Fifteen days had passed, and things seemed to go right, for once. Orichalque collectors were beginning to return to base, their holds full of the precious metal, and a dusting of other magical metals, including an impressive quantity of mithril.
As every member of the Royals were taking a well-deserved rest, David made his way to the Royal suite, so preoccupied he collided with Harold, sending the Emperor flying on his arse.
"Oh! Sorry, your Majesty!" said a horrified boy.
"Seems you have something on your mind, David. Care to light up my lantern?"
"A lantern in a space-ship with 80% oxygen? I would be nuts to even consider lighting it! It might blow up or set the area on fire!"
"We got Freon as fire extinguisher, David..."
"Well, tell me what bothers you..."
"I was looking at low-mass Red Dwarf stars... I notice they do emit more light than they receive, but..."
"Well... I did a spectrometer analysis of about 200 of them, of masses slightly bigger than Jupiter to twice Jupiter's mass, you know the low-range Miniature Red Dwarfs. Lean against the wall, sir... These Stars have a layer of... liquid water. The layers are organised as such: the core is hot, gaseous hydrogen-helium with hydrogen undergoing almost cold fusion! Then there are different layers of ever colder elements... finally, near the top, but still way down in the atmosphere, there is water vapour whose pressure supports a layer of liquid water that dissipates heat by convection to the upper layer, itself composed of a gaseous blanket stratified by density."
"Interesting, you say? But if there is liquid water, there is life!"
"L...Life? Are you sure?"
"At first, I had my doubts, but I realised a fact: every time we found water, in any quantity, in any form, be it gaseous, liquid, or solid, we found life! There is absolutely no reason why the Miniature Red Dwarfs could not sustain life!"
"Tell me, David, what does this imply?"
"You know the function y = 1/x with 0 < x < ∞ ? That reciprocal function gives a good idea of the distribution of independent particles according to mass. The bigger the mass, the less likely an object of that mass exists. It goes from subatomic particles to Stars... Now, a subset of that is Miniature Red Dwarfs... There are a lot more of those than Red Dwarfs, and there are more Jupiterian Stars out there than Miniature Red Dwarfs. Jupiter produces more energy than it receives, but it is not the product of cold fusion, more of residual nuclear disintegration."
"And we have been focussing on Planets, forgetting the Miniature Red Dwarf Stars. If things follow that equation, for each Red Dwarf, there might be 100 Miniature Red Dwarfs. We already know there are generally 3 Jupiterian Planets by Star system, if not more, and that for each big one, there are 5 rocky Planets! Do the maths, Sire! It means we missed several billion life-forms in the Milky Way Galaxy alone!"
"You are scaring me, David!"
"That was not my intention..."
"Maybe not, but you succeeded! This is a nightmare!"
"Now you understand why I was preoccupied."
"Come, David, let's go to the Imperial Ready Room. You will expose your discovery to the others."
"Shouldn't we send life sensors in one Miniature Red Dwarf before making that assumption public?"
"You will need Paschal's help in designing the sensor array and the ship. And Ian will probably insist on piloting the ship by telemetry, and Enron and his henchman, Colibri, will want to be at the sampling and sensor control desk, and..."
"Okay, okay! I get it!"
"So, David," began Colibri, in an effort to wrap his brain around the problem, "you are telling me there is a potential for life within Stars, Miniature Red Dwarfs, to be more precise, and that we missed them all?"
"In short, yes!"
"Can we validate that hypothesis?" asked Enron.
"I'm no engineer, but if we can survive Black Holes, I seen no reason why we can not send a sensor array within a Miniature Red Dwarf to validate that hypothesis. After all, every time we found water, we found life," replied David while looking at Paschal with inquisitive eyes.
"Right... The life-array is already part of our standard arsenal. The only issue is it is enclosed within a capsule that would get crushed on descent. I can easily redesign and assemble a shell to protect the array on descent..." began Paschal, while scratching his chin.
"And if we find life?" asked Annabelle.
"Good question. Harp? Do you think it is viable to design tessaracts matching the conditions?"
"I can not answer that question as yet, since I have no idea of the conditions we are talking about."
"Guys, team up and get to work. I need answers! First, find out how many Stars of that type exist; second, design a self-replicating device that will use local resources to reproduce itself and explore the inner workings of miniature Red Dwarfs to search for life; third, once life is found, the ecosystem must be studied by reprogramming the life-array to do just that and send reports back to us via the relays we are leaving behind; fourth, once we know their conditions, Harp will determine if the tessaracts can be configured to allow these conditions to be met, and Enron, with the help of Colibri and David, will determine if we need to replicate every ecosystem, as, after all, we can limit ourselves to samples; sixth, once the conditions are met, we will trigger the proper tessaracts and their populating. You have 15 days!" ordered Harold.
Timor and Paschal were hard at work in the Paschal's laboratory, grumbling.
"Fifteen days! He's nuts!" said Timor.
"The Emperor orders, the Emperor gets," replied Paschal, working on a micro-circuit.
"What are you doing now?"
"Oh, I decided to add nanites to the life-array. The layer of nanites allows for repairs, but also reconfiguration and replication. Once the first set is built, it can be dumped in an asteroid belt where it will reproduce ad-nauseam before being ordered to port to their respective final destination, namely, in this case, a miniature Red Dwarf. The thing is, the program can be adjusted from wherever Thebes will be via our repeater arrays. The issue is energy. For now, the nanites reproduce by doubling every hour; once in an asteroid belt, they will double every six months due to lack of energy."
"Why not reproduce them inside Thebes?"
"Would you like something similar to a Shark replicating within your tummy?"
"I don't get it!"
"They not only need energy, they need matter. They will eat their way through an Asteroid belt faster than you go through a hot dog!"
A day later...
"Hey, Paschal, you look like you got rolled over in thumb tacks and..." Sitar said.
"Uh? Oh! The pinprick look! I'm simply allergic to lack of sleep... I've been up 36 hours working on the damn life sensor array! But it's done. I'm going to the bridge to report to Harold."
"Ever heard of the intercom?"
