Galactica: Book 2 - Andromeda

Chapter 16 - Solarius

 

"Greywolf, how are you doing today?" asked Thorsten as the Wolf made his way to his laboratory.

«Nice, I am a great-great-grand-father. Were we this turbulent when we were pups?»

"Worse, my friend, way worse. I still remember my dad complaining about me almost blowing up the mine we lived in... Those were the good old days!"

"Get over that attitude, Thorsten. Continue like that and I suspect dwarfism will extend beyond your stature to encompass your spirit!"

"Harp, I can still kick your butt!"

"As long as I do not use Magic, that is."

"Yes, you cheat!"

"Anyway, Greywolf, you said you were a great-great-great-grand-father. How many pups are we talking about, here?"

«My Mate and I decided, by common accord, to practice birth control after the 18th batch of pups. The average were six pups a batch, for a total of 108 pups. After all, she was around 24 years old, and felt she was going on in age. I tried to explain to her that being magical, we would live well beyond the standard 10 to 12 years of a Wolf, and that we had already exceeded that by over twice that amount, but she was adamant we she had done her contribution to the Wolf World. Who am I to complain? After all, I am not the one birthing them.»

"That religion, you know, the one Sitar and I disposed of? It was against birth control and abortion. They would have raised a storm..."

«Directed by men, I would wager?»

"On the dot, Greywolf."

"I wonder why it is always men that oppose abortion and birth control. Men opposing abortion are like Blacks opposing tanning beds!" Thorsten exclaimed.

After a good laugh, the Boys turned an enquiring expression towards Greywolf.

«What is it?»

"Great-great-great-grandfather means... four generations of Wolves, so how many must you gift for their birthday?"

«Let me see... More eleven? We had 108 pups, they brightly decided to have their first pups two years after they were born, and the idiots have been at it every two years: Six pups a pair, for a grand total of...»

"Before you floor us with that number, may I remind you that you and your Mate had pups just about every year? You took a year to reach sexual maturity, and that leaves 23 years to explain 18 litters! They are not the idiots, you were!"

After reviewing the numbers, Greywolf whined and took the beaten pup attitude.

"Oh, stop it, Greywolf! And no, the puppy look does not suit you well given you are greyer than Dad!" commented Thorsten.

«Can I say I am not good at math and leave it there?»

"NO!" exclaimed Thorsten and Harp, of a common voice.

"Let me see... I do not know how to calculate that. It is too big a number. All I know is that when I call on my family I have the impression of calling in an army!"

"Because you are, Greywolf! Consider your first litter, some 23 years ago. At the rate of six pups every two years, it is 6 x 11 or 66 pups for just that batch. Now the first generation for them was ready two years later, so we have 20 years to cover, or 6 x 10, for a grand total of 60, then the next generation produced 6 x 9 or 54, then the next made 6 x 8 or 48, then the next 36, the next 30. then 24, 18, 12, and 6 for a grand total of, just for THAT first litter, of 396 descendants!"

"That is nuts!" exclaimed Thorsten.

"You think? Add the rest! Because the siblings of that first litter ALSO had pups..."

"You do it, I feel like Greywolf with these numbers: in little shoes!"

«You do the math; we had our first litter 23 years ago, then 22, 20, 19, 17, 16, 15, 14, 12, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, and 2 years ago.»

"Given how you kept your mate busy, Greywolf, I can understand she wants to put a stop to it!" exclaimed Thorsten. "Ever heard of jacking off?"

«Ever tried with claws?» replied Greywolf with a sneer.

"Let me do the math. Your last batch just got their first litter, so 6; the previous one, 3 years ago, 6 also, and they are giving it a rest; next is 18, 18, 36, 36, 60, 60, 90, 126, 168, 168, 216, 216, 270, 330, 396, and if we add the 396 of the first litter, you have 2,616 children and grand-children. I feel sick!"

"Me too!" exclaimed Thorsten.

"Please do not mention two... either in the form of to or too!" replied Harp as he turned an unhealthy green. "Anyway, here is the table. The 'L' is the litter count, starting with the oldest, some 23 years ago according to Greywolf."

After distributing the table to Greywolf and Thorsten, Harp continued. "Next are the columns; first, as noted, Litter number; followed by year produced; then the next 12 generations, and at the extreme right, the total pups made by the Litter, including all descendants. At the bottom right is the total of all pups for all litters, all generations combined. Have fun checking the numbers. I am too depressed by them to bother anymore with that question!"

