Galactica: Book 2 - Andromeda

Chapter 12 - Battle of the Mages

 

Harp quickly left the area once occupied by the Dementors, wondering how the Andromedan Mages had managed to keep these horrors confined to a single area. After all, they could easily navigate from one segment to another, at least within their specific area. Harp made quick work of visiting other Oxygen-based atmospheres, questioning himself about the need of Oxygen for Dementors, whom were, according to Paschal, and therefore did not really need Oxygen. Bah, that problem was for another day. His visit revealed another 20 or so species living within an Oxygen-rich atmosphere, but all were in stasis pods. More work for Paschal. Finishing his visit with the last ‘reactor' segment of the Oxygen-based atmospheres, he noticed the area was highly radioactive. A quick look around revealed a fractured engine core, emitting, from its partially melted shield, bluish Cherenkov radiation. BRR! Lucky for him the FSS could easily withstand that kind of problem. Maybe he could bring some marshmallows and roast them for the poor Trilobites that were feeding off the radiation picked off by the travelling space-ship?

A silent port to the Atlantean Bridge and Harp began exploring the CH4 atmosphere segments in earnest.

***

"Harp to Thebes. Species in marked areas are to be transferred to stasis pods before release. Moving into Methane-based atmospheric area."

"Thebes to Harp. Iridia at Communications. Change of locale registered. Log shows 23 species. Is this correct?"

"Yes."

"What are the Delta markers for?"

"Those are for Paschal's Engineering teams. They need to record the ecosystems, and potentially reproduce them in secluded areas of Thebes. Also, call upon Paschal's attention the need to study the confinement of Dementors by an unknown method. I probably caused its collapse at some point, but some form of record must exist somewhere. That is the Gamma area."

"Okay. He has been busy with Enron and Colibri. They are having issues. Some stasis pods keep freezing their controls in the General Hospital."

"Given how cold some are... Tell him to put them in a thermal shield."

«Hey Brat! I know my job!» thundered Paschal, pissed at the condescending attitude Harp seemed to profess.

«It does not show, Rat!» replied Harp, snickering.

«Will you two get back to work? Your constant bickering is giving me a headache!» thundered Pharaoh Harold from his desk at the Imperial Suite.

«Yes, Daddy!» replied the two impertinent, mentally showing a finger to their Dad.

«GRR!»

The mental laughter of the two Boys resonated across the spaceship, making some cringe in fear of another memorable prank.

***

Harp quickly found a room full of stasis pods, all emptied of their biological contents, much to his surprise. A quick study showed that the biological cargo had been taken out of stasis normally, if defrosting life and expecting them to jump to work could be considered normal, that is. Now, where had gone the frost-bitten varmint? He had explored a third of the segment when he had searched for the Bridge.

After an hour of exploration, the Prince found a collection of broken bodies that seemed to have been moving toward evacuation pods but had died then and there. Exploring further, Harp easily found the issue at hand: the evacuation pod exit ramps were blocked by the magma produced by the impact of the ship to the ground, now solidified. The ship had dug its way into a thick layer of liquid rock that clogged the ejection tubes of the pods. Given that the atmospheric controls had not been designed for that kind of situation, the crew had roasted in place, unable to escape. What a horrible way to die! It also explained the strange position of the ship, with its nose buried inside a mountain. The Bridge had probably been trying to lift the nose up, firing its forward thrusters to lift up but with the lack of power, it had only dug itself a hole into which to sink. That also explained the rupture of the containment shields that triggered the major fire on the Bridge. Tearing an engine during a crash was certainly probable cause for an electrical fire.

Moving further back into the ship, Harp progressed through segments, finding out that the running crew of the ship during the crash had been the Methane breathers. Could it have been the issue at hand that explained the original crash? Slower reflexes, maybe? After all, living in such a cold atmosphere was bound to have consequences!

***

Harp reached segment 11 and noticed immediately something strange. A shiver ran through him, and he immediately identified it: a magic field effect! That was new, and told the Prince of Magic something was up. Now, what?

"Harp to Thebes. I have a magical field edge. No telepathy exchange with me please. Use radio only!"

"Thebes Bridge to Harp. Acknowledged. Do you need assistance?"

"Not at the present. I am leaving a beacon at the edge. Ready a Decurie in case of need."

"Acknowledged."

Harp analysed the field and quickly realised it was an expansion field, a 1,000 to 1 expansion bubble, in fact.

Not bad, he thought, as he progressed further, looking cautiously around. Now, let's see what I find here.

Progression was slow at best. There were many nooks and crannies all over the place, albeit the hallway was rather strangely organised, as if it was spiralling tightly on itself. At some point, a huge room appeared, that seemed to have been in use by the crew as a refectory from the disposition of the surfaces screwed or bolted to the floor. Harp noticed some broken bodies amassed in a pile on one side, that seemed to have been dismembered. Further along the huge hallway were bodies seemingly intact. A scavenger seemed to have picked on the corpses.

As he made his way further in segment 11, Harp discovered more bodies, mostly intact, while some seemed to have been tossed violently against a wall, or, in some cases, against a protrusion or, in one case, against the ceiling, however improbable that seemed!

Something was strange about that segment, apart from its magical expansion: so far, most hallways were of standard size, but in this segment, there seemed to be huge hallways, connected by much narrower and much smaller passages. What was with this arrangement? The size of the crew was much more consistent with the narrow passages than with the big, no, humongous ones! Egotistical bastard at work? And still, no one alive...

Harp made slow progress, deciding to hug the narrow passages. Something told him that this might be vital.

***

The Andromedan Emperor was woken suddenly, almost violently, from its almost comatose sleep, consequence of the crash. Oh, it had scavenged for food, eating the cadavers of the crew it had access to, but it had decided to save energy as much as possible for the confrontation with the would-be regicide. When that bastard came, it wanted to be fit, not tired from trying to escape to the surface of the Planet or to be vulnerable for a cheap shot from outer space. Where it was, the usurper would need to make its way to it and it would be waiting! Someone had entered the magical field, and had Magic. It could only be the usurper!

