"Get everyone ready for a general meeting, Alexander. We need to plan the next step."
"All right, Dad. Where is the meeting to be held?"
"At the Imperial Strategic Boardroom. Samson, I want a map of what we know of the area, projected in 3-D."
"It is being transferred."
After pressing a button, activating the general on-board communications system, Alexander spoke in a microphone:
"General call for all Officers! Assault team leaders are to report to the Imperial Strategic Boardroom! Medical Team Leaders, report to Imperial Strategic Boardroom! Navigators, Defence, and Ship Officers to Imperial Strategic Boardroom! STAT! Secondary Bridge Team! You have command of Thebes! Acknowledge!"
A few seconds later, the soft voice of an Ent reported taking over Bridge Control from the Secondary Bridge.
"We can leave station, Dad. Everyone is moving toward the Imperial Strategic Boardroom!"
Everyone left the Bridge, taking the elevator down 150 levels to the core planning sector of the star-sized Atlantean ship.
"I hate that elevator!" exclaimed Paschal, as he felt the floor drop faster than gravity could pull him down. "I prefer running the ramps!"
"We all do," explained Sitar, "but admit with me it takes too much time to reach the target level when we run. Oh, it is nice for training, but this is not an exercise run."
Paschal and Harp made a face at Sitar, clearly not convinced!
"I could create a gravity field to keep you rooted to the floor, if you want?" asked AI-6. "But..."
"But what?" whined Paschal.
"You would be light-headed the moment you walked out of the field. And consider this: that drop has to stop, and you would feel a crush at some point. You may be built like steel, steel can break!"
"You do have a point," said Alexander, who was currently six inches off the floor, holding to hand rails in an effort not to reach the ceiling.
Suddenly the elevator put on the brakes, and every passenger slammed on the floor, bending at the knees to absorb the pressure. Paschal bit his tongue to blood, much to the amusement of his brothers, and his discomfort. The door slammed open, letting the Primary Bridge crew out to mix with the Officers converging from everywhere to the Imperial Strategic Boardroom.
"I will walk in after the hall has cleared up. Annabelle, lead the crew."
"Okay. Try not to make a too great entrance."
"You know me! I hate protocol, but this is the time for some if we want this to be productive. Samson, set the 3-D map the moment you are in. Sitar, as God of War, I expect the most of you. Study that map! I want suggestions, not rubber stamps of my own ideas!"
"Dad! You know me as well. I do not rubber-stamp ideas unless they are well thought out!"
"Harp, I expect some magical intervention. We have several Magical Intervention Groups ready. Paschal, you will take over Scouts; your brothers will use the upgraded ships we captured in the Milky Way as back-up. Annabelle, you lead the Legions. Spare Ribs, you lead the Felines with your brother! Wolf Packs, you know your roles. Gold Dragon, we now have over 65,000 Dragons available for battle, up from the original 500 we rescued on Earth. I expect each to do its best. Orcs, we now have over a million battle-ready members from your population. Time to get to work! But it does not mean you need to act rashly! Think before charging! Did I miss anyone?"
"Us!" said Tom as he pointed to Jerry.
"You will be put to use as Medical Officers. It is not any safer than an assault team! You Boys were trained to bring back wounded and fatalities to Thebes. Your teams will have portals to allow magical transfer of our casualties. Your job is to bring them to the portal, but also, to protect the portals and destroy them should the enemy get too close."
"Define 'too close'?" asked Jerry.
"Nose in them! Use the destruction of a Medical-Evacuation point to inflict damage to the enemy."
"Cool!" exclaimed the two Australopithecus.
"Remember! The destruction of a Medical-Evacuation point will be accompanied by a major explosion of anti-matter. Make sure you are out of reach of the shock wave. Also, remember we will not be bringing back the Medical-Evacuation points. Monitor for a general recall!"
This sobered up the pair considerably!
"Let's get in the Imperial Strategic Boardroom. Each of you now has a good idea of what to monitor during the upcoming discussions, and what game each of you is expected to play. Focus!"
The Imperial Family walked in and took their place around the 3-D projection of the space surrounding Thebes. A substantial segment was greyed, while the area within sensor range was reddish. Queries allowed everyone to understand the reason: red was confirmed data, and grey was projected from known facts.
Once the Family was seated, the Emperor walked in.
"Attention!" thundered Sitar, "His Royal Highness Harold, Emperor of Atlantis!"
Every Officer stood up silently, waiting on Harold to take his place.
"Sit!" ordered Harold, as he, himself, took to the high chair of Command.
Once everyone was back to a sitting position, Harold looked over the dense crowd. He noticed the presence of a few Foxes, Coyotes, Dogs, Centaurs, and even Dolphins in their transporters. At the back were the entire Family of Equidae (Horses types, from Ass to Zebras), as well as Arachnids, Fairies, and Ents. Dwarves were on a side, slowly sharpening their steel axes. Apparently, no one wanted to miss on the upcoming fun! A quick move of his right hand allowed them to join the others to contribute to the discussion more comfortably. Another move of the hand put telepathic sensors on everyone, allowing for direct communications without the need for an AI relay.
After letting time pass for another minute, while monitoring the door for late-comers, Harold took the stand, to a deathly silence.
"Ladies, Gentlemen, we are getting near the point where we will lay assault to the core of the Andromedan Empire. As you know, this Empire is based on slavery of species considered by the masters of this empire as inferior. We are now within striking distance of their defences. We are within six hours of their outer defences at our current speed, set at warp 9.9. Thebes will ram the force field, used to maintain an Orichalque Wall in polarised crystal form One. That is the weakest molecular structure of Orichalque, much like Graphite is to Diamond. In order for us to survive that impact, the force field will immobilise us during the deceleration. If we are lucky, we will break through and begin ravaging their inner sanctum. At worst, we might be stuck in the Wall for some time. Paschal? Explain what you expect. After all, you designed this ship."