 
Generational Table
Liter Year G1 G2 G3 G4 G5 G6 G7 G8 G9 G10 G11 G12 Total
L1 23 66 60 54 48 42 36 30 24 18 12 6 0 396
L2 22 66 60 54 48 42 36 30 24 18 12 6 0 396
L3 20 60 54 48 42 36 30 24 18 12 6 0   330
L4 19 54 48 42 36 30 24 18 12 6 0     270
L5 17 48 42 36 30 24 18 12 6 0       216
L6 16 48 42 36 30 24 18 12 6 0       216
L7 15 42 36 30 24 18 12 6 0         168
L8 14 42 36 30 24 18 12 6 0         168
L9 12 36 30 24 18 12 6 0           126
L10 10 30 24 18 12 6 0             90
L11 9 24 18 12 6 0               60
L12 8 24 18 12 6 0               60
L13 7 18 12 6 0                 36
L14 6 18 12 6 0                 36
L15 5 12 6 0                   18
L16 4 12 6 0                   18
L17 3 6 0                     6
L18 2 6 0                     6
Total   612 504 408 324 252 192 138 90 54 30 12 0 2616

"That is sickening!" exclaimed Thorsten.

«As you say...»

"And that table applies to subsequent generations. G0 (your own children, Greywolf) is not in it, and adds 108 pups to the total (18 x 6 = 108), for a grand total of 2,724 descendants of that pair! Thomas Robert Malthus was right. Given unlimited supply of resources, populations explode, If every couple was that busy, we probably have a Wolf population in the order of several millions. Luckily, I noticed there are gay Wolves. This acts as a form of population regulator," stated Harp as he made a hasty retreat to inspect one of the Magical Colleges.

After Harp had left, Thorsten looked pensively at Greywolf.

"I realised, thinking about this last exchange, that we have been at this task of saving life for 25 or so years. And I look at myself in a mirror and I have yet to see a single change in myself, Harp, or, for that matter, any of us, notwithstanding Harp's tease about your grey hair?"

«I did not think of it either. It was brought to light when Harp asked about litters. I do not feel old. It is like time has stopped.»

"That is only appearance. If time stopped, so would movement. With no movement comes zero Kelvin, defined as the lowest thermodynamic temperature attainable."

«Uh?»

"Thermodynamic temperature is a measure of the mobility of atoms. When atoms stop completely moving, it is said they have reached zero Kelvin. It does not mean there are no motions within the atoms themselves; electrons still orbit their respective nucleus, nuclei still vibrate, and so forth. But these are not covered by thermodynamics. Add to this phase changes from gaseous to liquid to solid, and you have something that is far from the ideal gas law applied to define the zero Kelvin."

«Forget it. Thorsten, sometimes, you scare me.»

"Only sometimes? I need to work on my 'scare the Wolf' techniques!"

***

On Thebe's 'Main Bridge', Annabelle watched the 'forward' view of the Atlantean ship, knowing quite well that the stable image was but an illusion generated by computer imagery rendering. Ahead of them lay the vastness of a light arm.

"What are we looking at?"

"Nothing very visible in the normal electromagnetic wavelengths, Lady Annabelle. But, see these two supernovas?"

"Yes, they seem to display a sort of face: two eyes, and a gas cloud that forms a mouth, surrounded by a bigger, flimsy circle of gas."

"The shape is reminiscent of a cartoon of a happy face... One of the data collectors we sent back in time on Earth explored the period just before the destruction of civilisation," commented Far Hook, a Australopithecus Regressi, from the Helm.

"What about it, Timor?"

"The biggest circle is the remains of a very old supernova. The two eyes are supernovas in their early, very early stages, your Highness. But that is not what is of interest here. Change to Orichalque viewing, please."

Annabelle changed and the view became even stranger. The outer ring, which had been flimsy at best, blew up in brightness.

"Wow, What does that mean?"

"The bubble is Orichalque that got blown away by that horrendous explosion. However, inside the bubble, there is no Magic whatsoever, except at a very small point, in the 'mouth' of the face. This means that this source of Magic was not accessible for the Slavers, and that it could well harbour life! As you know, according to Harp's First Law of Magic, no Magic, no Life."

"That is interesting. You make it sound like Harp has been codifying Magic."

"Oh, he has, your Highness. You should ask him about that work."

"I will. Now, why show me that? You know we must visit that pinpoint source of Magic as well as collect the Orichalque."

"Yes. However, we must understand what happened before we venture there. These two 'eyes' are not of natural origin."

"Why am I not surprised? You are telling me some idiot blew up two Stars? And why do you claim they are of artificial origins?"

"Yes. And the claim is based on the fact that the two Stars do not have sufficient mass to produce Supernovas. Novas, yes, but Supernovas? No."

"Okay. It is not by sitting here that we can answer those questions. What next?"

"First, these Supernovas are at most 50 to 60 years old. That means the civilisation blew them up a measly 25 years before we entered this Galaxy. Given these facts, we can assume with a certain level of certainty that it was the Slavers that did the blow-up. How, why, we have no idea."

"It was not the previous Emperor that ordered it. He was asleep."

"Yes, but then, who did, your Highness?"

"That is easy to find out. Jerry? Release and port a pair of Data Collector back in time."

"Where and when?"

"One hundred years ago, at the calculated Supernovas' position at the time. Target: any ship flying in the area. The bigger the ship the better. Collect all information in their computers. AI-2, when that pair requests berthing, give them Priority One."

"Acknowledged!" both AI-2 and Jerry Australopithecus replied. "Collectors released, sequence activated," quickly added the Australopithecus Regressi.

