Galactica: Book 2 - Andromeda

Chapter 24 - Some Memories Are Stains

 

The door of the Dragon classroom opened to reveal Colibri and Daniel helping to calm down the Children rescued from their homes, while the Students kept to themselves, trying to hear things they could not and speculating on what was happening outside.

"Hey Colibri, Daniel! How are things?"

"Stressed, Sitar, Harp. Everyone is expecting death any minute."

"We will do our best to prevent it, but things are iffy. The Academy is undergoing a blood bath, but some stains take more than blood to wash. The Principal is in inter-space, out of reach of any but Harp. Ian is busy checking on some of our other friends that had not yet graduated.

"Who?"

"Mark and Ovid, two Boys we found playing with a King Cobra, now known as Admiral Zen. Zen progressed a lot faster than these two, but that is to be expected. Before our intervention, Snakes rarely lived more than 4 to 5 years except in 'domestic' situations such as zoos. They are due graduating this year. Finally! Their keen sense of environmental balance will be a good addition to Enron and Colibri's teams of Exobiologists."

"And you forget the amount of trouble they caused in school. Luckily, we did not put them through Officers' Academy, or they would have driven the staff nuts," added Harp, looking at Sitar with a smile the size of a Water-melon slice. Sitar had wanted them there, but Enron had put his foot down. Everyone present at the exchange remembered Enron's one-liner that left Sitar open-mouthed.

"Not everyone drinks blood from their enemies to piss it back on them the next morning!" had exploded Enron. "They need not be military to have leadership roles... if they so wish!"

"Where do we put them?" asked Sitar pointing at the Students, Children and Staff rather than rise to Harp's bait.

"Tessaract YM-32223. It is a 'garden' Tessaract and will offer them both shelter and food. It is ready for reaping, and they will have a wide range of fruits, nuts and vegetables to pick from. There are streams, populated with trouts no bigger than 8 inches, no oceanic segment, but a number of fresh-water lakes, one of which is shallow and contains warm water cascading down from a geyser that supplies the Tessaract with atmospheric humidity between rains. The scale ratio is 1 trillion to one; the time is slowed down by 75%."

"What does this all mean? Colibri told me about Tessaracts, but he could not explain in detail. Eavesdroppers, you understand."

"A Tessaract is a space-time fold, similar to inter-space, but more controlled. In this case, one square foot in this space equals 1 trillion square feet seen in that reality. As for the time compression ratio, 1 minute there is 4 minutes here. That means they will live maybe a day or two in there before we pull them out and 4 to 8 days will have passed. They could live there for years..."

"I hope I see..."

"And the nice thing about this is that most Tessaracts are not publicly accessible. Should things overheat, given they have a closed environment, and they are in quarantine. It is my Magic that guarantees the quarantine, as well as blocks any attempt to breach any Tessaract."

"What happens if someone kills you...?"

"Thebes explodes. It is so compressed it would tear the fabric of space and time and reduce the Universes to shreds. And we would be the only things left alive... A sort of loop back to the origins of the Universes. 'Let there be Light!' to create the first opposing force, that made not only light, but defined darkness, and all shades in between. We are one, we are many, there can not be one without many, there can not be many without one."

"You sound like the God I was told about..."

"I did not know my reputation reached the seedy parts of the Universe..."

"Harp! Stop playing with the Boy..."

"Who said I was? You know as well as I we are eternal because of our mastery of Magic. And so is he, ever since we took him under our wings. It is time he is brought face to face with reality. He does not have the luxury of death to wash his memory of whatever mistakes he may do."

"But that does not make sense! If you are killable, you can not be gods, if you are gods, you can not be killed!"

"Death is but a transition, young Brother. I would only 'flick' a billionth of a second, but that would be enough for my Magic to also 'flick' a billionth of a second, recreating the Big Bang. We, as the Family, would survive, but the rest... It is what these idiots are playing with when they try to kill us, me."

"Talk about playing with fire in an ammunition depot!"

"Now you understand."

"Some days, I wonder if someone in the previous universes did not succeed in creating that 'flick' and caused the catastrophe we all apprehend. I Bridge the 'space' between time quanta... insuring its continuity. A heavy burden, a burden shared by all of us, including Ian. But I still bear the brunt of the work load. Ian is taking more of it, and so are the Protectors and the other family members as they acquire finer control over Magic and greater power, but it takes time, again that ugly word, for them to do so. It will be only when we can all share equally that the perennially of the Universes will be guaranteed until its final folding back to the speck of nothingness it originated from, an infinitesimal probability crest that probably took aeons to occur. Ignorance may be bliss, but the consequences of one's actions due to it are usually far-reaching."

"Mom picked up Mark and Ovid at the Applied Biology College. And Nestor from the Magical Academy. The two Boys asked for some close friends to be added to the shield, so she obliged. They are already in the Tessaract you assigned for these Students. Sir, Radius Breaker, ready to port? Things can turn sour in an instant and we do not want to have to worry about you. Reports indicate we are headed for some very ugly moments."

After a nod, the ones under Colibri were ported to the designated Tessaract, along with select others, who had been earmarked a long time ago for retrieval in just such circumstances. People of immense value but useless in fighting an insurrection.

"Let us move to the Bridge. Legions, return to barracks, recharge both weapons and physically, and be ready for redeployment within minutes," ordered Sitar. "Remember, barracks will be in lock down should things turn to the worst scenario. The Omega protocols are still active. I have not rescinded them since the Recall. The Imperial Swarm is now on active duty. FSS uniform is mandatory, as well as the full complement of personal weapons. Telepathic commands only, via the Internal Privileged Network, and the AI system. The so-called Mandarins never learned it was bad for your health to tickle a sleeping Dragon; now they will."

