baguettes and red wine.»
«Get the Moon delivered? And what's the reference to food?» asked Timor.
«Ask for the impossible... An old Earth saying,» explained Sitar. «As for food, it refers to a myth common in Europe, a part of old Earth, whereby, since the Earth's Moon looked to be filled with holes, it probably was made of Swiss cheese, a type of dairy product that left you on your appetite because it had so many holes. Cheese is usually served with a French type of crusty bread called baguette, and wine to wash the pair down.»