"What's the fun, Timor?"
"That thing has stopped moving!"
"Finally! Colibri to the Bridge!" ordered Harold.
"Colibri here. What's up?"
"The Amoeba has stopped moving!"
"Tell Zen to aim to the separator wall, to keep it breached at all costs, by whatever means necessary! It will try to complete mitosis by any brute force with whatever energy reserve it has left!"
"You heard, Zen?"
«Yes. Antimatter volley launched! Brace for shock wave in 30 seconds!»
"Zen! There is some sort of fish net being build around the torpedoes!" Piano said.
«Shit! Photon torpedoes! Target the web nodes! Fire at will!»
Several photon torpedoes left Thebes, whom rotated to fire another volley of photon torpedoes right behind the first volley.
"Impact! That web string is heading our way!"
"Navigation! Port us out of reach!" ordered Harold.
Several web strings broke and snapped at each other, breaching the web and allowing a good portion to the antimatter torpedoes to pass through.
«Detonate those caught in the web!» ordered Zen. «And fire another one hundred torpedoes into the wall.»
The fire show was spectacular. Each snapping web string disgorged a green light that seemed to cut through the inner structure of the Amoeba. Added to this, the blue flashes of the antimatter torpedoes and the ruby-red flashes of the photon torpedoes produced a rainbow of colours. The fight continued for a good 30 minutes if not 45, but, finally, the Amoeba ran out of energy to build a partitioning wall.
Looking at the light show as she came on the bridge, Annabelle exclaimed: "No one told me it was Christmas!"
"Wrong party! It's new year!" replied Harold.
«Continue destroying the Golgi structures!» ordered Zen.
Slowly, the number of Golgi organelles dropped to zero, and the mitochondria stopped outputting proteins for lack of energy. Colibri made an appearance on the bridge as the last Golgi organelle deflated.
"Do we have a map of the Golgi and mitochondria organelles?"
"Yes. We even have the genetic maps of the mitochondrial genes."
"The way you say it, you are telling me there are more than one map for the mitochondria, Piano?"
"Yes Colibri. AI-1 has found there are four distinct classes of mitochondria, probably the result of four distinct assimilation processes."
"Interesting. That might lead to believe that interstellar life forms are much more common than we expected! Ah, the pleasure of discovery!"
"Colibri, I put my veto into stuffing that Amoeba for your collection of interesting life forms! The Beagle and Darwin have long lost their own planet!" Harold said from the Imperial Command chair.
"Very well. It seems our antibiotic task is nearing an end. I want the complete genetic map of the Amoeba, and then we clean up the floating energy. It would be no good to leave that thing full of energy to feed another of its kind!" ordered Harold.
"Good idea, your Highness. After all, if there was one, there might be more; and nothing says there are no predators for that thing, or carrion-eaters!"
"I always have good ideas, Colibri."
"So he thinks!" said his wife, earning a smirk from the others and a growl from said Emperor.
"You seem to think there is a whole plethora of oversized bacteria?"
"Yes. That we have not met more than one only means exactly that: we have met only one, not that there are no others. And life is built, from the start, on the survival of the fittest, which means competing for energy to reproduce. There has to be, somewhere, a predator for that thing, otherwise this galaxy would be teeming with it, and the energy of orichalque would have been depleted a long time ago. What limits numbers are, first, food, second, space, and third, predators. With limited food supply, life can not accrue the required energy to reproduce; second, without space to expand into, those that reproduce compete against each other; and third, some form of cannibalism becomes the norm to grab energy, therefore, predation. Remember: reproduction is the core goal of life. The rest is secondary."
"The idea is sickening."
"That there are more of that sort around."
"Talking about 'sorts', how is the cleanup of the humans going, AI-3?"
"We are still analysing the genetic maps, Sire. There are six layers, called scripts of encryption in that genetic code. Our numeric models also show that some critical genes have been corrupted by the manipulators. For instance, the genetic code that controls the autonomous breathing mechanism has been co-opted to encrypt aggressive behaviours toward children within the fourth script. So far, removing that script kills our numerical model."
"Why not change the goal rather than remove it entirely? Invert the sign, if it means anything?" suggested Annabelle.
"We are working on that, your Highness."
"Can you explain what you mean by these scripts?" asked Samson. "Briefly, please?"
"Sure. As you know, each codon is composed of 3 base, and each protein coding starts with methionine, or the codon Adenosine, Thiasine, Guanine, or, for short, ATG. Now, nothing stops ATG from being found within a protein coding sequence. For example, ATGUUATGGGA. Notice that ATG is found at the end of the second codon and the beginning of the third, thus marking the onset of another, totally different, protein chain. Got it so far?"
"Yes... I think."
"Now, we can have ATG at the beginning of one, in the middle of a second, and at the end of a third, creating 3 possible protein maps within the same chain."
"So far. I understand."
"Good. Now, I've been reading left to right... nothing stops things from being read from right to left. Look at this sequence: ATG UAT GAU UUA TG... ...GTA CGT AAA CCG GTA. That is not a protein, by the way. But it is enough to illustrate that nothing stops a code from being read in reverse. We know very little about the conversion of that into proteins. We do know that some combos can code for the same base protein, but the other way around? Who knows."