Paschal stood up after Harold had sat down.
"The force field we will impact is magical in origin. It is sustained by a rather crude use of a dust of Orichalque held in a containment field and a polarised layer as described earlier. It also has a number of transit gates. We spotted four major gates located near each other. This is our target entry point, since it is a weak point in the Wall. Thebes' force field was designed to withstand infinite acceleration and deceleration. What this means is that we can go from warp 9.9 to full stop without ill effect. For us that is! The Wall itself might well explode on impact. It is what we hope. But as you all know from military exercises, plans rarely survive first contact with the enemy. At worst, as the Emperor said, we stay stuck in the Wall. At best, it blows up so violently we only need to follow the shock wave to pick the garbage. During deceleration, control of the ship will be under the Artificial Intelligence Network. This is because every life form on-board will be held under atomic field constraint to prevent the rupture of the atomic bonds that define the atoms. In fact, everything in Thebes, from dead to alive, will be submitted to that field. Only neutrinos will allow control of the ship. Notice I said neutrinos, not electrons. There is a reason for that: electrons will be frozen in place to maintain the chemical bonds. Only neutrinos will allow data flow. Any questions so far?"
"How long will that stage last?" asked Thorsten.
"Less than one second, Thorsten."
"And, since we know heat is measured by the mobility of atoms, will we freeze?"
"Actually, I doubt the feeling of cold will reach your brain, my friend. After all, what allows information to travel to and within the brain is the exchange of electrical signals; none will be allowed, so there should be no feeling of heat or cold. The only feeling might be a very temporary black-out, and even then, I have my doubts."
"Did we test the field?"
"Yes, Willie Coyote, when we entered a black hole. The gravitational field was well above what we expect."
After acknowledging the answer satisfied him, another participant stood up.
Timor, a Troll, stood up in turn.
"What happens if the Wall bends to absorb the shock, but does not break? Will we be able to blow it up?"
"That is a good question, Timor. I wish I could answer that one. There are three, no, four possibilities: first, we rebound off the Wall; second, we stay stuck, half in, half out; third, we break through; fourth, and the most problematic, is we get wrapped in an envelope of that Wall."
"Could you explain the strategic impacts?"
"Certainly, but I think Sitar is best suited for that. Sitar?"
Sitar stood up, taking over from Paschal.
"If we rebound, we need to use their gates to invade their inner sanctum. That leaves us exposed to counter-measures, including the blocking of the gates. We stay stuck, half in, half out: this reduces our fire power by half, but we can use Thebes as a giant gate under our control to transfer troops from outside to inside. Third, we break through: this means we can move within their inner space, creating havoc and using Thebes as a giant ram to create shock waves into the dense Orichalque that seems to hide the core star system. If we are lucky, the passage of Thebes creates a terrible shock wave in the magical field that holds the Orichalque in place, destroying everything inside and probably the entire fleet that seems to be waiting for us between the black hole and this system. The worst is the folding of the Wall around us: if this occurs, it leaves us defenceless, and we need to drill gates to allow our fleet out to battle. The only benefit of this is that they too would need to drill holes to get to us!"
"Okay. One last question: how thick is that Wall?"
After whistling in surprise, Thorsten began scratching his chin.
"I suggest we put out a chain of Planet-busters ahead of our path, spread in a star screw form. Target the area where Thebes is to ram the Wall and observe the gates. You know, I suspect these gates will close on detonation, becoming harder than the original Walls."
Sitar nodded. "You are to implement the idea, Thorsten. You have six hours."
Thorsten contacted AI-4 mentally and ordered 20 Planet-busters ready for deployment immediately.
"The deployment map is being built, God of War!" reported Thorsten. "Implementation: 20 minutes! I will present a report 30 minutes after final detonation. Sensors are being prepared for deployment and will be 15 minutes off the Wall so they survive the explosion."
"Acknowledged. We have four scenarios. Divide into four teams. You have an hour to come up with how to deal with each." Sitar sat down and called out: "Those wanting to deal with the fourth, converge to me."
"Those wanting to deal with the second scenario, converge to me!" said Harp.
"I will take on dealing with option three! Those interested, group around me!" exclaimed Ian.
"And I plan to tackle option one!" stated Paschal.
"Alexander, please act as a means of communication between workgroups, along with Yamato and Timor."
"Remember! We have an hour to find out what to expect, so no dallying!" completed Harold. "AI-1 to AI-4, act as secretaries for each group. AI-5, monitor external activities from the Bridge and forward any substantial changes in environment. AI-6, prepare all life-forms for the collision."
After receiving acknowledgements from all the Artificial Intelligences, Harold joined Alexander, Yamato and Timor in going from one discussion group to the next, monitoring the progress of discussions.
"Yes, Thorsten?" replied Harold.
"We are one minute to detonation. I am putting the sensors on standby and displaying the result on the central wide-screen of each group, and a 3-D modelling of what is observed in the projection area."
"Okay." Taking a breath, Harold intervened in all discussions in progress. "Please watch what happens with the Planet-busters in less than one minute. It will be the first concrete tackling of the Wall we will observe. Thorsten, you have countdown."
"Forty-five seconds and counting!"
Everyone watched the clock back down to zero slowly.
