On Solarius, the Legionnaires were busy like never before. Some had dreamed of a break as things seemed to settle down after the lock-down, but Sitar had reminded the others of the poisonous layer that covered everything.
"I can not, in good conscience, bring the whole Planet into Thebes. We will need to do something about that poisonous layer the Slavers blanketed the Planet with. Thorsten, as our explosive expert, do you have any suggestions?"
"It depends on how thick you want to skim off the planet before porting the rest?"
"Water, atmosphere, and say, the depth of the silos, once they have fired their charge?"
"You do not do things half-way. That will remove a mile of surface rock!"
"So? That Planet is lost. And I want that explosion to be directed..."
"Asking for the Moon, and wanting it delivered on a golden plate..."
"On a cheese plate!"
"Do not worry, the crust will look like Swiss cheese when we are done. Were do you want the blown stuff to go?"
"In the Sun. That poison will kill the galaxy as it spreads but no need to give it a push outward. I want it to be falling on the Sun."
"So, a counter-orbital thrust. The sequence will need to work in the direction of rotation of the Planet to benefit from the inertia, but counter to its rotation around the Sun. Mmm... Feasible, Difficult, but feasible. We will lose some Orichalque..."
"I do not care. And I am sure most of it will stay put inside the Planet mantle since it is only the upper mile that will be skimmed."
"A peeled Planet. A zest of Solarius in your cocktail, Sir?"
"Harp!" said Sitar in a sharp tone. "Stop playing! You will have to deliver a lot of Magic for this to work out, so focus on finding a way to do it without killing yourself! And us! At least your partner is serious!"
"You called me?" said a Dog, from just outside.
"No, Sirius. I wonder who was stupid enough to name a Dog Sirius."
"An Earth astronomy fanatic, that is who."
"I have an idea how to do it, but it will require a massive synchronisation of all Mages to do it. And we will do it from Thebes, because after that, we will be out of business for a while."
"That fits in my plans, Harp. The dispersion into the local primary of the Planet's first mile of crust will be closely timed to two events. Event one: what will be taken in will be ported into Thebes. And the arrival, or landing of what has triggered the AI's panic reaction. I am sure that landing on a Planet that suddenly has an explosive eruption of measles with buttons is not in their plans. Flying in those conditions will be problematic at best."
Just as Sitar finished, the darkened sky became ablaze from the arrival of the Ships sent from Thebes.
"Ah, delivery of expected packages! Right on time... Harp, see to their landing and accommodations. Remember, no one out of FSS! Under any circumstance! This Planet's surface is poisoned! Has anyone informed the Sedecimus of the surface state?"
"No..." said Paschal. "We forgot with all the rush."
"When you are done with the landing, Harp, go inform her. Paschal, see to the proper distribution of installations. Thorsten, get those that are returning home ready for porting."
"How will you insure that their FSS do not contaminate the Home-world?"
"Thorsten, they will port to the Sun's corona, take a good swim, and then port directly aboard the ferries. Enron says the poison does not survive intense heat. I assume that the corona is hot enough, but if that is not enough, do not forget that porting itself is a good way to remove anything. In final recourse, the arrival of a white-hot FSS in an icy basin of FSS raw material should break down the last resistance and destroy the poison. And you know that the filtering from incoming to outgoing basins of FSS material also undergoes a systemic reduction to atomic level, as the filter is an accelerator that disassembles the FSS into its basic atomic components. That is how we remove any biological contaminant within the FSS suit." replied Harp. "And as last protection, the atoms themselves are kept in a Magic field until they are released to outgoing for use. Paschal and I went out of our way to insure biohazard safety."
"We voted. No one wants to go back home until this is dealt with. We all feel it would be like abandoning battle station and battlefield when we are most needed."
Sitar looked at the others, sensed the truth of the comment, and revised his idea to return the Legion home.
"Fine. Resume the work you had been doing while we receive the additional units. Paschal, take this into account while assigning quarters. Who is in command up there?"
"Admiral Zen, Sir. He insisted. And it includes more than ferries. There is an entire Space Fleet up there. Admiral Zen is busy locking down the star system so tight a Mosquito's Mosquito will have problems reaching its target to sting it. Do not be surprised if you notice even starlight can't pass."
"Knowing Zen, I am sure this will be the case."
Harp observed the first landings getting ready off in the distance and the Legionnaires getting ready to disembark. "Harp to Legion! Full biohazard security protocol. Full hide and no seek mode. Magic shield active at all times. Port only, six inches above apparent surface. Levitate at all times. We must not even leave a footprint. Report to Paschal for installation of camp upon landing. Ship crew! Once empty, port to the Sun and do a deep dive, all ports open. Then return directly to Thebes from within the Sun. The space itself is contaminated, so we need to ensure biohazard safety at all costs."
The ship finished its unloading cycle and ported directly to the Sun, taking with it a thin slice of atmosphere, contaminants and some dust that had settled on its surface while the unloading progressed. The flash of light that marked its porting told Harp his instructions had been followed. The Sun had just released enough matter in the Planet's atmosphere to melt the dust to glass, locking the contaminants in, as he had expected. If he guided the landings properly, he could melt the surface over a wide area. Not every square feet, by a far shot, but still. He watched the Legionnaires make their way to Paschal, who had them build virtual mountains that hid their installations and allowed the new ones to merge seamlessly with the previous installations. He then guided another landing, repeating his instructions. When he turned back to watch the progress, he could not even see where the mountain range ended and their additions started. Paschal really did his hide and no seek perfectly. Another flash, another melt. Good. Third landing to bring down...
