The next morning, the five explorers, now comprising Paschal, made their way back to the beacon left behind the day before. The door was not encoded as the top one had been so it slid open at the mere pressure of a finger.
"If logic is properly followed, the lowest floor is our destination, but let's make a stop at that middle point, there," suggested Harp.
As everyone agreed, it was a nervous Enron that pressed the aforementioned button. The elevator dropped under their feet, leaving them with a feeling of free fall.
"Lucky the suits will compensate the impact when this stops or we would end up with broken legs!" exclaimed Enron, as his stomach tried to exit through his mouth.
Less than a minute later, the elevator came to a very abrupt stop.
"According to the FSS on-board computer, we dropped another 2,000 feet," noticed Paschal. "We are lucky our communications are based on neutrino waves rather than radio waves because I doubt we would have any contact with Thebes by now. Now, let's see where we are."
A quick check revealed they were on the bottom of the huge cylinder that contained the rocket. They could barely see the light travelling from the top, reflected by the metallic rails down to their current position.
"So, this is the bottom... I wonder how they managed to assemble that huge thing?" wondered Sitar.
"Piece by piece, that's how," replied Paschal. "Look on the side, you see straight rail guides. I would not be surprised if the real construction occurred below, and each section was pushed in place once completed."
"A top to bottom construction method, contrary to a bottom to top method used by the old Earth engineers?"
"Yes, Enron. A bit weird, but then, we're talking aliens here. I think they used the rails to hold the pieces in place at the construction level, assembled the inside, and then magnetically pushed the completed segment up in the launch tube. Strange, but it seemed to have worked."
"Let's go down the next level. What I wonder is where the underground water went? However hard you suck up water, some stays stuck in the rock and leaks out. Mars is... err... was... a good example. By now we should be head-deep in water."
The next level was another 1000 feet deeper, and the door opened to a huge, totally dark space. Finding switches, Paschal pressed them. This time, there were huge doors that were recessed. The floor was criss-crossed by a complex railing system which spread radially from the centre.
"Sitar, I think they built from the centre to the periphery, again demonstrating their alien nature. The rails clearly guided the big pieces in place. And if you look carefully, you notice the marks of wear and tear that indicate the walls of this room moved back and forth during the construction."
"Weird," said Thorsten, "really weird."
Enron looked at the back of the elevator and saw there was now another door, that had appeared as the elevator floor had dropped.
"Guys? Look behind us. I think we will find the other side of that wall."
Everyone turned on themselves to look behind.
"Finally!" exclaimed Paschal. "Let's see. That door is still closed, but there is that button. Press on it, Thorsten."
The press opened the door but there was a whoosh of air as it slit in. The atmospheric pressure, that had been rather low, rose to about half an atmosphere.
"Their atmospheric pressure must have been similar to ours, given the volume of space to fill. And notice the pressure is rising slowly. That means the atmospheric control is still functioning. Remarkable."
"Not that remarkable, Enron. After all, this place probably survived the electromagnetic pulse and gamma ray burst that accompanied the passage of the supernovas' plasma front," said Paschal. "Look how deep it is. And it got hit 25 years or so ago at most. Lights on, please?"
The switches were close to the door and still worked. The lights turned on flawlessly. Beyond the door some strange equipment became visible: huge tractors on steel skates, cranes whose tip almost disappeared in the roof, forked elevators, and, out in the far edges, plates of metal, curved to different radii. Also, there were pipes, pumps, and a remarkable variety of tools stored in tool-boxes, most with their covers closed and piled on steel plates.
"They were getting ready to move their tools out, it seems," said Paschal. "But they didn't complete the task. Look at those tables. Some are partially disassembled, while others are laying in crates that have not been closed yet. The covers indicate the contents of the boxes by a picture."
"And here is a boxed-up crane, and right beside the huge stockpile, another pile is a fork-lift. I think you are right, Paschal, they didn't manage to complete their task," Sitar said.
"Get over here, guys. I think I found the next set of rooms. These were the machine shops!" Enron said.
The group moved to where Enron stood and looked out. There, huge machines were already completely boxed, the floor clearly showing where the machines themselves had been bolted to the floor. Rows after rows of boxes were ready to be moved, stacked high on the steel trailers, tied to the tractor's bollards. What bothered the Atlanteans was the total absence of wheels.
"Everything seems to be designed to work from magnetism. The entire floor is metallic, the rails we see could well have been charged at the same polarity as the floor, thus creating a magnetic cushion," said Paschal, awed at the whole set-up.
"Let's move further. I see the opposite wall. We should port, It would be faster than walking," said Harp.
The group made its way as Harp suggested. There, another set of doors appeared, but however many times Harp pressed on the opening button, nothing happened.
"And yet, there is electricity. Each time Harp presses, there is an electric pulse, but it is blocked from reaching the electrical motor that opens the door," said Paschal, as he used the FSS sensors to track the progress of the electrical pulse.