"I have sent the 'freeze!' command to all Tessaracts that are not involved in the issue. That stopped time there," said Harp. "We need to keep the Conspirators able to act for us to weed them out. But their time has been slowed to 1%. They will believe we have ubiquity from the simultaneous appearance of our troops and ourselves right under their noses, once I restart 'real' time flow for their Tessaracts."

"How do you plan to pull that one off?"

"Daniel, what would you think if, for instance, you were exchanging information about, say, Sitar being in T-X, and someone else said 'But I see him walking under my window in T-Y, his blade spraying heads around!', and someone else said 'No, I see him and I am in T-Z!' Would you not conclude Sitar can be in multiple places at the same time? The trick is not that he is able to occupy multiple places at the same time, it is stopping time in T-X until he reaches T-Y, then T-Z, but since they do not realise time has been stopped between appearances, for them he is everywhere at the same time! This is the proper use of time as a weapon."

"Time control has other applications. For instance, instant displacement right across a room: by stopping time at each movement, time-slicing as the Ancients called it for their Artificial Intelligences, the observer is led to believe you can be everywhere in the room at the same time. I can assure you watching their eyes almost pop out of their face is worth the effort," added Colibri. "I had a lot of fun with it."

"And you will learn how shortly. Gliding is also fun: the observer sees you move so fast you seem to streak through space. It is the use of another aspect of time: the time differential. You do not stop time, but you occupy it differently, so you seem to streak through space. You slow them down or speed up your time, and the differential gives the impression you move so fast you seem to streak across space. The Ancients tried it, I heard, but were not very successful: they called those that practiced it streakers. For some reason, they always did it when there were crowds. If you want to practice in peace, you do it in a grass field. Enough show and tell, we have work!" said Sitar.

The Boys made their way to Thebes' Main Bridge for a long-awaited family reunion.

"Hey Ovid! Hey, Mark! How much trouble did you cause this month?" asked Sitar as he spotted the two.

"None..." chorused the Boys.

"And Chickens have teeth."

"They used to!"

"Yes, but Mama Tyrannosaurus Rex retired a long time ago! She even outlived her pension plan. Harp, bring out the Fry."

The Principal came out of the inter-space, eyes wide.

"Being in inter-space while conscious can have some funny consequences, especially when the only thing you can move is your tongue to cry out and your eyes to see things not meant to be seen," commented Harp. "It is more effective in tenderising tough hides than the Tanners' acids."

"Bad Boy. Here is a lollypop for your hard work," said Sitar, actually materialising a cherry lollypop and handling it to Harp, who began sucking on it while smirking at the Principal.

"Now, you. Explain the extent of the treason you are involved in."

Sitar did not show much mercy. He did a deep scan of the Principal's brain, eliciting the proper memories by asking directed question and picking the real answer from the guy's thoughts. What he found was far-reaching, revealing a depth of corruption that far exceeded their worst scenarios. And Sitar realised it went much deeper than a mere palace coup. It was outright rebellion. Fortunately, the gangrene had not reached too deep in the Active, but so-called civilians were infiltrated to the bone, with the Elevation Department the most damaged because of its vital role in the Task. But Economy and Finances were close behind, almost pushing the other department out of their way to gain power. An entire net of underground communication had been set up, with fail-safes should one group become compromised, and doomsday protocols implanted in just about every sphere of Thebes' activity.

"Dad, from what I read in his mind, the destruction of the Academy will cascade up, while the destruction of the Alpha Security will cascade down. Harp, freeze time in all Tessaracts, including here. We are moving to the Emergency Bridge..."

Harold blinked, but did not hesitate. He took his Key of Recognition, the one he had received so long ago when he had taken the Crown of Pharaoh in Kantar, and moved to a locked drawer. Twisting the key in place, he then pulled the drawer open, and quickly pressed the protruding red button quickly. A countdown began, as he retired his key.

"Done, God of War. I relinquish my Empire to your care. May blood flow freely until the shame is washed."

The terrible scenario Colibri had explained merely days ago to Daniel began unfolding. Harold had, in effect, given full power to Sitar to do what was needed to eradicate corruption.

***

As the countdown reached zero, the Royals popped out of existence in quick succession to reappear on the Emergency Bridge. As last addition to the Family, Daniel was also the last to vanish. He fell on the floor, out of breath, eyes wide.

"I thought I was being left behind..."

"No, you were last because you had yet to train for this event. Now, roll out of the way, get up, and go find your bunk and your timetable," said Colibri. «Ah, Zen, this is our latest addition, Daniel. And this is not an exercise.»

«I wish I could meet you under better circumstances, Daniel. I have to go, I have first shift of external defences."

Daniel found his bunk and his timetable. Two hours rest, then AI station, whatever that meant.

Thorsten accompanied Daniel to the recreation room. He noticed the troubled look in Daniel's face.

"What is troubling you?"

"What is happening now?"

"A bloodbath. Sitar is systematically expunging Thebes of its corrupt elements, reducing them to minced meat, and serving them to meat-eaters, from Ants to Piranhas."

"How does he detect corruption?"

"Telepathy. Usually, we respect privacy, but in these circumstances, privacy takes the rear seat, if it is even on the bus. Right now, the cleanup is within the Legions, which we feel sad about, but shortly, civilians will feel the burn of Sitar's blade. Harp is doing the same with the Mages, and Yamato is dealing with the Armoured Divisions."

"How do you deal with Dragons?"