The Emperor monitored the progress of its foe, but something was strange. It was using crew passages! That should not be possible! These passages were way too narrow for their species, except for newly hatched ones! The usurper could not be that small! After all, even a survivor of the hatchery would be 50 times bigger than the width of these hallways, and the usurper had to be considerably bigger!

The Emperor watched, perplexed, the markers that reported Harp's progress, fascinated by the behaviour. It showed intelligence as the life-form seemed to tackle the segment systematically, moving ever closer to where the Andromedan Emperor lay in wait, wondering what was going on.

The Andromedan began sensing Magic progressing toward him. But that was impossible! It was such a small source! And it was still so far it should not even register on its sensory organs, the four whiskers. How could this be?

***

Harp had been feeling a powerful source of Magic for quite some time, and tried to locate it without charging into a trap. The problem was, where was it? How far was it? What was the source? Could it be the source of the field? Progressing deeper, ever deeper, he slowly realised that the source of Magic was moving! Moving slowly to cut him off a potential retreat, it appeared. Harp decided to booby-trap his rear, and created spheres of pure Oxygen contained in thin foils of Copper. Then he put in thin wires of steel that he spooled in tight balls before throwing them up until they were stuck by a tiny amount of Magic to the ceiling. Should anything rub the almost invisible magical wires now dangling from the ceiling, and it would pull on the plug holing the Oxygen prisoner of the Copper spheres, while creating a cascade of sparks that would travel along the steel wire and set the atmosphere of Methane ablaze with the Oxygen acting as torches.

***

The Emperor, meanwhile, noticed the source of Magic stop, then bursts of Magic were registered by its very sensitive whiskers. What was the source doing? It seemed to be sensing things around actively, a very indiscreet method of discovering things! Bah! Who cared? It helped the Emperor get a better fix on the position of its foe and allowed it to make progress along a parallel passage. It still had some distance to cover before being behind its target, and, apparently, it had not yet been detected. If only its target continued forth, the Emperor could potentially use the cross-passage that was barely behind the foe's current position and emerge from the floor by elevator. But it had to move! It was too close and vibrations could be felt if the Emperor activated the elevator while its target was still that close!

***

Harp extended its magical senses delicately. The target was almost abreast of his position, but was not moving. Had he been detected? Probably, thought Harp, but there was nothing he could do about it. Better use the time before the confrontation to set up more traps. If only he knew what kind of life-form he was facing!

Having finished with his torches, Harp decided to mine his rear with explosives of different nature. The first line of rear defence was composed of scatter mines, containing ball-bearings the size of buck shots, compacted in spheres that contained high explosives and Oxygen held at a high pressure. Not only would the mines disperse their loads effectively, but the Oxygen would also set the atmosphere afire!

Next, Harp decided to install a wide swath of quicksand, with powerful Sulphuric Acid instead of Water as suspension medium. Woe the life form that tried to walk across that bog! To complete the mix, he placed explosives at the bottom of the newly created bog that would throw the acid sky-high... well, roof-high, to be exact.

The last defence Harp implemented was a high-pressure Fluorine barrier. Gaseous Fluorine would react violently with the atmosphere as well as with anything Carbon-based. By then Harp had reached 2/3 of the way through the segment, and found more corpses. Most had been torn by the shock, but some, found in the main hallway, had been butchered for food. That was a problem. Why were the bodies found in narrow passages intact while those found in the big passages eaten? Something was up, but what?

***

The Emperor waited until the intruder made considerable progress before crawling as silently as possible along the cross-passage that would eventually lead to the elevator it had targeted. Hearing was not its forte, but it still remembered that some of the low-life crew members had detected its arrival well before they should, and one of the Officers, long lost to history, had told it that its body made clinking ‘noises', vibrations in the atmosphere that others could ‘hear', whatever that meant. Maybe that pesky life-form could too, and the Emperor was not ready to risk underestimating the foe.

Climbing aboard the lift, the Emperor realised it had a problem. Usually, the lift was operated by a member of the now food-supply and very dead crew. How in Hell would it reach the tiny controls? Its pincers were far too big!

It almost lost it right there, its temper already frayed by the presence of an invader, and it began to shake. The noise propagated along the walls, floors, and ceilings of the elevator, alerting Harp to something. The elevator began shaking violently, and, suddenly, the pulley system that allowed the elevator's up and down movement unhooked from the shaft's ceiling and came crashing down. The elevator cabin, no longer held in place, fell down at an ever-increasing speed, something the Emperor realised as it began floating above the floor!

The Andromedan Emperor was ill-tempered, but not idiotic! If it stayed in the cabin, the result would be imperial lunch meat in a crushed shell for the invader, so it ported itself over the cabin roof and extended its pincers to try and grab the sides of the shaft. At first, the attempt seemed to be in vein, but as panic gave it more force, it jumped and threw all its weight into extending its legs to penetrate the shaft walls. The metal cried as it was torn asunder, ripped by the massive body to shreds, but, eventually, the Emperor slowed its progress down the gravity well and, after a good five minutes of tearing its way down, came to a panting halt, shaking violently from the strain. Wait until it met the cause of this disaster!

Studying the situation, it quickly realised it had to climb back up on its own as it felt the vibrations produced by the crashing cabin, almost a mile down from its precarious position. It crawled, crab-like, on the wall to find a more solid surface to climb up as its crash had made the current wall it was precariously hanging from unstable and improper for any alpinism. Slowly, it moved to the opposite wall, nearly getting hit by the still falling coils and their motor, headed down to join the now defunct cabin. In fact, one cable lashed at its tail, almost taking it off. The Emperor, in extreme pain, considered itself lucky the cable had only lashed at its back and not wrapped itself around or it would have been pulled down by the very heavy cable and pulley system.

The Emperor took some time to calm its frayed nerves, focussed on its Magic to heal the most problematic wounds and reduce the pain, repaired a severely torn leg by dispensing with it and re-growing one magically. Then the arduous climb began. As it read the first level marker it met, the Emperor realised it had to climb well over 525 levels before reaching the one where the invader was making ravages. A long, tiring climb in perspective, but it was a lot less tiring than porting, which would suck it dry of its Magical reserves. It had already lost a quarter of these reserves escaping the falling cabin.