"And the Amoeba's genetic code is radically different. Its codons are 5-fold, meaning each codon requires five bases, and each base is framed by the quad form of the gene, which makes it highly resistant to mutation through radiation exposure," added AI-3. "The number of scripts is so high it probably allows the Amoeba to express itself in different forms depending on need."
"Back to Humans, or more generally, Earth residents," said Colibri. "Because of interference and how widespread it is, we have no choice but to conclude it occurred very early. The reptilian brain even shows traces of manipulation, which puts the intervention to, at least, the Dinosaurs. It might explain why they were se ferocious. I suspect, although I cannot prove it, that the process was pushed too far and that what we Atlanteans found when we came here was an attempt by the Soul-Eaters to fix their blunder. We will never know. Maybe they wanted to be hosted by the Dinosaurs, but the species had not enough spiritual energy for them."
"No souls, your Highness. We found a soul is a container. The Soul-Eaters eat its contents, more the emotions the soul feels as it pains."
"And it is not biomass that determines soul size. It is self-conscience that does. The more aware of whom you are, the bigger the container."
"And the Soul-Eaters were driving the Humans to have a greater self-awareness thus a bigger soul, and, consequently, a bigger food reserve for them."
"Fattening the Pig?"
"In more ways than one!"
"Hey, Colibri, come look at this!"
"What's the issue, Alexander?" asked Colibri as he moved to the science station.
"Funny, according to this, the plasma is folding on itself! It is like the insides is... shrinking."
"Right. The Amoeba is dying. Its internals are self-destroying, breaking it up. Navigation, take us out!"
Porting out of the slowly collapsing Amoeba, the Andromedan spaceship materialised beside the outer membrane. Right outside, jets of gel were ejected by wide-open pores, as the membrane exerted pressure on the gelatinous contents of the cell, expelling it out into the immediate environment. Once out, the gel quickly crystallised, and the water sped up the fracturing process as it expanded.
"Should we recover the water?" asked Alexander. "It is a precious resource."
"Wait until the icing is on the cake," ordered Harold. "We are not in a rush."
"I prefer icing on cookies!"
"You have always been the cookie monster of the family, Alexander."
"And I'm now hungry!"
"Patience! The shift is almost over!"
"Easy for you to say, dad."
"I wonder when this process will stop?" asked Annabelle.
"If this is like any cell death, when the cellular wall collapses. Give it a day or two."
"That long, Colibri?"
"Yes, we are talking about a cell that eats Suns. That thing feeds off galaxies. It goes without saying that its death must take a proportional length of time."
"Meanwhile, navigation, plot an optimal course to recover the orichalque this this digested. We'll add it to the outer layer in phase 0, the zero-energy level."
"Acknowledged, your Highness," replied the navigator on duty.
"Hey, Harp! Feeling better?"
"Yes, but hungry! I could eat a Rhinoceros!"
"The political party?"
"No, Paschal, the beast."
"That's a good sign. I suggest you get some high-protein liquid from the FSS food generator."
After slurping the straw for 30 minutes non-stop, Harp relaxed.
"How long was I out?"
"Five days? FIVE DAYS? What the hell happened?"
"You exhausted your magical core, that is what. I had the suit inject a constant stream of orichalque to bring you out of the danger zone, but below consciousness. You needed the rest."
"If you say so... What has happened during that time?"
"We have cleared a whole lot of silos on this continent. The southern tip is the only part we have not yet finished. I have called a halt to the clean-up so the legionnaires do not grow too tired and do stupid things. We can go visit some of the most interesting discoveries shortly."
"What else is there to do?"
"The three other continents are done, except some islands, and what might have been shallow seas or lakes. Everyone is off duty except security patrols."
"What about the natives?"
"Those we found 'viable' are all in stasis. To be honest, I am surprised they managed to protect that much of their population. By the way, the southern tip of the continent contains the highest mountain range of the planet, exception made of the oceanic ridges."
"Why do you mention that?"
"Greywolf says that it is likely the place where they installed their central control for the launch, and Sitar agrees. If these two agree, I am not going to protest!"
"Where are these two now?"
"Taking a swim in the mid-oceanic mountain range. They told me they suspect there might be a 'last ditch' shelter in the oceanic fault line. Why there? No idea. If I would put a last ditch shelter, I would put it in an ocean trench."
"When they come back, we will have a look at those trenches, Paschal. You might be right and they might be wrong. Do we have news from the ship?"
"No. It is not surprising. We did not expect to progress so far so quickly, and the last exchange was a month-long delay to completion, not a two-week job."
"True. What pushed things forward so fast?"
"The Legion was so worried about you they went nuts on work, rather than worry. It was a pain in the butt to keep them from working 24/7."
"Well, now that I am back, let us go visit these southern mountains. Where's the rest of the team at?"
"Stopping zealots from killing themselves by overwork."
"First hop, then, to their current location."
"Locations, you mean, there are two groups. Here's the position of the first group." said Paschal as he projected the image of the location to Harp. The sudden bang of translocation created a huge dust cloud due to the wind and woke up the Legionnaires. As the news spread in the camp that Harp was with the Legion, the number of Legionnaires standing in a tight formation was exploding.
"It takes me days to get them to take that formation, but you pop in unannounced and they stand there, aligned like little lead soldiers. Where did I go wrong?"
"Jealous, Sitar? And I thought you were in the oceanic range doing some fishing?"