"They are bounded. All of them. So they can not betray us. I have a Legion of Dragons bounded to me now. Each of us has one or more Dragon Legion whose body, mind, and Soul is bound to us. You will learn how to do that in time. It is necessary, if only to spread the bonding around. Ian has, at last count, 21 Dragon Legions, including the King of the Dragons."

"Why not bound everyone?"

"The Dragons volunteer, and bound from within the egg. The other species could ask for it, but do not. And we will not force it on them. They need their freedom... if only to commit their own mistakes. We are not adverse to mistakes, Daniel. This is how you learn. However, there is a difference between a mistake and overt or covert rebellion."

"Is that what we are dealing with?"

"I thought that was clear already. And I am glad you use the 'we' instead of 'you'. It means you are finally assuming your true position as a Royal."

***

"Ah, Annabelle, what is the situation report?" said Sitar as he walked into the Emergency Bridge, carrying a big thermos of coffee and sandwiches he began devouring.

"The Legions have been cleared. We did not lose as much as anticipated. Only what I would call recent promotions lost their excess bit, namely, their head. The Old Guard is as trusty as ever. I am looking at the profile of those that got shortened, and they were graduates of the Imperial Military Academy over the last 10 years. Before that, no one was involved. The thing is, I also looked at losses before that decade... I think we lost good men and women to treachery. I would not be surprised to find out some were killed by their own men intent on taking their place, as part of this conspiracy. I am furious enough I have sent back in time some of our left-over collectors. If it is proven the person died due to betrayal, he or she will be recovered and put in stasis until we have dealt with the garbage."

"Has Harp approved of this violation of time flow?"

"He proposed it."

"I see. What can I say, then? Knowing Harp's temper, I, for one, prefer going with his time-flow rather than face the black hole he is when he gets mad."

"I thought it was Ian?" said a tiny voice.

"Hey! Welcome, Princess Iridia. It has been a while..."

"Because you do not look closely, Prince Sitar. You are too busy adding fertiliser to our gardens in the form of felon blood."

"I hope you do not have similar issues..."

"For a while... but reminding our turbulent Court we were sworn to Atlantis generally brought things back under control... although, lately, some low-end Counts lost some precious object... I lost count. I gather the epidemic is cross-species, since I found myself on the Bridge while eating my last meal of the day?"

"Yes. I wonder if Diamondcutter will have similar reports. We have taken the policy to leave each Court deal with internal issues on its own unless asked for assistance, as long as the Courts in questions applied Imperial law. AI-1? Can you tell me where he is?"

"Who?"

"Diamondcutter."

"To his Wife's bedside. She has been ill lately."

"Why did she not get put in a regeneration chamber?"

"She refused. She says it is time she joined her ancestors and her two Daughters. Queen Amethyst has been depressed for years, since the loss of her two Daughters, and has systematically refused a mental healer. Things have been worsening."

"Is Thorsten aware of the situation?"

"Yes. He is with them until his shift. He is trying to convince his Mother to at least go in suspended animation until things clear up. I have been talking with him, and he feels he would not be at his peak efficiency should he be called to take decisions on the Bridge."

"I agree... As soon as Amethyst is alone, port her in a stasis chamber. I am removing her choice in the matter, since it endangers Thebes. Tell Thorsten the moment he is alone. Diamondcutter likes green Tea... lace it with an enuretic such as Dandelion. He is bound to go to the restroom, leaving Amethyst alone for a minute... or three... and you port her to the Royal Emergency Hospital Wing, near us. It is empty and has seven or so regeneration chambers. Apply the whole program, and keep her in stasis until this situation is resolved. Do a thorough analysis of neuro-transmitters for imbalance, and fix the brain up."

"Diamondcutter will be shocked."

"So? I prefer a functioning Thorsten to a depressed one because his Mother acted selfishly in a critical situation. When Diamondcutter starts yelling, and he will... tell him to contact me. I'll set him straight. And where is Sven?"

"Making trouble... where else? That little devil is trying to beat Harp's record in pranks. Luckily, he only knows of Harp as Prince of Magic Harp, not as Prince of Pranksters Harp."

"BRR. That promises! Is he aware of the situation?"

"Yes it does. And I told him, but the Collective thinks he does not really understand what it means. Dwarves mature slowly, like Elves. For now, he explores the area, touches anything, climbs on everything and asks questions left and right."

"A curious little bugger, then, like his big Brother."

"I doubt Thorsten would take well to the label 'bugger'."

"If truth bothers him, it is his responsibility to plug his ears. Anyway he bugs my little Brother every night! I hear them enjoying themselves. They are loud enough to break through the sound-proofing."

"Are you sure you do not 'sleep' the ear on the wall? I would not put it beyond you to play listening Tom on your little Brother's nightly activities!"

"I have my own partner, Mom! I need not listen... nor peek. But 'I' would not put it beyond Harp to remove the silencing charms just to piss me off..."

The snickers from the Artificial Intelligence Collective sent shivers down the two Royals' spine. Could it be the 'Tom' in question was composed of circuits? After all, the Collective had extensive control over Thebes. Artificial Intelligences had proven magical more often than not during the Princes' Ordeals.

***

"Mom! I need to know you are safe. Can you not understand that? Otherwise it will be a distraction that might prove fatal to all of us!"

"Grow up. No one is eternal, and I aspire to death!"

"Mom! Are you daft? You are the Fate Weaver. Die and, during the transition from one incarnation to the next, anything can happen and Fate's thread get broken or mixed. You have, as a God, a very important role in insuring the success of our mission!"

"I could care less for that mission. I want my little Girls!"

"Who said they are not reborn?"

"Prove it!"