Several hours and several thousand landings later, Harp brought a halt to the process, to take a break, feed, and hop to the Sedecimus nest.
"Hey Harp, what is the hold-off?" asked Paschal as he noticed the cut in the flow of Legionnaires.
"I need a break, food, and to visit the Sedecimus."
"I think I will join you. Come to think of it, I feel hungry too. How many Legions have we received?"
"We have been at it 4 hours, at one Legion per second, for a rate of 3,600 Legions an hour, and a grand total of 14,400 Legions, or a Horde and then some. I think the Artificial Intelligences again stretched Sitar's request by a far shot. I am barely seeing a dent in the traffic up there."
"Where is my Swarm?" hollered Sitar from the door.
"A Swarm? You ordered for a Swarm?" wailed Paschal.
"He is nuts! We are in for 40 hours or something like that of continuous unloading!" whimpered Harp.
"Do not exaggerate Harp! Thirty hours tops!" said Sitar. "I did the 'move to operational theatre' calculations years ago. And that is with a single one of us handling the landing. You are right in the time line I set up."
"Did you take into account the need to feed and rest, you Slaver?"
"Only you would forget essentials! We are not machines!"
"I forgot, okay? Get over it!"
"When you learn a Magic word, you bully: Sorry!"
The heated exchange between the two Brothers left those that witnessed it in shock. It had been the first time, in their memory, that the two had exchanged even a bad word.
"Guys?" whispered an alarmed Paschal, being ignored by both. "Guys? Guys! Guys! GUYS!" finally hollered the Prince, getting their attention from their glare war.
"Yes?" asked Sitar, voice cold as ice.
"You are making a show of yourselves. We need unity, not division, in these circumstances. Look at everyone: they are running scared! Get over your little issues and get back to what really matters. Pride has no place in this situation. We have an impending war on our hands according to the Artificial Intelligence Collective. Prepare for it instead of bickering!"
The two Brothers exchanged glances, and took a breath, knowing Paschal was right.
"You have a point. Harp, I am sorry. Sometimes, I do forget that we are Humans still, and do need rest and sustenance."
"Apology accepted. I am off to talk to the Sedecimus."
"And I am going with you, Harp! It will make a change from building shelters. One question, Sitar, that has bugged me since we began."
"Do we concentrate everyone here or distribute the forces around? I would recommend distribution, to prevent pinning by the invasion forces."
"I agree. The next landings should occur in our other camp," said Harp.
"I was planning on it, but other issues popped up. Do it. I think this area has reached saturation, Paschal?"
"Yes. I will move to the secondary base and populate it with the next downloads."
"Let's go, Paschal. You have the visual?"
The two Princes popped away. Sitar looked around and had to admit he had gone too far from the scared face of the Legionnaires. Humility is the best policy came to his mind, bearing his Dad's voice.
"Sorry guys and gals. I got carried away. The situation can turn bad in an instant and I am worried about our level of readiness. Everything in space is vulnerable even with Zen's efforts at a system-wide lock-down. Those that have just landed and are rested, report to project leaders for instructions. The others, head to bed. I will do that too. I need it, feel it, and act it. See you later."
Harp and Paschal made their way to the Sedecimus nest.
«I have news for you, both good and bad. The good news is we have received a Swarm, and probably more, from Home-world. That will accelerate the preparation process for Planet-wide evacuation, allow a more sustainable defence, and possibly an offensive posture should the need arise. The first nests cut-offs are being undertaken. The last nest will be the dead Male, but but we will do our best not to leave him behind. Our policy has always been to never leave anyone behind.»
«That is good news. What is the bad news?»
«In the excitement of finding you, we forgot to mention that the Slavers have distributed on the surface of the Planet a very virulent poison, a crystal, that is very hard to dispose of, not that we can not. It is what we call a Prion. It was so effective it killed the crew preparing the launch of the salvation rockets. Luckily, it did not penetrate within the stasis pods. We think they used meteorites to shield the Prions from re-entry, not that it was necessary, since the atmosphere got blown away by radiation in the first place.»
«I see. And?»
«Well, it is lucky that the water protected you from its effects. And the presence of a 600 foot ice sheet between the sea and what is left of the atmosphere. And the Orichalque that separates us, since we expect the Prions have reached this deep via the passage to the surface.»
«How will you get us out safely then?»
«By porting you into stasis pods first, then porting the pods on board the next wave of ships due to arrive in a week, five planetary rotations if you use this Planet as clock base. We are currently porting everything alive at the ocean bottom into stasis pods. You will be the last, as the others are already in stasis and it can be done more quickly. The next phase is porting the material found in the nest gates, making sure the Prions stay in-situ. That will require transitional transport, something inanimate structures can tolerate a lot better than animated forms, or life, if you need clarification. We are also busy camouflaging the nests' entrances, and also the silos containing the rescue launchers. Furthermore, to insure biohazard security, each launcher is being thoroughly sterilised on the outside and covered by a veneer of Orichalque set in repulsive mode.»
«I understand. That is a lot of work for people we met only a rotation ago or so.»
«Duty first. Paschal, do you have anything to add?»
«The first nest just got ported to stasis. The next one should be done within the hour. The arrival of 14,400 Centuries has accelerated the process by almost a thousand-fold. We are taking a break from unloading off ship.»
«It is our duty, as Harp said. Harp, we need to return. It is our rest cycle in 20 minutes.»
