The Mages of Andromeda were waking up in a tizzy, their Mage web shaking from a powerful intruder. Yet no report came back from their Scouts to tell them the extent of the Armada invading their fiefdom. It had to be huge, if only because the alarms were ringing all over the galaxy. The invaders seemed to have materialised out of nowhere, all over the place, and that did not make sense. The loss of an entire shadow arm in the blink of a pincer seemed too terrible to consider but the shock waves criss-crossing the magical field were so intense they seemed to confirm this. The fact that any contact with the outer ring of that arm seemed to confirm the dire situation. The only positive thing in the whole mess was that the Imperial Planet was in the opposite dark arm, separated from the invaders by the Star Eater or, as the Atlanteans called it, the Galactic Black Hole.
Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand was deep in thought. Something was nagging at the Mage, and it could not put its claw on it. There were hundreds of reports flowing on the monitor of the Admiral ship it had boarded some days earlier. Queries about movements, report briefs produced by his subservient Mages about anything from the suppression of revolts to the waking-up of the Second Line in the sector. Other Armadas were reported in movement, parallel to his own and headed toward the galactic core. All seemed to conform to plan, but what was wrong? What was missing?
Ahead of the fleet was a lone Scout. The Bashar had called a conference on the Bridge involving all officers, even those that were supposedly off-shift.
"Science Officer, expose the problem."
"We have found a hole in the Magic continuum that is so clean we cannot use our drives to travel faster than light. The engines are down until we can find enough of the field to sustain the shields. We are using photon drives, but as you know they can not push us beyond their own speed, and without an effective shield, we can not warp space for faster than light travel. The sensors indicate we need to move perpendicular to the disruption in order to escape its expanding horizon, so we are doing just that, barely outrunning the disturbance."
After sipping a glass of ethanol, the Science Officer continued.
"The object that caused the hole is 5 light-years across. We are unable to detect it. Since we have no idea of its speed, we can not tell how far it has travelled from us. We are trying to find any discontinuity in the light pattern of the galaxy that might indicate the presence of an invisible, yet extremely massive object. That has failed so far. Navigation?"
"We have set a course that brings us closer to the galactic core and also outruns the disturbance. We are leaving it behind and we hope to exit the perturbed field in some Planet rotations, thus giving us a stable magical field for our faster than light engines. Communications?"
"We are unable to establish contact with any ship. The disturbance is such that it prevents us from sending or receiving any signal on the magical web. For all intents and purposes, we are on our own."
"Provisioner, set the crew on emergency rationing. We may be stuck on this mission for far longer than planned," ordered the Bashar. "Are there any questions?"
"What about other ships? Should they not worry about us at some point?" the Weapons Officer enquired.
"You know our Masters. If one sees a gain for them from our death, we shall be left to die. We obey, because if we do not, we die."
"Life is a pain."
"Yes. And the other ships may well be stuck in a similar situation, with a cut-off faster than light drive and no communications," noted the Science Officer.
"The communications will be re-established once we enter a stable Magic field," added the Communications Officer, "but it may not be with our home fleet."
"Project the map of the Magic field."
"Bashar, the disturbance is making the map obsolete," replied the Navigator.
"I know that, but at some point, we will find a Magic node and be able to gain speed and send our alert out."
"I wish we had an alternate means of power."
"Given the paranoia of our Masters, Engineer, that is very unlikely. They want control of our displacement at all times through the field, and any suggestion contrary to their interest has ended in a blood bath."
"Ultimately, it will bite their tail."
"Maybe, but Luck had better be resistant to their dart's venom, but so far it has not and the star island has rotated on itself numerous times since they instituted this, so I do not see this change happening any time soon, Science Officer. By the way, how did you estimate the width of the sweep?"
"We were travelling at 38,191 times the speed of light when we hit the blind spot and our engines shields crashed. We were in the blind spot for one unit of time before we began registering wisps of Magic. Luckily, the fold space degrades gracefully or we would be dust. We are still degrading and slowing down. We should be safe. Our next issue is exiting the fold bubble, but by then we should have reached a stable Magic field. It is our luck we were at an angle to the path followed by that object."
"Had we hit it at a too shallow angle, we would be stuck in the Magic vacuum without any chance of escape. Our angle keeps us safe for now, assuming the object travels in a straight line."
"That assumption is risky."
"I know, Bashar, but we have only the projection of the disturbance to estimate the course. But I can not imagine an object measuring five light-years across changing trajectory. It just baffles the mind."
"It baffles the mind just for its existence," commented the Navigator.
"When do we meet a Magic node, given our current path?"
"We do not. We meet a stream and it is weak, barely enough to engage the shields and restart the engines. By then, our speed will have dropped to 2,521 times the speed of light, and we shall have three Planet rotations to kick-start our engines. We better not miss the opportunity, because the next stream is a good 1,200 light-orbits away."
"How much time before we cross the stream?"
"Seven Planet rotations."
"That is acceptable, Navigator. Engineer, you have seven Planet rotations to ready the engines for a cold start."
"Acknowledged, Bashar. By your leave? We have a lot to do in the engine room."
Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand mentally swore at its egg progenitor, dismembering her mentally while she felt every segment being torn off. Frustration at missing something was making life miserable for all those on board the ship, but the other Mages suffered the most from the temper that made itself felt across the mental link that kept the rather competitive society functioning. Oh, others paid for the mood of Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand, and mostly with their life, but the Mages felt the full blast of its fury.