"Mom, do not ask for the impossible. My little Sisters choose their destiny and abandoned their role. If balance is to be maintained, they were reborn, but probably not as Dwarves... more at the lower end of the consciousness spectrum... Worm, Insect, whatever, and they will have to walk the Ladder of Jacob1212 ("Ladder of Jacob: the ladder a life-form must climb to reach its full potential, each rung being a rebirth with more or less consciousness of its environment depending how far the consciousness has grown in integrating the Universe into itself.") to climb out of the hole they dug up for themselves. You know it, we know it. And killing yourself will not help you get closer to them. They are lost to you in the form you knew them. They killed themselves out of jealousy, unaware of the Ladder. You, on the other hand, would do it for selfish reasons, and well aware of the consequences. Therefore you would fall back further than they did. Whom climbs far falls further, Mom, and it takes its full meaning here. I feel sad for their loss, Mom, very sad, but I do not want to take their road."

"Son, are you not harsh to your Mother? She suffers..."

"Dad, the real harshness would come if Mom committed the mistake she envisions, and I would not have anything to do with it. What I say is painful, to all of us, but the pain she would face should she ignore the Ladder would be far worse. As you know, the Fallen know they have fallen, know of the hardship they face to climb up, the long and perilous walk, and the reason why they fell so far... Do you want Mom to live that, for who knows how long? And probably fall again and again as she fails to progress and grip the next rung, becoming enraged with the Universe, unaware the rungs space themselves further as she progresses so she has to work harder to overcome her rage? I will be back later, Dad. I need a visit to the rest-room, and to wash my face and try to calm down before I say things to Mom that are better left unsaid."

With that, Thorsten left the room, gently closing the door.

"Why is our Son hating me, Diamondcutter?"

"He does not hate you Amethyst. He loves you enough to bring forth the mirror of reality. A reality you refuse to face."

"Why is that reality so harsh? I feel so alone without them!"

"You have two loving Sons, Amethyst, and I too love you. Do we not matter to your eyes?"

Amethyst refused to answer and closed her eyes, turning away from her distraught husband.

Thorsten brought in tea for his Dad, having been put in the confidence about what Sitar had ordered while he was relieving himself.

"Dad, I must report to the Bridge. I am on the Internal defence-offence desk tonight, and things are turning ugly. Do not forget you need to report to Sitar. He probably wonders what is holding you back. I will inform him of Mom's incapacity."

"Okay, Son," before emptying the tea cup in a gulp and refilling it again. An hour later, Diamondcutter needed the restroom. He made a dash for it... Amethyst had been waiting for that and tried to make a run for it, only to find herself in a stasis pod the moment she stood up.

"Let me out of here, you overheated circuit board!" she yelled to no avail. Shortly, she fell asleep, kicking and screaming all the way.

Shortly after the port, Diamondcutter returned to his Wife's bed to find she was not there anymore. Panicking, he called the Security Desk to report his wife missing.

"Dad?"

"Yes, Thorsten! Your Mom is missing!"

"I am looking at the security camera... Ah, she tried to make a run for it. She got ported in a stasis chamber, kicking and screaming insults that would have cost her her head had she been deemed mentally competent. She is undergoing diagnostics and will get treatment, whether she likes it or not."

"Did you approve of this, Son?"

"Yes! Dad, we have a responsibility to Thebes and our Lieges. I did what was necessary to insure we fulfilled our duty, even if Mom wants to dump the word into space. Anyway, we are under Omega Protocol, Dad, and Mom lost her autonomy the moment her actions and mental state placed Thebes's mission in peril. The underlying order came from Sitar, and I approved of it. Now, if you feel you can face down Sitar in the mood he is, go ahead. I might come to lose a Dad as well as a Mother, but I will not lose my honour!"

Diamondcutter raged and raged in the now empty hospital room, but he did not contact Sitar. He knew, deep down, that Thorsten was right. Pushing on Sitar for personal reasons in these circumstances might lead to some unfortunate results. And, anyway, he felt a bit relieved his Wife was getting treatment, albeit against her will. He sat down, drank more tea, and still more, before going to the restroom again. Am I developing bladder cancer? he thought as he realised he had been to the throne six times in the past 2 hours. Then he tasted another sip of his tea... What was that now not so unnoticeable aftertaste? Dandelion! The little bugger had put Dandelion in the tea! He had been played like a fife by his own Son! He had been had by Harp's bed playmate, and now, he realised, his apprentice!

***

"Where are we in the bloodbath?" asked Sitar as he noticed Thorsten return from his far-away look.

"The trouble has been festering for a good 2 decades, Sitar. However, it is located in two slices of population that can not stand each other, and therefore have been unable to co-ordinate their efforts at take-over."

"Explain? And what have you done to deal with them?"

"The first group is composed of first-generation rescued, living in a long-lost dream of independence and vague conquests of areas that have been reduced to stellar dust. The other group is a rag-tag group of teens whose minds were corrupted by their parents' stories of glory, false leadership, power, and 'right to govern themselves' and a paradise lost."

After a sip of coffee, Thorsten continued. "As for what we have undertaken, it is both complex and simple. We undermine them. We 'exchange' letters that talk of a united front, while sending out false reports of treason, murders by the other groups, and the likes. The result is that they are way too busy gutting each other to wonder what is really happening. They still use the portals, unaware that their movements are under our direct control. It is not rare we send someone to a meeting he or she was unwelcome or uninvited and watch the bloody outcome. They see spies everywhere, with good reason, as they can not take a shower without us knowing how much water they consume. And most are mentally transparent. We temper with their memories, with what they think, and even with what they say or write... and they hear or read something else entirely."

"Have you located the 'big boss'?"