«Okay. I will be back here when it comes time to put you in stasis for transport, somewhere around a Planetary rotation away if not earlier. Relax and do not worry. You are not the first, nor will you be the last.»
The two Princes ported to the secondary camp, to be on-site when things resumed in 8 hours. Meanwhile, the Sedecimus kept asking herself questions. Who were they? Why did they do all that work? What would be the price for the effort? Would they be Slavers in disguise?
On Thebes, the Imperial family watched the last load of Ianium get stored. Two hours still to finish spinning the Orichalque to the outer shell of Thebes, another 500 feet of the magical material added to the outer crust.
"So far so good, but let us not sell the fur before it is shaved!" said Annabelle, as she watched the crew move the Ianium in place, binding it to the energy network. "I wonder how Colibri is taking his undercover assignment? You shocked him, Husband. I was sure he would cry!"
"He is made of hardened steel, that little one. He probably found out the hidden assignment already."
"I hope you are right."
"Am I ever wrong?"
"And you like it!"
"Dad! Mom! There are children around!"
Ignoring the question, Alexander tapped on a command pad. "I just reassigned the Ianium crew to Orichalque gathering. Every minute counts."
"Okay," replied Annabelle, as the Orichalque collecting rate rose a tiny notch.
"Emergence on port bow of a ferry. It is glowing white. Incoming from the Captain."
"Put the report on the front screen, communications."
"Report!" ordered Harold as soon as the communications protocols negotiated the exchange.
"The area is contaminated, Sire. Harp has established that the safest way to rid the contaminant off the ships is to have them port within the Primary nucleus before jumping directly to here. That is why we glow. We are at 100,000,000 Kelvin, inside and out. It will take us six hours to cool down to port inside Thebes safely."
"I see. There always seems to be surprises."
"The pleasure of war, Husband."
"So you say. So, what do we do if Sitar activates the Omega Recall?"
"Hopefully, the ferries will have been recovered by then. Otherwise, let us plan a meeting place for ulterior recovery. Or we could come back here later to pick them up."
"Annabelle, I prefer the later. We do not know what has triggered the Omega Protocol preparedness, and it is more likely it is bound to a star. No use getting out of the pot to jump in the fire. Collecting our ferries at a star that so happens to be a base for the Omega Protocol activation is not a good idea."
"I see your point."
Four hours later...
"Hey, the ferries have stopped showing up!" exclaimed the Stone-Racker, the radar operator and a member of the Stone Species, a sort of mobile stone with intelligence.
"Should there be more?"
"Contact the last one to materialise!"
A few minutes later, an Ogre showed up on the screen.
"Is there anything special that occurred before you left?"
"Then why are you the last one to show on our radar?"
"I have no idea, your Highness. Do you want me to go back?"
"No. Terminate your thermal equilibrium phase and board Thebes."
"What do you make of this, Annabelle?"
"I have no idea. Let us wait before making a decision. There might be a reason."
"Unexpected events make me nervous."
"And you think I'm not raking my nerves, Husband? I could chew rocks."
"Luckily Stone-Racker is off-line. He might consider you a cannibal."
At the Magic School, Radius-Breaker had been true to his word and had managed to get Colibri and Daniel sorted into the lower rungs of the school classes. It was now time for bed, even if neither Princes were ready for sleep.
"You take the upper bunk, Daniel. The lower bunk is more vulnerable to assault."
"Lights out in five minutes, recruits. I better not hear a noise after the burnout!"
«Do you hear me, Daniel? Reply with your mind only.»
«Did you see anyone that was worth worry?»
«There is that big guy; he is totally hairless, but seems to show his bits to everyone as a weapon of mass destruction.»
«The Wont? They are known to be rough, not too bright, and prompt at assaulting anyone that opposes them. That one is probably less than 4 seasons old.»
«Four seasons? Four years?"
«No, less than a year, Remember, we run on Earth seasons. He was born last spring.»
«Wow! How big do they grow if he is not yet a year old?»
«Somewhere around five times the size of Bjorn, and that is one big piece of meat!»
«A Troll. Luckily, Trolls are gentle giants. These Wont are the counterpoint to the notion that giant equals gentle.»
«He is coming this way... I wonder where the Guard is. With the floor vibrating like a drum and the beds playing castanets he would be deaf not to hear the racket.»
«The other kids dive for cover. He made a lasting impression on them. The one on the top bunk across the row in front of us just peed his bed in fear.»
«That does not bode well.»
«It does not, for him! Here he comes.»
"You too big! Leave me alone!" whimpered the male from across the separation.
"Not interested in used pleasure tools. Got new ones! So piss all you want, you safe for tonight. But remember, no word to Guard or might find renewed interest in holes."
«If we needed a drawing, we got it.» said Colibri. «Be ready. Unfortunately, I misjudged and you are more accessible than I. The moment he touches you...»
The Wont leaned over Daniel, and began grabbing him.
"Leave me alone, you pervert! If I was interested, I would choose my own Gorilla and you would not be on the list! You smell so bad you probably have not seen water since you left the nest!"
"You do what I say."
"No! You are not the only one with teeth and I will use them."
"Try, after I take them out!"
At that moment, Colibri brought his legs back and suddenly kicked out, hitting the Wont in the midsection with all his force, producing a raw cry of fury and pain.
"He told you to leave him alone. You better."