Let's port on the other side."
Everyone followed Harp's suggestion, The first thing they noticed is that the new area was without atmosphere, and that the area was highly radioactive. It was also quite small, considering the size of what they had been exploring so far.
"That, gentlemen, is a lock. A security lock with integrated decontamination by void and hard radiation. It is built on a principle similar to deck 42-D of Thebes. Which destroys any external contaminant the moment we materialise in the FSS dispersion liquid."
"Then why didn't it open?"
"Sitar, we will know when we move through that next door. Let the radiation do its work. We can wait 20 minutes. Extend your arms, and slowly rotate on yourself to expose every square inch of the suit to the purge. Spread your legs as well."
The 20 minutes seem to last forever, but finally, the Atlanteans noted that any contaminant was long dead, according to the FSS sensors.
"By the way, how precise is that detection process?" asked Harp.
"It detects anything at the molecular level," said Paschal, "That was mandated by Enron."
"I did not want to risk viruses, retro-viruses, or even crystal life-forms from passing through."
"What are crystal life-forms?"
"Prions, aka mad-cow disease," replied Enron.
"And bonding nerve gases. Some molecules bond to a surface and under specific conditions, are released into a highly deadly gas. Right now, the FSS are ionised by the intense bombardment and if we port on the other side, we should leave any contaminant behind. I added that to the load-book when Paschal visited me," said Thorsten.
"Then, let's port."
The five explorers made their way through the wall and materialised. There, they immediately saw what the problem was: a skeleton was laying on the lock lever, effectively blocking its opening.
"That guy was the last in, and died locking the place up. We're getting somewhere." said Sitar.
The explorers moved forward, and found more and more dead.
"I think the contaminant managed to pass, probably through the skin or the lungs of the workers as they tried to escape death, and that, in turn, spread the sickness to the others."
"What makes you think it's a sickness?"
"Sitar, gasses dilute as they spread. A biological weapon can spread much further and last much longer than a chemical one," replied Enron.
"Guys, this is the control room!" exclaimed Harp. "And it displays everything on monitors."
"Check if you can find a recording!" said Sitar.
It took half an hour to find something that resembled a recording device, and another half-hour to understand how it worked. The issue was that the records were linked to motion detection, and that the time-date stamp, if it was what Harp thought it was, were written in the numeric system of the aliens. They saw themselves open the surface door, their looks at the top level, then they flicked, which, according to Paschal, matched their exit and return, as their emplacement had slightly changed, if only from whose name appeared on the back of the FSS suits suddenly jumped. They were tracked, flicking from one layer to the next, and finally, down to their current position.
"That's nice, Harp, but we need to find what happened here, some 25 years ago."
"Working on it, Sitar, working on it! Give me a few minutes. I'm trying to find if there is a secondary bank. This one seems to have been new. I just hope it's not an auto-delete loop we're dealing with."
Fifteen minutes later, Harp had found a computer bank that stored the recorded data from the digital tapes. The last records were rather gruesome: they showed the death of the workers, and from the images, the cause was blatant: bacteriological in nature, with a very high propagation rate, and ugly consequences: the reptilian-shaped aliens died as their green blood oozed through every scale, the eyes and orifices. That assault showed no mercy, and no one survived, as the last active recording showed the sole survivor slowly crawling to the door and slumping on the lock mechanism.
"That's the guy we found blocking the opening of the door, Sitar."
"I know, Harp. Poor guys. That is not a pleasant way to end," said Enron.
"We need to figure if the bacteria is still active. It could well be," Sitar suggested.
"Okay. First, let's port a complete laboratory in the machine shop. Then we'll begin sampling surfaces. If we find anything, we find a counter-measure for us, should it escape decontamination on the decontamination deck. Thebes? Did you follow?" asked Enron.
"Timor at Comm. Yes, we did. Greywolf and Colibri are packing things up for you. Give them 20 to 25 minutes. What is your supply situation?"
"We are good for a month. I set the FSS survival pack for that duration when I fixed the renewed expedition parameters," Harp said. "Meanwhile, we continue trying to gather information. From what we know, this is a deliberate genocide."
"The Emperor nods so it's a go, Harp."
"I just hope you did not go all granola on us, Harp, when you planned the supply of food!"
"What do you have against grains, Thorsten?"
"Try sleeping in a FSS when your sweat smells like you just rolled into a barrel of alcohol of poor quality! You know I have issues with them!"
"You do know there is a wash cycle in the suit, even if you are wearing it?"
"Tried that, almost drowned! So, forget it!"
"Your problem, Thorsten, but I did think of you and your carnivorous tendencies. The diet is balanced... according to AI-1, as it saw to adapting it to each species. So, if there is an issue, you know whom to dump in the wetlands."
"Sure, try dumping something that's bigger than the Imperial Suite into anything."
