The emergence from the last jump revealed a spectacular view for the Atlantean crew. There, 1,721 light-years away was Andromeda in all its glory. The galaxy was visible like a pinwheel, its galactic bar shining blindingly ahead of the Atlantean ship's path, the bulge of the galactic core like a stuck lighthouse. The ASS Thebes had emerged almost at the pole of the galaxy and the arms of the star island were clearly visible in the front monitor of the Bridge for all to see.
"Is it me or is it real? This galaxy seems to be much bigger than the Milky Way!" commented Harp as he eyed the superb front view.
"It is 20% brighter, but we all know there is dark matter known as Orichalque. We are flying in a concentrate of it. Harp, activate the telescope," ordered Ian. "I have a bad feeling about the next jump. Let us slide in at 50% of transwarp. We need a forward view of what to expect. Sitar, put us in full invisibility mode."
"Okay. I am stopping all active sensing, and keeping passive surveillance only."
"What are you expecting exactly?" asked Harold.
"If only I knew. I simply have a hunch there is an issue waiting to pop up. Release Scouts, distance 300 light-years. Port when ready."
"Should they be invisible too?"
"Okay. I am scheduling the release of 600 Scouts in a dome ahead of our line of displacement. That gives us 2.86 days of forewarning. The trip to the first star will take 10.2 days," replied Sitar as he checked on the Navigation cross-feed visible on his Strategic Station monitors.
"Dreams of the Sea? Report to FSS Boarding Bridge 40 with your Centurie!" ordered Sitar, calling in a Dolphin-Octopus mixed Centurie into action. "Short Stop Coyote, Report to FSS Boarding Bridge 42 with your Centurie!" That put into the line of action a mixed Canine Centurie comprised of Foxes, Wolves, Dogs, and Dingoes. As each Centurie materialised outside of Thebes, at 20 light-minutes distance, they dispersed around the forward of the ship, matching its speed and direction. The FSS were totally invisible in the electromagnetic spectrum, but the magical sensor array showed a tight grid bent around the leading edge of the massive ship. Sitar continued calling to duty ever more Centuries of different Armies, Hordes or Swarms. Finally satisfied he had a good forward layer, he nodded to the Captain, and the ship gradually accelerated toward the looming galaxy, reaching its cruising speed of 50% of transwarp within seconds, ensconced in its Armada of FSS, Scouts, Battle Ships and other vessels that Paschal and the other Princes of Atlantis had designed over the last 50 years to act as force vectors.
"We look like an invading force, you know," commented Annabelle as she eyed the absolutely impressive sphere of protection encircling the ASS Thebes like a battle group around an aircraft carrier. Millions of dots littered the space around the ship, each representing one unit of the Atlantean defence system. Contrary to a star, whose planets are generally aligned along a plane, the extensive network was spherical and of equal density in all directions, with a slight bulge forward produced by the Scouts.
"My dear, we are invading Andromeda. I just hope things will not be too bloody," replied Harold.
Ian looked at his Parents, while Alexander kept watch on the Helm, and smiled.
"Nothing is gained without pain, Mom. The only issue is how much pain we will experience before we gain."
Days passed relatively quietly as the Atlantean Armada crept silently and undetected toward their next objective, the Gamma arm of the Andromeda galaxy. Finally, the first star passed to the starboard bow of the furthest Scout, marking the official entry of the Fleet into the new star system. The sensors had long detected the magnetic fluctuations associated with a galaxy, The number of collisions with dark objects had been increasing steadily, and clumps of cold dust as well as Hydrogen molecules re-emitting at 21 centimetres exploded from the relative quiet of intergalactic space. Orichalque accrued on the surface of Thebes, adding a thin veneer of fresh matter to the giant star-sized ship as it slowly rotated to expose its surface equally to the magical matter.
"Thebes? This is Harvard!" asked a Griffon, one of the more than 250,000 species that were on the path of Elevation.
"Speak, Harvard," replied Sombrero, a Desert Fox, in charge of telecommunication.
"Is it normal that the passage of Thebes creates sparks?"
"Sparks? Let me ask. Harp? One of our FSS crew reports it detects sparks on our passage. Is this normal?"
"Ask it to transfer what it detects to Bridge on channel six."
Harp studied what Harvard was detecting, and, using telemetry, began doing a full electromagnetic scan. After some minutes, the conclusion was clear. It was not a defective sensor array. The phenomenon resulted from the impact of the displacement of a folded space bubble in a dense gas, creating the equivalent of contrails but in the electromagnetic field. Thebes was not as invisible as thought initially. Harp sent the recording to Sitar and Paschal, asking the first what were the security impacts of the data, and asking the second what could be done to minimise it.
Paschal was the first to come back with a comment.
"Nothing can be done about it. It is an unavoidable consequence of our size. We are as big as a small dwarf star, and the space folding inherent to transwarp or warp speeds increases our footprint, disturbing the dust over a very wide area. What you see is the consequence of bringing the gases into an exited state by our movements and the subsequent cascading of energy back to the fundamental state of the different atoms excited by our passage."
"While listening to Paschal, I realised that our passage will leave a streak of light in the gamma range," began Sitar, "but the security impact is minimal. I would have preferred we stayed totally invisible, but this being impossible, the security consequences are mitigated by the fact that whatever streak of light we are leaving behind us must be a certain distance to our rear. I would be more worried if we had a shock bow that could virtually pinpoint our position. Even if the streak of light can allow for someone to infer our trajectory, it can not tell the true distance by which we lead since the degradation is the same whatever speed we travel in."
Deep behind the ASS Thebes, hidden in a star-less mass of rock, some lonely alarm began transmitting in hyper-space. It had been silent for aeons, so long ago, in fact, that its masters had all but forgotten its existence. Nonetheless, the alarm propagated along set paths of communications like a vibration along a web. What did the alarm say? Intruder!