"Piss me off! And here I was walking to the Bridge!" Paschal turned to the nearest intercom and clicked. "Paschal to Harold!"
"It's done. The production line is activated. I have a stock of 50 ready to be ported outside of Thebes."
"Don't tell me I've not been sleeping and working my ass off for something you don't even remember setting a priority 1 on!"
In the background, Paschal heard Annabelle whisper (way too loudly) to Harold about the required life sensor arrays redesigned for Miniature Red Dwarfs.
"Oh! Those things!" answered Harold. "Good. Hey! Samson! Where's the estimate of Miniature Red Dwarfs population?"
"It's coming. Ian and I are almost done!"
"You're late! Paschal's stuff is ready!"
"It is? Damn! That Kid will always outrun me!"
"That's easy, oh museum piece!" said Harp from somewhere within the Bridge, causing everyone within hearing to laugh, except Samson.
"Anyway, Dad, it's no use pushing the lazy bum!" commented Paschal, "I only made 50 because their design is too dangerous for more. We only need to find 50 Stars of that type to get a statistical sample. Once we have the reports, we'll know more about what to expect."
One could hear Samson growl in the background about 'lazy bums'.
"Good. Port them within 50 remote-controlled Scouts and disperse them within the Galaxy. That way, the sampling will not be biased."
"Dad, they are under the Bridge's control. I'm off to bed before I sleep in the hallway."
A month later, within the Imperial Ready Room...
"So, what is happening with the Miniature Red Dwarf issue?" asked Harold.
Enron took the floor and began exposing what had been found so far.
"We have seeded over 1,000 Stars of that type. The first reports are coming in from the first we seeded. So far, the Stars do have a rather thick water layer. One sensor array has found life signs within the layer, in the form of a huge balloon. The lack of solid surface has created a rather strange surface for the life form, similar to a hexagonal crystal. It's like liquid ice. The pressure within the life form is such that, should it be taken out of its environment for some reason, it would blow up. Reproduction is by parthenogenesis. The genetic strands are similar to those we found within the Amoeba, which should not be surprising, given the water is saturated by radiation from the Star core."
"Leave it be."
"It will evolve slowly, but never develop any form of intellect, if only because its conditions are too stable for diversification. It is the presence of stress that forces evolution forward. There is no other stress than radiation levels in there, and they have dealt with it already."
Colibri, David and Mark nodded when the Emperor looked at them.
"So be it, then. Under recommendations from the exobiologist department, the life form found in Miniature Red Dwarfs is to be left alone. Should any form show promise at a later date, that decision will come under Imperial Review."
After a sip of iced tea, Harold continued.
"Harp, how is the collecting of Orichalque going?"
"We added 5,240 miles of it to our girth. We are half-way done with this Galaxy."
"Fine. Sitar, military situation?"
"We are done cleaning up the Galaxy of its last nest of Slavers. The fleets are busy exploring every Star for 'reaped' Planets, and seeding them with the proper Time Tracker Collectors to recover the life that was destroyed by the Slavers. Harp, Enron, and Colibri have put a huge effort in building static Tessaracts to store the ecosystems."
"Time-frozen," explained Harp. "We can not just take them in without regard for safety. So we figured that ultra-high compression Tessaracts with frozen time would be the best solution. We can then take them out of their frozen state and see to their incorporation at our leisure. We had enough issues with the Milky Way Galaxy to learn from these burns."
"Talking about that Galaxy... How is it progressing?"
"We have 99.9% of the Stars scoured. It is now a question of days before we are done. Then we need only wait for new Stars to form and monitor their Planetary development. That should not affect our resources much," reported Enron.
"I know we are planning to go to IC-1101, is it still the case?"
Ian surprised everyone by standing up.
"Dad, I figured we should complete the task within the Local Galactic Group first. That comprises 54 Galaxies spread over 10 million light-years. So I sent out autonomous Scouts to the Magellan Clouds and the other Galaxies. The first reports are coming in. That pair of Galaxies alone are rife with life. The Scouts are beginning to duplicate themselves and will reach the million by the end of the month. At this time we should begin to receive the first ecosystems. Harp, remember this holographic memory system I was working on as a pastime? It's functional. In fact it's been functional for long enough to be incorporated within the Scout design. They now put the ecosystem layers within their memory banks and jump right back to us, transferring the data to Thebes on emergence. The fact that the life-forms are in the form of electromagnetic pulses renders them insensitive to the jumps."
"And how did you test that?"
"I sent a Scout across Andromeda in a single jump and back. The signal map of the Rat nest I used was identical to the original when it came back. It's as if it never travelled in the first place. And I had the Scout wait 3 days before doing the jump-back."
"Behaviourally speaking?" Colibri asked.
"The mother was feeding her babies and still was feeding on return. There was no impact on the family as a whole."
"Good test. Could we use it for Thebes?"
"As a whole? No. After all, it's a time-freeze even deeper than what happens within a tessaract. And it got to be contained within an array. It could work for a tessaract, because that is contained within Thebes."
"Back to what I really want to know," said Harold. "How long before we can leave?"
"That now depends on how long it will take to deal with the Magellan Clouds and the other Dwarf Galaxies," said Enron, looking at Ian.
"Give us six months... By then, both Galaxies will have been scoured, seeded, and relays implanted for future life forms to be collected as ecosystems develop. Also, the Dwarf Galaxies will have been cleared. By then, too, time-travel Collectors will have done their job, and we will be sure to have finished collecting all the free Orichalque in the Milky Way."
"So six months... It better not be seven!"
"And why not? A Baby takes nine!" replied Ian, smirking.
"Don't feel bad, Ian. I was going to ask for additional time to flush the Miniature Red Dwarfs issue. Given their numbers, it would be a total surprise the current Imperial directive held for long."
"Thanks for your support, Colibri."
Nine months later... and a couple million (billion) babies, also later...
"Are we finally done?"
"DAAAAD! You are worse than Sitar during a military campaign!" exclaimed Harp in a whiny tone.