***

Meanwhile, Harp heard the cabin rocking violently and then begin its trip down. A few minutes later, he heard the pulley system falling down like a wild train entering a station. From his position, the Prince of Magic saw the door to the elevator shaft get thrown across the huge room's rear end, a cable whipping it savagely before wrapping itself around a pillar it then brutally converted into steel sausage links, before retreating inside the elevator shaft with the whine of an half-fed animal. It was lucky the Prince of Magic was at the other end, hidden in a narrow passage as that cable almost gave him the impression it was searching for his body to slice and dice him alive!

Harp noticed that the missing pillar had supported the arched roof and that its disappearance was causing undue stress on the ceiling of the room. It was whining, crying like a butchered animal. Better move on further and find a safe place for a while until the situation stabilised. Maybe set up more traps? Who knows, maybe prepare a few high explosives for other pillars? After all, a crashing ceiling was a good way to get rid of a foe, but it had to be done properly or he would be the one getting converted to a pancake.

First, he installed a beam anchored in the wall whose task was to transfer the ceiling's weight downward. Then, he added a hallowed tube, bolted to the top of the beam and arching to the crest of the room. Inside the tube, he placed liquid Trinitrotoluene, a spark plug, and, across the room, well away from the detonator, a battery set that would feed 2,000 volts to the plug once it got triggered. Now the fun part: he made quite sure that any magical being would find the circuit by including a magical trace that acted as a beacon for his target. The easy target was a box with a ball bearing that would roll at the slightest touch, closing the circuit. The second ‘trigger' was a polarity inverter: move the commutator, and the magnetic switch would close. Anyone trying to cut the circuit would effectively close it, by diverting the electrical flow to the spark plug, detonating the TNT in the pipe and, hopefully, produce a collapse of the segment of the room's roof.

Harp then wrapped the rear columns of the room in their midsection with plastic, namely C-4, passed wiring to bundles that would trigger the explosives from rear to front, forcing any life-form to move forward at a fast rate without taking time to analyse the area it was engaging in. If things went well, the enemy would see the ceiling explode behind and, for fear of receiving the roof on the head, would begin running forward, falling into all the nice floor traps.

Once satisfied with the set-up, Harp made his way further toward the rear. The more distance between him and his traps, the safer he felt.

***

Meanwhile, the Andromedan Emperor slowly made its way up. It did feel the Magic Harp used, but figured it of little consequence, since it would weaken the enemy by emptying the magical reserve.

Several hours after it began to climb, the Andromedan Emperor took a brief respite and tried to triangulate the invader's position. It felt noticeably weaker, much to its satisfaction. Never did it think it was due to increased distance on the target floor.

***

Harp reached a cabin that seemed to be much more complex than the usual utilitarian one. A thick layer of... sand??? was covering the floor, and, on the corner was some sort of cave, burrow, or den. At the entrance was the corpse of a rather human-sized life-form, wearing a uniform with numerous tiny bits of metal, of dubious defensive value. The corpse had been contained by a space suit, but, for some reason, the corpse, albeit dead for a long time, was still physically intact. It seemed the life-form breathed another atmosphere, and the crash landing had ruptured the space-suit's integrity somewhere, killing its occupant.

One of the walls of the cabin was dented as if it had been rammed by a massive object, which was nowhere to be seen. Harp also identified controls, and what he has realised were surveillance monitors. The occupant of the cabin had to be important to warrant that kind of equipment.

The sand floor showed marks of something moving around, in fact, two things: one matched the feet of the small crew member, but the others, the most numerous, seemed to be like someone had been walking on stilts, huge ones to be sure, but stilts nonetheless. It must have been quite a task to do so!

Done with exploring the cabin, which, unknown to Harp, was the Emperor's, the Prince of Magic made progress further off. Reaching the end of the segment, he ported across the lock and found himself in another huge segment. The segment was strange. It had huge facilities, most geared toward the production of food. Then why was it that he had seen so much cannibalism so far, especially in the last segment he had just visited and booby-trapped? The food machinery was stopped, but, after checking on the reserves, Harp had to admit the stockrooms were full to the brim.

Deciding to continue, Harp made his way to the next segment and found another surprise. A huge medical facility, the first he had seen on-board the Andromedan ship. The patients for that facility must have been either very numerous, or huge, or maybe both!

It seemed pristine, as if it had never really been used. Checking on supplies, Harp discovered there was more than enough of them to supply an army, all neatly packed, labelled, and probably dated with expiration dates. As to what each medicine did, he would leave that to Colibri and the other Biological Fanatic Nut!

«I heard that!» commented Enron, «Wait until you get sick, and I shall remind you of the comment before cutting you up with a laser scalpel!»

«As long as I am under anaesthesia...»

«Who said?»

«Prick!»

«Given you are afraid of them, why should I deprive myself of an asset?»

«Jerk!»

«You like it!»

After a little bit more bantering, Harp went back to exploring the ship. He kept an eye on the progress of his foe, noticing that it was halting more frequently on its long climb up the elevator shaft.

Harp made some more progress, moving closer and closer to the rear of the ship. As he entered the last full segment, he noticed another notable change. This one contained stasis pods. He examined the contents and noticed that the pods were of varying types. A few contained eggs, and what looked like rather big tadpoles. One contained a rather huge crab with what looked like a big tail and a dart. The underbelly was white, the back a deep, almost black, green. It had six powerful legs, and four sets of rather intimidating pincers.

«Hey guys! I think I found how the slavers look like!»

«Describe!»

«I am doing better. I am taking a picture with the FSS and sending it to Thebes for record-keeping. Anyway, Sitar, why ask? Read my mind!»

«You know it is never a good idea to do this when you are engaged! It might distract you.»

«True. A short description is a mix between a Scorpion and a Crab. Add gigantic to the lot and you have an idea. By comparison, I put this thing to be about the size of a Brontosaur, so approximately 90 feet from tail to pincer tip. By the way, there are also six legs and two sets of pincers that seem sharp enough to cut steel. There are growth rings, and, from what I see of the relatively transparent belly, an inner skeleton that seems to support an exoskeleton. That exoskeleton is composed of plates that could put to shame those of our tanks.»

