The Atlanteans had mostly returned on-board Thebes. Only Aurora and Paschal remained on the Scout ship. The first as the official Envoy of the Atlanteans, and Paschal to assist in removing the traps and other dirty tricks implanted within the architecture of the Scout ship by its designers.
The return to the Bridge of the Scout ship, accompanied by Aurora and Paschal, brought its lot of concerns. The huge Atlantean mother ship was mostly hidden in the dust, but the darkness it produced was unmistakable, especially since one of the most prominent navigation star, a blue-white super-giant, was partially hidden by its mass. This set the edge of the Atlantean ship even more in contrast than if it had just been hidden in the murk of the dust. The occasional passage of Atlantean Scout ships and much more numerous dusting of FSS added to the discomfort of the Andromedan crew. The peaceful first contact had not resolved all issues, and the vulnerability they felt due to the betrayal of their old Masters added to the general unease.
It took twenty minutes for Aurora to download the language pack to all Andromedans, and by then he had collected a considerable amount of data from the minds of their hosts to build a concise language pack for distribution to Atlanteans. It was mostly composed of basic emotions and technical terms with proper associative adjectives and nouns and the requisite syntax. Things would then be updated as new situations arose and new terms appeared depending on context and intentions.
«I studied the cryogenic chambers used by the Andromedans. Unfortunately, they are not as sophisticated as ours. They are more of the type of frozen prisons than learning centres. Their technology has only one purpose: supply alternates to faulty crew members,» noted Paschal as he watched the crew work on the Bridge from a retired area.
«Do we offer replacements?»
«No. I do not feel comfortable dumping our technology on them.»
«Somehow, I agree,» replied Aurora. «They feel overwhelmed and I do not think adding more of our... err... advanced technology will make them feel more secure. Somehow, I feel they are so outdated they are getting a sort of fear of us even if we did nothing to warrant this attitude.»
«But we did nothing...»
«That is the issue, big Brother. I sense they fear something that is innate to us: Magic.»
«How can they fear it? We did not display anything special. Telepathy is blocked with them. We did not levitate or move anything. We translocate, but it could be seen as teleporting due to the presence of the FSS. I do not see how they could even conceive we are magical. Even our communications could be made by virtue of hardware incorporated in the FSS.»
«Maybe, but there is one thing that gives us away, and it is communications. We are so used to telepathy that we do not move our lips or even throat muscles when we talk to each other. They may not know much about our physiology, but I am sure they have an acute sense of observation and must be on the verge of adding two and two.»
«Maybe we need to come clean. I shall ask Harp to come back as soon as he is done with his last training session. He is practising with his four katana.»
«You know, he scares me even more than Sitar when he gets into that mood. He combines Magic with conventional weapons so cleanly it is like he is a walking weapon factory. The last time, he rode a Pegasus into a mock battle and stood on his feet on the back of the ride. He was confronting a veritable horde of attackers, no holds barred, and neither the ride nor he suffered a scratch. Did you ever see a Pegasus fly upside down, with a rider sticking like glue to the back? I almost lost bladder control. Luckily he has taken to paint-balls rather than real weapons or we would have to open a special wing at the General Hospital.»
«Paint balls? Explain!»
«Suppose he sends out a thunderbolt toward Greywolf. When it hits something, it paints a white thunderbolt sign where it hits. The closer the hit the more of the thunderbolt shows on Greywolf. A direct hit results in a very splashy sign on the poor Wolf General's fur. If it is an arrow, it draws an arrow. If it is a sword, it marks the area where the sword hits. A spell is represented by a spiral, the lethality of the spell being indicated by colour. Black equals death. I never tried to do it because it must require an immense amount of self-control. I have my issues as you know.»
«I shall endeavour to try that on dummies. I just finished studying the Ancient's use of radio-controlled toys called drones. I might apply those techniques in training until I gain as much control on my Magic as Harp has.»
«Why not just blast the machine, Paschal?»
«And blast my creations? No way!»
«Let us focus on our issues, Brother. The Andromedans are looking at us funny again.»
«It is not our fault we look queer. They have six members, including four arms and two legs. They do look strange themselves.»
«I admit I am more used to four legs and two arms! Centaurs may not be paragons of beauty, but I got used to them. This is a whole new yard.»
«Let us get back to our problem. We need to understand what is bugging them.»
The language issue was not as resolved as Aurora thought. Many problems remained to establishing meaningful exchanges at a more abstract level. What brought out the solution was a question that had been bothering Paschal since they had seen the Andromedans leave with the blob of protoplasm that had been the Communications Officer.
"What did you do with that container where we transferred the person into?"
'Do we tell them the truth?' signed the Engineer.
'They will find out sooner or later. It is not that the explosion of organic matter at the locks could have gone unnoticed!'
The Bashar took a breath and explained.
"We brought the container and the frozen body of the next one to the airlock and opened the outer door. The atmospheric pressure took care of the rest."
"So, that was what one of our patrols saw. We thought you had decided to dispose of garbage."
"It was garbage, live garbage."
"We usually recycle that kind of stuff."
"We have no recycling facilities. We use energy to create stuff from the ambiant Magic."
"Ah, you do know about Magic then!" exclaimed Aurora.
"Well, we know it is what drives this ship, powers the food producing unit, runs the biological systems, and maintains the cryogenic chambers. When we hit on an empty area, things get rough. In a way, we are prisoners of this island of stars as the amount of Magic fades the further away you go from it, to the point we end up unable to run. Our Masters designed these ships when there was no such thing as holes in the Magic field, but as time goes by, it becomes more difficult to move around and we have to follow Magic lines where it gets consumed and recharged somehow."