"Helm! Head for that dot of Magic. Warp 8. EAT?"

"Estimated Arrival Timeframe: one hour and 20 minutes, your Highness."

Thinking things over, Annabelle came to a decision and called out on the internal ship's speakers: "Prince Harp to Bridge! Prince Sitar to Bridge! Prince Enron to Bridge! King Thorsten to Bridge!"

The tone let it be known that Annabelle was expecting instant report, and the three Atlanteans conformed to that expectation by porting directly to the Bridge.

"What is the issue, Mom?"

"This!" as she pointed to the forward display.

"Cool! A Happy Face clipart. Who would have thought?" exclaimed Sitar. "But I suspect this is not the reason you called us to the Bridge?"

"No. At the edge of the smiley lips is a powerful source of Magic in an otherwise devoid volume of same. We are headed there. I am waiting for the Data Collectors to report."

"Paschal should be on the Bridge."

"Not really, Harp. This is more a strategic situation than an engineering one."

BEEP! BEEP!

"The Data Collectors are back, your Highness."

"Download the data, AI-2."

At first, nothing was visible, but then a train of spheres made their way towards the very normal-looking Stars. The spheres arranged themselves in a perfectly circular orbit, approximately 0,2 Astronomical Units from the Stars, equidistant from each other. Then they binded to each other by deepening the gravity well, moving ever closer to the Stars and orbiting them ever faster. As they reached the Stars' surface, the gaseous contents of the Stars collapsed into the spheres, whom grew progressively hotter, from black to dull red, to orange, then yellow, then blue and finally bright white. By then the spheres were well within where the nucleus of each Star had once resided. The rotating spheres were now a blur.

"By now, the spheres must be almost touching each other given their numbers and their original diameter," commented Harp.

And yet, the now ring of spheres continued to compress. The spheres merged to form a torus. It continued to contract further, bringing the matter contained within to well beyond the original density of the Stars.

"If this continues..." said Thorsten.

"Watch!" exclaimed Annabelle, closing off any comments.

The torus continued its infernal compression and soon its diameter was less than 100 miles. Strangely, it only emitted light at a very sedate rate.

"The temperature in there must be hellish..." exclaimed Sitar, earning himself a few nods.

"Not to mention the pressure," added Harp.

But the compression continued. Suddenly, the torus collapsed into a single sphere the size of Earth.

"That is the neutron Star stage. But notice that the force field has kept up with the Star. And now it compresses the matter, which is currently burning whatever is in there at an incredible rate, further. Notice that the conversion of Hydrogen to Helium, to Carbon, to Nitrogen, and to Oxygen is progressing explosively. Given that this is accelerated and the temperature of the core is so hot, the combustions are flash-burns. I am struggling to understand how that force field manages to keep things together given the sudden pressures each combustion onset produces," Thorsten noted with a lot of awe.

The sphere continued getting smaller, and suddenly, all light stopped.

"Full light shields!" ordered Harp.

Barely a fraction of a second later, the area became so bright that it was like the Big Bang.

"What the Hell?" exclaimed Sitar.

"The compression produced a sudden collapse of matter on itself, creating a Black Hole. The flash was the sudden release of all the light trapped between the Black Hole horizon and the compressing shield as the shield collapsed. Now, 50 years later, we have these Black Holes that are hidden by the light horizon travelling outwards at the speed of light."

"And the planetary systems?"

"Are vapourised."

"And our Data Collectors survived?"

"By jumping in-between time frames and being far enough."

"How could they know when?"

"Two things: the sudden blacking out of light, and the gravitational pulse that out-ran the light wall in its expansion. Remember, time is a quantum entity."

***

"AI-1, cloak up!" ordered Annabelle, 3 minutes before emerging from warp. "Passive sensors only!"

Thebes dropped out of warp progressively in order to remain invisible, then it slowed down by using gravity as a break rather than potentially traceable energy pulses. Gradually, an image of the planet's surface appeared. At first, its deep reddish hue did not make things look very promising.

"Analysis?"

"The planet has a low-pressure atmosphere, composed mostly of carbon dioxide, and some ice. However, the surface used to have enough pressure to allow liquids to flow on its surface. It reminds me of Mars, your Majesty. Riverbeds can be seen, as well as ocean basins, all dried out."

"How long ago did this water disappear?"

"Difficult to say from orbit."

"Drop an array of sensors in low orbit."

"Done."

"Reports show the atmosphere is still 'wet' in the lowest regions. The pictures show traces of civilisations. There are mounds set in geometric shapes on plains near the oceanic 'shores'. These show differing forms in their arrangements. I see arcs, triangles, crosses, alignments, circles, octagons, pentagons, squares, rectangles, moon crescents. Some remind me of Neolithic constructions. There are even pyramids," noted Enron.

"Anything else?"

"Passively, nothing else."

"Send a sensor with radar. Try to see what's under these geometric shapes."

"It's headed for circumpolar orbit, your Majesty. Insertion on top, altitude 300 miles. Top."