"Guys, back to work, if you do not mind?" asked Sitar. "We have to yet look at the rest of the recordings, and to analyse what we see."
The five explorers split the study of the recordings between themselves. They played them backward, and noticed that the rocket was being loaded when things turned bad. For some reason, when the contaminant hit, the rocket's loading doors were closed.
"I think that the attack happened during a shift. Probably after a day shift, and before the evening shift took over. If anything alive is in the rocket, it was protected from contamination. Note that all the fork-lifts were parked and that the staff was just moving into position when things turned sour," Sitar remarked.
"Do you think it is possible to capture everyone just before the onset of the attack, keep them in stasis, and re-materialise them after we clear up the mess?"
"Remember our goal. Save life. Here is a golden opportunity to do so."
"We need to ascertain that the bacteriological assault was not indigenous. If so, we must find what triggered it, whom triggered it, and how it was triggered. I'm willing to invite a sample of these reptilians on-board Thebes, but only if they can be assimilated within a reasonable amount of time to our quest. If not, we rescue the children, and only the children. Adults have to bear the consequences of their misdeeds. We have a lot of work to do still, before we can consider what you ask."
The study of the recordings continued. They saw strange vertical crates that looked like they contained some samples of life, but the fog on the glass prevented a clear view of what was contained.
"Those are the biomass containers. But these are huge! It's like they moved whole ecosystems!" noted Enron. "Probably the ecosystems found within a certain radius from this launching site."
"And I see a similar process in the higher levels of the rocket, Enron, but the containers are smaller. Again, the surface is too foggy to see the contents," Thorsten added.
"And the top stage contains a crew quarter, 15 crew beds, empty as far as recordings show, and 15 canisters... Which seem to contain the crew members in stasis, or kept in hibernation?" Sitar added.
"Hibernation is a possibility; Earth lizards are known to hibernate when the temperature drops below a certain level and to produce antifreeze when the temperature drops below a certain threshold," Enron informed the others.
"Enron, Thebes here, Colibri on comm. We checked you biomass hypothesis by doing a radial map from each launch pad and it confirms that each one is able to cover a radius of 150 miles. Quite a few areas were overlapping, too. I think it might be due to biological diversity and the need to protect the ecosystems. We are ready to port the portable biological laboratory. We need an anchor. Use the rover."
"Okay. I'll go pick the rover from the launch tube and move it in the middle of the assembly area."
"That would be perfect."
"Do you plan to explore the rocket?"
"Not until we are done decontaminating the area thoroughly."
"That might take months!"
"Not if we start producing nanobots by the trillions and spread them in the area. But to do that, I need the bacterial signature, and to see to it that its makeup is entered into the nanobots' foe recognition protocol. Assuming there is only one foe, that is," said Paschal.
"Will you need to come back to do this?"
"No. The biological map can be sent by any FSS 3-D imagery. We need only start on the contaminant search. We'll do it after a well-deserved break. I am sure you can start the production chain. It is self-explanatory."
"Okay. I just received the rover signal and calibrated the transfer. I'm waiting for Sitar to get out of the way to port things down. Ah, he moved! It's sent! Talk to you later, Enron. Colibri out."
"Wrong id, Colibri, you were talking to Paschal. He's the engineer, not me!"
"Do not cut hairs in eight, I am not that susceptible."
"So says the guy that tried to drown a shark after it did not appreciate getting petted!"
"We are receiving a request for assistance from Admiral Zen, in Dark Arm Four. It dates three hours."
The telepathic message was distorted by he amount of magical dust, but still clear enough."
"Admiral Zen to Thebes. We request immediate assistance. We are being tracked by a life-form we have never met before. It devours magic as sustenance. We have seen it eat an entire solar system, and now it has set its next meal onto our ships. We are moving out of the galaxy at warp 9.9 and it is following us as if it was tied to us by a string. We are trying to lead it out of the galaxy, but it may decide to turn back at any time. So far, anything we have tried has failed to even dent its surface. It just bends to the pressure and recovers. By the way, the star system it ate contained two stars: a standard red giant, and a black hole. Both got digested as if they were aperitifs, and the planets side-dishes. Luckily, the star system never did contain life, as the five rocky planets were well out of the biosphere zone of either star at any time. We tried everything, from antimatter mines to planet busters, and finally star-busters. It took everything without even a hiccup. My science engineers told me that it would probably survive the death of everything, since it seems to feed on the space curvature produced by matter. We await your instructions."
"Well, that is a bit surprising. Zen is known for his calm. If things are reported that bad, they probably are even worse," Colibri said. "I wish we had an image of what his fleet is 'pulling' behind."
"We can always ask." Annabelle said.
"Anyway, the decision to lure it out of the galaxy is a good one. Now, we could move Thebes to an intercept course by jumping ahead of his course, load the fleet on-board, and jump out of the place. His fleet is able to port, but short-range only," said the Emperor.