Further inside the same rock, a machine woke up and began monitoring the very thread of space. It calculated speed, it calculated size, it calculated path, it calculated mass, and found the nature of the perturbation. A mass of Orichalque moving at a phenomenal post - luminic speed whose density was, on average, less than Lithium. That spelled space-ship loud and clear. It piggybacked the data on the alarm signal, updating the stream as the intruder progressed within its detection web. It would take time for the signal to reach its intended destination, days, weeks, or years, but it would reach it, spreading around the web, circumnavigating ruptured communication lines, interrupting low-priority information flows with its message.
Meanwhile, Thebes continued, unaware it had been detected and of the upcoming events. Deep down in the core of the space ship, Ian was feeling more and more anxious but could not get a grip on what was perturbing his sleep. It had never occurred before. Typhoon, his bonded, noticed the ever more agitated sleep pattern and watched Ian with increasing anxiety.
Typhoon was not the only one worried about his bonded: Thorsten noticed Harp's darkening eyes and he knew from experience this bode of a terrible storm in the Prince of Magic's mind. In fact, all the bonded pairs noticed changes in their partners, ignoring their own feelings of foreboding.
The atmosphere at the Imperial Table grew sombre as the anxiety permeated every member of the Imperial family. This mood percolated down to the Imperial Guards and finally to the rank and file of the Atlantean society. This, in turn, produced an increasing number of incidents that required interventions from higher up in the hierarchy. Even Harold and Annabelle had words with each other, which finally tipped off Alexander to the issue. After separating three of his little Brothers in a fist fight, he slammed his fist hard on a wood table, breaking it length-wise and crashing a ceramic pot in the process, making Annabelle and Amethyst jump.
"What has taken to you, Son?" asked Annabelle.
"What has taken to me, Mom? What has taken to us would be a better question. I never saw so much tension in the family since the Orc invasion!"
"You were not even there!"
"Maybe not, but I can share Ian's feelings and memories of it, and we are worse off now than we were then! Look at your own tone of voice, Mom! Have you ever talked to any of us with that voice, even in our worst prankster years? Last week, I overheard a fight between you and Dad that left a sour taste in my mouth. Something is up, and we have not reacted to it the way we should. We lie here, divided, instead of uniting to find the cause of the disturbance and a solution!"
"How dare you tell me what to do?"
"I dare because I am your Son, and since the older generation seems to be unwilling to tackle the issue, we shall! Instead of fighting amongst ourselves, we need to meet and discuss what we feel. Maybe you will notice you are not the only one having issues, Mom, and that should, in itself, tell you something is up. We are all able of foretelling, and sometimes we experience it even when we do not solicit its manifestation. As soon as Dad is back from his Dragon flight with Grandpa Gold, I am calling a Family meeting. We need to address the problem before it degenerates."
Turning to Ian, whose eyes were bigger than saucers, Alexander continued his rant. "You better not say a thing! You, of all of us, should have called that meeting, but you wallow in your feeling of misery. Get out of your shit, or I shall pull your hair out, Heir of my arse! Maybe you need a kick in the butt so hard your balls dangle from your nose to get in gear, and, believe me, I am willing to deliver!" Turning to look at the three youngest Boys, Alexander continued on them: "You three are a disgrace! Your infighting has gone far enough. Since you have nothing better to do than pick on each other for dust, I am assigning you to Dragon Flight Group One for a week! Report to the Barracks Commander, Gerald Wolf, and he will see to finding you some work to burn up some of your energy. I am sure spending the week taking care of the Dragons' Barracks with a shovel and a rake on hot volcanic sand will cool you down!"
"But you can not do that! You do not have the authority..." said Aurora, the youngest of the troublesome trio, as Sunrise and Sunset, the fraternal twins, scampered away in fear.
Barely had he uttered this comment that there was a terrible lightning flash in the room that left the persons temporarily blind and deaf, while a powerful Ozone smell permeated the area.
"Move it, before I roast your arses!" thundered Alexander, red in the face with fury. "And no Magic to evade your work! All muscles if you know what is good for your rears, little pests!"
"You will not be very popular with them..."
"I am not here to be popular, Mom, but to make sure they realise that it is by example that you lead Atlantis. They have been let off on too many occasions. They are two years late on magical development because of lax child-raising practices. The recess is over." A cry of pain was heard in the hallway outside the room, surprising Annabelle. "I said to get to the Dragons Barracks, not loiter in the Halls in the hope that Dad would overturn me! I shall talk to Commander Wolf so you Boys will be sleeping in the Barracks for the week!" thundered Alexander. "Mom, they are M-0 Mages, but their lack of discipline is a danger to all of us. I am sorry, but, from now on, they will be under my constant supervision and answer to me until they learn their duties and proper magical control. I love my little Brothers, enough to put my foot down and say enough is enough."
"You know they will try to call on Harold to overturn the decision."
"Dad knows better than to overturn a command decision," said Alexander frostily as he eyed his Mother with fury in his eyes, "and this is a command decision. They are putting us at risk with their attitude. No one, ever since we began, ever overturned such a decision, not you, not Dad, not Harp, nor Ian ever did. I do not see it happening any time soon if we are to survive as a society."
The day passed relatively quietly. Each member peeked at Alexander, wondering when they would provoke his fury. They had never seen him act so strongly before. At vespers, Harold returned to the Imperial suite and immediately noticed the dark and icy mood.
"What happened?" he asked to Annabelle while the two were preparing to go to the Mess Hall for the evening meal. Annabelle quietly described the morning incident between Alexander, herself, Ian, and the three youngest of their small brood. At the end, Harold's eyebrows were hidden in his hairline and his eyes were bulging. Alexander had retired for most of the day to study more naval strategies of the Ancients and had been invisible since his outburst.
"It is true I have been feeling anxious for no good reason, Annabelle. I am sorry we had words last week. I never thought it might have such an impact on our Children. I think Alexander is on to something, and I think he is right to call in the family for a meeting. Has he told you if he wants it limited in scope to the immediate family or if it should include all the Imperial family?"
"He did not say. Maybe you should ask during diner. By the way, Aurora dared confront Alexander. The consequences were not nice."
"Aurora has to learn there is a time for everything. Confronting Alexander in this situation was not right. What did Aurora do?"