"Interesting. That means the galaxy is getting weaker magically?"
"I do not know about it getting weaker, but Magic seems to concentrate in bigger nodes that we must absolutely seek to harvest to sustain our travels. Your passage through the star island has left a narrow band of space totally deprived of Magic. Given how big that thing is, I can begin to fathom the reason, albeit I am surprised it took out so much."
"We know. We leave five light-years of space free of any magically sustainable atoms, doing a clean sweep. It was not intentional, but as we progress, our ship increases its size therefore its footprint in space."
"It increases in size?" asked the Engineer, as he looked outside wide-eyed.
"Yes. We added several miles to our radius since we penetrated this galaxy."
"A mile is a measure of distance, roughly 1/186,000 of the distance travelled by light in a second," tried to explain Paschal. "A second is a unit of time. See this instrument of measure? It is a time piece. The handle that moves the fastest around the centre is the second handle; each time it moves, one second has elapsed."
The Andromedans compared their own time measurements and, using the on-board computer, were able to establish a time scale relative to the Atlanteans, and then to estimate the distance in their units that light travelled during that interval. From there they gained the notion of what a mile meant, and they looked at the Atlanteans with even more awe. That ship had been adding several miles to its thickness, and their Scout could well fit several times over in that unit of distance.
"You mentioned a light-year. What is that?"
"That is another unit of measurement for distance, used in space travel. See that star that shines from behind our ship, just on the top edge? How far do you think it is? According to us, it is 15,823 light-years away."
Another flurry of calculations by the Engineer told him what a light-year was. Yet, a nagging question remained unanswered, and he dared not ask it for fear of hearing the answer. The Weapons Officer took the opportunity to ask his own question.
"And where do you come from? You certainly were not hiding in the void between islands?"
"No. We come from another island of stars, we called the Milky Way. It took us a couple of days to make it through the void, and that was because we were weary of going too fast," replied Aurora, shocking the Andromedans to silence. A couple of days to cross from one island to the other, and according to the young Emissary, it was because they did not want to overshoot? Yet the species did not show any trend at humour, so they had to take the answer seriously.
Paschal looked at Aurora questioningly. Why did he say it took a couple of days when it took a much shorter time?
«There is no need to reveal the quantum jump capabilities and that we could have done it instantly. They are friendly, but we have yet to incorporate them within the Atlantean community and its intricate web of rights and obligations.»
The little Brother was growing fast, thought Paschal, as he weighted the reasoning.
Nine hundred fifty-six of five thousand was pouring over reports, spending his time trying to discern some information pattern from the flood of useless data streaming in from the ships ahead of his own. An occasional ship went missing, only to be found later on, adrift in a Magic void to be left to its own fate. It was impossible to pull a ship out of these areas anyway. Setting up a traction beam was impossible without Magic, and a ship foolish enough to bother would lose its inertia and get stuck in the bubble with the trapped ship. And then there were numerous reports of collisions, with ships losing propulsion and suddenly colliding with another one adrift. At many times the speed of light, the result was unavoidably ugly, reducing both ships to dust. Luckily, the release of the residual Magic field constrained within the disintegrated ships allowed for the Admiral ship to pass through without falling into a similar trap. His hope was that, should the Admiral ship pass into such a bubble and it was occupied, the crew would move out of the way quickly. He could not care less about becoming dust; he wanted to become Emperor, nothing else.
The second line of Mages storage chambers loomed ahead of his position, and the Fleet had responded to his calls, authenticating him as a Mage of the Second Tier. He was now one step closer to his goal. If all went according to plan, he would collect the Fleets hidden in the Dark Arm, and then continue his triumphal flight to the First Tier line. That would put the Imperial Family on notice there was a contest to its hegemony, but, coming from the core, it would give them little precious time to react and wake up from their enforced lethargy between wake-up periods.
Oh, they would be awake enough to know their days were numbered, but they would be faced with the situation that had bothered Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand when he had awoken: a corrupted communication network, giving partial and incomplete lines of command, and an unknown situation brewing right in the middle of the Empire. In a way, he was grateful about the revolt: it was opening a gap that led directly to the Throne and the star-eater would blow up before he missed the opportunity! He just would hold back when the Emperor would call for help, and come in as a late saviour just in time to cut the Imperial Family down and replace it. He salivated at the mere thought of delicately eating the innards of the Magic-less Emperor, too tired and magically spent fighting the revolt to put up a real resistance to his avid claws! Oh how he would rejoice eating the imperial progeny in slow motion, clipping their obscene genitals first and then opening their thorax to reach their liver all the while holding them immobile with powerful magical pincers, and conscious! No such thing as mercy sleep while he ate them alive! They would feel their exoskeletons being crushed, torn off their skin, and then they would feel every phase of the slow mastication of their bodies before he finally ate their brain. It was going to be the buffet of a life-time.
As he thought of these things, Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand did not notice his body colour changing. He was entering, for the first time in his life, the mating frenzy that marked the passage of power in the Mages of Andromeda. His pheromones changed as well and marked him as a contender. His original dull green shell colour had gradually been replaced by a flamboyant red with deep blue antennas and pincers fringed in gold. His pheromones had gone from neutral asexual to a strong mix of male-female, clearly indicating to others of its species it was unmated but ready. The final sex of the cycle would depend on whether it penetrated or was penetrated. In many battles, both events occurred leaving a pair of castrated females that would lay eggs for the next generation in the Imperial nursery. Then, during the next hibernation period, the male organs would regenerate and the Emperor would emerge ready for the next battle and mating.
