Thebes left geostationary orbit around the Solarian Sun and accelerated to warp 9,99 toward the intercept point fixed by Admiral Zen.
"What is the ETA to the meeting point?" asked Emperor Harold.
"Nine hours on-board time." replied Samson, from his navigation desk.
"Jerry? You have the bridge. I will be taking a break until an hour before then in my Ready Room."
"I have command, Sire."
"Annabelle, Colibri? Come with me to the Ready Room. We have yet to receive the complete composite image from Zen, but I am sure you have ideas as to what it is we are seeing."
Shortly, the three Atlanteans sat in the Imperial Ready Room and looked at the image being gradually constructed on the giant three-dimensional projector. At first, all they saw was a black area, clearly standing out in front of the cloud of white stars that dusted the background.
"AI-1, do we have time-framed images of the cloud?"
"If you want a movie, no problem. The thing is, it will not be three-dimensional, Sire. We gained three-dimensional quality only when we had a sufficiently wide aperture to allow its construction from two different cameras."
"Project the movie on the back screen, please."
The movie started. At first it was a small black dot, but it grew quickly as Zen's Admiral Ship moved towards it. Then it became apparent there were changes within the edges of the darkness, as tentacles were sent to feel for orichalque clumps.
"That reminds me of something..."
"An Amoeba," said Colibri. "A giant Amoeba!"
"How can it move? Cells use whips to move around!" exclaimed Annabelle.
"Whips? Oh, a flagellum! One, it is one form of locomotion in cells, and requires a medium to whip, but notice that we see nothing resembling a whip, as you so eloquently said. The means of locomotion of an Amoeba is simple: it changes the insides of the cell, pushing the cell wall toward a direction, by changing the density of the gel that is contained within the cell wall while reducing it at another place, thus collapsing the wall in the process. But that analogy is not perfect. That thing is able to fold space, as is proven by its warp and even transwarp capabilities. I think it drains the magical energy from the orichalque and expels it when it's done with it. Look at what it is doing with that 50 megaton of orichalque: It uses its pseudopod to envelop the mineral clump. It's moving it in a vacuole, and then disassembles it, digests it. What is left is waste, the gangue that imprisoned the orichalque. Now that everything is processed, out goes the residue. And notice all those tubes? They are used to carry the pure orichalque to be stored in the Golgi organelles for use at a later date. There are literally thousands of these Golgi organelles laying around, some empty, some full, some half-full, and some under construction. And beside them are mitochondria organelles, that seem to be producing the basic nucleotides for the construction of more organelles. That thing is a living cell. And look, it is an eukaryote: it has a fully formed nucleus membrane."
"But are nucleotides not supposed to be small? These things are gigantic!"
"So is the cell that harbours them, Sire. Everything seems to be in proportion. What we observe here is an Amoeba fit to render a galaxy sick! And it's accumulating energy at a frantic rate!"
"I wonder why?"
"Simple, Sire. It is preparing itself for mitosis, err, cell division. I suspect it comes from outside this galaxy and, finding a rich soil, is in the process of dividing to reproduce. We are lucky Zen caught its attention, otherwise we might have had a huge problem. Sire, protecting life does not include protecting that I hope? I can easily imagine the morsel Thebes would represent for it! The El Dorado of orichalque feeders!"
"How far is Zen?"
"Three hours ahead of us," replied Samson.
"Plot a jump to three hours ahead of his current position. Inform him of this change. We are not going to content ourselves with leading it away from the galaxy. It might take months for it to run out of power. We will attack it. Directly in its power plants, the mitochondria. Once that is done, we recover the orichalque."
"Why this change of plans and what will be achieved?" Piano asked.
"Simple things: one, the destruction of the mitochondria will force it to consume its reserves to rebuild them; second, by pirating its energy reserves, we gain that energy while it loses them; third, a second attack on the mitochondria will stop it from being able to continue, for lack of energy, to replenish both the mitochondria, and the reserves for lack of energy to build the tubes, immobilising it in the intergalactic space. Finally, once it is out of commission, we destroy its genetic map while copying it for further study. No genes, no nucleus, no map or plans to rebuild itself, should it, by some unlucky currents of space, land itself in an energy-rich galaxy like Andromeda, energy being, for it, orichalque. As for the first question, we can not spend an eternity pulling that thing around with us as we travel the universe. At some point, we would need to do what we are planning to do, because we can not leave it behind without it threatening to eat up another galaxy. We are doing for it what we did for the Dinosaurs of the Jurassic: genetic mapping, and that is it. It is a dinosaur of galactic proportion, that is all there is to it."
"We have Zen acknowledging the change of plans, Dad," said Piano, from the communication station.
"Tom, plot the next jump, +6 ahead. That will set us in the path of Zen," Samson said. After a nod from the Australopithecus Regressi, the Emperor gave the order.
The feeling of cold and discomfort was brief, and the Amoeba flashed from the 'front' to the 'rear' of the super-giant Atlantean ship.
"Now we wait. Ready port decks for recovery!" ordered Harold.
"One hour to recovery onset!", Annabelle said as she watched the progress of the fleet. "I see Zen is his usual self. He had reversed the pyramid position so he is now at the tail end of his pyramid disposition."
"I wonder why? And I thought it was the arrow form that was best?"
