The 12 rebels made quick progress towards their destination. Their leader, as always, was nervous coming home. He always felt that going below, in Hell, as they called the lower reaches of Thebes, was a dangerous endeavour.
"Yuma, how is the removal of our prints progressing?"
"I am running out of dust. We might consider fanning the dust already around to hide our tracks."
"Start now. Keep the left-over dust reserves for when we get near the door."
"Okay. The hard part is the rolling stock. It leaves clear traces because it compresses the dust much harder than we do when we walk."
"I am not interested in excuses. Just get the job done."
"I'm doing my best."
"I'm not interested in your best, I'm interested in perfect!"
"Miracles are not of this world."
"if that Demon Harp can make miracles, so can we! And we better! I have 3 Boys to protect, and I will not put up with half-measures or sorry excuses."
"Grow a pair! Death is part of life."
"Not my Sons', until I die."
Just as the leader said that, Sitar appeared, bringing down Excalibur and slicing the Ozark in two. The Ozark is a species of Multiped whose body was made of multiple segments supported by two feet, a head that stood up slightly above the main spinal axis, and a tail that could swing left and right like a whip. The cut sprayed green blood all over the place. Before anyone could react, he brought Excalibur to bear on his next objective, and bisected the target in four segments. Spinning on his left foot, he brought the blade up, gently (!) gutting the third, before bringing it down to enter the upper spine of the next Multiped13 ("Multiped: multiple feet (more than five).").
Paschal was not inactive. He quickly beheaded the Ozark on the left, jumped over his twitching body, and ran his sword along the spine of the next target, in effect immobilising it. The battle lasted less than one minute overall, and left a hallway slippery with body parts, several gallons of blood, and a silence of death.
«Harp, send a cleanup crew of Spiders.» ordered Paschal as he looked at the mess.
«Okay. The log reports 12 Ozarks died violently. It must be your handiwork.»
«Yes.» replied Sitar. «Expect a thermal pulse. We need to clean up the exterior of the FSS. We are dripping blood and guts from everywhere.»
«I thought this was your bathing suit?»
Paschal and Sitar used Magic to levitate and then flashed violently, burning all residues off their respective FSS. It also burned a good portion of the Ozark body parts and blood, setting the dust on fire as well. Once the furnace disappeared, Paschal began looking at the contents of the rolling stock.
"Let me see: water, meat, medical supplies, construction material, weapons, Portal repair kits, circuitry to install Portal Bridges, explosives kept in stasis for transport, that is about all. Ah, a couple of two-way radio transmitters. They must have relays. These are rather short-range. I'll port everything in a side-room. Unfortunately, there are no Tessaracts installed yet nearby."
A few minutes later everything had vanished, and Paschal looked at Sitar.
"Now, we complete what we were doing before being so rudely interrupted. Is the fake portal dismantled completely?"
"So, we activate the invasion plan." replied Sitar while sending a message to Harp and Yamato. «Harp, release the Fairies and their Spiders on my mark. Yamato, I need the preliminary depth report.»
«Sending the signals into the crust.» replied Yamato.
It took 20 minutes for the consolidated resonance map to be compiled by the Artificial Intelligence Collective, an eternity both for the Atlanteans and in the perspective of the Artificial Intelligences. Finally, the map was transferred to the FSS memory.
«What took so long?» asked a pissed-off Sitar.
«God of War, the structure of the area shows a three-dimensional model covering several cubic miles. We located 12 Portals in a network, organised in a regular spherical polyhedron around the core. The result is that they can move almost instantly from one area to another to reinforce defences.»
«Disable the Portals first. That will reduce their mobility.»
«God of War, we believe they trapped their Portals. But it can not be weight, since the Ozarks weight a lot more than you and Paschal combined. We believe that their trigger is reversed, namely that the floor must be pressed down enough to remove the explosive trigger.»
«Given we each wear a FSS, do you expect the explosion to be enough to harm us?»
«No, but we never know. It might not damage you, but the concussion within the area of Thebes might do more damage than expected. And we thought you wanted to take the Children safely... if things blow up, the first victims will be Children.»
«Point taken. Paschal, what do you suggest? We can not take hours to disarm a Portal.»
«We port the Portal out. But I need something from my work station, Harp. I had been worried about this issue, and I've designed a mini-portal that goes within a standard one, but, rather than port things inside it to another portal, ports everything around. Given the size of the Ozarks, they must have adapted their Portals to a convenient size, probably mimicking the one found in their Tessaract. So, when you pick them up, under the table in L49, do me a favour and set their Capture Area cursor to 3 before porting them in place. Sitar and I will move from one Portal to the next, inserting the mini-portals behind the wall once you have ported them to our location. To prevent mixing signals, we will move apart to insure clear separation of signals. Got it?"
«Yes. Laboratory 49, under the workbench... Anything that might tell me if I have the right thing?»
«They are spherical, with a surface resembling a soccer balloon, but made out of steel.»
«Okay. Activating L49 to normal time flow. Colibri, you have command. Porting.»