"He defied Alexander's authority after Alexander had separated the three little pests for the umpteenth time for fighting. He sent them to the Dragons' Barrack to burn up some energy. Aurora told him he had no authority to order him around, which triggered Alexander's ire and the Imperial temper reached a flash point. You will not see your three youngest Sons at the Mess Hall tonight. They are ordered to the Dragons' Barracks and confined there for the duration. And I suggest you do not intervene. Alexander called upon the Command Decision Privilege to send them off."
"But he is not Shift Commander?"
"In the circumstances, he took control and acted as one. Therefore he has the mantle of Shift Commander, Husband. Even I, and I was there, did not dare contradict him. I may be his Mother, but I am not stupid. In the mood he was, had I said anything, you would have had to find me in the Dungeons! I strongly suggest you abide by your own rules, because Alexander is not to be trifled with today."
"Agreed. I shall wait for him to take the stage during diner."
"How was your hunt?"
"Grandfather Gold Dragon showed me some new tricks. We teamed up to fish. Guess how?"
"Get down to business and tell me already! You know I hate guessing games!"
"You are not fun today, Annabelle! Let it go, I am sure things will be for the best!"
"I have my doubts."
"The three little Devils had it coming, and you know it! I shall not intervene in Alexander's control of the situation, even if they beg me on their knees! They have been acting like irresponsible little brats and they got what I should have done way before today. As for the new trick, Grandfather Dragon showed me that you could scare the Fishes into jumping off a water fall and drop on them from the top, gobbling them live before they reached the pond below. You have to fly down faster than they fall and catch up with them. It is scary until you realise that if you miss your pull up, it is the rock that suffers, not you. We teamed up in the second run, and while he scared the Fishes to jump off the cliff, I flew vertically up the waterfall, maw wide open. It was fun."
"Except for the Fishes. Maybe that is where the name Goblins comes from?"
"Hey, who knows? Are you ready? Grandfather Gold Dragon is coming to the dining table tonight, along with his bonded Mage and his Mate. He says he has a surprise."
"His Mate never came to the table before. Do you remember why?"
"She is too big to enter..."
"Harold, maybe Ian is right! Maybe you are suffering from juvenile dementia! Think!"
"Not you too!"
"Get your brain in gear, then. If she is coming into the Mess Hall, it is because she can now shift shape, and that can only mean one thing: she bonded to a Mage to gain the necessary Magic to control that gift of the Dragons! The surprise can only be one for dimwits, like Males of the Imperial family, it seems! He plans to introduce her bonded to the Imperial family and ask for the recognition of the bond by the Pharaoh, you, in case you have forgotten!"
Harold blushed crimson, and stuttered a half-felt acceptance of his Wife's logic. Annabelle watched Harold tried to find excuses as to why he had not figured it out for himself and finally she exploded in inextinguishable laughter. Alexander walked in on them as Annabelle kept laughing ever harder, her eyes wet with tears, and her breathing interrupted with hiccoughs.
"It feels great that you have finally found your laughter, Mom. From Dad's face, it is at his expense?"
"Yes! And you better not add your own laughter to hers!" said a flustered Emperor.
The comment produced another bout of irrepressible laughter from Annabelle, that ran away into the en-suite to wash her face and try to control herself. She could be heard repeatedly exploding in mirth, slamming her hands on the tiles of the bathroom walls.
"It must be good for Mom to be uncontrollable. Will you share, Dad?"
"Then, let us move to the Mess Hall. The others are waiting on us." With that, Alexander turned around and walked out, closing the door behind him, only to run off as fast as he could out of sight and hearing of his Father before exploding into laughter himself. Harold had been so shocked by Annabelle's demonstration he had completely forgotten to block his thoughts and had broadcasted them loud and clear for everyone within the Imperial Suite. Luckily for the sanity of the Emperor, the others had taken the short road to the Mess Hall and had managed, for the most part, to get their hilarity under control when the Imperial couple walked in the Mess Hall. The change of mood at the Imperial table was immediately noticed by those in attendance and it reflected positively on the interactions between the Imperial Guards. Iridia noticed the red eyes of the Empress and gave her her tissue with a solution that would remove the reddening.
"What is wrong with her eyes?" asked Harold.
"Nothing good laughter would not resolve, your Majesty," replied Iridia. Harold looked at her suspiciously and was met with a sibylline comment: "Feminine logic, your Highness!" which produced a roar of laughter at the Imperial table, mystifying the Pharaoh even more. As things calmed down, Typhoon's Father introduced his Wife in her Dragon–Atlantean Chimera form and her bonded, a young M-4 Mage by the name of Albatross.
"I gather this was the surprise you were inferring about as we returned from the hunt?" asked Harold.
"Yes, my friend."
"And you want me to consecrate the bond?"
"Then so be it. I shall do this right away so the food is a banquet to celebrate the new-formed bond. May I suggest you never bet anything with the Female that is my Mate if you want to keep your Kingdom? Had I let my macho attitude run rampant, I would be pauper now."
"I already turned the Kingdom over to Typhoon. I shall not say more, knowing Ian's long-held belief he is a better Prince than King."
After the long and raucous diner, the Emperor stood up and asked for a moment of quiet.
"I am calling on the Imperial Family members with foresight to report to the Meeting Hall. We need to look at the future to see what is causing us to feel a sense of foreboding. You have until compline to refresh and prepare yourselves. The others are dismissed to their respective duties."
Harold stood up and left the Mess Hall for his Chambers, followed by those called upon for the meeting. The others stayed back, stunned. At first rumours flew, but those of Imperial Family that had stayed behind quickly calmed the game. One young Miniature Orc brought the picture into focus with this statement, repeated ad nauseam afterward: "The Emperor has seen the problem, therefore the Emperor has control over the problem. We need not worry."
Those called upon by the Emperor quickly made to their respective rooms, washed up, refreshed themselves, and took a quick nap. They knew the next few hours would be difficult at best.
"Should we call back the three hot-tempered Boys, Aurora, Sunrise and Sunset?" asked Amethyst.
"No. They would see it as an excuse to continue their ill-advised attitude, and they would contribute little to the upcoming Mind Meld," decreed Harold, "And I do not plan to break my own rules of engagement: Alexander ordered them to the Barracks under the umbrella of Shift Commander, and his call stands," stated Harold forcefully.
