"So, we can lift the Emergency status?" asked Harold.
"Not yet. We need to scan the data extracted from that now 'energised' brain, as anything left behind in the Black Hole was reduced to pure energy. We have two questions: 1- are there other groups under its umbrella we might have missed, and if so, whom and where? 2- What were his plans, the state of development of those he had in progress, including a full history of said development so we can study for patterns to break."
"Dad! We have enough of Sitar asking that question without you playing choir Boy!" said Paschal.
"Maybe it is contagious? You know, verbal moulding or something like that?"
"But usually, Enron, it is up-down, from Father to Son, not the other way around!" smirked Colibri. "Anyway, Sitar, we have completed the clean-up of the inhabited outer reaches of Thebes. Troops are moving toward the core. The lock-down is maintained."
"Good. The core is more densely packed with Tessaracts, so that will be slower."
"I have released the mechanical Spiders to proceed and walk the hull and do a careful inspection, in case there might be hidden pockets of resistance that might have found a way to insert themselves between the skin and the first inhabited layer. They are in network, so, should any get hindered, we will know instantly," said Yamato. "I think it is the best use for these machines. As for the Armoured Spiders carrying Legionnaires as crew, they, as always, have been set to task on searching the Tessaracts with known dangerous life-forms. The Hulgraes are the most problematic so far, as they are still very territorial, followed, almost nose to nose, by the Wont. I have a list of trouble species for your perusal, Sitar, not that you do not know of them already."
"Some days, I think we are the antibodies of a living organism," said Enron. "Here we are, talking about inspecting between the skin and the first inhabitable layer like we were talking about doing an inspection of the dermal layers of an animal skin for parasites!"
"And you would be right on the dot. I consider those we hunt as parasites," replied, very serious, Yamato.
"And there is ample room for parasites to dig in before we detect them. You seem to forget that the dermal layer of Thebes is over 100 miles thick, thicker than a planetary crust," Paschal added. "It is a complex network of Orichalque laid out in thin, criss-crossing layers of fibres, that inter-link to each other in all directions, giving the skin incredible resistance to anything thrown at it. What better place to hide an underground organisation than there? They could spread like a Fungus, we none the wiser."
"So, Paschal, you are telling me we may be carrying a whole society of parasites and that this individual, Uriel of Solon, or whatever name he held," said Harold with more than a hint of contempt as he pointed to the positronic brain that ran the simulation, "assembled that organisation in 20 years?"
"The one we are dismantling, yes. But if there is an under-skin organisation, it is unlikely they were in contact with the underground one this guy managed. Do not forget Thebes has more volume than the biggest Star around, and is divided in layers of Tessaracts that compress space by billions to one. We are occupying the volume sparsely, and it is still expanding exponentially due to the amount of magical metals we are collecting as we travel."
"And what if they were, Paschal?"
"Then we are in more trouble than we thought. The weakness of opposition is in its division. The moment they act in concert, we may well have to forego our lofty goals and resort to more than blood-letting, if only to survive without retiring to our prime form, pure energy. And believe me, if the need arises, I will be the first one to push the button to terminate Thebes. I will not allow anyone stealing my work and benefit from it in a bid for ultimate power. If Life can not work peacefully together to save itself, than Life does not deserve to survive the Universe."
"Paschal... I must sadly inform you that your view of the nature of Life is sorely mistaken: it is based on competition, on reproduction of the most adaptable to change, the one with the best chance of survival through dissemination of its genes. Nothing is programmed for friendly sharing of resources. What we saw with that Uriel Swirl of Solon is but the atomic tip of the competitive iceberg. Life is intimately competitive, from the crystals of Prions, Retro-Viruses, Viruses, Bacteria, Fungus, Mushrooms, all the way to us and, if you care to remember, even the Artificial Intelligences we had to face in our Ordeals were ferociously competitive," said Enron. "Yes, Life does, sometimes, share resources for a common goal, such as Mitochondria and other cellular organelles, but how much competition and mutual destruction went on before an uneasy agreement was reached between these components? For each instance of sharing we find several billion examples of ferocious competition."
After a sip of Apple juice, Enron continued: "Even we sometimes are not in agreement. We resolve our differences peacefully, but, some times, things do turn sour and we do a fair amount of yelling. Imagine if we did not talk the same language, or could not exchange views at all? We do not compete for resources. We compete for attention from our parents, Annabelle, Harold, Samson, Diamondcutter, Amethyst, or our friends... But we compete! Imagine if we were fighting over food, or reproductive rights? We do not because we realised that, being eternal, we have no need to reproduce, no need to disseminate our genes. And, actually, no need for food, come to think of it. We undertook this Task because we hope to bring Life to our Level. Naturally, there will be bad times, fallbacks, failures, a fair amount of jealousy, envy, and whatever ugly green monsters' heads will pop from those we try to guide along the Path. It should be expected, should be considered normal, and taken into account. Yes, there will be a fair amount of rust before the blood-letting is finally halted, but we can not do anything against it. We are trying to change Nature, remove its competitiveness. That can not be achieved overnight, if ever. Now, how about studying the model we have at hand to figure out if our speculations concerning it were off or on target?"