The Fairies and their Spiders emerged from the inter-space in a continuous flow. They walked through the passage and quickly invaded the lower floor of the trouble-makers' 'den'. Their passage was invisible both because of their very diminutive in size (for the Fairies) and the fact that the much larger Spiders wore FSS suited for their morphology and invisible to the naked eye. The fact that Spiders were also cold-blooded made them invisible to thermal detectors.
Their first goal was locating exactly where the purloined Portals were located. The first level showed mostly a rather impressive array of motion detectors that were totally too insensitive to detect either the Fairies or the Spiders, had they even been visible. The Spiders climbed up the walls, left a fine thread of silk for the Fairies to use to hoist themselves up through the vents and quickly proceeded to occupy the entire ventilation network. Their handlers quietly searched for the Portals from the vents and quickly located 11 fully functional Portals and a 12th under reconstruction. They also reported that the Portals were under heavy guard, and constantly in use.
Paschal examined the Portal being rebuilt, trying to figure out if anything was off.
«Harp, we might have to wait before installing the stuff. I noticed they are linking the portal with an extensive network of explosives. Porting them out will probably detonate the whole system.»
«That is right. From what I see, we will have to extend the port range to 10. That will create a big hole in the crust, but everything within a 30 mile radius will be gone. Once the boom is done, we recover the Orichalque and whatever dust we can. The surface will collapse, so Yamato, move sixty miles off the outer edge of the volume we detected.»
«Will the explosion be detected?» asked Yamato.
«When I said explosion, I meant outside of Thebes. The hole will be created by the porting of the mass. That is totally silent, and will go undetected. When the hole's been created, you can put your Spiders to collecting the Orichalque, gold, platinum, steel... everything, including the mashed residue of Ozarks, which we will recycle in the 88th Tropical Tessaract.»
«Colibri, what is the circadian cycle of Ozarks?» asked Sitar.
«Let me see: 39 hours, 46 minutes approximately.»
«Do they sleep much?»
«No. Their sleep period is 5 hours 46 minutes. Why do you ask?»
«I am trying to figure out how much time we will have when they finally head for the sack. Almost six hours... a bit short?»
«Not really,» replied Paschal. «We have 12 to put in place, 11 at the moment, and the 12th at the last moment. It takes around 15 minutes to install one of those little niceties.»
«We found the Children. They are kept together, grouped by age.»
«Thank you Iridia. Any suggestion as to how to handle them?»
«I suggest we inject them with a narcotic. The Spiders can produce just about any chemical. The only question I have is what is an effective narcotic for the Ozarks?"
«The last one that needed to be put under, an adult, was taken out for a joyride using Tetra-fluorocarbon, CF4. It is a liquid that must be dosed by weight since it is also a poison for the Ozarks. I am sending the dosage to the FSS data banks. The best injection point is in the rear, right under the tail section, where there is a sub-surface vein going back the whole length of their body. Not very convenient, but I am sure the smaller of your Spiders can insert themselves under the child's body and inject the product.»
«Thank you Colibri. Do we have enough in store?»
«About 1,000 kilograms. It could put to sleep just about the entire Ozark population and then some, Sitar. Colibri, what is the recommended dosage for Children? Does it change?»
«The Children's metabolism is quicker, so the anaesthetic does not last as long, plus it is the metabolite that is poisonous, so they are more sensitive to dosage. We need to make sure we keep the dosage to the minimum to put them out. And while we're on this, where are we porting them to? Ozarks are protective of their children but are not caring of Children in general.»
«I was thinking of putting them in stasis pods while we rewire their brains so they do not remember their Parents, their teachings, or, for that matter, that they were ever anywhere other then where we will ultimately put them. Does stasis hold for them?»
«I have yet to find a species that can not be put in stasis. Thankfully. Imagine the issues if we meet one. They will have to be put in a Tessaract to be dealt with.» Harp replied.
«I just sent the adjusted dosage for Children to all the FSS on-board computers, by weight. Note also that, contrary to Mammals, Ozark Children have a shorter sleep cycle, which means they sleep in short bursts, stay awake longer, so forth... More trouble for you guys. Your only saving grace is that the children of an age group will all sleep at the same time, for the same duration. I suggest you start with the oldest and move down to the youngest. The Adults will probably not detect the change for the older ones, but if you start the other way, a short sleep becoming suddenly longer will ring alarms. Once you are done dosing the Children, kill the nursery Staff before they begin wondering why the oldest have not woken and raise a raucous.»
«Yamato, begin moving to the co-ordinate set that matches the next missing group of Portals. Move to 32˚ 00' 19.12" North, 93˚ 10' 05.32123" West. We will join you under the co-ordinates when we are done here.»
«All right, Paschal. I was wondering why we do not time-freeze the area?»
«Harp, that is your question.»