"Imagery coming in. First orbit will not bring us over any, but we already detect roads, now hidden by the thick layer of dust that ravages the planet. Some bridge pillars are still stranding. Ah, along the shores, there are what amounts to sea-port docks, their docking bays still holding ships for the most part. Ah, I see ship shells in the shallow areas of the seas. And some in the deeper areas as well," explained Timor as he looked at the radar map being built.

"Second orbit beginning, Timor. First group of megaliths should be visible in 39 seconds."

Thirty seconds later, the satellite connection vanished.

"We lost contact!" said Thorsten.

"Visual on satellite!" ordered Annabelle.

"Coming up... Equatorial orbit, low on horizon, radar satellite is being pinpointed on image!" exclaimed AI-3. "Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, zero!"

As the countdown reached zero, a powerful beam of light rose from the surface of the planet and hit the radar satellite, disintegrating it in a gargantuan deluge of light.

"Estimated output, six terawatts, cohesive light, duration .2 seconds, temperature at peak intensity, two billion Kelvin." droned AI-4. "A very effective space defence mechanism."

"Is Thebes in danger?"

"No. Our reflexive index is at 100%. We are the perfect mirror."

"Good. Drop a rover just beyond the ridge where that laser is located. Is it at the same place as the megaliths?"

"No. We discounted the small holes as meteorite impacts, but we are now reviewing their true significance. They encircle the megaliths in a protective defence. I suspect these are not burial sites as we thought. No one would put intensive space defences around a cemetery," Sitar said.

"Any suggestion as to their strategic significance?"

"We could speculate for years but we are dealing with an unknown civilisation, a civilisation that seems to have disappeared but whose space defences survives, functioning on its own."

"I have a feeling I am beginning to have an idea of what happened. We should have tracked that civilisation more closely."

"We still can, Harp. Nothing stops us from sending sensors closer to the planet."

"It would be dangerous. That laser hitting a sensor as it travelled from time frame to time frame could well create a rift. We had enough issues with those already!"

"Paschal is right, Harp. We play god enough already. Let's not play with fire as well."

"Okay, mom."

"The rover landed," reported a bridge officer. "Transferring control to Lord Sitar."

"Sitar, I suggest we make sure not to roll on roads, mounds, or any of these 'craters' if we do not want to lose the rover."

"Okay, Harp. That will make things difficult."

"Maybe, but I don't want to trigger land mines. Road-side bombs are easy to install, the mounds seem to have a specific meaning, and may well be booby-trapped; and the 'craters' are laser guns. The rougher the terrain, the less likely an invasion road it is, and if that civilisation managed to make that kind of advance, they knew logic."

Sitar nodded as he slowly navigated the rover over rough terrain, terrain that proved slippery due to the amount of dust accrued over the past 25 years. As the rover's camera scanned the grounds while Sitar tried to figure a way over the obstacles, some forms of writings appeared occasionally.

"Are we recording the symbols?"

"Yes, your Majesty. I record, and AI-6 tries to remove grime and figure out the original form," replied AI-5.

"Architecturally, this is a collapsed wall I am driving over. The bigger pile on the left seems to be a collapsed building of some small importance, probably a dwelling. I will try to cross the road to reach the other side and wall. Hopefully it's not mined."

"Okay, Sitar."

"Use radar to check under the road."

"I am, Enron. That section seems clear. I would not say the same at the wall corner where the road turns. There, definitely, was something under the road. The rover might have been able to pass over it if it is pressure-sensitive, but we can not be sure until we find a way to disable it."

The rover made it safely toward the other wall and climbed on it with much trouble and swearing from Sitar. Once it reached its target, Sitar looked around with the periscope.

"I see one of those too-perfect craters about 500 yards to the left front of the rover's position. Suggestions?"

"What are these small parallel groves in the ground? They seem like someone rakes the dust regularly."

"Those, mom, are dust-repellant surfaces. I suspect we are seeing ground-based solar panels that feed the capacitors that supply the energy for the laser guns."

"Could Sitar roll on them?"

"I can always try."

Sitar gently slid left, barely able to prevent the rover from rolling over.

"Holly shit! That was close!"

The rover slowly rolled over the dust-filled ground and reached the solar panels. Sitar set the wheels of the rover to roll parallel to the groves and took off. Ten minutes later, the rover reached the closest it could to the 'craters' without leaving the secure surface of the solar panels. Sitar brought it to a stop and turned the periscope's eye toward the crater.

"Ah, as I thought! Look at how slick these holes are on the side. They are laser cannons. Sitar, can the shovel pitch anything in these holes?"

"Pitch, no. But I can always use the shovel as a golf club and hit these small pebbles into the hole, or try to, Harp."

"Do it."

A few tries showed it was not as easy as everyone thought, but finally, a rather moderate-sized pebble did fall in the hole. A few seconds later, a rather moderate blast of laser light fired though the hole, and the rover spectrometer recorded the light spectra.

"Enron?" asked Annabelle.

"Iron, magnesium, titanium, thorium, gallium...traces of gold. Components of an electronic circuit."

"So the dust is the result of erosion of electronic circuitry?"

