«So, what have you learned from the Comet?» asked Harold, in a huge conference room set to accommodate the Therapods.
«We figured the focal point of the spiral of control repeaters with a lot more precision. We can bring Thebes right at the exit point of the dense dust cloud that masks their system. Second, we found out the pattern is set by the orbit of one specific Star within the Star cluster, a star that is very close to the cluster's edge, which makes sense, as moving inside, radiation levels grow exponentially, prohibiting all life from ever being born, even within planetary crusts. Third, the launching of repeaters occurs at the orbital apogee of the stellar orbit of their primary around the cluster; again, that makes sense, given they probably have to launch from the surface or close to it, an area that probably becomes unbearable most of the time.»
«What are we looking at?»
"Their Star takes 2,2 years to do a full rotation around the cluster. From what our sensors measured, they have a window of opportunity to launch of no longer than 21 days. We found this out due to some misses. Each miss forced them to delay the launch for the aforementioned time frame. However, they compensated by sending out two repeaters one after the other, one moving faster than the other so it could take its legitimate position in the repeater array.»
«Were there consequences?»
«In all cases, communications with their fleet degraded considerably, becoming erratic at best. In some instances, we believe it delayed an invasion of a Star system by 2,2 years, and in another, cost them a Star system they had begun conquering and failed to succeed on the first try. On the second try, it took them five times the resources they had probably planned to take control, delaying the conquest of subsequent Stars by 4 or 5 cycles.»
«Very informative. Sitar, recommendations from Paschal's report?»
«Their next launch is in six months. What I suggest is we keep nipping at their nose, then, during that 21 day grace period, we move Thebes to intercept their repeater, reduce it to Star dust, and replace it with Thebes' own signals, in effect, cutting them off from their fleet and taking control of it, all without them knowing crap. We begin rescuing their slaves, and, in 2,2 years, repeat the process, for, say, 12 years. Then we intoxicate them with false information giving them the impression they are being invaded by an overwhelming force composed of ships more numerous than dust, not that what we will feed them will be any truer before then, as it will feed them what they want to hear, not the truth. War is also played on the field of information, as Goebbels once stated.»
«Why the delay?»
«We estimate it is the required time to fix all the damage done to the species that have fallen under their boot,» replied Enron. «Once this is done and we have recovered the ecosystems and set in place matching Tessaracts, we scare them to death, before realising their nightmare. Call this intoxication of the circuits!»
«Any comments on the plans? We all know plans never survive first engagement... None? Fine, plan accordingly. However, I want contingency plans for every thing. Thebes is powerful, but not all-powerful, as we have learned from the repeated bouts of rebellion within our midst.»
«Do we apply the prime directive to them?» asked David.
«We never apply it to Slavers, young man. By the way, how is your effort at tracking counterfeiters going?
«We caught some amateurs. And I have developed a new money that is next to impossible to counterfeit. Hey, even making the real thing is a pain in the butt!»
«Good. Continue to work, David, and make us proud. But remember, next to impossible does not equate to impossible. You proved it enough times!»
«I know! So I spend most of my time trying to make counterfeit money and trying to pass it as the real thing. Some of the reactions I get are quite hilarious!»
«That is what I like in you. You find your work fun.»
«Not all of it is. Developing a cohesive banking system based on productivity and market value is a pain.»
«We have some questions.»
«Yes, Black, maybe I can answer some?" replied Harp, looking up at the towering Therapod.
«What is that Prime Directive everyone seems to refer to?»
«Prime Directive #1: Save all life. Prime directive #2: Destroy those that make it their goal to enslave other life. We destroy slavers, but rescue the enslaved. This ensures the maintenance of a proper diversity. The Borgs, which we mentioned earlier, the Soul-Eaters, the Wraiths, and that yet unnamed species of troglodytes are reducers of diversity by destruction of ecosystems. Therefore they fall under rule #2. On the other hand, predators help maintain a healthy population and ensure diversification and adaptation to changing environmental conditions. They are required for the survival of life so they are protected under Directive #1.»
«Determining when to apply which rule must be difficult.»