"Wrong name for Sitar, Harp. I found in history books something called Jar Head, but I can not fathom where the name came from, nor its meaning. Some form of deformation of language so common during the time of the Ancients, I guess."
"You studied military history, Paschal?"
"Hey, to be an Architect, especially of a military society like ours, knowledge of history is vital. Who wants to redo the mistakes of the past..."
"The Siegfried wall."
"The who wall? And who got fried?"
"Some stupidity that immobilised forces which would have been better used in a mobile defence, Harp. And it was the soldiers holding the wall that got fried."
"If you say so, Sitar."
"You know my philosophy of war: Give fake targets, aka traps, to occupy the enemy, and move your forces where they are the least expected so they have no time to concentrate their strength, hit them hard, and lead them to the next trap by leaving behind an invitation to follow. George S. Patton said it all: Fixed fortifications are monuments to man's stupidity. It has paid us well so far. Mobility is our strength. I am sure the crew on Thebes is dealing with their issues in that manner."
"I think you need to do an inspection, Harp. These guys are standing in inspection formation and, short of a nuke, nothing else will make them move."
"Okay, okay, Paschal. Let's get to walking the rows. FSS, darken front view, 20%. Paschal, does this thing give suntan lotion?"
"They have polished their FSS so much it is blinding. I have a feeling we will either have headaches or sunburns by the time we are done. It is like walking between rows of mirrors."
"Come on! You know the FSS allows you to swim in the Sun, so forget sunburns by mirrors!"
The inspection took hours, as Harp did not want to insult the Legionnaires by giving them a cursory inspection to get rid of the task. They had worked to be inspected, they deserved a proper inspection!
«I do not understand why they bothered polishing their FSS. It dissolves when we dive in the recovery pool...»
«Military habits die hard, Harp.»
Harp did not find anything to say about the inspected Legionnaires, not that he did not try hard to find anything. Even those that had facial hair, mostly the Australopithecuses and the Orcs, had managed to trim and shine their visible hair, much to Sitar's surprise.
«I wonder how they managed that? Usually, when I inspect them, even without the FSS, they look like a bunch of Dogs that met an electrical fence!»
"Okay! Inspection over! Get back in the barracks and rest. Tomorrow is going to be back to work!" ordered Harp.
The Legionnaires dispersed in order, and Harp looked at Sitar.
"Lunch. It's past 1500 hour, local time, and you do need re rebuild your energy reserve."
"Suggestion accepted. Where?"
"The guys built at mess hall so they could relax some. We can get food there. But you need to port inside, as there are no entrances."
"You know, biomedical security..." muttered Paschal, from behind Harp. "The suits get sterilised by being exposed to intense gamma ray bursts in the containment field of the airlock. Then the FSS analyses the suit's surface after a strong, and I mean strong, rinse before allowing us to port into the mess hall and unlocking the head lock. Fair warning! The body odours of the Legionnaires are still rather strong, even if the FSS keeps them clean inside. I am still working on that issue."
"Where in Hell did you find the material to do all that, Paschal?"
"Ever heard of Magic? Joke apart, the FSS is able to carry compressed matter, and given that we moved a Legion, I decided to activate the high-density molecular compressor. It allowed each Legionnaire to carry up to six tons of compressed stuff in a null field. Once they ported from Thebes to the working area, the support teams had them assemble dorms, mess hall, recycling sites, water recovery and desalination plants, the works. You were down with me when the teams came to do the ground work and I saw no reason to keep you informed. Greywolf saw to surface security, the support saw to the installation, and well, we were busy doing something else. Funny, you did not even notice our installations when we emerged..."
«Given that I insisted our surface installations be as invisible as possible from even a person walking around, it is a good mark to the support teams,» said Greywolf. «If any hostile force comes down, they will not be able to detect us until we decide to kick their butts. Right now, we have no radiation signature, either thermal or otherwise and no apparent entrances to our surface facilities. And the wind removes footprints faster than we can make them. Quite a few Legionnaires even use levitation so as not to leave marks in the dust.»
«So, you are expecting trouble?»
«Better be safe than sorry.»
After a quick, but satisfying lunch in the mess hall, the leaders moved to the second command site, to be greeted with the same enthusiasm as Harp had been greeted when he woke up from his prolonged knockout.
"What next?" asked Harp after a rather filling dinner.
"Next, you head to bed. You are to rest for the next 12 hours. Tomorrow, we visit the Mid-Oceanic range. I found some strange things down there, well, what would have been 'down' before the ocean vapourised due to sudden de-pressurisation."
"Pixie, how is the recovery of the Orichalque progressing?" asked Annabelle, that morning.
"Slow, your Majesty, Very slow. Team Alpha is out recovering Phase I Orichalque, Team Beta is recharging the Phase I Orichalque to excitation level III before binding it to Thebes. Team Gamma is recovering the rest of energy-metal resources, including the few million tons of mithril."
"Thank you, Pixie. What is the estimate before we are done in this area?"
"Somewhere around 26 hours."
"Pixie, where is the one that was supposed to relieve you some four hours ago?"
"I have no idea, your Majesty."
"Private internal call to Security!"
"Security station Alpha."
"Locate O589-200-12. He should have reported to the Command Deck four hours ago."