"Apparently."

"And the light?"

"A gallium-arsenic core."

"And we now know three things: 1- the holes are laser guns; 2- the potential power expended is proportional to the threat; 3- the pulse is of standard length, probably due to the need for cooling," added Sitar. "Resuming the trek to these mounds."

The progress was relatively sedate, but, after eight hours, Sitar took control again as they neared a mound.

"Physical characteristics?" asked Annabelle, whom had come back to relieve her husband.

"The mound is 600 feet high, extends about a mile in length, and presents 'pores' that are maybe an inch in diameter or even less," noted the exoplanetologist.

"Any suggestions for the reason of these pores?"

"From this distance, it is hard to say, but I seem to see some form of filtering mechanism. See these small cones? They are seated like a coffee filter within the pores."

"But they seem clean!"

"There might be a reason for that. Imagine that each pore is equipped with something that vapourise dust?"

"That must cost a lot of energy!"

"Mom, the civilisation that built them seem to have been very 'green' and used solar energy profusely."

"And that, Sitar, may have been their undoing."

"What do you mean, Enron?"

"Imagine a civilisation that has built all its technology on solar energy. Now, suddenly there is an arrival of huge amounts of radiation from space, say from a double-whammy of supernovas. Their civilisation's energy structure overloads, and world-wide fail-safes close all their circuitry. Remember what happened to Earth when electricity died out due to the electromagnetic pulses of the nuclear war. Over 99% of humans died. But things did not go as bas as here. Simply because we were not dependant on one single technology. We still had wood, coal, oil, and the technology to use them somewhat. And, second, the war did not last for months on end, or even years. That planet was exposed to the bombardment of the supernovas for maybe a year; by then the ozone layer had been stripped, and all surface life forms would have died of radiation exposure. Eventually, the survivors would have left their underground shelters, if they had any, to find that there was nothing left alive, and they were now, themselves, exposed to the solar radiation, even if the supernovas' energy front has passed them. It was death by starvation, radiation exposure, and finally, de-pressurisation, as the atmosphere had been severely stripped by the passage of the supernovas' front and the Van Allen belt put to the test."

"A gloomy picture."

"And one not inconsistent with the slavers, mom. I would not put them beyond that feat of destruction if they could not conquer, they would destroy."

"Sitar's right. We have recorded thousands of such events as we explore this galaxy. They systematically destroyed a civilisation as soon as they found it, skimming one sex to crew their ships."

"Okay. Sitar, try to get a sonar of the mounds?"

"Ahem, the rover carries a radar, mom, not a sonar. That thing is built to work in void."

"Okay Paschal. You know your stuff better than I do. Sitar? Radar then."

The small radar included on the rover was not that powerful and only managed to go about 50 feet underground. Nonetheless, it did reveal that the 'pores' converged to a collector, that seemed to go much deeper below the surface.

"I wonder what these mounds really do?" asked Thorsten.

"Are they not like on Earth, burial mounds?"

"Come on, mom! We discussed this earlier. It just does not make sense. One: pores do not fit with burials; two: who would develop a space defence to protect the dead?"

"Sitar has a couple of points there. By the way, do you think you could bring the rover to the top?" asked Harp.

Half an hour later, said rover reached the flats at the top.

"See that circle over there? Try to reach it," demanded Enron. I want to know what that is."

The progress was quick, but suddenly, the rover sank in the dust, disappearing completely.

"Wow! What happened?" asked Enron.

"I was just beginning to roll over the edge when it sank in the fluff. It's still falling, from the accelerometer, but slowing down as the density of dust increases."

"Will we lose contact?"

"Depends on how deep that hole is."

"How deep is it?"

"Already? From the initial 9.0 m/s2 almost free-fall to its current 5.2 m/s2, it has fallen about 500 yards, or slightly over twice the depth our radar had been able to reach from the bottom of the mound. If the slowdown continues the way it's going, we'll reach 2,000 yards before it stops falling."

The wait was relatively short before the rover finally gently 'settled' in the dust.

"Depth?"

"Two thousand one hundred and fifty-three yards, calculated by integrating the accelerometer data," replied AI-3.

"Do you think the rover can 'roll'?"

"The only way to know is to try." replied Sitar.

A few minutes later, Sitar fed them the information.

"It's digging in the dust, not moving anywhere. We added another vertical yard, and if I continue, we might have a good measure of the depth of that hole."

"Continue."

Thirty minutes later, the rover settled, having reached 2,160 yards and some dust before stopping its vertical progress.

"It's moving toward the centre now, according to the accelerometer data. Very very slowly, as if it was trying to swim in quicksand," noted Sitar.

"Do we have a light source?"

"Yes mom, but the dust will disperse it barely inches from the source, and the camera will only see the fluff, nothing else," Paschal noted.

"Laser?"

"Same issue, a bit further off. And it consumes way more power than the standard light."

"The rover stopped progressing abut ten yards from where it started. I'm trying to follow the edge."

"Okay, Sitar."