The others nodded and the simulation began. The first task was to obtain a profile of personality. There, the development closely matched what they had estimated: As a child, Uriel Swift of Solon had been abused, even more than his siblings, because of his repeated revolts and furious fighting back against his parents. He had become the Billy Goat of the house, blamed for everything, even when he was away from the house. He had started trying to get even by abusing animals, then his Brothers and Sisters. His rancour had festered, feeding his rage and his will to destroy. His memory showed he had escaped the fate of the others when the Parents had been enrolled by hiding in the nearby forest and waiting for the collectors of Solon to leave. He had taken over his Parents' farm for a while, until the resources ran out, and then began a life of a vagrant, living off small robberies at first, and creating a gang of Children in the capital of Solon that hid in the sewage and used them as highways to travel the town, rob goods and food, and gradually extend their range of exactions to blackmail, extortion, and finally, murder for hire. They had escaped the Wolves and other Canines by camouflaging their body smell and by means that left the Royals disgusted by the range of dirty tricks they were capable of. The pick-up of Solon's population had taken them in without even noticing their passage, and they had continued their way of life on the ASS Thebes as if nothing had occurred. Most of his 'friends' he had killed himself, or set on one another, as soon as he felt they could betray him or overshadow his power. Some had escaped their fate by making an early run for it, and hiding in other Tessaracts, but they were rare, as he had a deep memory and never forgot anyone he had met if only once in passing. As his arm's reach stretched across Tessaracts, he would keep an eye out for those who had made good their escape, and kill them and, if they had created a bond, every single member of their family. He had kept an eye out for his siblings, intent on killing them, but had not had any luck. On the other hand, his Parents had escaped his grip by a hair. He had come close to disposing of them on several occasions. They seemed to have a sixth sense telling them it was time to run. Each failure had added more heat to his hatred, and had cost the Hunters their life in the most horrible fashion.
Ambition was rampant: he wanted to be the Alpha of all Alphas, the pinnacle of what he hated the most: authority. He exercised his power without mercy or discrimination, killing liberally, promising things he had no intention of ever delivering, manipulating left and right to gain what he wanted, and raging at the need to even bother when people should just do as he asked. Killing was his fun, and torturing, ambrosia. He lived for the thrill of creating pain, as he had felt it intimately at home. No one was out of reach, nothing too much. Yet, he feared, justifiably, the pain of falling into the hands of someone more powerful than he. He could not fathom such things as mercy, and assumed he would be faced with what he had done to others. So he had set up his trap, and sat, eaten, and slept on it for the past year and a half. Miserable he was, but he blamed the misery on a higher authority, thus feeding his hatred.
Contacts with the population of the outer shell of Thebes had revealed to him he still had a long way to go before claiming the Alpha of Alphas status he desired. The Outsiders, as he called them, unaware he was called a Sewer Rat by the same Outsiders, seemed to outnumber his own organisation, and, because they had similar goals, represented competition he was not willing to tolerate. He had sent emissaries, members of his own organisation he was willing to dispose of, just to fathom the depth of the threat, and their reports had been shocking. The only bright light was that they were as divided as those opponents of his inside Thebes. He had begun manipulating them one against the other, his usual tactic to bring down enemies. The over-enthusiasm of the Academy staff to overturn the Royals had taken him short, and he had not been quick enough to stem their vigour, which had left him furious. He was now planning to cut his losses and all Bridges with the idiots, planning to deliver false information mixed with valid leads to the MP if needed. If only he could locate whom or where came the feeling he could not take a pee without being watched!
"So, there is a surface strata... and he contacted them, but both parties lack trust in each other so have not established a functioning method to work together," said Sitar as he watched and heard the memory dump. Yamato, you have free reign to eradicate the surface strata. Rescue the Children if you can, but do not jeopardise your mission for it."
"That was my understanding, God of War."
"Paschal, is there a way to fold Thebes' outer crust in such a way that the porous state it has become in the outer layers recovers its solidity? It is no use disposing of rebels to let others occupy their Rats' nest shortly after we vacate the premises."
"If it was not for Children, I could trigger a cascading contraction, thinning Thebes by 500 yards quite easily... After all, Orichalque is an elastic fibre, and can be polarised for alignment before being shrunk."
"Can that process be local?"
"Follow behind our troops, thus being applied where we just finished a clean-up, closing the holes?"
"Yes. However, the contraction might create tears in the tissue, with sudden decompression. We must not forget that they are near the surface, but probably not on it directly."
"Then how is Yamato to detect their presence?"
"Resonance. The Spiders are very sensitive and can detect a change in vibration resonance due to a hole, up to several hundreds of miles deep. Logic states they did not install themselves too close to the surface, if only to gain some protection from outer space. Furthermore, the outer surface is denser, and a lot less amenable to being holed out. As we add layers, inner ones decompress, so to speak, allowing the installation of living quarters... contrary to what is found in natural rocks, such as Planets."
"I see. Will they be able to detect the search?"
"That is very unlikely. First, the surface is constantly resonating due to our collecting Orichalque and adding its webbing to our outer layer. It creates a constant rumble, which can be felt if not heard right to the upper layers of Thebes' inhabitable thickness. Those layers are empty because of this as we do not want to make our residents uncomfortable. Each time we add a new inhabitable layer above our current layers, the new layer insulates the lower layers from the vibration, and shortly, after three or four layers have been added above, the vibration's noise and feeling is gone. Furthermore, the change of radius changes the frequency slightly. At some point, we will stop resonating completely, but my model of Thebes tells me it will return to a peak at some point...The frequency is a form of quanta resonance, typical of Orichalque. That it is not an either on or off also tells me the Orichalque we capture is not as pure as we thought. Again, the model allowed me to estimate what is the nature of the contaminants and their proportion. We need not worry. I have been designing something that will be applied during our next intergalactic transit to actually separate the contaminants from the Orichalque."