"Five... Four... Three... Two... One... Primary ignition! Secondary ignition at T plus 2 seconds! Tertiary ignition at T plus 5 seconds!"
No one asked why Thorsten had decided to layer his detonations. After all, he was the explosives specialist! They observed the consequences on the environment, and noticed the changes visible on the Wall. The most apparent change was a sudden brightening of the defence Wall for a certain distance around the impact point, a brightening that faded rapidly. The Orichalque that seemed to have been collecting toward the gates was suddenly blown away, clearly revealing the force field's presence as a clear-cut change in density of opacity. Some Andromedan ships were caught in the blast and thrown off their trajectory. A few collided violently with the defence Wall, blowing up on contact. Most lost propulsion and began drifting in random trajectories, rotating haphazardly in all three axis.
"White Star! Prepare rescue missions for the Andromedan ships. Remember! No quarters for the Slavers!" ordered Harold.
"At your command!" replied the Horse General, slamming his front right hoof on the floor, and leaving the Imperial Strategic Boardroom at a gallop.
"I ordered the preparation of containment chambers in the General Hospital. We have no idea of their health, their environment, or their level of microbial contaminants!" said Tom from his seat. "Everyone will be put in quarantine."
"Acknowledged, Tom! Good initiative. Let us resume our discussions on the options under study," replied Harold.
Discussions in each group was lively, ideas flew freely, and no suggestion was too far-fetched to be ignored. After an hour, Harold called a halt to the discussions.
"Before we begin expanding on each option, what is the situation concerning the experiment, Thorsten?"
"I just finished analysing the data. It is now available for perusal by all, as well as my conclusions. First, the Wall. As you noticed it brightened considerably during the explosions, to fade back to blackness shortly after the last detonation. Sensors indicate that the detonations compressed the Wall to half its original thickness, because the detonations summed up, adding the equivalent of a fourth detonation wave. This was as I expected. The other aspect I was interested in was the behaviour of the gates. As expected, they closed, but their tensile strength is no different from the rest of the Wall. This is encouraging. Furthermore, several Andromedan ships were crushed by the sudden closure of the gates. The gates are still closed."
Taking a sip of water, Thorsten continued his report.
"I have decided to send out another wave of Planet-busters to see if we can not break the Wall or at least fracture it to ease the passage of Thebes. They should be in position in 30 minutes. I could have triggered the second wave of explosions earlier, but I want to give time for the current stress to spread far and wide. The more damage, the better."
"Good idea," replied Sitar.
"We like the idea too," said Jerry. "It will allow us to recover as many of the slaves as possible before another catastrophic event occurs."
"After all, we are into saving lives, not exterminating it!" said Tom.
"That is fine, Boys. How did you distribute the task?" asked Annabelle.
"A two-pronged approach is being used, Mother of the Heir," explained Jerry. "We had AI-6 port small, extremely manoeuvrable ships at the far end of the impact zone, and similar ships in near proximity to the detonation area. Each crew is composed mainly of Mages and a Pilot. The Mages are in synchronised mental link with medical staff at the Hospital. They converge towards each other, sensing life-forms and porting them into stasis pods for reshaping and adaptation to Thebes' conditions. Each stasis pod copies the atmosphere within the ship, and then the clients get ported. The only issue is we have to settle for a quick general anaesthetic to prevent panic attacks. However, the issue is proving more difficult than expected. The number of rescued species is important and each has its own constraints. However, we are getting better at determining the nature of the gas required and its dosage."
"Fine. Continue, Boys."
"How do you interpret the brightness changes?" asked Harold.
"Quite apparently, they did not expect anything to be able to deform the Orichalque plates. It lacks flexibility and is too rigid. It is to our advantage. If we can compress the Wall enough, it will begin fracturing. When Thebes collides at warp 9.9, it should complete the fracturing process. The only issue is one of propagation. As we all saw, the wave did not encompass the entire sphere but only the vicinity of the detonation. The deformation did not extend beyond the furthest reaches of the white-out; in fact, the further away from the detonation, the smaller the deformation. This tells me that we may have trouble getting enough of the Walls fractured to blast our way through without issue."
"Thank you, Thorsten. Ten minutes to include these observations into the analysis, Ladies an Gentlemen, then we bring the result of each group to the floor," decided Harold.
Meanwhile, the explosions had been noticed by the Andromedan Emperor, as well as their consequences. It tried to contact the Admiral that had taken off to verify the gates, but no amount of calling, prodding, or threatening produced a response. Tracking the Admiral's ship revealed it had exited the gate shortly before the massive explosions, and not been heard of since. Surveillance teams reported drifting and crushed ships, and others well on their way to colliding with the defences of the Imperial Inner Space, but the absence of the Magic dust prevented both communications and control of the disabled ships. All these circumstances could explain the absence of response from the Imperial Admiral. The Emperor now regretted letting that asset leave its side, a feeling it was far from accustomed to. The only encouraging point was that the enemy, whatever its nature, would probably stall for lack of magical resources to run its engines.
The Andromedan Emperor began activating a contingency plan that would activate inner missiles and powerful light-beam guns. The later were new and untested, but constituted an unexpected surprise defence against an external invader dependent on their technology. According to the research team that had developed them, they could slice through an A-Class ship in short order, detonating the engines in the process and freeing any reserve of magical dust for the Emperor's use.
Yet, the Andromedan Emperor felt uneasy. It also activated an escape pod for his mate, two of his descendants, and himself. The pod was as small as possible, had a complete map of safe heavens for the Emperor, minimal defences and the narrowest imprint as it travelled. Most of the Children would have to fend for themselves: there were millions in hibernation, and they would be activated the moment the pod left its station. The Emperor hoped the mess of a succession war would allow it and its mate to pass unnoticed in the implosion of the Empire, allowing it to regain its footing. Also, the pod allowed for a long-lasting hibernation, and ran an artificial intelligence that would determine the safest path out of trouble while its passengers slept.