"We must lure that thing far enough for us to complete our task in this galaxy. And we do not know if it has transwarp capabilities, or jump ones," Annabelle commented.
"Send a reply to Zen. Tell him to continue to lure that thing away, and that, as soon as we are able to leave, we will tell him where to meet us. Ask for a picture of the life-form. It must be rather strange to survive in space. And it might give us some ideas as to how to handle that thing."
"Expect a six hour or more turn-around, your Majesty," replied the communications officer.
"I know. And it will only worsen as they move further off."
"Tell Harp about this so he can decide if he wants to put off the exploration."
"Calling and transferring the message to the exploration team," said Piano.
"Off to the rest-room. He will be back shortly."
Down on the surface, the team discussed the message.
"I do not think we need to rush. Do the maths. It will take a good six hours for the message to reach Zen, if not more. We can use that time to scour the surface and check for anything. Anyway, until I know what is up with this, I am not willing to put Thebes at risk. Not that we haven't already, by going back last night, but I hope the infectious element did not survive 25 years of hard radiation," said Enron.
"As long as it's not a prion. These things are crystals and can sustain hard void and almost direct nukes," said Sitar.
"But you guys forget that the decontamination deck is more than just a physical barrier against agents. It has inbuilt shields. When the FSS dematerialises, we are in transit, much like if we were in a transporter beam, but much more efficient. It only materialises what we are. Did any of you ever wonder why we starve when we transfer? I bet not. The reason is simple: our intestinal contents is not us, so it gets left behind during materialisation. The result is an empty intestinal tract. The same goes for the suit: it has its signature, and gets materialised in its transitional form, the liquid we dive into, in a clean basin. The material that is left over is dissociated into its component atoms, recombined into primary molecules: Oxygen atoms become oxygen molecules, and so forth. The phase is repeated for each atom family. That is why we are able to collect the orichalque from the FSS suits when they come back. And, for that matter, just about every atom that happened to collide with the FSS while on an extra-vehicular activity period."
"That is interesting, Paschal. Can you access the nature of the contaminants?"
"Yes, but why, Enron?"
"Well, if we have been in contact with a biological contaminant, be it a bacteria, a virus, a retro-virus, or a prion, we should be able to discover it in the log."
"And that should work for chemicals as well, Paschal, assuming that they manage to get carried with the transport beam," said Harp.
"Hay, that's a good idea! Give me a few minutes to download the catalogue of the last beam-up. We have not been out that much, and the index should be small."
Ten minutes later, the data was available from Thebes. The five explorers looked at the catalogue, and found a rather impressive number of contaminants that had been filtered out.
"Okay. First, let's remove the intestinal contents, the skin contents, and anything that was inside the FSS suits," said Paschal.
The number of contaminants was reduced substantially, but still prohibitive.
"Next, the basic atmospheric components: Oxygen, methane, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, water. Removing radiation contaminants: gamma rays, photons, neutrinos, even if rare. That removes some, but not much. Minerals, which we collected under our boots, including an impressive quantity of orichalque. Sorting by quantity."
"I see explosives: C4 and TNT residues. Those are probably left-overs from either a surface battle, or are leaks from the weapons we can detect buried below the surface. Remove those, Paschal."
"Right, I see molecules that are of biological origins, namely complex carbon chains. CH4, C2H6, C3H8. These are not toxic in those concentrations and are heavy enough to hold to the ground except the methane. That is why we have those in the list. Now, can you sort them by molecular mass, Paschal?"
The new sorting revealed about 50 or so heavy-weight.
"Okay. That one is of interest: it's a complex crystal, probably a prion. Now those are complex molecules. Paschal, I am going to ask you something that might be impossible."
"Let's see the impossible?"
"Can you 'track' what was with what before the beam dissociated them into molecules?"
"Care to explain?"
"Well, we need to check for viruses and retro-viruses as well as bacteria. For that, I need to check if a virus can be found inside a cell nucleus, or a chromosome, as well as outside but within a cell, or on the cell surface. The same applies for the retro-viruses. Something that is found free-floating within a cell, outside a cell, and bound to a chromosome is a virus or a retro-virus. On the other hand the cell itself might be the contaminant, as a bacteria."
"So, first step is finding chromosomes. Those are top-heavy so they should be at the top of the list, right?"