"To answer to Emperor Whiny, we are done with the Small Magellan Cloud, and 99% done with the Major Magellan Cloud. All the Dwarf Galaxies have been connected to the relay network. Also completed is the Milky Way and this Galaxy, Andromeda," said Enron. And before you ask, three days."
"For the Major Magellan Cloud to be completed. And that includes Orichalque recovery."
"So we move out of here in three days. How much of the mass of Andromeda did we eat up?"
"Let's see: 0.633532%, or 9.50298 x 109 solar masses, a dusting. Dark matter still composes 94% of it, and standard matter the rest. The gravitational impact was already minimal, due to Orichalque's nature and its lack of interactions with either type of matter." noted Paschal. "We are lucky Orichalque acts that way because, otherwise, our passage through space would curve it enough to tear it to shreds. We have a density superior to the Galactic Black Hole."
"Three days... We're making progress. So we leave in three days. Good." The Emperor tried to ignore the uneasy feeling Paschal was creating by floating these huge numbers as if he was talking about copper coins. He just could not grasp the enormity of Thebes with the added mass, however compressed it might be.
"Our relay stations aren't completed to IC-1101. We need another week."
"Well, yes... We can probably jump right there, but then we would lose contact with the network... Not a good thing. The 'fun' part is that the relays we are now using have backups. We do not want to relive the incident that happened with the relays between the Milky Way and Andromeda."
"What have I done to God to deserve that task?"
"You played with yourself, Dad, that's what." replied Ian, laughing maniacally at the red face Harold displayed.
"You walked into it, husband." replied Annabelle between guffaws.
"Okay, I get it. It's the laugh at me day. Are we in position to do the jump?"
"We will be in three days. By then the last of our fleet will have been stored within Thebes's hangars and locked down. I will use the 4 days before the jump to ready the Scouts for emergence the moment we pop into IC-1101." Sitar said.
"Whose fleet is last?"
"Admiral Zen's last ships should port from the Galactic core. They are the long-range Scouts class we are using to seed the relays to IC-1101. The intergalactic Scouts should be folding back to us six hours before we pop to IC-1101."
"Have we begun reactivating the ecosystem we rescued in Solarius?"
"No. We plan on completing reactivation of the Tessaracts dedicated to the Milky Way first."
"That will put them back several years..."
"Yes, but they will not know of it. Tessaracts are fun for that, Dad."
"As if there could be anything fun with manipulating 11 dimensions as if you were playing the harp... err... Harp!"
"Husband, head to bed. It's twice in the same meeting you walk into a trap. You are too stressed."
Cat-calls and Wolf whistles accompanied Annabelle's comment, much to Harold's embarrassment.
"Wait until you get Kids! It is I that will laugh then."
"If I have a Child, Dad, it will be through seedling, given I'm not likely to dip my stiffy in a female any time soon."
"Ian, too much information!" said Harold as he ran away from the Bridge, red-faced.
"I wonder why he's still shy when we talk about it? He should know by now we only need think 'copy of self' and mean it to get duplicated."
"Ian, Dad's still an old geezer, you know. He may not age, but his mind has been stuck in his late 30's stage. He still expects Mom to make him a baby every time they do the deed, unaware Mom's able to block the emergence of an egg at will, or produce one, also at will. And Mom could well store his seed and decide six months later to make a baby without his intervention. And produce a complete baby from that in less than a minute. Magic does have its perks, but I guess sex does too," commented Harp.
"And nothing stops us from 'mating' and making our own if we so wish. We just do not have the drive to do so... for now. After all, we are eternal so there is no reason for us to produce any offspring," added Colibri.
"Ultimately, we will have to, if only to maintain control over the Empire. We are already a bit stretched," added Sitar. "Collecting external genetic seedling to ensure our diversity is likely to meet a wall at some point. And do not look at me as if I wore horns, David. You too will have to mate with either one of our sisters, or one of our brothers... or us. That is expected!"
"But is it not dangerous? I mean, mating within a family usually leads to some serious genetic problems..."
"Not for us, David," replied Enron. "We are able to maintain a clean genetic pool due to Magic. The only expected thing is that we will grow in power as time goes by because we are already exchanging genetic material every time we mate, even between males or females. It has led to you, for instance, gaining several levels of Magical power and exponentially reaching toward Harp's level. You only need practice control."
"What about Greywolf? I've seen him do magic..."
"We mated with Greywolf. It was easy, since we change shape (and sex) at will. We seeded him up the same way we do with all our allies, from the Felines to the Dragons."
David looked at Paschal with wide eyes. "You change... sex? How does it feel?"
"Strange, let us leave it at that."
"Notice, Colibri, he is more fascinated with sex change than with shape change, as if changing species was an everyday occurrence."
"It's not, Enron?" asked a wide-eyed David.
"For us, yes... but it takes a lot more work to change species than to change sex. After all the sex alternate is wired into genes. Forms are another story."
"Talking about Dragons, Harp, it is time David bound to one. We have a good 100 nesting mothers, and somewhere around 1,000 eggs awaiting for the bond to form."
"That means they get a Centurie... each!"
"Each? A Centurie? Who, when?"
"As Colibri said just a minute ago, David, you and Mark get to bound with Dragons. You already know how to change shape, and you have your pick of genetic material to take the form of. As to when, now. Timor, you have the Bridge."
"I have the Bridge!" replied Timor from the Science Desk.
The four Boys (Harp, Colibri, Mark, and David) made their way to the Dragons' nesting Tessaract. The look on David's face showed clearly he had not yet entered the area.
"Wow! We have volcanoes in Thebes? Is it not dangerous?"
"It would be if the volcanoes were wild. The volcanoes here are tame."
"You... tamed... volcanoes? I'm feeling sick!"
"Well, what's a volcano except a pile of rocks that melted?" replied Harp. "We just supply the proper energy to keep the volcanoes barely active. This way for the nests."
" 'Just a pile of rocks that melted' he says! I'm with a nut case!" uttered David.
"I heard that!"
"David, put your brain in gear before talking," said Mark, between snickers.