"No. But I would not be surprised if there was more than one, playing the violin for their benefit."

"We need to locate them quickly, before they wake up to our actions."

"I know, but the issue is that all Thebes is in deep freeze, and that means mind-reading is done slowly due to their cerebral capacity being hindered by the time slowdown. We are tracking down every leaf, every twig, every branch, up and down the forest of conspiracies we are dealing with. Some are deeply rooted, others live off corruption and fester it like moss on wet trunks. The result has been bloody, but we do manage to progress. And do not enter into your perpetual 'how long?' as none of those that occupied this desk in the past 16 hours have the slightest idea, got it, Sitar?"

Sitar was shocked Thorsten had taken that tone with him. The usually mild Boy must have been Royally stressed, so he abstained from climbing up the fence. From behind Sitar, Diamondcutter noted the same and decided to occupy his station quietly rather than talk to Sitar of their combined actions.

"Thorsten is stressed?" asked Harold.

"Family," said, laconically, Diamondcutter.

Harold nodded and returned to his monitoring. On his left, Paschal was busy with the portal controls like a concert Pianist, sending troops were needed, conspirators to their death, and protecting those that needed protection.

Harp sent waves of Magic across Thebes, sensing for unusual movements of Magic, potential power surges, and other things Magic could detect, while Colibri did the same with life-forms. Insects were brought on-line to spy on conspirators, adding their own contribution to the incredible surveillance network Thebes was filled with.

The armoured Legions were making progress under the expert command of Yamato. Time would unfreeze just long enough for heads to roll, and freeze again, sometimes leaving the head in mid-air. Yamato wondered what were the thoughts of those who suddenly saw their own body from a rotating head, only to stay suspended, but yet conscious, on their way to the ground. Time was played with abundantly, troops moving through Tessaracts to do their work using the gliding method with remarkable efficiency.

The AI Collective was scouring its records to trace back conspirators and unravel conspiracies. Their impeccable logic, and total sense of morals and fidelity to the Royals allowed them to do a task that would have taken ages. What they discovered, they showed to Sitar in a diagram, and he usually approved of their conclusion, but still questioning some paths and asking for more clear-cut cases on occasion.

"I need to sleep," finally declared Sitar, after 24 hours at the command desk. "Wake me up if anything unexpected occurs. You have enough to keep you busy for some time, I think?"

"Yes. Viola has taken over from Yamato, who retired 4 hours ago. Next in line for that command is Cello."

"Fine. Brr! I must be tired beyond reason. I feel cold."

"Off with you then, God of War. You will be taking in Harp's bed, hot."

"I hope he did not pee in it!"

"Come on, he has long outgrown that stage! And given how tired you are, I recommend you stop at the restroom before you leak in bed yourself."

Sitar made his way to the restroom groggily, relieved himself, and crossed Harp as he left the dorm to assume his role on the Emergency Bridge. Barely had he laid down that he was out like a light.

"I was getting worried," said Colibri to Enron. "One can not ignore nature without paying the price, and sleep deprivation has one of the highest of all."

"I know."

***

"Some days," said Harold to Diamondcutter, Iridia, and Samson, "I wonder if it is all worth it."

"We all pass through these phases, Harold," said Iridia, getting nods from the other two.

"We are only at the beginning of the Task. The Milky Way is a tiny Galaxy compared to Andromeda, which, itself, is microscopic compared to M-87; again a speck of dust compared to the biggest Galaxy the Ancients discovered and named IC-1011. Thebes is already the size of Canis Majoris, and growing like a balloon gone wild on an overdose of Helium. I find it ironic they called that Galaxy IC, an acronym for 'I See'... I wonder what they saw before blowing themselves up. And I sort of remember a comment, given on the side by Harp, concerning the existence of parallel universes, of which we found one example before leaving the Milky Way! His estimate was that there were at least 87 or so parallel Universes, but he thought Universes frothed in Reality, like bubbles in my bubble bath or in the Jacuzzi! It is depressing! How long before we are done? Or will we ever be done?"

"I prefer the Jacuzzi image to the bath froth one: at least, the bubbles are shorter-lived!"

"Diamondcutter, the thing is, they are short-lived but are reborn all the time. So you end up with an eternal supply of Universes to save, you can not save them all, and even the ones you do manage to enter may well collapse before you even manage to make a difference," Samson replied, looking at his his best friend Harold with a serious load of compassion. "When we took that Task on our shoulder, we thought there was a limited number of Universes... But Harp's view of things forces us to review our image of the Task, and the picture we see is depressing."

"And before saving others, we are now fighting to save ourselves because of short-sighted idiots," Iridia added.

"May I interrupt your musings?" asked Piano.

"Sure. What is up?"

"I found something that may or may not be of interest. Come have a look at my control desk."

The four rose from the sofa and, taking their cup of coffee (or tea, for Diamondcutter and Iridia), they followed her to the Emergency Bridge.

"I was listening to an exchange brought back from time by one of our Time Trawlers." Seeing their blank looks, she explained: "You know, those things Harp keeps sending back in time to pick up information, life that have been extinct, and whatever he fancies?"

"Oh, oh!"

"Listen to this exchange, between a group of individuals. They identify themselves by numbers only, but AI-6 has put a name on each one by tracking their life signatures."

"Number 12, what are the news from your mission?"

"The religious group we had contacted to instil disturbances when we were ready for action acted prematurely and got crushed. Their leadership got hunted down like vermin, and reduced to pulp. I had my contact tell them they were attracting unwanted and mistimed attention, to no avail."

"Will you be traceable?"