"And what are the contaminants?"
"Adamentium, Ianium (we captured some before we even identified its nature), Mithril, and traces of other energy metals. Adamentium is still well below critical mass, in case you are worried, Dad."
"You say you will filter them out... how?"
"When we enter a long jump, Thebes vibrates. It has a specific frequency, and Orichalque 'force migrates' its contaminants into layers. That occurred during our travel from the Milky Way to Andromeda, thus confirming my model. The layer of Adamentium is about 2 inches, and Mithril is about a mile thick. There are others, laid out in a sphere around the core of Thebes, in thickness varying from a few atoms to a couple of miles. Each layer is not inhabited because they are not fit for that task. The thickest layer is Gold, at 4.2 miles thick. As Thebes expands, the contaminants migrate outward, thinning as they do so. Once the last layer of contaminant is past a potential region getting ready for inhabitation, the area is released for the installation of Tessaracts and populations migrated into them."
"The quantity of contaminant gained over our travels is not sufficient to assure a constant thickness as the area of the sphere increases. Thus, each layer of contaminant thins out."
"How come we collected that much Gold?"
"Oh that... We passed through a supernova cloud that was cooling down, We collected Orichalque for sure, but also some heavy metals such as Gold, Platinum, Silver, and, well, just about every garbage that managed to cool down and accrete to our surface, including, for some reason, a good chunk of that yellow crap. The separation process began the moment we did a jump, and has been going on ever since. We keep collecting shit, but that was the big day... And the migration-filtration process has been going on and on and on. I doubt it will ever be finished. I have a standing order banning Thebes from entering a supernova cloud. I do not want that experience repeated! We got enough Gold to be sick of it. Just so you know, I have some Spiders cleaning up Lead from one of these rings and brought out to the surface to be ejected. So far we got rid of 60 billion tons of that shit. And I have others working on removing Mercury, Uranium, other radioactive metals, and poisonous ones. We keep some, but we get rid of most. Gold we keep, because it has its uses, if only to build the mesh for the Portals and as a base for our legal tender. I am sure if some of the greedy bastard knew we have in reserve a 4.2 mile thick Gold mine covering an entire layer of Thebes, they would go nuts!"
"I can imagine. Remember, Paschal, it is rarity that gives value... for idiots."
"I know Dad, Why do you think I have not flooded the market with Gold and other so-called precious metals? We could carpet Thebes with it. And nothing stops us from jumping into another supernova cloud and take a Gold bath... for what it would serve. For that matter, it did pass my mind to ask for a jump right into a blowing up supernova to collect not Gold, but short-lived super-heavy metals, say above atomic number 300. After all, if we can stop time, we can collect these short-lived atoms and study their chemical behaviours. But I finally relented. They are too dangerous. We have enough trouble with Adamentium and Ianium without collecting more of the same."
"If greed does not die down, I may ask you to do just that..."
"Sire?" said a small voice which had been quiet until then.
"Far from me to contest you, but... covering the entire ship with Gold would not serve your purpose. The greedy would only change their greed's focus from Gold to something else, something we might find even less to our taste, such as slavery."
"You do have a point... What would you suggest?"
"Use their greed for our own ends. We have drug addicts, which get served by greedy bastards in goods we do not approve of. Instead of fighting the addiction, tax it to the hilt. And consider tax evasion a crime punishable by death. The greedy are bound to believe they can get away with it, and you would be able to detect their activities and counter them under cover of fighting tax evasion, a much more acceptable justification than blatant drug suppression. People want to be as stone-hard as Diamonds? Let them, but make sure they foot the bill. Idiots will go overboard, and die. We have a population explosion... let it cool itself off by that means. I am sure the free access to drugs will bring about a wave of overdose deaths of first magnitude, allow us to spot the dealers and collect taxes and heads, killing two birds with one stone throw: the greedy, and the stone-dead."
"That is a good suggestion, Daniel. Write me a paper, and be ready to defend it when it is ready. And what are you doing, standing at attention like you got sculpted out of marble? Trying to play the role of David by Michelangelo? You do have a nice bubble butt, but I have seen a wide variety of those by now. Sit down! When I think the Ancients thought it represented King David of Israel after he had disposed of Goliath, but none of them noticed the statue was uncut!"
Noticing Daniel's questioning look, Thorsten told him he would bring him to visit the 16th century Earth museum, and show him the sculpture they had recovered via the time collectors.
"If religious fanatics have not destroyed it... And uncut?" said Daniel.
"Do not worry. The museums are always in time lock-down. It requires Paschal's explicit authorisation for the time lock to be opened, and only for a short period, and under the tight control of real Spiders whom patrol them. Spiders are are not above eating some narrow-brained arses. It happened a couple of times, and we found an empty shell of a body, siphoned out of every liquid. The Fairies control the Spiders for us. As for uncut, it refers to that barbaric practice called circumcision practiced on 2 out of 3 Boys by the Ancients, including, but not limited to, Israelites, which implied removing the foreskin rather than bother teaching the Boys to keep their hose clean. Admittedly, living in a desert had its inconveniences when it came to the supply of water, and sand inserting itself in the wrong place. No one wants sand-blasting down there!"
"While Yamato is busy, what else can we learn from this?" asked Sitar.
"Never believe in peace. Always prepare for war. And be on guard at all times," said Ovid.
"It seems you have learned more than Biology at that School."