After activating the pod, the Emperor triggered the update of all galactic maps. It was not viable to leave the Imperial Planet without proper navigation assistance. It also triggered the transfer of the mate from the imperial cryogenic chamber to the pod, without waking it. No use getting into a discussion that might, at best, get acrimonious. Better to put the mate in front of an accomplished fact. Moving quickly, the Emperor made it way to the Carrier the Admiral had reserved for its use, and ordered the ship to orbit. The Emperor still had hope for the survival of his lineage. After all, revolts from the outside generally failed. There was only one chance in several millions that it would succeed. The Emperor itself had taken the stage from an uncle during a courtesy visit. The old codger had underestimated the visitor, much to its eternal discomfiture.
The Imperial Admiral was shocked by the power of the explosions that rattled the environment as its small ship escaped one explosion after another. Luckily for the Admiral, the Pilot was an ace and made proper use of all shelters found in the vicinity, even going so far as to use a giant A-class ship to shelter the Scout from an incoming wave of Orichalque. The last explosion knocked the Pilot out of its seat, and a simple examination revealed the neck had been broken by the violence of the impact. The Admiral deactivated the transponder, left the ship drift away from the Wall, and used the time to pull the dying pilot out to the nearest air lock. Once the now cooling body was in place, the Admiral closed the inner lock and triggered the opening of the outer air lock. The sudden decompression blew the body to bits and the contents into outer space. Step one was done: it now had a long-distance Scout ship for personal use, and a star map to plot its way to safety. It allowed the Scout to continue its apparently random rotation and displacement, only slightly adjusting the overall path to move away from the invaders. No use escaping an Emperor to fall in the claws of its competition!
On Thebes, the meeting held by Harold was in full swing.
"Group 1, led by Paschal, how do you propose we deal with the rebound issue?"
"First, Dad, we have a report from Thorsten."
"I had another wave of Planet-busters detonated. The impact was considerable and led to the deformation of even more of the outer surface of their protective Walls. The two layers are now in direct contact at the planned impact point, displaying intensive fracturing. Gases escape outside with intense pressure; the process of fracturing is still in progress. If we are lucky, a wide swath of the outer Wall will fly off shortly, allowing Thebes direct access to the inner Wall. That Wall itself, albeit a lot less damaged than the outer Wall, is showing signs of stress."
"That is, as you can imagine, a positive development. It increases the chances of blasting right through the defences. However, Dad, we still risk a rebound, since the hole is too small for Thebes."
"We considered a lot of options. The best is to continue using Planet-busters to dig a bigger hole in the structure. Thebes can drill its way in by spinning at high speed, but I would prefer we had a clear passage. Thorsten, do we have anything bigger than Planet-busters?"
"I have a single Star-buster, Paschal. If we use it, we must do so shortly, to prevent getting caught in the blast and getting damaged."
"Do so," ordered Harold.
After whispering into his sub-vocal, Thorsten gave a hand sign indicating he had given the order, and raised five fingers to indicate detonation time.
"Group 2, led by Harp, what have you found to deal with the getting stuck half in half out?"
"Assuming the Star-buster currently being fielded fails, the only way to deal with the issue is to use Thebes as a cutting blade. That will produce stress on the outer shell that has just been collected from the dust, but we can afford shedding that last layer. I think we will stop accreting dust shortly in an effort to make the outer layer more stable. After all we can always come back to what we miss after dealing with that crap."
"Anyway, the Star-buster will push the dust away and clear our path, so, unless we willingly look for it, collecting dust is coming to a close," replied Paschal.
"Any pending issue with the 'stuck in the mud' problem?"
"Our firing power will be reduced. However, it is difficult to establish by how much, as it depends on how things develop. It can be negligible or cover our entire firing range. As for the use of Magic, it can not be used against Orichalque, as it absorbs it. This is why I looked at alternatives. Phaser, lasers, even old-fashioned guns were proposed. The issue with Orichalque is it is resistant to just about everything."
"What do you propose, then?"
"We back out and ram the same point again. The more Thorsten weakens our impact point, the better."
"How come Planet-busters have effect, and other weapons have none?"
"Orichalque is, even in phase one, highly resistant to deformation. The Planet-busters and Star-busters carry their names: they reduce their target to shreds. But these busters did not reduce the Wall to dust, even after repeated, combined, impacts. It gives you a measure of what we are dealing with."
"Okay. Group 3, led by Ian, what happens if we break cleanly through their defences?"
"The first thing we should see is a sudden decompression of the inner gas chamber. This is one thing that has been bugging my team: how come there is still so much free-floating Orichalque within that sphere? We know that Orichalque keeps clear of normal matter, but then, it should have escaped via the gates over time. It is as if the contents was pumped back inside each time a gate opened to let a ship in or out of the star system."
"That is an interesting observation, Ian. It might explain why we observed streams of Orichalque as ships left the gates," commented Alexander.
"Was the stream proportional to the gate size?"
"Yes, and also how long the gate stayed open."
"Transfer the function. I may have use for it."
"How about getting back to the original point, Boys?"
"Yes, Dad. If I get this function I received from Alexander right, the Orichalque dust contained between the Wall will escape massively, along with the free-floating contents within the sphere. It would tend to accrete to Thebes, adding several miles of layer once we are inside the Inner Space. The result would be a sudden clearing-up of the Inner Space and would, in effect, render inter-planetary displacement of Andromedan ships impossible given their propulsion technology. That would be to our advantage as it would split their defences and let us tackle each base individually."