«These are not Tessaracts, Yamato. They have no time control installed, nor do they have space compression. It is an advantage, because if they had a 30 cubic mile compressed space, the volume to displace would be much higher. We are acting in real time and space. But we still have an advantage for us, since we can move in-between the quantum space and the quantum time frame, and they can not. I plan to use these quantum aspects of space-time to one, move the Children in the blink of an eye, once we have 'marked' them for porting, and also use that same situation to let Paschal install his soccer balls... once the Fairies are done putting to sleep the Children and have left the area."
"Finally, the little buggers are going to bed, well, couch, since they sleep in piles of leaves. As soon as they have stopped moving around to find a comfortable body pile, send the Spiders out, Princess Iridia!" said Paschal. "We will know when they are ready for their sleep shot when the menders cover them in a layer of leaves. I never did understand that species to sleep in bug-infested mulch, but to each its own."
«Complain as much as you wish, Paschal, but it is good for us: one – the Spiders can move freely in the mulch; two – the Children are used to tiny bites and will ignore the Spiders' pricks.» Colibri informed the others.
The monitoring showed it took several minutes for the older Children to settle, then the menders scrambled to cover them in a thick layer of mulch before leaving the rather huge dorm.
«Go! Go! Go!» ordered Sitar as hundreds of Spiders invaded the floor space, dug under the mulch and began injecting the Children with the proper dosage of CF4. Once every Child was shot and tagged, it was ported into a stasis pod. The surface of the mulch only slightly collapsed as the bodies disappeared from the pile.
«Done. Moving to the next dorm!» Iridia informed the others.
«Just get ready and stay in-between time frames, the next dorm's preparation cycle is not completed,» Paschal informed her.
Four hours and fifteen minutes after the sleep cycle had begun, the youngest, which had already passed through 2 cycles while the older slept, finally entered a third sleep cycle. The Spiders were waiting for them in the mulch, and as each Child settled down, it got bitten and put to artificial sleep. The menders never cottoned to the fact that the youngsters went to sleep slightly faster than usual, and covered them with a thick layer of mulch to keep them warm by the decomposition process of the leaves. Ozarks being cold-blooded, the smaller they were the colder they got the more mulch they needed to be covered with.
«The menders are out! Port!» Iridia informed the Royals. «We will be out of there in the blink of an eye.»
«Evacuate the area. Five minutes. Use inter-space.»
«Paschal, when you activate the mass portage, target the beacon I just placed outside, 0.5 light-years away.»
«Okay, but why there, Harp?»
«Because I placed a 60 cubic mile sphere of Magic around that point that will allow the blow-out, but conserve mass. We will not lose hard-earned resources because of idiots.»
«And I can re-inject the mass in-situ, thus filling the hole before it even collapses... Not bad, not bad at all! You do have your uses... outside of a bed-warmer!"
«Paschal! And you use me as bedspring, not bed-warmer!»
«Let me focus on setting the traps in the portals, Perverted Brother, then we will consider your offer.»
Half a minute later, with the help of repeated jumps via inter-space, Paschal had finished installing the triggers.
«It's set up, another 20 seconds to seal the passage so we do not lose atmosphere... Done. Blow-job time!»
«Pervert! Five, four, three, two, one, mass ported... and boom goes the mass... its sudden decompression has triggered a flash of light similar to a mini nova. That is good, because it will keep curious jerks away... Mass compression beginning. Paschal, the stream is yours.»
«Control received. Injection of liquid in cavity in progress. Fracture of the roof of the cavity in progress. I'm injecting in the cracks to compensate. Thermal expansion sealing the fissures! The bottom of the cavity is filling with high-density Orichalque, and I'm beginning to see sedimentation by density.»
«When will you be able to move to the next site?»
«Seven hours to finish, but we need to rest. Add eight hours of rest to the cycle.»
«That means Yamato will be one hour out when you reach the next target. Not too bad.»
«Okay Harp. Who will be in station?»
On the Emergency Bridge, Colibri was talking with Enron.
"I wonder how the Ozarks moved along these halls given the number of traps they had set up. They are not light-weights!"
"Enron, did you ever look at the Earth Museum, time-frame 1990-2000, section toy?"
"No. What about that time-frame?"
"The Ancients had a toy, and from the box we recovered with its contents, the name of the toy was Slinky. At first, I did not understand what could be funny about it, until I happened to drop it on the floor. It began... walking around... by twisting its body... I looked in ancient languages, and the word slink describes that kind of movement. Now look at the Ozarks..." With that, Colibri brought on screen a movie of an Ozark in motion.
"So... they used their body flexibility and capacity to stretch to move from one safe tile to the next, by-passing all the traps... Ingenious. And they can carry huge loads while doing that too, from what the movie shows. Would they be able to carry the wheeled boxes?"
"I think so."
"Do you think the other sites we speculate about are run by Ozarks as well?"
"Unlikely," replied Enron. "Most of these groups are xenophobic, and would not be able to work with a different species. That is a saving grace. They will be 'one species, one pile of shit' sites."
"You have images..."
"Smelly ones too," Timor said, as he walked in the Emergency Bridge. "Harp?"
"He is coming back from picking something up," said Enron. "He should be back in a minute."