"Well, it is applied survival skills. Any school is a bit of a microcosm of the world, and Students reproduce, at a smaller scale, but more condensed as well, what happens outside of it. I had to knock a few teeth to earn respect, and so did my friend. We kept each other's back safe."
"Before we had to deal with that crap, Sitar, I was dealing with an Ent murder. We never did finish the job. We do know, with a high level of certainty, who made the dirty deed and why, but we never had time to confront the culprit," said Annabelle. "I know this is 'civilian' matter, but it should not be left on the ice, as we risk forgetting about it."
"Mom, the moment I took control, the notion of 'military' versus 'civilian' matters disappeared. It did not blur. It vanished. We have a murder case? We solve it."
"Good. Colibri, you had the report, last time..."
"I still have it. I took it with me when we ported to the Emergency Bridge. I was afraid some jerk might try to make it disappear during the time we are here. I had not taken into account the time deep-freeze Harp instituted. I did not expect it."
"Neither did we, so do not feel off," said Harold. "By the way, how long before we return to normal, Sitar?"
The other Royals exploded in laughter at Sitar's face.
"It feels good to see my big Brother get a taste of his own medicine!" said Harp. "How does it feel to be bugged by that question, big Brother?"
Sitar pulled a tongue at Harp, which promptly covered it in methylene blue, producing a coughing fest with furious eyes to boot.
"So, AI-4, what did you discover concerning that Ent's motives and methods?"
"Motives were simple to find out: he wanted the mate of O589-200-12 so he disposed of him. His next phase would probably have involved killing the young Ents produced by the seeds of the female Ent. Unfortunately, for him, he got caught because O589-200-12 is a Bridge officer. Had it not been the case, he might well have escaped away with the murder unpunished."
"What do you suggest?"
"It is useless to punish him within the Ent enclave. They have no idea of morals and murder. They are peaceful, for the most part, but have no such thing as laws and the like. What I suggest is getting him moved to a Tessaract that contains a fair proportion of volcanism, and let Nature take care of him. He is bound to make a mistake and end up dead within a short period of time. After all, geysers are not to be trifled with, especially those that sprout acidic water."
"Tell him he has to repair a series of portals in that Tessaract, which, by the way, is true, since the portals regularly get damaged. Give him all the tools he needs to do the repairs. He should, being a tree, be able to feed off the soil and there is a lot of water. The only thing is, the soil is rather acidic, and he will feel the effects of the acid as it burns his vacuoles from the roots up. He left O589-200-12 to be eaten by Fire Ants. He will be eaten from the inside every time he feeds on the soil... and feel worse every day, not understanding what is happening to him. He will be showered in acid rain, his bark burned, his leafs pierced by droplets, and therefore, the motor of his food line will begin to collapse. At some point, he will no longer be able to feed for lack of evaporation at the leaf level, the process which brings the nutrients up the tree. He will die of starvation and indigestion. The destruction of the bark will compound the problem as the vacuoles will dry out, no longer protected by the bark."
"A horrible death..."
"Fitting for someone whom did such an horrible act."
"Okay. Enron, send the re-assignment order."
"Agreed, Sitar. I can write the order, but its execution will have to wait for things to return to normal."
Yamato was kept busy with a team of Legionnaires driving the robotic Spiders on the surface of Thebes by telemetry. They had issues if only because Thebes' surface was highly irregular, showing spindles just sprouting in every direction. The first task was to establish a base pattern, a signature, for a normal, intact area. Unfortunately, the first area they searched was too close to the exit the Spiders had used and they had to travel several miles before its presence disappeared in the resonance. The second issue was that the signals took too much time to travel back and forth. Force was to admit that operating the Spiders from the Emergency Bridge was not working. The only solution, thought Yamato, was to move the control team to somewhere nearer the surface, so he approached Harp and Sitar on the subject.
"Guys, I have an issue."
"The Spiders response is sluggish. It takes over 8 hours for a command to reach them and another 8 hours for their response. By then, they have moved from where they were located and the commands are no longer valid."
"Eight hours?" asked Sitar, "Why?"
"We tried establishing direct linkage. Even at the speed of light, a signal takes 8 hours to reach Thebes' surface. A total exchange is 16 hours and growing."
"Why not go topside with one of the Armoured Spiders?" said Harp.
"Because of the time freeze. It even affects the Robotic Spiders. We could always go up, as you say, but you would need to release our work area from the freeze for us to work. And then that would also release whom we hunt. Furthermore, the data exchange between us and you would still take 16 hours. I could ask you come with us, Harp, but that is out of the question. You are needed here."
Harp and Sitar exchanged glances, and looked at Paschal for an idea.
"Hey, I may be a miracle worker, but that one's beyond me. Time is the playground of Harp, and blood the skating ice of Sitar!"
Harp scratched his chin slowly, looking at Sitar. "I may have an idea..."
"No, that's your game. I think we can put a time regulator on the back of a Spider. It's a bit big, as I did not work on reducing their size and they fit unobserved in a Tessaract entrance frame. No one ever bothered to ask why the Tessaract doors were so wide."
"I thought it was for the Dragons?" Sitar asked.
"No, they could walk in, wings folded, rather than fly in. The doors are wide to allow for the installation of the time regulator and its psycho-telemetry. They act as boosts for my own capacity and allow me to set time and forget, rather than need to keep an eye on things all the time."
"We do not have a Spider that big, Harp," said Paschal.
"We may not, but we will... after you build it! And it will allow enough space to install a complete, autonomous, control desk for the robotic Spiders, to be operated by the Legionnaires."