«It is, and sometimes gives rise to thunderous debates amongst the Imperials. The latest in case are the Wonts, but just before that, the Hulgraes, a type of carnivorous Horse, produced some stormy exchanges. We apply Directive #1 until proven wrong. So far, few have had us jump to Directive #2 without some severe and heart-wrenching debate. The most prominent of those are the Soul-Eaters, the Wraiths, and the Cyborgs; lately we added the giant Lobster-Scorpions that had embarked on a galactic-wide enslavement program to build an empire, and the ones that attacked others by blowing up their Suns. The most recent is those we are tackling now. Not bad, given our effort encompass billions of year, billions of stars, and so many species I can not even imagine a suffix to indicate their numbers.»
«And what does that David guy do? He looks like a chew toy for our egglings!»
«Do not trust appearances. David is one of ours, but only recently began growing up. He is what we could call the Minister of Finances of the Empire: he manages the exchange of goods, the banking system where people exchange currencies for goods produced in other parts of Thebes, and monitors counterfeit. He is quite good at it, and loves his job. Since he took control of the system, its flow has improved immensely.»
«What is 'counterfeit'?»
«The production of false money to obtain goods without work, much like robbing the meat under your teeth. It generally is badly seen as it debases the value of the currency. David is one heck of a talented counterfeiter!»
«And he got power out of it? You truly amaze us. We would have eaten him!»
«What would you have done had he fed you false meat that tasted like meat, smelled like meat, had its texture, and could not be differentiated from the real product, except you would have been left feeling empty? That is his talent. He proved himself to the Emperor by making a false execution order so perfect the Emperor himself could not tell the difference. In fact, the Emperor ordered it carried out, because the target deserved it. All he did was produce false procurements for candy, a childish goal, but seen as important by a Child genius. David has a sweet tooth, but now that he can indulge, he is abstinent. Go figure Kids! I think it was the thrill of the game, for it was a game for him, much like the thrill of the hunt.»
«I heard another thing that leaves me perplexed. You can mate with other species and produce offspring? How is that possible?»
«I was expecting that question much earlier, to be honest. Better show than long speech.» With that, Harp converted to a Gold Dragon in its prime, towering over the Therapods by several lengths. «This is how. Our common shape is one we find comfortable in; however we can change as we see fit. My raw form is pure, confined energy, and can take any we have met so far, including yours.» Returning to his Human Boy form, Harp then shrank to a toddler, grew to an adult, and came back to a pre-teen, his favourite form. «Does that answer the question?»
«Yes. Very clearly. And the last question for today... What are the measures taken to prevent a confrontation with our Enemy?»
«That is more Sitar's domain, but I can tell you we keep changing evasive patterns until they react to it properly, which tells us they have broken the pattern code. Then we change pattern.»
«Can this tactic last?»
«Indefinitely... Because there is an infinite quantity of what we call irrational numbers... between each rational number, and an infinite number of those as well. We can keep it guessing where we will be for eternity, not that we plan to. And then, we have a running competition in our youths to find new math games we use to implement displacement in three-dimensional space. They are quite imaginative, believe me! Plus, we search all our rescued species history for further forms of mathematics, just in case there might be something new somewhere. It is very enriching to learn how a problem is solved depending on spatial perception, time perception, or even the number of digits a species has! Horses count on base two, much like computers, as they have one big 'digit', the hoof, and it is either down or up; other Equines, such as the Unicorn, count on base four, sort of using all four legs... It really is enriching.»
The Therapods finally realised their ease with ternary was due to the fact that their forearms comprised three fingers and they had developed an inner sense of numbers based on that representation of reality.
«I wonder... Can I ask you a final favour?»
«If I can be of help?»
«You said we remind you of animals in the past of your Planet, and that you named us Therapods in memory of those animals. From what I understand, you can send back to the past and, I dare not say this, collect? Specimens... Are we off?»
«Yes, we can and we have done this for billions of Planets, recovering ecosystems destroyed by natural catastrophes or due to external warring parties, mostly the Borgs, Soul-Eaters, and Andromedan Slavers, Andromeda being the name our ancestors gave to this amalgam of Stars. We have reproduced the Cretaceous, Jurassic and Triassic periods of our Planet's geological history with an eye for detail, including animals. The Therapods were at their peak during the Cretaceous, and died out because of the intervention of the Soul-Eaters, as I told you while we discussed things during your stay in the Stasis Pods. Why are you interested?»