"Show me the origins of the reports on a map!" ordered the furious Mage.
Slowly, spots appeared around the Admiral ship, in a sphere of gradually diminishing density around the vessel. Nothing could be gained from that: reports flowed in from the nearest ships at a higher rate than those further away, as each measured its importance by the gibberish it sent to the ship communications centre.
"Remove the spots marking any vessel less than a light-Planet-orbit around!"
Several hundred dots disappeared, but still way too many remained to show any anomaly. Gradually, Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand ordered more and more ships to be removed from the map, until only a sparse dusting of vessels remained. As the number of ships diminished, the sphere lost its perfect form, with the Scout Armada taking on a spear-like appearance in space. Strangely, one segment of the normally perfectly symmetrical spear seemed to be missing.
"Is there a reason why so many ships have not reported over the last few Planet-rotations?"
"It happens when a Scout hits a temporary hole in the Magic field," replied one of the Mages from the security of its Corvette ship.
"One, two, maybe three missing, I would understand, but we are talking about a sizeable portion of the top of the spear, I estimate somewhere around 3,500 ships. Give me a map of the Magic field and superpose it on the current distribution of ships."
The Magic map revealed nothing abnormal. There were the usual deep green highways of Magic, the white-hot Imperial planet, the bluish hue of the outer galactic magical grid; nothing seemed out of place. Specifically, the area where the ships had gone missing was no different magically from the others. Where could they have gone?
"Are we losing more Scouts?"
"We are always losing Scouts!"
"Stop clapping your pincers. You know exactly what I am asking! Are we losing more Scouts than usual in that area?
"Yes. In fact, even Dread-ships have gone missing."
"Dread-ships have gone missing in that area and no one considered it worthwhile to inform the Admiral ship's Strategic Room?"
"Who cares about a dozen Dread-ships missing? We are hunting for a ship, not searching for lost ones!"
Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand almost blew up from the comment. With that kind of attitude, it was a miracle the Empire survived!
"I want a sequence of lost contact map! On the double!"
The picture took a whole Planet-rotation to show something significant. By then, another 250 ships had gone missing, really angering the Mage. It was not that the loss of 4,000 ships produced any major dent in its fleet, but the mere fact that something, someone, might threaten the Empire made it go nuts. As it eyed the widening cone of lost contacts, Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand could not figure out what it meant. It looked dreadful! There must be trillions of enemy ships to make that much damage in the ranks of the Fleets! But why was it widening away from the core rather than toward the core of the galaxy? It was as if the invaders came from within, not from the outside! A revolt? Could the Andromedan Mages have been so blind to their slaves' duplicity they had missed this brewing disaster? No! No and no! The slaves were slaves! Slaves in all forms possible, including in the brains! None of their spirit was left when the Mages let them go.
The Second Fleet was nearing the cone where things seemed to unravel. Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand decided to halt the progress and see what was coming rather than charge pincers first into a fight it could not estimate the probability of winning.
"Communications! Put me on-line with the Second Fleet."
Shortly, the fleet's ships blinked yellow, indicating direct communications were established.
"Is anyone missing, Field Commander?"
"Halt progress and warn me if any ship goes missing."
"But there is nothing ahead of us!"
"Except that three out of four ships in the First Fleet in your Spear segment are missing and we have no idea of what is causing the issue. Establish a constant link with those of the First Fleet still in operation and monitor them."
"As you wish. What about the ships of the First Fleet that are ahead of us? Should we extend the order to them?" The Field Commander assumed the Mage could not reach them from its current position.
"No. Let them to their fate. They are bait."
That comment sent shivers down the dorsal fin of the Field Commander. If proof needed that they were meat to grind, that was it. How could the Mage sacrifice so many ships just to bait an elusive enemy left everyone that heard the exchange shivering in fear. When would their turn come?
As if it could read the thinking of the Field Commander, Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand added a casual comment.
"Do not try to run from your sacrifice. We shall not be defeated and traitors will be eaten alive. Prefer an expedient death to our devouring pincers!"
The Field Commander almost felt like leaving a mine field behind his Fleet, just to get even with the Mage, and throw the Fleet in the nearest Black Hole, but family ties prevented this event from ever coming to fruition. The Children would be the first devoured if they revolted. He had seen the videos of how the Mages dealt with rebels and even if the species portrayed in these videos were ugly and terrible-looking, they were living organisms with family and precious ones. The crews had all watched, mesmerised and disgusted, as these Mages devoured the young alive, in front of their Parents, taking immense pleasure in the writhing of the poor victims and their grunts of terror and pain, and wails of misery of those forced to watch the destruction of their loved ones. Of course, the fact that the Field Commander had no idea of where the home world was did not help in planning a revolt. They could have blown their Planet to deprive the Mages of their gruesome vengeance, but they were always transported in Carriers when came the time to mate and produce more Children for their Masters to enslave. For all it knew, they could be quite near their home world, passing right beside it, but the Field Commander had no way of knowing this. The Field Commander had no knowledge of how gruesome the Mages were between each other and how competitive they were within their own circle. How could it imagine that the nearest notion a Mage had of Family was nest-mate, and only as potential food source to eradicate as quickly as possible before making a run for survival in the hatchery?