"Simple Tom. As for the form, an arrow-head is good for displacement in the air; we are moving through space-time, and, even if the form has little impact, a pyramid does offer the maximum unencumbered firing surface. We are working in three dimensions here, while travelling in a fourth, time, with the transwarp drives. And as to why Zen is at the tip: while heading toward the Amoeba, he believes in our dictum to the letter: the leader leads, and is the last out of a battlefield."
"Chivalry in the space age."
"Yes. I thought you had learned these precepts?"
"Oh, I did, but it is the first time I've seen them in action. Even the battle with the revolutionaries was not that way."
"Right. There is a difference between terrorists and organised warfare. The terrorists were more into street fighting than methodic battles."
"Got it. Thanks, my Emperor."
"So... Suggestions as to how to do a genetic map of that thing?" asked Harold as he looked at Colibri.
"I just want to know how these damn nucleotides got assembled! These images show a quad-helix, a rarity in microscopic life, and an occasion to understand how they work."
"Well enough to cause us nightmares," Annabelle replied.
"There, I agree, but how does mitosis work in these cells? If diploid cells are any indication, there should be a web of fibres that is built in the nucleus to pull the chromosomes in halves into separate cells, then the machinery rebuilds the missing half by matching the other member to reform the pair. We have yet to observe a quad cell divide even if we do have quads in our crew. They seem not to age. A good example is the Ents. These guys live thousands and thousands of years, simply because cell division is so slow we have not observed one yet. Their growth rate is so slow they stay in 'child' form for over 4,000 years and begin producing gametes every 100 years, at such a slow rate it is incredible."
"What are you suggesting?"
"That we observe the division rather than destroy it. It will be weakened by the process, lacking energy as it depletes its reserves. It will then be possible to destroy it more easily. After all we do not need the reserve of orichalque to be loaded. And nothing stops us from collecting the depleted orichalque to grab stray magical energy as we travel. After all, this is how orichalque gathers it in the first place, much like energy-loaded aluminium becomes mithril. Consider this an opportunity that may never be seen again. The number of these cells in the preliminary stage of cell division must be rather limited. It began because it hit on a orichalque rich galaxy but these must be not that common. After all, orichalque has a specific electromagnetic signature, and we have not found any other, in the few thousand spectral analysis have shown none apart from Andromeda. We are in fact lucky the first galaxy we visited was that rich in free-floating orichalque. Most must be like the Milky Way: stored within gangues of rock that make it hard to find."
"How would you proceed?"
"Sire, the best moment to attack is when the mitosis is at the half-way mark, that is when the chromosomes have been split in four by the traction of the filaments, At that point, the energy consumption would be enormous, and the mitochondria running at full blast. By blowing up the Golgi reserves we would accomplish two things: disperse the orichalque, or better, capture it, thus depriving the cell of energy at a critical stage; and second, we would actually freeze the cell's production of components to ensure a successful division. The cell walls would not be stable, weakened at the border between the two, and we would be able to break it open, releasing the contents of the cell to space, in effect, killing it. We then could hop from mitochondria to mitochondria to map their mitochondrial genome; and also use the fact that the quad-helix is unfolded for reproduction to map it. A process that, due to a sudden lack of energy and means of transport of building blocks, would lead to its immediate stoppage."
"What do you think?"
Annabelle scratched her chin, then nodded. "I think we should do it. Anyway, we will need to enter the cell to destroy it, so why not use the opportunity to do some hard science?"
"Everyone agrees? Then we do as Colibri says. Colibri, when we return to the bridge, you have command."
Colibri almost fainted but nodded at Harold's command.
On Solarius, the exploration team was looking at the amount of stored life in the rocket, abashed at the extensive storage of biological forms found in the gigantic rocket.
"Suggestions as to what to do?" Harp asked the other four explorers.
"First, we complete the loading of this rocket. Let's leave a beacon in the cockpit, and go down and load the rest in the lower level. From how this is organised, they placed the smallest containers at the centre, and the biggest at the periphery of the circle. It makes sense, since the bigger containers also have the biggest footprint. So, since this level is not even loaded yet, and the level above is still partially empty, we fill the one above," Paschal explained to the others.
"Will we have enough volume?"
"Barely, but it is possible. From what I have seen, they planned to keep the last lift intact and park it with its load on top of the box pile. That way, the last lift would barely fit between the two giant crane boxes whose outline is drawn on the floor, while lifting a tool box trailer at the maximum extension of its elevating mechanism."
"But we dismantled the last lift!" Thorsten said, abashed.
"Are you magical or not? We pack the boxes as if we had lifts, and then use the lift parking to store the boxes containing the lift parts and the box of tools in the free space," said Harp harshly.
"I wonder how they planned to move into the rocket once everything was packed. There will be barely enough space for us to move from the door to the elevator," Sitar asked, a bit worried Harp would reply to him on the same tone.
"A good question there, Sitar, but we need not worry about that since we will not be using the gap to go to the cockpit."
"Anyway, let's get to work," Paschal said.
This time he guided his friends in the packing of the boxes, following what they had discovered was the method favoured by the Solarians. After eight hours of hard work, everything was done.
"What now?" Enron asked.
"Now? I collect the nanobots in their carrier. Then we check the other tumuli of the set we are in. That is an easy task, as they contain a recall signal," said Paschal.