The four made their way to a steep climb, where a narrow path could barely be seen amongst the glassy volcanic rock.
"Stay on the path. And do not grab to the rock! They cut like glass shards. Boots on!" said Harp.
"Yes! You do not want your soles to be cut by glass do you?" replied Colibri. "Usually, we fly, but today, for some obscure reason, Harp decided on doing foot work."
"The reason is that this Tessaract is particularly dangerous for neophyte fliers like David and Mark. Who wants to get caught in mid-flight when one of these beauties decides to belch!"
"Belch? As in erupt? He's nuts, I tell you, he's nuts!"
David and Mark snapped their fingers to get boots on, much to the frustration of Harp.
"What's with the snapping fingers?" Harp enquired.
"I read a book where the characters, Elves I think, snapped their fingers for Magic to occur."
"I know the series. And do not ever tell Enron he has to snap his fingers for Magic to realise his wishes. He might throw you into the Imperial Swimming Pool... without snapping any fingers!" Colibri replied. "And thicken the soles of the boots. This is not a walk in the park."
Finally fully prepared with thick-soled boots, leather pants, leather shirt and gloves, the Boys began their climb. The path was more a nightmare than anything the two new visitors had ever experienced. Their breaths were short, rapid, and their face red with exertion.
"Guys, use Magic to help, or we'll have to air-lift you to the Hospital," Colibri informed them.
A sweaty Mark looked at a fresh as a morning Rose Colibri and grumbled: "If only he grew spines!" much to the amusement of Harp and Colibri.
Yet, for all their fun at the expense of the two new guys, Harp and Colibri had to admit they too were not top-shape. If it was not for Magic, they would have lost 10 pounds of water already and they were only a quarter of the way up to the nest. Leather protects from cuts, but not from heat!
Another hour later, and half-way up, Harp called for a break.
"Water, icy!" he called, getting flooded in a shower of the liquid, much to his shock.
"Harp, it's what? The fifth time you forget to specify the need for a container?" laughed Colibri while the others looked at the wet, miserable, figure of Harp as he sputtered.
"Funny. Very funny!" replied a pissed-off Harp as he showered Colibri in the same medium.
David and Mark did not forget to include the need for a bottle to contain their water and so escaped the disgrace of a shower.
"Back to climbing. We have another two hours to go," said a dripping Harp as he guzzled his water bottle before throwing it off to see it disappear by Magic. "No trashing the Tessaract!'
A few hours later, the four Boys reached the chimney that led into the Dragons' nest.
"How deep is that hole?" asked Mark.
"Deep enough to break a leg, it seems!" commented David.
"We're not going to climb down that way. There is a staircase hidden between the chimney wall and the mountain wall that spirals down. This way."
Harp led the to a rock face and, using Magic, opened a well-camouflaged door.
"Why all the secret?"
"You never know who could come this way with ill intentions. Climbing down the chimney is impossible because it is magically protected. We had some idiots trying to reach nests with the intention of robbing eggs... They ended up with broken bones, before ending in a Dragon's tummy."
Colibri's explanations drove the point across that there would always be some greedy bastards or religious fanatics more intent on harming what is different than accepting these differences.
Twenty minutes of what seemed an endless flight of stairs later, they reached the bottom and Harp again used Magic to open a hidden door.
The Female Dragons had long sensed Harp and did not react to his arrival. The twenty-five nesting Females looked at the Prince of Magic with inquisitive multi-faceted eyes.
"We have come to bound. These two have never bound with a Dragon herd before. It is time."
The Females moved away from the nests, and Harp turned to the two Boys.
"Walk between the eggs. They will glow when they bound. We will keep count. Each of you will bound to at least 100. The rest will bound with me or Colibri."
"How many eggs are there?" asked David.
"Around 250 give or take a dozen," replied Colibri. "I'm in charge of keeping count. And this nest is a small one. Some nests have over 10,000 eggs awaiting bonding. Our family visits the nest every six months to do the bounding ritual. Sitar and Paschal are due next. If things go well, or you lack the complement, you will accompany them next week. We want to spread the bounding load as much as possible. Get walking. The eggs are cooling, not a good thing for Dragonlings!"
The two Boys quickly walked amongst the rows of nests. Flashes of green, gold, and copper marked the bonding. Once done, the two Boys returned to Harp.
"Good. Colibri and I will do our round."
More flashes of light occurred as the two Princes made their round. Once done, they made their count.
"Okay. Mark, 102; David, 101, Colibri 22, Harp, 26, for a total of 251. The total egg count here is 255, so 4 still need bounding. I'll have the others visit this nest first thing in the morning," Colibri informed the Boys.
"Is there a critical time period?" Mark asked, "Like with the Snakes?"
"Yes. We have three months."
"What happens if..."
"They still bound, but it takes more work. We try to cut the work load by doing it during the critical period."
"Now, change shape to Dragon. We fly out," Harp said.
"You want to climb the thousand steps to the top, David? Feel free to do so!" replied Harp.
The four Boys changed shape and flew off, using the updraft in the chimney to help their climb out of the nest. Once out, Harp led them into a spiralling dive toward the Tessaract's exit. Upon landing, he quickly changed shape, disposed of his vestments and walked out of the Tessaract into Thebes, followed by the three other Boys.
"Swimming Pool, here I come!" clamoured Harp as he took off at a run down the hallway toward the Imperial Palace, his Boy bits dangling wildly left and right.
After water-bombing Greywolf, Harp swam under water to the end of the Olympic-sized pool and did a back flip to spray Thorsten, that had been lazily cooking on the pool side.
"AAAAAAAHHHHHH!" hollered Thorsten! "Wait until I get my revenge, you Fish out of the water!"
"You mean Dish out of the water!"
"So, how did it go?"
"Two Centuries bound. We need to move up the process, there are still nearly 10,000 eggs needing to bind."
"At this rate, we'll end up with a minimum of a legion each."
"I wanted to ask you something..."
"Dish it out."
"No, you are the dish, not me."
"Anyway, Mark asked me a question some time back, but I've not really been able to answer properly."