The Mage watched the Field Commander with its eight eyes, tasting the air for treachery. Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand knew its appearance disturbed the Field Commander and tabled on it to foretell any issue before it turned sour. It had no inkling of what it really meant to have a family; all it knew was it was a powerful bind that allowed the Mages to control the Empire. The Mage knew fear, thirst, hunger, but it had yet to feel the mating call, and it was quite content considering all that stood in its way as contribution to its diet.
The Andromedan Scout reached a thin but stable Magic field, and the Engineer began the arduous process of a cold start for their transwarp engine. If only the process could be sped up. What worried the Engineer is the paucity of the field. Was it enough? Was it wide enough or would their inertia throw them through right back into a blind spot? A cold start took a quarter of planet-rotation, way too long for its taste.
"What is the temperature of the coil?" asked the Bashar.
"It is at 80% of nominal. We have still some time to wait before injecting the Magic fluid into the accelerator chamber."
"Do we have enough reserve?"
"We have been collecting during our travels, and the steady external supply we are now crossing is adding some. We shall have a single shot at starting the engines. If we miss, it will be some time before we gain enough reserve again."
"Shall we have enough reserve to send a message packet?"
"No. We need to wait to be in a more substantial stream. I want all reserves on standby for the cold start. We are at 81% of nominal."
"It is so slow!"
"It can not be helped."
"I hope our Masters agree."
"They designed these engines, they should know them and their limitations better than us."
"They never believe in the word 'limitation'."
"That is probably why they got caught with the pincers tied. These engines have been around for who knows how many galactic revolutions! At the beginning, they might have been a good design, but the quantity of fuel floating in space is diminishing. Whole areas of the galaxy are considered hazardous now. The ramjet design we use is out of date for the most part."
"That might be construed as seditious."
"If what created the mess is a space-ship, they might not be in a position to impose their rule for much longer."
The Bashar could not fault his Engineer's thinking. Any civilisation that could field a ship measuring five light-years across was not a speck of dust to brush away. All became quiet on the Bridge while the Engineer monitored the coil heating up. Time grew to an almost complete standstill.
"Inject matter in reactor chamber!" ordered the Engineer. He watched the temperature drop and then begin its climb back up as the plasma coalesced along the ejector rails.
"We have ignition! Helm! You have engines!"
"Turn into matter flow to sustain engine!" ordered the Bashar, well aware they might run out of combustible before they gained sufficient speed to sustain the crossing of a magical void spot. The Bashar also knew that it would move the ship further from its intended trajectory but safety was paramount, whatever the requests of the Mages.
"We have sustainable energy!" informed the Engineer, much to the relief of the crew.
"Put the food generators online," ordered the Captain, well aware their food and water supply had grown low even with the rationing. "Provisioner, how long before we restock?"
"Three planet-rotations, Bashar."
"Damn! We were cutting it close!"
"Should we send a message to the Masters?" asked the Communications Officer.
"No. Knowing them, they would send us in the fray before we were ready. Since we are away from most travelled lines, we are invisible to them until some ship crosses our current path."
"And the Engineer from that ship would need to be one obsessed bastard to detect our trail after a planet-rotation. We barely leave a swirl in the Magic field and it smoothens up rather quickly. It will be worse when we hit a more substantial stream. There, we shall leave a much easier track to follow."
"If only we could use this to get at least one of their ships with a mine! Only one and I would feel so much better serving these slavers!" commented the Bashar wistfully.
"We can always try to stay within this thin veil. We need not necessarily try to find a denser stream," suggested the Navigator. "After all, we have a map."
"That is an idea. Can you establish a path that would keep us away from the huge ship and sustain our life-support and propulsion?"
"We are framed on six sides by transport channels. The Magic field is the residual interaction from these transport pathways. We feed our engines on residual energy lost due to the inefficiency of the standard Troop transports and Dread-ships. We may be smaller but we are billions of times more energy-efficient than those big ships," replied the Navigator.
"I wonder what is the impact of the big ship on transport?" asked the Strategic Officer.
"If it hits a major node, the area will be cut off from communications and transport from other sectors for a very long time. Pray it does. That would put our Masters here in a hard spot," the Communicator Officer replied.
The Admiral ship was quietly waiting on information from the Second Fleet. Scouts had been sent toward the edge of the galaxy, and some had gone missing, reinforcing the Mage's interpretation that the attack had materialised right in the core and was now trying to break out of the star island. The further the Scouts went, the wider the front, and it was becoming difficult for the crews to find traces of the enemy. What else could be expected, since the Magic fluid thinned out as they moved out of the galactic core and became ever more insensitive to the displacement of vessels? All Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand could hope for was that they would catch up with the invader before it moved out of reach so the Mage could exercise vengeance for their effrontery in coming into their home galaxy. If it moved out into the intergalactic space, where the Magic flux was too thin, then it would be out of reach but condemned to death anyway. No one had ever managed to travel these wide spaces and survive. Or could they not? The question nagged at the Mage, troubling it.
By 11 planet-rotations, the last traces of the passage of the invader were fading, except for that star-sized swath that seemed to have appeared out of thin void! Nothing made sense. The Scouts searched far and wide, and nothing told them where the enemy had gone. One moment it was there, then, however far they searched, it was not. It is as if the enemy had vanished! No one ventured too close to the vanishing point because Scout ships vanished in it as well, accompanied by plasma pulses. The Mage could not even fathom that each flare of Magic was a ship collision, not a parting of a Scout into a space continuum hole. Flustered, Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand decided to try and find where the enemy had emerged in the galaxy. Maybe that would help in figuring out the nature of the threat.