"How long?" Sitar wondered.
"About an hour. They are called in reverse order they were released. Six hundred trillion nanobots will be an impressive thing to watch pack themselves. I wonder how Greywolf took to it. It must have been like seeing his fleas on parade!"
"Should we do anything?" Thorsten asked, worried.
"Yes. Practice neutralising gravity so you are about a foot above the ground. If you are on the ground, it will be like trying to stand on an oily floor."
The five mages concentrated on applying magic to lift themselves off the ground, and once everyone was a foot off the surface, Paschal sent the recall for the nanobots. At first, nothing seemed to be visible, but as seconds passed, black lines began to appear, widening progressively to streams about an inch wide, and converging toward the nanobot carrier. The lines spread radially from the box to the furthest walls and then began climbing along the walls, and then the ceilings of each room.
"I see what you mean when you say it would make Greywolf freak! They look like an army on the walk," Harp said.
"Because they are."
"Can we see how things go in the box?"
"Sure, Enron. Come here guys. It's worth a look."
The other four explorers moved to watch the inside of the box.
"As you see, each nanobot packs itself between the two below it. It's like a three-dimensional brick-laying with microscopic bricks. You do not see them, but there are already several thousand layers at the bottom of the box. As you certainly noticed, the counter is diminishing. Each nanobot has a specific berth for it, and the others wait for it to be in place before continuing the loading process. That is why you see things kind of jerk. The columns merge and the nanobots organise themselves by identification number, sorting themselves in rows. Once a row is complete, it moves into the box and walks over the bodies of the previous nanobots to fill in its specific row. Notice the red marks? There are six hundred of them, each representing one trillion nanobots packed. The standard packing speed is 10 trillion per minute, so an hour to pack 600 trillion."
The explorers watched the packing continue, fascinated by the rigour the entire system required.
"One minute to final layer. The counter is at 590 trillion. Notice the black lines have disappeared from the ceilings and walls. The number of black lines on the floor is also beginning to diminish... Thirty seconds. We have about 30 lines left. Their number is diminishing rapidly. Ten seconds, ten lines. Done. We have recovered all nanobots."
"Could some have gone missing?" Enron asked.
"Yes, and we would know how many, and where they are stuck. And I know what you are thinking. No, they can not reproduce themselves. They are assembled in Thebes' nanobot factory and will never go wild."
"Good. We do not need another robotic life-form going wild."
"I know, Enron, don't I know it. That is why they have no knowledge of how they are built."
"Now we port to the next beacon and see if the situation is similar. But first, let's see how things are up on the surface."
"Shouldn't we send that rocket in orbit?" Thorsten asked.
"Who says they are not launch-synchronised? If we launch this one, it might trigger all the others," Paschal said. "So, we proceed to the cleanup of all launch sites and then we fire them. We might, by then, have an idea of how they planned to do things, and it might be important. Imagine that the launch was the trigger for the destruction of the previous launch site? We would do it for the current launch site, but who says the Solarians thought the same way?"
"I get your point, Paschal. So no launch until we are done cleaning up every launch site."
"Exactly. Harp, contact the Legion upstairs."
"I've been in contact on a side-channel with Greywolf. They have been cleaning the planet's surface somewhat. They have been focussing on the launch tubes found at each tumulus. He is sending a group of ten legionnaires to the closest tumulus that is now clean. They have put a field force atop this one to keep the hole empty of that dust. They have a box of the nanobots to help them clean the holes. They have six holes clean, and a seventh in progress. The force field was an idea from Colibri. He said no use cleaning the place up if it gets crass from the outside during launch. He wants to know what we plan to do with the crew and base staff skeletons. I told him we placed them in secure boxes and added them to the rocket cargo hold with their dog tag. He told me, and I quote, 'Dog tag! Dog tag! What is wrong with a wolf tag?' I told him he could get a dog tag if he found it comfortable to have a red metallic clip with a blue number hanging from an ear ring. He shut up wicked quick!"
"You are bad, Harp!"
"I know, and you love it."
"And what is the Legion doing while the nanobots work?" Sitar asked.
"I was getting there. They have huge reactors that use ambient magic to drive them. The residual atmosphere is sucked in at one end, heated to plasma, and expelled backward. They move so quickly the laser defences have no time to fire. The result is two-fold: the laser holes get cleared of the infectious element, and second, the atmosphere itself is cleared of it too. According to Greywolf, the surface of the planet carries a good five feet of that crap in some areas and the reactors have to pass repeatedly before they finally see the underlying dirt."
"Damn," Enron said, "the bastards wanted everything dead!"
"How quickly is that assault on the deadly dust progressing?" Sitar asked.
"It takes a day to clean a cubic square mile of atmosphere. So, we will leave these reactors behind to continue the job once we leave. It will take a million years to do a single pass through the atmosphere, And it will remove maybe 80% of the contaminant. Another million years will bring the concentration down to 1%, and another million to bring it down to 0.1%. According to the data sheet Colibri sent with the reactors, the planet will never be inhabitable again, because there will be enough left-over contaminants to kill any life-form trying to colonise it. All he wants to do is protect outer space. That contaminant would hitch a ride from planet to planet should a space-ship ever send an exploring team down, sterilising the entire galaxy. He recommends that we dump the planet in its primary star as the best solution, in the conclusion of his report."