"I will get you instead!" replied the Wont, not even really bothered by the kick. "Then I de-teeth that small mouth, one at a time, but non-stop." The Wont pulled Colibri out from his bed in a quick motion and began spreading his legs to tear him open. Colibri reacted by hitting the eye sockets with his thumbs, hard. The Wont dropped him on the floor in surprise, and backed away a mere second, but long enough for Colibri to spring on his feet.
"Bully zero, me, two. Do we continue?"
"Roar!" replied the Wont, charging.
Colibri stepped out of the way and, using the raw momentum of the Wont, sent him on a head-first collision with the rear wall. It resonated with a bang as the skull collided harshly with the wall.
"Three to zero. If this was a boxing match, you would have lost!"
Dizzy from the impact, but way beyond thinking, the Wont charged again, mouth wide to take a bite, claws out, and intent on the kill. Colibri slipped under the flailing arms, fell on his back, pulling the Wont down with him, yet lifting his body up with his legs, thus sending him flying along the hall to smash into the door of the dorm at the other end.
"Four to zero," commented Colibri, not even breathing hard. "This is fun. Want to continue the flying lessons?"
The dizzy Wont stayed down for a few seconds before standing up again.
«I wonder where the Guard is?»
«I do not know nor do I care. Danny, stay out of my mind. I need my full attention. This is a fight to the death.»
By then, the Wont had taken out the front leg of a bed, the metal crying as it got torn.
"Oh, oh. Weapons now. Too cowardly to admit defeat so planning on extending your reach with the bed leg! Oh... The poor quintuped10 ("Quintuped: five-legged.") seems to forget this bed is Imperial property. Should I fight someone that needs a crutch to walk around?"
The Wont was deeply insulted. Being in need of a crutch meant death in their society. The Worm was telling him flat out he was as good as dead! He came forward, hitting every bed along the way as the others cringed and moved closer to the walls and the bed heads.
"At that rate, you will have broken your leg before using it."
The Wont raised the bed leg up, intent on bringing it down on Colibri's head and breaking it open. Colibri, slipped between the widely spread legs of the Wont and pushed him forward by a powerful kick in the rump. The Wont, taken by surprise, looked at the evasive prey and forgot to compensate for his forward motion. The bed leg hit the wall hard, embedded itself in the cement, and slipped off the brute's hand, sticking out like a huge horn from the wall. Unable to stop his forward momentum, the Wont fell on his own weapon, embedding it right through his thoracic cage and staying stuck on the wall like a Butterfly by a pin. He roared in pain, and pushed himself violently off the wall with all his might, tearing more of his innards as the sharp, twisted, edges of the leg gripped him and refused to let go of their catch.
Colibri rolled away from the Wont, well aware that if it managed to liberate itself, it could well fall on him, pinning him to the ground.
The Wont kept fighting to escape the grip of his weapon, but it was apparent he was quickly losing strength. After a final, mighty heave, it managed to free itself, only to fall on the floor, spasms violently throwing his body in random, unexpected directions and postures. Blue blood sprayed everywhere, showering everyone in the dorm in a thick cover of light blue that, due to rapid oxidation, was turning a deep dark blue.
Once the last spasm died down, Colibri relaxed but still stayed away.
"These things can have reflex grip. So stay away from it until the muscle tone drops completely. So where was the count?"
"Four to zero," whispered Daniel, as his voice resonated in the dorm's utter silence.
"Then let's call it an even Five to nothing. I do not feel like sleeping in Wont blood. How about going to sleep somewhere else, Daniel? I am sure there are other free beds. And we need a shower."
"What about the Guard?" asked a small voice from the lower bed next to Daniel's.
"He will have to deal with me... and pick up the garbage himself. You do not touch the Wont. He is still dangerous."
Colibri made his way to the door, as Daniel crawled from bed to bed to stay away from the passage, finally emerging beside the Prince.
«That door is locked from the other side. That coward probably left his guard station and went off to enjoy a night. He will learn the cost of dereliction of duty!» said Colibri as he used Magic to break the lock. "Hey, it's unlocked!" he commented to the other dorm mates.
"The Wont probably broke the lock when you sent him there for a rough landing after a too short flying sprint..." commented one of the older residents of the Dorm. "Usually that is locked so we can not run away!"
"Do not do me the disrespect of running away tonight, okay guys?"
"We won't. Who would dare do that after what we just witnessed!"
The two Princes made their way out, and Colibri brought them to the communal showers they had passed on their way to the Dorm.
"Wash-up time. Usually, the water is icy to wake the recruits up, but I do not feel like it so heat charms away."
The two Boys enjoyed a steamy shower, and moved to an empty dorm, where Colibri created bed sheets for them.
"Good night, Daniel! And stop looking at me with adoration. With proper training, you will be able to do the same."
The two hit the sacks. Daniel twisted in his until Colibri put him to sleep by a mental suggestion. The night passed quietly, and, around five in the morning, Colibri woke up, sensing someone walking in the hall: The Guard. Time to face the bastard. He got up, and quietly opened the door as the Guard passed beyond.
The Guard, still drowsy from his nightly libations, completely missed the blue blood puddles that sprinkled the path from the dorm door to the shower. He sat down on his chair, which creaked noisily under his weight, and closed his eyes.
Colibri ported silently in the hall, made his way to the Guard, and levitated him off the chair, making sure to be gentle enough the guy did not open his reddish eyes. Once in front of the dorm door, he opened it, silencing the door hinges as he did so. Finally, he focused on the immobile Wont and sent the Guard flying through the air to land head-first in the hard, very hard, belly of the big bully, which had by now progressed seriously in the path to full cadaveric rigidity. The Guard, suddenly feeling the acceleration, opened his eyes only to find his mouth full of solidified blue blood. He could not even yell his surprise. The noise of the Guard's fall woke up the Princes' dorm mates, who drowsily eyed the meat pile, not having seen the previous events.