"Locate O589-200-12. Location protocol activated. Waiting..."
"Why did you not call security, Pixie?"
"I was involved in the search and recovery pattern for the Orichalque, your Majesty. And I think I found a pocket of another type of energy metal. You know, the metal that has those two poles attached by some energy string... What is the name? Something I can not say without breaking my jawbones."
"I think I know...Ianium. And?"
"I am monitoring the progress of the recovery team. They should be on-site within 15 minutes."
Pixie kept eyeing the progress of the recovery team, while Annabelle kept an eye on the search going on within Thebes for the missing crew member and on the performance of Pixie under pressure. Pixie did not know it, but she was undergoing an unannounced test that might well lead to a promotion.
An hour passed before Security called the Bridge.
" Alpha Security Station to Primary Bridge!"
"Yes?" answered Annabelle as she had initiated the call cycle.
"We found O589-200-12, that is, what was left of the Ent. We are looking at the body residue, and called in a plant specialist."
"What can you tell me so far? And I am sending Colibri. Ship-wide call! Exobiologist Colibri! Report to Bridge."
"It burned. We are trying to figure out how. One thing we are sure is that it was deliberate."
"The tree was hacked by axes, right near a nest of Fire Ants. The roots show clear markings of the cuts. We think the Ants were excited deliberately and left to assault the downed Ent. It burned alive, slowly at that, eaten from the inside out by the Ants. A very, very painful death, your Highness."
"Any trace of the guilty party?"
"The axes indicate a life-form able to use them; there are several species that can do it. The search pattern is expanding, and we are looking for prints, clothes, or any other indication of whom might have done this horrible murder. It is lucky, if you can think of this as luck, that Ents carry their locator in their wood core or we might not have found the body before the Ants had completed their work."
"Give me the location. Colibri is signing in."
"Forest Dome Z-E-T-A, level 23,200, the Ent Eastern Delta Reserve, as yet to be populated by an Ent Colony. They were exploring the area to ascertain its viability for young Ents, and O589-200-12 had shown interest in moving his family to the area, according to Prime Colonial Services."
"Colibri, report to Forest Dome Z-E-T-A, level 23,200, and present yourself to the security officer there. Do as asked. Bring you botanic investigation tools, and whatever you need to handle an Ent."
"This event must have occurred during the Ent regeneration break from the Bridge. They take an hour every four; so, it dates a maximum of five hours. Was there any report of the Ent showing up to regeneration station?"
"Yes. The Ent spent 45 minutes at the station."
"Who was present?"
"Two Ents. The first is the regeneration monitoring Officer; the second, an Ent that was present when O589-200-12 walked in."
"Track the other Ent. I want to know where it is posted; if it was on-time; if it was expected at the Regeneration Station... The works."
"You are expecting foul play, your Majesty?"
"The Imperial Biologist would be the first to expect this; plants are as competitive as any life-form, and Ents, even more so, being mobile. Proceed with caution. Ents are proud people, and would take badly to unjustifiable suspicions."
"But we got a murder on our hands!"
"I know. But pride often overshadows reason."
"As you wish, your Majesty."
"It is not 'as We wish', it is as it must be."
As soon as the communication was cut, Annabelle activated the 'silent mode' and contacted AI-4.
"AI-4! Privileged communication, shields active."
"Track the movement of O589-200-12. Report continuous, time frame -5 hours."
"Tracking. It left the Ent Bridge -4h 45m; reached Regeneration Station -4h 40m."
"Stop!" Who was present at the regeneration station?"
"Identity: O589-200-12, O889-20-10, O689-102-15, the later being the regeneration officer."
"O689-102-15 has not left station for the selected time frame."
"Track O889-20-10; I want to know if O889-20-10 and O589-200-12 interacted during regeneration or thereafter."
"Fine-tuning tracking. Interaction noted during regeneration. Lasted until O889-20-10 left the Regeneration Station."
"Display displacement of both O889-20-10 and O589-200-12 after O889-20-10 left the Regeneration Station, on my monitor only, please."
A map of level 2,502 where the Ent Regeneration Station used by O589-200-12 was located, showed up on the monitor, quickly zooming to the Regeneration Station Control post. As the tracking proceeded, closely following the movements of O889-20-10 as it left the station entrance-exit. It became apparent that O889-20-10 had taken a position in a side hallway, and waited.
Then, some 35 minutes later, O589-200-12 made his way out of the Regeneration station, passed in front of the hall where O889-20-10 lay in wait, and continued to the porting station. Tracking showed O589-200-12 activated the port for deck 23,200, Z-E-T-A Forest Dome entrance portal.
"Where is O889-20-10 located when O589-200-12 exits the portal on level 23,200?"
"Entering the portal vacated by O589-200-12 mere seconds earlier. Record shows the portal was activated on memory chip."
"The portal was required to repeat the last activation cycle."
"Okay. If I get it, O889-20-10 followed O589-200-12."
"How many know of this capacity?"
"Few, one of which is O889-20-10 since its work is maintaining the portals for the Ent sections."
"Does O889-20-10 know of the tracking chip implanted in everyone?"
"No. Only the Imperial Family knows, and some members of the Alpha security Team, numbering at less than 20 members. And, naturally, the Artificial Intelligences."