"I agree with him. It is the only solution. And that is hoping for the best."
"What do you mean, Enron?"
"Nothing says that the expulsion of the atmosphere by the supernovas has not already contaminated outer space, Sitar."
"Shit! Enron's right! We need to protect the rockets' outer surface not only during launch but even in space. Paschal? What is the concentration of orichalque in the planet crust?"
"About eight percent. Why?"
"Is it loaded?"
"Yes. You should feel it, Harp. Are you sick?"
"No, nervous. If what Enron says is correct, the galaxy is doomed in the short run. Oh, I know, we will recover all we can, but this galaxy will become a no-space-life volume in a very short time. The idiots that did this atrocity not only destroyed this planet, but also their own civilisation and any chance of civilisation developing permanently in this galaxy."
"Damn! Damn! And re-damn!" Sitar said, as he slammed his fist on a wall.
"A solution, guys! We may not be able to sweep the atmosphere back on the planet, but we must find a way to protect the rockets until pickup!"
"Thorsten's right. But Harp, you had an idea with those questions?"
"Yes, Paschal. We will use magic to bind orichalque to the rockets' outer surface, and use the natural properties of orichalque to keep a repulsive magical field operational and thus prevent any contaminant from coming in contact with the outer skin of the rockets. We need a layer of orichalque three atoms thick, due to the form it will need to take to bind to both the rocket and to each others' atom, so about 600 pounds of pure orichalque for a rough estimate of the additional mass."
"Will orichalque interfere with the magnetic properties of the rocket? Remember, it is going to be launched like a magnetic gun."
"No, Sitar, Harp's solution is the best. Three atoms thick will barely register on the global size of the rocket, and is too thin to interfere with magnetism significantly. Let's get to work. Thorsten, you and I will be extracting pure orichalque from the base's rock It should not affect its solidity. Sitar and Enron will... paint... the rocket with the pure orichalque, one layer at a time. Harp will verify, using magic, that no surface is missed. Harp, sorry to impose on you that feat of magic, but, once again, fine control for quality control is required."
"I know. The cost of being the best."
"The best my ass," said Enron.
"I have Thorsten's ass and it's good enough for me!" replied Harp, showing a finger to Enron.
"Remember, guys! We extract and produce Orichalque crystal zero; you must transform its configuration to form 1 to bind it to the rocket, so add some energy to move the electrons one layer up just before applying them to the surface. The cascade down to base state will create the bind," explained Paschal. "We'll pause while Harp finishes the inspection and verifies that the binding occurred. Once that is done, we take an hour's break to rest and leave the layer to settle. Then I'll explain the next step."
It took the Atlanteans six hours to painstakingly cover the rocket's outer surface with the first layer of orichalque.
"Fuck, I'm tired!" said Harp after completing his inspection. "I need an hour to recover."
"No problem. Meanwhile, I'll train the two painters in the art of bringing orichalque the level 4," Paschal explained.
After Harp retired to a far corner to lay down, Paschal took Enron and Sitar on the far side.
"Okay, level 4 is a medium-energy form of orichalque. The principle is to expand the outer layer of electrons at quantum level four, and maintain them there until they enter in contact with the orichalque layer already on the rocket. That will bring the excitation of the first level to level two, and bring the new layer down to level 2, thus creating a bounded layer while maintaining the first layer's bound to the rocket. That requires a very fine control of magical output to each and every atom. Since neither of you have ever done this before, you will spend the next hour, while Harp rests, to practice power output. Notice that the power output required is not a linear scale. You will need to put out sixteen times the output required for level one. Any questions?"
"Yes. If it requires so much fine control, why don't you do it while we extract the orichalque from the rock?"
"Sitar, simply because extracting pure orichalque requires breaking its bounds to each atom it has within its grasp, including other orichalque atoms, all that without triggering a nuclear reaction. Each atom represents a unique challenge and must receive a specific input of magical energy to break the bonds without triggering a chain reaction. Once the bounds are broken Thorsten ports it from its place within the crystal to the orichalque flow we feed you, recovering the magical energy to bring it back to its base state once it is out of the crystalline matrix. That too requires fine control, as a port requires adding energy with pin-point accuracy to the orichalque space. The trick is to use the sudden release of the last bound to supply the energy for the port, without adding too much energy to the atom. That depends on the nature of the last bond. An orichalque - orichalque bound is the trickiest because it is a very strong bound and releases far more energy than what is required for a focussed port. Thorsten dissipates the excess energy by capturing it and adding it to his reserves for the next effort. Now, unless you want to be part of a new star, focus on doing what I'm asking you to do."
Sitar turned a light pink. He never thought that the extraction process could be so dangerous and complicated.
Harold and the group returned to the bridge.
"Emperor on bridge!" exclaimed a Legionnaire.
"As if they did not know, given we invaded said bridge with eight bodies!" commented Colibri.
"You know the military: they need their pomp to pump the prestige," Violin said, from the rear of the Imperial party.
"Colibri, you have command," said Harold.
"I have command, Sire." After looking at the data stream quickly, Colibri began asking questions: "How long before we begin recovering Zen's ships?"
"Fifteen minutes," replied the navigator, before turning his station over to Samson.