"Ya, Paschal. But what we do not know is if their building blocks are similar to those w have found across our explorations. There are numerous base pairs, and some species use quad-pairs or triplets to store their genetic information. Remember the Ents? They used triplets bound in a helix with a core axis of protein to stabilise their three binds. They can survive in very hash radiation environments because their chromosomes are extremely resistant to the detrimental effects of gamma rays. Each time a gamma ray manages to cut a molecular bond, the other two proteins only allow one, and only one, protein to rebind. For a mutation to occur, there must be a double-whammy with two of the proteins to be disturbed, which then force the last one to change because it no longer matches the payload. And the change must be within the set of matching triplets. Otherwise, the cell dies, because the cellular reproduction mechanism is stuck. The auto-repair of a triplet is so quick, I had to target a triplet with two gamma-ray bursts in less than .02 seconds for the change to stick. Otherwise, the intact pair quickly rejected the defective and captured a functional member. Evolution of the Ents was painstakingly slow, and they survived horrendous radiation exposures. Anyway, pull the top-guns. Then we'll use the molecular modelling to get a three-dimensional image of the molecule. After all, there are rules to molecular building, and those are universal."
Enron began using the FSS on-board computer, assisted by AI-1, to build images of molecules. Shortly, relatively that is, a number of complex images appeared on the FSS heads-up projection.
"Let's see...," began Enron. "We have a plasmid, containing a snippet of protein that is a s chromosome. We did not think of plasmids. Next, we have a nucleus shield, and a much bigger cell surface; there is another structure, a very small cell surface that seems to be folded much like our own mitochondria. From the sequence of destruction, they contained short chromosomes. And we have the chromosomes: quad-helix. That implies the cell was quite resistant to mutations but not as much as the triple-helix since there is no direct binding between the two helixes apart from being twisted together like two couples of Snakes. We can not ascertain if a segment of the chromosome is viral or retro-viral in origin since we have no functioning cell available."
"Could the plasmid be a vehicle for a viral infection?" said Sitar.
"Yes, or even a retro-viral one. But it may also be a legitimate means of transferring genetic material from one cell to another, as is common in our own bacteria. After all, that is how immunity is transferred from one type of bacteria to another."
"Okay. Let's see if we can track the plasmid first," suggester Harp. "Magic has its use. I'll use a flux to bring into the red spectre anything that matches that plasmid's protein signature."
Focussing on the image the FSS heads-on display showed, Harp designed his magical pulse to bring the protein in resonance to the red spectra of light. Shortly, the entire room glowed deep red.
"Whoa! That thing is found everywhere!" Enron said. "Continue for a bit, I will use a sterile cotton swab to collect the sample. We'll then put it under the electron microscope to see what is containing it."
Enron quickly swabbed a very concentrated area, found on the left corner of the door.
"I have a good sample, Harp. Turn the light show off."
"Thanks. That took a lot of concentration to maintain," replied Harp as he relaxed, bringing back the normal appearance of the walls and surfaces.
Enron quickly extracted a fibre of cotton and put it under the electron microscope. He began explaining what he was projecting to the others.
"The big dark 'string' is the cotton fibre. There, on top of it is the cell we were looking for. Now, I am zooming in. There, on the left is a string of ribosomes, some Golgi bodies, recognisable by their flat pancake looks, and a plethora of mitochondria. There, on the right is the nucleus membrane. I shall zoom in and check the nucleus contents."
After gently vibrating the sample, which gave the impression the cell was riding a magnitude ten earthquake, the nucleus was finally at the centre of the field. Enron magnified even further, and revealed the quad-helix form of the chromosomes, of which there were twelve.
"I wonder why cells look so alike from one planet to another?" Sitar asked, "After all, they evolved in radically different environments."
"Function creates the form, Sitar. Cells evolve in different environments, true, but their basic functions are the same everywhere: transport material to build and consume; a membrane to contain their plasma, a need to store the proper information to maintain their identity and protect it from intrusion, the need to build their version of proteins, the need to move toward food if they are able to, the need of a fuel to supply energy, namely sugar, and to store the same sugar, the need to evacuate waste, and so forth. And evolution also follows the same rule: build complex from simple, thus explaining the organelles' presence in every cell we have found so far. Mitochondria is a cell living in perfect symbiosis within another cell. It gets fed, and protected, in exchange for supplying the cell with energy extracted from sugar. The other organelles are also cells that got assimilated by a host, but without the mitochondrial DNA. It is thought these cells did not have nuclear membranes and that their chromosomes migrated to the mother cell's core for additional protection. Mitochondrial DNA is kept separate because the organelle probably got captured after the mother cell developed the nucleus membrane. Who knows? Maybe in a billion years, the mitochondrial DNA will be moved to the cell nucleus?"
"You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile!" said Sitar in a voice that was a good imitation of the Borgs.
"We must be getting more tired than we thought if Sitar is using this analogy to understand biology," Enron replied.
"Break time and rest for an hour, guys, then we resume our work," decided Sitar. "We can figure out what to do next after some rest."
