Thebes moved slowly around the galactic core, picking up stray Andromedan ships as it made progress towards its next objective. At some point, it met a small concentration of ships stuck in a pocket of void. The ships were spinning on themselves, engines stalled, and unable to organise even a semblance of defence. The only ship that tried anything was a rather strange triangular form, which used its guns not to hit Thebes but to try and use the recoil to move away. It did not work.
"I have been thinking. We need to create something more than simple Scout ships and an unending flow of FSS."
"What are you thinking about?"
"I was looking at the increasing collection of garbage ships we are collecting. I think we could keep a model of each type for the museum, but recycle the rest."
"You know they are worthless once we collect the dust."
"Yes, but it is the concept of having a battle fleet that piqued my curiosity."
"See, we have five galactic arms to explore and... conquer. Why not recycle the garbage into something useful, by... remodelling them into different classes of ships?"
"Dad! We have Magic! We can create out of nothing, but, as you know, it is always a lot more economical to recycle matter. In fact, I think I would consider recycling the entire Andromedan nesting sites in Arm One of the Galaxy for our needs. That would kill two birds with one stone."
"Well, we do not need to leave any infrastructure that might be recovered by the Andromedan Empire's Slavers. By disposing of these places and incorporating the material into a fleet of ships, we remove any potential base for them to find refuge and we gain a fleet."
"Arm One? Where does that come from?"
"We need to label things. How can we ever understand each other if we do not name things? Arm One is the galactic arm we entered and followed to the Imperial Planetary System."
"Mmm. That makes sense. Continue. I suppose you have been thinking on the project for the past day or two?"
"More like ever since we got rid of that old oversized Lobster. I have been talking to Paschal, Harp, Enron, and even Admiral Zen. Everyone thinks it is a good idea. However, they all told me to talk to you before beginning the implantation of the project."
"Why me? You are the God of War. Assume your role."
"Maybe I am the God of War, but you are the Emperor of Atlantis. Assume yours!"
"When I think I did not even want to be a noble. What have I got myself into?"
"A lot of decisions I do not want to deal with. That will require investing a lot of resources, because we can not take years to clear that Galaxy. If we plan to make a serious impact in preserving life, Harp says we need to do each Galaxy quickly and leave life tracers behind."
"How fast did that genius of time lines expect us to 'do' a Galaxy?"
"About a year, maybe 10 for Messier 31. That Galaxy is 10 times the average Galaxy in size."
"That is nuts!"
"I agree... if we continue with a single ship, namely Thebes, doing the search and rescue. We need to deal with two things: search and rescue is one; second, we must be able to deal with opposition. I doubt that Andromeda is the only Galaxy with a galactic civilisation."
"How many tessaracts do we have in reserve?"
"You need to ask Harp. He is in charge of that aspect. I suspect he has a lot, but what does that mean, only he knows."
"What about the Hospital's services? Do we risk overloading it?"
"That is another issue you need to talk to someone else about, Dad. In this case, I think it is Colibri. He is using tessaracts containing huge numbers of stasis pods to store the crews we rescue from Andromedan ships."
"Oh, okay. I did not know Colibri knew how to create tessaracts and stasis pods."
"He did not. Paschal taught him about the pods, and Harp about tessaracts. He is rather bright. Hey, Mom! What brings you here?"
"That is the workroom for us, you baby prick! I do not think I need to ask you permission to join into a discussion, do I?"
"Not so baby prick nowadays! Want to see?"
"Hey, I saw it in the steam baths yesterday. Unless it has added a foot since, I do not need another look. Anyway, it is cold here, and you might shrink to the size of a toothpick!"
Harold laughed at the exchange, much appreciating the banter between his bad-mouthed Wife and Son.
"Sitar, stop showing off. We all know you are competing with the Stallions for size. Poor Elzear, the 156th Herd's Stallion complained about it."
"He complained because he lost two bets: I told him I could make him laugh, and he said try it; he lost; then I told him I could make him cry, and he lost again."
"I bet with him I could make him laugh, and told him I have a bigger dick than he has; he could not help himself and roared in laughter. I offered a double or nothing bet telling him I could make him cry. He took the bait, and then I proved my saying by dropping my pants: he cried."
"You are terrible, Son. Now, we have a Stallion needing psychological help!"
"Se be it Dad. He needs to be a little less snobbish and realise that Magic can do anything."
"Pants, Son? Are you getting modest?"
"No, Mom. It was a tool to get the point across to that ornery Horse."
"That, he is," commented Harold. After giving some thoughts to the previous discussion, the Emperor looked at his Son, who was eyeing him expectantly. "You have my agreement for your project. I want to be kept up to date, Sitar."
"Okay Dad. Expect some designs on your desk within a week. We should be in production within 10 to 15 days."
"Ten days for a ship production line?" wondered Annabelle.
"Magic, Mom. Or have you forgotten the lessons given by Harp? If you have a clear image of what you want, Magic can produce it. The Will and the Verb."
"I thought it was the Verb and the Will."
A week later, the first ship was formed, created directly in a giant, dedicated tessaract.
"Why in a tessaract? Why not in one of the giant hangars where we store what we collect?" wondered, no, worried Colibri.
"The reason is simple: the tessaract is a compressed space in the order of 1,000,000 to 1, so each foot is actually 1,000,000 feet. The ship will expand to normal size when it ports out and will compress back when it pops back in. The ships we rescue do not have porting capability, and we have to do it ourselves. It is a pain."