Compline was still fifteen minutes off and the call had been fulfilled. Everyone involved in the Imperial Convocation was present in the now fully reorganised Throne Room. Harold sat on the Throne of the Sun, as row after row of recliners encircled the dais. Ian was on his right and Harp on his left. Their respective bonded Dragons were also present. At the head of the Emperor's recliner was Alexander as prime caller for the Seeing Meld, and Annabelle was at his feet.
"Thebes! Close the doors and lock them until we decide otherwise!"
"At your command, Emperor Harold, Pharaoh Horus, Thor of the Forge, King of Kings!" acknowledged the Artificial Intelligence.
"Let the Caller state the reason for the Conclave of Seers!" asked Harold, conforming to the ritual.
Alexander took a deep breath, and began speaking.
"We have felt the oppressive feeling of impending Doom strangle our community. It began slowly, but has taken ever more of our attention, depriving us of restful sleep, inducing temper issues, and otherwise interfering with the conviviality of our closely knit society. It can not be left to fester divisions when we are embarking on a new adventure. We must deal with it the best we can, and that starts with a deep study of the threads of time. We learned that we can not see all, that there are small events that have big impacts, that, sometimes, the nodes of the future are so tangled we can not get a clear view of what lies ahead. It does not justify abandoning our far-sight because we see fog ahead. Let us try and clear the clouds of uncertainty to the best of our abilities and ready for what we know will come, whilst preparing for worse."
"Has everyone felt this?" asked Harold, more to confirm Alexander's generalisation with the others than doubts in its value. He too had felt the darkening clouds and had ignored them, attributing their presence on boredom and a mild depression. It took a few seconds for all present to acknowledge the Prince's observations and so the process continued.
"I now call upon the Prince of Magic to anchor the Mind Meld and guide us through the study of the threads of time."
Harp began to sing softly and brought the others into the magical trance required for the difficult art of far-seeing. Once this was done, He began singing the binding of the Mind Meld and brought together the Mages of the Imperial Family, from M-3 up to M-0, in all, several thousand Mages. As the merge progressed, Magic began to glow ever more brightly in the Throne Room. Had anyone ventured in it at that moment, the individual would have been blinded by the brilliance of the light, just before being reduced to subatomic components. As the Meld progressed, the recliners vanished to be replaced by magnetic supporters. No matter not buffered by the field could survive in the environment. Everyone began to converge toward Harp with his Brothers touching him ever so slightly from all sides, enveloping him in a sphere of stiff bodies that gave the Prince the looks of a pin cushion suspended in mid-air. The last ones added, the bond became solid and a powerful flash of light sprung into existence, enveloping all participants.
"We are one Body, one Mind, one Spirit, one Soul, bond Body to Body, Mind to Mind, Spirit to Spirit, Soul to Soul! We are ONE! Chains of Time, reveal your Secrets, obey our Command, and show us the Web! So we order!" ordered Harp in a thunderous voice.
The participants had long closed their eyes and the white screen that had become their physical sight darkened to utmost pitch-black. Gradually, in the depths of this unnatural darkness, thin ripples of time began to appear in the form of light undulations of dark and clear, much like those produced by tiny pebbles being thrown into a calm, flat water body or giant lake, and, as events of differing importance interacted, a pattern of interference emerged from the colliding ripples produced by individual punctual phenomenon. Lines of dominant probabilities emerged, but yet, some areas of the time flow showed unnatural flatness, like all probabilities cancelled each other, keeping these areas unreadable. It is as if the nature of time itself changed, becoming like a thick oil, unable to propagate the signals events produced. Unable to overcome this setback, the Imperial family focussed on studying what events produced the most uncertainty in an attempt to guess what potential interactions these circumstances might have. Hours were spent analysing what was visible of the ripples, how they propagated, how they added or subtracted from each other, how amplitude changed over time-distance, trying to find functions that might let them determine the damping or amplifying of events over time. Once everything that could be extracted from the study of Time Lines was extracted, once the juice was out, the Atlanteans began the even more arduous project of interpreting the data they had collected.
At first, nothing seemed to be coherent. There was just too many holes in the web, too many flat areas, too many uncertainties. Frustrated, Ian almost exploded.
"It is like we are facing a revolt of Magic!" he stormed.
Harp balked at the idea initially, but he decided to add that factor into his equations. It did not resolve everything instantly, but it did break some grounds.
"You are on to something, Ian. It clears up the fringes of the events, making their edges more defined. However, I still can not get a clear view of what happens."
"What is your premise?" asked Sitar.
"Random, spurious violations of magical laws, like there were holes in the magical continuum."
"Could it be the intensive use of Magic to hide oneself from other magical users, a draining of Magic to prevent its use under specific conditions?" asked Typhoon.
"What are you suggesting, Typhoon?"
"Someone is using Magic intensively, much like we are. We eat up Magic like candy. It is bound to have consequences."
"A species, not 'someone', it is too intensive to be limited in numbers to a few individuals," said Ian. "Harp, factor in a highly magical species and see what this does."
"Okay. I began as soon as Typhoon suggested the idea. It clears up a lot of dark spots, but not all."
"Add 'hostile' to the equation," said Greywolf.
A second later, Harp whistled. "I get it! We have stepped into a Hornets' nest! Hostile with magical powers to match ours. Ladies, Gentlemen, prepare for war. Magic may have served us, but now we must be ready to fight with a race of equals."
"Harp, try to 'see' them, and their capacities. We might be able to fly under their radar, so to speak," suggested Paschal.
"I am working on it. We need to fathom not only their magical capabilities, but their strategic thinking and their offensive and defensive capabilities."
"Will it pose any specific difficulties?" asked Diamondcutter.
"Apart from hiding our mind probes, none whatsoever. After all, we have established contacts with over 2,000,000 species in our quest for life to rescue while we travelled the Milky Way, of which 250,000 are in different stages of Elevation, with a good 520 species fully at our level. Just look at whom we have called upon to amplify our far-sight this day! We might as well do that while we are united. It will put everyone on the same page instantly."