«We want to see them. Is it possible?»
«Certainly. We will move to a safe area where we observe their interactions. Direct contact is for candidates to suicide.»
«Why is that?»
«The Tyrannosaur Rex is about twice your size; the Albertosaurus is trice your size. And they are kept in separate subspaces because they would fight all the time and probably kill each other off. The only Rex I dare come close to is one I raised when the female died. And even then, I do so with extreme caution, never turning my back on the beast.»
«And what keeps visitors safe?»
«A force field that creates a sensory blank spot for them. It is as if it was not there. No smell, no sound, total invisibility, and no vibration... they could detect us by the ground vibrating under us. Who wants to play with fire burns itself.»
«Interesting. It could be used to hunt...»
«We do it, but not to hunt preys, but the Enemies we need to fight in War. After all, a prey must have a way of escaping if it is to be fair, and they would have none. Come with me. Enron, Colibri, Ovid and Mark, meet me at the entrance to the Earth Tropical Cretaceous Tessaract.»
«They are the leads in Exobiology and Palaeolithic Biology.»
Shortly all five Atlanteans and the three Therapods met at the entrance.
«Before we go in, I will show you the whole of the Tessaract relative to our scale,» Harp stated, as he pointed at a sphere no bigger than a small marble. «If you look inside, you see what seems like a miniature Planet, with its atmosphere, clouds, weather patterns, everything, moving at a very slow speed. This is a Tessaract. It is compressed in space, and time is slowed down to a crawl so things barely change in it for outside observers. Once we cross the portal, we will find ourselves inside this tiny sphere, and be included in its time flow. The feeling is no different than what you have felt during the use of portals to move within Thebes, because it is the same, exactly the same.»
The Therapods were both impressed and scared by the advanced technology, but they watched the Exobiologists walk in without even blinking, so, as not to appear scared, they followed suit, and Harp walked in on their heels.
«Let us walk to the edge of the deck. Follow me please.»
As they made their progress further from the exit portal, noises became progressively more dominant. Insects, leaves moving by virtue of the wind, roars of animals, fights, trees crashing, thunderous herds moving around creating a rumble coming from the Earth.
«Ah, a Rex Male is tracking a Triceratops, trying to make his way unnoticed from behind. The Triceratops did not notice his herd moved away and it has lost its warning system. If it does not react quickly to catch up, it will be a meal.»
Suddenly, the Rex charged, but it was bogged down in its assault by a couple of trees that were too close and it had to crash through. The Triceratops heard the noise from behind and charged head-first in the open low forest cover, without bothering to check what had caused the noise. The Rex emitted a cry of frustration as its prey escaped.
«The meal escaped...» noted, a bit pitifully, Green.
Suddenly, there was a huge noise in the under-bushes and the Triceratops began trashing around. As it came out into view some fifty yards away, the reason became apparent: a group of 30 Velociraptors had ambushed it and were hanging on it from its flanks and running beside it attacking each in turn, taking merciless bites at its vulnerable underbelly, and hind legs. The Triceratops was not defenceless: it used its rear tail to smash left and right, sending Velociraptors flying in the bushes. Some stood right back up and returned to the hunt, but some, more soundly hit, had difficulty and were left behind, while a couple, spines broken, shivered in their death throes. The Rex quickly found one of them and ate an easy meal, opening its underside to reach the rich internal organs and easily assimilated liver, intestines, and other choice pieces. Once it had eaten the easiest parts, it left the carcass and hunted down the other paralysed Velociraptor, which was now shivering its last breaths of pain, and the Rex quickly took his share of the meat. Meanwhile, the wounded Velociraptors did not hesitate and dove inside their abandoned comrade's carcass, pulling out meat chunks, crushing the thoracic cage, and cleaning up the skeleton to the best of their ability. A lot of fighting occurred between the wounded, until the Rex came back in an attempt to claim his first kill. The Velociraptors, still too wounded to fight off their left-overs, retired and tracked the other one to resume their meal. The Rex tried to defend both carcasses, to no avail. The moment he left one defenceless, the quick-footed Velociraptors took their chances.