"One point: we still have no knowledge as to how they look. We might even have saved some of these Slavers without knowing it."
"Point taken. Annabelle? I want everyone saved to be validated before being freed. That species must have had some close contacts with the slaves, if only to get fed!"
"All right, Harold. Anyway, we shall not be freeing anybody any time soon. Apart from the crew of the Scout ship we met first, all are held in stasis."
"How about asking them to examine those we rescue for identification?" wondered Viola.
"That is a good suggestion. I will get them suited and ready for cryogenic inspection using cameras. No need to have them walk into the Hospital to scan millions of individuals. Piano? Can you run a sorting so we know how many species we have in stasis and thus minimise the number of individuals the Andromedan Scouts need to visualise? Make sure they are nude. We do not wish to give the Scouts reason to be scared because of rank marks."
"Okay. I do not think I am needed here, so allow me to get on that task. I shall take in Banjo and Violin to speed the process, if you do not mind?"
"Go, and contact Annabelle the moment you have a good sample of what is being stored."
"If we find Slavers, what do you want to do?" asked Annabelle.
"Regroup them in a common area. We may be able to save some, but I do not hold much hope. All depends on if their behaviour is required, genetic in origin or learned. If it is learned, their young ones may be salvageable. Otherwise, I am not above practising some genocide. Once the species identified as the Slavers, cut all rescue efforts towards them."
Annabelle, Banjo, Piano, Viola, and Violin left the meeting place to proceed with their assigned task at a brisk pace.
"Group 4, led by Sitar, dealt with the biggest risk to our mobility and defences, getting wrapped into a fold of their defence Wall. How would this be tackled?"
"I suggest we start spinning at a speed of warp three. That should put enough stress on the interface between Thebes and that Wall. Paschal, if we need to rotate faster?"
"I never did test the maximum rotational speed. Give me a minute to check on the model."
After a few seconds, Paschal contacted the Bridge.
"Set Thebes on an increasing rotational speed and note any change, especially structural in nature."
"How fast, your Highness?" asked the Wolf now at Helm.
"Start a climb to warp 9,99 from our current rotation."
"Acknowledged. Current angular velocity is .05 times the speed of light. We should cross the boundary in two minutes. Is this acceptable?"
"The estimate to reach the ceiling is an hour. Is this within parameters?"
"Yes. Keep an eye on things, and if you notice any anomaly stop the experiment and notify me immediately."
"Acknowledged. Kirk out."
«Dad, we left the Wolves watch some data streams from the past, and that particular one stuck a chord with the Wolves. Kirk and err, Bones caught on.»
«Bones, I understand, but Kirk?»
«What can I say? Live with it.»
The Andromedan Emperor moved to his huge escape ship and began getting ready to leave, using the backdoor. The ship. while huge, could be controlled via a secondary override Helm, where the Emperor moved. It was a matte black, with no windows. The ship also could imitate any friend-or-foe signal, allowing it to be seen as anything but an escape ship carrying the Emperor. Moving out to the outer shell of rocks, the ship hid amongst them, waiving its way by using gravity to reach the opposite of the invading force's expected entry point.
The sudden variation in the Orichalque density told the Emperor the invasion had begun a lot earlier than the last estimate. Time to move to phase two and exit the Imperial system before things were uncontrollable.
The ship had barely left the cover of the rock field when it got hit by another series of shock waves. The Orichalque was so severely compressed it glowed as wave after wave of the material was hit by successive shock waves. The only charity this did was to hide the Imperial ship's signature and prevent its trajectory being detected. The Emperor reached a gate but, however hard it tried to trigger its opening, nothing happened. As it pondered the issue, the Emperor observed a strange behaviour. A huge wave seemed to travel along the Wall, making it brighter than a newly lit Sun. The Emperor gradually realised it had waited too long to escape and was now held in a net of its own making.
The Andromedan Emperor watched as yet another wave made its way through the radiating Orichalque, unable to understand what was happening, the ship was caught from behind and pushed violently off trajectory. The sudden change took the Emperor so by surprise it smashed its head on a bulwark, getting ejected from the belts that were supposed to hold it in place. The result was a temporary loss of consciousness. This led to an automatic response from the ship, whose program was designed to search for a safe landing under automated controls.
When the Emperor came back, it was already too late for it to change the automated response safely, and, while being aware that the ship was engaged in a preset emergency protocol, the Andromedan Emperor was still too far out of it to even take manual control. The landing was done very quickly, pushing the gravitational envelope of the Emperor to the point it lost consciousness again.
In the meantime, Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand was meeting with his own Admiral, trying to establish more firmly its status as the upcoming Emperor of Andromeda, but things were not going as well as both thought. Huge swaths of fleets from the Galaxy were unresponsive, and it was more or less apparent that things had changed for the worst concerning the Empire. However, the Empire seemed to still be functioning, even if that function seemed to be more from inertia than sustained reaction.
As the Andromedan wannabe observed the dark shell of the Imperial Inner Space, the first signs of the turmoil that rattled its frontiers on the other side of the hidden, very dark, star system made themselves known. At first, the ephemeral red lightning was dismissed as sensor defect, but as time passed, the number of reddish lightning grew to the point it now outlined the edge of the Imperial Space.
"What is happening, your Highness?" asked the Admiral of the rebellious fleet as he eyed with increasing alarm the light show.
"I wish I knew. What do sensors say?"