"You, Paschal, will always surprise me."
"Is it not good? Surprises are fun."
"Not always. We have problems brewing in level 2344, segment M, sub-segment X-29."
"What kind of problem, Cello?"
"Oh, a group of individuals claim they have heard a god telling them they have a right to govern and enslave everyone."
"Is that so?" said Harold, frowning and eyes flashing. "What are their premisses?"
"Magic is fake, we are false gods, there is only one god, and there is no such thing as space and life outside of their little area."
"Yes. Again. I thought we had cleared the universe of the idiots, but it seems that they grow faster than weeds."
"Maybe we need an exterminator. What else do you know about their faith?"
"Oh, a lot. They claim evolution is a sham, that they were born of a pair of ancestors, that it was a flood that forced a single family to move into where they are... They practice ritual genital mutilation of both woman and men. Do you want to hear more?"
"That sounds so much like the religion promoted by the Soul-Eaters it is uncanny."
"Well, remember that book we found, of which there are three major forms? All start with a couple of humans that populate the Planet, then there is a flood and a single family survives."
"Oh yes! We had a good laugh. That 'god' actually encouraged incest rather than admit evolution, held new-borns responsible for the action of their parents, practiced genocide routinely and then told them that murder was immoral. What a hypocrite! Are you telling me that it is not dead?"
"A concept, however stupid, never dies, Mom. That god was so vindictive that he did not even bother to rescue his own son, and there, I assume the claim to be true, but you know how religion evolves, so it is to be taken with a Planet of salt."
"Hey, that reminds me, I paid a visit to that area... There was a guy trying to sell funeral pre-arrangements. What is the idea? Reserve a view on the lake while you feed the Lilies by the roots?"
"No, Sitar. A funeral pre-arrangement is choosing your Worms before they choose you."
"What do you mean with 'sell', Son?"
"He tried to barter the 'service', Dad. I offered him a free one."
Everyone snickered as Sitar made a very clear slashing move.
"He wanted Gold."
"What? And then next, he would have offered a place in a so-called Paradise?"
"Oh, that came first, not after. In fact, the negotiations turned a head short."
"Greed. We feed them, we heal them, we make sure they have an interesting life, and they still manage to be greedy bastards trying to earn a living by doing nothing and capitalising on fear. I am sick and tired of the fuckers. Maybe their god had the right idea after all. Sitar, take the children, kill the rest. It will be their last chance. If that religion shows its ugly face again, no quarters. We will complete what their god never had the balls to do. Harp, wipe the children's memories, completely. I want them to remember absolutely nothing, not even how to take a shit. Colibri, you are the Biologist. If it is structural, I want their brains rewired, and their genetics rebuilt. Enough is enough. We can not afford to have a bunch of Scorpions in our midst and keep an eye on our backs all the time."
"Okay Dad. I have an armoured division that is training in urban warfare. They will be using live ammo. Also coming to battle is the MMCCCLXVII Legion."
"The what?" asked Piano, flabbergasted by the list of letters.
"The 2367th Legion. That is a roman numeral. Since we are using their military structure, I decided to use their nomenclature. Also, I have a Legion designed for close combat within buildings, that carry pilum and sword. The pilum are for charge, the sword for close-quarter combat."
"Nuts." replied Piano, looking with undisguised contempt at Sitar.
"And I have a class of fresh graduates from Magic school. Offensive Magic is the last test they need to take. We shall see if they have the stomach to use it properly. Come on, Sitar! Time is wasting, fun awaits! And I want to see if the integration of the Mages into your foot Soldiers works well under combat conditions."
"And no roman numeral name?" asked Violin, with a smirk, earning a ticking hex for the comment from Harp's look.
As Harp and Sitar left the room laughing, the Imperial Parents looked at each other.
"I sometimes wonder what we have done. Harp seems to relish the idea of exterminating these fools."
"Annabelle, we have saved an entire Galaxy of life-forms, we are in the process of saving another. I shall not let a bunch of idiots undermine all the hard work."
"Given the said idiots prove their state of mind by wearing... ankle-length robes? While the average temperature in their segment is around 90 Fahrenheit and humidity is at 70 %, all in black, because they are ashamed of their body? Nothing is surprising. The only thing that does surprise me is that they are not dropping Mushrooms as they walk, given they carry their humid cave on them!"
"Enron, you never said a word about this?"
"I wanted to see what would grow out of there! Consider this a failed attempt at generating a new life-form. I thought they might be the source of a new symbiotic form. I figure their brain got eaten up."
"If you wanted their symbiotes to have something to feed on, you might have considered shit? The barn up there is notoriously empty!"
"I know that now, Dad. Well, too late. I know how efficient Sitar is when it comes to cleanups."
"He is worse than a sterilising gel. We know. But do not despair. There are dumb arses growing up everywhere."
Sitar moved quickly to said target, taking a Legion of Swordsmen, another of venomous Snakes, and an armoured Legion as back-up.
"Okay guys. The rule of engagement is simple: resistance is futile, meaning kill anyone that offers resistance, whatever the sex or the age. Also, the Priest are to be exterminated, no questions asked."
"How do we know we are dealing with them?" asked a Legionnaire as he raised his hand to be seen.
"They wear black robes and they will be trying to win the war by preaching and sending others to fight for them. They are very good at inflaming the mind."
"That sounds like a Virus... meningitis I think?"
"Meningitis is curable. That is more contagious than the Black Plague, and is carried by the sound of preaching voices."
"Are we not at risk, then?" asked another Legionnaire.