Meanwhile, the Triceratops found refuge in his herd, but was severely maimed. The hunters simply waited on him to fall back the moment the Triceratops herd moved, which, given the limited vegetation around, would not be long. Night fell without the herd moving, but by morning, it began to move towards a water source. The wounded Triceratops was showing increasing signs of fatigue and gradually, got relegated to the rear of the herd. It did, however make its way to the river to drink. Blood leaked profusely from open, and now, infected wounds. As it lowered its head to drink, it did not notice the Sarcosuchus Crocodile lurking in the water. The beast silently swam and suddenly lunged at its prey, pulling it in the water and doing all it could to drown it. The Triceratops was not easily turned on itself as it spread its legs to increase its base. However, the noise of the fight attracted the Velociraptors, whom were not ready to let go of their hard work for the benefit of another. They assailed the crocodilian, whose hard exoskeleton and relatively low on the ground stance gave him a limited advantage, advantage that was countered by the team-work of the Velociraptors. Two managed to chew off its hind legs, which weakened the crocodilian's grip on the ground. The Triceratops pulled back from the river's edge, taking with it the crocodile, which found itself out of its natural hunting ground and more exposed to the Velociraptors. Now, the Velociraptors had the edge and used it to turn the Crocodile on its back, exposing his weaker throat scales to their bites. Shortly, the Crocodile was reduced to mercy. But the Velociraptors turned on the further weakened Triceratops and attacked its hind legs and underbelly as well. After another hour of fighting, the Triceratops collapsed and was quickly eaten alive by the very hungry Velociraptors. By then the wounded Velociraptors had left the poor Rex to its bony leftovers, and caught up with the rest of the hunting party. There was meat in the Crocodilian and Triceratops to feed the hunting party for a few days and bring food to the Pups in their guts.
«So, the smaller ones...» asked Grey.
«They are one of something around 300 species of Velociraptors we have in stock. As you noticed, I am sure, you share a lot of common traits with them. It is called convergence, telling us you shared common evolutionary pressures, even if you evolved on different Planets.»
«And the other big one?»
«The Rex is also a Therapod, like the Velociraptor, but it evolved differently. Birds could also be classified as Therapods, because we have the whole living collection linking the first Birds to the Tyrannosaurus Rex. That is what is fun with sample collecting through time. We can have entire evolutionary trees at our disposal, including dead ends.» Colibri stated.
«Would you do the same with our home world?»
«That is planned. However, the construction of proper Tessaracts will fall into the normal event queue rather than benefit from a fast-forward privilege as will your own Tessaract. We need you as crews on this ship, and that is one of the side-benefits. Next question?»
«Can we have a closer look at the carcasses?»
«Yes, but we need to bring you to a FSS pool. These pools will assemble around your body a suit that will protect you from assault, keep you safe from contaminants, and safe from detection as long as you do not act dumbly, that is dance in front of one of these beasts, or make too much noises. I doubt you want to prove dumbness by engaging any of these animals in claw to claw combat!» explained Enron.
«How does this work?»
«Simple, really. You jump in the pool and instantly find yourself enveloped by the FSS. Thebes Artificial Intelligences then port you to your destination, either outside the ship, or in the ship.»
«Paschal had anticipated the request and the proper FSS design is programmed in the pools' repertoire.» said Colibri. «Let's go, that will be fun. I have been wanting to spot the first flowering plants, and they date from that epoch. I read some Ancients postulated the emergence of these plants contributed to the downfall of the Dinosaurs. Time to check on the issue. That expedition is turning into an interesting exercise! Ovid, if you see a Snake, try to speak to it. Maybe we can begin studying the evolution of their language. Mark, make sure you keep an eye on both Ovid and us. And both remember the emergency recall rather than panic! In fact, Harp, activate auto-recall on a sudden heart rate increase!»
«Good idea! I will activate it for all of us, as it is one heck of a danger zone we are walking in!»
The Therapods eyed the FSS embarkation pool with some trepidation, wondering where the water's surface was.