"We have the report on the trigger sequence," mentioned a Communications Analyst. "The result is troubling."
"What do you mean?"
"The initial time stamps told us at what time we received the messages; it left everyone with the impression that the alarms came from inside the galaxy and moved toward the edge. Now, with proper identification of source, and message time stamps extracted out of the static, it appears the last messages we received were the first sent, but they had to travel around the galaxy to reach us."
"I see. How did this mishap happen?"
"The repeaters seemed to have garbled the messages considerably. The further they had to travel, the more garbled they became. It took us a considerable amount of effort to extract the time stamp and the origin of the message. We are still hard at work on the main contents."
"How could this happen?"
"Apparently, quite a few communication streams have broken down, and the messages had to be routed around the gaps, adding more distance and more fuzz to the message. Once we managed to sort things out, it was a question of understanding what it meant. In short, the first alert was from a rock orbiting a dead star. From Orbital-map, we found it was near the point where the tracking falters. By the way, Orbital-map needs updating. Some stars have been moved out of their planned trajectories by gravitational flux. That is Navigation telling us this, as we worked together to figure out where things are. We are trying to map a new communication network, but it is proving difficult. Transponders are sluggish, and some nodes have vanished or lost power."
"Have the communication transponders verified and replaced."
"Communication has tried to request Scouts, but none is available. We were told to make do with the situation."
Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand almost wanted to cut the Communication Officer in half but refrained. After all, it was only doing the best it could given the circumstances, contrary to others.
"Is there anything else?"
"Yes. I do not know if it is important, but the first Scout that actually went missing was deep in the galaxy. The Bashar is A'Kendric, and the ship has been missing for quite a while. It was with First Fleet, at the tip of the Spear during its initial creation."
"Before we started moving toward the edge..."
"Yes," replied the Officer, leaving out the most obvious: the move had been ordered by the Mage. It might be brave, but it was not suicidal!
"You have guts. I promote you to Field Commander. You are to stay at my side and tell me if you have any more hints and insights on the enemy."
"What about the previous one?"
"I am retiring to my cabin. Send the Field Commander to my cabin for a chat. Wait until he is safely in my room before changing your grade."
The newly minted upper Officer shivered. Everyone knew what was to happen to the disgraced Field Commander, but no one in its right mind would dare inform the unfortunate Officer of its impending doom. It was its job to try and commit suicide before reaching that door. Some had preferred getting ejected into space by shorting the safeguards of the airlocks, but most had fallen to the pincers. Anyway, shorting the airlocks was becoming ever more complicated. The Mages did not appreciate losing their fun and lunch.
The Communication Officer moved to get to the Field Officer's cabin. His arrival took the Officer by surprise, but his looks of total fear and shame tipped the Field Commander to the events. Considering the situation carefully, the Officer acknowledged the request and let the Communication Officer leave. Once the door closed, the Field Commander placed several thermal charges near the weakest point of the hull and linked them together. Finally, the Field Commander suited up for extra-vehicular activity, sat into a rocket-propelled chair, tied up the seat belts, and linked the detonators of the chair to the sequence so they would fire barely an instant after the first sequence. If all went well, the Mage would find nothing to show that the Field Commander had survived and made good its escape. These survival pods were rarely used and were even more energy-efficient than Scouts. They too derived power from the Magic field, and were next to untraceable unless the alert beacon was activated, and that was one thing the Field Commander had removed, replacing it with a navigation component instead. Always be prepared had been its motto. Once out of the ship, the pod would drift away at nearly the speed of light, perpendicular to the current trajectory of the Admiral ship, and be lost in space in the blink of an eye. It could sustain its occupant for seven planet-rotations without the need of the transwarp engine. By then, the pod would be so far away its tiny signature would be indistinguishable from the background noise.
Once ready, the Field Commander triggered the automatic firing sequence and the sleep shot that would cut any attempt by the Mage to trace its movement telepathically. A slight shudder marked the expulsion of the survival capsule. No one could see it as it vanished in the darkness, hidden by the blinding light that marked the detonator that had shred the wall of the cabin. The intense decompression tore through the cabin's contents, destroying every trace of its illegal cargo, and bending the door to the cabin in such a way it would need to be cut out to allow anyone inside the torn area. The damage was considerable: the Field Commander had made sure that every plating was held by only the barest of bolts, themselves stripped of any grooves. Plates tore off and followed the capsule, exposing wires to sharp edges and shorting any recording device that might have been active within the entire wing. It would require the ship be brought to the ship yard for repairs. Secondary explosions propagated along the innards of the ship, in effect damaging the Officers' quarters to the point of rendering it improper for habitation. Some Officers joined the Field Commander in 'death' but, contrary to its demise, theirs was not faked.
Yet, even with the loss of a wing, the Admiral ship was so huge it barely shuddered. Only the wails of the alarms about hull breach told the crew and Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand that something had happened. It did not indicate the extent of the damage, nor its location, for all sensors had been torn or the wires cut. Access to the wing was sealed and would require the establishment of a temporary lock for the safe doors to open. The emergency repairs crew rushed to the site and began building a double bulwark to allow the removal of the atmosphere within a small volume while the main bulwark doors could be kept open. The sudden condensation of vapour created terrible conditions for the workers as the surfaces iced over because the inner bulwarks were not insulated as well as the outer hull. Heat dissipated rapidly across the metal, making the soldering of the temporary walls difficult.
Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand had not yet left the Bridge when the explosion occurred. That is probably the reason why the Andromedan Mage did not die in the blow-out. The Admiral's cabin, its cabin, had been right beside the Field Commander's suite, and had sustained the most damage from the sudden decompression. It lost a part of the partition separating the two cabins to the suction of the atmosphere leaving the ship; quite a few electronic components also flew out of their seats, making the control of the life on board the ship impossible for anyone. Also torn out were communications devices specific to the Mages, and used by them for the regulation of the Empire. In effect, Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand was now cut off its peers except via open channels, a very bad situation for an aspiring Emperor!
The newly minted Field Commander made its way to the Bridge, weary of what the shudder meant. Had the ship been hit by a meteorite? Was the damage considerable? Where was it located? The only thing it knew with certainty was there had been a hull breach, which meant that the object had to be either extremely small and therefore undetectable, or extremely large, therefore impossible to destroy by the shields and deflectors.
"Is your predecessor waiting for me in my cabin?" asked Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand.
"I told my predecessor that you wanted to talk to him in your cabin and turned around to come back here. My predecessor awaits."
"Have you found what is the issue with the sudden vibration I felt a minute ago?"
"The hull breach? No. I am waiting on the crew to locate the breach and give me a report on its extent. The Officer of the Watch should know more," indicating a deep black mass of hair that would remind Humans of a Teddy Bear were it not for its dripping fangs that killed their preys with a venom that would make Stingrays envious.
The Mage turned an eye on its stalk to get an answer.
"The breach occurred in the Upper Crew area. We have no idea of the extent of the damage because we do not have access to the hallway. That means the hallway is without atmosphere. The cause may have been a micro-meteorite that pierced the hull and the partition separating the cabin and the hallway."
"Where is that?"
"Where the Officers and Mages live."
"Are you telling me I no longer have access to my cabin and that I shall share accommodations with lowly crew members?"
"All Mages and all the Officers, yes, until the extent of the damage is assessed and repairs completed."
"Can you be more precise?"
"No. All sensors are out."
The last comment brought a few whistles of surprise from the other crew members on the Bridge. For that to happen, damage was either extensive, or the cause had cut up a vital sensor link.
"Establish a link with the Mage Guard Fleet. I need a replacement ship."
"At your command!" replied the new Field Commander. Anything to get the Mage out of the ship and away from the rest of the crew was a good move.
"And you come with me," added the Mage with a perverse move of its pincers and relishing the depressed feeling emanating from the new chief Officer. "Request a large cabin fit for your species. And a bigger one fit for mine."
"At your command! However, this was the biggest ship in the Mage Guard Fleet."
"So? I am looking for a comfortable ship, not a piece of flying crap, which this one turns out to be! Get the second in command on the Bridge. This ship is going to dry-dock as soon as you and I transfer. Get a Scout ready to carry us to the selected vessel."
"The second in command is not reporting as most of the Officer of the night crew. We believe they are behind the lock and probably in their cabin but unable to communicate due to cables getting cut."
"And when will there be good news?"
"When the war starts," replied the Commander, knowing this would please the Mage, but paint it to the others as a pincer polisher.
"We have a view of the exterior transmitted by another ship, Your Highness," reported the Officer that had taken over the station vacated by the newly minted Field Commander.
"Put it on the front screen," ordered the Commander.
There was a flicker of adjustment, and the Field Commander adjusted its glasses to allow a clear view of the projection in false colours. The view was being projected in a spectrum adjusted for the Mage's range in deference to the Mage's prominent status aboard the ship.
The extent of the damage was considerable. A whole section of the hull had been torn, living quarters were in shambles, and protruding struts revealed the inner workings of the Officers' quarters. Huge swaths of tubing emitted various products, from water ice to solid waste. Electrical arcs were recognisable by their bluish-white and intermittent nature. Damage was even still in progress as secondary explosions could be seen occurring at random intervals and pieces of the ship were flung into space to disintegrate violently as soon as they left the protection of the warp bubble that encased the Admiral ship.
"Interpret what you see!" ordered the Mage.
The Field Commander nodded to a Structural Engineer, who took centre stage, using a luminous pointer to illustrate its discourse.
"It is difficult to determine which cabins survived. I am not sure there are any survivors. Chances are low. There are many reasons: lack of heat, lack of recycling of atmosphere, lack of water, lack of food, and naturally, all the cabins that lost the atmosphere due to the partitions giving out are tombs."
"So be it. What else does this tell you?"
"Apparently, the major explosion occurred within the ship, but that is only because the edges of the hull are torn outward. It might well be the case that it was the power of the decompression that caused the bending. The middle of the hole, where everything started, is missing entirely. Without it, we can not verify if the initial hull breach was due to an impact or a voluntary hull breach."
"How many cabins are missing entirely?"
"I do not have a final number, but from what I am seeing, I would advance the number of missing cabins at two dozen and probably more. I would think triple that amount are totally lost, and the rest are severely maimed and could blow up at any time. The partition walls have been weakened by the number of repeated explosions and the pressure differential between the inside and the outside."