"Why do you think I had everyone wear headsets? Because they look nice?"
"What about prisoners?" wondered a Centurion.
"If any, we plan to move them to stasis pods and wipe their memory. Completely. They will have to relearn everything, even motor memory will be removed."
"What spells are we allowed to use?" a newly minted Mage asked.
"Try to limit the damage. After all this is a space ship. I do not want you to breach the hull!" replied Harp.
"So, up to class eight?"
"Yes. Offensive spells of classes nine and ten are too risky on a space-ship. And do not forget the best offence is to destroy the weapons. It might be a good idea to have a couple of their high-order Priest survive for interrogation. I am sure the Emperor will want to know the genesis of that particular stupidity."
"Ready for teleportation, Prince of Magic!" said a Level Two Mage.
"Spears! Down! Load the magical Crystals!"
As each spear tip became white with Magic and unleashed energy, Sitar looked at Harp.
"Port!" hollered the Prince, as the Centurie vanished to materialise in the centre of the target.
"Snakes! Infiltration mode! Kill if seen! Get ready!"
After a signal from the previous Mage, Harp focussed and distributed the infiltrators around the target, hiding them in dark areas to wait for potential targets.
"Everyone is on site, Sitar. I am moving in. Wait for my signal to send in the Cavalry."
"Okay, little Brother. Be careful."
"I know. War is always dirty, and a rebellion is even dirtier. See you shortly!"
The Legionnaires began walking in step as a powerful drum beat and full orchestra was heard. The Centurion led them toward the convent where the priests were busy preparing another indoctrination session, sure they had all bases covered since they had sealed all entrances to their section by melting the electronic keyboards used to open the bulwarks. As the leader, a certain Hitler, not that it was his original name mind you, but he had found the reference in the history books of the early 20th century, just before the Cataclysm, and found the guy fascinating, so borrowed not only his name, but his concepts, closed his big trap of a mouth, the silence let the others hear a strange noise, very muffled by the thick reinforced walls of their Hold.
"What is this racket?" thundered the self-proclaimed leader of the New World Order.
"Music, I think, my Lord."
"Music? Music! I banned music ten years ago! The only music I accept is the cries of pain of my enemies! Go see to it that this insult to my glory is shut up and skin alive the culprits!"
"At your command!"
The moment the door was opened between the Inner Sanctum and the hallway, the sound became very clear and loud. It was indeed music! Horrible music! Hated music!
"RWAAAAAAAAARRRRRRR!" hollered Hitler, in a fit of rage reminiscent of a Lion with a tooth ache. He got up and moved to close the door back, kicking his envoy in the ass to push him out faster.
"I want heads! You hear? Heads!"
The Priest, a Cardinal if his red cappa magna and cassock told the true story, made his way post-haste toward the main entrance, his vestment billowing wildly enough to make a Bull charge had one been in the area. Seeing the panicked looks of the staff, the running of the young apprentice Monks, and the Slaves trying to hide under the desks and in the corner to escape the lashings of those they had been enslaved to serve, he took to a run, further increasing the furore the drumming music was inducing.
He pulled the last door open just as a Guard called out to him:
"Do not! Do not!"
Too late! The doors swung from his frantic efforts, their delicate balance allowing them to open with the pull of a small finger. Yet, the Ecclesiastic put too much force an was thrown off his feet by the huge mass of the thick and ornate bronze double doors. From his not so dignified position, he could see the approaching Legion, walking in step across the giant frontal courtyard used by Hitler to harangue his followers.
The Priest looked out and realised they were being invaded. This was no simple music, it was a march, a military march! The infidels had violated their borders! They would pay!
"Ring the alarm, you fools! Get in position to crush the Infidels!"
A bell began ringing the tocsin, alarms being called as every soldier guard responded to the frantic noise of the bell.
Sitar saw the door open and realised this would give them a chance to break in a lot more quickly.
"Drummers! Trumpets! Sound the charge!"
As the drums and trumpets rang the charge, the Legionnaires began accelerating their steps, gradually coming to a run!
The Legionnaires brought their short lances, called pilum, down between the shields. Meanwhile, the Mages took the openings between the Legionnaires' shields to insert a magical Staff.
"Aim for the door! Stop it from closing at all costs!" thundered Harp, as he was in the first line of the charge, just behind the steel shields.
«When will we be in range?»
«Eight more steps, Sitar!»
«I will let you guys do the honours.»
Harp counted the steps. Seven... six... five... four... three... two... one... "Fire! Maxima ignis fuego!"
Harp's fire spell was magnificent: it was bluish-white, enveloping the entire area of the double doors and then some. A wave of other spells of varying colours, depending on their power and type, accompanied Harp's overpowered Elvish Fire spell.
The front wall began to melt, rocks of the front wall exploding inwards, as cries of horror and utmost pain came from inside the vestibule. The Guards that had taken position near the doors burned to a crisp in a flash, while the Captain of the Guards picked the Priest and lifted him on his shoulder like a sack of potatoes, making a run for the rear of the room. Barely making it and closing the thick wooden door, he immediately felt the temperature drop, while he kept hearing his first respondents holler from the other side as they burned.
"Wake up, you fool! Had you not opened that door, we might have been able to fight the invasion enough for the Leader to escape by the back! With your stupidity, that piece of wood will hold them a second at most. Run and get the Revered Leader to safety while my men and I do a rear guard fight to gain you time. Every second matters!"