«It's not water, it is a liquid metal, Orichalque, set in one of its numerous forms that keep it liquid. It will change to solid on contact with your skin, enveloping everything. Do not worry about eyes, ears, mouth or breathing: it does its job seamlessly. Once you are immersed in it, and fully encapsulated, you will find yourself, for this once, at the bottom of a real pool of water, where we will train you on how to react. Note you can quarry the FSS for information about itself, the environment, and what not.» With that, Harp took a head-first dive into the pool and vanished. «As you see, the moment the envelope is completed, you are moved out. Please join me.»
It took some hesitant moves from Black to enter the Orichalque pool. «It feels strange. It is as if it touches me without touching me...»
«FSS are designed that way to allow an individual full liberty of movement, and then some.»
Once Black sank and had Orichalque overhead, he disappeared. Green and Grey quickly followed, as they saw Ovid, Mark, Enron, and finally Colibri take a dive.
«We are in water?» asked Grey, marvelling at being able to breath under the surface without drowning.
«Ask your FSS.»
Grey did and got his report: Water 99%, Oxygen 0,4%, Carbon Dioxide: 0.6 %. He suddenly pushed his legs hard on the bottom of the water basin and was ejected 30 feet up above the surface of the water pool, to land flat on his back and create a mini-tsunami that washed the shores for several feet.
«That is so cool! But I do not even feel wet! Is that the suit?»
«Yes. Now, some attention, please?» asked Harp.
The team stood in front of the diminutive Mage, and watched him intently.
«First, for our fist-time users: the suit is very resistant. I do not think it would be good for the fauna to break teeth on its hard surface, so try not to provoke them, however tempting it might be to tease an Albertosaurus. After all, they need these teeth to feed. FSS are designed to resist just about anything, from the void of intergalactic space to the pressures of a Black Hole. They will feed you as you need it, so you will not feel hungry, or thirsty. Their autonomy is limitless, and they will allow you, if need be, to travel through rock, lava, water, ice, toxic gases, and whatever nature pitches at you. We took swims in the core of Stars and felt no ill effect. Each FSS is equipped with all sorts of tools and can analyse the environment. It is also so isolated it will keep you healthy across the worst conditions, the most terrible epidemic. Your body waste gets recycled to food, as well as your atmosphere. One thing should be apparent for everyone: you can not eat or drink anything from the outside, nor breath anything. So, if you want to smell the perfume of a flower, you must ask it to be synthesised. The suit will analyse it and determine if it has detrimental effects on you by running it through an avatar of your system it has. Do not be offended if it says something to the effect that the perfume would get you drugged and it refuses to let you smell it. Before you ask, an avatar, in these conditions, is a numerical model of your organism. Questions, so far?»
«How do we return?» asked Green.
«Two standard methods: the most common is by asking to return; the emergency recall by the Bridge is the second; and finally, for you three, should you feel a sudden surge of fear, the FSS is set to bring you back. We worked too much to have you die of fear. As for the return procedure, it is simple: you find yourself in an Orichalque pool where the suit dissolves almost instantly, then ported on the recall deck, before the Orichalque even has time to dissolve completely. We recommend you head to the showers and wash up thoroughly, to remove any body odours. The FSS is not a swimming pool and it does have a habit of accumulating fatty acids between its inner layer and your skin, which creates itches. You will find that a good wash with the soap will remove both the smells and the itches. The Orichalque is then ionised, filtered, and returned in its pure form to the FSS Embarkation Deck pool, where we brought you to begin this trip. The entire process is so thorough nothing survives the passage from Disembarkation to Embarkation pools as everything is reduced to its atomic components, ionised, and separated in an acceleration chamber. The process also allows us to analyse anything you have been in contact with. It is incredible how much crap can be collected while going into some environments! It also allows us to monitor the health of said environment. A surge of a Bacteria, a sudden new one, or a Retro-Virus may spell disaster. More questions?» Not getting any, Harp communicated with the Bridge. «Earth Mesozoic Expedition ready for port!»
The members vanished from the bottom of the almost pure water basin to reappear near the river they had been watching from the observation station earlier that day.
«What are you looking for, Black?»
«Where we were yesterday morning?»