"You are nuts."
"Ya, I know. I am releasing your workshop from the grip of Time, Paschal. I was going to say take your time to design that special Spider, but time is something we do not have. Portal A is linked. Sensors indicate there is no one in your workstation, I locked the hallways by blocking the keys and the other portals. No one should bother you since time is halted outside of your work area. If you need additional material, the storage locker across the hall is also released, so you can port to get stuff. I think you had about a cubic mile of stuff in there?"
"Ya... and tools," replied Paschal, as he walked towards the Portal.
"Before you go, the Portal is indirect. You will find yourself in a FSS before entering your workshop. For some reason, I have a feeling you will need it."
"Harp intuition for trouble... Not to be taken lightly. Thanks!" said Paschal as he disappeared.
"Harp intuition for causing trouble..." said Samson, with a laugh. "But I admit he has a point."
"Has anyone explored the upper reaches of Thebes?" asked Annabelle.
"No, they are still to be searched. Why?"
"I was asking myself a question while taking my rest period. How do they reach the outer crust if it is considered unlikely they used the surface of Thebes? FSS are highly regulated, right?"
"Yes. They must be released from the Bridge, and must be returned via the Bridge log."
"And no FSS ever went missing?"
"How is the log maintained?"
"It is we who maintain the in and out log," said AI-1. "The moulding of a FSS is under our control, and the recovery of its components and their return to the flow for purification and preparation for reuse is also under our control."
"What is the count of FSS in use currently?"
"One. We have no external FSS. Prince Paschal occupies an internal one. The time freeze has confined the Legions to barracks."
"Okay. Could anyone run with a FSS and get away with it?"
"Unnoticed? No. A FSS has a specific mass. Each FSS is tailored to a specific need, and accounted for to the nearest atom. Furthermore, should a FSS wearer make a run for it, as you say, the FSS can be recalled, with or without its inner cargo. It has never occurred... yet."
"Anything else I do not know about a FSS?" said Annabelle, looking at Sitar.
"Don't ask me, Paschal designed them! I am but a user!"
"When you say 'recall without its inner cargo'... you mean?"
"Yes, Queen Annabelle. The FSS leaves whom it had been sheltering behind and reappears in the Recovery Pool, empty."
"A death sentence..."
"Yes," replied the AI, in a clinical voice.
"We seem to collect many ways to kill..."
"Very true, Mom. But there are as many ways to betray us."
"So my Sons could be killed by a vengeful idiot from the Bridge."
"There is a protection, two in fact. Royals that use a FSS are exempt from the 'empty shell' recall, but not from the recall itself. This is to allow the recall of a Royal that, for some reason, has lost consciousness. Second, we monitor each recall, and it requires unanimous vote from all of us for it to be an 'empty shell' recall, and get the approval of at least three Royals. Before you ask, there has been 16 recalls over the past 50 years, none of the 'empty shell' variety. A FSS that carries a Royal also has its 'empty shell' recall circuitry disabled, just in case someone Bridge-wise managed to override us. Should the 'empty shell' recall be sent out after a bypass, the Bridge itself has a protection. It will knock out the bastard that did it, even if it is not a Royal being recalled."
"Bypassing the Bridge security and us requires intimate knowledge of how it is designed, assembled, and otherwise constructed. Only Paschal knows enough. The circuitry designs are not accessible from anywhere but within us, and encrypted by Paschal's own brain-waves."
"I feel reassured, AI."
Two days later, a very harassed Paschal made his way to the Emergency Bridge.
"Your dinner of Spiders is served, Prince Harp. I hope you are fit to eat it. It can carry a crew of fifty, and the time regulator is incorporated in the Spider's dorsal shell. The way I set it, it affects an area of 5 square miles, allowing standard Spiders to explore the area around it. Hey, are you listening?"
"Yes, Paschal, I am. I am just doing the maths to determine how long it will take to do the entire surface of Thebes..."
"Not another 'how long' guy? Six inches, is that long enough?"
"Get your brain out of the gutter, big Brother."
"Yamato, this is a prototype. The Legionnaires will be living within a FSS for security reasons. One, it will not be pressurised nor climate-controlled; the task will be taken over by the FSS. It is a hot-bed environment, designed for a 12-12 shift, crew rotation every seven days. It has a series of black boxes that will record everything, so I can improve the prototype. Eventually, it will be sealed up and equipped with additional tool sets to allow repairs of the surface, should the need arise. For now, the only thing it has is a series of Spider control desks, seismograph recorders, a pair of defence pinchers, and Portal deck to allow crew entry and exit as it is sealed. Is that satisfactory?"
"Amply. What about speed?"
"It moves at 60 miles per hour, whatever the terrain. That means, also, that even if the crew is within individual FSS, they need to be netted. They sleep in nets, they sit in nets, well sit is a big word... They also lay down on their back at the control desk and the navigation station."
"So, if I understand this, we should be able to cover... 7,200 square miles in 24 hours. Not bad, not bad at all."
"I have in preparation a production chain, Yamato. The Portal is standard and has proven trustworthy. The on-board seismographs are standard Spider models. The controls are neutrino-based, like those in here, and they seem to work nicely in contacting Legions in action as long as the distance is not too great. There are enough channels for you to control over 1,000 Spiders and record everything their 'feet' sense, their 8 eyes view, and also give you control over their offensive weaponry, should the need arise."