"You know that each ecosystem Tessaract contains everything from micro-organisms to big Predators. The question is, how do we keep the diseases from spreading from one Tessaract to another?"
"You certainly noticed that each time you use a portal, there is a slight tickling?"
"When you use a portal, you port, that means you, and only you materialise in the target gate."
"Prions, Retro-Viruses, Viruses, Bacteria, Fungus, for that matter, any and every form of Parasite dematerialise, but do not materialise in the destination portal."
"Is that why every time I get the start of the flu, it vanishes by Magic as soon as I port to reach the Hospital?"
"Was it intentional?"
"Actually... No. But it is a nice side-benefit. Notice we are never sick?"
"I thought it was a side-benefit from Magic..."
"It could have been, had Paschal not designed the portals the way he did. But if he had not, ecosystems could easily have contaminated each other. It's a known fact that sudden influx of Meteorites on the surface of Planets are followed by epidemics. We would have faced similar events as each Tessaract became active."
"Do you have examples in mind?"
"The best source for that information would be Enron. I do remember he told me about the Black Death, in the Middle Ages. At first, he thought it might have been something carried by Rats, which he still does not dismiss, but then he began looking at events of global nature. Some of those events were Meteorites showers, sudden Solar Mass expulsions that led to Auroras that spread way close to the Tropics, and even Comets. Correlational studies show that epidemics occur between two and three years after such events."
"It doesn't stop there. Flu epidemics, such as the 1918 one, were preceded by a spectacular meteorite shower, that was neglected due to the current World War driven by the Soul Eaters. And there are numerous 'local' epidemics, noted by the Ancients. Some were even clearly linked to a specific piece of rock fall. Ask AI-1 for a list. The oldest we found the trace of dates 88,000 or so years ago, and produced the disappearance of one of the most promising branches of humanity. In a way, it probably cut the legs under the Soul Eaters as they had to restart their artificial selection process from fresh."
"I'll do that. I'm curious."
"Never neglect the AIC. They may not be that old, but then, they have a flair to collect things... And Paschal's work with me has added some information. We traced the evolution of life on Earth and found quite a few epidemics that were of extra-terrestrial origins. The biggest was the one that followed the destruction of the Dinosaurs, 65,000,000,000 years ago, give or take some error."
"Why do you say that? I understand the Dinosaurs died, but..."
"Simply, the big beasts died all right, but there was a severe epidemic that also killed small life forms. The viral infections can be found, fossilised, in the bones of smaller animals that should have made it but didn't. As you know from your studies, the smaller the animal, the more likely it is to survive a catastrophe. They didn't."
"Did we send collectors to sample that post-traumatic period?"
"Yes. And we found a virus so potent we disposed of the collector in the Sun's corona. The damn thing was trying to eat its way through the rubber seals that keep samples in isolation. The result was a genetic map and a lost collector. That is also the reason we never did collect bones from that epoch. It would be playing with fire. We collected live animals before the impact, but nothing, absolutely nothing, after, for a period of 4,000 years. It took that amount of time for the virus to lose its virulence."
"What Prince Harp does not tell you is that we believe the virus was made to fit a task, by the Soul Eaters. They had been trying to take over the Planet for some time, and the Reptiles proved to be a serious obstacle, so they did a Bacteriological War on them. It probably went further than they expected, as collectors found an abandoned Soul Eater colony in the Amazon, where all the residents had died an horrendous death. Bacteriological war has that habit of backfiring on those that trigger it."
"AI-1, are you serious?"
"Very. And remember the Solarius Planet. A similar event occurred. We found that this phenomenon is common in Bacteriological War. That is why we are careful when it is time to collect ecosystems do do so when they are stable, not when they are undergoing that kind of trauma."
"Very much so."
"Zen's last ship is in." reported the communication desk. "And all the others are in lock-down. The Scouts have been readied for deployment on emergence in IC-1101."
"And how come Zen isn't on the Bridge?" asked Harold.
"You know him: first out, last in. It's as if he thinks ships are stacks of plates!" replied Timor.
"And what was his excuse this time?"
"A visual inspection of Thebes. Given our size, it took him the four days we had secured before considering the first jump."
"Did he find anything?"
"Bah, a visual inspection by a perfectionist is never a bad thing. Who knows, he might have seen something we did not plan for," Paschal said as he walked toward the two. "So, jump time?"
"Six hours to jump, Paschal," replied Samson from the Navigation Station.
"Okay. Who's in command for the shift?"
"I am," replied Harp. "I just walked in. Everyone to stations!"
The commanding tone left no one inactive. As Harp moved to the Imperial Command Chair, the others took their stations.
"Begin security lock down. Freeze time in low-level life-form Tessaracts. Begin!"
"External short range sensor status?"
"Nothing to report!" Sitar replied. "All sensors are green."
"The Red Dwarf Star that is currently in our trajectory will have moved to the side before the countdown is completed," Ian reported.
"Shields and deflectors?"
"All green, a minor Meteorite shower on the rear," noted Thorsten. "It is contained. Composition is mostly Carbon and ice, with a dash of Iron."
"Four kilotons per minute. Nothing to write home about."
"We have changed our scale of disasters, I think," said Thorsten. "Before, a kiloton was the scale used to measure nuclear explosions and now we consider that not worth mention."
Harp ignored Thorsten's comment and continued down his check-list.
"The trouble-makers have been sealed in their respective Tessaracts. Time has been slowed to ¼ of normal, awaiting the final freeze," Thorsten replied.
"At twenty percent, climbing. No anomaly reported in the new additions," Paschal replied smugly.
"Report at 25, 50, 75, and full."
"Internal communications all green. External communications with relay arrays all green. Incoming from IC-1101: last relay array has materialised successfully."
"Good. Nothing from the Milky Way Galaxy?"
"Not for the last 12 hours, Sir. Running a diagnostic on the relays to that Galaxy. All report functioning at optimal." Timor added.
"Begin close-down of outer Tessaracts. Report every 1,000 layers."