Just as the Structural Officer completed the comment, a partition wall collapsed and the sudden de-pressurisation ejected the cabin's contents, including its occupant, that exploded into microscopic droplets of body parts, rendering all identification impossible.
"This is what I meant, your Highness."
"I see. Where is my cabin in this catastrophe?"
"Your accommodations were located in a safe zone. It was in the middle section, on the ventral section of the ship, considered the safest spot. Unfortunately, it is missing entirely."
"Estimate the centre of the hole."
"Its geometry is ragged, your Highness. There are secondary explosions tearing at the edges, thus making the centre of the conflagration difficult to figure out. Furthermore, the structure of the ship is such that some areas are more susceptible to tear."
"Do you think we can find the section in our path?"
"No. Just watch what happens to that beam as it leaves the warp bubble," replied the Structural Engineer.
The Mage watched the slowly spinning beam as it edged toward the warp bubble's edge. Suddenly, it was pulled out of view in a shower of light.
"It was pulled out of the bubble by the drag of space, and disintegrated into highly energetic particles."
"Could anything survive this boundary?"
"Yes, the survival capsules. They are locked into the evacuation pods and have a short reserve of energy to assure they escape the warp bubble intact and gain power from their Magical engines. They never have been tested in a real evacuation that I know of."
"Are all survival capsules accounted for?"
Little did the Structural engineer know that the higher Officers had surreptitiously installed survival capsules in which they slept just in case some unforeseen need arose. It was not common knowledge even amongst the Officers of a ship and the information was passed from one Higher Officer to another after a long-drawn period of tests and build-up of trust. The Mage was satisfied. If it had missed on its fun with its meal, it was at least assured it had not escaped with its life.
"When is the replacement arriving?"
"It is due in a planet rotation, your highness," informed the Communication Officer.
"That is good."
"It is because our current course leads us to the ship, your Highness. It does not have to play catch-up with us. We are also headed in the general direction of the nearest orbital dry-dock. It is being reactivated as we speak. It was mothballed since the last war. We are in luck. It is the biggest dry-dock in the entire dark arm of the galaxy and probably one of the few capable of handling this size of a ship. It should have all the equipment and spare parts required to rebuild the segment."
"Structural Engineer, you will be acting First Commander when we leave for the new ship. You are to bring this ship to the dry dock, get it fixed as quickly as possible, and then catch up with the Mage Guard Fleet wherever it may be located at the time. Is that understood?"
"Yes, your Highness. What if the Second Commander lives?"
"Transfer command and instructions to the Second Commander, and take its station."
"At your command, your Highness."
The Scout ship gradually gained speed as it scooped up more star dust to extract magical energy from. It also distanced itself from the growing disturbance in the usually placid magical field, clearly either catching up to the cause on a parallel course or simply moving away from it. The Bashar had yet to authorise a transmission of the gathered information to the First Fleet, much to the surprise of the Communications Officer.
"What is it you would tell them? That we found a disturbance where none was expected? That we are running away from a ship while we have yet to have a firm confirmation of its existence? That we were lucky to survive a sudden drop in the flow of Magic? You know our Masters: they could not care less of our survival. I shall allow a report once we have something solid. If you want to be their food, feel free to call the Fleet. You know their rules: them first, the others to Hell!"
"If we survive that encounter, Bashar! And that comment is seditious!"
"As if I cared about sedition! I care about survival, you fool!"
"Who said those of that ship are not worse?"
"First, what ship? Second, we have the chance to gain first contact with a civilisation that might help us break the yoke of the Mages and you want to throw that away in a misguided sense of duty?"
"It is not misguided!"
"Yes, it is! The Mages always ask, never give! Everything is their due! They have enslaved every species they have met so far, and been doing it for at least 300 galactic revolutions if not more. I will give anything to break those chains, anything!"
"I shall not continue to obey a Bashar that betrays the oath of office!"
"I am not asking you to obey," replied the Bashar as he pulled out a disperser and fired on the Communications Officer, reducing the individual to its basic atomic components and a burst of heat quickly dissipated by the ventilation of the Bridge.
"Anyone else wants to continue cleansing the pincers of our Masters can board the life raft and hope to be rescued. We all know of the standing orders concerning life rafts: No ship is to divert path to pick one up. The crew does not know this, but we all know of these facts. Also know that the life rafts are empty of any food except for mine, as per the orders of our Masters. Their reasoning is simple: if we had to abandon ship, we are worthless as space-farers. As to why my own has food, it is so that they can 'interrogate' me for the failure to command the ship safely. Remember how they interrogate... I would prefer instant decompression to meeting them!"
The other Officers watched the Bashar with awe. It had been so long since a rebellion in the Fleet had occurred it seemed unheard of, yet they knew it was not the first. Learning that the other life rafts were simply sophisticated coffins shocked them, but most, if they thought it out, were not really surprised.
"Wake up the Second Communications Officer and bring him to the Bridge."
"Do we really need it?" asked the Engineer.
"I understand your fears, but if we do catch up with that ship we need someone that is a communications specialist. While we wait on his arrival, reactivate the third shift Communications Officer from cryogenics and update the Cadet's learning to take its station."
"As you see fit, Bashar. I just hope the replacement will not be as cramped. We all know their secondary conditioning is to act as political surveillance specialists."