All these signs would tell any member of the species that crossed his path his true intentions. It would also mark him as someone to kill without mercy for the Imperial family, so there was no such thing as walking on the Emperor to stab him from behind. If he wanted the throne, he would have to get it through a real Mage battle, not from back-stabbing.
His second in command, on the other hand, did notice. Albeit he had no knowledge of the meaning of this change, his instincts told him this was a particularly dangerous development. It was thus with some trepidation that he made his way to the Mage to report his own analysis of the unfolding data and events. Should he bring the Mage's attention to his physiological changes or not remained to be decided.
Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand finally noticed the presence of his second in command, but also tasted the worry and questioning that permeated the bothersome visitor.
"Yes?" he asked grumpily.
Instinctively, the Officer choose to be polite but to the point, knowing from the changes he observed now was not the time to irritate the Mage, as if there were any time to irritate a Mage.
"Analysis shows that we risk running into a power vacuum if we keep following this course. I adjusted the course to shorten the intercept path to the chord of the arc they seem to follow. I doubt you wanted to be stuck in a magical void."
Ah, finally some good initiatives! That was a remarkable progress from the previous version that had the unfortunate accident. This one will finally be an asset rather than a dead weight.
"Fine. When was the last detection line broken?"
"Communications is still analysing the time stamps, and trying to order the breaks. The issue is multiple: the number of broken lines is immense; the reports have to travel around the galaxy to circumvent the holes in Magic flux; the reports themselves are corrupted; and finally, they do not come in any specific order. In short, the communications network is in shambles."
"Why is that?"
"Lack of maintenance, the fact that the last time... the last time the Mages were awake dates considerably, and... let me be blunt: the predecessors of your Highness were downright complacent and did not bother setting up maintenance protocols for the Empire during their hibernation." seeing the agitation the Mage was in, he continued brazenly. "Let me be clear: the assumption that the Empire is self-sustaining without any need for technical support has been proven wrong. There should have been teams dedicated to the support of basic infrastructures such as communications and transport lines. There was none. Time did the rest. It is not because one sleeps that time stops doing ravages."
The Mage was shocked. It was the first time since the establishment of the Empire that a slave had dared be so forward in a critique of the decisions taken by its Masters. It earned the Commander new respect from the Mage, and brought him out of his empire-building mood. After considering what was said and left unsaid, Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand had to admit the analysis stung but was accurate.
"I see. Anything else?"
"Are you feeling fine, your Highness?"
"First, I am surprised to still have all my bits after my last comments. Second, you have changed in appearance. Third, excuse if the next comment is offensive to you, but your body smell has changed completely."
This revelation shocked the Mage.
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"I have a small mirror that I use to help in maintaining body hygiene in hard to see places of my own anatomy, your Highness. May I?"
The Commander took his mirror from the front pocket of his uniform and extended it delicately toward the Mage, slowly bringing the image it reflected to within the eye-range of the enormous Master. He was aware he was on almost non-existent ice, as he was gradually invading the private space of a Master, but so far...
"Please tell me when you see yourself clearly."
"Stop. That is me?" asked the Mage, whom had never seen himself in a reflection before.
"Yes. Did you not know of your own appearance, your Highness?"
"No. And you say I have changed appearance?"
"Yes. From a greenish colour to a flamboyant red, blue and gold."
"These are the pre-mating colours. Fuck, fuck, fuck! I really did not need to be driven by hormones now!" let out the Mage, giving the Commander much more information than he ever considered getting.
"Yes, well, mating is an act of fucking, your Highness!"
"Humour, and at my expense at that? You are more valuable than I thought, Commander."
The reply took the Admiral by surprise. He had expected something more bloody. He decided to throw all his balls on the table.
"Your Highness, I have another issue that is not related directly to the hunt to raise."
"What is it?"
"The Magic field of the galaxy is thinning. In fact, the holes where there is insufficient Magic to sustain a viable propulsion system have increased dramatically over time. It affects everything Magic-wise in the Empire that I am aware of, and I am sure there are things that are not made available to us for analysis. While I did the analysis to establish the best intercept path, I came across reports about narrowing Magical highways, loss of bandwidth in communications, and whole segments of space now almost cut off from the Empire because the Magic field has narrowed down and thinned up so much the passage of a cruiser all but cuts the area off for an increasing amount of time."
The report sent shivers of dread in the Mage. If it was true... and there was no reason to disbelieve the Admiral. It clarified so many things that had seemed obscure to him.
"Your Highness... I have two major conclusions from this analysis. Promise me you will listen to them and think them over before cutting everyone on board to shreds."
"I shall, but I can not promise after!"
"That is all I ask."
"First, your Highness, a little reminder of history. In our fables, the Mages could hop from star system to star system without the need for space ships, but gradually, they began using them and hire to finally enslave the crews. The last indication of a major change in yourselves was the loss of the ability to hop through space even on short distances. It is a known fact for all your slaves, your Highness, but no one dares state these facts openly and their ultimate conclusions."
The word dread was no longer strong enough to express what was travelling through the mind of Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand. If the slaves had acquired, no, kept that kind of knowledge from them that was a major disaster in the making.
"Are you the only one that knows this?"
"No. It is common knowledge, taught at our schools, for all species." The Admiral had just saved his neck and did not even know it. Had he said he was the only one that knew, his head would have flown off his shoulder right there.
"And what are these conclusions?"