"I've been thinking, Enron. Remember that we noticed there was no satellites orbiting this planet, which was abnormal for a society advanced enough to have powerful lasers to blow things out of orbit? Well, I think the lasers not only blew satellites, but also direct attacks from space. The thing is, the rain of 'meteorites' that followed the destruction of the satellites and the first wave of attackers as they fell onto the planet's atmosphere, could well have been used by the invaders to infiltrate the planet with a biological contaminant. Put the contaminant in a crystal form within the core of meteorites big enough to reach the lower atmosphere or crash on the surface, and you have the perfect carrier. Now we know, from your exposé, that there are three types of crystalline life-forms: viruses, retro-viruses, and prions, with prions being the most primitive, and therefore the most resistant. Create a rain of prions, and they will infect every cell they come in contact with."
"It's an interesting proposal, Sitar. But it does not answer our question: is it safe now?"
"No, Thorsten, it is unsafe. After all, nothing proves the cells carpeting the surfaces are inactive, or that they are not waiting for an idiot to walk in unprotected. Twenty-five years in stasis is nothing for life that primitive to sustain," replied Enron with authority.
"So we need to clean up the entire base before progressing further?"
"Yes Thorsten. Any suggestions?"
"Try applying heat?"
"It would work on large surfaces, but nothing would on hidden or small areas."
"Let's try water. I suggest we wash the walls with high pressure almost boiling water. Given the low atmospheric pressure, that is not too difficult to reach and maintain. Start with the ceiling, down the walls, and then the floors. We do one pass, and check with Harp if the surface has been cleared. We do as many passes as needed to produce clean areas. We port the water out back in the oceanic basins, It should sink in the cracks, taking with it the contaminants."
"Any better suggestion than Paschal's? No? Then we do as he says. Let's start at the furthest end and move toward the launching tube," decided Enron. "Sitar, Paschal, put the pressure on at about 20 Earth atmosphere, water at 60 Centigrade. That should be close to the boiling point, but not above it. Meanwhile, Thorsten and I will push the slosh toward the exit before porting it into the nearest oceanic basin. Harp, you do that light show to help Paschal and Sitar focus their aim toward the highest concentrations. How long can you hold?"
"About an hour, then I'll need a fifteen minutes rest."
"Okay guys. Put that hour to good use!"
The water cleanup began. At first, the water turned deep red, but gradually, as the ceiling was cleansed, it turned pinkish then transparent, raining on the FSS suits that turned red themselves before being washed by the water in turn. Then the walls were doused and washed. The boxes, containers, their tractors and their trailers were also systematically cleansed on all six faces. It took six cycles for the huge room to be cleared, and several billion gallons of water for the task to be completed. From orbit, the arrival of such a volume of water in the lower oceanic basins was noted as the surface darkened, its darkness spreading to cover the abyssal plains before turning a deep red. Sensors indicated it was no longer water, but an ice cover imprisoning the cells.
"That room is done. We need to seal it, and move to the next one, you know, were we found these huge cranes."
"Give me two hours of continuous rest, guys. Let's eat and sleep. Then we can continue. We should move into the contaminated area before the air contaminates our hard work."
"Okay, Harp. I noticed you were sweating profusely during the last hour," replied Enron.
A quick last check by Enron, using Harp's method, showed there was no atmospheric contamination, so they ported across the now sealed barrier.
"Damn, Harp, that atmospheric scan almost took me out! I wonder how you managed to hold it six hours!"
"A gaseous scan is a lot more tiring because the gas is much less stable. Every time you send something to sense the area becomes excited and tends to run away. I put a magic filter that blocked the air from transferring any atom from the external to the internal area; and I sealed their vents. Once we made it rain, each drop took care of grabbing what was in the atmosphere and bringing it down to the floor. It's much like what happens when there is a nuclear explosion in the atmosphere. The rain collects the radioactive elements and brings them down. And rain it did! That was the waterfall of rains."
"So, we found some bones. What did you do with them? Enron?"
"There was an empty container at the far end. I used magic to bag them, along with any metallic dog-tag. We might be able to give them proper burial either on Thebes or on this planet. For now, they are sealed in, after being thoroughly washed. I even sterilised the bone marrow, for there was some in the long bones, after taking cell samples for potential family matching at a later date."
"They would survive FSS transport?"
"No, they would not, Sitar," replied Harp, "but they would if we simply ported them to outer space in their sealed container, and then used a grab and pull in method to bring the container in Thebes."
"For now, the container is with the rest on the other side of that barrier," added Enron.
"What we found is only a small slice of the planet's population. We still have not found where the rest is hidden," Thorsten wondered.
"All in due course. Remember, we did not send any data collector in the interval from the supernova blow-ups until today, so we do have a twenty-five year gap in our data. And we were more interested in what was happening in these two star systems than what was happening here. We can and should send an army of data collectors to this planet, first to cover the gap, but also to study the interaction with the Slavers they might have had. And then we can backtrack their civilisation through time. They might have met the slavers many times over, and managed to develop a defence none other ever managed."
"Harp's right. We should not judge and jump to conclusion from partial data. Rest for a while. The next room may be smaller, but it has more material packed in it."