"That is why I want you to deactivate their private communications stations that they think is so skilfully hidden in their respective cabin. Simply block the signal from reaching the hull antenna, but do not forget to maintain the feedback loop!"
"I know my job, Bashar!"
"I know you do, Engineer. Why do you think I picked you? Every member of this Scout ship got hand-picked by me when we got activated. The only ones I could not pick were the Communications Officers and that told me something fishy was up about that station. Our Masters outwitted themselves and pointed the fault in their system by being too picky. By the way, while we wait on the activation of the Second Communications Officer, see to separating the Communications Desk from the antenna, and setting a by-feed control to my chair. Hide it so it is not easily detected."
"Okay, I got the right crew member for that. How do we explain the disappearance of the First Communications Officer?"
"While you fix the Communications Desk, give it the impression it burned and blew up, and that it got repaired. The First Officer died in the line of duty and was recycled in the engines as per standard protocol."
The Engineer nodded and began the assigned tasks. It would take several planet rotations for the Second Officer to be brought to active duty, giving the current crew ample time to install the charade imagined by the Bashar.
Knowing how nosy Communications Officers were, the task of deceiving the replacement convincingly would cover several aspects. First, the Bridge records were modified to display a sudden explosion and then a series of emergency procedures that were designed to stop the fire from engulfing the entire Bridge. Records were destroyed, others replaced, and others mangled beyond the possibility of 'apparent' recovery but left recoverable to give false leads to the nosy spies that would come to replace the officer. The Bashar's Logs were carefully overwritten to match the different time stamps so orders would match results. Even the medical records showed that the Communications Officer had succumbed to terrible wounds after a valiant effort by the Medical Officer to save a life. Knowing that the replacement Officer would do a thorough diagnostic on the circuitry, the only modification done was to block transmission outside the ship unless the Bashar held a control pin. All other circuitry were left intact, including the feedback loop that would be the core of the attention of the diagnostic tests.
The second aspect of the deception was a visit to the First Communications Officer's Cabin. There, the records were again overwritten, and matched the ones found on the Bridge. Well aware that entering a Communications Officer's quarters would leave traces, the Bashar ordered the contents put in storage with a note to be delivered to the family. Everything else was left intact, including Communications Logs. The Bashar knew that the transmission of data had been halted during their transit in the shadow of the vessel, so it was relatively assured nothing was recorded. Energy had been on a need-to-use basis only for a while; transmissions being high-powered consumers, they would have shown on the power graph. The cabin was searched thoroughly, using wide-spectrum signal detectors, and the few devices found were delicately modified to reflect a very legitimate activity: the preparation of the cabin for its next occupant while it got reactivated.
"You know it is usually the First Communications Officer that activates the replacement."
"I know, Life Support Officer, I know. But I plan to ask how a cadaver can activate an Officer."
"They have these relays in their body..."
"Look, relays can be destroyed, and we are not supposed to know about them. Remember, there was an explosion, and nothing prohibits a piece of the communications desk from flying inadvertently into the relay, destroying it and killing the Officer."
"Given it is located near a main artery, the chances of survival are nil."
"How could we know of that? The Medic did its best and failed. Given what we know, it makes sense the Medic failed even with the best efforts. How long before the bastard is ready to come out of cryogenics?"
"Another two planetary rotations."
"Nice, oh nice. Two days without that shit, a breath of fresh air. Put it to good use, and cross-check everything to make sure we did not miss anything. Find me more about that ship. Try to verify if we are effectively getting closer."
"And Engineering Officer, see if we can rig up a hidden Communications desk somewhere in this ship that would not attract the attention of our awaking sniffer. It need not be sophisticated. Anything that will allow us to send intermittent signals in any frequency would be more than satisfactory. Range might be more important than sophistication."
"I think we could use the forward rest area, It has a transparent hull segment that could be used to send laser signals without using the hull antenna. Few use it, because they fear the void."
"Do you think the snoop is familiar with it?"
"The apparent looks of the forward rest area is well-known to anyone. However, I can easily condemn the space, claiming that we hit some unexpected crap while travelling, and lost it to sudden decompression. It would fit with the Communications desk overloading and us losing power for a considerable amount of time."
"The locks respond to touch..."
"But the pressure feedback from the sensors can be corrupted to give the lock wrong information, thus locking the area off."
"All this so we can access the Communications Desk Interface. If it was not for the triple-lock recording in the Desk, and the impossibility to override the locks, I would throw the Second, Third and Cadet into the Engine!"
"So would I. The Mage Masters really did not want us to communicate with others without their spies knowing about it: retinal scans; claw prints; Doppler shift of retinal blood flow... And probably a dozen more we have no knowledge about."
"I admit the information gained over the aeons on the security features is parsimonious at best and leaves a lot to be desired. Their only mistake has been to keep the same ship design over time and expecting crews to act in isolation. None of our Masters realise we keep exchanging information between shifts and species as a ship is occupied by different life forms. The use of a numerical encryption based on primes has been a genial idea of the Urchics, may their spirit live forever!"
"May their spirits live forever," replied the members of the Bridge Crew that had been following the discussion.