"Aye, Sir." A few seconds later, Thorsten's voice was heard over the Bridge communication. "One thousandth level from top reached. Tessaracts in lock-down, Time rate at 1/10th of standard. Expected completion of upper levels inspection and lock-down, one hour."
"Thank you, Thorsten."
"Star M31-0000012881283 is entering critical phase. It should detonate within 2 hours, The gravitational flash should reach our current position in 8 hours, well after we have left the vicinity. I won't need to recalculate the jumps." Samson said, with a relieved tone.
"What type of explosion?"
"Cool! Can I go play with the Stars, Daddy?" said a smirking Thorsten.
"No, you may not, Son!" replied a frowning Diamondcutter from his seat at Medical.
"You're no fun!"
"Knowing you, Son, it's the whole Galaxy that would go boom before you felt satisfied! Big Bang Maniac!"
Time passed slowly as reports flowed in. At T- 4 hours, the last layer was closed down and All Tessaracts of the upper level were set to static time.
"Trouble-makers are circumvented," reported Sitar.
Time to recall some of the Legions to their barracks," ordered Harp.
The forward Legions, those involved in the day-to-day control of trouble-makers, began retiring from their forward posts and to enter their forward barracks, in an order set with high precision by Sitar.
At T – 2 hours, the air lock to the Bridge opened, admitting two huge Cats.
«Hey, Spare Ribs! What brings you to the Bridge?» asked Harp, surprised at seeing the big Cat walk in.
«I've taken the liberty of bringing my latest Kitten to visit the Bridge. He wants to be a crew member later. I figure the best time to show him what this means is in the middle of action.»
«I see. What's his name?»
«Ice-Claw. He's rather even-tempered.»
«That is a good point in his favour. Take a seat. Ice-Claw, welcome.»
The two Sabre-Tooth Tigers sat down on the floor, their heads about to the level of the crew's in their seat. As the activity continued, Spare-Ribs explained each Station to the best of his ability to his Son.
"T – 1 hour!" Samson reported.
"Report by station!"
"Path clear." Samson noted.
"All relays reporting," the Communications Desk reported.
"Engines at full power and steady. Warp fold complete and stable."
"External security complete and secure. Internal security complete."
"Sound the full lock-down for porting!" ordered Harp.
The Bridge remained silent but outside of its confines, horns blasted in a pre-determined pattern. Conditioning had everyone still mobile moving to their nets, be they private, family, tribal, village-wide, or even Tessaract - wide.
«Ice-Claw, Spare-Ribs, please climb into the nets the Bridge has added to insure your security. You will be safe, and still be able to see what happens.»
The two Cats jumped into the nets as asked by Harp, and lay down on their belly, keeping their head up to watch the ongoing activity.
"Internal security reporting by Tessaract. So far all mobile have found a secure net." Sitar replied.
"Freeze the Tessaract as soon as it reports conformity."
"Sir, the Hulgraes are balking," reported AI-1.
"I'm tired of their attitude. Freeze them as is, Sitar. The hell if they are uncomfortable for the next six months! Let's see them kick butts with broken legs because they didn't go to the nets."
"You don't do things in halves, Son."
"Dad, we have been trying for years to get them to see reason, but they balk at everything from the air to the water. If I had my way, I'd consider them as Horse steaks!"
"If you plan on such a feast, do not forget to let them marinate a month in yogurt. Their meat is harder than horns!" said Annabelle.
"You tried?" asked an inquisitive Sitar.
"Let's just say Harp is not the only one that has had enough of them, and leave it at that."
"T – 30 minutes!" Samson commented.
"All controls functioning," Ian said.
"Roll engaged. Shields shimmering in the infrared, gradually moving up as roll speeds up," Ian said.
"Full shields activated."
"Fifteen minutes to jump!" Samson said.
"Engage thrusters. One-quarter impulse."
Thebes began leaving its station, very slowly gaining speed.
"Ten percent of c. Twenty. Thirty. Leaving Galactic matter field, entering Dark Matter cocoon. Fifty percent!" Ian reported.
"Steady as it goes!"
"Holding at 50% of c."
"Engage! Warp 9.9!"
"Warp 9.9! Hyper-Warp engines on standby!" reported Ian.
The front view displayed a sudden change as the background Galaxies and the few stars in the way of Thebes began moving visibly.
"T – 1 minute."
"Activate long-range jump engines!"
"Long-Range Jump Engines at full power," Paschal reported.
"T – 30 seconds!"
"Full rotation active. Gamma range," Ian reported, as Thebes suddenly covered the entire range of radiation from red to gamma in a fraction of a second. For an outside observer, it seemed an unknown heat source has exploded into the high gamma ray energy, wit a giant pulse comparable to the explosion of a super-nova.
"Hyper-warp engines to full power."
"Hyper-Warp engaged at full power. Warp 10... 11... 12.... 13..." noted Ian. "Pulse Jump drives on standby!" noted Helm, as the Star field suddenly began to become a whitish haze.
"T – 10 seconds."
"Warp 15... 16... 17..." continued Ian as nothing had interrupted his count.
"T – 5 seconds."
"Warp 20... 21... 22... 23...
"Jump!" ordered Harp, just as Ian said "Warp 25! Following the markers to IC-1101! It's kind of like the lights on a runway from the Ancients' Airports..."
Each jump was accompanied by a powerful flash of light that marked Thebes' warp bubble materialising before doing another jump. On the forward screen, the repeater arrays flashed by, every 1,000 light-years apart.
"We do 100 jumps per second, which is why we have this impression of continuity..." began Paschal. "Each jump covers 1,000 light-years. So, we cover, in one second, 100,000 light years. IC-1101 is 1 billion light years away, or 1,000,000,000 light-years. Divide 1,000,000,000 by 100,000, you get 1,000 seconds, or 16.6 minutes. Not bad. Not bad at all."
"You make me sick, Paschal! We cover in 17 minutes the distance light covered in 1/13 of the Universe's existence, and all you have to say is 'not bad at all'?!"
"What can I say, Dad? I'm learning to be a pompous Ass!"
"ETA – 15 minutes..." said Samson as the two looked at him in shock.