"Okay. AIC, I want a situation report."
"One site cleared. Paschal and Sitar are moving to the next site. We have estimated eleven sites needed to be cleared. The outer shell had begun collapsing due to the hole but Paschal recovered liquified type IV Orichalque and filled in the hole, sealing the cracks. The cooling process is underway. Tension strings at 20% of load, and they should be at 50% within a day. Full strength should be restored within a week. The atomic mass migration process should be complete by then, at least within the regenerated bubble. The Fairy Legions are moving behind Sitar and Paschal toward the next goal. Yamato is moving over the surface toward the same location."
"Ah, Timor, you are early."
"No, you left your station early, Harp. So, what is the internal cleanup situation? The AIC gave me a quick overview of the progress up-stairs."
"We are still far from clean. But it is progressing. Let me see: 30% of all Tessaracts are clean; 1.2% are being cleared now; the rest are in deep freeze. Here's the planned sequence for the cleanup, and on this other chip is the key to allow you control of the time-frames for the Tessaracts in progress and to start the others. Remember, keep in reserve 66% of the Legions so you have enough for rotation at the end of 8 hours. Fatigue allows mistakes and negligence we can ill afford."
"Got it. Have you dealt with the Hulgraes?"
"No. I left their Tessaract in deep freeze. I want Sitar to deal with them. If we can not get through to them, I will recommend termination."
"That will not go well with the Emperor."
"If he is not happy, he can try fixing it himself."
"We must one day admit not every species is worth the fight. And the Hulgraes and the Wont are two that come to mind."
"Not to mention the Dinosaurs, the Silurians, and Eregian. I know. Notice they are usually big, but with bird brains?"
"I know, I know. However interesting the Dinosaurs are for would-be Palaeontologists, I do not think either Paschal or Enron would consider them for Elevation any time soon."
"We love nuts, tied to Boys preferably. It does not mean we are nuts!" said Enron, showing a finger to Timor.
"And well, they do have their uses..."
"Oh? Mind kindly lighting my lantern?" asked Timor.
"They are very useful when it comes time to get rid of revolutionaries... Porting them on the hunting grounds of an oversized Chicken so they feel like Worms gives rise to some very interesting observations... I think I managed to train a Velociraptor to beg for food using them... It now presses on a huge pedal to get its candy, namely one of the revolutionary, that invariably try to outrun the beast, unsuccessfully, I must add. They love playing with their food too, hide and ham seek."
"Enron! You are bad!"
"I am, am I not, Timor... Lisa, as I called her, now waits near the feeding station and listens carefully for the tell-tale sound of food sliding in the cage. I noticed it's beginning to feed its little ones, a clutch of 4, bits and pieces of the meat taken from the still very alive prey. It used to regurgitate before."
"Enron! Continue, and I will have to go puke!"
"Oh, come on, they are oversized birds. They behave like them too, they just do not fly. They even have feathers on their forepaws and on their heads, at least for the Males."
"Has any revolutionary survived?"
"No, Harp. Some live longer than others, those that manage to out-wit the birdies. But usually, they last about five minutes... The maximum was half an hour, and it was one that managed to hide under the roots of a tree, crawl under the root system and think he could emerge at the other end while the predator was busy trying to dig its way into the would-be nest. Unfortunately, Lucy was no dim-wit and, while jumping up and down at the entrance point, waited for his torso to stick out from under the nearby hole before picking the meal up and swallowing it whole, head-first."
"Such is life."
"Well, off to bed. I'm glad the soma units stop nightmares. Your pets scare me, Enron."
"Sleep well, Harp."
Days passed, repeating themselves with small nuances revealing the preferences of each revolutionary group, but systematically ending up in a blood-bath and fresh food for predators such as the Dinosaurs. The actions changed, but the result were identical. Discovery, study of target, recovery of children if any, destruction of the nest by either port or direct invasion, the later being the preferred method because it allowed some training for the Legions in urban warfare and some feeding for the bad Boys.
One thing that bothered Enron were the Wont and Hulgrae: neither seemed amenable to any form of conditioning. They were hard-wired to kill and nothing seemed to sway them: anything mobile was food. A couple of times, a group managed to corner a Legionnaire, whom escaped by activating his port-key. The result was usually instantaneous, as Harp had the culprits ported to the Dinosaur or whatever other Tessaract in need of additional meal. The result was invariable: death by chewing. Too bad the Elevation department had been fed to the Dinosaurs... After all, they had been the ones pushing these two species up, and probably others, countering his efforts to keep them back until evolution allowed progress. Maybe he could go back in time to retrieve them and feed them to their pupils... A thought to be brought to Harp at the next Imperial Family meeting.
"One of our Scouts is reporting activity in Dark Arm 3... And it is strange. It is at the edge between DA-3 and LA-3, in a high-radiation area. Gravitational collapse of mass to generate Stars from the dust would normally prevent life to be sustained at the edge, but they report burst of coherent light akin to lasers, powerful lasers, more appropriate for use in pre-warp drives."