Colibri stood, immobile, arms crossed contemptuously, in the door frame, the hallway lights enveloping him like the fire of St-Michael Archangel, and giving him all the authority of any God envoy. His right foot made a tap-tap noise on the dorm floor that set the measure of time. Fury was flashing from his eyes, and any weatherman worth its salt would have given a 'severe thunderstorm forecast, run for the hills' alert just by looking at them.
The Guard tried to stand by gripping the leg sticking out of the wall, cutting his hand severely for his dumb mistake. Bleeding profusely, he used the posts of the bunk bed that had been 'assigned' to Colibri and Daniel, but his bloodied hand made the grip slippery at best. Their absence from the bunks went unnoticed by the Guard, as their sheets were bundled near the head in a ball form that could evoke a prone body at a casual glance. Finally managing to stand, if only for a second, the Guard took a step toward the front only to slip as he stepped on the Wont midsection, falling head first in a huge and thick blue blood puddle. Followed a series of mistakes that would have made a stand-up comic pee his pants in laughter. Every step was wrought with unexpected obstacles, from blood to innards, to the military boots becoming so slippery it would have been more efficient to skate than walk. Repeat collisions with bunk beds, ladders, sharp corners, and bedsprings took their toll mercilessly off the idiot.
Finally reaching Colibri, he did not recognise him as he had not assigned the bunk for the Princes.
"Who are you?" he asked.
"Your worst nightmare!" replied Colibri in a voice so hot the Guard felt like he had opened the furnace doors of Hell.
"What happened here?"
"You should know. You were on guard."
"I see: abandonment of station, dereliction of duty, and other, unmentionable misdemeanours... You will take the body out, clean the dorm, you, not the dorm residents, wash their bed sheets, the floor, repair the wall, the door lock, and see to it that by tomorrow night this dorm is usable."
"Who are you to tell me what to do?"
"The one that can give you flying lessons... without landing gears."
"And what will I do with that...?" asked the guard, pointing at the Wont.
"Return it to his family. Yourself. Should you try to discharge this responsibility on some poor sod, you will find that what you just lived was a garden party. Get to work."
The Guard went off to get some rolling stock, a chain bolt lift, and a palanquin to move the body out of the way. His efforts were pitiful, but Colibri did not lift a finger to help him. An hour later, the Guard finally managed to place the body on the rolling stock and tie it in place with ropes. He moved it out of the dorm and parked it in the hallway. The alarm rang, telling the school residents to get up. The Prince' dorm mates crawled from bed to bed in an effort to stay away from most of the mess. Daniel guided them to the showers he and Colibri had used the night before, but he could not heat the water for the sleepy residents. He, himself, used to cold water, did not cringe at the burning feeling cold water produced on his body, and so he took a wake-up shower to remove the blood from under his feet.
Meanwhile, Colibri watched the Guard strip the beds and bring the bed sheets to the washing machines. Then, while the washers made their work, he took a pail and washed the bedsprings, the bed legs and the floors using a mop. This turned out to be a lost cause so he resorted to using a high-pressure hose to do the work.
Extracting the bed leg out of the wall caused him troubles he had not anticipated. While keeping a serious face, Colibri was laughing so hard inside he was afraid it would break surface. The Guard used a transmission puller to take the leg out, for lack of a better tool, dropping it several times as it slipped trying to do a job it was ill designed for. The leg finally came out with a resounding pop, almost gutting the Guard as it fell to the floor with the momentum of the puller. The tools and the leg, or what was left of it, were placed on the Wont body.
The Guard then filled in the hole in the wall with fibroplast, a combination of cement, plastic, and a mesh of carbon fibres, which, once solidified, was harder than steel. He then lay a thin layer of plaster, waited for it to dry, and painted it over.
The next step was taking apart the bunk whose leg had been so severely mauled over by the Wont. That too required a lot of work. The leg had been bolted to the frames, themselves made of steel rods that were screwed into the concrete, and the bed backbone was a steel plate soldered to the rods, with springs and a ¾ inch wooden plate laying on springs. There was no mattress, but a contour sheet wrapped around the plywood, and a pillow and cover sheet completed each bed's arrangement.
The guard noted that the bolts that held the legs to the bed box had been twisted beyond recovery, so he used an acetylene torch to cut them off. He unscrewed the bolts of the other three legs, taking them out and leaving the bed box and springs combo suspended in mid-air, Then he tried to pull the left-over bolts out of the lower and upper bed boxes, only to realise that his removal of the legs had made them susceptible to twisting when force was applied. Force was to re-bolt the three legs, and, using a hammer and a hydraulic jack, push the left-over bolts out of the box frames. Rust had settled in so he had to repeatedly heat them red hot and cool them violently to break the rust binds. Finally, after swearing so much Colibri had to remind him he was icing the slide to Hell, he managed to take the last bolt out. He took the leg, the bolts, the puller, the torch and the other tools back to the tool shop, picked up a new leg from the stock, and began to install it... only to notice that the leg holes did not match! Furious, he went back to the stockroom and began to look for another type of bed leg. He quickly realised that each Stock Master had taken to himself to design new beds, and stocked for his design, neglecting to do so for others. Colibri almost peed his pants from laughter. Another application of the Mandarin principle! It took the Guard 2 hours to find one leg matching the bed he was trying to repair, deep in a dusty bin marked for recycling.