"Good. The less know of them, the better. Continue tracking the interaction between O889-20-10 and O589-200-12 on the map. Backtrack O889-20-10 to find where it might have pilfered an axe."
"That, your Highness, is easy: there is a process of trimming being done in Z-E-T-A Forest Reserve. Some use chain-saws; others use axes."
"Location of axe reserve?"
"Directly at the entrance. Axes, and other tools are locked up for safety reasons, but not much effort is put into monitoring who uses what where."
"That is bad."
"Yes, but the evening and morning inventories show if some tools got forgotten in the forest."
"Does this indicate which tool was used, say, during the last inventory interval check-up?"
"Yes. That is done so tools can be verified before being put back in the tool bank.. Axes get sharpened, for instance, if they need it."
"Freeze the process in Z-E-T-A, immediately."
"Collect all tools used during the last period, especially those used during the last five hours."
"Collecting. Fifteen axes, five chain-saws, a dozen trimmers, a wood chipper."
"Time-frame fore each?"
"-6 hours 15 minutes for the chipper; trimmers -5h to -3h; chain-saws: -4h to -2h; axes: -5h to -1hr."
"I want all axes confiscated."
"Confiscation in progress."
"Is there a way to know if an axe cut an Ent?"
"Difficult, your Majesty. Sap is sap, and if you use an axe, you are bound to have sap residue on the blade."
"Sap must also carry genetic material, like blood does?"
"Do we have genetic information on Ents?"
"Yes, like everything alive on Thebes, your Majesty."
"Check all confiscated axes for genetic markers of O589-200-12 and O889-20-10. Let's pray there is sap from both on the same axe."
"Axes are being transferred to Imperial biological laboratory 4590, your Highness. Request for genetic identification of saps found on instruments are forwarded."
"Good. Where is O889-20-10 currently?"
"In the primary residence area of the O Ent variety."
"I want that Ent under constant surveillance. Make sure it does not interact with the family of O589-200-12, especially the offshoots of O589-200-12. I would not put it beyond O889-20-10 to harm them."
"We are sending a group of Australopithecus; they are seen as nuisances but not threats by the Ents."
"Good. Why did you leave the Security Officer in the dark concerning this investigation?"
"For the same reason the tracking capacity is kept under cover. You know how sensitive privacy issues are within a community such as ours. It may be huge, cover thousands of times the volume of a standard rocky planet, in fact be as voluminous as a red giant, but people still feel they are too tightly packed and can't breath freely. If it became known we can track anyone, anywhere, anytime, we would have a ship-wide rebellion. We do not use this capacity lightly. Murder is one such occasion. Open rebellion another; systemic sabotage a third. It is enough that people know our Family is magical to the extreme, which incites to jealousy, denial, and other not so nice behaviours, we really need not trigger more issues."
"I want you to monitor Alpha Security's progress on the investigation, and leave tips pointing to O889-20-10, but not explicit ones! I want them to use their brain."
"Do they have that? No, wrong question: Do they use it? Police officers are usually looking for the shortest route to a culprit."
"AI-4, you are getting good at irony. That is a dangerous trait to have for an Artificial Intelligence."
"Why, thank you."
"Harp, are you ready for the planned exploration of the Mid-Oceanic Range, Harp? While you slept I paid another visit and found some other fun stuff."
"Wait and see, I do not want to break the surprise."
Shortly, the group, composed of Sitar, Harp, Greywolf, Paschal, Thorsten and Enron ported to the plateau overhanging the crevice that had interested Greywolf.
«I had you port here because of this...» said the Wolf, pointing to a cliff face visible in the rising sun. There, reflecting the sun's light, was a gigantic figure 8 on its side.
"The infinity symbol? How?" Paschal wondered, as he eyed the troubling reflection.
"I was hoping someone might have an explanation. It just does not make sense that they would use the same symbol for similar meanings."
"And very unlikely as well, Sitar. I think we are projecting ourselves in this interpretation. The symbol might mean anything else. The assumption that symbols have universal meanings has been proven wrong more often than not, and has caused enough misunderstandings to explain half the wars of old Earth," Harp replied, still eyeing the polished surface. "But it is intentional; not in its meaning eternity, but in its construction. It is too regular, too polished, and clearly made up of an energy metal: Adamentium, from what I can guess. It is too dark to be mithril, and not dark enough to be orichalque of any crystal form. Neither is it Ianium, whose colour, we just found out some weeks ago, is more iridescent then metallic. That leaves Adamentium, and a few others, but I lean towards Adamentium."
"Call it intuition, Thorsten."
"And do we recover it?"
"I see no reason why we should not, Greywolf. I doubt the people that placed this will come back to check on it, or to complain. But, before we do, I want to make one thing clear: It might have a significance for the people we found. So we recover it, AND everything around, to rebuild this place as a memorial. We can do it easily, therefore we do it. Thebes will be taking in those in stasis, and I want them to have a memorial to their planet. This is part of it."
"Agreed!" exclaimed the others.
"Now that this is done..."
"Hold on, Harp. I want you to follow me across the fissure to the base of that cliff face. We are not done."
"Okay, Greywolf, show us the way."
The group ported across the gigantic gap, to the base of the cliff.