"Tell them to explore, shielded."
"They sent in some spy Drones, shielded. They lost contact with the Drones after they reported a surge in energy of several trillion terawatts. Optical indicate targeted assaults on sensors. The auto-destruct triggered immediately and detonated the antimatter mine that is incorporated into drones to keep our technology out of hostile hands."
"Then order pull back. I am not going to put our crews at risk to satisfy our curiosity. Internal com? Get me Sitar. And I do not care if it is his sleep cycle."
Ten minutes later, Sitar groggily responded.
"It had better be good, or your ass is mine!" the God of War rumbled.
"Our Drones are under attack at the edge of DA-3 – LA-3, damage was sufficient enough to trigger auto-destruct. Nothing else available, but since this is a first, I figured you might want to know. Talk to Paschal too. The source of the damage seems to be coherent laser lights. Standing orders are pull-back."
"Agreed. We are almost done with the last nest of trouble-makers. We should be back at the Emergency Bridge in 12 hours. Whose Fleet is affected?"
"There are two. The 19th on the Dark side, under Spare Ribs, and the 128th on the light side, under Arrant, a reformed Orc lineage. Her family was more of the type nest-builder, but she took interest in the Military. She climbed fast and is well-liked by the Fleet. She values the life of her units and knows when to pull back."
"And Spare Ribs? I thought he was too old."
"It's not the one you used to tickle, Sitar, but his Grand-Son. Grand-Father Spare-Ribs retired from the Active and is currently in the reserve. They keep calling their first-born Spare-Ribs and adding roman numerals. That is Spare-Ribs III, and there is number IV and V. Spare-Ribs IV is in Military College, and number V is clawing at the door. And no, they are not involved in the clean-up at the Royal Military College Colibri and Daniel undertook. Number IV was in the last year and is due to graduate in a week."
"I wonder how come they are so close time-wise?"
"Cats. They grow fast, real fast. The result is it has been an almost continuous presence of either Spare-Ribs or Fang Chao line in the past 50 years. If you wonder why the delay before the installation of the dynasty, that is due to the two Brothers. They wanted to finish their services to the Empire before beginning to produce heirs. Something about leaving behind orphans or some such rot. Their Sons were not so inclined and began mating early... but had the good sense to have their mates take contraceptive measures until they graduated and found a steady station in the Military. I think Grand-Father Spare-Ribs made it clear to hot-to-trot Son that he had better be working steadily before adding mouths to feed to the Empire."
"I wish everyone had that philosophy. We have a Kitty boom."
"Not to say anything about other hairy issues..." whispered Enron, while looking at the feed from Greywolf's Swarm, and thinking at the huge number of Wolves Greywolf and his mate had produced. "Infinite resources seem to have cut off good sense."
"Was there any involved when it came to making Babies? Go and MULTIPLY by DIVIDING, I heard somewhere... or some idiocy like that."
"By the way, Sitar, another 25 layers of Tessaracts were added this week alone. Some 90% are from the Milky Way long-distance recovery effort. They are nearing the Galactic core there, and the recovery rate should drop sharply. When it's complete, we need a family meeting to deal with what to do."
"Why tell me that?"
"Many reasons. We have to figure if we order a recall of the Life Collectors, leave them behind to monitor life-bearing Planets, and leave behind a surveillance grid to check on the birth of new Stars, the destruction of old ones, or the abnormal trigger of novas or super-novas. After all, we can not claim to have found every civilisation and we do not want to leave behind one that would replace the Soul-Eaters in ravaging life."
"And how do you lean?"
"I am undecided. I want to have the complete picture, and for now, I do not."
"I see. Well, I better go back to bed or Paschal will want my balls, raw."
"See you shortly. If anything unexpected shows up, expect a recall from the Bridge."
"Dad, I have to ask you something..."
"The way you say this, Harp, has me scared."
"Well, you know our Prime Directive. I have been talking with Enron and Colibri between rest and work periods. There are a minimum of four species that got elevated against our best wishes by the Elevation department."
"I know. The thing is, we are thinking they should be degraded. In fact, they should be put in deep stasis, their genetics completely revamped and their brains rewired, their memories rewritten... the whole nine yards. They just will never fit otherwise. We could also move them to an isolation Tessaract and let them face their evolution. To be honest, their chance of survival are minimal if we choose that option or to not intervene at all. On the other hand, massive intervention is costly in resources we could put to better use elsewhere. I am considering that option only because it is not their fault the Elevation department let them down."
"Both options are compatible with the Prime Directive..."
"The third option is not. We destroy them. We would keep genetic maps and use avatars to run simulations, accelerating the modelling to guide the evolution of the species in question."
"I see your problem. Give me some time to think on it Harp. A question, before you get back to what you were doing. Would you use an accelerated time-frame Tessaract to run the tests? And if so, by how much?"
"I would, but I would also use more than one Tessaract. We know that slowing time is easier to manage than accelerated time; the issue is particularly complex when considering such a difficult task as directed evolution. I would probably do 'quick-step' evolutionary modelling."