"That the Mages are losing power, that you are much less powerful than your ancestors. Now, we both know why. Magic is thinning, and the effects include all those whom depend on it, from the Empire's infrastructures to yourselves. The Genie is out of the bottle, so to speak, your Highness. As the wake-up progresses across the galaxy to confront the Invader, the number of us that will have access to the data, which can be collected from simply travelling through space, need I remind you, will increase exponentially. The real point of this is what to do with the information? And what will the long-term impact be on the Empire? It has been bothering me ever since I came to that conclusion."
"And what is the second conclusion?" asked the Mage, more to give himself time to gain countenance than from real interest.
"The second conclusion is that in the rather near future, the Empire will collapse on itself, unable to maintain its integrity or defend itself from both internal and external aggressors. All is too dependent on Magic: weapons, propulsion, communications, even your existence. Yes, even your life, your Highness. Your life-span has been diminishing over time, and I did some analysis; it matches the degradation of the Magic flux perfectly. Meanwhile, ours has been on the rise. I have no idea why it is so, but apparently, you collect your Magic from the exterior to maintain your life cycle, but as Magic diminishes you have more trouble getting enough. One last bit of fable: the creation of the cisterns occurred after the second galactic rotation. Before that, the Mages were always awake, and cisterns were useless and non-existent. That in itself should make you realise that, as a species, you are on the verge of extinction. I am sorry to be so blunt. Please have mercy on my family."
The Mage was too stunned. For the first time, a true threat confronted the Empire and there was nothing to be done but weather the storm if possible.
"No need to worry about your family and yourself. You have brought to my attention something far more vital than the Invader and a lot more dangerous. What would you suggest be done?"
"I can not suggest anything, since I am missing some elements."
"What are they?"
"First, what is the cause of the thinning? Second, what are the resources available to the Empire? Third, what will be the reactions of your peers to this news? Fourth, how will those now under your pincers react? Remember, it took me barely a few clicks to get these devastating results, and I was working part-time only on the issues involved. And we assume something can be done to change the evolution of things, or to mitigate them. That is less than certain. After all, no one has yet been able to reverse the flow of time, not even the Mages of old."
"These are valid questions. I have only a partial idea of what is available for the Empire and I will not even know everything... the day I become emperor. As for my peers... "
For the first time, Nine hundred fifty-six of five thousand stated his ultimate goal openly, and to a slave no less. Overconfidence, arrogance, or plain, downright stupidity? Only time shall tell.
"I know very little about the Mages, your Highness. I was barely out of the Space Academy when the last cycle terminated and I, with my family, were put into stasis for some reason. However I do know of some basic rules of the pincers, or, as we call them, the thumbs. In situations of danger there are those whom work together, and there are others that work for themselves. I know from history that the Mages united when a threat arose to their hegemony, but this is different, radically different. If it was only the Invader, canned responses might do the trick, but it is the existence of Magic, of the founding binder of the Empire that is in peril."
That last bit of information was news to the Mage. Why, indeed, was that slave and its entire family put in a cryogenic chamber at the end of the last cycle? By whom? This had never been done before, and required the construction of a specific set of cryogenic chambers. Why had they been reactivated, and for who's benefits? He had some research to do on this and it would be critical to understanding the tool he had under the pincers. The depth of analysis done so far by the Admiral had been bothersome, if astounding, but now, knowing that the slave had been selected for a very privileged treatment added another layer to the mystery, and Nine hundred and fifty-six of five thousand hated mysteries.
"I shall retire to my cabin, Admiral. You have command. Once your shift is over, go get something at the Mess Hall and I shall join you there. I know, this is new and unheard of, but for some reason, I believe there shall be quite a few new and unheard-of actions from my part. Please stay clear of any member of my species. Just a last question."
"Is the hallway used by the crew wide enough and high enough for my body?"
"It will be tight, your Highness, but it is straight, so you will not need to turn. The mess hall will allow you more movement... when we have removed the tables to the side. Please warn us before coming so we can do so. Do we need to prepare some food?"
"No. I shall need to talk to you off-Bridge, and I am well aware that your cabin, if big, is way too small for my body to enter. And I do not wish for you to terminate yourself because you misinterpret my asking you to come to mine. Somehow, I suspect the previous Admiral had guessed my intentions about his life and decided to do the dishonourable thing and commit suicide while trying to kill me and as many of mine as he could in the same action. That meteorite impact just after I called him to my cabin was a bit too coincidental to be natural. The only good thing it did was to rid me of my nearest competitor aboard the ship, someone that would eventually have stood up against me well before the first confrontation of importance, thus slowing down my progress to the Throne."
The body posture of the Admiral did not go unnoticed by the Mage, so he continued.
"Yes, I still shall continue to pursue the goal of overthrowing the current Emperor. I believe now that he is outdated and a dead weight for our survival. He has been around for five cycles, and he is no longer the Mage of the situation. We need an innovative attitude to survive, and he is as encrusted as a cold star. Initially, it was for myself, now it is for the Empire."
So say all dictators to justify their exactions, thought the Admiral, just nodding.
Harp, Sitar and Ian were busy discussing what the Prince of Magic had learned from his trip on-board the Andromedan Scout ship. Ian was trying to figure out the meaning of the events as Alexander was keeping an eye on the data flux from the Atlantean Scouts and FSS that combed the area.
"So, from what you tell me, Harp, these people have a powerful magical core, in the order of M-3, but they have blocked access to it for survival?"
"Yes. I scanned their core size, and found it was compatible with a M-3 Mage, at least in those I had access to. It would be preposterous to generalise to a whole population from such a small sample that is further biased by being the Officers of a fleet. They might be the cream of the cream..."
"... or the red necks of their species stuck in their ways." added Sitar. "I have had to deal with that kind of individual too much to dismiss the idea it is not a trait of military culture universe-wide."