«Female, male?» asked Enron, always the Biologist.

«Hard to say. I do not plan to wake it up to ask nor do an anatomic dissection. The cloaca is big enough I could walk in, probably because its muscles are fully relaxed. Since I have no idea if this is the regular size, or if there is a size dichotomy based on sex, I can not answer from simple observation.»

«What do you plan to do?»

«Blow it up, what else? I shall not save a species that has enslaved an entire Galaxy. They had their chance to redeem themselves, they did not. Their time is out.»

«Son, you have my blessing.»

«Dad, thanks, not that I needed it. This is a state of War, and, sometimes, the only solution is this one. I thought long and hard about this before coming to this disturbing conclusion: some species are not redeemable. Apparently, they have been selecting themselves for ruthlessness, not compassion, and that has been the case for billions of years.»

After a bit more exchanges of little consequences, Harp began creating explosives all around the giant room. Pillars were laced with explosives, and so were the controls of the different stasis pods. The idea was to blow the pods wide open and bring the ceiling down on the cracked and blasted pods. Once this was done, Harp made his way to the reactor room and began installing explosives there as well.

***

The Andromedan Emperor finally reached the floor on which Harp was. It forced what was left of the doors out of the way, and crawled out. After taking a break to rest from its impromptu alpinism session, the Emperor looked around. There was nothing out of place, but the Andromedan did not reach its position by being brash. It looked more in depth and realised there was a Magical trigger barely a pincer away from its current location. Carefully examining the magical signature, the Andromedan Emperor realised that touching the object would short the circuit and trigger something, probably unpleasant. Further study of the circuit revealed that inverting the signal would bypass the gating switch, not a good idea either. Following the wires, the Mage saw them fuse to a single cable some distance from the triggering set, well hidden inside the column. Bright idea, it thought. If it touched the trigger, the tiny ball would roll and complete the circuitry; if it inverted the polarity, the gate, kept separate by being of the same polarity, would suddenly attract each other and fuse, again completing the circuit. Simple solution: cut the main line: problem solved!

The moment the Andromedan Emperor cut the line, the electrical flow, no longer able to follow the main, low-resistance, derivative, shifted to the secondary flow line, and triggered the spark plug's ignition. TNT and electrical sparks do not mix! The Andromedan felt the floor tremble and began looking around for the source of said vibrations. It was only the passage of dust from the ceiling that attracted its attention and allowed it to barely move out of the way of the falling steel beam.

To the Andromedan Mage's horror, it saw the ceiling crack and begin losing bits of support arcs. Then, to its further panic, it saw support columns at the end of the room explode in shrapnel of metal, plaster, and steel plates falling from the roof. To further complete the catastrophic picture, the Mage saw the rear ceiling suddenly open up, fall in the room, bringing down with it the upper floor.

Barely had it thought things stopped when further explosions sectioned the support columns located just in front of those that had been blown up, propagating the collapse of the room closer to its position. Frozen in shock, the Emperor stayed in place, too freaked out to move. Finally, the columns close to its position folded under the pressure of the upper floors, even before the explosives reduced them to projectiles. The high frequency vibrations triggered a reflex the Emperor had never used before: the flee response!

It began to run as quickly as possible toward the other end of the room, its passage triggering more explosions as its body touched the invisible filaments of Magic hanging from the ceiling.

***

Harp also felt the explosions and realised his traps had been activated. It was time to see what was doing all the trouble! The Prince of Magic opened his senses to watch the scene being played out in the giant room. At first, the young Mage did not see much, given the amount of plaster dust falling off the ceiling. Then, a dark object, covered in plaster dust, moved in front of one of the cameras, way too close for Harp to get a full view of the life form, much less estimate its size.

After a few minutes, the object of Harp's curiosity moved away, revealing a dust-covered life-form that was on the run, trying to escape the cascading collapse of the room's roof. It looked much like the big Scorpion-Crab the Prince had seen in the stasis pod. However, estimating its size was problematic because of the lack of points of reference of known size.

As Harp watched, he saw the life form trigger his torching traps. Knowing the power of the jets of flames, he could finally estimate the size of the follower. It put Brontosaurs to shame, or even the famed Amphicoelias Fragillimus, the biggest Sauropod of the defunct Earth, which measured 200 feet long and weighed up to 150 tons. Talk about sexual dimorphism!

***

The sudden flames torching its underbelly made the Andromedan jump, a surprising action given its phenomenal size. It began ‘running' in circles, trying to escape the flames roasting it in its shell, red spots appearing everywhere on its legs, pincers, and underbelly. The boiling blood was excruciatingly painful and cracks appeared in the shell, exuding body fluids that exploded on being put in contact with the flames. Realising it had to get out of that death field at all costs, the Emperor ran across and jumped in despair the last fifty feet, only to sink in the sand to its belly.

The Andromedan Emperor took a break to assess the situation. After all, it was time to re-evaluate the foe. It had paid heavily for its misconceptions about the usurper.

First point: it was magical. That much it knew.

Second point: it was highly intelligent. The Emperor had paid quite a price to learn that one fact.

Third point: It came from the outer fringes of the star island. That too was abundantly clear given the path it had followed to reach the galactic core. It just could not come from any other Galaxy! That was impossible, due to the lack of magical energy source to propel a ship.

Fourth point: The ONLY magical being in the Galaxy were the members of its own species. They had seen to it, hunting down any species that showed even the smallest inkling of Magic. But then, that it could move within the crew passages made it small, puny, and therefore easily crushable. Or was it? Apparently, it had made minced meat of the Imperial defences, reduced the nests to nothing, made its way to the Imperial Planet with impunity and all that in very short order!

After resting some more, the Emperor decided it had taken enough of a break. It had recovered the sands to patch its exoskeleton, and, even if it still felt terrible, it was time to tackle the intruder.