"No, I killed the contact and fed him to carnivorous fishes, Sharks I think they are named. I have installed a double-interruption linking. The contact killed his contact before I killed him, on my orders, unaware I was preparing his own death. The usurpers of power will meet a dead end during their enquiry."

Piano paused the recording before commenting: "I did an enquiry about that. It took some cross-references, but you certainly remember that religious group that ticked off the Royals some years back, the supremacist group? Hitler and the others? Investigations led nowhere after some time as all we found were corpses. At the time, Harp did not want the use of his fancy machines within Thebes to alter time-lines. He has rescinded that order and I have used the change of policy for this investigation. Things became clearer after that."

"How long ago was that?"

"A couple of decades. If I gather the timeline shown on the diagram there, we are near or at the beginning of the conspiracy. We now have a list of names, numbering in the order of 30 or so, that clearly are at the root of our issue."

"And you want us to give the 'kill all' order?"

"However tempting, I think we need to find out who is under these 30. Thirty is a big number for a conspiracy. You know as well as I that a secret is only a secret as long as no one but you know about it. It becomes a conspiracy with two; and public knowledge with three conspirators. Someone is pulling the strings and hiding behind these ones."

"Okay, you are right. Continue digging," said Harold. "Somehow, I think that the puppeteer plays more than one puppet."

"Knowing Sitar, he will cut not only the strings, but the fingers, the hands, and the arms of the bastard... using a blunted butter knife before beheading him with the same knife!" said Iridia, shocking the others with her image.

No one dismissed it offhandedly too. They all remembered way too vividly Sitar's efficient disposal of enemies in the most gruesome means. Harp was no less efficient, but he went to the essential. Sitar's battle cry was 'I'll cut you down to size!' while Harp's was 'Let's get this over with!'. Slow or quick death, that was your pick, and it depended on whom you faced more than any choice you made.

The others left Piano to her very systematic search, awed at how she used intuition, the Time Trawlers and the Artificial Intelligences to sniff out her target.

***

After eating a meal together, the Kings dispersed to do their assigned tasks. Some had to report to the Bridge, others to their bed, and Iridia decided to deal with her Court stiff-necks by having the Legions clear the ranks of dead weights. She had been collecting names over the years, names that she fed to the AI Collective, which she had dubbed the AIC for short, to be validated. She was no dimwit. She knew her evaluation could be, no, was, tainted by subjective elements, and she wanted a clean slate. Whom best to decide if her analysis of a situation was founded on enough facts, if these facts were correlated correctly, other than the AIC, which would come up with an honest evaluation, pull out things she had missed, and show her where things erred.

***

Sitar slept for his 8 hours, and was woken up by the AIC, to the feeling of a very hungry stomach, a Sahara-dry mouth and a full to bursting bladder. Forced sleep did that, and more, such as the need to rush to the restroom to relieve oneself. The flagpole seemed to sniff the way to the target as Sitar zoomed on it like a Falcon on a Pigeon. Luckily, no one intercepted the Prince as they had all, by now, experienced the situation.

Once basic necessities taken care of, Sitar made his way to the Command Deck of the Bridge, relieving Cello of command.

"What is the situation?"

"The bloodbath is in full swing. There are layers were a Shark could swim."

"You have images."

"And Piano has something for you. She is off to her rest period, but should be back shortly. Call her the moment she shows as active at her desk."

"Okay. Go sleep."

"I plan to. Lucky these bed come with soma units or I would not be able to do so."

After sitting down in the Command Chair, Sitar called Piano, whom sent her previous report to him, and asked for another 15 minutes to complete her research. Finally, she walked to the Command desk and sat down, inserting a USB key on the desk socket. She entered a few commands and activated the decryption of the contents. On the glass surface appeared a complete tree, linking all the elements of the forest.

"See that name? Does it mean anything to you? I was never really involved in security before, but everything points to one source, that guy."

"Uriel of Solon? I know of an Ariel, but not of an Uriel. Do we have a picture?"

"Yes. The thing is, I had to track his appearance and his name changes. He underwent repeated passages through the hospital to refresh his looks, and change his appearance. He even had his gene map changed. Unfortunately for him, the Hospital Artificial Intelligence keeps a complete log for anyone, and changing names, genetic maps, or even getting a tooth re-grown is kept on the record. Naturally, the 'new' identity shows what the 'new' guy wants to show, so he never noticed he could be tracked back to his origins. He goes under the name Certa, in his current form."

"I wonder how he escaped our eyes..."

"He was a young Boy when we left Earth. I suspect he was taken in without much ado and verifications. And it is more than likely that, at the time, he would have gone under the radar, or passed through our security cracks. What I do not understand, Sitar, is why he wants us blown up so bad. What did we do to him to produce this hatred?"

"Maybe the Duchess of Solon knows something about that family?"

"Dianne? That is an idea. Timor is heading a Swarm in the area where she elected to live. I'll have her picked up during the next time thaw."

"Okay. When you do, bring her to me, please."

"It is due in 24 minutes, according to the local clock of the Tessaract she occupies. Our troops are currently positioning themselves in the inter-quanta ready to deal with the traitors the moment the time flow is released to normal."

***

"What? How? Where am I?" exclaimed Dianne as she popped on the Emergency Bridge.

"Nothing wrong, Dianne," said Sitar, "except for some of your citizens that just lost their head but do not know it yet."

"Hey Brat! Your mind is still as twisted as before? It has been a while!"

"I have been told I have worsened. As to where, you are on the Emergency Bridge. The reason will be revealed to you shortly. But first, I have a question for you. Do you know a person by the name of Uriel of Solon? This is how he looked when we picked him up during the Earth rescue efforts."