"What? I'm the navigator, I got to keep my head cool. We don't want to overshoot, do we?"
The Atlanteans watched as the size of IC-1101 grew by the minute, also changing shape as they got closer.
"That thing is a monster!" said Harold as he watched wide-eyed.
"And what with all those changes in shape?" asked Annabelle.
"The shape we associated with IC-1101 dated 1 billion years... It has rotated on itself several times since then, and added, apparently, another Spiral Galaxy. That thing is hungry, practising Galactic cannibalism with a passion! As for the deep blue colour of IC-1101, it is due to the fact we are moving so fast towards it we observe a blue shift in the light spectrum." Timor said.
Time seemed to slow down as they moved closer.
"Hey, why do I have the feeling time is slowing down?"
"It's not a feeling, Mom. We are in a deep gravity well, created by IC-1101. As we all know, gravity slows time. After all, at the 'surface' of a Black Hole, time stops. It is the fact we are enclosed within Orichalque that allows us to realise the time differential. Otherwise, we would be unaware of these changes," Paschal explained.
"Another thing about IC-1101 has changed. The capture of that huge spiral Galaxy has rekindled its Star production. In the time of the Ancients, IC-1101 was sitting on its laurels, and living off its past glory. Apparently, the capture of that poor Galaxy has created gravitational waves that have pushed together massive amounts of dust, triggering gravitational collapses and Star bursts. And it is probably as dusty, all proportions kept, as is IC-1101," Thorsten added, always fascinated by explosions.
"One minute to terminal jump," Samson said.
"I hope you counted that effect in your travel estimate, my friend."
"Do not worry. I had forgotten but the AIC brought it to my attention. And they have been running adjustments as we progressed. T-30 seconds... T-15 seconds. T-10 seconds. Exiting sequence!"
"Disengage Jump Drives!" ordered Harp
"Disengaging Jump Drives! Warp 25..."
"Disengage Hyper-Warp Drives. Bring us to maximum Warp, Ian." ordered Harp.
"Aye, Sir. Hyper-Warp disengaged. Warp 9,99999999!"
Rather quickly, Thebes dropped speed as the hyper-warp drives disengaged. The warp bubble rubbed on the fabric of space, creating a spectacular light show as it created a shock wave in front of the bubble that propelled a gravitational wave at tremendous speed ahead of Thebes. Already, dark masses of cold dust heated up as they were compressed, actually triggering, in the long run, a cascade of Star births at the limit of IC-1101.
"Short-range and long range Jump engines on standby! Hyper-warp engines on standby!" reported Paschal.
"Map!" ordered Harp. "Distance to Galactic edge?"
"Mapping!" replied Samson. "The last repeater has dumped its map to us. We're picking up the slack. Distance to Galactic edge: 120 light-years. We almost missed it."
A few minutes later, AI-6 reported mapping complete.
"Project co-ordinate grid on forward screen."
A spectral cube composed of thousands of intersecting lines appeared. The vector on which Thebes was entering the Galaxy was slightly slanted relative to the Galactic equator.
"Calculate a path to the Galactic Black Hole."
"Which one? There are seven!"
"Estimate the geometric centre of the Black Holes and establish a course for it."
"Calculating... Done... Transferring data to Helm."
"Data received!" replied Ian. "Adjusting trajectory to intercept the Galactic centre. Distance to core: 3,000,000 light-years. ETA 246,823499437966 years at current speed. These numbers are sickening! Had Paschal not installed jump drives, we would not be able to finish it in a reasonable amount of time!"
"Reasonable amount of time? Are you nuts? This galaxy is 6 MILLION light-years across, and that does not include the one it's cannibalising!" Harp said. "The entire Local Galactic Cluster from which we come could hide in it and have room to spare! Going across that thing non-stop at our current speed would take close to 500 years!!!"
«I wonder why you have so many drives?» asked Black, the Therapod Dinosaur now part of the crew, and had been watching from the new Bridge currently constructed for their use.
«Do you have an idea of our ship's size?» Paschal asked.
«Consider the biggest Star, a Red Giant. We can swallow 100 of those and have room to spare for some Blue Giants. That required a lot of power to move around. If Harp relaxed the constraints, we would be the size of a small Star Cluster, and then some.»
«That, I can easily understand, but imagine is another thing. But why the variety of drives?»
«Each variety has its specific task. In increasing power: Thrusters: they eject stream of hot hydrogen and allow very fine control of movement. Impulse Thrusters: they eject ionised hydrogen, in short bursts; they allow for quicker, but also fine control. They are used for travel at speeds below the speed of light. Warp drives: they create a bubble of space around Thebes and allow us to travel at speeds above the speed of light. We lose some fine control, but it is still possible to change trajectory, albeit in a rather large curve. Their maximum speed is slightly below Warp 10. Above that, we create a shock wave and it costs us more energy than it's worth. Then there is the Hyper-Warp drive set. Those actually warp time itself around us. They are used at Warp 10 and above. As you have seen, we can reach Warp 25, and probably more. Then there are Jump drives. There are two kinds: short-range Jump Drives, used within the Galaxies, which were used to travel from the Milky-Way to Andromeda because the long-range Jump drives were still in the design stage. What both do is push Thebes in hyper-space, allowing it to jump from point A to point B. The main difference between the two is, as their name implies, range. The short-range ones have a longer pulse cycle than the long-range ones. It's much like the behaviour of the Thrusters. The long-range cycle really fast, allowing an almost continuous jump. The short-range allow shorter jumps but also finer control. Notice the pattern: The faster you move, the less fine the control. And also notice that jumps no longer are uncomfortable. We managed, through fine resonance adjustments in Thebes' structure, to eliminate the rather painful feel first jumps caused. The travel from our original Galaxy to Andromeda was not a piece of cake!»
«In short, to each task its engine type...»
«How many of each variety?»