The moment it tried to move forward, new issues popped up. Yes it had sunk to its underbelly in the sand, but, as it progressed further, it quickly realised it was sinking. Why now, and not before? It realised that the sand pit was getting deeper as it made progress, and that it was also more fluid, but not the kind of fluidity you could swim into! Quicksand! How could that be? Moving backward was not an option. Their species were physically designed for only one direction: forward, and at best, crab-like diagonal motion. In despair, it began trying to swim, but that too was problematic at best!

***

Meanwhile, Harp had watched the huge Scorpion-Crab while recharging his magical core by draining the life forces out of everything crushed in the collapsed stasis pods room. The big Scorpion-Crab was the only survivor of its species as far as Harp knew, but the Andromedan did not know it... yet.

Harp waited for the giant sea-food to reach the middle of the sand pit to trigger another trap: huge jets of gasses erupted from the bottom, liquifying the sand, already floating on a sea of methane, thus making the act of swimming an impossible feat. Suddenly deprived of support, the walking restaurant (I must be getting hungry, thought Harp) sank to the bottom mercilessly. Spells also flew at the Emperor from all sides, as it lashed thunderously at everything, to no avail. Huge swarms of Harp Clones, in fact, magical simulacrums of the Prince of Magic, walked out of the shadows in perfect military precision, and sent out spell after spells of all types, creating a sound similar to muskets firing in volleys, while the Andromedan Emperor tried to smash them with his tail, in a fair imitation of black powder cannons. That gave Harp an idea and he began generating the sounds waves produced by Wellington's Victory, much to the fury of the Emperor, whom understood quite clearly he was being mocked.

***

The Emperor quickly felt the change in density produced by the injection of gases under pressure in the mix and realised instantly it was in deep trouble. It had hoped that allowing its body to sink in the liquid mixed with the sand would exert an upward pressure sufficient for floatation, but that last change cut that option out. Frustrated, the Emperor amassed its last magical reserves and ported to the far end of the room, where it collapsed in total exhaustion.

Barely had it flattened on its belly, unable to stand anymore, that it smelled something highly toxic in the atmosphere: Oxygen! Oh no! Not that! It pulled on reserves it did not know it had and pulled itself into the passage between rooms, just in time to escape the terrible explosion followed by the inferno that followed a deliberate spark. The heat was such that the rear of its tail cooked, and it realised the extraordinary pain it felt was its genitals being burned to a crisp by the heat. Furthermore, its lungs burned, and it experienced increasing problems breathing.

The Emperor used its pincers to pull itself along the hallway, unable to walk, or move its rear segment. Finally, it reached the next room and flattened itself on the floor, nearly fainting in pain as the rear segment's exoskeleton cracked. It called for Death to have mercy and come collect it, for the pain was unbearable. Behind it, a safety door slammed close, stopping the Oxygen from continuing its work of destruction. Yet, the Emperor was not out of trouble yet, as it saw a yellowish gas leak from the ceiling of the passage. What in the Blazes of the Dark Stars was this? Then it remembered: Fluorine! The Emperor, totally freaked out by now, pulled all stops and threw itself forward along the passageway, triggering the locks behind itself, but not before feeling the burn of the gases as it attacked its dorsal shell! The lock closed just in time as a terrible explosion buckled the three-foot thick steel doors and let some of the toxic fumes leak through until a force field cut the leaks off. That had been a close call, way too close for comfort. It saw the door redden from the inferno it contained in the narrow passage. Had it not found the energy of despair, the Andromedan knew without doubt it would have been cooked, no, burned to a crisp.

***

Harp watched the progress of the huge Scorpion-Crab, almost laughing at its experience with the quicksand, then the different explosives he had laced the path to the next room. As the huge animal finally made its way to the next huge room, Harp figured it was time to confront the Beast. He made his way to the huge hall, and was awed at the size of the foe he had now to face. Time to finish this job. More than time.

The Emperor felt someone enter the Hall and began looking around for the Enemy. Harp's fury was all-enveloping, and was accompanied by a drumming that assaulted the Emperor's senses. At first, he saw nothing, but, suddenly, a Biped stood, immobile, just out of reach of its pincers. His severely burned whiskers still sensed the Magic from the one standing in front of it, and the tortured brain of the Andromedan told the Emperor this was the one responsible for all its pains and its demise. The Emperor knew it had no chance of surviving a confrontation, but if it could take the little pest down in Death, it would be able to go in peace. The Prince walked resolutely forward, creating another ‘music' theme that spoke of Death and War.

The Emperor tried to impale the little twerp with its tail dart, but it was slow, and the move missed completely as the pain almost blacked it out to unconsciousness. Harp did not even move as the dart hit the floor some five feet to his left and three feet behind his immobile form.

The Andromedan breathed slowly, trying to shove the pain away, and regain some of its capacity to move. Unfortunately, the four rear legs choose that moment to break, reducing the mobility to nil, and sending radiating pain in the Andromedan. As it felt rage grow, the Emperor heard a voice in his brain. That little coprolite was telepathic too?

«Well, yes, I am telepathic. And shit is a luxury given the cost of food, so thank you for calling me precious!»

The comment left the Andromedan flabbergasted. It was at a loss.

«Get here so I can cut you to pieces, little one!»

«I am not that stupid!»

As the Andromedan tried to focus on Harp to muster another strike, it heard another comment: «Do not bother! I can see what you see, and I can read your intentions. I shall be out of reach before you even trigger the muscles to hit me with that needle you call a defensive spine.»

«Are you here to mock me?»

«No, more to quicken your death, since there is only one of your species left alive, namely you. I disposed of those in storage. There can only be ONE!»

«You killed my selected concubine, the Queen?»

«Ah, so it was a Female. I was not sure. Since she was asleep, it was an easy disposal task. I also disposed of the eggs.»

«Disposing of a Royal line does not kill a species. We have been around since the first stars, and we are everywhere in this Galaxy.»

«We are aware of that, seafood.»

«Seafood? I will kill you!»

«Given how your magical core is draining in an effort to keep you alive, I am not too worried about that threat. Anyway, I wanted information from you, and I got it.»

«But you asked no question!»