The bed finally repaired and fixed, the Guard made his way to the washroom and recovered the now dry bed sheets. He quickly remade the beds, testing to see if the 'quarter' test worked, only to notice that the bedsprings were so bad the quarter just fell in a hole rather than bounce back. Grr! He decided to get rid of the body, which was now smelling badly of broken wing duck left to ripen. Colibri made sure he did not leave it to be collected, but did enter the Wont reserved area... and left him to his fate.
Colibri then walked into the class being followed by Daniel, and sat at the rear beside the Prince.
«What has happened so far?»
«Nothing. No one said a word about the Wont. It is a conspiracy of silence. I did notice everyone moved around me at arms' length, but the Teachers are either blind or do not care one way or another.»
«The later, most probably. Lunch should be soon?»
«Another hour of classes then lunch.»
«Okay. What happened to the Guard?»
«Nothing good, but let us wait for lunch. I do not want to attract attention by making you laugh in class.»
On Solarius, the process of unloading Legions resumed and things worked like clockwork, except not to Sitar's satisfaction. For him he was 8 hours behind schedule, and the feeling of incoming disaster was amplified by that impression. Nine hours passed before Harp called for another break, having, with Paschal, set up a third base camp. He decided to put a 4 hour break, and add another 4 hours of work, for a total of 16 hours before calling for another 8-hour sleep cycle, much to Sitar's dismay.
"If the Legions and especially me, get too tired, life-threatening mistakes could occur. A dead Legionnaire due to fatigue is one too many!" thundered Harp, pissed at his big Brother's constant bickering and pressuring.
"Sitar, cool down. Harp is right," said Thorsten. "We are done with the nests, with the launch silos, and recovering everything alive on the planet. Even the Sedecimus is now in stasis. We are now in the process of separating the mile or so of crust we plan to blow up on escape, and even that is going quickly. The next cycle will bring the vast majority of the Horde down, and we will be only picking up the last ones at the beginning of the third cycle."
"I can't help it! I feel we are in imminent danger!"
"We are, but pushing people too fast adds to it." Paschal said, as he emerged from fixing the last shielded element of the base they were working on.
"Why not all bring them down at a go? We could all guide them."
"Coming from the maniac of mobility, that is precious. They are more mobile up there than down here, Sitar, and you know it. If something pops up, I am sure Zen will blast them a passage out of the system, and then fold back on us to act as near-ground support. I asked about his intentions should something unwanted show up."
"Sitar, you need to listen to your best Officers once in a while. They too have good ideas, and think on their own. How do you think I manage to get these camps so well camouflaged if not with suggestions from Legionnaires, including quite a few from mere foot soldiers. Thorsten, part of the next batch is air cover, in the form of Dragons. Try to find a place for me that would allow them to sweep down without a running take-off. We can not afford an explicit runway."
"I think I saw a calcite cliff face. Would that do?"
"Perfect! Do you mind showing me where the cliff is so I can plan accordingly?"
The two popped to a striated marble face that allowed Paschal to design doors that would match to the line the layers of calcite deposit. He quickly took photos, drew doors that would look like natural extensions of the calcite deposit and had fifty crews begin the cuts. His instructions were clear: follow the deposit lines, so the doors do not show. He left the task to the care of Thorsten, and returned to the last camp.
"What are our numbers?" asked Sitar as he sat down, looking grim, at dinner that night.
"Let me see: 57,600 Legions or about or slightly over half of the expected complement. The last courier from Thebes says they are moving toward us now. He is now aboard Zen's Admiral ship. Zen told me the system is in full three-dimensional lock-down."
"So, how long?"
"Not that question again, Sitar. As long as it takes, got it?" said a fuming Harp.
"I can't help it. I've not been able to sleep for the last few days..."
«That can be heard!» said Greywolf, from his food bowl.
"You know, it is I that should be grumpy, Sitar."
"The separation process is taking a lot of time and careful planning, and I still lack half of my workforce, your Legions. There is only so much I can ask of them, and I have decided that safety was primordial, so they sleep their full 8 hours, work 12, and have a relaxing 4 hours. That way, no one becomes inattentive and hurt or hurts someone else."
"How far have you progressed?"
"I decided to tackle ocean bottoms first. The layer to cut is thinner as there are no silos to take into account. At present, 20% of the oceanic floor is dealt with. We do have to close vents and volcanic chimneys more often, but that was expected."
"What about the silos?"
"The Proglocks had planned for their destruction once used, so we simply added a bit more power, tied their explosive sequence to our project, and that is it. They are a god-sent."
The night shift continued the work undertaken by the day shift as midnight racked he primary base camp. Around 4 AM local time, Harp was woken by an annoying beep. Still drowsy from sleep, he brought to his ear the earplug and activated the microphone.
«Prince, we are receiving preliminary reports of a massive fleet headed for the star system. It is thirty-six hours away.»
«Ready for battle. Why call me, not the God of War?»
«Sitar is not answering.»
«I think I know why. Battle fatigue. I'll handle the situation.»
«As you command.»
"Thank you for the heads-up, Zen. Good hunt."
«Thank you, your Highness. Zen out. Battle stations!» was the last command Harp heard.
Harp jumped out of bed, ran to Paschal and shook him up violently.
"Battle stations! I plan to speed up the landing, you need to speed up the bases' installations."
"Okay. Can I request Thorsten? He has a sense with construction, I could focus on camouflage."