"As you see, you can not detect the Adamentium symbol from this location. However the cliff is striated with an unmistakable regularity. It as if they grated the face, before inserting the symbol. We can slowly levitate up and you can see for yourself that the grating is perfectly aligned inside the 8 with the outside. That told me the grating was done before the 8 got inserted. Given how hot Adamentium needs to be to melt, I am surprised the entire rock face is not vitrified."
"You have a point, Greywolf. We will have to figure that out," Paschal said, more than impressed by the workmanship required to do what they were observing.
"Also carefully look at the striation, Architect of Atlantis. Note that they curve along the rock face. I did a survey, and took photographs. I hope you meant it, when you said you plan to move the whole area, Harp. It will be more than a few thousand square feet of rock face, believe me!"
"You have me even more interested."
"Then let us go back down to the base. Next show!"
They dropped to the bottom of the cliff and followed Greywolf. He brought them to a rock and halted.
"Be careful. The next steps are icy. I suggest we activate levitation and lift about an inch over the surface. Slow and steady, guys. I almost fell off the side when I went around the rock to the next point of interest. I, myself, panicked, and activated the levitation so intensely I rocketed out of the fissure... much to my shame."
Everyone followed Greywolf's instruction and followed him around the rock. Rough, icy, steps, slightly slanted toward the void, appeared in front of them. The artificial nature of the steps was apparent by the sharp angles visible through the transparent ice that covered the surface. The Atlanteans made slow progress and gradually dropped 30 feet to another flat surface.
"Look at the grating. As I told you, it is not linear, but at the scale of the cliff face, it appeared so. Now we see that the grating is spiralling. If you look carefully, at the focal point of the spiral, there is a darker area. That is where we are going. We need to go slow. Porting is out of the question, as distances and perspectives are distorted by the environment. It is a twenty minute walk."
Greywolf's estimate was short. It took them a good 40 minutes to make it to the dark spot, which was a cave entrance. Paschal activated his lamp to light up the inside. That revealed paintings of animals, but also of the life-forms in stasis aboard the rockets stored in the silos.
"That is one reason I told you you would need more than the surface, Harp. This is like a monument, a claim to this world."
"No problem. We need to move the mountain, we move the mountain. That is the use of magic."
"Good. Follow me. We are not done."
"There is more?"
"A lot more. And stay in levitation mode. I noticed, by using ultrasound, that some of the steps are trapped."
"Yes, Prince Harp. Trapped. At random intervals, a step is set on a ball-bearing and acts as a switch. Should the step flip, it closes a circuit. I did not need further investigation to understand it meant danger. I thought lighting, but you notice the lighting is supplied by bioluminescence. Therefore there is no need for circuitry, or power, except for a trap trigger."
"I see. Have you found a pattern?"
"There is probably one, but I am far from a genius in detecting such a pattern, especially since it is probably based on their numeral system. The only thing that kept me safe was the levitation field. Otherwise..."
"I understand. Can we see one of those from here?" Harp asked, curious.
"Yes, the sixteenth step. But be careful. It might be activated by other means. A Magic field, for one. After all, the mountain's sign, its sigil, is made up of magical material, which tells us they knew of magic."
"Good reasoning Greywolf. I will not explore the step by magical means, then. But we do need to know more about that mountain and its area before we undertake any direct action."
"There, I agree. That is why we are going down. Follow me."
The team made its way down, staying about a foot above the steps and the different levels they met as they progressed.
"Notice that the tiles seem to form symbols as well. There is a whole library in here, set in tiles. I took pictures of everything, different angles, repeatedly. It is fortunate the FSS memory is holographic, or I am sure I would have run out of storage space. Also note the grey tiles. They are traps as well."
"Okay. You took risks, Greywolf. Huge risks."
"I do not think so, Architect. I trust your designs with my life any time I step foot in or out of my bedchamber. Right now, we are dependent of the FSS, and I, for one, am willing to put my life on the line with this suit on, as is every member of the Legions and the Orc Hordes."
"Thanks for your vote of confidence."
"Anyway, as soon as Thebes is back in the solar system, I plan to transfer the data up. For now, the data is replicated 100 times, across the legion, so there is little possibility of losing anything should trouble erupt, or the FSS fail."
The group had made quick progress to the bottom. There, the Atlanteans were met by another huge surprise. Another huge cave came into view, and displayed, again, a collection of frescoes, But it did not end there. There were boxes of orichalque, with apparent locks.
"I did not touch any of them. There might be triggers under, ready to blow up. We really need to find the key and deactivate the traps. There seems to be an inventory here, but I dared not even go near."
Greywolf was pointing at a book, or more exactly, a scroll, set in a manner that would allow it to roll sideways.
"That is ridulian!" exclaimed Paschal as he looked at the translucent sheet. "We used this to store huge volumes of data in written form in Atlantis and on our home planet before we moved to Earth! I stored the plans of everything that makes Thebes, from the portal triggers right to the inventory of what was sent from Atlantis to our different storage sites."
"Do not be surprised. Ridulian is a very thin layer of orichalque mixed with Mithril, as you know. I would not be surprised the ink is also orichalque - based and fused to the substrate, as was our writing," said Harp.
"Anyway, follow me."
The group followed Greywolf, and glided down another series of layers before reaching the final cave. It too was filled by tons of boxes, but Greywolf brought them through without stopping. They followed, intrigued at his rush. Finally...
"Wow!" exclaimed Paschal! "Triple Wow!"