«To your conscious level, no, but it did not stop me from reading your memory. We lacked the knowledge of your written language, your codes, and all that. I now have everything in store. The whole chat was to keep you distracted while I scanned your three memories: conscious, unconscious, and species or genetic. That last one dates from your first emergence from the sea of Methane. Now I can understand you better and see what you have done and why.»

Taking stock of the extent of the disaster, the Emperor wondered what it could do.

«Nothing, I tell you. And no use sending a magical pulse to collapse the expanded space. I am the one holding it up now, not you. If I was not, this whole area would fall in on itself and create a miniature black hole that would devour the Planet. It will be allowed to once we have finished recovering everything we are interested in. Yes, including the Imperial Archives, which we already did recover, thank you very much. Do you not want to know anything about us? Or are you so self-centred on your power trip that you have lost all scientific curiosity?»

«How did we miss you? We scour the Galaxy to destroy any species that might pose a threat to our hegemony!»

«Because we are not of this Galaxy, that is why.»

«Not of this Galaxy? That is impossible! We tried to travel, many times, and never made it across that I know of!»

«I must confirm your species never did make it. We have explored our Galaxy in depth, and we never did meet any of your kind in the 9,000,000,000 or so life-bearing worlds it contained. As to your knowledge, remember one thing: those that attempted the voyage never made it back, so, naturally, you never learned of their fate. Unfortunately, I can not tell you what happened to them, because we did not meet them on our way here. Such is Life.»

Taking a breath, Harp continued. «Our spaceship is essentially condensed Magic, contrary to your fleet, which drains Magic from free-floating dust of Orichalque. Our Orichalque is a crystal that folds Magic, making it flow in a circuit, recycling it and calling to stray Magic in space to complement its charge. Your Galaxy is a powerful source of free-floating, partially charged Orichalque, which we attract to our ship, adding size and power to our ship. You drain, but do not replenish, and intergalactic space is inherently poor in Orichalque, which, given your ship design, insures you can not successfully reach another Galaxy before running out of energy. At the rate we are growing, we will be the size of a Blue Giant Star shortly. If we manage to collect every scrap of Magic in this Galaxy, and use it efficiently, we will be a bit huge.»

«A bit huge?»

«Oh, about 1,800 times the radius of our native star, a yellow dwarf. Not that our density will increase. You see, Orichalque has many properties, including, but not limited to, affecting the gravitational well. We are using this to prevent a collapse of our ship unto itself. Things will be much more interesting when we are done collecting magic everywhere in the Universe. This will collapse the Universe on itself, ejecting us into zero-space, and zero-time. Or null space-time. Terminology is still being debated. I can not wait! Oh, just in case you start blaming us for the end of the Universe, keep it. We created it, we can destroy it. But we are also saving as many life-forms as we can. The Universe is doomed anyway, we just make sure to collect Magic before it collapses on itself for another cycle. We might well decide to collect Magic as it gets created while the Universe is coalescing into its plasma phase. Why bother doing another run?»

«Why are you telling me all this? Not that I believe it.»

«Why not tell you? After all you will not be able to do anything with that information. Anyway, we will be kept busy Universe-hopping while we wait for that drop of matter to reconvene for another bang.»

The Andromedan tried to digest what it heard.

«Wait! Wait! You said you are responsible for the birth of the Universe? That is preposterous!»

«Well, it was not intentional, I admit. It was a failed experiment. We managed to stop things before it went out of hand, err, pincers for you.»

The Andromedan Emperor felt the life-form in front of it was not trying to take credit unjustly, and that shocked it to the core.

«What species are you?»

«Mammal, Human-Atlantean Hybrid, Prince Mage, and Shape-Shifter.»

«What does this all mean?»

«Simple: Our species, the Atlanteans, moved to a small rocky Planet that harboured a rather primitive life form. After some adjustments, we were able to interbreed. Thus the Human-Atlantean Hybrid. We were magical, and, well, some Humans had Shape-Shifting capabilities. Rather then eradicate that, we added it to our own capacities, taking the Humans with us on the evolutionary trip. So, now, here we are, able to take just about any animal or plant shape, as long as we have their genetic map in storage. It allows us to communicate with any we rescue as well and adapt to their environment. We are also giving that possibility to some of the species we shelter on our ship. Not all are offered the chance to evolve quickly, because some lack the adaptability to adjust their behaviours to the need of running a spaceship, and others are better kept as food source, if only because their reproduction rate is so high if they were let free to roam they would overwhelm our resources. Do you have any more questions? My crew members report they are done emptying this ship of life, resources, and whatever they considered important to recover. And your Magical Core will collapse shortly, killing you. It has breached repeatedly and your focus on winning has stopped you from realising that fact.»

«No, I can feel the icy grip of death already. My extremities are not even hurting me anymore, I feel nothing. My breathing is laboured, and I have lost eyesight.»

«Then you are close to death. May you rest in peace. I will collapse this expanded space once you have left your body by teleporting myself on my ship, thus cutting support to its magical structure. I am sad to say I feel no spiritual container for your species, so you are not likely to be recovered after death. Your species saw to its destruction, as I have learned from scanning your genetic memory. It was seen as a weakness, sadly, so you never learned from past life experiences. In a way, you are escaping in the void of time, not even food for the Soul-Eaters. Maybe that was what drove your ancestors to destroy their Souls.»

«Souls?»

«Spiritual containers. They allow a person to survive death and be reborn, storing past experiences. Naturally, some gain from the experience, some do not, and some... become evil and destructive. And, as for any form of energy, there are predators; the Soul-Eaters, and quite a few more species. I disposed of those stored on-board this ship. What did you think of keeping these abominations on a ship? They were feeding on your crew, creating feelings of despair, and probably the main reason why you lost the battle even before it began!»

«How could I know of them? You just told me I had no Soul!»