The focus turned on trying to gather information on their opponents. However, it did not go as well as Harp had hoped. The first issue was the nature of the thinking process, which was far more alien than they had become accustomed to. Even the telepathic flowers and the Lanteen plants were closer in thought process than those they were trying to fathom. Furthermore, the Mages of the other camp were actively trying to hide their race, and had long ago set up false leads and triggers that had to be explored systematically or bypassed.
"Do you think they know we are coming?" asked Annabelle. "If we go into a intergalactic fight, I would like it to have surprise on our side."
"From what we have so far, their response is more like a form of wake up call. So, total surprise, no, but they have yet to get in full gear. Their responses look like canned ones: mind traps, Magic mine fields, the likes, some form of passive defences. Remember your history about these types of defences: walls all have their weaknesses. What we need to find is the weak point in that defence system and exploit it," replied Sitar. "I am trying to figure out how to turn their system on them to interfere with their own mobility while liberating ours. It will take time, and we have plenty. Even if they have hyper-space communications, it takes time to mobilise an army, and, if it is geared at another task, such as an occupying force, it is also difficult to redirect its focus to first, a defensive posture, then, later, into an offensive one. We may be deep inside their system before they can tackle us with any hope of success."
"Do you think they could succeed?" asked a worried Diamondcutter.
"I believe in preparing for the worst scenarios, and expect things to be even more terrible. They are magical, truly magical, if things we have foreseen are true. I do not believe our foresight is inherently false, but probably under their true potential. Nothing stops them from hiding what we do not look for. It is our first war with magical beings of importance, so we must be prepared accordingly."
The Andromedans, for lack of a better name, had forgotten the magic sensors implemented by their forebears. They had grown complacent, cock-sure, arrogant, and any other qualificatives one might think to portray over-confidence. The last revolt of their serfs had been put down mercilessly, as an entire globular star cluster, numbering several thousand stars, was wiped out. That tragic genocide had occurred some 2,300,000 years earlier and had been interpreted by the Ancients as a giant Black hole eating up the star cluster from the inside. Nowhere in their wildest dreams could they have thought of it as an act of war done on slaves by unforgiving masters.
Even if the current Andromedans were mere shadows of their older selves, they still represented formidable foes, if only because of the fear they inspired to any that had crossed their path. Species shared a common repertoire of stories to scare Children into submission, and the existence of common laws, applied by the servants of the Andromedans with unabashed severity and cruelty, ensured these stories stayed of actuality. Their organisation, even if eroded by time, still inspired fear and compliance to their rule of people who could have possibly survived some form of autonomy. Distance from the Capital did not allow for leeway, as the Military Bases usually had more freedom to exert repression and destroy than those who needed to report directly to the Andromedan leadership.
The Core of Andromedan Mages had been asleep for several thousand years, held alive inside huge cisterns of liquid Methane, waiting for a call to defend their Empire. Deep near the core of the galaxy resided the Capital of the galactic Empire, hidden in a cloud of dense and very cold Hydrogen. The star was a brown dwarf, chosen specifically for its long life and its very stable atmosphere that would not affect the Planet's orbit, or its protective shroud. The amount of light was so low it barely transmitted enough alpha particles to be classified as a self-producing light source. Furthermore, the Planet was so close to the dwarf its presence was hidden by radiation masking. Yet, there were Mages elsewhere: some hidden in Methane Moons, others in deep rocks whose interior had been filled with Methane, and others on Methane Planets. Their numbers were huge, but their biggest asset was the vast number of sleeping Eggs, which had yet to be brought to fruition should they be needed. Each Mage had given cells to be made into clones, all held in stasis in huge ships disguised as asteroids, distributed around the galaxy. That was the reason why mining asteroids had been so forcibly prohibited. None of the enslaved knew of the reason, and neither did the enforcers, but the prohibition held sway.
Yet, the Mages had planned far ahead. They had bounded numerous species by magic to serve as gun fodder, and fleets lay hidden in dust clouds, powered down, their crew in suspended animation, waiting for the call to action. These races had been subdued by the Mages and subverted to act as proxies, preset to attack any the Mages pointed them at. These Armadas were the second line, the Reserves. The first line was the Active Galactic Fleet, divided into 3,000 Sectors, each containing millions of ships staged at bases strategically situated around the most probable lines of invasion, commerce and communications pathways, main Planets, and stellar groups.
As the alarm propagated along the communication network, it triggered activation sequences, first within the active Fleet, and then within the Reserves. Simultaneously, low-order Mages were woken up and slowly taken out of the freezers. The first to come back from Death were the Cryogenic Technicians, followed by the Healers that would monitor the wake-up process for the higher Mages. Several years after Thebes had first been detected, the Imperial Family, composed of the most powerful Mages in the history of the Andromedans, would wake up and be ready to take up their part in the entire Imperial System. The Mage Guards, the Mages tasked with the day-to-day management of the Empire were gradually notified of the presence of an intruder in the Empire. Like any well-oiled administration, some gears slipped, others gripped, a few broke, and the vast majority ignored the alarm, not feeling concerned by an intruder because it was not in their sector. There just could not be an invader, some fear-crazed idiot must have triggered the wrong switch, or forgot to inform them of a dumb drill. Who, in their right mind, would dare attack an Empire that spanned an entire galaxy and had been there for over 40,000,000 (or was it 4,000,000,000? Time seemed to be so meaningless!) years if the fables were true?
As the ASS Thebes penetrated deeper in the galaxy, readying itself for its formidable task, another task force started its first live-fire exercises behind a veil of dust that absorbed the signatures of an impressive variety of radiation or inertial weapons. The first shots of the upcoming galactic-wide war were fired on dummies that were far from reflecting Thebes' structure or capabilities. Bickering amongst the Admirals of the Andromedan Fleet added to the mayhem. Each wanted to be well seen by their Masters, the waking Mages, aware, or so they thought, that being prominent would give their species or better still, themselves some recognition for their hard work. Little did they know the Mages considered this hard work their due, and did not hesitate to kill any that did not serve them with utmost fidelity. Self-serving individuals were quickly side-tracked to act as live targets for the enjoyment of those who were selfless.