"All that from the Prince of Weapons! What has the world come to?" snickered Ian.
"I sense there is a huge division in that Empire and our arrival has precipitated its fracturing. I am not too sad about this as you know. That Empire is based on slavery and we abhor that. I just wonder how we shall handle the situation. I can just imagine the trouble of breaking people out of their slave mental set. It is very hard for individuals to stand up for themselves and take the initiative after being crushed for so long. Those that had any bit of will to resist were probably destroyed by their masters. Those that will pop into place will be boot-lickers of first magnitude and become overwhelmed with power lust should we let them loose on their own population."
Ian looked at Alexander wide-eyed.
"I thought you were not listening?"
"Come on! I can multi-task as well as any of you older grumps!"
"Grow out of it, Alexander, you are part of the old grumps according to Sunrise, Sunset and Aurora. It is true that only eight years or so separate us compared to almost 40 years for between us and Aurora. I still wonder why Mom took so long to make us little Brothers."
"Seven years!" replied Alexander.
"Seven or eight, what is the difference compared to the gap between them and us?" replied Sitar. "Talking about Aurora, have you found a way for him to train his empathy without going nuts, Harp?"
"Remember the magical suppressor developed by the terrorists that captured Nestor?"
"If I did not, I would need an arse-whipping."
"Sitar, do not give me some kinky ideas for sex! I am trying to focus on the problem."
"Get your head out of my arse-hole, Mite!"
After some more jibs, Harp began explaining his idea.
"I plan to put that magical suppressor field to use. I shall have Aurora port on the FSS return deck, freeing Iridia from her duty to monitor him from inside his ear, and then we shall move to a magical suppressor field. At first, it will suppress magic completely, but as the field is slowly reduced in intensity, I shall personally teach him how to regulate the flux of empathic emotions."
"Will the field affect you? After all, the suppressor is mindless," said Sitar.
"I figured that it would, so I plan to be outside. I shall be the only one in the area initially. The first thing I shall do is train Aurora in identifying my own emotions. Once that is done, the gradual suppression of the field will let other emotions leak in and he will need to learn to identify them from afar, filter those that are of importance for his role in the Empire, and suppress the others. This will also fine-tune his telepathy. He has been so overwhelmed by emotions so far that telepathy was a major pain. It was only with Sunrise and Sunset that he was really effective. He is a powerful telepath, but emotions overrode all other considerations. I learned that from our stay on the Andromedan ship."
"You know, it will be useful for the Andromedans as well. After all, unlocking their Magic without proper training would lead to results similar to what we had with Aurora," commented Ian.
"Talking about the two pests, where are they?"
"They are training in field 56, Sitar," replied AI-6. "They are riding warhorses and practising with conventional weapons at hitting flying objects of different sizes. They are getting good with knives, much to the discomfort of some Wasp drones. They spent the previous hour with darts and blow-guns. Their success rate with this implement is now near 80%, and frustrates them. I admit I cheat."
"You cheat?" asked Sitar, curious as to how an Artificial Intelligence could cheat.
"You know we control weather in these training ground. I have added variable winds so they have to estimate the probability of a gust and its strength. Knives are less sensitive to this than darts, but they still are. I have to be more subtle so as to not alert them to this. I use small dare-devils that pop out of nowhere and disappear right off."
"AI-6, you are bad!"
"I know," deadpanned the Artificial Intelligence, "and it is fun!"
"I figure they will cotton to the situation at some point and begin to extend their senses to detect subtle precursors of wind changes. It is good training for them. Continue," decided Sitar.
"I plan to add more trouble as they get better."
"Such as?" asked a curious Harp.
"Sudden drops of temperature leading to condensation of humidity on the blade, rain, hail, and other things. Rain and hail will be a challenge because they will have to find the best path for their weapon in the storm. It requires very attuned senses, precognition, and hair-fine control. I already have them facing Spider webs. They must manage to throw their dart through the web without hitting any part of it."
"How did you come with those ideas?"
"I observed you, Prince Sitar. And I finally noticed that all of you do it instinctively. That explained so much. For some reason, Sunrise and Sunset have not developed this instinct of the perfect killer, probably because they never were involved in a war. You, on the other hand, spent your childhood honing your killing instincts. The other Artificial intelligences and I have decided to implement this type of training for all non-Mages in priority, and gradually extend it to Mages for the day where they will not be able to use Magic for some reason. After all, the Magic suppressor field that Harp plans to use to train Aurora could be used as a weapon against us."
"Paschal, do you think we should bring their Scout on-board Thebes?"
"Not yet, Aurora. The main reason is that Harp has not come back with a solution for your empathic problem."
The two Atlanteans had decided to use vocal communications rather than telepathy because the later made the Andromedan crew uncomfortable.
"Okay. Bashar, can you describe those you call the Masters? Or better still, do you have an image or something similar that would let us recognise them?"
"We have the warning lesson about revolts and their consequences, if you can stomach that."
"All we need to see is a static image."
"Unfortunately, the projection room locks up and the entire disgusting thing is shown from beginning to end, sparing not one horror. I could get you in it, and show you how to start the projection, if you are interested. However, I would appreciate it if you waited until I left the room to start the projection. I must warn you, gore is only a word, but reality is another thing. You will see, hear and smell everything. I was sick for a week afterward."
Paschal and Aurora looked at each other.
"I think this should wait, Paschal. We have other priorities, and I, for one, am not too interested in getting sick within the confines of a FSS. Let the God of War handle them."
"You have a point. But if it is as bad as he said, may our Father have mercy on them for Sitar will have none."