The two hours passed way too fast for the explorers.
"We have four hours to work on this until Thebes receives an answer from Zen, and we need to reconsider our program," Harp said. "Let's start. We will work by quarters around the launching tube. That way I can seal our work area and reduce the cross-contamination."
The work began with the area that showed unpacked goods. Every toolbox was emptied, decontaminated and each tool was then processed before getting put back in the box, and filled with those tools that had been prepared by the Solarians for these boxes but had not yet been packed in place. Each box was then sealed and moved out of the quadrant. The cranes were dismounted and packed as well. Four hours later, the first quadrant had been cleared of contents, and its surfaces cleansed thoroughly.
"Let's stop, and let me call Thebes," Harp said.
"Thebes? Harp here. Any news from Zen?"
"No, but he is moving at warp 9,9 and the damn object was able to keep up. We'll contact you when we hear anything."
"So, back to work?" asked Thorsten.
"Yes. Now we move the boxes back into the clean area, cleaning them before we move them across the field. The trick is to create a force field around each box, or container, and we clean the outside, the atmosphere, and then move them across. Paschal, you move across with the containers, and stay on the other side. Pile them up so as to take as little space as possible."
"Fine by me."
The first boxes to get moved were those the Atlanteans had packed. Once they had been stored along the furthest wall, Paschal was recalled into the new quarter, and the Atlanteans opened every box, emptied them, cleansed the inside, the parts and the tools before repacking everything. Container after container was done.
"I wonder why Enron asked us to do this?" Sitar mumbled.
"Simply because there is no guarantee the containers do not carry the infectious agent inside. We have to make sure. We are half done, and it's been two hours. Harp, are you doing okay?"
"I'll be able to hold another two hours, but then it will be a very long sleep! We are lucky that section is composed mainly of crane pieces."
"The number of pieces to clean is limited... to 30,000 a box. What a Meccano set!" Paschal exclaimed.
"Only you would like that!" grunted Sitar.
Two hours later, Harp asked for a halt. They were near the end but not done yet.
"Okay. While Harp rests, we use water to wash the boxes we made already, while they are contained within a force field. Start by the box top, do the four sides, and then rinse the bottom thoroughly. I don't care if the floor gets contaminated, what we need to do is to move the boxes across the force field to the clean quarter. Don't forget to dry them up by freeze-drying them," Enron began. "Sitar, Thorsten, and I will wash and dry while maintaining the force field around the box, Paschal, you pack on the other side after we have moved the containers to you. Sitar, just before we move the box across, do the scan that burned Harp. We must be sure we did not forget a spot."
"Because, after Harp, you have the finest control of your magic. Since it is a restricted volume, you do not need the power the Prince of Magic can muster."
The next two hours were spent by four explorers cleaning the external surfaces of the boxes they had carefully repacked, and Paschal piled them almost airtight in the clean quarter.
"What a huge pile of work. When we are done, don't expect me to be in any working condition!" Thorsten said, as the last box was moved across the field to be handled by Paschal.
"Are we done?" Sitar asked, agreeing with Thorsten's comment.
"Not yet, we need to clean up this quarter. The one we cleared of contaminants appears to be filling up pretty much," Enron said. "But we join Harp in sleep, I agree with Thorsten, this is hard work."
"Thebes to explorer team! Do you copy?"
"Yes, Thebes, Paschal here."
"Violin at comm. We have received a message from Zen. He is still trying to outrun whatever it is that's sniffing his ass. The Emperor has received a meeting co-ordinate for the pickup, and we need to leave orbit immediately."
"Do we need to report on board?"
"It is up to you. However, the Emperor will leave a Legion under Greywolf to insure your protection if you decide to stay put. By the way, Thebes is dropping beacons on top of the other tumulus sites so you can port from one to the other if ever you finish the one you are working on before we are back. Also, tell Enron that his order for 600 trillion nanobots has been filled and will be ported shortly if you guys stay down."
"Everyone heard?" Paschal asked.
"Yes. I vote we stay. They do not need us to pick up Zen," Sitar said. "Anyway, my second in command needs to get her ears wet. So it's a good occasion for her to prove she deserves the trust I put in her."
Everyone agreed with Sitar and the decision was sent up. Shortly, a rather heavy box materialised beside Enron.
"I never thought nanobots weighed that much!" Sitar said as he tried to budge the box.
"Individually, no, but 600 trillion adds up," Paschal replied. "I'll levitate it to near the exit to the launching pad, and we'll move it across when we are done."
"Thebes, where's that Legion?"
"On top of you. We ported them directly on top of the tumulus."
"Okay. Talk to you when you get back. Paschal out."
"Good luck. Thebes out."
"Is everyone fully rested?"
"As much as we can be while being in a FSS, Enron," said Sitar.