Somewhere, behind Thebes, in the Constellation known as the Dust Bowl by the Mages of Andromeda, an unnerving sound was propagating through the liquid Methane. The first Mage of the Imperial Line was being brought back to life, his bodily functions reactivated. The pain was excruciating, but that had been done so it would drive the Mage to a Power surge. The Mage's Power surge was present: the Methane vapourised, exploded, destroyed the container and the control mechanism. The Mage shone like a firebrand in the darkness of the huge chamber. Once it stabilised its Power surge, those that had been monitoring its wakening were dead, their magical cores breached and siphoned dry of any contents. For thus was the means by which the Imperial Lines survived: they drank the power of lesser Mages to gain their status. Their body had four sexes, but they never actually mated once they found their Power Core. They were too Power-greedy to do so and those who did not learn to stay out of touch of an Imperial Mage were quickly disposed of, falling pray to their insatiable thirst. Needless to say, this was not common knowledge, for if it had been, the Imperial Line would have found itself deprived of food rapidly and those of its Caste destroyed during hibernation. The freshly awoken Imperial left the room for the surface, aware that others were on the verge of coming to and unwilling to fall pray to the thirst of others of its kind.
Behind it, other containers began blowing up, and more lower Mages paid their devotion to their Masters with their lives. The activation sequence had been planned so Mages of the Imperial line would come to surge in order, but sometimes, two or more woke up at the same time and the result was a battle for food that usually left one of the Imperials dead. The cost was considerable, and quite a few Imperials ended up barely able to hold their rank.
Meanwhile, the first Mage to escape the cistern made its way to the Control Room of the Moon that had been its freezer for so long. Reaching the main control, it established its current location relative to the galactic core, found out it had spent 1,528,238 years in stasis, and that the planet below had developed a new life form in replacement of its last dominant species.
«Trigger the enslavement protocol!» it ordered.
Deep within the far reaches of the star system, huge ships began moving forward, readying their weapons to break any resistance from the future slaves. The trigger also brought the star system to the attention of the Mage Guards. The Admirals of the Fleet began a race for the star system, each wanting to be the first on the scene when their Masters would call on them. It would be days before the first ship made its way to the star, but that had been intentional. The Mages were rather paranoid and selected their stars very carefully during the cool-down, making sure no one, not even their most trusted Guards, knew where they went to sleep.
More Mages flowed in the Control Room, weary of each other, aware that any distraction could cost them their life. Some cock-sure Mage tried to push the one that first stood at the Control panel away, only to see the other one ferociously attack him and drain a good part of his Magic in a single go before it even had time to react. It did not even have the time to retreat before a weaker Mage jumped on it, finishing it off and thus gaining status. The hierarchy scores were settled with a dozen dead and the other staying far enough to stay alive. The first one had to fight for its control position several times, but it maintained its grip on the board, and gained status as each battle turned in its favour. What once had been a low-ranking Imperial Mage now glowed green with power, and no one would confront it within this outpost. It was well on its way to a much higher ranking station, if it survived the confrontation with the next few outposts and gained followers.
Each battle resonated in the Magical dimensions and sent a message to those other outposts, clearly indicating the result of the fights, and identifying the winners or the losers. Each battle was a defiance to those Imperial Mages that were awake, a call for confrontation to determine who would progress further and make its way to the next level of magical defences, getting ever closer to the Imperial Planet. Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand, as the leading Mage was called, still had several battles to fight and win before he could even consider making his way to the next ring. Its chances of survival were slim, and it knew that as a fact. It had killed a few of its siblings in its rise from a low Mage to Imperial status, but these were mere skirmishes, that cleared the field of incompetents and left only the most apt at treachery and duplicity alive. It needed to choose its battles wisely, and keep its opponents on the defensive. It too listened to the resonating battles from the outposts, gauging whom to confront first, or to hide from until it gained enough power to survive. And yet, it could not for one moment forget it was surrounded by members of its own family waiting for it to be too distracted by the blood call so they could attack successfully.
One might wonder how these Mages managed to take control of a galaxy given their infighting, the death toll it caused, and the lack of family bonding? The principle is simple: it is ferocious natural selection that gave the Mages their dominance. They had no word for mercy, no word for pity, no word for fear, no word for care. The lower Mages mated, produced eggs, and hid them from other members of their own society, aware that a nest was a food source. It went so far that the location of where the eggs were laid was promptly forgotten by the lower Mages because it happened often that a 'Parent' would eat its own progeny given half the chance. Then, once the 'Parent' had left the area and begun its growth in Magic by feeding on other life forms and Mages of weaker strength, the notion of parenting was removed off their behavioural repertoire. Therefore it was a simple question of numbers that allowed the Mages to survive, eat their way through competition, and rise up the Rank and File. For each 1,000 eggs laid, one survived to Imperial status, and that was more than enough to keep the galaxy under the 'thumb' of the Mages. For all their ferocity, the Mages had one quality driving them: any time one was threatened by another species, they all grouped together to reduce the opponent to slavery. Their divisiveness evaporated like water under the July midday Sun for the duration of the threat.
Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand had started early in its quest for power. It never mated, began eating the life magic of its nest mates the moment they broke the eggshell and otherwise acted without even a glimmer of mercy to any of its siblings. Yes, it had been number 956 to be hatched, but the others that followed it stood no chance. Of all that made it out of the their shell, barely 150 made it to the surface to begin the next mating cycle, all this due to its diligence at destroying potential competitors and swallowing their meagre magical core to make its own stronger. This proclivity toward feeding made it the youngest in generations to reach Imperial Caste. It had no intention of giving birth to any competition ever but was determined to be the Emperor in an interval as short as possible. It might be cold-blooded, but its ambition was there to warm it up.
The waking up of the Mages did not go unnoticed by Thebes and its residents. The Atlanteans no longer had issues at sensing the Magic. In fact, they were saturated by wave after wave of Magic. Ian ordered the energy to be captured by Ianium and Adamentium, clipping the crest of each passing wave as it washed over the Atlantean space-ship. Mithril and Orichalque also got loaded to their maximum potential, and the space-ship itself used some of that magical energy to drive its engines rather than take the energy from its internal reserves.