"You lost me."
"I understand. I've talked about this with Colibri. He says that the best is to have multiple flows of evolution, and to have some streams move say at X2, others at X3, and others at X4... up to X10 of the normal speed; and to pick some slower specimens at regular intervals to speed-evolve them to see if their stream-line is similar to the faster stream-lines. He told me he expect divergence to increase as the speed is forced forward. The thing is, we must not forget that there are time nexuses that can not be predicted or incorporated in the model. These nexuses change evolutionary trends, either for the better or for the worse. The fast-forwarding sort of compresses the nexuses and we have no idea of when or how they work on the time-line. Natural evolution may present a nexus to a species every 100,000 to 500,000 years, as it did for the humans for around 4 million years... in the form of the Soul-Eaters, the Atlanteans, the ice age, the eruption of mass volcanism... each situation was a nexus of unknown amplitude and certainly of unexpected frequency. Our model will diverge from natural evolution in that aspect, yet offer a new type of nexus, of high frequency but short duration."
"I see... I hope. Is this decision rushed?"
"Then give me time to weight in things. And remind me during the next Family Meeting."
"Well, Paschal, we are finally done."
"And I want a bed so bad... I wonder how the rest of the clean-up is going? Have you had news from the Bridge?"
"Shit, I forgot. I got news from Timor, no, it was Enron. I must be more tired than I thought. It's not like me to forget an ongoing battle. Anyway, he asked me to forward a question. Let me see... He wants to know if a laser light could burn a spy Drone, and if so, how much power was required. The Drones sent out to spy on the war, or so thinks Enron, were burned to the point of triggering their self-destruct. By the way, how far does that destruction extend?"
"Wow. Well, to the last question, it extends in a sphere of about 500,000 miles in radius. A rather small size, but then, the Drones are barely 5 feet in diameter. I did not mince the anti-matter as it composes over 99% of their mass, contained in a Klein bottle. They use the anti-matter as fuel, picking up an atom or two to generate a flux of energy in their fold-space engines, aka warp drives. Primitive, I know, but efficient. To the other question... It would require 5 terawatts in a burst of 0.1 seconds. Lower power would give time for the Drone to rotate and offer a wider surface for the laser to heat up. The thing is, if, say, it was a 50 terawatt laser, it would detonate the Drone instantly, and we would only register the loss of contact and the burst of anti-matter conversion. That they managed to resist long enough and send a fold-space signal is an indication of power below the 50 terawatt level."
"That is what I forgot... The spy Drones almost instantly vanished, and the Scout recorded laser beams in the order of several billion, no... another word... trillion terawatts. I get lost in big numbers."
"Several trillion terawatts? Brr! I hope the Scouts stayed clear."
"Yes. That is what Enron ordered."
"Thank the divinities. Scouts are not designed for that kind of coherent power. Thebes and the battleships can deal with that but not the Scouts. That the Drones even managed to send anything can only mean one thing: they were targeted, but considered non-threatening, so they only got sprayed. Had they been targeted we would not have heard anything. Sitar, order the call-back of the Scouts to the fleet battleships. They are vulnerable."
After a nod, Sitar contacted the Emergency Bridge and forwarded Paschal's order. «Tell the Fleet to stay out of sight and to take in the Scouts in their hoods.»
«Timor here. Acknowledged. We are not done with the internal cleanup. We should be done within the day. We will then do another series of transits to the location of the 19th Fleet.»
«Tell the 128th Fleet to stay on the light side. There might be a reason why nothing happens where they are.»
«Also, recall the external Legions under Yamato. We sent the Fairies back already. They should be almost to their Tessaract by now. We are moving toward the Primary Bridge. Is Harp around?»
«Yes, what can I do for you?»
«How long before...»
«The moment you reach Disembarkation, tell me where you are and I will release the time constraint for it. Port to the Emergency Bridge with Paschal. He knows how to activate the Emergency transfer protocol. You have two seconds from the moment you dive into the Decontamination pool to the trigger point. I am sorry, we still have not finished securing Thebes.»
«We are almost there. Before I dive in, another point. How much left that is not secured?»
After looking at the control board, Harp replied «Less then 3%. So, do not bother adding more Legions, Sitar, we are too close to finish to bother playing with the time-table.»
«We are in Disembarkation Deck A39B, awaiting reactivation of time to dive... err... sink in the decontamination pool.»
«Activating time. One... Two... Closing!»
"Little Brother, I thought I was going to lose my legs! Next time, give us 3 seconds! Luckily, Paschal activated the emergency port as we surfaced rather than wait for us to be out of the pool!"
"It worked didn't it?"
"Grr all you want. You selected one of the only pools we have yet to clean up and there were 250 bodies in there, some of which might not be too friendly! In fact, I'm sending in the fifth Legion of the Royal Guard in there right now. I do not want any of them to even remember you popping in. I thought you would have selected one of the empty pools. You do like to play with fire!"
"Get to bed... after a shower! You smell overripe! I doubt anyone will put up with you in the dorm, god of war or not!"