Harp then moved to Greywolf and shook the Wolf awake.
«Battle stations, Greywolf. I need you to help me speed the landings. We may not have the 16 hours or so required to finish the process if we maintain our current rate.»
«Where is Sitar?»
«Asleep due to burn-out. I am taking command.»
The landing process resumed, as Thorsten and Paschal moved to the cliff face Thorsten had spotted earlier. They noticed the doors were mostly made, but the inner parts of the base, hidden within the cliff itself, were still in need to be carved out. Well aware that the cliff dwellings were not ready, Harp and Greywolf gave priority to other life-forms and Legionnaires dug themselves in the mountain sides, trying their best to mimic, with varying success, the camouflage techniques implemented by Paschal. Two hours later Paschal called Harp to tell him the cliffs were ready for occupation, and the Prince brought down the Dragons, whom ported rather than flew to the nesting area. Once everything was closed, the cliff looked pristine. Thorsten moved to the seventh base camp to complete their installations while Paschal visited the completed camps to fix their camouflage issues, which, albeit numerous, were easily fixed. Finally, with several hours to spare, the last camp 'disappeared' from view. The Legionnaires took a well-deserved four-hour rest and then continued their skinning of the Planet, as they had dubbed the process.
Hours passed, and nothing new was heard from Zen. No news is good news they say... except in war.
Sitar finally awoke, to be met by a worried Harp.
"Brother, do not ever scare me like that again!" said Harp as he hugged his big Brother.
"What is the problem? I just took a nap..."
"That has lasted 24 hours."
"Twenty-four hours??? Why did no one wake me up?"
"We tried, but you were as dead as a fossilised log."
"What has happened?"
"Zen is involved in a space battle in the Oort cloud against our enemies. He says their ships do not match the Imperial models we found so far, so he thinks they are another matter entirely."
"Did he try the first contact protocols?"
"Yes, and had to recover his Scout before it lost its shields. He then answered in kind, and blew up what he thinks is one which would be a battleship class given comparative sizes within the enemy fleet."
"So good for ease of first contact."
"Can we see anything?"
"Not really. It is too dusty for the FSS telescopic vision to allow us any clear view, and I do not think it is good to teleport in space just to satisfy curiosity."
"Agreed. What else?"
"The rest of the ferries emptied their cargo and returned to Home World. From space and from the surface, we are invisible."
"Finally some good news."
"We are at 55% of peel-off readiness. The Swarm, minus the Dragons, are all involved in the separation process. The planet looks like an orange that has been re-bundled in its peel. And before you even ask, give us 72 hours to complete the task, or 3 days."
"Have you activated the Omega recall?"
"Not yet, as Zen is keeping them off our backs. However, should he be overrun..."
"Fine by me. Do you think he will be overrun?"
"Yes. But he only needs to hold them three days, and then he can abandon the battlefield. If it gives the enemy a sense of victory and and cockiness, all the better. They can come as close as they want as long as they do not land. The moment they land... Well, it is your job Sitar."
"Go eat and rest. You, more than anyone, knows that sleep during battle is hard to get. I am going to nap. Paschal and Thorsten are handling the peeling, so I am free for now, and a nap seems a decent proposal."
"Do you know if they will act cautiously?"
"Zen is making sure they learn the true meaning of the word. Nap time. Bye." Harp collapsed in a heap on the rug and shortly, snores could be heard.
Zen was busy, very busy. He decided to use the Oort snow balls the size of miniature Planets as if he was doing a snow fight run by giants. He had teams slam nose first in the ice, and use their engines to then push the Planetoids in the path of the incoming invaders. At first, the invaders simply changed their entry vectors, but Zen adjusted his intercept ones in accordance to the enemy's changes. Collisions were finally unavoidable and the combined energy imparted by Zen's ships added to the mass of the snowballs and multiplied by the interstellar speed of the incoming ships produced the inevitable: The enemy ships exploded, tearing giant holes in the snow balls, while Zen's ships were protected by the mass of ice and rock. Zen watched the by-play from the 'side' so to speak, noticing the enemy was still managing to progress through the Oort cloud, at great cost, but still progressing. The number of big balls worth using diminished slowly and finally reached critical density. Time to change strategy.
«All ships involved in the snow ball fight, port behind us. Miners, lay a stream of antimatter mines off their current entry vector paths.»
Once the mines were laid, Zen ordered «Lay a triangle of antimatter mines in the path of their biggest ships.»
The mines, tiny compared to anything around them, were ignored by the enemy ships... until they blew up holes in their hulls bigger than a cathedral. Quite a few ships spun out of control, hitting others nearby, while their innards entered a sequence of cascading explosions that illuminated the dark background with eerie colours which spelled death better than anything else. The ships that were behind the eviscerated behemoths turned to evade debris, falling pray to the other antimatter mines dispersed by the Atlanteans. Again, cascades of explosions distributed in space debris that stood in the way of incoming enemy ships, whom had no choice but to blast their way through the wreckage, adding to the mayhem.
«Fallback to 12th Planet.»