"Who is the God of War?" asked the Engineer.
"Our Brother Sitar," replied matter-of-factly Aurora.
"Bashar, there is a communication coming through Magic web asking all ships to report their position and displacement. It is on an open channel, and unencrypted. If I understand this, it dates from several planet rotations," noted an Officer recently brought back from the icebox to play the role of Communications Officer.
"Who is asking?"
"The Admiral of the First Fleet of which we are a Scout. The fact that we have progressed ahead of that huge ship has allowed us to clear the disturbances in communications. What bugs me is the astronomical number of relays the message had to bounce off to get to us. It went right around the galaxy to reach us and make its way here."
"How many have replied?"
"A few hundred so far, but that is those I managed to detect. It must be more."
"That means the number of Scouts caught in Magic holes must be considerable. After all, even with this situation, there should be billions of replies to a general call. The Admiral must freak!"
"Should I reply?"
"No. I plan to get out of the clutches of the Mages, and replying, even by giving a false position, could attract their attention to us. Let them believe we are lost."
"I wonder what is the composition of the dark cloud between us and the star-eater?" asked the Science Officer. "It seems to block, no, disperse our sensors very effectively."
"May I?" asked Paschal.
After looking at the spectral signature and comparing the absorption lines from an adjacent star that looked to be a type K star passing through the edge of the dark mass.
"I can tell you this is Mithril. It absorbs magic, but at a much lesser density than Orichalque. What you have is chaff, and this tells me it was put in place intentionally. Someone wanted to hide something and used this method to do so. I suggest you abstain from penetrating the space because it would clog your ramjet quite rapidly. If you do not mind, I will ask some of our mining ships to collect the chaff. After all, Mithril may be more common than Orichalque, it is still very precious because of its property at collecting Magic and allowing its restitution when required."
"I see no objection, especially if it happens to deprive our Masters of a resource they might need."
"Paschal to Thebes. Send in 5,000 mining ships in the cloud ahead of our position. It is composed of Mithril chaff at 90%. See to it to recover the chaff without discharging the stored Magic until they can be put in contact with the new Ianium condensers I created last year."
"Okay Paschal," replied Thorsten. "I was just working with one of the condensers when that request was transferred to me. I just finished binding it to a mining cargo Spider and was wondering how to test the result. You just supplied me with a valid test. I plan to build a cargo train with the first car being that modified cargo bin. Give me half an hour to do the modifications so the drained Mithril can be stored in the other bins and it should appear on the sensors."
"Fine by me."
"What is a mining ship? How does it work?" asked a fascinated Engineer.
"Oh, the standard mining ship devours rock, reducing it to microscopic size, then converts it to a plasma and pushes the matter through a very powerful magnetic field that first strips the atoms off and then uses the differential in charge and mass to separate the matter by atom mass and surface charge by using magnetic accelerators. In the end, you get pure material composed solely of a specific atom. Now, that modified one adds an additional step, a pre-processing if you wish. It drains Magic off atoms that store it naturally in their structure, and the allows the atom to be treated as any other. Magic is thus preserved and the new, recomposed material has very little Magic left," replied Paschal in a blasé tone.
"That must consume enormous amounts of energy?"
"It depends on how you measure enormous. We drain energy from matter-antimatter conversion, so a mere electrochemical reaction is sort of a minor inconvenience for us."
«Paschal, you just shocked them again. They are already seeing us as Gods, do not add to Dad's discomfort when he meets with them!»
«Then pray they have solid hearts. They are in for far bigger shocks shortly. They have no idea of the size of the mining carts.»
Just as Paschal made that comment, the train came into view, passing several thousand miles away from the Andromedan Scout.
"Ah! What are those monstrosities?" asked the Weapons Officer.
"Oh, those? They are Planet mining carts. The interesting one is in the lead. Notice it has a small funnel in the front that collects matter, much like your ramjet. Usually the rock muncher is visible, but for now it is at the base of the cone that leads to the tube that completes the funnel so the funnel does not get clogged by rocks too big to pass through. That is part of the pre-processing because the real munching is within the container itself. The material would not lose Magic until it is ionised and that is at the end of the process. By then the dust will have passed through the sieve and Magic extracted and transferred to the Ianium condensers. The clean dust will be ionised, separated, and then stored in proper magnetic bins for future use. The pure plasma this creates is stored in a thermal bottle that prevents any loss of energy so we can always call upon the plasma to create something new from combining atoms. In the case of Mithril, they are cooled down and converted to cold bricks where they are allowed to recharge over time as they collect stray Magic during our travels."
As Paschal explained the process, Aurora noticed that the Science and Engineer were growing more agitated.
"What is bothering you?" he asked.
"This could destroy a Planet," said the Engineer, "and leave no trace of it, not even dust!"
"Why, yes, but we never did that so far, so I see no reason why we should begin doing this. A Planet, even barren of life, may one day harbour some indigenous life form later, or even act as a rescue vessel for lost space travellers. We are not in the process of eating Planets, contrary to the Cubes."
"The Cubes?" asked the Weapons Officer.
"The Cubes is another name for the Cyborgs or Borgs for short. They ate whole Planets from crust to core to extract minerals, ignoring the presence of life."
"You talk of them in the past," said the Science Officer.
"We defeated them soundly in our home galaxy by dragging their fleet in a Black Hole."
"A Black Hole? That is another term I do not understand," said the Bashar.