"These flashes are produced by compressed Orichalque. It goes against all I know about Orichalque, be it in its natural state or in the high-density exited states that this material can take."
"So, no suggestion?"
"The only thing I can say is that I so do not want to be near that place. Right now, the Emperor's butt must be roasting. I also noticed the vast majority of our fleet is moving further away from the Boundary. I suggest we get ready to do the same."
"Why did you not do so?"
"Simple: If we move out, I anticipate a panic, and that is not what we want."
"A panic? Why?"
"Simply put, when that boundary blows, the result will be spectacular, your Highness. The issue is where will it fracture? And the next question, as crucial as this one, is when will it do so?"
"You assume it will fracture..."
"Your Highness, this is Orichalque we are talking about. Never has it behaved that way."
"You are scaring me, Admiral."
"Fear is the first stage to sagacity, your Highness. This is what has kept the Empire together, and it might well save us, if we do not ignore it. We must strike a balance between fear and bravery, as either can lead to adverse effects."
Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand had never given much thought to feelings, much less fear and bravery. However, the Andromedan Imperial had to admit the delicate play of these apparently opposing factors did govern the Empire and, to a certain extent, his behaviour and survival.
"How much space do we have between our position and the Wall? And what about our backdrop, the star-eater?"
"We are one light-year from the Wall, and our fleet is half a light-year from the star-eater. It is dangerously close to that system gobbler, your Highness, but this has some advantages."
"No one can safely travel between us and the dark star."
"What about our position relative to the Imperial Star System?"
"It is tight, and we will have barely time to escape when it blows, but it also prevents any force from inserting itself between us and our goal."
"When will we know it has gone over the edge?"
"It is my turn to reply I wish I knew. However, I suspect the first sign will be a sudden change in colours of the light flashes we detect. If things develop as star power is related to colours, we shall see a gradual whitening of the light-flashes followed by a turning to blue as it comes to head. By then, I shall have moved all our fleet off to the side, leaving a robotic ship behind to monitor things."
"Why not a Scout ship?"
"Who would stay put? We have been collecting a ragtag fleet, your Highness. It might be willing to sacrifice for the Emperor, but not for you, yet!"
Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand almost bit the Admiral's head off but held off as a feeling of dread, something new for him, enveloped his mind. The Admiral had a point, however disquieting it was. But something else was troubling the Andromedan. As he focussed on the feeling, he began relaxing and entering a state he was not very familiar with: the precognitive one.
The Admiral was watching his commander, wondering how come he was still intact. The more time passed, the more worried he became. To distract himself from the situation, he began monitoring the Wall separating them from the Imperial Inner Space. The number of lightning flashes was increasing steadily, and now most were yellow with a few reddish ones and a smaller set of bluish sparks. That caught his attention and he ordered his fleet to move away leaving the space between the star-eater and the Imperial system clear. No need to confirm this with the catatonic Andromedan emperor-to-be; after all, he was the Admiral and it was his duty to see to it that their forces had a chance to survive the upcoming calamity.
"Bridge to all on board! Impact in 30 minutes! I repeat: Impact in 30 minutes! Take shelter!"
The slow speech of the Ent, that had a sound similar to wind in the leaves of a tree, put a term to the discussions in the Imperial Strategic Boardroom. Everyone made for their position, while the life containment Arks were placed in high-level stasis. Tessaracts stopped time itself, freezing life in position. The Scouts were gradually recalled, as the number of Andromedan ships detected within the immediate impact zone was diminishing rapidly. Stasis pods in the General Hospital were filled to 20 % of capacity, clearly indicating both the huge volume of life-forms rescued, but also the redundant capacity of the Hospital as the ultimate Ark. The Imperial family moved to their respective tasks, mostly taking command of their Legions in prevision of invading the Andromedan Star System.
"Five minutes to lock-down!" said the Ent Captain from the Secondary Bridge. "All units activated! All Arks in full stasis mode! Internal Security activated! Weapons activated! All outer ships returned and stabilised! Battle Suits Visors synchronised!"
"Acknowledged!" replied Sitar.
A few minutes later came the last comment:
"One minute to impact! We are committed!" reported the Ent Captain.
All those conscious of the events held their breath as they watched the countdown displayed in their suit visor. Five, four, three, two, one, impact! Appeared on all visors as the linear and angular speeds and decelerations were displayed below the now climbing time piece. The depth of penetration was also shown and the residual distance to travel before Thebes made contact with the Andromedan Inner Space.
Sitar kept a close eye on the speed and depth. Eight minutes after the collision, Thebes' speed had dropped to warp three and its angular speed was close to a similar value. Their leading edge was almost out to the other side.
Ian was looking a the behaviour of the Andromedan Wall. The impact was having considerable effects on its structures, as huge bolts of blue-white lightning travelled around on both surfaces of the Andromedan shield. Still the shield held, and he thought it should have been torn by now.
The Andromedan Emperor, unconscious in its trance state, saw nothing of the events that spelled the end of the Imperial Space and its protective shield. The Imperial Ship barely escaped getting buried by a landslide as its Artificial Intelligence detected the fracturing of a mountainside and moved the Imperial ship to a calmer, flatter area. Meanwhile, the Emperor tried to make sense of what it saw or felt, to no avail. The passage of another Andromedan capable of reading the arcane paths of time comforted it in its belief this was an internal squabble where it still had a chance to come out victorious.
Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand was shaken from his meditative trance by the intense pain he felt as the Focal Point he had been exploring exploded, clearly indicating that the events that were unfolding had unpredictable results in the immediate future. He saw-felt the scry of the Focal Point done by the current Andromedan Emperor but also its disarray. Ah, I am not the only one taken by surprise, he thought.