Dianne looked at the picture, and scratched her head. "I have a vague memory of someone, but children all look alike after a while. We had a big population, at the time, nothing compared to now, but still."

"Could he have been an orphan?"

"Maybe, but unlikely. I had a policy to put orphans under my direct control and to pay them close attention to prevent any mistreatment and feeling of abandonment."

"All the better for you..."

"However... I think we are dealing with a clean-up kid."

"A clean-up kid?"

"You know, when Enron had all the garbage picked up and incorporated in the Elvin Army to deal with the Orcs? Quite a few family were torn to shreds, with the Dad incorporated manu militari in the army. And sometimes, the Mother as well. But he should be an adult by now."

"He is. How come he did not benefit from the orphan program you instituted?"

"Some kids escaped our surveillance, others never even showed up on the radar. If he was not home during Enron's pick-up and both parents were taken, there is a chance he escaped our monitoring. And when we evacuated, we did not do in lace... We picked up everything that breathed, from bacteria to kids. It was the scorched Earth policy to the bones, if you remember."

"Yes, I do. We wanted to preserve ecosystems. So, if I get things right, not only Uriel escaped our supervision, but there well might be others. AI-6, scan the birth certificates of Solon and try to identify and locate, if possible, the parents of Uriel and any siblings he might have. Knowing how methodic Elves were, I would be surprised if a copy of the birth certificate was not found shortly."

"Especially since I gave a family some money to help them raise their new Child, in an effort to encourage a rise in birth rate. The more Children a family had, the bigger the stipend. To benefit of it, you had to record your Child, fingerprints, footprints, retinal image and all. That prevented baby stealing, as some were not above cradle-robbing a new-born to earn more money. The Mages were kept busy!"

"Human nature..."

"Yes, unfortunately."

Ten minutes later, AI-5 came on-line with the report.

"Uriel Swirl, of Solon. Five siblings, three Brothers and two Sisters. The siblings are distributed around Thebes and have not had any contact with Uriel ever since they were moved into the ship. Uriel is considered dead by his siblings, and each has a sort of tribute to the image of the kid they remember. The parents are alive, both of them, and have shown no interest is re-establishing contact with their children. They were picked up in Solon for systemic abuse of children and animals. Both tried to establish a new family, but never managed... because the Hospital AI sterilised both. They have been involved in a diverse variety of incidents, from violent extortion to robbery, not forgetting the repeated marital abuse incidents that required MP intervention. Both were considered trouble-makers in the Elvin Army... and deserters on more than one occasion. They would drag their feet forward but outrun a Cheetah on retreat."

"Were?"

"They were forcibly retired. They are currently in a retirement home, causing the Staff trouble. They will not be allowed to survive their first major failure."

"I see. What are their conditions?"

"The Dad has liver cancer, and is displaying repeated bouts of jaundice, which indicates the cancer is spreading. The woman has a cancer as well, of the endometrium, the inner lining of the uterus. She received Caesium therapy, gaining a five-year respite, but now it is back in full force and she refuses ablation of the organ, claiming it would make her less of a woman, less desirable. As if anyone would want her more while she smells of rotten meat between the legs."

"AI-5! Be a little more considerate!" said Dianne.

"For someone who used the red-hot range steel surface to burn her Children's hands? The Hell with considerations!"

"She what? Grr!"

"So, now we know the family history of Uriel. We still have to figure out why he turned out that way while his siblings are okay," said Piano.

"What would happen if you put the siblings in presence of that Uriel?" asked Dianne.

"They would not recognise him. He has undergone enough surgeries to be considered divorced from his family," said Sitar. "However, I am beginning to understand his thinking."

"Care to explain?" asked Piano.

"See, he got abused, and decided, at the first occasion, to cut Bridges and make a run for it. It worked much better and further than even he had envisioned, as we took the parents out of the way. He left the family behind, parents and siblings. However, his mistreatments left wounds that have been festering. He now sees any figure of authority as a threat to his independence, a reminder of his abuse under the care of his parents. He is far from stupid, so he uses his knowledge of human nature, especially of its darker side, to manipulate others to reach his goal."

"And what is that goal?"

"I see two possibilities here: he wants to take our place; or he wishes to blow the authority structure completely; an anarchist. And like any good anarchist, he uses the need for leadership of what he considers Goats to be brought to the Butchery by leading their Billy Goat while the others follow the bell. If the siblings had the misfortune to recognise him, they would be killed on the spot."

"So, now what?" Dianne asked.

"Now? I have been waiting for that moment. Kill his command structure, no quarters. And we take him alive if we can. I want to verify if there are any others that might have escaped our verifications, and I will have Harp tear his mind to shreds to make sure! Piano, distribute the orders. Wake up Harp and Paschal. We are going on a hunt for a certain Uriel Swirl of Solon. You have his current location, I guess?"

"Yes, Sitar. I have kept it in deep freeze."

"Good. Ah, Harp, I have need of your services shortly. We have a Uriel Swirl of Solon to pick up. He must be kept in deep freeze until we have made sure he is not booby-trapped, or his residence or even his Tessaract is not."

"Okay. We will insert ourselves between the time quanta, transfer him in the there, and use the same process to remove anything inside or outside his body, leaving them in the non-time while bringing him here. I will maintain that Tessaract in full lock down until we have verified through time that all traps have been removed."

Dianne looked at Harp with wide eyes. She had heard the Royals had some sort of power, but over time itself? It made her realise she had been lucky to choose the right side during the upheaval in the Elvin Kingdom.

"Do you wish to stay here or return home?" asked Sitar. "It will be some time before we are done. However, if you choose home, you will probably think you dreamed all of this between two sips of coffee."