"You have one at the core of this galaxy. There are thousands of them roaming the area, nibbling on dust as they travel, a result of the gravitational collapse of massive stars. They sweep matter like vacuum cleansers, sucking it to add to their mass, but rejecting Orichalque at their poles, thus creating a dusting of the product. It tells me this area we are in was originally occupied by one such Black Hole that moved off to who knows where, leaving a trail of Orichalque behind."
"And other heavy metals such as Mithril, Adamentium, and bonded pairs of Ianium," added Aurora.
"I just knew if we threw enough shit against your slippery mind, some would stick!"
"Fuck off, Paschal!"
"Only with you!"
"I think they are referring to the star-eater found at the centre of the galaxy," said the Science Officer.
The comment made the Engineer jump.
"Are you telling us you travelled through it?" he asked, alarmed.
"Not this one, but a much smaller one, yes. We do not see any reason why we could not use that door rather than a smaller one for our exit from this place one day. It all depends on Ian's decisions. He decides where to go and how to go there."
"Who is this Ian to have such power?" asked the Bashar.
"Oh, our big Brother and Heir to Atlantis, Bonded to the King of the Dragons. No one special, really," replied Aurora.
«Nothing special my arse!» said Paschal as he put a finger up to the impertinent brat.
'I wonder what bonded means? Are we exchanging one group of Masters for another? That one said it dismissively but I suspect he hides a lot behind his attitude,' said the Provisioner.
'We shall wait to ask,' decided the Bashar.
«I think they believe us blind. That is a sign language!» said Aurora. «We began learning some for hunting while studying the Lakota culture after our stay in the Pyramids.»
«Good catch, Aurora! Let us play blind. If they believe they can deceive us this way, we might learn things they do not want us to know.»
Just as things were becoming tense from prolonged silences, Alexander walked into the Scout ship.
"Aurora, report to Thebes. Harp is requesting you on the FSS deck."
«Has he found a way to keep my mind clear?»
Aurora nodded, bade farewell to the Andromedan crew, and moved out of the Bridge to port to Thebes by triggering the recall.
"Hey Alexander, anything new?" asked Paschal.
"Not really anything of importance. Ian wants to know when things will be ready here to bring the ship into Thebes so we can resume our progress. He does not like being immobile. He calls it playing sitting Duck."
"I have finished studying their power structure. They are currently at 55% of maximum charge and dropping. This ship is like a Shark: it needs to move constantly or else. We might as well move it in place right now and put in some power lines before their level becomes critical. I transferred to the Prototype Production Laboratory the plans of this ship. Thorsten should have finished producing the cables by now."
"Ah, that was what he was working on an hour ago. Knowing him, unless the Laboratory blew up, the product is ready and laid out. Just ask him where he plugged the power lines."
«No need to ask, Alexander. I placed the lines on the underside of the deck that frames the Colony ship. That cargo hold could store a few thousand of these Scouts, and there is no reason to lose all that deck space. Just port it at +3,211.1222 X, -2,500.2232 Y, -18,422 Z. That will put the Andromedan Scout smack in the middle of a zero inertia bubble with their locks at the right level so they can walk on to the transparent deck.»
«Hey! We did not stop by to create heart attacks! Are you aware how this place looks from the deck you are talking about? I can just imagine their feeling when they walk out on the transparent Aluminium deck! It is like walking off a cliff, a 20-mile deep cliff!»
«Call this shock therapy. I am waiting for you to get ready. Do you need a visual anchor?»
«It might be a good idea.»
While Alexander prepared to port the Andromedan Scout within Thebes hood, Paschal explained what was needed.
"Engineer, cut off all propulsion, bring the ship to full immobility in all six axis of movement."
"I shall handle engines. Bashar, can you handle the Helm? Total immobility in space is very difficult to achieve. May I ask why this is needed?"
"We are readying your ship to be taken in our home world. There are two methods, but one is not practical due to the amount of debris between our ship and yours. So we shall use the other method and that requires absolute immobility."
"Thebes is moving in place. It is now less then 5,000 miles off," noted Alexander. "Have a good view of our Ship, our Home World, the ASS Thebes, the home of Atlanteans."
The size of the ship that gradually emerged out of the thick dust baffled the imagination. Suddenly, the tips of the crystals that dotted the surface lit up gently and the ship rotated on itself to align a blinking yellow triangle with the Andromedan Scout.
"Is this where we shall enter? I see no door," remarked the Engineer.
"This is a visual guide. Please stay quiet while Alexander focuses on the marker."
Suddenly the view changed and the Andromedan ship found itself in a blindingly white sphere. Below it was a strange, long, ship and, some distance off, a huge one that shone like a mirror.
"Welcome on-board our ship," said Paschal. "Please stay seated until the full immobilisation of the spacecraft, then proceed in an orderly fashion to the air lock. To our left is an old relic, the Atlantean Colony ship that left our original world when our star blew up. Above you is an explorer ship from a species we rescued some years back. There are other ships found aboard Thebes. You are welcomed to visit them so you become familiar with other cultures."
Aurora made fine adjustments to the position of the Andromedan ship, then the magnetic clips locked in place, making a racket.
"The magnetic clips are holding, Paschal. Engineer, shut down all but stasis chambers power so as to conserve energy. We will extend power lines shortly."
The Andromedans kept looking everywhere, shocked.
"How did we get inside?" asked an alarmed Bashar.
"Oh, I just teleported the ship in. After all I can not expect you to travel through 600 and some miles of Orichalque, can I? You would end up flatter than a drop of water on a mirror."
«Shock therapy: 1; Andromedans: 0.»