The still groggy Priest made his way on the run to the end of the hallway, and began climbing the stairs, falling twice on his bloodied knees as he caught his clumsy feet in his long robe. As he reached the floor of the Arch-Prelate, the building shook violently, dust falling from everywhere. He felt the heat seep through the four-foot thick floor from below, and fissures began to spread. He made a dash for the door, probably breaking the Olympic record for the 100-yard hurdle dash in ecclesiastic robes. He pulled the door open to a scene that left him voiceless. The Great Leader was on his knees, hollering incoherent orders while, at the far end, another Prelate was flattened by a piece of masonry. Another had been crushed by the table, whose legs has split outward upon the crashing of the 22-carat gold chandelier, whose weight was estimated at five tons.
Spotting his envoy, the Great Leader hollered for a report.
"We are being invaded. They are occupying the Great Hall already, and I think I heard the front door of the long hall explode... and your Guards engage the Legionnaires in the narrow passage. Come!"
"Out by the back!"
"I will not run!"
"What do you prefer? Death now, or to live for another fight?"
As Hitler hesitated, the decision was taken out of his hands as the floor behind him crashed down explosively, liberating a wave of heat that forced him closer to the other Prelate. The man was both decisive and dedicated, if to the wrong cause. He grabbed the Leader and pulled him out, dragging him forcibly toward the back of the building, a good 300 yards away.
"Run! We may be able to slide down the service dumb-boy to the first basement into the kitchen and get out by the back service door!"
"Is it big enough?"
"For the two of us? No. I will get you down and try to reach the basement by the stairs, Your Holiness."
The man knew deep inside that he could not count on the Leader to manipulate the dumb-boy and get it back up for him and much less down to the basement. He was willing to sacrifice his chances of survival for his Master.
The whole question did not even touch Hitler's mind. Everyone was his due, and self-sacrifice was the expected behaviour... of others, certainly not him!
They made their way to the end, and the Prelate pushed the Arch-Prelate into the dumb-boy forcefully, with much grunting and grumbling from the other, whose arse was probably his centre of gravity.
"You will have to get out on your own. When the basement shows up, it will be with a B. Stay quiet while going down, in case they have reached the dumb-boy. Try to be silent also, when you reach the destination. That thing conducts sound (and smoke, thought the Priest, but he kept quiet about that), so be discrete."
The process of operating the dumb-boy with a big load was arduous and took a few minutes for the desired results. Finally, the basement reached, the Prelate left the dumb-boy to try and make his way to the kitchen. If the Supreme leader did not manage to get out of there on his own and he could not reach him alive, then so be it. They would have lost.
The Arch-Prelate found he had entered the dumb-boy the wrong side. He was faced with a wall, and the lock and slide-door was where his feet were. After trying to open the lock with his shoes on, he had to remove one and try to use his toes to lift the locket. Several attempts later, sweating profusely, and noticing that there was a growing amount of smoke in the dumb-boy, he managed to lift it and push it on the side, releasing the door for opening. Another effort was required to slide the door up, and it kept falling back on his legs as he tried to exit the dumb-boy, trying hard not to cough at the increasing smoke.
Finally, after an ultimate push, his big arse exited the dumb-boy and he fell on the tiles of the kitchen floor, totally winded. After forcing himself up by leaning against the wall and recovering his shoe from the dumb-boy, he made his way to a chair and sat down heavily on it. For the first time since he got in the dumb-boy, the Arch-Prelate listened to his environment. He could hear fighting some distance away, on the floor above, but nothing near the door where he expected his servant to come. A bit further, between a series of ranges where food was slowly cooking for the evening, he saw a door with the word 'Reserves' painted on it. That was the way to go, had he been told.
He grunted, finished tying his shoe, something he had not done since he was 8, when his parents had hired a body servant.
"Okay, make two bunny ears, put one ear around the neck of the Rabbit, hang the Rabbit until it strangles itself... I sure miss my first body servant... especially the special treatment his mouth did to my hot dog sausage, and how he did a full rear wash with his tongue... MMMMM! That feeling was worth it all. Too bad Dad threw him away in the garbage shredder after catching us. No matter. He paid 100-fold. I wonder if he liked the slow shredder I had the Engineers make up specially for him? He should never have crossed me! I sure liked his shrieks! Too bad the recording is in my apartment, on the third floor. I would have liked some sleeping lullaby tonight."
Slowly opening the Reserves door, the Arch-Prelate made his way inside. He felt the cold of the refrigerated segment and hurried past. He reached the exit and opened the door, finding himself in a dank alleyway, whose floor was covered by a wide variety of garbage, Rodents scurrying around between the lumps of food residues and other unnamed pieces of trash. Looking around, the Arch-Prelate noticed a lighter area at the end and made his way slowly, slipping repeatedly. At some point he fell, and pushed on the ground to get up. It was then that he noticed what he was walking in: dead people, rotting away without proper burial. He found out, shocked, that he had been grabbing to a tibia to help him walk, and, disgusted, he threw away the bone, that shattered into pieces from impact and having been used by Rodents to grind their teeth.
Meanwhile, the Prelate managed to open the emergency exit and go down to the first floor. He peeked into the window of the emergency door, and saw one of the invaders making his way through each door systematically. Cries of terror, cut short by the noise of a sword cutting bones and exiting with a sucking noise out of the body told the Priest all he needed to know about this invasion. It was an extermination campaign.