"From what I see, the disposition of the ships has changed again. I want four portals open for reception. Activate full magical shields! Filter for complex carbon or silicon on ship hulls! Colibri to all incoming! Place the hull in phase six Repulsive remote activation mode prior to porting!"
"I wonder why such extreme measures?" Piano asked from the portal monitoring desk.
"Simply because it is the first time we meet a life-form that is able to not only survive in space, but reproduce in it. It might well have left spores and we really do not want to bring those inside Thebes. The phase six will dislodge anything that might have taken grip on the hulls, and since we port just a micro-second after the phase is activated, the spores will not have the time to adapt to the crystalline transition and will be left behind. Safety first!"
"What do you plan to do with the spores?" asked Annabelle.
"Capture a dozen, for study, destroy the rest."
"Capturing might be easy, containing them afterwards might be problematic."
"Not if we keep them in between time quantum slices. That freezes time, therefore, the spores as well."
"Oh. I did not think of that."
"And how do you plan to study them if they are between time quantum slices?" Harold asked.
"That is Paschal's best! He found a way to jump from between quantum time slices, allowing the nanobots the possibility to literally grind the object to their atomic components out of time flow. But before we go there, we must first recover Zen's fleet, make sure it is clean, and then progress to capturing the spores. Priorities, priorities!"
"One minute to recovery!"
"Activate extended magical shields! Set from Thebes outer skin to 0,5 light-year! Recover external orichalque dust! Prepare filtering of orichalque on re-materialisation!"
"Orichalque recovery starting!" the Science desk reported. "Rate: 1,5 megaton per second! Average energy saturation at 88%."
"No wonder that Amoeba followed Zen! He was leading it to a gold mine!" exclaimed Piano.
"Recovery of lead ships beginning! Safety working according to plan. We notice a shadow as each ship is ported, Commander."
"That is what I thought! Tracking that Amoeba has contaminated Zen's hulls. Decontamination?"
"According to the transitional report during porting, it takes six phase shifts to clear all contaminants."
"Six? That thing must have glue for orichalque! Impact on recovery?"
"It adds an hour, Sire."
"Acceptable. Continue as planned."
Time passed slowly as each layer of Zen's arrangement made the port. Finally, Zen's ship was ported, and took twenty cycles to be declared safe for materialisation. Once everything was fixed, Colibri increased speed to warp 9,9 and was a bit surprised to see the Amoeba follow suit. It even began glowing in fold-space.
"Explain?" he asked the resident engineer that replaced Paschal while he was on Solarius.
"It consumes so much energy trying to keep up with us its internal structure is beginning to stress, your Highness."
"Okay. Hey Zen! Welcome back on-board. Ready to port on my mark. Navigation? Target the Golgi structure detected on starboard!"
Thebes materialised in the Golgi vacuole's middle section.
"Rotation 60,000 rpm! Collect and filter! Accrete to skin!" ordered Colibri. A few seconds later, Colibri ordered porting to the next layer of the same Golgi organelle. Ten minutes later the reserves stored in the organelle were all filtered and accreted to Thebes.
"Navigation, locate the next Golgi organelle and set it as port destination. We blow this one up! Antimatter mines released on my mark! Port on my second mark! Mark!... Mark!"
From their new location within a second Golgi organelle, the Atlanteans saw the one they had emptied vapourise from the one kiloton of antimatter.
"Brace for shock!" the Science desk notified the crew and population of Thebes, as its instruments reported the propagation of an energy wave through the internal plasma of the space Amoeba.
A few seconds later, Thebes shuddered.
"Repeat manoeuvres for this Golgi organelle," ordered Colibri. "What is the impact on cell?"
"Nothing noticeable yet, your Highness."
"I would have been surprised. What is the count of Golgi organelles?"
"Sixty, including the one we blew up. At the rate we are doing this, the destruction of the energy reserves will take ten hours."
"We can't do much better. Keep an eye on its energy consumption, and tell me the moment it begins slowing down or tries rebuilding another Golgi organelle."
On Solarius, the cleanup team began working on the next silo, as Paschal now called the huge tubes that contained the rockets. After a brief check on how things were set up, he realised that the organisation of the launching system and storage was identical to the one they had already worked on.
"Do you think you could duplicate magically the entire nanobot box?"
"Maybe, I need to try. Why?"
"We have a full legion up there doing next to nothing worth the work. We could put them to real work cleaning up the silos. Given a legion has 12,000 men, including support staff, but that they are contained in FSS for security reasons, we might as well put them to use. By dividing them in scout teams, we get 2,400 teams, and we can clean that many silos simultaneously. What do you think?"
"That is a good idea. Sitar? You heard?"
"Yes, and I agree. We stay available for consultation and quick movement as 'fire extinguishers' and 'problem solvers' for the scout teams. Greywolf?"
"I am applying the change immediately, God of War."
"Hold it! I still got to create the nanobots and their containment boxes!" exclaimed Harp. "Meanwhile, continue cleaning the silos' access."
Harp began focussing on the nanobots box, which glowed a progressively more brilliant blue, until it was blinding. Then, the box began flashing, first slowly, then more rapidly. Each flash saw a box appear and get deposited on the mounting pile in front of the Prince of Magic. An hour later, the flashing stopped and Harp collapsed on the ground.
"What's wrong, Harp?" asked Enron.
"Tired! So tired!"
Enron did a medical check on Harp and whistled.