After a week, the number of spikes gradually dropped as the number of Mages emerging from stasis diminished. Yet it never really disappeared completely. The reduction in the number of explosions in the magical fields remained a mystery for the Atlanteans. They dared not prod too deeply into the minds of the Andromedans.
By some strange act of fate, Thebes's trajectory kept it out of the main invasion routes and concentrations of troops of the Mage Guards and Active Galactic Fleet, but close to where the Mage Cisterns of the Outer Ring had been placed. Its passage had an unforeseen consequence: it sped the propagation of the alarm, bringing to the fore Mage Cisterns that would otherwise have been woken only much later. As it plunged deeper and deeper into the galaxy like a red-hot knife into butter, the Mage Empire sizzled and woke up haphazardly. The effects in the defence of the Empire would be considerable.
Thebes passed quite near the next relay between the outpost occupied by Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand and the median Mage Ring, producing a catastrophic emergence of the Mages in a totally disorderly fashion. Of this disorganisation resulted the collapse of the Cistern and the destruction of an important magical relay, to the point that only the weakest Imperial Mages emerged out of suspended animation alive as they had been living on residual Magic and therefore their magical core did not overload when the controls fed the Mage cistern with terawatts of Magical power in an effort to bring the Mages on-line as quickly as possible. The Mages that survived were as greedy as any, but totally unfit to control such an important relay station. What was left of the relay station was pathetic. Magical relays burned, transport stones dead, and divided as to what to do, the Mages that had survived the disaster spent precious days sorting out their hierarchy rather than send their Second Line Fleet after Thebes, which was receding in the distance quickly, unaware of the destruction it left behind.
Meanwhile Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand had sent its fleet down on the unsuspecting new race and reduced its leadership to icy corpses, enslaved the survivors, and brought them to Fodder Status, namely, weak inertial weapons that could not be used against Magic users. The population was divided according to age, and those able to reproduce were forcefully made to do so. Immature members of the slaves were taken away and conditioned to slavery without mercy. The older, out of reproduction cycle, were put on ships to be the first fighters in the upcoming war.
The arrival, several weeks after the wake up call, of the first Armada of the First Line was received coldly by Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand. He smelled ambition like Sharks smelled blood and sent them to find the cause of the disturbance. Studies of the trajectory meant nothing to Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand and did not trigger any undue alarm. War Fodder vessels left with the first Armada to reach his outpost, but not without losing its Admiral to excess familiarity with the Mage. The Admiral had misjudged the Mage on appearances and paid with his magical core, whose resources were added to the stockpile of the ever-greedy Mage. The second in command, a Vice-Admiral, had stayed on the Admiral flagship and thus escaped the siphoning of its core. It was also what one could call a totally incompetent boot-licker whose ego was probably bigger than the ship now under its command. It took its sudden promotion as a sign of success and took off after its target like a Pit-Bull after a Rabbit.
Successive arrivals of Armadas of the First Line were met with relatively similar results, some paying a higher price than others and contributing unwittingly to the progressive gain in power of Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand, further distancing it of its contemporaries and especially of its nest siblings. Meeting an ever-greedier Andromedan Mage became worse than playing Russian roulette: the gun now carried 5 bullets instead of one. The other Mages of the outpost began to leave the Control Room, admitting they stood no chance and preferring taking their orders from afar. There was always another day, as long as they stayed alive.
The next phase of the ascension of Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand in power came with the arrival of the first Armada of the second Line, tracking Thebes. It sent a third of the Mages survivors with the Armada, mostly the weakest ones. Its justification was simple: whatever gains they made during battle would not upstage its position; and second, better keep your enemies close at hand as food source rather than give them a chance to access a resource. The third Mage in command tried to make good its escape but ended up shredded by Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand, magical core devoured on the Control Deck in front of the Second in Command and the entire Mage corps. The message was clear for all: Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand would not broke for any disobedience, however slight, especially from its Command.
Gradually, the outpost was depleted of Mages as wave after wave of Armadas of the Second Line made its pass at the outpost. Finally sensing that no other Armada would be coming from behind, Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand called in the Mage Guard Fleet and boarded their Admiral ship, abandoning the outpost for the time being. Only the Slavers and Ship Builders were left behind with orders to continue producing more ships and sending them after the Mage Guards Fleet. In all, less than ten Mages boarded the Admiral ship; Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand sent the other Mages to lesser ships and took its quarters onboard the Admiral ship. This confirmed its status within the Mage society. It now had its own Mage Guards Fleet.
Meanwhile, the Atlanteans continued their progress along a spiral between two arms of Andromeda, creating havoc of first magnitude along the way. It kept passing near red dwarfs that held Cisterns, producing premature triggering of the Cisterns hidden in the mass of dark Hydrogen that enveloped the miniature stars. Its progress translated into ever more violent events as the Andromedan Cisterns contained ever more powerful Mages. The cascade of events drilled a passage for any ready to use it for quick access to the Galactic core and the Imperial Capital Planet of the Andromedans. The number of survivors diminished rapidly, to the point that the last few Stations vapourised, leaving no survivors to command the Mage Guards or to call order on the Armadas of the First and Second Fleets.
Thebes collected tons of Mithril, an occasional clump of Adamentium and more Ianium atoms while leaving behind specks of light that marked the passage of the Atlanteans. It was the magical vacuum created by its passage that guided the pursuers on its tail more than anything else. The use of the FSS increased the footprint of Thebes to 5 light-years. Each suit collected magical elements like magnets collect Iron dust, vacuuming space of its fine magic web, disrupting communications and magical transport. The Scouts, less dependent on Magic, were more stealthy even if they were bigger, but their focus was on what lay ahead, not on what trailed behind. Overall, the impact was a progressive thickening of Thebes' magical skin, added power nodes, and an infinitesimal increase in diameter. At first, the change went unnoticed, but one of the Lanteen crew-member noticed the tiny variation and called Paschal's attention to it.