"If this indicates the edge of a circle, the inner circle's radius is approximately 15 yards since the major circle radius is 25 yards Sitar, while you follow that wall, try to see if you can detect a door or something similar."

"Ok, Harp."

"What are you looking for?"

"Intuition tells me we are looking at a landing pad for space-ships, where the heat was ventilated by the pores. But we have no surface structure, and a giant hole. Who wants to bet the missing elements are at the bottom of that hole?"

"What kind of elements, more specifically?" Enron enquired.

"An elevator and everything that goes with a rather big rocket. I bet what Sitar is painstakingly circumnavigating is the maintenance entry block. For that to be, there must be a door leading to the the shaft itself."

Two hours later, the rover was beginning to show signs of overheating, so Sitar paused the circumnavigation of the shaft cap.

"How much have we covered so far?" asked the Emperor, who had taken over from Annabelle.

"From the map we have, we did two sides, and are half-way travelling through the back of the 'back' of the square. Luckily, the dust density is stable. Had we met a sudden increase, we would have had to stop earlier."

"How long for the rover to cool down?"

"Six hours, Dad. The dust is a good insulator."

"Okay. Everyone heads to bed, and the red-eye shift keeps an eye on this situation. I want everyone in top shape, come 0900, for the other segment."

***

At 9:00 Sitar was back at the controls of the rover, and restarted it. It began progressing forward again, and reached the corner around noon. A quick lunch was called, as the rover was left to cool down somewhat. After lunch, the rover began making its way through the dust. Suddenly the wheel that had been forced to pressure on the side of the wall turned! Sitar stopped.

"We have a change!" he said.

"Try showing the nature of the change?" asked Annabelle.

The light source was not able to penetrate deep enough to allow a view of the wall, so Sitar used the laser at progressively more powerful power levels to brighten up the area. The dust glowed and dispersed the coherent light, so the image was stored for treatment. The laser was then closed off to cool off.

"AI-2, clear the image to the best of your capacity."

"Processing."

Gradually, after each pass of processing, a clearer image emerged.

"That's a rail. The corner there seems to be a door. How far are we from the corner?" asked Paschal.

"About a yard, maybe 4 feet."

"Wow, that's a wide door! Somewhat over 12 yards wide. Sitar, use the visual to inspect the side of the door. It might have a handle, a lock, or what not."

"The rover is low on the ground, Paschal, as you know, and the periscope has only about a 15 feet vertical range."

"Better than nothing. If need be, I can design and build another rover with a longer periscope. The only issue is it would be heavier."

"Let's get what we can with what we have," decided Annabelle.

Sitar moved the rover so both front wheels were against the door and slowly had the periscope rise. It broke through the thick dust layer shortly and revealed the door which much clearer definition. At four feet, the door surface showed some strange diamonds arrayed in a four by four grid, for a total of 16 diamond-shaped forms. The surface seemed to have been engraved with strange figures.

"A lock. The mechanism seems to be relatively simple, and I guess these figures are their numbers. Sixteen, sixteen digits, they either have sixteen fingers, which is improbable, or they use a base-16 computer control system," suggested Paschal.

"That is a complicated way to enter a key. Do you think you can break it?"

"Not easily, mom. We need to get a circuit map. Is the radar sensitive enough to get us an x-ray of that lock?" asked Harp.

"Barely. We will need at least three pictures taken at three different angles," replied Paschal. "Then I'll need to mobilise AI-4, AI-5, and AI-6 to clarify the 'x-ray' and then extract a viable map; from there, I hope to get a circuit map and figure out the code."

"Proceed. How long?"

"For the X-ray, a couple of hours. To process them, AI-4?"

"A day, sir."

"That's acceptable," decided Annabelle. "Start on the task, we'll meet tomorrow at 0900."

***

While the AI processed the images, and tried to figure out the connections, a debate was developing in the Imperial Suite.

"Something just does not add up, Dad," said Harp.

"What do you mean?"

Consider this: The supernovas explode. Light does travel faster than matter, but that gives them how much warning? A year, two years? Five? Yet they manage to build these things?"

"Harp, you assume they started building them after the first luminous flux. Who said it was not in progress, or even, finished, when the disaster hit?"

"Then, there is something else. Where are the skeletons? We have seen nothing, absolutely nothing, and the layer of dust on the surface is too thin to hide much."

"Now, that is a better question, son. Any suggestions?"

"They left?" suggested Enron.

"Then who brought the launching pads back to their 'waiting' position?"

"And Harp forgets another question. Any technology able to launch something in space first puts things in orbit. We have found nothing. Absolutely nothing. It's like someone used a vacuum cleaner," Greywolf noted.

"I should have known you would be the one to notice the vacuum cleaner issue. You hide under the bed every time the auto-vacuum gets to work."

"I wonder how you would react if it tried to treat you as a carpet, Thorsten!"

"Anyway, Greywolf is right. They definitely had the technology to blanket their skies," the Emperor noted. "So, where did everything go?"