"Then breakfast, and we clean that quarter. It's now empty, so it should be a piece of cake."
Thirty minutes later the last trace of red was gone, and Harp created the magical force field that would split the contaminated area in two, producing two new quarters.
"Okay, we cross the field into that segment. It contains a lot of tool boxes, and about 20$ crane pieces. Also there are all those tractors and trailers. If I get it they did not plan to dismantle them, probably parking them somewhere. But we must. What we will do is, once every box is filled with clean parts, we move them to the big pile on the other side. Then we do the same we did with the already packed boxes: open them, clean them and their contents, repack them and when all is done move them to the stockpile. We do the same with the next quarter, after having moved the trailers across to clear as much space as we can in the area we need to clean up. I think we can move about 5% of the stockpile into the first quarter before it is filled from top to bottom. Then we begin filling the second quarter. If the volume is constant, we should fill it to a little less then half. We then repack the rest of the boxes in the fourth quarter, move them to the second quarter, probably filling it almost to capacity, then we dismantle the cranes, pack them in whatever boxes are left, and store them in the second and part of the third quarter. Goof so far?"
"Yes, Enron," Paschal said.
"Then we dismantle the trailers and the tractors, and pack them, We create the boxes magically, in a containment field, so they are sterile. We clean each part, pack them in the boxes and number them. Use their identifying signs for each trailer, tractor, lift, and crane. We know what they use, and their numeric system by now. No use confounding them with our base ten numbers if they are used to base sixteen."
Eight hours later, the third quarter was packed and moved; and 12 hours later the last quarter was clear of contents.
"Now?" asked Sitar.
"Now we rest! I feel like a train passed on me!" Enron said. "I'll just port the nanobots container across the wall, and release the pressured gas in the launching tube. We can sleep for 24 hours while it does its job."
"Before you do that, call Greywolf and have him close the top door we used to enter the launch tube. Otherwise, it will be useless."
"Right! Thanks for reminding me, Paschal. I almost forgot."
"There is no 'almost', you did forget," smirked Sitar.
It took twenty minutes for Greywolf to close the top door, and inform the exploration team.
"I'll have my legionnaires clean the hole, and the top of the tumulus, so we have a clean view of how this was build while you rest," Greywolf informed them during the exchange.
"Be careful. There might be defences we are unaware of."
"Ya, that is why we brought a few hundred rovers down with us. We'll be safe."
"Okay the nanobots are being released. They should begin crawling every micron of that oversized organ tube right about now. Sleep time!"
"Yay!" exclaimed the others at Enron's announcement.
Thirty-six hours later, an annoying beep was heard on the expedition's communication system.
"What the hell?" Sitar asked as he got woken by the disturbing sound.
"Nothing, it's just the nanobots telling me they have finished their job and every micrometer of the launch tube is clean. We too are clean but I will have the nanobots inspect us after we port across, just in case. Do not be surprised if your view becomes blue for a minute or so," Enron informed them.
After porting across the wall, they noticed immediately the blue light that seemed to be pervasive.
"Is that the nanobots?"
"No Sitar. Their atmospheric density is too low to bend light in any way. It is the source of the light that is blue," replied Enron.
"And notice the new touch-pad that showed up? It is located at a very strange place for it." Sitar pointed out.
"Ya, at the base of the rocket. Do you think it is a complex code?" Harp asked.
"No, only four keys, so 15 combinations possible," said Paschal
"Let's do the combo one after the other. We should reach the result shortly," Sitar said as he moved forward.
"Shields up, just in case!"
"Don't take me for an idiot, Thorsten."
After reaching the value 1011 (binary) or 11 decimal, there was a noise from inside the rocket. Slowly, a side of the base opened and revealed a vast dark interior. Finding a light switch, Thorsten turned it on. That revealed huge racks filled with sealed containers.
"Test for the contaminant, Harp!" asked Enron.
However hard Harp tried, no reddish glow was visible.
"That is encouraging. We now know this rocket was closed during the bacteriological attack, and never reopened afterwards. Let's go explore this thing, before completing the Solarians' work," Sitar said. "There is a central elevator, there. Its door seems to rise up along the central stalk."
The explorers stepped on the elevator floor and progressed up. The elevator went up so fast they felt crushed on the floor, but it came to a halt at the first level quickly. Upon exiting, the Atlanteans noted the presence of canisters that were full of water, similar to sarcophaguses, but empty. Enron did a quick count and it matched the number of skeletons found in the base, minus six.
"So they planned to board this rocket. Up we go. Let us check the next level," Enron said.
The next level was filled to the brim with bodies in liquid water, with lights flashing at regular interval.
"Suspended animation. Let's go to the top. I suspect we will find the six missing containers for the six surplus skeletons, the crew."
Enron was right: six were found with six seats. Exploring the other levels revealed entire ecosystems, and the entire population of an area, from new-borns to adults. A golden treasure!