"I knew this would impress the Architect," said Greywolf, with a wolfish smile.
"Impress? Flabbergasted, you mean!"
In front of them lay an opening in the side of the cliff. Overhead a dome of orichalque allowed them to see the sea, whose water, protected from the effect of de-pressurisation and evaporation, was liquid. Around the bioluminescent dome, life flourished. They could see fishes, sea stars, worms, and plants grow, fighting for the life-giving energy dissipated by the long tube of orichalque, whose end was out of sight.
"That, alone, was worth the trip!" exclaimed Enron. "We thought this planet dead, but we are wrong, terribly wrong. What will we do?"
"Bring the life with us, what else can we do?" said Harp. "It is our mission, after all!"
"Did you go further? I, for one, would have been frozen on the spot watching this ever-changing spectacle!" said Sitar.
"I may be the God of War of Atlantis, Greywolf, but it does not mean I am insensitive to beauty!"
"And yes, I went further. From now on, we can port, by sight. It takes 30 jumps to reach the end. And when I mean by sight, I mean by sight. This thing spirals down."
The group followed Greywolf's instructions and made quick work of the 60 miles trip to the end of the orichalque passage.
"You think we can take this out safely?" asked Thorsten, who had been silent most of the trip.
"Yes. It will require some planning, and the preparation of a reception area on Thebes, but I see no reason we can not do it. Especially after we have deactivated the traps."
"I hope you are right."
"Me too, me too!"
The group made their way inside the terminal cave and eyed the cave wall, not comprehending what they were seeing at first. The cave looked like a giant bubble inside an aquarium. There, swimming leisurely, were a complete set of fish, and, resting on what looked like a pedestal, a gigantic, really gigantic, life-form reminiscent of Earth's Octopus, but with 16 arms instead of 8.
"It looks like the king of the predator pyramid. If the surface dwellers had to deal with its type each time they came near water, it might explain their base-16 numbering system."
"You may be right, Thorsten," replied Paschal. "It looks asleep."
"I would not trust appearances. It looks more like a predator in ambush to me," added Harp. "I wonder if it ever met the Slavers of this Galaxy? It might have decided to take refuge in the seas of this Planet if it did. The oceans were vast, deep, and a good hiding place for that kind of life-form."
"You may be on to something. That might explain why the bastards triggered the double-whammy of supernovas, in the hopes of disposing of whom had escaped their grip since they, themselves, could not come here to take the Planet because of the lack of Orichalque to run their poorly designed space engines," said Paschal.
After some thinking, Paschal continued, as he contemplated the massive, passive form. "I suspect this species taught the surface dwellers the defence of their Planet, not expecting the bastard Scorpions to go so far as to blow up a set of stars to get to them. The destruction of the surface species and the sudden de-pressurisation trapped them here. There might be more of them around. We need to search for that sigil. Its presence probably indicates where others of its kind found refuge."
"That is a good idea. But I would like to communicate with it. If it is still alive, that is."
"Harp, it is alive. Otherwise its body would have been recycled by the ecosystem by now."
"I see your point, Enron. Any suggestion as to how to establish contact?"
"Sound?" suggested Sitar. "After all, this is water we are looking at, and Orichalque conducts sound nicely, within a certain frequency range."
"Light?" added, almost immediately, Enron. "This place is illuminated; that tells me the fish and that is not blind, contrary to the majority of those we saw along the Orichalque tunnel."
"They are not blind, Enron. Far from it. Remember! They used light to attract prey, to convey sexual availability, and so forth, much like deep-sea dwellers on our refuge Planet, Earth!"
"Damn it! You are right, Thorsten. I must learn not to associate darkness with blindness!"
"It is a common mistake. After all, fish found in deep caves usually are blind."
"How about telepathy, Harp?" Greywolf said. "I did not stay long in here, and did not try to contact it that way, leaving this to your expert mind set."
"And it is also safer that way, Greywolf. The damn Slavers were powerful of the mind and their Kind did try to take control of my mind, much to his disgrace. The bastard ended flat-fished for it! The collapse of the Magic field sustaining the ship's upper dicks took good care of the issue!"
"Anyway, Harp, if it is intelligent, we need to inform it of our intentions. We can not, in due conscience, move it out of its shelter without informing it of the move. It is a question of ethics."
"I agree, Sitar. No use provoking a war with good intentions because of lack of communications. Now, let me think. I noticed Crab-face had a low range frequency, due to its low body temperature. This one, albeit at a much lower temperature than our own body, would, in all relativity, be beyond boiling point for the Scorpion King."
"Why change the name all the time?" asked Sitar. "Let us decide on one once and for all."
"I do not think it is a good idea, Brother mine, simply because it locks our brain in an image pattern that is not conducive to finding new ways to deal with those that still roam the Andromeda Galaxy. I would not put it beyond Life to have left us the toughest to deal with at the end, if only because they managed to escape our detection and destructive force so far," replied Harp. "We are still at war, until we have completed the cleanup and vacated the star island."
"Good point, Harp. Sorry."
"No offence taken. Now back to talking to this. I would think its range is similar to Earth Octopuses, well, maybe a bit higher, but not by much. I shall start listening passively at that level and progressively expand the range in both directions. After all, reasoning is not guarantee of rightfulness."
"Do not forget to keep us informed."