"What if they intentionally destroyed everything?" suggested Annabelle. "If you want to hide from a space-faring society, you remove any trace of space capability, starting with satellites. I would have crashed them in the atmosphere, preferably over the oceans so debris would disappear below the waves."

"Mom has a good idea there. But apparently, it did not work, since all indicates the supernovas were provoked," noted Thorsten.

Annabelle blinked. Thorsten had never, ever, called her mom. She decided to ignore the slip for now.

"But why not blow up their sun?" asked the Empress.

"They wanted to enslave the residents and blowing the sun would not allow reaping slaves, even if they later planned to destroy that civilisation," remarked Timor.

"So they came in after the luminous flux and took everyone out?" suggested Viola, who had been rather quiet since the Atlanteans had begun that latest expedition.

"They tried. But I suspect if we tried to land in a space-ship, we would be met by their space defence, which still functions," Paschal replied.

"But the slavers had magic? Why not simply port on the surface?" Viola replied.

"They always put their 'soldiers' non-magical beings, in the front line, from what we understand of their civilisation. They hunted down and destroyed to the last any species that showed the smallest inkling of magic, to cut the risk of competition," Harp reminded the others. "And I found no trace of teleporting decks or any such technology on their ships so far."

"So..." the Emperor asked," looking at Harp.

"So, we can port down. We wait for the code to be broken, and port down beside the rover. Our suits can resist just about anything, so we should have no issues. Once down there, we open the door, assuming the elevator is at the top, or we wait for it to reach the level we are at, and use it to go down. Mind you, once inside we can use levitation to go down as well, if the elevator is no longer functional."

"And who goes down?"

"Sitar, Enron, Thorsten, and myself," suggested Harp. "I don't want to give the impression we are invading and four seems a good number."

"I understand four but why you?"

"Dad, think: Sitar, god of war; Enron, Imperial exobiologist, Thorsten, explosives specialist; and myself, prince of magic."

"That assumes there is magic down there, Harp."

"There, Harp is right, Dad. There is magic. Lots of it on the surface, as a good 1% of the rock is orichalque, and there is a good 3% of raw mithril, more than enough to supply all of us with environmental magical energy," said Enron. "Sensors indicate the concentration of magic here is higher than on Earth."

***

BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!

It was 3:00 in the morning when Harp was woken up by the AI system.

"Yes?"

"We are done mapping the circuitry, Prince of Magic. As ordered by the Emperor, we are waking up the intervention team."

"Okay. I'll be down after a dive in the ice-pool."

"We do not understand the need of mammals to dive in such a dangerous liquid as water, especially when it carries its solid phase on the surface!"

"Danger is relative. I admit that, for most humans, icy water is not healthy. But we are magical."

After a plunge, and a swim across the freezing water, Harp jumped out dried up instantly using magic, and took to a run, heading for the deck. As he ran in, he was met by the Emperor.

"Ah, our perpetually late Harp. What did you do this time?"

"Took a wake-up dive," replied Harp amongst the snickers of the others.

"Ah, a wet dream." More snickers. "Since everyone is present, I'm setting the countdown at two hours, from the moment you dive into the FSS suit-up pool on Boarding Deck 42. Keep channels open at all times."

Three minutes later, the four explorers were diving into the liquid FSS, that crystallised around their body immediately.

"Communications check, Harp calling Thebes Primary Bridge."

"Thebes Primary Bridge, Timor at comm. Receiving 5 on 5."

"Acknowledged. Thorsten?"

"Received."

"Sitar?"

"Received."

"Enron?"

"Received."

"Porting to location on three, two, one, port!"

The four explorers found themselves embedded in a thick cloud of dust, and could only see each other by using magic.

"That damn dust is thick. We need to remove it if we are to do anything around here. Guys, port the dust layer around us to the surface," ordered Harp, as he quickly began doing so himself.

It took them half an hour to remove the dust that kept falling back on them from the side, sliding to fill in the hole they dug almost faster than they could clear it. Finally, the door and their work area was clear. It also cleared the rover, that had been swimming in the dust for days.

"Paschal, we will bring the rover with us as a sniffer dog."

"Okay, Sitar."

"AI-4, what is the sequence?" asked Enron, as he looked at the now clean keypad.

"Row 3, column 4; row 1, column 2; row 2, column 3; row 4, column 1."

"Repeating as I am entering the sequence: Row 3, column 4; row 1, column 2; row 2, column 3; row 4, column 1."

"There is a noise coming through. A gentle vibration, more than a noise," noted Thorsten.

"Plus 40, guys," noted Paschal, from the bridge.

"Acknowledged," replied Harp.

"Hey, see that blue light near the control panel? It was not active, now it's blinking," remarked Thorsten.

"Suggestions?" asked Enron.

"Press on it. It might open the door."

Enron did as Sitar suggested and a deep rumble could be heard. The wall in front of them began dropping.

"Back away, guys, we are in the path of the door shelf."

The moment they moved back the blinking light stopped, but the wall continued its slow movement downward.

"Okay: blinking, you are in danger, move your ass out of the way," Enron noted for future references.

Finally, the door, for it was a door, slammed slowly into its open position.