No dumb arse, the Prelate made his way down further and reached the basement. There, he was confronted with an issue. The building was in lock-down, and the door would not recognise his override. After going down another level, he found a fireman's axe and climbed back up, intent on shorting the controls and breaking them if necessary. At least the invaders were busy above and making so much noise his cracking of the lock would go unnoticed, or so he hoped.
Slamming the axe against an electrical fixture and breaking it, he pulled the wires and took out the socket. Using his Gold chain that carried his Nazi cross, he established the first half of an electrical circuit. Now, finding another electrical wiring, but where? Most were short. Oh well, better short and repeated, than end up butchered. So he made his way up a floor, removing the fixtures and recovering as much wire as possible. Twisting each one to the end of the other, he made himself an electrical wire from the socket to almost the keyboard, but he was missing some length. Looking desperately around, he spotted the axe. Metal!!! It took him some work to tie the last end of the wire to the axe without cutting the continuity of the circuit, but he made it.
Taking a breather, he then slammed the axe into the control, producing an impressive display of sparks, melting metals and shorts of all kinds. Finally, just as he let the axe fall because he was getting tired, the lock disengaged and he was scot-free! He pulled the door open and quickly made his way to the dumb-boy. Ah, the Arch-Prelate had made it out, and a few drops of blood on the floor told him the story of the battle with the dumb-boy door.
Not waiting, he made his way to the Reserves, and spotted more blood drops. The Leader had followed his instructions. He made his way through the freezers, took a bag and filled it with dry ready-to-eat food. He was sure the Leader of the Light had forgotten he needed food and could not boil water to save his arse.
Opening the door, the Prelate looked around for his boss. He saw the steps leading to the left, toward the light, and that his boss was visible by his shadow, contrasting with the source of lighting. The fool! When you want to hide, you look for darkness! He quickly, and silently made his way through the garbage, trying to catch up on the idiot before he was spotted.
Just as the Arch-Prelate was about to exit into the so attractive light, he felt a hand on his shoulder!
"Keep quiet! Do not move!"
The cry of fear froze on the Arch-Prelate's mouth, as he began shaking violently.
"Do you want to live, or die? Life is in darkness, death in the light. Your choice. Say live or die, not a single word more."
"Live!" whispered the Arch-Prelate.
"Follow me, then! And try to make less noise! A Hippo-gryphon in rut is quieter than you!"
With that, the Prelate turned back toward the darkness, feeling the smelly hand of the Leader grabbing his shoulder. They made it quickly to the other, very dark, end of the alley. The Prelate turned right, taking them further away from the building they were trying to escape from. A few hours later, they took a break, the Arch-Prelate unable to take another single step. And to complicate matters, he was totally lost.
"Where are we?" he asked in a low voice.
"We are up toward the exterior, about eight levels closer to the exterior."
"The exterior? There is no such thing as an exterior! We live inside a planet!"
"Tell me, how do you call the surface of a ball?"
"The surface of a ball? The surface, what else?"
The Prelate grunted. Was it possible the guy believed his own shit?
"The surface of a ball is the exterior. We are inside a ball, and each level I manage to climb is getting us closer to the surface, where I hope we can escape being found. Arch-Prelate, what they are doing is a genocide. They kill all our staff, without regard to age."
"This is not natural!"
"Who said we lived in a natural environment? Ever wondered why everything is metallic?"
The Arch-Prelate shoved the question under an inexistent rug.
"I need a break!"
"Again? You might as well lay down an die. We need to run!"
"Where? If what you said is true, and I doubt it very much, there is no place to hide."
"There is effectively no place to hide, except there are untold numbers of our species moving around. I just want to reach the furthest we can and escape detection in the multitude. Now, walk, before I kick your arse forward!"
They resumed their slow progress, the Arch-Prelate proving he was also the Arch-Grump, and an overgrown baby to boot.
«Lord of the Bite!»
«Yes?» replied Sitar, looking at the black Mamba Snake emerge from darkness.
«We found a trail for the Leader, and possibly another one. After exploring the building, we found his trace in a lower level. Do you wish to follow the trail?"
«Yes. Harp, you take command. I am going after the arse hole.»
«By the way, I can not continue calling you Snake. What is your name?»
«Bite of the Night, my Lord.»
Concentrating, Sitar shifted to a Wolf.
«Bite of the Night, climb on me! We can run faster that way.»
The Mamba quickly wrapped itself around his neck, the head forward. A few minutes later, the Mamba guided him down to the first basement and out through the kitchen, the reserves room and out in the back.
«The freshest smell is that way.»
Sitar took off to a run and quickly reached the end of the alley, turning when the Snake informed him of a new change of direction. He ran like the fire of Hell were burning his pads. They reached a door that had been blocked on the other side by a big steel beam, not that it stopped Sitar. He did not even bother blasting it just porting the Snake and himself across the obstacle. The run resumed quickly gaining on the fugitives.
The fugitives had used a rowboat to cross a lake, whose bluish water under the dark sky of the night shift reflected a few stars, in conformity to the looks outside. It did not stop the pursuers in the slightest. Sitar shifted to a Dragon and took off with the Snake clinging desperately to his left front paw toe nail. Barely a minute later and a mile further, Sitar landed on the shore, and returned to his Wolf form.
«Why is the world spinning?»
«You suffer from vertigo. It is expected from a Snake. After all, you see the world at ground level most of the time. Do you need time to recover? I wonder how much we have gained. I yet have to detect their smell.»
«They are still far, way too much of a big number of body lengths for me to express. I am ready.»
«Climb back up.»