«I lost count. But the lower the output, the more numerous. And I'm working on the inter-dimensional jump drive, that will allow us to jump from one Universe to another. It's still on the drawing board, so to speak, as we still have conception issues. Now, that type, they will number somewhere around 100 or so, spread around Thebes in a spherical fashion, assuming we do not grow to require more. To function, we must maintain open the four dimensions we currently use, and be able to locally stabilise the others. That is my issue. We do need to have access to the Magical strings for our use and there is no guarantee that other universes have that dimension easily accessible. I doubt Harp would take it easily to have to fight for his Magic, so I'm working on making the IDJ engines able to unwrap any dimension for a certain range around Thebes. That is why it's called inter-dimensional rather than inter-universe jumper. And there is the question of quantum resonance. Each Universe has a specific resonance frequency, which determines all its constants' values, such as the Avogadro15 ("Lorenzo Romano Amedeo Carlo Avogadro, Count of Quaregna and Cerreto (9 August 1776 - 9 July 1856), Italian Physicist.") constant, the number of particles per mole; change that and you change the Universe's density.»
«Just imagine losing the portals! Flying within a single Tessaract might take days to reach one end to the other, at speeds in excess of Match 2,» Colibri added.
«And it would lock the Tessaracts down,» Sitar said.
«More likely, bring their dimensional, time, and confinement controls to a halt, bringing Thebes to its full-grown size, about that of a Dwarf Galaxy and allow cross-contamination from one Tessaract to another. Yes, guys, we have compressed so much that if we lost Magic, we would become a Major Dwarf Galaxy sized ship, about the size of the Large Magellan Cloud. Paschal's work is therefore vital.» Everyone looked at Harp with wide eyes.
«This is nuts!» Black said, looking at the other two Therapods in awe. «Just a few more, and I swear, last, questions before we retire to our quarters. You said something about time being affected by where we are. Would you explain? Second, question, can you elaborate on the quantum resonance.»
«Sure,» began Paschal. «You might not be aware of what we call Black Holes. They are massive gravitational wells from which no light can escape. One of their main characteristics is they swallow everything, including, evidently, light, therefore their names. There is a point beyond which no light can escape, called the event horizon. So far, so good?»
«Yes, we follow...»
«The thing is, as you get closer to that horizon, time slows, and finally stops at the horizon itself. The only thing that survives is Orichalque, this ship. We are within a sphere of that stuff, and it acts like a Faraday cage does for electricity, but for gravity and time. We can get in and out of a Black Hole without harm, much like a guy wearing a Faraday suit can handle high power lines without any ill effect.»
«Now, as for IC-1101, it is a massive Galaxy, meaning that it has a lot of gravity, therefore time slows down, but not as much as a Black Hole, that goes without saying. Now, the most interesting thing about this is how light behaves. The gravity well acts as a lens, curving light as it passes by and within the massive 'object', in this case a Galaxy. Time slows down, but so does light, so, in the end, light 'seems' to maintain its constant speed of 300,000 kilometres per second. There is another thing: as the universe expends, overall gravity diminishes except locally, which means that light gains speed overall, but we can't 'see' it do so because we lack references. The universe we live in is also expanding faster. Again, we have problems to estimate the level of acceleration due to lack of stable references. Imagine a racetrack without visible edges, all the references moving away from each other, with the furthest moving the fastest, from the amount of Doppler effect, in this case, the Red Shift, red indicating longer wavelengths from what would be expected. You saw the opposite, the Blue Shift, as we moved towards IC-1101, to the point we even entered gamma wavelengths. What we expect, at some point, is that the expansion speed will be such that space itself with tear. It will probably occur well after we have left this Universe, but, like any soap bubble, it will burst... and contract to nothingness instantly. We just don't want to be in it when it does. After that burst... We speculate the constituents of this universe will contract to a singularity instantly, ready for another expansion cycle to begin. Will the conditions within the renewed universe be suitable for Life? That remains to be seen, but it will no longer be our responsibility.»
«Thank you for your explanations. We have much to think about.»
«Ah! Someone agrees with me!» said Thorsten, as he looked at the monitor showing the Therapod Bridge's construction stages.
«Thorsten! You missed the Big Bang, all right, but I have no intention to be around for the Big Burst, however manic you are about explosions!» Paschal replied, with a snuff and the nose up in the air, acting like a snobbish brat.
«Before you retire, let me explain the notion of quantum resonance before you spend a sleepless night,» reminded Harp. «We have a model of the Universes (plural, yes, plural), that describe the Universe in the form of strings. Each string has a frequency, a base frequency, and can only occupy quantum states of this base frequency: the best example is a violin string; it can only oscillate at its base length, .5 of its length, .25 of its length, .125 of its length; quantum value of 1,2,4,8, so forth. Now, change the string length: the frequency changes because the length changes. The process is called tuning. Well, each universe has a string that is its basic frequency, its tuning frequency. So far, so good?»
«When we will jump, we will need to attune ourselves to that basic frequency in order to be safe. There are consequences. All Universes' constants are the consequence of that base frequency, that quantum frequency I mentioned earlier. Take for instance the Avogadro constant. 'Shorten' the string a fraction, the Avogadro number increases, the density of the Universe increases, Stars are born more quickly, the Gravity constant increases, the curvature of space increases, Black Holes are born more quickly, the density of water increases, so does the density of air, ad nauseam: everything changes. It even shortens the life-span of the Universe in question! A tiny fractional change might even prevent a Universe from developing intelligent life-forms because the time between the coalescence of a Star from its gaseous nebula to its explosion in a Nova might be too short, or heavy metals might not be able to form in super-novas. Imagine a Universe with, say, nothing above Iron? This is how critical that constant is. Our Universe, even in dense matter, such as a Gold bar, is mostly void; increase the Avogadro constant, and the space separating atoms drops! This is what the whole thing means.»
«Thank you. We promise not to bother you more on this. We really do need to think this out.»
«You are welcomed. Try to sleep and not have nightmares on the subject. Nightmares are my job!» Harp concluded.
"Well, we're tackling the monster. Let's hope it won't be a repeat of Andromeda. I'm tired of..." began Harold.
"Don't jinx us, Husband. Keep it in your mind!"
So began another humongous task for the Atlanteans.