«We can not see it. We were at the face of that stiff cliff, inside. For the animals, it is a cliff, gives the feeling of a cliff, and is nothing but a cliff. Follow me, the river is that way, about two miles off. You can see the two trees that intercepted the Rex in its charge at the Triceratops. The tree sap, or resin, is flowing profusely and has trapped quite a range of Insects. Given time, it will be dried up and form Amber. Stay away from it, as it can be damn sticky.»
The expedition moved around the resin pool, and looked at the floor of the forest.
«Note the three toes and deep long claws that characterise the footprint of a Therapod. If you look carefully, the feet sank a good 10 inches in the ground, and the distance between the prints indicate an animal on the run, suddenly stopped as both feet dug in to push forward, marking the time it was battling the trees. If you look on your right, one of the trees broke in two, and some grey scales are stuck in the resin, along with some under-skin meat. The roots show the mark of the rear claws that were used to grip them to help the beast force its way through. Let's follow the Therapod's progress from there.»
With that, Enron made some progress in the thick under-bushes, followed by the others. Colibri took over the narrative.
«Look at the grass. It is flattened on both sides of the path taken by the Triceratops. The Velociraptors were laying low on the ground in ambush. Note their take-off barely moved a branch or perturbed the grass, meaning they lost very little energy in their acceleration to attack. They ran-jumped, using their hind legs as springs to accrue energy and move more quickly, similar to the Kangaroos Mammals, also using their tail to direct their jumps. Each jump was well over 40 feet in length.»
«Now, the Triceratops is a lumbering tank that can still cover 50 miles per hour,» noted Enron, «But it is slow compared to the Rex or the Velociraptors, whose peak speed is well over 90 miles per hour. However, the Rex tires easily, and the Velociraptor, although less subject to fatigue, can still tire faster than a Triceratops. You wanted a look at the Velociraptors, guys? We are walking in on the feast of the Scavengers. Note there is a hierarchy. The biggest scavengers feast first, and protect the carcass from smaller scavengers until they find no more sustenance. Then smaller scavengers take over. What we have here is third-level scavenging, done by small Dinosaurs. If we stayed around, we would see Birds, currently waiting on the side, take over, followed by mammals, and finally, Insects, and Bacteria, until the bones are picked clean. Birds are, in this ecosystem, fourth-level scavengers, and Mammals are fifth; however during the Ternary period, there was a reversal, and Mammals became first level scavengers, Birds second and Insects third... The removal of the Dinosaurs collapsed the food chain by one level. Not everything is as clear-cut as I let it seem to be. In some environments, the Birds are first-level scavengers when they have the advantage of flight to dive into narrow gorges, or can spot a carcass from afar, like a desert. Also, Birds are frequently first-line hunters, especially of other Birds, Insects, Fishes, and small Mammals. Nature is opportunist if nothing else.»
«The small Dinosaurs are not too pleased to be disturbed in their meal, but they can not do much about it. Look at the bones: the long bones have been broken and the marrow taken out because it is a rich source of nutrients. The bones are porous, Bird-like, and are therefore more easily broken than Mammal bones, that are of a higher density. You can see along the pelvis claw marks when the hind quarter was held to allow the mouth to pull the meat. From the teeth marks, these were eaten by Brothers of the Velociraptors; however, that femur was broken by a big triangular teeth more consistent with the Rex. The smaller teeth marks are from the Dinosaurs we disturbed. If we looked carefully, I would not be surprised to also see tiny teeth marks done by scavenging Mammals, about the size of Rats. Look around. Ovid, Mark, nothing of interest yet? And while you are at it, look up. Rex buddies are more likely to look down at you than up at you!»
The reminder of the size of the animals around brought the two back to reality and had them look up around in fear. It was lucky for Mark, as he came face to face with a Snake that had been slowly moving down on him from above.
"Holly Ssssssshit! Where do you come from?"
"A ssspeaker? How iss that posssssible? And with sssuch a ssstrange accccent!»
"I come from the future of your ssspeciesss. I came to ssstudy the origin of your language. From what I sssee, it has evolved very, very little, sssince we underssstand each other. The change ssseemsss to be in ssshorter hisssesss now than where I come from. This type of change iss not new, becaussse sssome other languagesss alssso have a more clicky ancessstry."