«Master-Prince Paschal?» he whispered, using its outer leafs to call the Prince's attention to himself in the rather thick jungle that composed the crew of the Lanteen Bridge, specially designed for their comfort by said Paschal.
«Yes, Sap, what can I do for you?»
«According to the latest plans of Thebes, it should measure 862,231 miles in diameter. However, we added another mile since we popped in this galaxy. The outer crust has thickened by half a mile.»
«What is the general structure?»
«Orichalque is accrued according to the standard crystal structure; Ianium is percolated to collectors and added to the Ianium crystal; Mithril is moved into stockpiles as secondary Magic container; and Adamentium is moved into a zero-gravity well. We are waiting on your decision as to what to do with the additional space this accumulation of Orichalque gives us.»
«We need to know the source first.»
«There are two sources: external and internal. External is the collision between Thebes and Dark Matter, which is composed almost exclusively of Orichalque; internal is more difficult to fathom. My root siblings tell me it comes in pulses, but we are unable to guess what is the origin of the pulse.»
Paschal had to think about the social structure of the Lanteen to understand the reference to root siblings. Lanteen being plants, their notion of 'family' was through shared roots. Then the issue of the pulses asserted itself.
«What is the frequency of these pulses?»
«Twice by wake-up cycle.»
Paschal had to call up Thebes to get an idea of what was the wake-up cycle referred by Sap. It boiled down to the duration of a shift for them, or 24 hours. So, the spikes occurred twice during a 24-hour period. The only thing that changed like clockwork every 12 hours was the replacement of the FSS crews. So it had to be related to the FSS crews returning aboard Thebes.
"Thebes, when is the next FSS crew recall?"
"In an hour."
"Monitor if there is any spike in magical elements collected on their return."
"Correlate magical collection rates and FSS recall as well."
"In progress. Correlation is perfect."
"Do we have other elements collected?"
"Hydrogen, Water, Carbon, Silicon, and a host of basic organic molecules. All are filtered, accelerated, and separated into their ionic form before condensation."
"What is the gain?"
"It depends on respective concentrations of different elements as we travel through dust clouds. We usually gain several megatons of new components as we cross a cloud."
"Have you found life in these clouds?"
"Traces of Microbial life, mostly within the biggest clumps of ice. But we did not keep them for culture, only doing a genetic map, as per Colibri's orders. It is safer that way."
"I wonder if the seeding theory of life on planets has merits."
"It might be the opposite as well," commented AI-6. "There are enough proof that some of the dust we see is the result of planets getting blown to bits by their primary."
"What is the consequence of this sweep by our passage?"
"There are many. We gain mass, volume and magical power."
"As if we needed more of the later."
"There is another consequence that has strategic importance. We leave a narrow sweep of space free of dust and Magic that covers five light-years."
"That is not much different than the passage of a star system."
"It may not be wider but it is radically different. A star system does not sweep space clean, it leaves a lot of dust behind, only making the dust cloud swirl. We are like a tornado vacuum cleaner. Nothing is left behind. For someone that knows what to look for, we are as easy to track as a snow blower in a driveway."
"What are you talking about, AI-6?"
"Oh, I got interested by outdated technologies of the Ancient. One of these is the snow blower. It was used to blow the snow out of walkways, driveways, and parkways."
"Is that what they meant by 'blow job'?"
AI-6 could not help but laugh hard at the image Paschal produced by his naïve comment.
"No. I admit some snow blowers were sexy, and I would probably court one of these machines with an assortment of nuts and bolts if they still existed, but the meaning was radically different."
"Anyway, the strategic consequences are best assessed by Sitar. I wonder if he is busy?"
Just then, Sitar walked in from the huge portal node used by the Lanteen species.
"My nose itches. Has someone been talking of me again?"
"I was wondering about the strategic impact of leaving a clean sweep behind us as we penetrate this dust bowl called Andromeda."
After explanations from the Lanteen crew, Sitar looked at the curving trajectory Thebes had been following between two arms of the spiral galaxy.
"Project to scale your footprint, Thebes."
A very thin red line appeared between arms four and five of Andromeda, neatly equidistant from both bright arms of matter.
"Add the footprint of the FSS."
An orange line, considerably thicker, yet extremely thin relative to the size of the space separating the two arms appeared.
"Show the footprint of the Scouts."
There, a pencil-thick line appeared, measuring 300 light-years across.
"What is the disruption in the dust beyond the FSS?"
A widening cone of disturbance could be seen spreading behind Thebes, reaching 5,000 light-years before fading into the background.
"We are like a herd of Centaurs in the savannah. We might as well put a flashing red arrow on us saying 'here lies the enemy'. Harp?"
"Dispatch a Legion of Scouts behind us. I do not want to be taken by surprise from the rear. We stick out in this dust like a brandy nose."
"Sure. Rudolf Reindeer! Report with your Legion for Scout duty in Boarding Hood eight! The ships are being configured as we speak. Mission parameters are under control of Sitar."
"I wonder how they work out with the Wolves and the Elves?"
"Harp, they worked fine together during training. It is their first deployment in space. I plan to keep an eye on the Inter-species Legion. It took a lot of work from Colibri and Enron to get the Reindeer to overcome their aversion of Wolves. The Wolves are the Mage Centuries in the Legion, and the Elves are the support Centurie. We shall see what happens."
Way behind Thebes, an enemy Scout ship crossed the path followed by the Atlanteans. Their Bashar, or Captain, noticed the perturbation of the dust cloud and called upon his science Officer to understand what had caused it.
"Bashar, it is difficult to establish, the cloud rotates on itself and the cause is masked. Sensors show nothing within range that might explain this."
"How long has this occurred?"
"Random motion of dust makes an estimation difficult."
"From several clock rotations to several planet rotation."
"That is not precise. Estimate the size of the phenomenon."
"That is easier. The object measures five light-years across."
"That is impossible. No object can measure five light-years across!"
"Yet, it is the only way to explain the clean sweep we observe."
"Assume it is an object; determine its trajectory and we follow it."
"Bashar, the issue is the lack of a Magic field to stabilise our warp engine drive shields."