The run resumed, again guided by the exceptional Snake smell. After an hour, the Mamba hissed.
«They are close. They entered that road on our left.»
«Ah, another dark alley. They seem to be customary of the thing. Let us go.»
«Maybe you should change. Your size is difficult to hide.»
«Good idea. I will do so at the entrance, right under that broken lantern. I wonder why there are so many broken items.»
«We can ask, but for that one, it carries the smell of fresh blood, of one of our prey.»
Sitar shifted to a Mamba as well and followed his guide in the alley. He almost felt sick at the strong taste of decomposing garbage. Someone would have some explaining to do! As they made their way deeper, they began to hear a simpering voice that grated on Sitar's nerves viciously.
"I am hungry!"
"Shut up! You ate our whole week's reserve in a single sitting, you fat slob! Now I have to find some food without being recognised! When I think my picture is everywhere, on every wall, in every home, as one of the leaders of this failure! Now, quiet, while I think where I can rob food without getting caught!"
"Rob food? It is I who gives the food to the populace! They own it to me! To me!"
"Dream on! This section is occupied by a very special type of inhabitant! One of those you so blatantly wanted destroyed. I just hope I make it in and out of their dwelling without being detected! The Hulgraes are meat-eating Horses and they are pretty vicious. Too vicious for the Imperial Army. When they smell blood, they go nuts. I heard, when I was young, that the Imperial Ecologist, Enron, was working on a potential genetic map to change their attitudes, but that he was experiencing some issues, given that females of that degenerate species killed a new-born that did not fight for his life viciously."
"Then why bring me here?"
"Because I never counted on your belly to do the thinking for you! Had you held your appetite, we would have managed to get out of the area without leaving a trace!"
The two Mambas made their way close to the grumbling stomach of the Arch-Prelate, while his companion sat on an empty drum of some sort of residue.
«Enron?» whispered Sitar.
«Yes? Where are you?»
«In the Hulgraes' section. What can you tell me about them?»
«BRR! Try to get out of there in a single piece! These bastards are of a tough hide!»
«Why is it we are keeping them?»
«Because of the Imperial Prime Directive: Save life! It took an exemption from Emperor Harold to kill the last of the Andromedan Scorpion. Remember the debate between Harp and Harold. It was epic. I had never seen Dad so pissed off, and Harp so on his high heels. He was like a Cat meeting a feline-hungry Bulldog.»
«Dad backed down, I remember. He was grumpy a full day.»
«Grumpy, you say?» snickered Enron. «He was so hot under his non-existent collar he left footprints melted in the floor! And remember, we are talking Orichalque here, not puny steel!»
«Lords, the targets are on the move further inside the path.»
«Right. We need to pass them and lay a trap. Let us crawl under these rolling garbage containers.»
The two Snakes made their way quickly, catching up on the two fugitives, who were hampered in their progress by the number of barrels of sludge they had to walk around without making noises.
They quickly noticed that the fugitives would reach a dead end and be faced with the need to climb up shaky and necessarily noisy steel steps. Where were they planning to go? That was an interesting question.
«Let us climb up to the first level. I see no other way, no doors.»
The Snakes silently crawled up the rusty stairs and waited.
The two fugitives made their way to the steel stairs, but as the Arch-Prelate was ready to climb up, his companion held him back.
"Not this way! These stairs are a death trap!"
He then crawled between the wall and a garbage bin, then pushed a select few bricks. That released a lock and allowed the wall to rotate almost silently inside.
"Come! Be quiet!"
«Damn! They are escaping!»
«So they think! Grab me!»
After his companion did as asked, Sitar ported the two Snakes where the door was still open, waiting for the arrival of a very short-breathed Arch-Prelate.
"Keep quiet, arse-hole! Do you want us to be followed by the Beasts?"
"Easier for you, damn it! You do not have a belly!"
"If you ate less, you might not need a mirror to aim for the toilet!"
While this exchange was going on, the two Snakes silently crawled inside the building and hid behind a box.
Finally, the Arch-Prelate made it through the door, tearing some of his lard on the narrow door-frame, and almost falling back on a slippery piece of rotten meat. His companion cleared the door frame of clothing lint, making sure nothing would reveal the door's existence to the best of his limited vision. After all, searching for that in the dark was not an easy feat.
"I am bleeding!" complained the Arch-Prelate to his companion.
"All the more reason to get on the move! If the Hulgraes smell you, we are doomed! Now, follow me! We must reach the roof silently at all costs."
«Why are we not killing them right here?»
«Two reasons, my friend: One, they would yell, attracting the attention of the Hulgraes, who would smell us. I have no intention of letting you become food for these horrors.»
«That is a very valid reason, oh Leader of the Hunt. And the other reason?»
«They are going somewhere. I want to know where. I suspect there are others of the same mind and that guide is headed to one of them. I want to uncover the others and kill two Bird nests with one stone. Now, where did that Leader of the Hunt come from?»
«That is the name given to you by the King of the Snakes, Zen. Who am I to contest his thoughts? Especially since I have seen you hunt! It is a great honour to be a part of this hunt.»
"I see. Let us follow them up. I prefer staying within sight, in case that prey has more tricks.»
The climb was arduous for the Arch-Prelate, given how steep the stairs were. It was clear this had been used by the construction crews, not by the Hulgraes, given how narrow the passageway was.
«I understand why he brought his charge this way. The narrowness gives them a clear advantage over the carnivorous Horses, whose wide body would be unable to negotiate the passage, much less the hair-pin turns,» commented Sitar.