"Paschal, he needs a magical replenisher. He is magically exhausted! Is it available within the FSS stocks, either as a food pill or an IV, or a subcutaneous shot?"
"As a pill, it might take too long. Harp? Harp? Damn, he's unconscious. Override sequence! Harp dash five! Clearance: Paschal dash five; password Delta – Omega – Alpha – Gamma! Command: SCI! Product: Plasma – Orichalque 5%! One hundred cc! Execute!"
"What did you do?"
"I had Harp's FSS inject 100 cc of a plasma – orichalque mix by subcutaneous means. That's an emergency injection of pure magical energy. It will bring him out of the deep end. Once that's done... ah, he's coming to. Harp? You hear me?"
A light nod and "I'm dizzy..."
"Ya, you're light-headed due to low magical reserves. Now I want you to order the suit to insert an IV needle in your forearm. Do it! Now!"
"Does it show a green light on the left of the control heads-up display?"
"Order the suit to inject 200 cc plasma – 5% orichalque mix now."
"Done. Damn, all I want to do is sleep!"
"Not yet, Harp. Now set the plasma drip to 2 cc per minute."
"Set the orichalque mix at 1% continuous, 0.5 cc per minute."
"Done... So sleepy!"
"Well, good night. You'll be good as new in eight hours."
"He'll be getting 2.5 cc of liquid? He'll piss himself!" said Enron.
"We all do, Enron. The FSS reabsorbs the urea and recycles the water. The kidney will excrete the depleted orichalque and it will recharge from ambient magic before being reused in the drip. The entire cycle from injection to re-injection takes an hour. Let's let him rest."
"Bridge to Colibri! Navigation is informing me the cell is slowing down!"
"Okay. Has it begun rebuilding a new Golgi organelle?"
"Not yet. But then it is doing something else."
"I am coming to the bridge."
Colibri made his way to the bridge and eyed the frontal display.
"It is preparing cellular division rather than rebuilding the organelles. It is acting as if it is readying to abandon the area we destroyed rather than try to salvage it. How many Golgi organelles are left?"
"Twenty-nine, all in the near proximity to the cellular nucleus."
"You see these huge tubes that connect the outer cell membrane to the genetic material? They will pull the genes apart. Note there are four axis, matching the four genetic strands of a chromosome. How is the mapping progressing?
"We do a map of the structure as each becomes untangled and visible. So far, the mapping has covered 20% of the genetic material."
"Continue destroying the Golgi organelles. That will slow the separation process even more. How much orichalque have we gained from the destruction process so far?"
"We added a thin layer, somewhere around another mile or so. But given how huge Thebes is, that is not a small feat!"
"No, it is not. That cell must have had reserves enough to travel to the next galaxy even without the sudden supply Andromeda supplied it with."
"What I do not understand, Colibri, is that the cell has not tried destroying us, and we are right inside its membrane!"
"I suspect it never met anything that justified the installation of an immunity system. The result is that it has no defences, and probably is unaware it is infected by us, Tom. Jerry, bring us closer to the nucleus. I want a better view when that separation process is complete. And roll us into that blob of orichalque. It is good energy, no use giving it away."
"At this rate, Colibri, we will be like Onions! One layer of energy-depleted Orichalque, one layer of energy-rich Orichalque, one layer of energy-depleted Orichalque, and so forth.
"Do not worry, Jerry, the energy will distribute itself in time, and as we eat up more energy-rich Orichalque, the external hull will recover its full potential."
"The way you are talking of this, Colibri," said Harold, "it is as if we were galactic antibodies!"
"Maybe we are, maybe we are. Hey, it is trying to cut its losses! Look, it's building the cellular membrane to partition the Golgi organelles from the area deprived of them, and abandoning quite a few mitochondria in the process! Maybe I was too optimistic in thinking it would not react to our assault. Zen, fire a dozen antimatter mines in the path of the coming partition!"
The Snake did as asked and a parabola was 'sketched' in the way of the dividing wall under construction. The detonation of the first mine halted the progress for some time, but it then resumed in another direction.
Detonation after detonation intercepted the construction process, as the structure was adjusted by the successive explosions.
"I am surprised it never tries the same direction twice, Colibri. It is as if it learns from experience!"
"Who knows, who knows? We have no idea of how knowledge is stored in a cell, and, apparently, even a unicellular life can learn. Maybe it is stored in the form of proteins, Piano."
'I thought it was neural pathways?"
"But what are neural pathways? Extensions of membranes that ease electrical signals? If so, what changes the membranes? Proteins? Closer proximity? Higher concentration of neurotransmitters, themselves proteins?"
"I am lost."
"So am I, so don't feel bad about it."
«One of the teams came back from a site and asked you visit. They say they found something unexpected.»
"I'll go after lunch. I still feel a bit dizzy from the magical exhaustion."
«Okay. It's about in the middle of the 'east coastline' of the equatorial continent, near a rather flat salt bed.»
"I hope it is another of these silicon-based life-forms. The Nest Mother is feeling lonely."
«Why do you think of this species, Harp?»
"Simply because their nest on the Earth was in a salt bed, and Earth had a good portion of magic; in fact, this planet and Earth share a lot of common aspects."
«How could it have come here?»