As expected, the enemy followed, intent on using the Planet's gravity well to break its speed, which had been a serious nuisance in the close quarters of the Oort cloud. While hidden by the Planet's mass, Zen had his ships place a thin layer of ice crystals in the path of the incoming ships, and a co-orbital cone of antimatter mines to catch them as they tried to escape that death trap. The enemy skidded into the gravity well, and noticed their foe moving away toward the next Planet, in a breaking pattern similar to their own. Confident that the path was clear, the ships followed suit only to have those in the lead, which needed the gravity well the most for its breaking capabilities, get sliced into ribbons by an invisible enemy. The disabled ships fell into the atmosphere of the gaseous giant to burn up. Hidden from view by the mass of the Planet, they could not even, by their burning, warn those following them of their impending fate. The smaller ships, more agile and more dispersed, managed to escape, for the most part, the cutting edge of the ice cloud, only to hit the mine cone and see those in the lead explode and create further hazards for those behind them. Several did indeed end up hitting debris and exploding, further compounding the issue.
«Nice! So nice a show!» was heard from Zen's control station aboard his Admiral Ship. «They are committed to head for the 11th Planet. Lay down the traps.»
This time, the traps were laid in order to force the ships to move closer to the atmosphere of this other gaseous giant, and in the path of it rings. The result was as expected. The enemy turned closer to the Planet, intent on using the gravity well with more intensity. Only, as they got closer, they were forced by antimatter mines judiciously dispersed to move much closer than they would have otherwise, and cross the rings' path twice, losing more ships to the rocks and ice that composed it. Quite a few, trying to evade their fatal fate, dived too low and caught the upper reaches of the Planet's atmosphere where the breaking power was such they burned and crashed.
«We are done. Get me Sitar!»
«Harp here. Report.»
«They have broken through. The other Planets are not located in useful locations for them. They will probably use the Sun as a last breaking tool, and come to you from it.»
«Thank you. Stay put, but out of sight.»
"Sitar, Zen reports breakthrough."
"We activate the recall..."
"Let us wait for them to be behind the Sun. They will be blinded. We should use the moment to launch as well, and ready the peeler. They will probably miss the launch because it is a magnetic acceleration rather than a chemical one, therefore invisible. And we wait for them to cruise at less than a mile to blow up the crust, taking more of them out. Thebes should materialise in low orbit, adding further mayhem to the one produced by the crust taking a leave of absence."
"And our FSS can outmanoeuvre them easily in the crap, using the debris to hide, port, and even use their own ships as big debris and incite enemy fire on themselves... I like your ideas, Harp."
«And port inside to disable engines, short weapons, and otherwise make them miserable and sabotage their war effort.»
"That too, Greywolf."
"Have Thebes materialise in the Oort cloud. If it comes too close, we destroy what we want to salvage," said Enron, remembering the real size of the Atlantean ship. "Believe me, that thing will not go unnoticed. We port the rescues the moment they leave the atmosphere to the Oort cloud and recover them. Do not forget the Swarm is essentially a diversion to cover the rescue."
"True Enron, we were forgetting the primary objective in the joy of battle," said Sitar.
«Zen, retreat to the Oort cloud with all fanfare. I want them to see you 'leave' but be ready for recovery by Thebes in... 28 hours or so. Thebes will materialise opposite to their perihelion.»
"Countdown to perihelion, five minutes. Send the recall." said Sitar. "Verify that the materialisation beacon is where we want it."
"Signal established. Materialisation point transferred. Materialisation in 4 minutes," Harp told the others.
On Thebes, the reception of the recall had triggered the porting of the last ships to their internal bays, and alarms rang around the ship notifying everyone of impending long-distance port. Life-forms, deeply conditioned to seek shelter during these transits, returned to their nests. The on-board clock synchronised with the one held in custody by Sitar within the target system.
"Three minutes to port..." said AI-1. "All accounted for and secured. Transport lock-down active. Doors closed, sealed, and locked. All mobile objects secured. Two minutes to port. Shields at 100%. One minute to port."
On Solarius, a similar countdown was occurring, under Paschal's control: "Magnetic fields at optimum. Silo doors opened. Legions in shelter, no one outside. Thirty seconds to perihelion... 15, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, locks released on rails, 3, 2, 1, activated. We have potential transfer and acceleration. 9 G. 12 G. 20 G. 30 G. 50 G. Liberation speed reached. Fins out of silos, they are flying!"
"Thebes materialising in the Oort cloud, a stream of debris is being injected into the system from the cloud due to the mass of Thebes. ETA: 2 days."
"We will be gone by then. Ready the destruction sequence."
"Active and waiting, Sitar."
"Thebes reports they are recovering Zen's fleet. That should be done in five minutes. Then they begin long-distance recovery of the rockets."
"When are they going to emerge from the other side of the Sun?"
"In fifteen minutes. By then we should have recovered all those visible from their emergence point, and be done with the recovery when they move behind the Planet for atmospheric entry," said Enron, as he watched the numbers fly on his monitor.
Things went as planned, and the enemy, an unknown species, inserted itself in low orbit to begin its entry into the Planet's atmosphere, They did a couple of circumpolar and equatorial orbits but did not see anything abnormal, so they entered the residual atmosphere, burning speed and creating streaks of light that would have been beautiful were they not the sign of an invasion.
"Activate Planetary defences."
The lasers, which had laid dormant, burst into action, cutting neat lines of fire into the incoming ships, which were taken by surprise. However, the lasers were still insufficient to really make a dent in the profusion of small ships that could manoeuvre around their concentrations protecting the now abandoned and empty launch pads.
"They are landing," said Thorsten.
"Let them..." replied Sitar.
"Ships are in magnetic suspension, immobile," reported Greywolf.
"Sitting ducks. Trigger the peeling! Everyone, ready to port outside the moment it is complete. You know what to do!" Sitar ordered.
"Here she blows!" exclaimed Enron, remembering the stories about whalers told by his Dad.