"Now. Pick up your crew. I suggest you go with them for the first rotation. That will give you a personal experience of the conditions under which they will be working, and give me a feedback when you come back. Keep a journal with the FSS journal protocol, something most users seem to have neglected!" said Paschal as he looked at Harp and Sitar.
"Say or think 'Journal! Log Entry date... Log entry time. Log entry: your journal entry. End Log entry! End Journal.' If you notice you forgot something, say or think 'Journal! Log addendum!' and it will add the addendum at the end of the last log entry. It is fully psycho-motor. It is designed for those of us that have issues speaking Atlantean or can not speak verbally. It has an auto-log feature, and can register videos, sounds, and everything you can think of. I thought I had explained this in the FSS on-board manual. The journal automatically logs some things, such as sleep cycles, and dates. It compares the date you report and its own log, and informs us of any discrepancy. That is to make sure no hidden health issue occurs."
"There's an on-board manual? Where?" Sitar asked.
"On-board, where else?"
"Paschal!" exclaimed Sitar and Harp in perfect harmony.
"The on-board FSS User Manual is stored in the FSS electronics circuitry and shows up on request on the Heads-Up Display, or telepathically downloads its contents, depending on the request. The scrolling, or the download is controlled by the user. And you can search the contents, use the index, or the table of contents. And it is adapted to each individual FSS configuration, whom, as you know, is species-specific."
"Some days, Paschal, some days!" growled Sitar. "I was wondering if my FSS had such and such capability and all I needed to do was ask the FSS?"
"Yes. I thought you knew me better than that. Since when have I done anything by half?"
"I made my pick. My old Centurie will do nice. I know them as if I had fathered them."
"You didn't? They all look alike!"
"Oh! Little Kitty needs petting!"
"Fang Chao will have free food if you continue!"
"Stop it, guys! We have a bloody job to do," said Enron.
After a smirk from Colibri, Yamato left to pick up his 50 Men. Calm returned to the Emergency Bridge.
"Mom, before Paschal interrupted you, you were saying something about the sub-dermal layer but you never completed your idea," remembered Sitar.
"It gave me time to think things out. Remember, I was asking about travelling on the surface and the unauthorised use of a FSS. That is when the AIC revealed the recall capabilities and the rather ugly ultimate solution that allowed the 'empty shell' recall. I came to the conclusion that the Outsiders did not use FSS units. Therefore, they had to reach and build their cavities from inside Thebes. The only layer they could possibly use is the last 'ready to be occupied' layer, several miles below the outer crust. We do not patrol the areas as we deem them unoccupied, or squarely unfit for occupation. That might have been a mistake on our part."
"Short-sighted is the true word. I shall dispatch a couple of Swarms up there."
"Sitar, they might not even know what to look for."
"True," Sitar mumbled.
"So, let us interrogate Paschal. He knows how they are built, in what order things get added."
Paschal looked up at the ceiling, pensive, and then began talking.
"The first thing a new layer gets is a series of 360 circumpolar galleries expanded by pushing the Orichalque upward. Then there is the equatorial gallery. Finally, four sets of galleries are built in the same fashion as the circumpolar ones. That creates spherical triangles which will contain whatever we plan to put in place. The next step... is creating store-rooms within the triangles. Some of these store-rooms are assembled as engines for Thebes, others contain a variety of things, and the vast majority will contain Tessaracts, whose entrance will be set in time, as new time regulators are assembled by the robotic Spiders we use for heavy work. Every 0.5°, we put in a Portal, so that we can move quickly into the area. The Portals are assembled, tested, and added to the Portal network. Hey! That gives me an idea!"
Paschal ran to a control desk and began typing madly.
"There! And there! And there! And again, there!"
"What is so exciting?"
"Sitar, I asked the Portals to report usage. They should not be in use after they have been assembled until we open the layer for occupation. But wait..."
Again, Paschal typed in a request.
"And I ran a diagnostic. Let me explain in order... I think we have found something that will help us considerably. First query: Were there Portals used after we vacated the upper area and removed the construction Spiders? The answer is yes. Several hundreds. That means there were people that went up there and should not have been there. The Portals in use are not evenly distributed, but rather localised. Second query: Is a Portal functional or not? And there, I found about fifty that got disabled. All of which are located in what I would call the outer wall of the passages, the perfect place to 'dig in', so to speak, into the Orichalque, since it has already been disturbed by the installation of a Portal. The upper layer Portals answered functioning, problematic, or did not answer at all. That the problematic did not report to the network clearly indicates a deliberate tempering. We must assume that they are in the process of being perverted for another use."
"I get it. We can find their doors by looking at the disabled portals?"
"Somewhat. I would not put it beyond the Outsiders to relocate a Portal and use it within a local network. If they knew enough to do this, and that is a reasonable assumption since we use local workforce to maintain the Portals, they could well have built a parallel network. There are a few things the locals do not know. The power engine is locked and can be disabled. We find one, and disable the local network from there. Also, there is an override that we can use to bypass any lock they could put in place to keep us out."
"Good. You are coming with me. We wear a FSS each, and I want you armed to the teeth. Harp! You have command!"
"Okay Sitar. Telepathic communications only. Neutrino transmission is too slow."
"Agreed. Inform Yamato as soon as we leave. He should be on the surface by now."
Harp nodded, and released the time lock on the closest Portal available that would lead Sitar and Paschal to a disabled Portal. A fraction of a second later, the two were in the passage.
«Yes, Harp? I have yet to begin!»