"I'll stay here. I have so many questions."

"Some of which will remain unanswered, Dianne."

"I know." Dianne sat on the side, out of the way, and watched the Royals at work in the process of cleaning Thebes of corruption. The efficiency was shocking, bloody, and merciless. Orders flew, reports came in, to be immediately collated, and giving rise to another stream of orders.

An hour later, Sitar released a breath.

"We are done with the leadership, minus that Uriel. Now, time to get bloody."

As if he had not drowned Thebes in the product already, she thought.

Sitar took out his blade, Harp his stave, Paschal an axe, and the three disappeared silently from the Bridge.

"Where did they go?" she asked of Piano, who seemed to be tracking something very closely.

"They are in-between time quanta. They are moving through Thebes, totally invisible, totally insensitive to matter, totally unaffected by the Tessaracts time states or size. They can literally cross 100 Tessaracts in a single step. They should reach their target in three minutes."

She kept a running report of the Princes location for her benefit. "Now they are entering the Tessaract. They have left the compression factor affect them so they could step in. Time is still immobilised."

A minute later she added for Dianne's benefit, "They are in the vicinity of their target, slowing down so as not to miss him. They are immobile. Harp restarted the clock... and stopped it immediately. They have their prey. He is in null-time."

***

«So, this is our target,» said Sitar. «Do your fancy stuff, Harp.»

«Wait! That guy is sitting on a pressure plate!» said Paschal as he examined the frozen body.

«Grr! I hate suicide bombers!»

«We all do, Sitar. Now let me study this... Ah, the thing is, the lock is controlled by a timer. He must turn the key, wait five seconds and get up. He has one second to stand up or the trigger is activated by the pressure. This is rather sophisticated...»

He studied the thing more... and turned to Harp. "Harp, I want to remove the guy so fast he can not react, but at the same time place an equivalent mass where he sits. The clock is set at .1 second interval. Can we do it?"

"If I set the local clock at .001, we can move in that environment, and be done before the clock ticks once. I need to create the mass first. What is my margin of error on the mass?"

"Maybe half a pound. He must not drink or eat while sitting here, and eliminate anything as well. That thing is a balance. Too much and it blows up, not enough and it blows up. He must really be a maniac of precision."

"Right. Can you find what is wired?"

"An antimatter mine, one of ours, 50 kilos. He got help from the military academy, from what is visible on the outside... And no use trying to catch who brought it out. I am sure he saw to his funeral."

"Could we port it outside of Thebes?" asked Sitar.

"In its original configuration, that would have been a breeze. But he has removed the fuse. Everything is designed for instant disaster. What a sick bastard."

"If it was not for your request he be caught alive, I would say we port the whole thing out in the nearest Star we fly by, frozen meat and microwave tied up together," said Harp.

"I am reconsidering. If we can not find a safe way, we do it your way, Harp. We can still think things out as time is frozen."

"What if we removed the Klein bottle?"

"Harp, it has to be powered up. The magnetic bottle is not self-sustaining, and that is what the guy is counting on," replied Paschal. "On the other hand, if Sitar is willing to sacrifice the frozen meat..."

"State it, Paschal."

"Andromeda has the biggest black hole we have ever seen so far. We can get in it, jump out, and leave the whole shit behind... One second is an eternity in a black hole, especially since time stops at its core. What I suggest is we port in, throw the set-up out, and keep the bastard in place. We get out. We will have eternity to get out, since there is no time there; furthermore, should the antimatter 'detonate' its energy will be eaten up by the hole."

"Is that feasible, Harp?"

"Yes. And a lot less iffy than any idea that have been flying in my mind."

"Why did you say it implies the sacrifice of the meat?"

"Because it does. We copy his brain contents, do a complete brain imagery, and then we have everything we really need, so why keep the meat? He's too old to be edible..."

"Paschal!" exclaimed the other two.

"I was thinking about the Wont. They would have loved him... if he had been a little less chewy. They do not like to break their teeth on tough meat, no more than we do. Wait here. I will get an imager, one of our fast and furious ones. It will map him faster than he can blink."

Paschal made his way to the workshop, took out his latest model, the one he had been working on to allow rescue of brain imagery should a person be too ill to survive long enough for transport, and returned to the location.

"That head-dress is filled with millions of micro-electrodes. It will map things instantly, as soon as Harp allows time to flow. It is time-sensitive, Harp, but you can keep time at 0.001, since this thing operates at .000000001. It will only take .01 second to map the brain due to the time differential. Had we operated at normal speed, this thing would have done things in .0000001 second. It is set up. The activation sequence is functioning. Do your trick, Harp."

The Princes only saw the time quanta blur before recovering their immobility.

"This is one of the things I find most fascinating about time," said Sitar. "In this state, we see time quanta as a frost, and when time rolls it becomes foggy, to finally completely disappear as time speeds up. I have the impression of assisting at the melting of ice on a window."

Paschal studied the map and declared it complete. "Sitar, send the order to port into the Galactic Black Hole. Since we are frozen it should be instantaneous," said Harp.

"Done. And... done. We are in."

"Okay. I'll port the bastard and his device out. As soon as I tell you take us out. Device and meat in null-time!... Device and cold cut out of Thebes... Take us out of the black hole!"

Thebes made good its escape as the black hole took grip of the antimatter mine, and reduced its components to their component energy signatures. Uriel never realised his plan had been foiled as he was stretched to the point even his atoms ruptured. Outside of the black hole, the only sign something had happened was a tiny gravitational pulse equal to the added mass.

"We're done. Let's go back to the Emergency Bridge and run the brain simulation to figure out if anything escaped us," said Harp.