"In time? Sssomewhere around 65 million ssseasssonal cyclesss. My close friend Zen will be ssso pleasssed to hear thisss. He isss a King Cobra, very venemousss, and isss interesssted in the evolution of hisss language. Currently, he isss hunting for usss with hisss family."
"Are the othersss food?"
"Thessse onesss? No, they are part of the team that came to ssstudy thingsss. The big onesss wanted to know about the sssimilarites between them and the big predatorsss. One of usss wantsss to sssee if the flowersss are caussse for concernsss for the big predatorsss of thisss area. We have yet to find flowersss as they are rare."
"Flowersss, thessse new plantsss? They can be found on cliff facesss up river."
"Thank you for the information!"
"No problem! They are foul thingsss. They smell-tassste good but they make usss sick and poissson our preferred preysss making them foul-tasssting! Even our praysss do not like them and use mud to force the poissson out. We wait for the clean-up to be done now."
"Maybe you should focusss on eggsss..."
"We are turning to them, but the ssshellsss need to be turned out otherwissse they make usss sick too."
"I will inform the leader of the expedition about thisss. It wasss, after all, a major factor in bringing usss here. They might be able to attack them... No promissses, but we will try."
"That isss all I can asssk."
"Mark, let's go. I have information for Enron from the Snake."
The two Boys progressed quickly to where the others were still studying the bones.
"Enron, a friendly Snake told me we could find Flowers on the cliff face up-river."
"He also told me that the Flowers were toxic to the animal life-forms and that they made their food taste bad. I gather they eat Rodents. They are turning to eggs but they are having problems with the shells. The other important thing is, the Mammals have taken to eating mud, I think he meant clay, to remove the toxins from their body."
"Very interesting, as this is exactly what the Mammals use to this day to remove toxins."
"Hey, did you notice the Triceratops droppings? They were very liquid still, way more than I would have expected from a herbivore. It is as if it had the runs!"
"Mark, that is one good observation! We will look into it to check what it ate."
"Before being eaten!"
"Yes, Mark. And it might explain why the Velociraptors managed to take it down relatively easily, if it had been weakened by dehydration."
«Let's move to the river. We have been lucky so far, I want to see these Flowers and then come back here quickly to have a look at the Triceratops faeces. We have at most two hours before sun-down, and I want to be out before the night predators begin their roaming!» ordered Harp.
Ten minutes later, the expedition reached the river's edge, and noticed the battle site. After looking at the carcass for 20 minutes, they progressed quickly under the forest's cover up-river, making the trip to the edge of the cliffs in less than half an hour.
"Hey, here is a cluster of reddish flowers!" pointed out Colibri. "Let me get samples of their stems, flowers, pollen, and grains. If you see other types, help me by collecting the same samples."
It took an hour to get all they needed before Colibri called it a day.
«Harp, do you think you can bring us back to our point of origin in a straight line?»
«Straight line, straight line! We are talking about rough, forested terrain, with cuddly Dinosaurs hunting for food as playmates! I think we will resort to Magic. Enron, grab Black, Colibri, grab Green, I will grab Grey. Ovid, Mark, you can port?»
«Yes. We still need practice for long distances, but this is well within our range.» replied Ovid.
«Okay. Colibri, port first. Ovid, Mark, follow him a second later, using his beacon to fine-tune your arrival. Enron, we leave together.» Three sharp bangs later woke up the forest, shaking its lull into a cacophony of alarm calls, roars of disturbed predators, and the scuttling of tiny feet trying to dive into hiding.
«We are ten feet from the faeces pile. Harp, I need a long, hollow tube, to dive into that smelly pile of residue,» Enron asked.
Harp quickly materialised the required tube, measuring eight feet in length and six inches in diameter, opened at both ends, and quickly give it enough kinetic energy to penetrate from the top to the bottom of the pile. Once this was done, he sealed both ends, took it out by Magic, and froze it solid.
"You have your sample rod. I'm sending it to your laboratory, We need to get out of here. The night fauna is becoming agitated and the light is falling fast under the trees."