«Move to 56˚ 32' 12.11324" North, 42˚ 14' 10.32123" West; we have reason to believe there might be some underground action there.»
Yamato was no dimwit and understood, without being told, that the Royals had found a lead. He quickly disposed his Legion of Spiders in formation and had them move at an accelerated speed toward the location indicated.
«ETA: 5 hours 35 minutes, Harp.»
«Notify me when you are five minutes off for co-ordination purposes.»
«Acknowledged.» The request for notification confirmed Yamato's supposition. Something was up below.
«Sitar, Yamato says ETA to the upper reaches above you is 5 hours 35 minutes.»
«We just reached the location. Paschal is looking at the Portal. We will take our time to make sure there are no dirty traps, and if so, remove them."
«Sitar, there are no such things as clean traps,» commented Paschal as he removed the cover hiding the controls' circuitry.
"What is it that bothers you, Paschal?"
"They added something... And the circuitry is hidden by the standard one. I noticed the standard is held in place by pressure screws, which tells me the trap is based on the same trick I use to protect the Portals' circuitry. But somehow... something's up. It also tells me some members of the rebels are well-trained in repair and maintenance of the Portals."
"Do you think they could have broken into the circuit boxes?"
"No. The moment a circuit box is broken, the circuit vanishes so it is impossible to open it for study. It is the ultimate black box."
"How did you manage that trick?"
"It is under void for half the circuitry, and under Halon-112 over-pressured for the other half."
"Dichlorofluoromethane. A gas that is a coolant, but also insures no oxidation. It is also very toxic, and kills anything that breaths even a whiff of it by displacing the Oxygen in the blood bonds and stopping the breathing cycle of anything alive based on just about any gas short of Fluorine. And we have very few Fluorine-based Life-forms, all of which are still in deep stasis. The Fluorine burns the circuitry on the other half, and the de-pressurisation vaporises the circuitry protected by the Halon. The two areas are sealed from each other by a very thin layer of Gold, that bursts at the slightest change in atmospheric conditions."
"And I thought I was paranoid."
Paschal followed the circuitry as best he could. From what he could see, the trap was designed to explode and spray the area thick with shrapnel. Not very efficient for someone wearing a FSS, but more than enough to give warning that someone was tempering with the circuit without knowing what was implied. He pulled out a pair of vise-grips and twisted them tight on each end of the circuit, locking it into position. He then unscrewed the cap, and used a voltmeter to verify if it was charged. Getting a positive reading, he wired a Bridge wire that would maintain the electrical circuit closed while allowing him to remove the circuitry. The removal of the circuitry revealed it had been tied to a small bundle of chemical, probably TNT, and would have destroyed the entire system had it been triggered. Removing the TNT was the last step. To do so, he first gently pulled out the fuse, unscrewed it from the spark cap, and put it away. Finally, the 100 grams of TNT was pulled out gently, as it was pure and sloshed at every move.
"These guys are nuts. A simple shock could have triggered this thing!" said Paschal as he placed the container on the floor, 50 yards away from the Portal. "And I'm not even counting in electrostatic charges that inevitably collect on such a crude circuit. They are suicidal. I'll port it to Thorsten's laboratory so he can study the exact composition of the TNT. There are contaminants that might give us an idea of whom did the production. After all, those that learn chemistry are recorded, and they all have their quirks when it comes to producing such a complex molecule. Their profile is recorded during their production runs."
"I figured as much. As I said earlier, you are as paranoid as I am."
"Now, I dismantle the Portal Bridge, and we have access to its insertion socket."
"Because all that to blow up a Portal is a bit much. I think it is hiding something more."
A couple of hours more passed before Paschal took a break.
"What have you found so far?"
"I was right. The Portal is fake. It hid a narrow hallway. See that wire circuitry I have been so careful about?"
"It carries an electrical signal from the Portal to somewhere else. Should the Portal blow, the circuit is opened and I am sure there is an alarm at the other end, if not a series of explosive traps along the hallway to block our progress to their location."
"You only see part of the issue. See that plate there? It is slightly discoloured, marking it as a trigger. We have to walk along the hallway in such a way as not to step on any trigger. They went far, very far, to insure we would not be able to take them by surprise."
"Why not hop from one discoloured tile to the next?"
"They are too far apart for this to be convenient. They would blow themselves up each time they made their way through this corridor."
"They come often?"
"Each time one of the other nearby Portals, one of the real Portals, gets activated."
"The data I got while on the Bridge shows they come here every six months, rotating Portals, so as not to attract attention to this particular entrance point. There must be a dozen fake Portals... just for this area."
"Therefore a dozen places we can infiltrate. It is like leaving 12 doors open in a fortified city."
"Yes. But a city wants to survive the assault. From what I get here, they do not. We rest. And I will be asking you for about a Centurie of Legionnaires, Fairy-sized. They will be light enough to walk the traps without triggering them, small enough to enter without being seen, and deadly enough to do the dirty work, Sitar."
"Approved. Do you want the Fairies' Spiders as well? I am sure Iridia will love the exercise. She has been bored. Not enough crowned heads to dispose of, she said."
"Sure. It seems we are contagious."
After a quick exchange with the Emergency Bridge and Harp, the two Princes took a rest, waiting for the arrival of the Fairies and their eight-legged cavalry.
Yamato progressed slowly on Thebes' surface. The shape of the surface was not an easy travel, with the gigantic spikes several miles high that gave the impression of a forest of needles when viewed from high on the side of a spike; the huge, deep trenches that separated each spike and forced the mechanical Spiders to jump to cross the rather wide gaps. The eight legs of the Spiders were put through a thorough workout, their hydraulics tested to the limit.