«I wonder how many levels there are still to climb?»
«The Whale on feet is asking the same thing every time they reach another floor. I counted twenty-five floors since we left the alley level. Paschal would know how many there are. After all, he designed the ship.»
«Why are you staying like me? That running form would help you move more easily.»
«My Wolf form? The issue is it has non-retractile claws that would make a lot of noise. I thought taking the Panther form, which has retractile ones. But, well, it is easier to hide in this shape than in the form of a 250 pound Cat or of a 300 pound Wolf.»
"I will not set a single foot further! I am dead on my feet!"
"At least, you still are on your feet, instead of being digested! Come on, we are almost to the top. Once we are on the roof, we rest. In fact, I think we will even sleep. It is almost dawn, and I do not want to be seen!"
The Arch-Prelate crawled on all fours up the last ramp of stairs and then leaned on the wall, trying to catch his breath. Meanwhile his companion moved to the door, cut a wire, and opened it, letting in some fresh and well-needed air.
"Come on, get out! I must close that door before the Hulgraes detect our smell!"
"Help me! I can not stand up!"
The guide placed a piece of wood to keep the door open and made his way to the Arch-Prelate. He then bent and took the dead-weight under the arms and began backing toward the door, dragging the body with him.
«Time to move! He's too busy to look around. We will use the opposite wall to stay in the darkness. Crawl as quickly as you can. Given the amount of noise these two are doing we could holler and they would not hear us!» ordered Sitar.
The two Snakes made quick work of the short climb up to the last level, and silently made their way out. On the horizon, they could see the bar of the rising Sun, and they made their way to the nearest vent to hide behind its narrow protrusion. Sitar watched as the two men came out and one, thin and tall one, lay another against the wall. The both were breathing like Seals after a long dive under the ice. Then the tall man closed the door and put in place a steel rod that was just the right length to be at 45˚ and one end was in a steel socket in the roof while the other end lodged in a soldered clamp. Then a cross-bar was inserted in two eyes and twisted. It would take an army to open that door from the inside.
«That escape route has been in the planning for a damn long time!» wondered Sitar as he watched the man work to block the door. «Unfortunately, they neglected to take our Magic into consideration.»
«Especially that capacity you have to shift shape and walk through walls!»
«There is that!»
After an hour, the virtual Sun finally emerged and began falling on the roof. The two men moved to the western side to stay in the shade.
"I am thirsty!"
"So am I!"
"What are those huge things?"
"Water containers. And no, we can not access their contents. They are sealed."
"Blowing them up, if I had the tools to do so, would bring the attention of the Inspectors."
"And they do not inspect below?"
"They are no fools. The roofs are safe, as well as the passage we followed, but the streets are not safe for anyone. Even the Imperial Legions thread carefully."
"How do they get there without being smelled?"
"They follow passages underground only known to them. I tried to get in those, but the keyboards are resistant to anything I tried."
Another whine came out of the Arch-Prelate.
"Try to forget your stomach for once, and sleep. Who sleeps dines."
"I would drink anything..."
"I might take you on that offer shortly!"
"I need to pee, and pee is one way of leaving a marker along our path. So far, we have succeeded in hiding our odour in the disgusting garbage, but this will not last."
"You want me to... Drink... Your pee? You are disgusting!"
"Come on, you sure enjoyed asking the little Apprentices to do just that, you arse bugger, especially after fucking them, so they had a taste of what they were, as you said!"
"How did you... How dare you..."
"I dare because my little Brother was one of your favourites. I valued my status more than him, so I ignored his complaints, but now, the roles are reversed. And you will do as I say!"
"But... It has been years!"
"Yes, it has been! Ever since you need to use a hair puller to find it in the lard! The last time he was involved with you, he told me you could not even reach his arse hole with your joystick, and got mad. You shoved your dick up his throat, telling him he was being fed holly water! Given how that thing smells, and how he described the taste of your manhood, I would not be surprised if you washed it and your arse in said holy water! You preach the exact opposite of what you practice! Or, should I say, used to practice? No wonder you have people wear robes all day, given how ugly your body Slave describes your looks. He tells me it is a miracle the mirrors do not break! You know, I thought of giving you a gift for your upcoming birthday: a penis-scope, which allows you to see the cocktail sausage hidden below your belly. Then, the last description given by your body Slave told me it would be useless! You would need to pee to find it, and follow the Yellow River to its source!"
"I am happy he is dead, then."
"My last body Slave."
"What makes you believe he is dead? He was nude, unarmed, and tied to the slave frame this morning, and still breathing when we left for the meeting, even after the whipping you had given him for whatever reason."
"My apartments collapsed."
"And he was no longer in them. I saw to it. He needed some healing and I released him while you were busy trying to find your slack fire hose. He was carried by another Slave to the Hospital Wing, that is the safest in the building after your own quarters."
Sitar listened to the exchange with growing horror.
«That Arch-Prelate is mine to kill! I want the other one alive and safe. He has redeemed himself!»
«Wait until the end of the Hunt, my Lord. There might be other things we learn that might change that last one's fate.»
«You are right. Let us bask in the Sun while these two complain and bicker.»
The day passed between bickering, the Arch-Prelate pissing on the side of the building, enraging the guide, as the Hulgraes looked everywhere but up for the one that had violated their territory and dared mark it with its urine. The Horses kicked at the walls repeatedly, eliciting sparks with their sharp hoofs, but no hidden door opened.