"Entering. Mark!", asked Enron.

"Plus 43' 20", mark!" reported Timor.

"No dust inside of note. No lights either," reported Thorsten.

"I see a switch bank, right on the side of the door, along with another touch-pad," remarked Sitar. "It's position matches the outside touch-pad. I suspect they have similar functions."

"Turn the switches on, well, press on them, click them, whatever movement you think is likely to turn them from off to on."

"Good suggestion, Timor. Doing just that. There is a major one, about four times the standard size. I think it's the master switch. If it's like Earth, the master switch is turned on first, then the secondary switches."

"Proceed as planned, Enron," replied Paschal.

The main switch flipped, a series of blue lights appeared on top of the secondary switch bank. Enron continued by switching each one on at two second interval. Some produced audible changes in the environment, that remained obstinately dark, until the last switch. Then, a series of powerful lights appeared around the walls, revealing the centre of the room.

"Wow!" exclaimed all four explorers, taken by surprise.

"What's the issue?"

"Dad, we thought this was the top of an elevator shaft. It's the top of something, but the thing is a huge tube that reminds me of... a rocket. The top is encased in the cabin the rover circumnavigated, and there are bridges leading to the rocket every 30 or so feet. I think the noise we heard were the bridges moving into position," explained Harp.

"That does not make sense!"

"We need Paschal, dad. He's more of an engineer than any of us."

"I'm using your position to guide my materialisation. Expect me in two minutes."

Harp moved to the centre of the bridge to ensure Paschal did not materialise in the gaps or the wall. Shortly, Paschal appeared and looked around.

"What do you make of this?"

"Harp is right. It does look like a rocket. And the top seems to open, given the hinges I see there. But there are those rails... It's like the entire top can move."

"The entire top?" Thorsten questioned with a hint of doubt.

"Yes. And if you look carefully, the area represents the underside of the tumulus we observed on the surface."

"No wonder their weapons reduced our satellite to gas vapour. They wanted this kept secret from prying space eyes."

"You have that right, Sitar. Now, we must find what is inside that rocket. You don't build that kind of mastodon without reason. I think they were working on evacuating the planet."

"And missed the deadline, Enron?"

"Who knows. Maybe this one is a late production. We only have one site so far to judge from," Paschal replied.

"Before going anywhere inside, I suggest we go explore down. We might find some interesting things that might help us understand what we are dealing with."

"Okay, Harp. Let us jump from bridge to bridge. The one below is visible. We should be able to port there without issue."

"Why not look for an elevator?" Thorsten asked.

"Because we do not see any door except that one. It might be a rocket, Thorsten, but nothing stops it from effectively sitting on a giant elevator That kept it below the current floor during construction. Hydraulics can easily lift that thing."

"In this case, Paschal knows best, Thorsten. I'll follow his guidance. Down we go."

The ports were repeated, 30 feet by 30 feet, for over 100 times. Then the bridges were spaced every 100 feet, for another 10 iteration.

"If our estimate is correct, we are 4,000 feet below where we started," said Paschal. "And we have 30 minutes left before recall. How far is the next bridge?"

"It's hard given the perspective, but I would say about 1,000 feet. Note that the last passage is rather tight. The clearance is less than 2 feet."

"Yes, and there are these rails that seem to spiral around the base, perfectly aligned with those slots," Enron pointed out.

"BRR! That reminds me of a rail-gun!" said Sitar.

"A rail gun?"

"Yes, these high-powered things that the military of the old Earth developed. They could fire heavy loads without recoil at speeds well in excess of the speed of sound. The power allowed to fire a one-pound mass to 100,000 feet and it would hit an object at a velocity almost equal to its nozzle speed."

"How about that one, Sitar?" asked Paschal.

"It depends on how much power the rails can carry, but given their size, I would not want to be nearby when it activated. Anything metallic would melt due to magnetic induction of electricity. Including ourselves!"

"I don't get why the space?" asked Thorsten.

"I suspect when the system activates, the outside ring closes in, and the two charge with the same polarity, creating a magnetic rail. As the rocket rises, gaining speed, it also begins to rotate, creating two things: a gyroscopic effect that stabilises the rocket as it gets out, and an artificial gravity inside the space-ship once it has left the planet's gravity well."

"What level of acceleration do you expect this thing to create at maximum power?" Harp asked as he looked at Paschal.

"Depends. From six to sixteen G. I would go for the higher level, as the rocket can only accelerate while that lower part is within the 'gun'."

"Damn. These guys must have had bones!"

"Not necessarily bigger than ours, Thorsten. The thing is, ask yourself where all the water went? If they used it to fill pools and protect themselves from the pressure, they can well have made it through without damage," replied Enron.

"Hey, guys. I think I finally found a door. It's a reasonable size for an elevator door too!"

"Next step, we explore that, but we must return home shortly. Mark the location, Harp, and we'll return tomorrow," said Sitar.

Shortly, the rover was alone again as the five explorers ported into the decontamination deck of Thebes closest to where they had parted with the ship, deck 42-D.