Harp also began looking through time and noticed the Focal Point. He also spotted the two Andromedans circling each other like Sharks trying to kill the other. He decided not to leave a magic trace behind and enveloped his own mind is a light veil that would mislead on its distance relative to the two Andromedans.
"Two minutes to emergence on the other side! No sign of the Wall folding around Thebes! Fissures spreading at warp six around the Walls of the Inner Space!" came from the Bridge, much to the relief of the Imperial family.
On the Secondary Bridge of Thebes, the Captain watched the developing events around the ship. The slowing down of rotational movement preoccupied the Ent, who decided to prevent the locking of the ship in place.
"Increase energy on angular rotation. Maintain us at warp three on the outer edges!"
The rainbow of colours produced by the biting of the phase seven crystals of Orichalque in the Andromedan Walls was spectacular, but bothered the Captain.
"Filter out the colours!"
"What colours?" asked Spare Ribs, forgetting the Cats only saw only in blue and yellowish-green.
"Oh! I forgot your species has not been retrofitted with primate colour cones like we have. Ishtar, I seem to remember your species has full colour vision?"
"Yes, Captain. Spare Ribs, transfer the filter controls to my station! Thank you." After a few seconds, the Captain observed a substantial improvement in the clarity of the outside.
"Ah, much better. Thank you, Ishtar." After studying the spectrum of colours, The Ent Captain, whose name could best be translated into Soft Wind, ordered to increase linear speed. This also increased the bite of the space ship into the Wall.
"Ejection in inner Andromedan space in 20 seconds. Current speed at warp two," reported the Helmsman.
Outside, the inner Wall stretched considerably, pushed into the inner Space of the Andromedan Imperial Star System. As the stretch increased under the intense pressure of Thebes, bluish-white streaks of lightning increased exponentially, clearly demonstrating that the inner Wall was being pushed to its last resources.
Suddenly, the Wall tore asunder, ripping wide open and contracting violently along rupture lines. The violent flash of energy liberated by the rupture lit the Orichalque gases contained within the constrained space, before the Orichalque itself expanded violently outward, tearing apart the inner and outer Walls along the weakened lines of fracturing observed earlier.
Out and about the space beyond the sphere that once defined the Imperial Space, the Orichalque dust was accelerated to warp two, suddenly catching up with the fleet of Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand, shredding those that had the unfortunate privilege of being too close to the incoming Wall of matter. The rebels of the Andromedan Empire lost about a quarter of their ships in a flash, while another quarter were disabled. The Imperial's ship survived, severely damaged and thrown off across the space separating its original station and a small star-eater.
Inside the Andromedan Imperial Star System, the Andromedan Emperor was shielded from the most violent of the impacts, but the atmosphere of the refuge Planet was stripped and thrown to the stellar winds. This also killed any life-form found on its surface, and only a few survivors, buried deep in safe heaven caves, survived the immediate consequences of this Planet-wide catastrophe.
Thebes began exploring the innards of the Andromedan Imperial Star System, searching for survivors and the now deceased Empire's leadership.
"My Lord Sitar, we have located 17 Planets of varied sizes, and numerous smaller objects. What are your orders?"
"Move close to the star and distribute Legions on each Planet. There are five Legions per Planet, with one, the Imperial Legion, held in reinforcement should an issue arise. Proceed."
"Acknowledged. Ten minutes to Planet One."
"Unlock on-bard security gates! Legions one to five, report to assigned FSS Boarding decks! Ten minutes to deployment! Imperial Legion one, move to FSS Boarding Deck five; Armoured Legion Hammerhead, report to Armoured porting ship Excalibur! Eleven minutes to deployment!" ordered Sitar from the command centre. The invasion of the core of the Andromedan Empire had finally begun.
Flashes of light green indicated the readiness of the Atlantean troops, and the sudden conversion to red indicated deployment. Twelve minutes after the orders were given, Sitar called the Bridge.
"Move out to the second Planet."
"Acknowledged, Prince of War. Two minutes to delivery."
Again, Sitar called in the next block of Legions, readying them for porting, boarding, or other tasks. All the preparations paid off as no one was taken by surprise, each Legion waiting for its turn to run into the FSS boarding decks as soon as they were called up.
Planet after Planet was assaulted by the Legions. So far, the surface of the Planets had been severely ravaged by the sudden pressure exercised on their atmosphere by the Orichalque dust as it got blown by the collapse of the defensive Wall that enveloped the Andromedan Imperial Star System.
As the Atlantean ship distributed troops on the seventh Planet, Annabelle called up to Sitar.
"Sitar, the atmosphere of Planet One is gone. No survivors on its surface can be found. However, we found doors leading inside the Planet. I am having Scouts ported beyond the doors to see if there are survivors."
"Acknowledged. AI-4, repeat that info to all Legions. We might expect this to be repeated."
"Notifying all deployed troops and those in waiting, God of War."
"Sitar, the Planet we are orbiting is showing strong gravitational anomalies."
"I keep needing to adjust the orbit with thrusters because the density varies from dense rock to what amounts to a gas contained by a huge cave."
"Harold? Are you down yet?"
"No, we should be next."
"Okay. I will port your Legion in the periphery of an atmospheric pocket, on the surface. We need to know what these pockets hide."
"Porting in 20 seconds."
As Thebes moved away, it finally reached the refuge Planet where the Andromedan Emperor's ship had made an emergency landing. Harp was ready with his Legions, and followed the foot soldiers and Armoured Legion, placing his own unit at the edge of what seemed to be the shore of a now dried-up lake.