"At least, it's not of rust..."
"Paschal, you are going to share with him, you are as bad off as he is! AIC, I want the command station ventilated, 60 mph wind. Send that poison in the next fish Tessaract to open up their appetite for the upcoming rotting meat we will be sending their way from Tessaract A-8988B."
"I get lost with all that nomenclature..."
"So do I, Alexander. Ask Mr. Genius Architect Paschal how he did it. Maybe you will understand it better than I did. I can't say it's Chinese, as I speak that language and understand it, but his explanations were foggier than an oceanic fog bank. Something about layers, spherical dispersion, and three-dimensional interlaced spirals. He lost me, as he does every time he begins talking about spherical geometry. "
"I'm already feeling an upcoming headache."
"I had one and needed a bottle of aspirin to calm it down. Welcome to the club."
"Five minutes to clean-up completion. Ten to normalisation!" clamoured Harp over the Emergency Bridge speakers. Countdown!"
The Royals grouped around the Emergency Bridge core, cleaning up the beds of sheets and placing them in the recycle bins that would recreate them the moment the Bridge was again needed. Biodegradable mater and perishables were sent to the biodegradable recycling bin, ready for porting to proper Tessaracts for disposal. Others cleared the storage bins of anything personal, bagging them and putting them on their shoulders.
"One minute to clean-up completion," said Sitar.
As the clock ticked down to zero, Sitar received the last report.
"We are done. I am ordering the Legions to barracks. Two minutes to barrack integration."
The last three minutes seemed to take an eternity for the Royals that had grown rather grumpy from confinement.
"Releasing the time locks. Five minutes to full propagation. Monitor portal activity, Paschal."
"So far, the flux is minimal. It is slowly climbing and should be within normal range depending on areas within ten minutes."
Five minutes passed.
"Release complete. All is normal," reported Harp.
"Your Majesty, I hereby relinquish command of the Atlantean Empire to your hands. May they not tremble with the weight of the responsibilities," said Sitar, looking at Harold, and offering him the ring of command.
Taking in the ring and putting it on his ring finger, Harold completed the ritual.
"I accept the command from you, God of War of Atlantis. May your need be few and far between. Release the Emergency State!"
Immediately, the Royals found themselves ported into their apartments, and a collective sight of relief was heard.
"Bed for all involved. We are 4 hours before dawn. AI-1, plot the best path to reach the 19th Fleet. Wake us in 4 hours."
"Should we trigger the transits while you sleep?"
"Yes. The faster we get there the better."
In the early morning hours for the Royals, the bed nets fell in place, gently wrapping them in safety, and a cascade of ports numbering several hundreds occurred as the Royal family, exhausted, slept on.
«Thebes? Admiral Spare Ribs III reporting.»
«Bjorn at the command desk, Sir. Starting the recording.»
«Thebes is under AIC control for the transit. The Royal family is currently asleep, recovering from a prolonged stay in the Emergency Bridge. I am the highest Bridge Officer currently on deck, therefore I am in the Imperial Command Chair.»
«I did not know Harold had gained such bottom mass...»
«Nothing of the sort, Pussy Cat; the chair adjusts to the need. According to the AIC, we are still three transits from your current location. We are two minutes to the next ports.»
«Okay. Here is the report. All the Scouts are in. We are disposed in the Claw of Thunder formation, keeping watch over the activity across the energy front line. So far, all indicates they are using the energy generated by the gravitational collapses to power their laser drives, but that is mostly suppositions as the Probes never survive getting close to them. We have yet to gain a visual of their ships. We keep a constant distance from their advancing front. Report complete.»
«Report recorded. Transit alarm, I'll talk to you shortly.»
Bjorn closed his eyes and waited. He did not like transits but, like any resident of Thebes, he knew its necessities. The number of flashes told him they were now within the core of the Galaxy and probably passing through or close to the Galactic Black Hole. That notion sent shivers down his spine as he remembered the recording of the last time Thebes had stayed for a while in one. He gripped the chair's armrests in fear, clinched his teeth so tight he was sure he heard a few crack, and closed his eyes. No way was he going to watch the forward screen's demential flow of light and darkness, the twists of Magic as it whipped Thebes and got caught in its spindles, or the flash of blackness that accompanied the breaks of the Orichalque or whatever other metal that got speared by the same spindles before being wrapped around the ship. He was afraid he would pee himself if he saw these things. After what seemed an eternity to Bjorn but probably lasted less than a minute, the termination signal was heard. He relaxed slowly, noticing sweat on his hands, and tasted blood in his mouth. He might not have broken teeth, but he had bitten inside and was now bleeding.
"Water!" he asked, in a raspy voice.
AI-1 materialised a big bucket of the clear stuff, and Bjorn drank it all.
"How long before the next transit?"
"Fifteen minutes," replied the same Artificial Intelligence, well aware that the Troll had made a dent in the armrests out of fear. As soon as Bjorn left the Bridge to go to the bathroom, the armrests were quietly replaced. Courage is facing his fears, and Bjorn earned the respect of the AIC that day. Three minutes before the next transit, Bjorn was back in the Imperial seat, refreshed if not feeling reassured.