The Urchics had been the ones to develop a hidden way to pass information between succeeding crews of a ship of any size. They had been particularly bright encryptors and Mathematicians. Their use of background noise to hide the true nature of the records had been the pinnacle of their research, and led to the establishment of a true hidden registry of undocumented features built in a ship to help the Mage exercise control over their slaves in space and time. Unfortunately, the Urchics' star had left the main sequence and entered the red giant stage millions of planet orbits earlier, vapourising them and their home world. The Mages had simply let things happen without even trying to salvage a segment of the planet-bound population by helping them establish a colony. That felony had turned many of their slaves on them, and it had been the cause of the last slave war. Unfortunately, slaves may outnumber masters 100 to 1, masters always find some cowards to sell out others. The Mages themselves did nothing to hide the true nature of their felony. It was their right to do what they did and they were not ready to make amends or even consider saying they were sorry. Guilt was no more known to them then than it is now.
"While you are fixing the Communications Desk, try to add more information on its features as well, Engineer. There are way too many unknowns in that box."
"I have some hypotheses to test, Bashar. However, I do not wish to leave too many traces around, especially within some sensitive areas."
"Fine by me. Sensors? Status report!"
"We are moving away from the disturbance at a good clip. I suggest we angle our course slightly closer to the estimated path of the intruder. From the data we have, it is spiralling toward the galactic core while staying in the dark arm."
"Navigator, implement the suggestion. What else do you detect?"
"Quite a few Mage nurseries have been awoken by the passage of the intruder. Frankly, from the amount of Magic being spent in the nurseries, there must be a hecatomb of Mages. They are waking up too fast and react adversely."
"I am not about to complain."
"Me neither. Their Mage Guard Fleets are going nuts, attacking anything that flies by. This is why we have all advantages to stay close to the intruder. By the time they are finally out of their murderous stage, we shall be past their defences, well inside the galactic core."
"I wonder where they all come from?"
"We never did find out where the Mages hid during all the inter-war periods. Now we know. They hide in the dark arms of the galaxy. It will be of use if we ever do find a way to get the information out to other worlds without awaking the attention of the spies or the Mages."
"I also wish we knew more about the intruder. They must have come from somewhere! And given their ship measures 5 light-years, it comes to sense that they are also very powerful!"
"I just wish we knew for certain we are not trading one Master for another!"
"Only time will tell."
"Anyway, as far as detectors go, that ship has yet to fire a single shot. It is only Mathematics that lets us estimate its trajectory and the consequences on the Magic field. Otherwise it is totally energy-neutral, a feat of technology we are far from being able to equate. The Scout gives off enough energy to seem like a derelict compared to that vessel, and we have the best stealth technology available in the galaxy. If their sensors are as good as their engines, we shall stand out like a star when we finally show up on their screen."
"You are not encouraging, Science Officer. "
"And the Science Officer assumes we do not already stand out on their sensor array," noted a worried Provisioner.
"To be honest, I would not mind them seeing us. We shall look less threatening that way. What matters is that we stay invisible to the Mages. That is more problematic. As we get nearer the core, the number of nurseries activating is increasing, also augmenting the probability of the Scout being detected," replied the Science Officer.
"Navigator, estimate the point of transition into the dark cloud hiding the core of the galaxy of the spiral we are following. Then send it to the Helm. Let us cut the arc. I want us to be ahead of them when they reach the cloud so we can be seen as waiting on them. I am tired of chasing them."
"As you see fit, Bashar."
"When the Communications Officer comes up from the cold, no one talks about that ship. The longer it stays ignorant of its existence, the more likely we shall be able to establish contact with it while keeping our Masters in the dark."
"I have the estimated point. We need to angle off by 32.822° from our current trajectory."
"Thank you, Navigator. Helm, implement the new path."
"Helm reports it will take us 14 planet rotations to reach the estimated target point, Bashar."
That is within acceptable parameters. I hope we reach it before they do."
"That is difficult to tell, as we have no idea of their speed."
Way near the edge of the galaxy, the Mage Guard Fleet that accompanied Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand and its severely damaged admiral ship entered the solar system where the Mage would change ship and leave the maimed ship behind for repairs. Ahead, visible in the darkness of space, was the giant Ferris Wheel of the different berths reserved for the maintenance of ships. It was gradually coming online, as more and more spindles lighted up, indicating their activation. The control centre was brightly lit and directed the maimed ship to a proper berth. An escort was sent to bring the Mage to a replacement ship that just had been taken out of mothballs and verified. The crew was waking up and taking its station.
"First Commander, join me on the shuttle. You are now relieved of command of this piece of flying crap."
"I am ready. I left directives to ship my belongings home should any have survived what we saw."
The Mage just could not fathom the importance of personal belongings so many lower races seemed to have. What was more important than a life of Power? It made its way to the docking bay and quickly followed the First Commander onboard. The Ensign, well aware of the importance of the passengers, made quite sure the flight to the new ship was flawless. The arrival of a new First Commander on the re-commissioned ship did not go unnoticed. The previous First Commander accepted gracefully the demotion to Second Commander as the new one had the ear of the Mage, but the demoted Officer promised itself to do all it could to undermine the upstart.
"Depart immediately," ordered the Mage.
"But we have not finished with the loading of weapons and food," the Provision Officer informed the Mage.
"Priority to weapons. The crew can eat those in stasis," ordered the Mage, much to the horror of those who heard the order.
The Provisioner Officer skipped off to implement the order, actually reversing the priority in his shock. No one bothered setting the order right, furious at the callousness of the Mage and its little attachment to lives.