"Luckily you had nothing to eat since noon, you bugger! Otherwise you would probably shit over the wall and laugh at the Hulgraes' fury."
"And it would not be fun? Anyway, given my belly cramps, I prefer keeping it inside rather than run on empty."
"Run? You? A Snail would beat you at a race!"
"Do not talk about food!"
"Eww! Anyway, your lard is your reserve. Burn it!"
"How? I am still hungry!"
"You will be a lot more hungry before this trip is over!"
As the Sun set, the two men watched it drop, while shadows spread further and further.
"We move out of here just after the Sun is below the horizon. This is the darkest of the night, because the eyes have not yet adjusted to the diminished lighting."
The black Mamba Snakes moved closer, staying within the thick shade afforded due to the water reservoirs.
The two men made their way along the roof, passing less than a foot from the invisible Snakes, and reached the edge of the roof.
"This is a fireman's ladder. It is designed for you to climb down safely. See these steel rings? They stop you from falling backward. But you still need to grip the rungs properly."
"I am too heavy!"
"Find the force, or jump off."
"Jump off? But it is too high!"
"Are you that dumb? I was being sarcastic."
Finally, the two men reached another roof, and the Arch-Prelate was shaking on his legs like a tree in a hurricane. The guide looked at him with growing contempt. Was it worth the trouble? Yet he was committed.
The Snakes made an easy way down the same ladder and waited behind it in the gloom. After a while, the two 'runners' made their way across the roof to another ladder, much to the despair of the walking Whale.
"How many of these?"
"Three more. By then we will have reached a large, flat roof, and then an overpass that allows us to leave the Hulgraes' district behind."
"Will we be safe?"
"Somewhat more than we are now, and I will be able to find water. There is a fountain right below the overpass. We should reach it by three in the morning, right perfect since there will be nobody on the street or in the park."
The perspective of water gave courage to the Arch-Prelate and he followed his guide willingly down ladder after ladder. Then he smelled water! Marvellous water!
"Walk slowly across the bridge. It is steel, and shaky. We do not need to attract the patrolling Hulgraes."
"I thought they could not reach the roof?"
"They can not, but they can make enough of a fuss to attract the attention of the Centaur Patrols across the water. If they see us, they will intercept us, and bye-bye running away from the central government."
The two runaways from justice made their way across the bridge, stepping out of phase to prevent the birth of resonance.
"That guy knows how to pass unnoticed, my Lord," as they followed them across the bridge not to be distanced. Once they stopped feeling the bridge gently resonate from the steps of the two fugitives, they sped up and quickly made their way to the other roof, just in time to see them move through a door and hear it lock in place.
«Damn. Another port. Grab to me, we will do it in two jumps.»
The two Snakes materialised on the top landing just as the two fugitives made their way down to the next one.
"How far?" asked, for the nth time, the sore Hitler.
"We rest at the next floor. It is unoccupied, and there are rooms. However, I will need to go down and get the water from the park fountain."
"What? They have none?"
"They do, but water mains are noisy, and it is late. So someone would hear water running in what is an empty level and call the Guards. There we are! Enter the hallway and LAY DOWN. I do not want anyone downstairs hear you walk! These floors may not crack, but steel sure carries sound! The carpet is threadbare. I will be back as quickly as I can."
The man made his way down, not noticing the two black Snakes.
«Let us wait until he is out. The park is a good ten minutes walk, and he must do it while escaping the Watchmen.»
They heard the lower level door open and close.
«Grab. We port.»
They reached the other side just behind the man, whose eyes were closed while he whimpered about his lost power, and talks about revenge on the Imperial Family.
«If I needed proof of sedition, there it is.»
The two Snakes made their way from the door and found a hiding place under an inactive water sink. Shortly, the guide made his way up and gave some water to Hitler.
"Do not drink too much, however thirsty you are. You do not want to puke."
After a cup of water, the man gave his charge some fruits.
"These are peaches. I took a dozen, from different trees. We must not leave anything standing out, and a peach tree suddenly deprived of its product on a branch would do just that. Eat one. Then another cup of water. Then we sleep the day away. We have another long day to travel before we reach our destination."
«Ah! Got you, fucker! You thought of the location!» exclaimed Sitar. «Now, even if you or that bastard die, I know where to hit next!"
«Is it far?»
«For us, I could bring us there instantly, but I want to see how things go for that other one before we strike this Leader of the Sedition. And it might be useful to see if this thing goes deeper. I think I will wait to see how widespread this sedition is. Harp? How is the cleanup going?»
«Ah, glad to hear from you. As for your question, the number of high-order members was quite limited, at most 120. But the number of sycophants was astronomical. I suspect the cost of thinking by themselves and the guts required to blaze their own path is too much to ask of the majority. That is why there were so many followers.»
«But you did not answer the question...»
«To be honest, I want to wait for the debriefing, Sitar. If you want to know, we lost nobody on our side. I did call in the Armoured Centurie, and the Snakes infiltration killed quite a few of the Priests of the Iron Cross, that had taken in the symbolism of Nazi Germany. Remember our history from the Data Collectors we did on the Earth before leaving the Galaxy behind.»
«I always wondered why the Soul-Eaters never detected those incursions in the time-line.»
«The Data Collectors have no soul, no emotion, and nothing to put them on the radar of these bastards,» replied Paschal. «Anyway, the flow of Children coming from that clean-up has stopped. They are all in stasis. The brain clean-up is beginning. I expect the teens will take a month to empty of their mental shit. I shall see you at the debriefing.»