"How many transits left?"
"Two series, and then a short one to come in from behind the 19th Fleet."
"Nothing to worry us, but unfortunately we will materialise right the middle of the no-man's land, gaining a lot of unwanted attention, and probably a salvo or two of their weapons."
"Full reflective shields."
Soon the next transit occurred. The emergence of Thebes, barely 0.1 AU away from the line, shook the amassed fleet to a standstill... for barely a second or two. Suddenly a rainbow of high power lasers converged on Thebes from every direction. The reflective index of Thebes' surface was at 99,9999% so the lasers reflected in all directions taking out some of the ships, scalding others badly, and creating mayhem in the ships' ranks.
"How long before we do the next transit?"
"Eight minutes. We have to align with that red giant ahead of us."
Bjorn watched the light show, aware that it was the nature of Thebes to fight back, having been designed specifically for that role. The enemy ships gradually stopped firing, and began arranging themselves differently.
"Calculate target structure."
"They plan to use their drives rather than their weapons to assault us. We will be gone before they are ready."
"Would we be in danger?"
"No, but they would vanish as we have an almost perfect reflective index."
Bjorn kept an eye on the development, wishing Sitar was awake.
"Two minutes to transit. We will cross the energy front during that period."
"Okay. Cut visual, we do not need to get retinal burns..."
"You do not trust the filters?"
"Not in these circumstances."
"Filters activated. Visuals off. Transit in 10... Transit."
Thebes jolted left and right, up and down, twisted in a trajectory that, if Bjorn had known of the tool, would have reminded him of a corkscrew. It was quick, and they were on the dark side, the shell of Thebes the brightest Star on that side of the energy front.
"Finally!" said Spare-Ribs. "Should I move my fleet to recovery mode?"
"Not yet. We are moving behind you. That will be our last transit."
Shortly, the last transit was completed.
"Recovery configuration Alpha, Spare-Ribs. We have half an hour. I am sure they are not idiots and will add two and two."
"Okay. What's the rush?"
"Simple: they were trigger-happy. Now, they are furious. And I'm sure their computers have computed our vectors. They will shortly figure out where we are. They ignored the Probes, now they will not. They must have already calculated where you are."
"Did you get visuals?"
"Yes... They are built for speed, and manoeuvrability. They are war ships not colony ships. I have a complete list of their configurations. AIC, how many distinctive forms are there?"
"Twenty-one ranging from Scout to Fleet Carriers."
"Does that answer your question?"
"Yes. Expect me on the Bridge as quickly as I can get my Cats in the den."
"Okay. AIC, how close are the Royals to waking up?"
"Maybe another 10 minutes, Bjorn."
"Okay. As soon as Sitar blinks his eyes I want him doused in iced water... We need him as soon as possible on the Bridge."
"He won't like you."
"I'm not running for President. I need his expertise."
Ten minutes passed and Bjorn, still not hearing any sound from the Royal Suite decided to give the General Battle Quarters order. The horns blared just as Sitar got doused in ice-cube-carrying buckets of water and he began swearing like a sailor deprived of shore leave. Deep blue light bathed the Bridge and the ship's hallways; doors closed sealing bulkheads, separating the ship into its partitions, and non-incorporated life-bearing Tessaracts saw their clock rates drop to near-zero. Crews manned ships in docking, readying them for porting outside of Thebes at a moment's notice.
"Fleets manned, ready for porting!" reported AI-1, just as Sitar walked in the Bridge, dripping wet and yet smoking vapour from the fury he was in.
"If I ever get my hands on the Son of a Bitch that ordered me doused..."
"Mom was a nice lady, and you know her, Sitar, so stop calling her names!" said Bjorn, ignoring his preservation instincts to defend his family's honour. "Now, sit your sorry arse at the weapons desk. We are going to be entering a battle in fifteen minutes, and I want you at your best! And dry it first! I do not need short circuits on the weapons controls!"
Bjorn's tone took Sitar by storm, and he realised, as he watched the flow of reports from the strategic desk, he did indeed need to focus on the situation. A flick of the hand later and dry, he sat down and activated long-range weapons.
"Nothing so far. They are Military. Their design is for speed. They seem to turn on a dime. We have not even tried contact yet. They opened fire during inter-transit, some 20 to 30 minutes ago. They were firing at our Probes, so I had the Fleet recalled inside for resupply. Admiral Spare-Ribs III is somewhere looking at the videos of the transit. I did note they seem to be perfectly co-ordinated. But then, I am no expert."
"Okay. Since you began the skirmish, you finish it, Bjorn. That is the reason taking that seat is not to be done lightly. Good luck. I'll be there should you need counselling. But remember, the final decisions are yours. Do not hesitate to take them. Hey Dad. I need you at the portal controls."
"Okay, Son," as he eyed Bjorn. Poor Bjorn! Talk about baptism by fire, he thought.