«No need to hold scores. I want them alive, not dead!» replied Ian from Thebes' Bridge. «Alexander, as soon as the lock opens, help Paschal, Typhoon and Thorsten to set up the power lines to their stasis chambers. I am sending Colibri and Harp to study their ecosystem logs so we can build a temporary tessaract and release their crew members from stasis.»
«Okay, but I was due to handle the Helm at the next shift?»
«Iridia is off duty and she will take your place. We are back at Warp three.»
«Okay. She must be relieved from bugging Aurora!»
«You have no idea! According to her, being an ear Mite stuck between a FSS and Aurora's smelly ear was not a party! She has been spending the last shift in a warm pool trying to get over her queasy stomach. Sunset kept teasing her about some particularly greasy food until Timor lost it and threw him right across the pool. The splash was monumental, and Sunset learned a valuable lesson. The gentle giant can be riled with it concerns his love. Harp had to stop Timor, or we might have lost the little pest. If you want to know, I think Sunset got what he deserved. He had it coming.»
«Who will tell Aurora he needs to clean up his ears? It will be a sure give away as to how we knew what he was up to all the time.»
«Harp used a dirty trick. He created an itch Aurora could not scratch. That had the desired effect and Aurora got a sound lesson in bodily hygiene. Harp told him it was the result of a long confinement in a FSS, combined with humidity and lack of proper maintenance of said orifices.»
"Pressure has equalised in the locks. Please move to the front locks," said the Engineer, as a flashing light stopped blinking.
"I must warn you our atmosphere is slightly less dense than yours. You will have to equilibrate your internal body pressure with ours to prevent some discomfort," said Paschal. "Once this adjustment is done, you will be allowed out on the deck, but please stay grouped, as you will be in a sterile health bubble to prevent you from getting contaminated by our microbial life and you from contaminating ours. It is a temporary prophylactic measure that is common to all first contacts with a ship of a different species. This situation rarely lasts more than a few minutes, sometimes a little more. You will be ported to our decontamination sick bay, receive a full flush of microbial life, and then a universal vaccine to allow your antibodies to build up. That stage will seem to last a few weeks for you, but in reality it will be a lot shorter. Meanwhile, our decontamination teams will clean up your ship inside out. Also note that any non-living matter found will be left in transit until we can assess what role it played for you. We have found many species that put tracers on members of their race, for a lot of different reasons. We remove everything and regenerate or repair any defect that might have justified these instruments. Most civilisations wanted control of their people by one means or another, and we dispense of these controls. You will be informed of these changes in due time."
The Andromedans looked at each other, trying to understand the meaning of that long speech. Before they could panic further, they had walked to the locks and made their way inside. The two Atlanteans walked in with them and waited for the cycle to complete. The Engineer opened the outside door and walked out without looking down, too awed by what he was seeing to register he was standing on nothing apparently. The others followed blindly and kept looking up and at the Colony ship, looming over their head from a distance. Getting frustrated at the lack of shock, Paschal pointed down and indicated the other ship in the distance and the deck crew busy around it. That brought the reality to the Andromedans: there was nothing holding them up!
"Nice ship, do you not think? Especially since it was designed in a rush to escape a genocidal war."
"On what are we standing?" asked the Engineer.
"That surface is transparent Aluminium. A very neat crystal, if I say so myself. Paschal is a genius of molecular engineering. Okay, now. Please regroup for teleportation to the decontamination area," said Alexander.
A few seconds later, the Officers and two crew members vanished, leaving behind a plethora of inert components, including some that were inside their bodies initially.
"They are in stasis pods. Genetic analysis has been started, and they are being held in zero-time until the process is completed and nanites are ready to begin repairs. According to the General Hospital readouts, that will be completed in 24 hours, a lot more than we initially anticipated," Alexander informed Paschal.
"Let us have a look at the garbage left during teleportation."
"I also kept the garbage in a zero-time bubble. Some of that stuff sends shivers down my spine, so I suggest we leave them in this state during analysis. I am so glad Harp taught me how to stop the chronions from expanding within such a bubble. Look at that one, where the Bashar used to be. It is located where his head was a few minutes ago."
Paschal looked at the little bead with a critical eye. Using Magic, he studied the intricate structure and came to a chilling conclusion. It was a microscopic explosive charge that would kill from a radio trigger.
"I have begun studying the clothing. It is a plastic polymer. It must have been very uncomfortable because it did not allow for much breathing of the body," said Alexander. "What do we do with the vestments?"
"Destroy them. I suspect they are highly contaminated by microbial life that lived between their skin and the plastic."
The clothes were quickly reduced to their molecular components and so were the various contaminants. That left some tools floating around: knives, screwdrivers, measuring instruments of a wide variety. Once they were sorted and categorised, they were ported to a storage bin in Paschal's Engineering laboratory for further study. That left the elements found in the Andromedans' body, Apart from the little bead of explosives and its triggering mechanism, there were radio beacons, and a strange object that connected with the spine.
"What is that thing?" asked Alexander, as he eyed the small contraption that had fine wires extending along parallel paths.
"If I get this other end, it contains a program. I think it is designed to trigger a specific motor behaviour. Now, what was the goal of that behaviour will have to wait on the medical team's report. I shall extract the program and put it to run on a simulator of their nervous system as soon as we have a full map of said system. That should tell us what this was intended for. Put the entire collection of stuff into stasis and we will wait for further study. It might also be a good thing to bring these facts to the attention of the crew. I am sure they are unaware of these little additions."
"Okay. Ah, here comes the decontamination team. As soon as they are done, we plug in the power lines and get out of these FSS. I am getting tired of them."
"So am I, so am I! FSS decontamination, here I come! It will be easier to plug things once the suit is removed."