Turning to the Therapods, Harp give them a brief resume of what had been done and discussed verbally, and then told them to trigger their recall. Quickly the three big Therapods disappeared in a cascade of bangs, followed, merely a second later by a huge thunderclap as the Atlanteans followed them to the FSS recovery pool. It was time! An Albertosaurus came charging in the freshly vacated clearing, intent on finding the cause of all the racket.
«Harp to Bridge. Earth Mesozoic expedition back without incident. Proceeding to disinfection showers.»
The eight members made their way to the showers, washed up and moved to the biology laboratories.
«Who wants to go first on the debriefing?» asked Harp. «AI-6, log debriefing, please.»
Black looked at the others. «I do not really know what to include...»
«Anything and everything. In fact, start from the Embarkation deck, and finish with the Disembarkation deck. Follow events in time, note impressions, events, and how you saw them. The FSS also registered any muttering or thoughts you had during the expedition, and they will be appended to your report.»
The Therapod took a deep breath, almost taking in all the air in the laboratory with it, and then began exposing everything as he remembered them. It took him an hour. The other two added their own reports after. Then Ovid talked about his discovery of the Parseltongue evolution and how helpful the Snake had been.
«That is interesting, Ovid. It tells me the language is very slow to evolve contrary to Human speech. I wonder why?»
«I think it is a result of the gradual forking of their tongue and the very narrow space left to install a vibratory string, leaving them with only hisses to change tonality,» commented Ovid. «The humans have a series of reeds to vibrate, they have only one.»
«That is worth looking into, Ovid,» said Enron. «I will work on the avatars we have of today's Snakes compared to that one, which we now have a genetic sample, I assume?»
«You forgot, but I did not. I have a scale. Is that enough?»
«Yes. Thank you, Mark.»
«I had the faeces sample in the freezer, and put it through the Microtome, and the slices frozen on microscope slides. Each slide is then moved into the microscope, focussed, photographed, and analysed by the Artificial Intelligences for contents. AI-5, report!»
«The faeces were composed mostly of ferns. However, about 20% contained leaves, seeds, and flowers of angiosperm plants. These were not effectively attacked by the gut Bacteria of the animal, passing through unaffected, in effect retaining water prisoner. Furthermore, the plants seem to have released toxins that reduced intestinal motility, keeping the plants in for a longer period of time. The animal must have been rather uncomfortable, with powerful intestinal cramps followed by sudden release of rather watery faeces.»
«AI-5, create an avatar and model the intestinal interactions had the animal swallowed clay.» asked Ovid.
A few minutes later, the diagnostic came back.
«The clay would have acted as an absorbent for the toxins, reducing the swelling of the intestinal tract, and potentially supplied the missing microbial base for the processing of the angiosperm plants.»
The team looked at each other.
«Conclusion: the angiosperms are exerting an evolutionary pressure on the herbivorous Dinosaurs, which will force them to change feeding habits, adding clay to their regimen, and leaving them weakened until this new way of doing things takes hold, giving the predators an advantage of sorts. Although, I suspect the advantage will be countered by the fact that the predators give preference to innards while eating, and will also be intoxicated by the gut contents of their preys, as the Snake mentioned to Ovid.» Enron said.
«What do we do?» Colibri asked.
«We split the Tessaract in two: one we leave as is to monitor how things would have evolved without the intervention of the Soul-Eaters. The second becomes a Museum Tessaract, where we remove the angiosperms to maintain the current Dinosaur population. Will that be a difficulty, Harp?»
«It is quite easy. Since we, by the intermediate of Ovid, promised to help his friendly Snake, he gets moved to the Museum Tessaract. The others get duplicated and are none the wiser about having matching twins in another Tessaract. Is this acceptable?»
The four Exobiologists nodded with enthusiasm.
«The more I hear, the more shocked I am,» said Black. «You manipulate time like nothing, life as toy rocks, and create life out of air! You move through space so fast the last image does not have time to erase! You change sizes, shapes, and I would not be surprised to learn that matter is nothing to you except a convenient way to represent things!»
«How did you guess? Some have yet to figure that out!» said Harp amidst the laughter of the other Royals.