"I hope this prototype survives until we reach our goal," commented Yamato to one of the pilots.
"Us too! I can only imagine the trouble walking that terrain would be...Oww! I bit my tongue! The net chairs need better suspensions and dampeners."
"Noted... I added it to the list in my Journal."
"Given the rough terrain, Sir, may I suggest we rotate more often? Say, every six hours instead of every 12?"
"Noted as well. I may even bring that to four hours... I am feeling seasick with all those jumps. Dampeners really do need improvements."
"I wonder why we never noticed the need before?"
"Simple. Have we ever travelled in that kind of terrain? Even the mountains are flat compared to this."
"Iridia, I need to know how many Legions you have? And how many are available for our use?" asked Harp, as the Fairy Princess made her way to the Bridge.
"Let me think... I have 16 Legions on full war footing doing police work; and 48 in reserve; however, I do need to keep some home to prevent some jerks from using my absence to take control."
"I will maintain your Tessaract in full time lock-down, Iridia. They can't even think 'pee-time' in that state. The only issue is during the transfer in and out of the Tessaract to your forward position to help Sitar and Paschal. How fast can you have your Legions ready for movement? I will release the time-lock for that period, and do the transfer via Portal to the advanced base of action, then lock things back in place. The faster the better, since this will shorten the time your trouble-makers have to move. Your ready-to-deploy Legions will suffice. I assume that includes Spiders?"
"And who is your biggest pain in the butt?"
"My Cousin. He believes it is necessary to have two heads to govern."
"Ah, another case of those. Did you know the French used to call Mosquitoes 'Cousins'? They must have had some head-aches... Question: Would you mind if something happened to him?"
"Not really, but he does present an advantage: he attracts rebels like a magnet attracts steel dust, and keeping an eye on him gives me a good view of those that cause trouble. I get rid of the most intelligent and cunning, leaving the idiots behind for my enjoyment. He thinks he outsmarts me, whereas I have been manipulating him like a puppet."
"Watching you guys do it gave me the idea. My first instinct was to cut the head of a rebellion, but then I realised it was more fun to cut the balls."
"Brr! You are bad!"
"Says the Brother of the God of War."
"Back to timing. How long before they are ready for deployment via Portal?"
"Thirty minutes. However, moving Legions by Portal can be slow..."
"Not the way I want them moved. They will be brought to the Portal, run into it and find themselves in inter-space, able to move right through matter and reach the target Portal and base point without the need for the Portal to actually go through the energise cycle. That is the trick our Legions are currently using to clean up the Tessaracts of trouble-makers. On arrival, they will be placed in time freeze to await offensive deployment. No move, no leak."
"Why not port directly on target?"
"Paschal and Sitar have found something that requires this type of action. Probably because they do not trust everyone and do not want the targets warned."
"Okay. Knowing my own issues, I can understand that policy. One question: Should I go with my troops?"
"Do you think there might be issues?"
"There are stiff-necks as always, in every slice of society, including the Military."
"Knowing Sitar, he might slice the problem."
"Then, I will stay here. Some believe in sovereignty of the Fairies... and refuse to act as Vassals. They are insulted by the mere mention of the situation."
"Blue blood is as lacking of oxygen as always. Dim-wits they are, dim-wits they stay. Well, off you go to get your troops in movement, Iridia. I will keep close watch on things from here by telepathy. Should issues arise in moving the troops, do not be surprised to see me show up, the whip of fire ready to burn some hides."
"I hope it is a figure of speech?"
"You never know."
Once the Princess had moved back to her Tessaract, Harp looked at other information. Ian was presently leading a Swarm in Tessaract M4324 on a clean-up mission, and Alexander was doing the same in M4325. Their reports were flowing in and telling Harp that everything was going according to plan: A few hundred dead, 423 Children moved into stasis to have their memories wiped of the brainwash their Parents had instilled in them, and the losses for the Legions were still at nil. Armoured Spiders were a marvel. He walked the Bridge to check on the different desks, noticing that Piano was at the helm, Thorsten at weapons, Colibri at Security; Daniel and Ovid were listening to Samson explain the basics of inter-stellar navigation. The others were either at rest or sleeping.
«We are ready for deployment, Prince of Magic.»
«Activating the Portal, continuous stream. Run for it, and, Princess, I will bring you back to the Emergency Bridge the moment you tell me the last Legionnaire made his way through the Portal, deactivating it as well.»
«Transfer should take about 30 minutes.»
«Call me when the last Decurie is ready to run in.»
«Sitar, the Fairies are deploying in inter-space. The first ones should be accruing near your point about now.»
«I sense their presence in inter-space. How many are expected?»
«More than enough. I am still waiting to hear from Yamato.»
«He should be near. Give him another 30 minutes. That would fit nicely with the arrival of the last Fairy.»
«Sitar, alert! One of the Portals under watch activated in your area!»
«Damn it! Paschal, transparency mode! We'll kill them the moment they come within the nearby hallway! How far, Harp?»
«The Portal is 2 miles off, in an adjacent hallway. Tracking indicates they are coming your way. Because of the delay in transmission, they must be damn closer!»
"I sense them. Two hundred yards. I'm going hunting. How many?"
"Okay. Moving to intercept."
«Harp. ETA 5 minutes!» signalled Yamato.
«Take position and hold. Sitar is getting ready to confront rebels travelling towards him.»