«The Soul is the container, you idiot! You probably felt the darkness pull all your life, and considered it a normal state of affairs! The ones that destroyed your container left you exposed to drainage, weakening your species in the process. Not that I am going to complain, given what your history reveals, but it might have been radically different had the spiritual container been left intact! Your life force is diffuse, which might explain your absolutely abhorrent size. The Dementors probably drove your species to madness. And the Wraiths sucked up your life forces to sustain themselves. The dumb arses that did this to your ancestors might as well have put a label on themselves and you: Death Food! All is not in size, you know! It became a race between you and your predators. You grew in size to build a bigger core, diffuse as it is, in order to survive the repeated feedings of the spiritual Suckers. Your evolution reminds me of a collection of species that inhabited the Earth once: the Dinosaurs. You pushed the package a lot further, and that is telling a lot!»

The Andromedan did not respond. Harp studied the Andromedan and noticed the breathing was a lot shallower, more spaced, and accompanied by increasing numbers of stalls. Consciousness had left the Andromedan, and only reflexes were now active. Spams occurred as more muscles lacked gaseous exchange to maintain their metabolism.

Finally, after a last, long and very shallow breath, the Andromedan stopped moving entirely. Heart beats stopped quickly, and body temperature, already low for the species, quickly reached thermal equilibrium with the environment.

«Rest in peace. Your species may have destroyed others, but it too suffered immensely in the hands of unscrupulous individuals.»

Harp then called out to Thebes.

«Harp to Thebes. Has the Planet been vacated?»

«We are currently waiting on the last ships. They have left the surface and should be docking shortly. Sitar has ordered the collection of every scrap of Magical material there is, so we are spooling the outer reaches of the star system while collecting everything.»

«The Andromedan Emperor is dead. Tell me when we are ready to leave. I will port to Thebe's Bridge at the last moment possible. Who is at the Helm?»

«Greywolf.»

«Okay. When I materialise, enter warp nine. The collapse of the expended space will create a miniature back hole and destroy the star system. We need to be out of reach when it blows up.»

«Greywolf here, we still have an hour to wait before the last ship is in its berth.»

«No problem. I can wait.»

«Can you wait a bit more?»

«Sure, why do you ask, Dad?»

«I want to collect the ships that are drifting toward the black hole. Maybe we can rescue some life-forms. It might take a day.»

«Okay. I will be waiting in here. I dare not leave the expanded space unoccupied. It is too unstable.»

«Fine. Why is it unstable?»

«Contrary to our own spaces, it derives its energy from the core of a life-form, namely either me or the deceased Emperor. There were many faults in their use of Magic, but this creams the cake.»

***

Hours passed slowly for Harp. He noticed there was no art whatsoever. Everything was utilitarian, practical, and oriented toward survival. He began to wonder if the lack of art was not the result of the Andromedan Soul containers being destroyed. Maybe the need for a high-density spiritual energy was required for art to emerge? Without a container, the minimal density could not be reached. But then, why were the other life-forms not showing signs of art? Maybe it was more a side-effect of their masters refusing that energy be spent in what they considered a futile endeavour.

«Hey guys, did anyone ever see art on Andromedan ships?»

After a serious flow of exchanges, Harp had to admit that no form of art had been discovered anywhere. That was really disturbing.

«Paschal, when we begin collecting life-forms back in time, make sure you collect their art as well. It would be good to give those we rescue a sense of history and continuity.»

«I have been on it ever since we began collecting species, well before we made our way here. You do need to get out of your bedroom and Magical Colleges, little Brother. There are huge museums all over the ship. Natural History, Art, Technology, Libraries, Architecture, the works. In case you have not been to Section E-1, this is where resides the Earth Prime Collections, including the first writings, every single building of note, every sculpture, painting, stone impediment, and weapon of note. Also found are bones and complete skeletons of every life-form that ever inhabited the Earth, including a Soul-Eater. Visiting that now takes a year non-stop. A-1 contains Atlantis Prime Collections, and so forth. Each life-sustaining Planet we visited also has its Natural History Museum and a full documentation of ecosystems, including evolution over time. Colibri is a pain in the butt for research quality I have been told, by none other than Enron. Imagine: billions of Museums that reproduce buildings, ecosystems, and even noteworthy geological formations. They are nuts!»

«That is saying a lot. Enron sometimes pushes me so hard I want to strangle him.»

«If you were a little less of a lazy bum, maybe I would not need to push so hard!»

«Enron, there is a difference between obsessive maniac and mentally ill: the later is an undiagnosed form of the former!»

***

«Harp, we are done recovering what we could of that fleet. Quite a few ships were swallowed by the Black Hole before we could reach them. We added another 322 species to our collection. Be ready to port on-board. Could you port on Decontamination Deck #5, please? There are issues with some of the life-forms we rescued and we are not willing to risk the spread of an unknown disease.»

«Okay Dad. Activate sterilisation protocols. Porting in 5... 4...3...2...1...Now!»

Harp found himself in a flood of high-power gamma radiation, and saw the FSS surface brighten up due to the presence of biological contaminants. It took half an hour for all the violet light to vanish from the suit, then it went into intense red, as heat was applied to vapourise the contaminants. Then Harp ported into the FSS Standard Reception Pool, deactivated the suit, and ported to the Bridge of Thebes. Meanwhile his suit was cleansed inside and recycled for future use.

"Welcome home, Son. We are moving around the Core Black Hole and engaging the next Dark Arm of Andromeda. Your information allowed us to figure out where the Slavers have holed down their Fleets and therefore where their nests are. It also explains, according to Paschal, why our passage had such a catastrophic effect on them. We triggered the perfect magical storm by blowing up their nests with magical pulses. To be honest, I plan to repeat the same thing. If it worked once, it will work again. Furthermore, we have deciphered their communications. Their Empire is divided in operational segments, and only the Emperor has the authority to call across segments. That is why the rest of the Fleets have not been on our back. We will use this to our advantage."

"Okay Dad. I figure Sitar planned all this."

"We held a strategic meeting while you were hunting the Emperor down. That is a short overview of the decisions and plans. You will find a copy of the decisions and a full recording of the debate in your room."

"Thanks. I am off to bed. I feel like sleeping on my feet."

"Hold it! Report on your finds!"

"Veni! Vidi! Vici!55 ("Veni! Vidi! Vici!: Latin - I came! I saw! I won!")"