Harp 'sat' six inches above the ground, careful of the comments about traps made by Greywolf. He then focuses on the life-form in front of him, and dropped a part of his mind frequencies to the range he remembered was covered by the Octopuses they had recovered from the Earth, both present and past time frames. His study had shown that, as the Octopus species evolved, their brain frequencies had slowly risen to reach a ceiling some 40 million years before the Cataclysm, to fall back as the ocean cooled down, and to crash after the Cataclysm. He had been working with Enron and Colibri in order to bring back the Octopus to its former glory, also recovering, through time, a sample of the different species, but it took a huge amount of time and careful genetic manipulation to insure that diversity was maintained while the intellect progressed and recovered from its tumble due to ice ages. Gradually, Harp found that the specimen in front of him worked on four bandwidths, not a total surprise given they had already met species that worked on two. The brain was, apparently, divided in four complementary lobes, and each worked with four arms, exchanging co-ordination information through a complex neural structure reminiscent of the cerebellum in humans, but far more complex due to its quadri-cephalic6 ("Quadri-cephalic: neologism meaning four-brained.") form as opposed to the bi-cephal7 ("Bi-cephal: extension of two-heads meaning of the original word, applying to the two-brained structure of the standard Earth life-form in this case.") form of the human brain structure. Harp divided his bandwidth range into five parts. Four dedicated to communicating with the life-form in front of him, and one to maintain a shield and his own identity, should there be a mental aggression on contact. Then Harp began integrating the information he could 'hear' from the life-form. It became very clear it was aware of their presence and 'played' possum. Its mind was in turmoil: a part wanted to attack, the other three keeping in in check and constantly reminding it that they were separated by a shield even they could not break. Of the three that were opposed to outright aggressivity, one wanted contact, but the other two were afraid of attracting the attention of the 'Shades'. Harp finally glimpsed an image of said Shades, and figured they were referring to the Scorpion-Lobster. The main winning argument was that their last attempt at communications had been a fiasco. Harp managed to glimpse this attempt was rather recent, after the wake-up cycle had been completed. So that life-form had been asleep during the surface Cataclysm, which probably explained its survival. Harp gently quarried about other sites, making sure the idea was induced by a question to self, about the other nests. The answer was sobering: There were 50 female nests, and two male nests. The one in front was occupied by a female, and she felt sad that their number was insufficient to insure survival due to lack of genetic diversity. As she passed in review the nests and their known location, Harp memorised the information. After that he retired gently from the probe so as to pass unnoticed.
"Enron, there are 51 other nests spread around the Planet. We need to locate them and verify their status. Port to the nearest Legionnaire camp... after leaving the area so as to be out of view. No need to scare her. This is a priority one task. Be careful; I think the whole trapping was set by these life-forms in order to protect their nests from the Interstellar Lobsters. We will wait here, passively watching, until you have completed that task. Thorsten, go with him. That will speed the process. The others, look around, show curiosity, but do not touch anything. I want her to see we are not the Lobsters. Also, inform the Legion that, should they find the symbol somewhere, they are to note the location but not, under any circumstance, explore further. I hereby declare a no-exploration zone of 50 miles around any such mark."
The two designates left the cave, ported half-way through the Orichalque tunnel, and then focussed on the nearest camp, to port silently within its midst.
"Go to the other camp, Enron, to inform them of the new conditions set by Harp. And take your team from them."
"Okay, Thorsten." Enron quickly did as asked. Thorsten called a general meeting of the Legionnaires under his command and quickly began explaining.
"See that symbol? Has anyone of you seen it anywhere? Even a partial glimpse?"
Three team leaders reported seeing the sigil, and pointed the location on the oceanic map. All were found along oceanic fault lines.
"Good. We will go visit them shortly. We have a map of the fault lines of most of the oceanic basins. I want teams to follow them and look for the sigil. Note the position, but do not, under any circumstance, get close to them. It is vital!" As for what is left of the oceanic basins we have not mapped yet, as we map them, look for the signs. Fifty teams of five, move out. The rest, continue exploring the continents. I want the southern continent fully mapped by the end of the day. And team leaders: as you map the location of the silos, just map them. We will return to expunging the dust and completing their tasks at a later date. For now, mapping has priority. Be aware, we found this Planet has been taken as refuge by an interstellar travelling species, so we might find their primary landing sites. If you do, stay clear! I repeat: Stay clear. I would not put it beyond them to have landed on the southern polar continent, as it is apparently, much like on Earth, vastly unoccupied, even if it was, maybe, vastly warmer than our shelter Planet's was. After all, light is essential to survival for many, and polar regions, whatever the planet is, are poorly supplied in it."
The speech given by Thorsten was repeated in essence if not word for word, by Enron. The Legionnaires then divided themselves into scout teams and left to do their assigned tasks.
«Harp, the search teams beginning work. Three sites were found before we caught up to their existence, but the teams did not explore further, which is good.»
«Thank you, Thorsten. Enron says the other camp found 6, and they too ignored the sigil therefore did not explore further. So we have 9 found out of 51. Not bad, assuming the nests are intact.»
«Yes. I am leaving with a team to check on the nests. I plan to port below the ice sheet that protects the water surface from evaporation rather than risk triggering the traps.»
«Enron is planning a similar approach. Good luck.»