"We know very little about this species. We do not even know how it navigates in space. All we do know is what the nest mother told us, which is mostly based on instinct. She told us they spend most of their trip inert, in a form of deep hibernation, and come out of it when their sensors detect a compatible planet. Nothing tells us, nor does she seem to know, if there is a limit to the hibernation duration. She does not even know where she was born, and fertilised. It is frustrating. I so hope we have found another! That would at least put a minimum range for their drifting!"
«I see. And an age to the species?»
"Maybe. We have no idea of their speed, if they travel in straight lines, or are affected by gravity wells, nothing, zilch! Paschal did a MRI on her, and all he got for his pain is a block of silica shaped like a tortoise! No internal organs whatsoever. We do not even know how she moves or eats. There is no joints! No intestinal tract. Nothing! Yet it does eat, it thinks, since we can communicate via telepathy, and does move!"
«When are the eggs supposed to hatch?»
"Shortly, she said. But then she said shortly before we left the earth. So what is shortly for her? Fifty years? One hundred years? A thousand? Who knows?"
After a quick meal, Harp called in Sitar, Paschal, Enron, and Thorsten.
"Guys, we need to visit a salt mine. There is something that intrigued the Legionnaires that paid it a visit. Here's the location."
After a quick exchange, the five Atlanteans ported to the location, and quickly found the entrance to the labyrinth that had intrigued the legionnaires enough to raise an alarm.
"Hey, look! This is one of those nests! But the eggs have hatched and the hatchlings have left the nest! Just look at the number of tiny tunnels that have been drilled into the salt crust!" said Enron.
"And here's the Nest Mother. She is immobile."
"And dusty, Sitar! This is an old nest. I do not know if the nest mother is still alive!"
"Try telepathic communication, Harp. You are the best at that amongst us."
After five minutes of intense concentration, Harp relaxed.
"She is almost dead. She told me her hatchlings left the planet some 500,000,000 years ago. They had matured and mated. The males died and the females saturated themselves with orichalque, until they were able to be ejected from the planet's gravity well."
"Does she want to come on Thebes?" asked Enron. "We can afford to keep her."
"She is not interested. Her duty to life is done, and she waits for the end, which she expects will happen when the sun blows up to red giant stage."
"That is still a long way off."
"I know, Sitar, and I told her so. I told her we have a Nest and a Nest Mother on-board, and are waiting for the young to come out of their shell."
"What did she say to that?"
"Anyway, until Thebes is back, there's nothing we can do," concluded Sitar.
"We'll inform the Nest Mother on Thebes of this and see what she says. We can not impose our views on a species we know so little about," Enron noted. "If only we know how their structure is built. There must be some cells, somewhere! But where, that is the question. The Nest Mother allowed us to scrape her shell for a millimetre, but it gave no result. She told us it made her feel better. As far as we know, there may be a single species, but there may be thousands. We have no idea, no means of comparison. The best we could do is polish this Nest Mother's shell and see if it has patterns that differ from the one we have on Thebes. But differing patterns do not tell us if they are different species, evolution from one to the next, or, for that matter, if they can mate and produce fertile offspring. Ask her if she would allow us to polish her shell so we could take a record of her appearance, Harp."
After focussing some more, Harp came back.
"I explained to her what we wanted to do and why, and she agreed. Let's get to work."
It took the Atlanteans six hours of hard work to polish and shine the shell. Then they took pictures in all possible angles and lighting. Two hours later they were done.
«Thank you. We will compare what we have with what you allowed us to record and also the shell crust we managed to clean. Hopefully, we will find out how you grow, and how you live. Think about our offer. We will leave you a portal to Thebes should you decide to come and join us in our adventures across the universe. We may find some of your children. We will inform you of where they were found and if they have embarked with us in our endeavour, much like the Nest Mother we have on our ship. We have to wait until the return of our ship to install the portal, since we did not bring the components with us. Expect us back very quickly,» Harp explained.
"Back to base camp guys. Let's hope no bad surprises awaits us," Harp said, before porting.
«Hey, Harp! Just back in time for the evening report,» said Greywolf.
"What is it?"
«A scout team found a rocket whose live cargo was only partially embarked. They have begun placing the rest on the rocket. They say it will take a good month to complete the loading of the rocket.»
"We have time."
«I know. The others report that the loading of the rockets was halted from 50% to 95%, clearly indicating that the damage was planet-wide, and instantaneous.»
"That is what we concluded. Apart from the one you mentioned earlier, are there many more that have not had their full biological cargo put on the rockets?"
«From the sites we visited, about a third.»
"And life losses?"
«That varies from the five you noticed on your first site to one hundred and fifty at the worst. The teams were busy loading the life rafts, err, life pods, when they were hit. The nanobots are busy cleaning each silo in depth, before our scouts resume the loading. We are also placing caskets for those that died. They worked until they died. That deserves respect. By the way, each pod that is not on a rocket is connected to an energy supply so the contents survived. We plan to follow their method: use their lift to not only carry the pods, but to supply the energy during transport. That saved several hundreds of their life pods' contents. The lifts not only took the energy to do their task from the floor, but also supplied the pods with life support. The total losses so far are in the order of 120,000. Not bad, but still... What about your expedition?»
"It's an empty nest. The eggs hatched," said Harp.
"Hey, Prince Harp! What do you plan to do with the sea bottom?"