"You little devil! No porting then. We are moving at warp 9 and changing direction often. I do not want to see you appear on the monitor, out of the ship."

"Fine, fine, push me to sleep on the floor of the hallway."

"Do not tempt me, Son."

"You are a royal pest, Dad."

"No, I am an Imperial one!"

"Grr!"

"Timor, carry him to his room, will you, please?"

"Sure!"

"I can walk!"

"So says the one that looks drunk from fatigue!" replied Timor, picking Harp off the floor and putting him on his shoulder like a bag of Potatoes.

"Stop swinging! I will be sick!"

"I am not swinging, I am walking. Now shut up," was heard from Timor as the Bridge's door closed behind the two.

"He always pushes himself too much."

"I know, Annabelle. Our Boys are highly competitive."

***

Harp took two days to recover from his ordeal with the Andromedan Emperor. He dumped all the information he had extracted from the Andromedan to the strategy team and let them deal with sorting the data out to dish out a strategy.

A few days after the events, he met with Sitar, Paschal, Enron, and Greywolf to discuss what they had considered.

"Let's see," began Sitar, "we know that Andromeda has five dark arms, and an equal number of light ones. From what you told us, the Slavers hid away in the dark recesses of the Galaxy, and kept their fleet around brown dwarfs to hide them until they were needed. Also, their nests were orbiting said brown dwarfs, or, at the hottest, red dwarfs. They are connected by a dense web of Magic, which is supposed to be an early warning system to activate their fleets and wake up the crews and the members of their species should a revolt or a new species of space-farers emerge and threaten their hegemony. It was designed to be very sensitive to the passage of a single unexpected ship, and Thebes' arrival just about blew their alarm, triggering wake-up calls that were far too rapid for them. The result was a series of catastrophic activations that overrode the normal sequence, and produced mayhem in their command structure, way too rigid to adapt to what we represented."

Sitar took a sip of Orange juice, then continued: "To complicate things for them, one of the Royal lines decided to use our presence to collect their waking fleets and converge on the Imperial Planet, planning to use the power vacuum to install itself on the throne. Unfortunately for him, our breaking the Orichalque shell to penetrate the Imperial Star System produced a terrible backlash, destroying well over 90% of the amassed fleet either directly or by pushing the disabled ships in the core galactic Black Hole. This cleared one of the dark arms of the Galaxy. However, we still have four to deal with. How we do it is determined by their level of preparedness, and that is determined by how much warning they have had and how they reacted to said warnings. Greywolf has been studying the communications traffic to the Imperial Star system. Greywolf?"

"There are two types of reactions that we are aware of. First reaction seems to be a simple acknowledgement of the situation, but nothing else; the second reaction is more proactive, meaning a report of level of preparedness and a schedule of activation of sorts. Naturally, that only covers those who have reported to the Imperial Star System. It tells us nothing about those who did not report at all, and, from the data you supplied us with, Harp, that is the majority. It is like they think it does not concern them because it is not in their immediate vicinity."

"Or they might be planning a remake of the guy that followed us: use the power void to install themselves on the throne."

"That is also an option, Harp. It is hard to determine the psychology driving that race."

"It is not as hard as you think, Greywolf. Apparently, from Harp's memory dump, I was able to conclude they are very power-hungry, and have been auto-selecting themselves for a grab at the throne, by whatever means necessary. It would not surprise me one bit that the vast majority is sharpening their weapons for a power grab of galactic proportion."

"Enron, if this is so, should we intervene or let them fight it out?" asked Paschal.

"If it only involved the Slavers, I would say let them dish out their war, and then crush the survivors. However, these are Slavers, and, before tacking each other, they will bring to extermination the vast majority of their slaves, which is unacceptable. We must intervene to minimise collateral damages. They seem to favour the destruction of entire ecosystems, and have been doing it for quite some time. They would not hesitate to reduce each other to dust to sit on a throne, even if said throne was illusory and governed an empire of dust."

"You are not very encouraging," replied Greywolf.

"Maybe not, but I prefer being realist rather than wear rosy glasses."

"So, we intervene," decided Sitar. "How?"

"We have an idea of their power structure now. We also know what to look for. The leadership seems to favour big, well-armed ships. We target these ships, and disable them, or blow them up. We use the Thebes Effect to its full potential, namely, we trigger catastrophic wake-ups as much as we can, while wiping the dust with their butts," suggested Harp.

"That idea has merit," replied Greywolf. "By making communications difficult, we prevent them from organising themselves defensively. By cutting their military infrastructure at the head by blowing the nests before they can take control of the fleets, we make sure they are disorganised even more."

"And by draining the Orichalque dust, we are also cutting their means of sending troops, perturb their mobility, and allow us to net disabled and defenceless fleets without firing a single shot," added Enron. "I even suggest we send out some scouts back in the arm we have travelled in an effort to recover any ship adrift in space. Make sure, Paschal, that they also have the proper tools to spool in the Orichalque they meet during their search. The cleaner we leave an arm the harder it is for the Slavers to come bite us in the arse."

"I agree. I can modify the current Scouts so they can spool Orichalque. Detecting Orichalque clouds is an easy thing: they show up as static on instruments," noted Paschal.

"Fine. Guys, we have our jobs. Now what arm to deal with?"

"The adjacent ones, in fact, I suggest we proceed systematically. The adjacent arms are the most ready and must be dealt first," noted Greywolf. "Unfortunately, two arms are in the process of activating. We must pick one, and forego the other. I do not believe it is wise to divide ourselves to tackle two."

"Greywolf is right," commented Harp. "However powerful we are, dividing our forces is a risk I do not recommend. We can do them left-right and then tackle the other two arms that are in opposition to the one we already partially dealt with."

"Should we complete this one first?"

"The Scouts can deal with the left-overs," suggested Greywolf.

"Okay. Who is to command the Scouts?"

"Zen, the Snake. He has been training a lot in command procedures and is a cool-headed individual," Enron suggested. "He is so Zen it's being made into a joke."

"Cold-blooded too, but I agree. Move out," replied Sitar, with a barely suppressed grin.