The Armoured Legion quickly moved around, looking for the doors that had been found on all Planets so far. Quite a few were easily found, clearly indicating that the process had been repeated there as everywhere else so far. Foot Soldiers in FSS quickly jumped beyond the doors and began exploring the tunnels, careful not to be buried by falling debris.
Meanwhile, the Armoured Legion found a funny streak of soil that seemed to have been scorched by a plasma beam. That was new and intrigued the Commander. She called on Harp for help in understanding what she saw. The Prince of Magic ported to her location and began scanning the area. After fifteen minutes he came to a disturbing conclusion.
"A ship landed here and then took off. This is a plasma drive trace. However, we have not seen plasma engines anywhere so far."
"Continue searching for other traces of the ship. If you find it, do not get close to it, but call me. I do not want us to alert the occupants of this ship to our presence."
"Okay. You heard the Imperial Mage! Find the ship, but stay out of sight! We must not be detected!"
The search for other burn marks resumed. During the interval, more foot soldiers penetrated into the caves that dotted the Planet's surface. The first unit that had entered a passageway reached a new door and sent two members across the new-found Orichalque door. Barely had the two Legionnaires made it across that they whistled in surprise.
"What?" asked their Decurion impatiently, as he was getting tired and grumpy.
"Port across the door! This is absolutely surprising. I suggest we call in for some Engineers of Paschal's laboratory!"
The Decurion cussed a little bit before porting to their location. In front of him was a huge landing that led to a stairwell spiralling down out of sight in the darkness. From what they could see, hundreds of landings could be seen from their vintage point, but they could not see the bottom of the well even when they used powerful light sources to try and penetrate the darkness. On the landing they occupied, thousands upon thousands of extremely wide hallways were visible, their Walls seemingly occupied by shiny drawers composed of square crystals whose outer surface displayed indentations for pincers.
"What the hell is that?" asked the Decurion as he eyed the cubes.
"We do not know, Decurion. That is why we think we need the engineers that specialise in extra-planetary engineering from Paschal's laboratory."
"If we do not, someone else will do so, and we will lose our bonus for finding unknown technology!" said, acidly, one of the Legionnaires.
"Okay, okay! I am informing the Centurion!"
Not that the Decurion's action would have changed anything. The moment the Legionnaires' heart-rate jumped, their FSS was put in contact with the medical crew on-board Thebes, who listened o the exchange and transferred the information to Paschal, who ordered the porting of a Centurie of Engineers in the immediate area where these observant Legionnaires were located. All that behind the back of the chilly Decurion, that lost his bonus there and then for not taking proper action and getting cold feet about reporting a major discovery.
By then Thebes had reached the 17th Planet and begun distributing the last Legions on its extremely cold surface. At the end, 102 Legions were deployed out of Thebes, for a total of 102,000 Legionnaires. Still, the Atlantean Army numbered in the billions, so it barely made a scratch on the surface.
"Bridge to Sitar. We will be done with that Planet in two minutes. What next?"
"I suspect there are smaller object, such as Moons?"
"Yes, as well as Asteroids of various sizes. Their density is very low, well below Asteroids found in the Asteroid belt of the Earth Solar System. I suspect they were mined for resources, your Highness," said the Navigator.
"A good observation, there. It might also explain what we observed with the Planets. Anyway, be ready to distribute Legions on the biggest of them, including the Moons. Bypass the smallest ones. How many of Ceres Asteroid class or bigger are there?"
"If we use diameter, about fifty. If we use density, none. This clearly indicates intense mining."
"Annabelle to Sitar. We have finished exploring Planet One. There are huge caves going to the core of the Planet. Machinery was in the production phase of a whole fleet of space ships. We halted the production. Everything was automated. We have yet to find the crews. Maybe they are in orbit in stasis chambers, hidden within the two Moons we found?"
"Verify the hypothesis, Mom."
"Okay, we are moving back to the surface. What should we do with this place?"
"Does it have resources we might need?"
"Apart from left-over gaseous Orichalque, nothing worthwhile."
"Okay. Put in the explosives we talked about to blow that place up. Siphon the Orichalque and compress it to liquid form. We will trigger the explosives when we leave."
"Paschal to Sitar!"
"I have joined Harp on that Planet with the Centurie of Engineers. I need a Carrier. There are trillions upon trillions of these cubes, and all seem to be data crystals. We are preparing to port them as soon as the Carrier is in orbit."
"Okay. Blue Whale Cargo Carrier Number 1! Port to Planet seven! Geostationary orbit over Paschal's location!"
"Harp to Sitar!"
"The Armoured Legion seems to have found a rather massive ship. Do you want to join us? The telescope displays a spiral marking. If my guess is right, this is the Imperial Ship, where the last Emperor of Andromeda is holed up."
"I trust you, Harp. Do your best. I am currently in the process of distributing Legions on Moons and Asteroids while recovering Planet-side Legions."
"Please keep me informed and stay safe. Remember, they have Magic."
"I know. Harp out."
"Blue Whale to Thebes. We are in position. The transfer is starting."
"Okay," Sitar replied. "Transfer rate and ETT? (Estimated Termination Time)"
"Transfer rate is one million cubes per second; ETT... 3.17 years!"
"Damn! That is too slow! Blue Whales 2 to 25, report to Planet Seven and help Blue Whale 1 in its task!"
"With additional resources, the new estimate stands at 45 days, your Highness."
"Still too long! I want to allocate a week, not a day more! Blue Whales 26 to 200, assist Whale 1 as well! That brings the transfer to less than a week."