"What do you mean?" replied the Prince of Magic, "Are you interested in salting everything on Thebes?"
"No. I just used my FSS scanner on the port's edge, and found there are literally tons of heavy metals, gold, silver, platinum, shiploads of diamonds, some rough, some cut. A veritable treasure. I suspect there are shiploads of cultural treasures hidden in there, in what was below sea level. Maybe they planned to return once things settled, rather than bring things with them into space. The ocean was known as Dave's locker on the Earth. I think they used it to hide their precious cultural belongings, but the sudden loss of atmosphere produced the boiling of the oceans."
"Mark the ships. We will port them in Thebes, clean up the treasures and put them in a space-fold museum, a tessaract if you are into technological terms, like we do with every culture we rescue. If we are lucky and Thebes is not in a rush, we can probably rescue time-slice layers of their history, both to help them understand their own origins, and for us to understand their evolution."
"Do not limit yourself to the sea edges. Cover every square inch of the planet, including mountains," said Enron.
"That will take a lot of time!"
"Nothing stops us from assembling more nanobots! We have the plans and the material!"
"Just don't ask me to do it!" said Harp, looking at Paschal with murder in his eyes.
"Got it. How long will it take a nanobot box contents to replicate itself on its own?"
"Paschal? You are best to answer that question."
"About twenty-four hours, give or take 30 minutes."
"So, assuming Harp recreates one, and we let it free, it will double every day?"
"Yes, given there are the resources for it."
"And what does it need?"
"Iron, titanium, a sparkle of gold, copper, and orichalque for energy."
"And what are the lasers made of?"
"The defence lasers that seem to protect the launch silos?"
"The same elements. So, Harp, if I understand your idea, you want the nanobots to pick the lasers apart."
"That could be done, however, Harp, may I raise an objection?"
"Sitar, when you go formal, I smell a rotten egg, right through the FSS filters! State your objection!"
"I suggest we mark the treasure sites, but delay the onset of the disassembly of the defences. Maybe the energy reserves for the lasers are also used during launch of the rockets, and we are also vulnerable to attacks from space while we are not under the umbrella of Thebes. We may be well-armed for surface battle, but it is not the case for aerial combat or space combat. If we had some heavy personnel carriers, with our own long-range weapons, it would be different, but we never considered the possibility of staying more than a few days, maybe a month at most, not a long-range commitment."
"Okay. I agree. Centurion, take your centurie and begin scanning the planet's surface with the FSS on-board sensors. Mark each discovery with a beacon, and continue."
"How deep should we search, Prince Paschal?"
"As deep as you can. Add bones, geological layers, and the rest. Who knows, we might even get a preliminary view of how life evolved before Thebes sends collectors back in time. Do not forget to map everything. A FSS has an integrated three-dimensional mapper in its sensory array, so use it."
"How do the nanobots integrate with the centurie?"
"Your centurie is to divide the equator in 100 orange slices and mark the edges. Meanwhile, Harp will create a new nanobot box. It will then begin replication, and, in 30 days, we have 2e30, or 1,073,741,824 nanobot boxes ready to begin the recovery and cleaning of their planetary treasures. Be careful when marking the slices not to damage anything under or above ground," said Sitar.
"And beware of these damn lasers!" added Paschal. "The FSS can resist a direct impact, but if it showed up, we do not know if the defence system is integrated and can learn from experience. Never underestimate a society that went this far."
"Harp, while you are recreating the first nanobot box, program its contents to stay away from confined orichalque, metals and other things. We do not want them to disassemble a rocket!"
"Got it, Enron. I can do that. Each time they will find a concentration of anything, they will notify me and I will have the last decision into tapping in the resource."
"That is a good idea. You might find that orichalque and heavy metals have sunk deep below the surface, so send the nanobots deep to do their mining, say a good five miles. They can resist the heat and the pressure. It might even give us raw reserves for some hard to find minerals. After all, we still do need these rare earth elements. And gold is useful in circuitry. I know we were having issues lately. So, as we have the time, let us do a good mining of this planet. Orichalque is good, but it does not cover all our needs, by far."
"Fine Thorsten. Are you sure it's not your 'treasure hoarding' that is surfacing?"
"Harp! I may be a dwarf in size, but not in brains. If I wanted to 'hoard' it is not gold I would collect, but orichalque or that even rarer magical metal we found lately."
"Come on, take a tease, boyfriend! It is not often I have the occasion to tease you lately. You are way too serious for your own good!"
"If you say so," replied Thorsten, grumpily, which made the others laugh.
"See what I mean. Laugh! You need it! Or else eternity will feel it!"
A volley of snickers accompanied Harp's comments.
"Your boyfriend needs a good bedding!"
"Sitar, it is not going to happen until we are back on Thebes. We have a whole month of dreaming, and nothing else, ahead of us!"
"We all do. We should have brought camping material. FSS is nice, but living in it non-stop is going to get on our nerves."
"There, I agree with you 200%, Harp!" said Sitar. "Do the nanobot box and let us rest."
Thirty minutes later, the nanobot box was created, and ported in the middle of a volcanic caldera, where the nanobots dug in to reach the lava pocket and begin their extraction process.
"It's done. We need only wait. The centurie is distributed along the equator and are beginning to move toward the north pole. Patience is in order," said Enron, as the group lay down on the ground to sleep.